Marcus’s world was tilting. Gravity was still working. Down was where it had always been. There wasn’t any reason to feel like he was sliding sideways, was each step an instant away from accelerating over the edge of the world and off to somewhere strange and inimical to his life.
“We did escape from the [Armageddon Beast], right?” Anna asked. “Cause I feel like I left a big chunk of myself back there.”
“Don’t worry, you escaped,” Smith said. “What you’re feeling is the wounds you took for being within the beast’s area of influence.”
“Wounds? But we checked. I’m not bleeding anywhere,” Anna said. “Or is it just a psychological wound?”
“You probably have some serious mental trauma to work through too, but that’s not the wounds she was talking about,” Astra said.
Marcus noticed that neither of them appeared to be police officers anymore. He’d noticed that before he thought, but it was hard to hold onto the idea. Had they ever been police officers? Were they even what they appeared to be at all?
“Did that thing mutate us or something?” Marcus asked, thinking of the radiation that black holes throw off.
Except of course the [Armageddon Beast] hadn’t been a black hole. Black holes had nice definable properties and were a weird but still real element of the universe. The [Armageddon Beast] wasn’t.
It wasn’t Not-Real either though, and trying to reconcile those two facts was something his brain seemed to be sensibly refusing to attempt.
“Yes and no,” Smith said. “Your genes are fine. Or as fine as they were before this. If it had been changing reality on that level, you wouldn’t look even vaguely human anymore.”
“That is the opposite of reassuring,” Anna said.
“If our bodies and minds are fine, then what did that thing mess with?” Marcus asked.
“There aren’t particularly good terms for this,” Smith said. “The best I can describe it is that some of the essential qualities that define you as ‘real’ got nibbled on a bit.”
“Like it was eating our mass or something?” Anna asked.
“More fundamental than that,” Smith said. “And it didn’t eat you. You’re still here. You’re still real. But the pull it exerted, and the brush with not existing, has left you aching in manner that you don’t really have senses to process. It’ll get better in time though.”
“Do we have time?” Marcus asked. “We didn’t kill the [Armageddon Beast]. We just escaped it. It’s still out there gobbling up everything and everyone it runs across.”
“And it’s not alone,” Astra said. She winced when Smith elbowed her in the side. “What? They’re going to find our sooner or later.”
“Yes, but there’s no need to heap trauma on them,” Smith said.
“We’ll be okay,” Anna said. “Better to know what we’re up against, even if we’re doomed.”
“You’re not doomed,” Astra said. “We wouldn’t be here if you were.”
“That reminds me, what are you here for? You didn’t help fight that thing, or get us out of there when it nabbed us,” Anna asked.
“We brought you Marcus,” Smith said. “That’s our role. We can’t save this world for you, but we can help you be in the right places to save it yourselves.”
“Why not? If this place gets destroyed, it’s all over for all of us, isn’t it?” Anna’s question was rhetorical but neither Smith nor Astra seemed to take it as such.
“There are a lot of possible endings you could come to,” Smith said, choosing her words more carefully than Marcus felt was necessary.
“Any of them involve things just going back to normal?” he asked.
“Several,” Astra said. “But you probably don’t want those.”
“Why wouldn’t we want things to go back to normal?” Anna asked. “That sounds perfect.”
“Because for things to go back to normal, everyone on Earth would need to forget that the events of the last week or so happened,” Smith said. “There’s a number of possibilities for how that could happen, but none of them are particularly pleasant.”
“Such as?” Marcus asked, solely out of curiosity.
“Say a [Lotus Blossom God] decides to come and devour all the [Armageddon Beasts] and then puts the entire planet into a dream of normalcy while it slowly digests everything and everyone over the course of a century or two.” Astra didn’t seem to be suggesting something that was impossible, or even unlikely. If anything, it seemed to Marcus that it was something she’d seen happen before.
Which was absurd.
The world was still here. How would she have seen it being destroyed by some cosmic entity?
“I’ll take a hard pass on that,” Anna said. “If the world can’t change for the better, then it’s basically hell.”
“That seems to be the general consensus, though you’d be surprised how many people find it preferable to the life they have,” Astra said.
“Unless we’re willing to sign up for eternal lotus dreams, and you’ve got a dream god on speed dial, we’ve got something important to deal with,” Marcus said. “You said, ‘that’s how you fight an [Armageddon Beast]’ when we got out of the building. Do you mean all we need to do shut these things down is throw a bunch of iPads at them?”
“Not iPads,” Smith said. “Ideas.”
“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” Anna said. “Everyone’s got those.”
“But not everyone has an idea that fits the [Armageddon Beast’s] nature and can sculpt it to the end they desire,” Astra said.
“Is that what we did?” Marcus asked. “I just thought we were tricking it into letting us go.’
“Both are true,” Astra said. “Consider for a moment though what it was you tricked.”
“An [Armageddon Beast,” Marcus said. “Something that devours worlds.”
“Right. Exactly!” Astra’s excitement rose, as though Marcus was beginning to understand everything.
Marcus was pretty sure he understood nothing so far.
“An [Armageddon Beast] is defined only by its nature, which is to hunger for the matter and energy of a living world, and by its capacity to sate that hunger. Think of it like a very powerful bot with very limited programming,” Smith said. “It can do incredible things, but it’s not sapient. It doesn’t consider if it should or shouldn’t eat a world. Put it next to a world and it just starts absorbing everything around it, no questions asked, because it can’t ask questions.”
“And you tricked it,” Anna said, her voice slowed by the implications of each word she spoke.
“That’s like tricking an avalanche to roll back up hill isn’t it?” Marcus said, adding, “should I not have done that?”
The dire thought that in saving himself and Anna, he’d managed to unleash something far worse seemed all too plausible with how the world seemed to be falling apart around him.
“You had to do that,” Smith said. “What you did is our best hope of stopping, or at least mitigating, what’s happening to this world.”
Marcus was silent for a moment and then had to let the laugh that had built up inside escape.
It wasn’t a good laugh.
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” he said. “If I’m the best hope the world has then we are so so so very dead.”
“Don’t sell yourself short there hero,” a newcomer said.
Marcus glanced behind himself and found a twenty something woman in a They Might Be Giants concert shirt, faded jeans and well worn sneakers wandering up to join them.
“Uh, is everything okay Jin?” Smith asked.
“Eh, the end of world hasn’t gotten here yet, so all things considered, today could be worse,” Jin said.
“You’re with them?” Marcus asked, pointing to Smith and Astra.
“She’s…” Smith started to say but Astra cut her off.
“Our supervisor,” Astra said.
“A supervisor of what?” Anna asked.
“Call it [Apocalypse Management],” Jin said.
“Any chance we could return this one to sender?” Marcus asked. “We don’t even need a refund.”
“Sure,” Jin said. “All we need to do is pay the restocking fee.”
“And what would that be?” Anna asked.
It was a ridiculous question for what was clearly a joke, but Anna didn’t seem to feel ridiculous about asking it at all.
“We’re working on that,” Jin said. “Seriously. Beth’s right about what you did making a difference.”
“Do we have a path forward then? Can we stop this now?” Smith, or Beth apparently, asked.
“Not exactly. The [Apocalypse Beast] isn’t a threat at the moment,” Jin said and turned to nod at Marcus, “Thank you for that,” then turned back to Beth. “But the overall effect is widening.”
“Widening? Oh no,” Beth said, an uncomfortable weight settling over her features.
“What does ‘widening’ mean?” Anna asked.
“The first break throughs were in the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Jin said. “What you saw in the [Crystal Stars] is a similar phenomena but with one important difference – the [Crystal Stars] players knew what they were getting into.”
“Knew how?” Anna asked.
“They knew they were needed there the same as you know its up to you to bring them back,” Jin said.
“That’s…I don’t know that,” Anna said.
“But you’re going to try aren’t you?” Jin asked, though Marcus suspected it was a question Anna needed the answer to more than Jin.
“Well, of course,” Anna said. “But that’s just because they need me.”
“And that’s exactly how and why the [Crystal Stars] players did what they did,” Jin said. “It wasn’t a conscious choice. Not for all of them, but when their characters called, the players who crossed over chose to make the journey to help them.”
“Help them with what?” Marcus asked. “I’d say this all sounds insane, but we’re talking with a reverb when we say things like [Fallen Kingdoms] and it definitely feels like we’ve tripped completely into [Wonderland] at this point.”
“Oh no,” Anna said. “[Wonderland]? Is there something in [Broken Horizons] called [Wonderland]?”
“Uh, no,” Marcus said. “We always try to make our names unique to the game so the IP coverage is clear. If we added a [Wonderland], we’d call it Frozen Wonderland or Hell’s Wonderland or something like that.”
“Why are we hearing the reverb on [Wonderland] then?” Anna asked, looking to Jin for answers.
“Because the effect that’s allowing things that don’t, shouldn’t, and can’t exist to chew a path into your worlds is widening,” Jin said.
“To [Alice in Wonderland]?” Anna asked, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Apparently so,” Jin said.
“No,” Anna said. “Like hell. Just. NO.”
Her tears didn’t vanish, but the boiling rage that lit up her eyes seemed to incinerate despair that had been grasping at her heart. Her fury warmed Marcus’s heart too. He wanted to think that was why world felt more in balance than it had a moment ago.
He really wanted to think that.
“What. Exactly. Do we need to do, to stop this,” Anna asked.
“Fight,” Jin said. “These are your worlds. Not theirs.”
“How,” Anna asked.
“Just like you did with the [Armageddon Beast],” Jin said. “Work together. Remind each other who you are. Be afraid, but don’t let it stop you. To beat something like an [Armageddon Beast] you need to understand it, because your understanding creates a reality for it.”
“How does that work? What did I do right before?” Marcus asked.
“You started by naming it,” Beth said. “Name’s are incredibly powerful. They’re what we hang all kinds of other definitions onto.”
“So the next time something shows up, I throw a name at it?” Marcus asked. “Should I have called it a Fluffy Bunny or something?” He addressed the question to Jin, though he suspected her answer would be the same as the one he already had.
“You can,” she said. “But it’s a bad idea. Picture if every little bun in the world was part of the [Armageddon Beast] genus. Naming things appropriately doesn’t make things more difficult. Their truth is going to come out no matter what you call them. In naming something without a name, you’re engaging in a conversation. A short one sometimes, but at the very least there’s two parts to it. You saying ‘I want to call you this’, and the nameless one saying ‘I will be called that’.”
“That’s just naming them,” Anna said. “How do we stop them?”
“Engage with them,” Jin said. “Understand who and what they are. Look for the flaws and contradictions within them. You found one in the [Armageddon Beast] within a couple of minutes, that wasn’t a fluke. Things that are newly real don’t have the same grounding that you do. You are so much more powerful than you know simply because you’ve lived and breathed and dreamed and hoped day after day after day here. These are your worlds.”
“Worlds?” Marcus asked.
“Yes. Worlds. Do you think the time you’ve spent in the [Fallen Kingdoms] and among the [Crystal Stars] or journeying through [Wonderland] isn’t a part of your life?” Jin said. “You are all of the dreams you’ve ever walked in and all the ones you still carry in your heart.”