There are many things Marcus enjoyed having front seats to. A RUN DMC concert when he was a kid? High point of his 8th grade year. Front seats to a the production of Camelot that his best friend was playing Lancelot in? Couldn’t have been better. Front seats to the end of the world though? Not that great as it turned out.
“This is not something we can deal with,” Astra said. She was able to look at the [Armageddon Beast] without blinking, but from her rigid posture, Marcus was sure she was feeling at least a little of the primordial terror that seem to have replaced the marrow in his bones.
“Not from here. Not now,” Smith said. “We’re being pulled into the thick of things.”
“Probably shouldn’t have gotten this close should we?” Astra asked.
“Didn’t have a whole lot of choice, did we?” Smith replied, glancing over to Marcus as though whatever they were talking about was his fault.
“What is happening? I don’t understand what that thing is.” He couldn’t look at it again, but from the slack jawed emptiness on the face of the people around him he could tell the monster was still out there.
Hanging in the air.
Devouring the world.
Or…no. Not devouring.
He didn’t want to think about it but he couldn’t help it. He’d always been a problem solver. That was what had led him to his position at Egress. He understood systems and people and how to unknot the tangles that both invariably wound up in.
“So we call in backup?” Astra asked.
“Backup’s got to already know what’s going on,” Smith said. “I think the best we can do now is mitigate the damage as much as possible.”
“I’m game for that if you’ve got any ideas in the ‘how’ or ‘what’ we’re supposed to do areas?” Astra said.
How to stop the [Armageddon Beast]?
It was the end of the world. The world wasn’t eternal. It had an end. Just like everything else. If it lost that, it would…what would happen?
Marcus felt like that line of questioning was both dangerous and unhelpful. It was ridiculous to think of the Earth outliving the death of the Sun, or the heat death of the universe. Those were so far beyond his scope that it was meaningless to even consider.
And if they weren’t? What then?
Marcus shook his head. The presence of the [Armageddon Beast] was making his thoughts blur and twist. He didn’t have time for that though.
This wasn’t a dream and the laws of reality wouldn’t change on a whim.
Except…he paused and grabbed an idea that had been flitting around the edges of his awareness.
Except, that’s what the [Armageddon Beast] was doing. It wasn’t devouring the world. Not exactly. It was changing the fundamental laws of reality. Turning the solid foundation of physics and mathematics that defined the fundamental aspects of everything into the wishy washy ephemera of dreams.
“Anna, wakeup,” he said, grabbing her hand and giving her shoulder a shake.
“I’m awake,” she said. “I heard you call that thing an [Armageddon Beast], I’ve been trying to figure out what that means.”
“I think it’s related to what’s happening to our players,” Marcus said. “I’ve got no proof that, but it can’t be unrelated to we have people disappearing in direct violation of the laws of physics and now we’ve got something hanging over the middle of the street that’s eating gravity, and time, and all the other physical constants that exist, right?”
“Yeah.” Anna blinked and shook her head too. “Yeah, that make sense. Sort of. I mean, none of this makes sense, not here, but…”
“But it’s something that could happen in our game’s right?” Marcus said.
“A [Chaos Breacher]. That things like the granddaddy of all [Chaos Breachers],” she said and frowned. “What the heck is happening to my voice? [Chaos Breacher]? Okay, something is really weird here.”
“[Chaos Breacher],” Marcus said. “Yep, it’s happening to me too. I noticed it with [Armageddon Beast]. When we says names, meaningful ones, we get that effect. This has got to be what my players were reporting. Except now it’s happening in the real world too.”
“About that,” Officer Smith said. “I think it’s safe to tell you now that where your players went? That’s a real place too. They’re not in your servers, or anything like that.”
“But that…” Anna said and trailed off.
“Has too many implications to sort through at the moment, yeah,” Smith said. “The important thing is don’t lose focus. The [Armageddon Beast] is growing, and that’s the problem that we need to work on.”
“How?” Anna asked. “I’m a game designer. I’m not…I don’t know, who would you even call for something like this? A wizard? A superhero? God himself?”
“You. Both of you. All of you. Everyone on this world,” Smith said. “That’s who you call to save a world. This is your place, your time, and your fight.”
“Very inspirational poster, but I repeat, I. Am. A. Game. Designer. I’m not equipped to fight a toddler much less whatever that thing is,” Anna said. “What am I supposed to do? Toss a USB stick with my last slide deck on it at the thing?”
“If that’s what you’ve got, sure,” Astra said. “Right now your choice is ‘Watch as that thing and others like it destroy you and everything you’ve ever known’ or ‘do something about it’. If tossing things into the [Armageddon Beast] is what you can do, why not try?”
“I can think of a thousand reasons!” Anna said. “What if it makes things worse?”
“Worse than the complete annihilation of all matter and time?” Smith asked. “Do you really think a USB drive could manage that?”
“No, maybe, I don’t know. Space and time aren’t supposed to be something that can get eaten,” Anna said.
“They are in Broken Horizons,” Marcus said. “We had a whole expansion and saving the timeline, and in the process the personification of Time itself. There were time loops, and space warps, and the players even met themselves at one point.”
“What’s your point?” Anna asked.
Marcus watched as she forced herself to take a pair of deep breaths. He couldn’t fault her for being on the edge emotionally. He was pretty sure that proved she was holding onto more of her sanity than he was.
Whatever cracks were forming in his psyche though, they were a problem for a tomorrow that might never come. For the time being, he had a problem to solve.
“Crystal Stars had a time paradox storyline too didn’t it?” he asked. “The [Last Horizon] expansion you came out with about three years ago if I remember right?”
“Yeah. We had a [Super Dreadnaught] that was half in and half out of the event horizon of a black hole with it’s [Fold Drives] jammed on,” Anna said. “We had a one time event where if your characters died, they would be spit out of it from some earlier time in their history. I’m still stunned anyone played through it with the threat of deleveling, but the players thought it was the greatest thing we ever did.”
She pause for a moment and said, “Fold drive.”
“Yeah, I thought I heard it too,” Marcus said. “Fold drive. Super Dreadnaught. I don’t know, those sound normal to me now.”
“Is it a bad sign that they didn’t before? Or that we both thought they didn’t?” Anna asked.
“I don’t know? Maybe we’re close to getting sucked into your game?” Marcus said.
“But you don’t have a character?” Anna said.
“Well….” Marcus couldn’t repress a sheepish grin.
“Wait, you play our game?” Anna asked, professional rivalry providing a momentary shield against the madness swirling around them.
“Gotta keep an eye on the competition right?” Marcus said.
“What tier ship are you in?” Anna asked.
“Tenth tier Scout, twelfth tier Light Fighter, and, uh, eighteenth tier Merchant Trader,” Marcus confessed.
“Seriously?” Anna’s look of shock was understandable giving the multi-year commitment progressing to a high level as a Merchant Trader required. “Damn. I’m only a fourteenth tier Trader.”
“Maybe that’ll help us,” Marcus said.
“How? We’re not in Crystal Stars or Broken Horizons,” Anna said. “Oh, wait, but we could be! If that thing is eating the world, we could try to get people into the games instead. Those are whole different worlds!”
“It’s an alternative to getting eaten here,” Astra said.
“But it does have its own problems,” Smith said.
“Right. Getting eight billion people to register for two MMOs isn’t going to work. The servers couldn’t even a hundredth of that many logins,” Anna said.
“Logistics problems aside, that might only be a temporary reprieve at best,” Marcus said. “I know our players ran into some wild things, and some of them didn’t seem to even make it into the game fully. They were these [Disjoined] things.”
As the word left Marcus’s mouth it felt wrong.
The hairs of the back of his neck stood up and a chill ran down both arms.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Anna said, hesitating before each word as though something was waiting to spring on them.
“No,” Marcus said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I should have said that.”
“It’s the end of the world though, right? Can’t really make it much worse, you said.” Anna didn’t look any more convinced of that than Marcus felt.
“We should wake up your coworkers and get out of here,” Smith said, concern hardening her lips.
It wasn’t hard to draw the K2 employees attention away from the [Armageddon Beast] but few of them seemed to come fully back to their senses. Instead, each looked to be locked in some inner battle against the [Armageddon Beast] that lived in their memories.
It wasn’t until Marcus got to the last of them that he saw someone lose that fight.
He and Anna had worked outwards from the center of the crowd waking people up one-by-one while Smith and Astra directed them to the stairwell as though it was a fire drill.
The last person Marcus approached was a twenty something blonde haired guy with a lazy man’s attempt at a beard that he wasn’t quite up for growing.
“Hey, we’re going to be heading out now, you don’t need to watch that anymore,” he said, which was the variation on the general message that had seemed to work the best with the last few people he’d woken up.
It did not work for the last guy though.
In highsight though, Marcus wasn’t sure anything could have worked for the last guy.
“You think you can go…can go…think you…you,” the last K2 employee said.
Marcus’s intestines knew everything was wrong. His spine knew what was before him wasn’t human anymore. His finger flew away from a touch that was beyond mortal peril. All before his mind caught up.
All before the ma turned and regarded Marcus with pools of static where his eyes should have been.
“YOU!” the [Disjoined] said and Marcus kicked him.
The move probably saved his life and hands tipped with nails of static whizzed past his face.
Marcus cursed and grabbed a chair to throw at the thing that had fallen against the window. It was already rising to launch itself at him when the chair hit, the impact flinging the man back through the window.
“What the hell?” Anna yelled.
“That wasn’t…” Marcus started to say before he saw the things hand still clutching the edge of the window.
Marcus was spared any further need to explain when it lifted itself back up so that its waist was level with the window frame. The chair impact had left an overly large gouge in its face, revealing more seething static beneath the bloodless skin.
Marcus spun left and right trying to find something bigger to throw at the thing before it could finish climbing back in the window, but his mind was freezing up.
He wasn’t built for violence.
Not like this.
A baseball bat flew past him, smashing into the creatures face and sending it toppling backwards for a four story fall.
Turning Marcus found an equally freaked out Anna who’d clearly just hurled the closest thing she had at hand.
“We need to get out of here now,” she said and together they ran, though Marcus knew, there wasn’t anywhere left to run to.