“What do you mean?!” The prophet shouted at the shrugging sayer before he began pacing again up and down the alleyway rubbing at his temples. Thoughts snapped in his head as he snapped back pointing an angry finger at the sayer. “No. No! I have worked too hard to- I can’t die here, I’ve seen me, I know I live.”
The sayer wrapped his fingers around his greasy beard, wringing all the oils through them. “Is the problem, ain’t it?”
“I… I demand to be recalled! This will not stand under code B17-”
“Code Null000 says yeh can’t. Too much corruption.”
“I’m done with you, I want to talk to Sehnaji. Now!”
“She’s right here mate, listenin’ to the whole mess. ‘My condolences, Mr. Whilington.’ What she said.” The sayer gave a nod to confirm.
“Fuck… No. Fuck her. Fuck this whole God damned project! And for good measure, why don’t you go ahead an fuck-” Three figures appeared at the end of the alleyway, their silhouettes thrown by a crash of lightning. The avengers who had followed the not so quite easy to miss shouting in an otherwise silent city. “-Me.”
“Don’t mind if I do!” One of the figures drew a gun as they all moved down the alleyway.
The prophet, the father… he had only one last ditch effort, not that it would mean much, but still. “Stop him,” he shouted, pointing his finger briefly before attempting to jump over a fence.
He didn’t make it. There was a crash of gunfire followed by a man hitting the ground hard into the one working alleylight. The three figures walked into it, revealing themselves. Adeline was holding the gun, Max was slamming a fist into his palm with a menacing smile and Megan… she just grinned. “Sorry, a little slow there. Let me stop her for you.” Megan took the gun from the reluctant Adeline, pointing it at the prophet. “I’ll do it.”
The prophet stumbled into a standing position, hobbling toward a wall gripping his blood soaked leg. Another crash echoed through the narrow way as a whole ripped into the man’s chest towards the bottom of his rib cage. He took in a gasp of air that was half breathing, half gurgling.
Max walked over to the man, gripping him by his collar (to no real effect. The man was not struggling and Max wasn’t tall enough to actually lift him off the ground). He got real close to the man’s face and angrily whispered “What the hell?” The man smiled, his teeth red with blood. “Oh hell naw.” Max took a step back and round housed the man in the head sending him spiraling across the lap of the sayer. Who was, for the lack of a better word, surprised.
He old, greasy man spoke, his eyes still cocked and slightly out of their sockets. “I believe a man is breathing on me.” He slowly looked up and to his left. “No no. I think these young folks will deal with it.”
And they did, flipping the prophet over and off the sayer’s lap. The prophet who still hung onto life, for some queer purpose. “Give me the gun.” Adeline motioned with her fingers, still starring at the man.
“I don’t think so.” Megan dropped to a knee and witnessed the broken man before her. “Who the hell are you?”
The man wouldn’t have told her anyway, but the punctured lung and broken jaw were good excuses. Megan stood up and pointed the gun down. Bang. A hole appeared in the head. There was not much of a mess other than the bloody pool forming below his head.
Megan stood up and passed the gun to Adeline as she drifted by blankly.
“Sorry about the mess.” Max looked between the body and the alley for somewhere to stash it.
“No bother. This world is about to end in a few moments anyways. No need to clean up before hand.”
Max’s brow furrowed. “Huh?”
The sayer shrugged and Adeline nodded. “I’ve been trying to tell you. Now, grab me and lets go.”
Adeline threw her arms around Max. “Your happy place. We need to go. Now.”
Megan turned around at this new development and Max met her eyes. Max was grinning as he turned back to Adeline. “Noooope.”
Now it was her turn to say it. “Huh?”
But before she could even shake the confusion Max slipped out from the loving grip and barreled down the alley, grabbed her by the hip and ran themselves both into a wall.
“No no no!” Adeline tried to catch up, but she could only catch the bodies as they fell to the ground.
And then everything blinked from existence.
The loud splish-splashing of three foot falls echoed though the dark backalleys. The rain had stopped momentarily, but the thunder rose with flashes of light in the distance. The city’s power grid seemed sketchy at best, lights beginning to flicker and fade. It was this reason that the three of them nearly missed the speaker who was curled up in between a couple bags of trash. But Megan, she stopped. There was a sense of unease twitching at the back of her neck, and she knew she had to stop. That’s when she heard the muffled coughing. Max had to yank at Adeline’s wrist to get her to stop pulling him along. Max shouted back to Megan who was looking at the man. “What’s up?”
Megan knelt down and placed her hand on the speakers shoulder. He began to uncurl, his sickly looking yellow eyes wavering. He rose a shaking hand up as if to touch her face. In a raspy voice, he said “come closer,” as he attempted a sitting position. Megan helped him sit upright and then he pulled her ear to his mouth, gripping at the back of her head. Suddenly she was face down onto the wet ground, it smelling of mildew and sulfur. Before either Max or Adeline could react, the old man had flipped open a knife with his free hand and jabbed it into the back of Megan’s neck. He dropped the knife and immediately plunged his dirty, shaking hands into the wound, pulling something out with a bit of a spark.
At this time, Max did react, driving his foot into the side of the speaker’s face, his weak, elderly bones crackling like popcorn. Adeline drew her gun and shouted for Max to move. He didn’t at first, and then dove after he looked down to see the blood. One shot to the head, Adeline’s low caliber bullet making a clear hole in the old man’s head.
Max rolled over to Megan, who was already rolling over, her hand on the back of her neck. “What the hell?!”
Max stood up, offering Megan a hand as he and Adeline shrugged.
Megan repeated herself at a higher octave as she rose to her feat and approaching the woman with a smoking gun. “What the hell?!?!”
Max looked down at the ground. He want no part of this, even though he knew it was the right thing to do. She was being attacked! Adeline, however, just shrugged again. “What did he say?”
“No, you do not just get to make this so… so casual.”
“I make a lot of terrible things casual. Ask Max some other time. But for now, what did he say? Its obviously much more important.”
As Megan held the wound on her neck, Max realized by the amount of blood that it didn’t seem to be a very serious injury. And she was walking too. So instead, Max wandered to the dead old man and took whatever he cut out of Megan’s neck. He looked at it and was rather confused. Adeline was obviously done with this. She just wanted to shoot a different man. “Fine, don’t tell us, but we’re on a pretty tight schedule here and-”
Megan’s eyes glossed over as she remembered the words. “He is me and paradox will set us free.” The words obviously shook her.
Max began to walk over with the thing in hand. “Deep.”
Adeline grabbed his collar. “More like ‘Deep shit.’ He caused the paradox that were about to experience.”
“I mean, duh. They’re the same guy from different points in his own timeline. Pretty obvious, with that nose and all.”
“And we have to kill the earlier one?”
“…Which means the older one couldn’t have ever existed.”
“Or maybe there was an even older one in the same universe, which means that we-”
Riddled with a bit of anger and confusion, Megan slapped Max on the back of his head with her free hand. “What?!”
“Uh, silly things about time travel and the ending of a dimension through paradox and some other stuff. We can try and explain it on the way but…” Max looked over to Adeline, who was a little angry for Megan slapping Max. “You have a bandage or anything?”
“Of course.” Adeline roughly applied the bandage, bopping it when she was done. “Okay. So. Long and short is the world is ending and we got shit to do before that happens. Yeah? Okay. Lets boogie.”
Filling the small Church of Grace was the busy silence of robed figures being escorted into police cars and officers talking to exasperated followers. Megan sat int the corner wrapped up in a wool blanket starring blankly at her robes which currently sat below where her feet dangled. Max’s blood was stuck to its very fibers. They had taken his body fifteen minutes prior. Megan would have gone with the body, but Lee wanted to see if he could get her coherent enough to explain what the hell was going on.
That wasn’t ever going to happen.
Lee sat down next to Megan and handed her a cup of cop coffee, which she took in both hands, not even glancing up at Lee’s concerned face. She was too focused on the blood. Max’s blood. Why?
“Ready to talk?”
Megan just shook her head “no,” staring through the cup.
“Well… I am. Its all kinda strange. This doesn’t surprise me in the least.” There was a certain sadness in his voice, like giving a eulogy at your great-grandparents funeral, and you didn’t really know them well enough to sat anything, but there was a deep, concerned emotion. “Always knew he’d go early, the way he acted. I tried to keep him out of trouble, but he… I dunno. Was just drawn to it.” Lee tried to smile at his next thought. “I always figured he’d go because he was tied to a rocket by an evil scientist and being shot at the moon or something. ‘You won’t escape me this time Ma-”
Megan cut him off as she dropped her cup between her knees and wrapping her arms around the bastion of worst comforter ever. Not that she’d tell him that, her face was buried into his shoulder.
Lee carefully put his cup down next to him and gently rubbed her back while looking out the door. Kind of weird. He was seeing things. Guess he was grieving more than he thought, if he thought he just saw- There it was again. “Max?”
Megan raised her head and punched Lee in the chest, still coughing up tears. “Don’t you even-”
“Oh hey! Lee! Leeeeeeeee!” Max was jumping up and down at the front of the mob that was growing the the dying storm outside, just behind two burly officers who saw the look on Lee’s face and let the strange boy pulling at the arm of a pale woman with deep red hair along behind him.
Lee… didn’t have anything to say. He was sure this was some serious grief. He guessed that he had taken for granted everything he’d ever-
“M- Max?” Megan turned around to see Max: all smiles and giving her a little wave with his free hand. Tears trailing behind her, Megan punched Max as hard as she could in the shoulder. “God dammit Max!”
“Ow, what was that-”
But the facade fell and Megan wrapped her arms roughly around him.
Thank God she’s seeing it too. Lee wanted to say something, like that he had actually missed the runts antics and a bunch of other stuff he would not have even thought to think not thirty minutes ago. However, the only thing to make it out was “What. The. Hell.”
Megan seemed a little more coherent as she stopped embracing and punched Max again in his other shoulder. “You don’t fuck with people like that!”
“I didn’t mean to!”
The pale woman, who was still holding Max’s hand quite tightly, cleared her throat in an effort to dispel and mood that might have been brewing.
“Uh. Right. Megan, Lee? This is Adeline. She’s helping.”
Megan raised an eyebrow. “…With what?”
Lee also raised an eyebrow, but his was more a failed attempt at being suave. “I could think of a few things.”
Adeline too raised an eyebrow. “What? No. Gross. Max, you didn’t tell me your friends were tactless.”
“Just Lee. Though I do suppose that’s like a third of my friends. Anyway, doesn’t matter.” Max turned back to the other two. “Where’d the prophet go? We don’t have much time left.”
“To shoot him.”
“Wait, what?” Lee seemed to be the only one who was not okay with what was just said. Megan had already thrown off the blanket to the floor over the bloodstained robe that she could forget about now. Lee wave his hands in front of him. “You can’t just-”
“You aren’t stopping me.” The glare in Adeline’s eyes gave Lee a terrible tremor down his spine.
Max smiled. “Its true, she’s got a laser gun.” Megan was about to say something, but Max interrupted. “No time to explain. Megan, you think he’d go back to the warehouse or something? Maybe ask the old man?”
Turning to Lee, Max held out his hand. “Lee. Keys.”
“I can’t just- You don’t even know how to drive.”
“I do.” Megan in a deft maneuver walked by Lee and in the process managed to pilfer his keys from within his jacket pocket.
As Max ran by Lee, he shouted “Sorry Lee, not enough time left,” and knocked off his hat in an attempt to slow him down.
Max, Megan and Adeline ran out the back door with gleeful blood-lust on their faces.
Max blinked his eyes a few times. Not because they were dry, but because opening them was difficult. He couldn’t much feel himself. Probably for the better, considering what his body had likely been through. He saw Adeline putting this kind of corkscrew-hand-blender thing back into her old, rusty toolbox. Then she turned quickly at him, and he tried to close his eyes even quicker. Didn’t work.
“Max! You’re back!”
Max tried closing his eyes harder. “No I’m not. Nope.”
“Did it happen?”
“Nothing happened. No one here to have anything to happen to.”
“Uh… huh. So it happened.”
“You weren’t out very long.”
“How do you know? I’m still out.”
“Seriously Max. This is the compilation of everything we’ve worked for.”
“Maybe, and this is nothing saying this, I’m just done with this whole thing.”
“But… Max! All of this would have been for nothing!”
“All of the torture? All of the pain, suffering-”
“I never made you suffer.”
Max opened his eyes and looked right into the eyes of the woman standing in front of him. She was genuinely upset at the statement. “…Really?”
“I never made you suffer.”
“Uh, so you don’t think that being stabbed, scrapped, poisoned, electrocuted, and chewed on would cause any suffering?”
“…You never said anything. I would have stopped the moment I knew that you weren’t-”
“Seriously?” Max shook his head. At least those muscles were working. He would’ve pointed, but he was still numb and strapped. “Are you dumb? I mean, I know you aren’t and I hate to say it, but are you so dumb that you would think that stabbing someone, something typically illegal, wouldn’t cause pain.”
“I knew it would cause pain. But it was required for the experiment. I needed you to leave. I wanted you to stay, but I knew you had to leave. But you came back! Would you really come back if you were suffering? Would you really come back if you didn’t love me?” Adeline took a few steps forward, but Max just shook his head. “…What’s wrong.”
Max laughed. “Damn. You really are that stupid. Geez. No seriously. Don’t give me that pouty face. I know what its like to actually have a friend. One who isn’t, you know, torturing me. So don’t try to go for sympathy. I know what you are going to say, so just stuff it.”
“No. You know why I came back? I died. Stabbed, I think. And-”
Adeline’s eyes instantly squinted in fury. “Who stabbed you?”
“I dunno, some cultist dude.”
“How dare he stab you!” She marched backwards further into the room and then began pacing with a few grunts of disdain. “Oh, nobody hurts my Max, nobody!”
“Well, except you.”
She marched right back up to Max, Adeline’s face not even an inch away. She had some kind of needle and a vial of glowly stuff in her hand. “That’s right.” She kissed him on the nose then stabbed and injected the liquid into Max’s thigh.
Max winced in pain. “What the he-” But before he could finish, he felt a warming coolness search through his body. It was like his back had been infused with frozen lava. In this pleasurable feeling, he could hear the sounds of his straps being unbuckled. Then he could feel his arms again, although they were terribly pins-and-needley. “Wait, what’s going on?”
Adeline, who was back in her toolbox, just turned her head slightly and smiled. “We’re going to go kill the bastard that killed you.”
“Oh.” Max sat up fully and swung his legs over the side, despite the head rush he was experiencing. “Okay. Yeah, let’s go do that.”
“Now Max… What do you remember?” The toolbox Adeline was rummaging through was less rusty than it was just made of rust. After all this time, Max was surprised it could still hold the weight of all the things inside.
“I remember a story about a man wrestling a bear and they get shot into outer space because they’re just breaking everything and-”
“Something real, Max.”
“That so happened.”
Adeline just continued searching the box.
“…Fine. I remember that you keep your scoop-a-loop in the drill box so it doesn’t get all.”
“Oh right. Duh.” She bopped herself on the forehead and soon had the small circular blade out and approached Max.
“Getting a little rusty are we?”
“Oh, you know… Well, I guess you wouldn’t. After you died I just didn’t have it in me to continue my work. I only work with the best.”
“Aww shucks. You shut down the project just on account of little ol’ me?”
“No. But I quit. The project kept going until everyone died.” She began to unbutton his shirt. “Although I suppose we should start checking all the other bodies. I don’t think you even remember what it was we were trying to do, do you?”
“I just remember it being extra stupid.”
“Don’t say that. It worked, didn’t it?” She removed his shirt, cutting the sleeves where necessary. Then she held up his back from the chair. “Oh, looks like your wounds have almost healed.”
“Hmm. And I was thinking I might actually heal up this time.”
Adeline immediately pushed Max back down and got within inches of his face. “When was that?”
“When did you think that?”
“I dunno. I just remember thinking it.”
“Do you think I would have ever given you the opprotunity to think that?”
Adeline smiled, her perfect white teeth barely showing between her red lips. “So we were a success.”
“We… were. So what are we doing now?”
Adeline straddled herself one Max’s bound lap. She wrapped one arm carefully around the back of his neck, playing with his earlobe and move in close to whisper into his ear. He could feel her chest’s breathing oscillating with his own. “Trying to replicate the results.” She tilted her head as kissed him gently on the cheek, then quickly pulling him toward her, revealing his back. She then slowly dragged the scoop-a-loop across his back, peeling off a fresh layer of soft skin.
The warm blood dripped down along his back. He shouted. not into the world, but into the void where she wouldn’t hear him. She enjoyed the screaming too much.
“Now,” she whispered into his ear, “How does that make you feel?”
Max choked back the pain long enough to sputter some words out. “I don’t know doctor, maybe like screaming loud enough to break the world.”
“Good.” She sliced again, creating a large bleeding “X” on his back. “Break the world, Max. Break it and every other barrier between you and the next.”
That’s exactly what it felt like. His vision had begun to fade slightly above him. That was good. It mean he was about to leave. Wanting to leave enough to actually do it. “You… you want me to leave again, don’t you?”
“Oh Max, of course I don’t.” She kissed him, biting his upper lip as she parted. “But there are certain things we must sacrifice in the name of science. You should know that better than anyone else.”
“…Then we’re going to need more…” Max winced at the thought. “We’re going to need Mr. Scruffy.”
Adeline smiled, kissing Max again and leaping off of him and bounded toward his toolbox. From it she pulled out a large jagged contraption that looked mostly like a bunch of saws duct taped together. She turned her head to him sharply, looking over her shoulder and giving him a devilish smile. “Are we ready?”
“Not one bit.”
She scratched some of the rust off the blade with her fingernail as she slowly approached him. “Perfect.”
Was this another nightmare, or was he actually here again? Max remembered the places as much as it did him. The cushion on his chair was still worn down to his shape, the arms leather and foam torn peeled back to reveal the underlying steel. The straps on his arms and legs were new. The old ones must’ve finally been worn down to dust. Still… despite the flow of pain and screams that invaded his memories, a smile crept back on his face. In that dark room, the sound of unshielded electricity buzzing and whirring and grinding of old machines… it was home.
Patton didn’t know what to expect as the large man strapped him down to the hard, cold metal chair. The sterility of the bright room reminded him of a dentist’s operating room. The small devices to his left completed the similarity: small mirrors, blades, drills. He didn’t get a good look at them as the large man cinched his head tight into what must’ve been the world’s (worlds’?) most uncomfortable chair. “Oh dear God, they are going to kill me.”
They never did though. “Damn it Perit!. We’re only trying to mostly kill him.” Max somehow remembered that hilarious argument despite, as he remembered it, being shot with lightning. But… there was no one else here now. No busy interns or men with clipboards. Just Adeline approaching with her white, blood stained apron and her big rusty case of toys. “Shall we begin?”
The man dressed as a surgeon asked again. “Shall we begin?” Patton could barely make out the words, let alone protest. His vision was getting blurry, and the only sound he was able to make was a possibly distressed “muhhh.” The man pulled down what looked like a welding mask. why was he wearing a radiation plate? Why was he a hippopotamus?
The sky: it was orange. Not because it was particularly early or late or that there had been some kind of weird atmospheric happenings that changed its color. What would have it changed from? It was just always orange here. Where else would he be? The sound of a spoon tapping against the insides of a tea cup cut Max’s attention from the sky and back at the person in front of him.
The woman, the one who had been haunting him in and out of his dreams for the past year, was sitting across from him. Her dark red curly hair and pale skin under a woven hat. Her smile that she sipped tea with. It was only a smile because the look of fear had never really left Max’s face. She loved that look.
She placed her cup back onto the table. It was still much too hot. “Why don’t you have a bite to eat? You look famished.”
Max looked down at the spread in front of him, his stomach too weak to growl. There were tea cakes and sandwiches. And cookies. God how he wanted a cookie. But. “…Because its part of the game.” Max attempted at a smile.
“Hmm. Good to see your memory is intact.”
It didn’t feel like it. There were holes, like a small worm had burrowed into his brain. Worse was the voiding pain anytime he had tried to remember… what? Who? He could remember the name of the cafe they were sitting at (a favorite of the woman’s), he could remember that the last day he remembered with an orange sky was about a year ago (according to a news broadcast he overheard from someone’s ear). But why wouldn’t it be orange? Was there something in between? “Blue.”
“I remember something blue. Why can’t…”
“Hmm. It would appear memories don’t transfer too well from plane to plane. I mean, technically, if you didn’t physically travel from world to world, and memories are written into the physical part of your brain, then you shouldn’t remember anything, should you? But you do, at least a little it seems. Hmm. A good question for a philosopher I think. Do you remember your time here?”
Max did, and nothing he could remember was pleasant. But why couldn’t he remember that whole chunk of time. “Why… Why am I so weak?”
“Hah. Not even you should’ve been able to survive being dead Max.”
“You’ve been dead, silly. Well, I guess not, but close enough. I even had you buried. It was quite the ceremony on that moonless night, me sitting there watching Peter dig a hole for you, your broken, bloodied body tossed into the pit. Oh Max. I have missed you. I really did think I killed you.”
“Wait… So was Blue-?”
“Then what was-”
“You don’t remember? I was sure I’ve told you.”
“Told me what?”
The woman picked her cup up and took another sip. Perfect temperature. She set it down, giving Max a look from under her hat. “Do you remember who I am?”
Max had to think a moment. He used (when was that?) to not be able to remember the name of the woman he couldn’t see. Couldn’t look at. But he could, and he was, and he did. “Adeline.”
Hearing him say her name, Adeline’s face immediately perked up and blushed. “Oooh Max! I can’t wait to get you home. I thought you were dead! You don’t know how much it means to me that you aren’t.”
“You buried me, right.”
“Yes. Put the first scoop of dirt onto your lifeless body.”
“How did you know? That I was, you know, not dead?”
“I didn’t at first.”
“I’m sure you heard it. Heard me.”
“The same way I heard you?”
“I thought I was going crazy for the longest time. Depression and all that. I didn’t care though.”
“Hah. What? Depressed over your little experiment?”
“Of course! How dare you not think what we had was special. Of course I cried over my loss. The way you touched my heart. Your eyes full of tears with the pain of our love.”
“Mmmm. No. Those were definitely tears full of pain from the knives and needles.”
“To the soul.”
“To my physical being.”
“Oh, why can’t we have this moment Max?”
“Because I know that more importantly, you care about getting your data back.”
“Oh, that too. But you have to understand. Its not just that. The only reason you’re back now is because one day while I was delved into the fantasy, I realized that it was all real. I was sure of it. And I was right. I just had to find a way to get you back.”
“So you could get all your data.”
“Always with the data with you.” She pouted a moment before taking another sip of her tea and turning her head away from Max. “Eat a cookie. Not even you could survive much longer without some energy.”
“Hah, if I can survive death, I can live a few more days without food.” Max only smiled for a moment before realizing that Adeline didn’t think it was funny. Not even a semblance of a smile. She was actually angry with him. And Max hated having her angry with him. It made him feel terrible. And if eating a drugged cookie was going to make her happy, then he was going to eat a cookie. And a cake. Maybe a sandwich. He stuffed as much food as he could into his mouth. And right before he passed out, he saw her smile, and he did the same.