It was a quiet day. Roy was working the grill, Walter was in the inventory, and Horace was at the front counter. They were good guys, taking care of the steady flow of customers without needing any input from me. They didn’t need me to get involved. They never did.
I lifted the vape to my lips, and took a long, deep breath. The sweet rush of THC was relaxing. God, I was hungry. I wondered for a moment if I should ask Roy to make me a fishwich. But nah. He had more important things to do. The guy was working hard enough without me bugging him. I raised the vape again, and took another deep hit. I held it in.
I wondered, could you hold your breath until you blacked out? Just not breathe until you fell unconscious? Maybe I could just hold this breath forever.
Forty or fifty seconds later, I finally coughed out, a cloud of smoke filling the air, panting and gasping a bit. Well, I couldn’t hold my breath forever. That was kind of lame, but I couldn’t remember why it was a big deal. Life was fine. I was fine. Things were fine. I didn’t need to worry about all of this. I closed my eyes, and took another puff.
I opened my eyes sharply. My father stood there, my mother next to him. Young, compared to him. An easy twenty years younger. She was about as old as I was now, when she died. That had been a weird thing, growing up. It was weirder that I told people that she was still alive. But who the hell wanted to be pitied?
“Uh, dad,” I said, blinking. “Sorry, uh, I was just-”
“Smoking up.” He chuckled, and took the pen from my unresisting hands, taking a quick puff. He held it for a moment, and then blew it out in a soft stream towards my mother. She inhaled it, closing her eyes as she did, before letting it stream slowly out of her nostrils, her expression amused. “It’s okay, son. I know you smoke. I know why you do it. It’s the reason why humans always do these things. It’s because we hate ourselves.” He sat back in the chair across from me, my mother sitting in my lap. “For a long time, son, I blamed you. For killing your mother. For taking away the woman I loved. For not being strong. For just… giving up on everything. But I understand now, son.”
“Understand what?” I asked, trying to hold it together. Trying to keep my mind working under the haze. Had there been something added to the vape cartridge? It wasn’t supposed to feel like this. It wasn’t supposed to be so painful.
“That you’re useless. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be useful. There are lots of useless people in the world, and they don’t do any harm to anyone. I’d rather you were a useless person than be the kind of person who would hurt others. I’m glad you’re worthless, son. It keeps you out of the way.” He took another hit on the pen, and then handed it over to me. “Just stay out of the way, alright? Try not to kill anyone else I love,” he said, and chuckled.
I sat back in the chair, numb. “What an asshole,” said the shark girl, leaning against my side. Had she been my mother a second before? Fuck, if that didn’t scream ‘therapy time’, what did?
“He’s… It’s just…” I struggled for the words, and didn’t find them.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’ve never been a take charge guy. Not like him. Horace. But that’s okay. I love you anyway.”
“Why?” I asked, numbly. “Wait- What?”
“I love you. Why…? I don’t know. I can’t say. Maybe I just pity you. Maybe the idea of seeing you hurt yourself, get yourself killed, for no good reason- Maybe that’s an aphrodisiac for women. Maybe I like how you could never possibly overshadow me, because I need someone around to boost my ego all the time, and you’re the best I could do. Maybe I’m just not actually a person. Maybe I’m just some solipsistic expression of your own ego, the wish you have for someone who will support you, and never need to be supported.” She smiled. “That’s right. Just relax, and kick back. Forget about the promise you made, forget about promising to help me. I don’t need your help, and you couldn’t give it anyway.”
“The promise.” I felt my heart beating faster. “Your people. Ku, what about-”
“It doesn’t matter,” she cooed, leaning against my side, her skin rough, her voice warm. “You can just sit back. You can be a useless pothead. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll keep this relationship on life support. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“I wanted- I wanted to be useful, Ku, I want to help, please-”
I reached out for her. She vanished like the smoke. I let my hands fall to the desk.
“Hey, boss,” said Walter, his eyes lidded, his eastern European accent thick as clotted cream. “You never got it, did you? Thought I was a retard.” He chuckled, and it turned into a coughing fit, blood falling down his lips. He rested a hand on his chest, and I noticed the jagged piece of bone stuck through his chest. “You never understood what I was.” I tried to focus on his face. It seemed blurred, indistinct, like smoke. Black oil was dripping down his sides. “And now, I’ll be gone forever, because of what you did. Better smoke up to forget that, too. You useless sack of shit.” He turned, and Horace was standing there, where Walter had been a moment before.
“Why does she love you,” I asked, and was surprised by the bitter venom in my own voice.
“Because when it mattered, I acted. When her life was on the line, I saved her. When your life was on the line, I saved you. Because now, when I trusted her to you, when I gave you the chance, you’re dwelling on the old pains. She loves me because I’m better than you.” Horace patted me companionably on the shoulder. “It’s okay. You don’t need to be anything. You don’t need to be special. Just be you. After all, why should anyone expect anything of you? When have you ever done anything worthwhile? When have you built any expectations for people to hold you up to?” He smiled. “Be ordinary. Be helpless. Be a victim. That’s why the people I love are fighting, and dying, and why I’m sacrificing everything I have. So you can lead a small, worthless life.”
He turned and walked away. I leaned forward, and puffed on the vape again. Gave into the mediocrity. Let the smoke swirl in my lungs. Held it. Held it. Held it. Forty nine, fifty, fifty one, fifty two seconds-
“The pot doesn’t make you useless.”
I coughed out, and stared up at the woman. She was pretty. Long black hair, pale skin, eight red eyes. Yeah, I was a weirdo. Her body from the waist down was that of a spider, like a black widow spider, but with all the colors inverted. She rested her chin on an open, chitinous palm, smiling at me.
“Smoking pot, taking drugs, that’s not what makes you useless. It’s a symptom. The reason you’re useless is because of pain. You’ve been brutalized, over and over again. You’ve been hurt, so badly, by everyone around you. Again, and again. For things that were never your fault. They’ve punished you for crimes you didn’t commit. Where’s the justice there, huh?” She leaned closer. “Do you want to hurt them for that? Make them pay? Do you want justice?”
“That’s not justice,” I said. “That’s just… revenge.” I shook my head. “Whoa. Highdea. That’s the whole difference, isn’t it? Revenge and justice, the two are so… different. I don’t want anyone to hurt. I just want it all to be alright.” I chuckled. “So, what is this. Some sort of dream dealy?”
“Yes,” she said. “Except for me. I am quite real.”
“That’s just what a dream would say,” I pointed out.
“God preserve me from the wisdom of stoners,” she grumbled. “Look. You got the point. You’re not worthless. You’re just in pain. You want to help people, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but…” I looked down. “I’m not special. I’m not some hero. My dad’s special, Horace is special, Walter’s special, but… look at me. I’m just a chump.”
“Everyone is special,” said the woman, softly. “But so many die without ever realizing it. They are never in the right place at the right time. I can see what makes you special, Daryl Pertwee. I can see the greatness in you, lurking, waiting to be unleashed. I can see what could make everyone great. And it is such a tragedy that they never get to express it. All those ordinary people, who were a single moment away from realizing how good they really were. I can’t usually do a thing for them. I can’t do anything but watch them. And what is worse are the ones whose gifts are good for nothing but torment, pain. Those are the real tragedies.”
“So what makes me different?” I asked, softly. “I’m just another one of those disappointments.”
“No, you’re not. The moment that you walked through that portal, you threw yourself into danger, into a world you didn’t understand, all for a woman.” She smiled. “That was stupid. Foolhardy. Incredibly dangerous. But you made the choice. And now, I can make sure that you succeed. Don’t count on it happening again, but this time…” She held out a sword to me. It was wooden, a short sword. I recognized it.
“This is Horace’s,” I whispered softly.
“Bring it back to him,” said the spider woman.
“Who are you?” I asked, frowning up at her.
“There’s a more important question you need the answer to. And here it is: Give her something to grasp for. Give her a future. Show her the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“That’s not really answering my question.”
“No. But it’s a much more interesting answer.” She smiled. “Now, go make things right. You are not responsible for the crimes of your father, but you can still make them right.”
I gasped. My eyes flashed open. I was…
Lying on the floor. Underwater, but surrounded by a throng of Atlanteans. Their strange, fish-like bodies were nonetheless surprisingly close to human. I was lying on a platform, surrounded by nets filled with merchandise. I pushed myself to my feet as a pair of men- guards, I would guess, from the armor and the big swords they were holding- approached me. “Hey, I know there’s some bad blood between us, but-”
“Human. Our queen wishes to see you.” One of the guards bowed his head, hand going across his waist. “We would be honored if you would join us. Please.” He stood up, and smiled. “There is no more bad blood. You’ve helped to save us.”
I blinked as I followed them, swimming as best as I could through the water. I found the scenery skipping around me. Aware of it, now, I could feel the dream state around me. The curiously serene feeling, the way my surroundings blurred and shifted when I didn’t focus on them. It was a subtly nauseating feeling, the way things kept moving if I didn’t keep them pinned down with my gaze. But it wasn’t like my dream. There had been a subtle dread, a grayness to everything there. Here, everything was so vibrant, so bright. I could see subtle lines of color passing through almost everything around me, a scintillating aura surrounding each living thing like out of the wildest dreams of Semyon Kirling and Thelma Moss.
I wondered to myself if this was what Ku saw, all the time. The sort of beauty she saw in the world. I looked down at myself, and I saw how dull, how lifeless I appeared. Out of everything in this dream, I alone was a colorless place, skin pale and lifeless, no aura surrounding me. But that didn’t really surprise me. I’d always been more about the pot than the spirituality.
The guards led me to a room. The queen stood there, before a great line of Atlanteans. In her shark form, huge, green-haired, clad in a thong of some kind of leather that did little to give her modesty, and wearing a great jagged toothed sword on one hip, bound into its sheath by great strips of leather. I didn’t know a lot about swords, but it looked like the thing was impossible to draw. I wondered if that was intentional on her part.
She turned her head, and smiled. “Daryl. I am glad to see you. I had been worried. Really, truly worried.” She laughed softly, and waved to her people. “Please- give me a while. I just need to speak with my friend here for a bit. Do not worry, I will hear all of your petitions. It will be a new golden age.” She nodded her head, smiling brightly as the people walked out of the room, murmuring apologies and gratitude to her, until the room was empty. She turned away from me, looking out on the city, through the broad open balcony. The water looked tremendously clear, and I could see the distant shape of Atlanteans flowing through the city. It broke my heart.
“Ku… This… It’s beautiful, but it’s-”
“A dream. Yes.” Her voice was very soft, and broken. She looked over at me, and I thought that if we were not underwater, tears might be running down her cheeks. “Just a sweet dream. The way things could have been, if the world was not quite so cruel. A last gift to my people.”
“No. They are real. You can tell by looking at the faces. The parts that are a dream, they blur out when you stop paying attention. The people, they stay sharp. All of my people, gathered together in my dream for them. Our dear home, made whole once more. This is what I have to offer them. A home, for a little bit longer. Now, when they die, burned in the fire of humanity’s wrath, they will not die in fear and pain. Do you see?” She took out the transmitter that she had been given. As she held it, one of the lights flickered on. She pressed the button, and a second light flickered on. Then the third. “Here. I will send you back. Make good use of the world, Daryl. I do not blame you for this. It was, I think, inevitable.”
She reached out towards me, her hand gently sweeping through the water. I slapped it aside. “What the hell?! Why?! You’re giving up?! The one person I thought wouldn’t! You’re-” I gritted my teeth. “We promised! We promised we’d save all of them!”
“Ku-Thule came to me,” she said softly. “He showed me the truth. Your father was the reason my people were being killed. He will make livestock out of us. You see, that was his plan all along.” She sighed softly. “I do not blame him. I do not hate him for it. He was simply doing what all beings must to survive. He made a choice to survive. I am weaker, by far. I am simply making the choice for my people to die, free, and without fear. Die on our own terms.” She looked out at the city. “It is so beautiful to see it like this. Whole. Not full of fear and pain. I’ve never seen it so beautiful. It was worth it all, just to see my kingdom in a moment of peace.”
“You can’t. You can’t just give up, damn it! I promised I’d help, I can talk him out of it, I can do something! Betty and Horace and Li, they’ll do something-”
“Even if they could. Even if they survive, even if they would help us in the face of all that’s been done. They cannot change the nature of our two worlds. They cannot change what we are. We are too different. We will never be able to share your world. There will be others like John, and my people, cursed by their small numbers, hobbled by their useless leader…” She looked away. “They deserved someone who would fight for them. All they got was someone who would die for them. Let it end like this, quickly, easily, without a moment of pain. We’ll simply live in a dream that never has the chance to end.”
“You can’t just stay asleep!”
“Why not?” She asked, her voice soft, a light smile on her face. “In our dreams, there’s no pain. No suffering. No loss. In this one place, we can be happy. Why bother being awake? What does reality have to offer us, besides loss? Pain?” She rested a hand on my cheek. “You can go, or you can stay, Daryl. Either way. But I would rather just… dream.”
“Dreams aren’t everything! They…” I struggled. Tried to think. My life had been nothing but trying to forget that I was alive. How many times had I joked that I wanted to die? That I wished the world would end? How many times had I laughed at the macabre imagery, at the idea of me and everyone I know dying, and quipped that there was nothing wrong with that? But I’d never seen it like this. Never seen someone fully committed to it. And the question was… What could I possibly say that would change her mind? How could I possibly make her believe?
“Goodbye, Daryl,” she said, and began to sweep her hand through the water again.
“Dreams can’t surprise you! They can just repeat what used to happen. They can’t bring you something new! Life- That can surprise you!”
“And is that supposed to be good?” She asked, softly. “Life is full of profound disappointments. All those things you dream of, all those things you hope for… They never come true. It’s just one long series of-”
I realized, quite suddenly, that I was kissing her. I couldn’t tell when, exactly, that had started. I wasn’t even particularly good at it. But passion had to count for something, right? I broke the kiss, and looked aside. “I’m sorry. That was selfish. But… I love you.”
“Why?” she said, bemused. “I’m worthless.”
“Because you’re something strange. Because you’re really beautiful. Because you’ve got so much spirit. Because you care about your people. Because you’re actually really, tremendously strong. Because you’re this incredible, wonderful person, and… Because I think you’re a lot better than anything I could ever deserve, and because I think that if Horace had any sense at all, he’d marry you in a goddamn heartbeat!” I grabbed her hand, firmly. “You can’t just give up hope on that! It’s worth hoping for, it’s worth fighting for! It’s something worth holding on to! You are a lot of things, but you are not worthless!”
She gaped for a moment, staring at me. “You… really mean that, don’t you?”
There was a flicker in the water, and suddenly, we were standing in the same place, but shattered. The water was filled with small traces of oil. The city was now broken, great fractures everywhere. The structures were crumbling, but the fissures were strange- perfectly smooth fractures, often jagged, but every cut perfect. As though- It struck me that it looked like what I’d expect reality, fractured, to look like. Like a cracked mirror.
“My people,” whispered Ku. “What have I done?” She stared down at the transmitter, three green lights flashing on it.
“We’ve got time. The nuke was set to go off in thirty minutes. We just need to gather everyone together. You can do this,” I said, softly. “I believe in you.”
She looked up at me, and closed her eyes. “Thank you. Thank you, Daryl. And about the kiss-”
“It’s alright.” I smiled. “That was just me being selfish. I know how you feel.”
She looked at me for a moment, but didn’t respond, which was its own kind of response. She closed her eyes, and breathed in, and then out. “There.”
I frowned. “What?”
“I’ve called them.”
“What, all of them? Just like that?”
“Of course,” she said, amused. “I am a goddess of war. What use would I be if I could not guide my people in great maneuvers?” She looked up, and pulled her hand aside. “Where will be safe, Daryl? Where should I send my people?”
I paused for a moment, considering the problem. “How many people?”
“Perhaps fifty thousand, in total.”
“Jesus. Uh.” I rubbed my forehead. “Wait. I’ve got it. Yeah. Yeah, that can work. Christ, if this doesn’t work-”
I told her. She stared at me for a moment. “I know, that was stupid-”
“No. I think it is a good idea.” She nodded her head. “It is better than any ideas I’ve had.”
The first Atlanteans were arriving. Terrified. Bringing only what they could carry on their backs. I noticed quite a few things about them. The nervous looks they gave me. The way that they stayed calm, guided by Ku as she tore the portal wider, and wider, until it occupied most of the throne room. I stared up at it, my heart thumping at the sheer scale of the thing. And the other thing I noticed: There were very, very few children among the Atlanteans. It was a melancholy thing. Fifty thousand of them against the world, and what did they have to protect themselves? A single goddess, and what they could carry on their backs.
They would need help. They’d need protection. My father would give it. I didn’t know how I’d make him, but I would.
“Daryl,” said Ku, her voice strained. “That sword. Are you any good with it?”
“What?” I looked down at it. “I’ve never used it before in my life, why?”
“Because I think you will need to be,” she said, her eyes flickering up. I turned, and saw them. Black as tar, arrowing through the water. A half dozen of them. “I can’t let this portal close. I’m not sure I’ll be able to open it again. Daryl. I need you to fight them off. I need you to protect me. Can you do that, Daryl?”
I stared up, my breath catching in my throat. “Ku- I’m a manager of a fast food store.”
“So, I know all about settling fights.”
God. Was that a cool line to go out on? I was coming to the increasingly terrified conclusion that no, it was not remotely cool, nor that it even made any sense. But as I swam up to meet them, I decided that if I survived, it would probably become cool. And if I didn’t, it wouldn’t matter.
I lifted the sword, nervously, as the dark creatures darted down towards me. I lifted it, and swung. I missed, and one of them bit into my shoulder with sharp teeth, blood welling up in a cloud. I screamed, as the world spun around me.
The scent of blood in the water.
The tang of iron spreading through my mouth.
The sword between my hands. When had I taken such a confident grip?
The stench of blood in the water.
The sear of muscles pushed beyond their capabilities.
An Atlantean’s skull, streaked with black oil. When had that happened? Had I failed?
The ecstasy of blood in the water.
The pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.
The sword, marked, but not broken. My shoulder, healed. Had that been the elixir I’d been given?
Ku, staring up at me, her mouth open, as the last of her people filed through the hole. So quickly?
“Did we- Did we do it?” I asked, and found my voice harsh, ragged. Had I been screaming? It felt as though my vocal cords were scraped raw. I wiped at my face. Black oil came away. “What in the hell just happened?”
“I- You went mad,” said Ku, her voice weak. “Daryl. How did you fight like that?”
“It’s amazing what a pact can allow you to do.”
We turned. Ku-Thule stood by the portal. A sword was in his hand. It was wooden. It looked a great deal like the one I was holding. Over his shoulder lay the figure of another Atlantean- Humanoid from the waist up, tentacled and octopussy… Octopodal… Octopineal? From the waist down. My Ku shuddered as I leveled the sword at Ku-thule. I didn’t know if I could do that again, but-
“I’m not here to fight you. You did not believe me, then, did you, Ku-kaili-moku-polemo? You did not believe when I said that your people could never live among humans?” He shook his head softly. “You will regret this decision, but then, that is the point, Isn’t it? You will live to regret it.” He looked away. “I tried to make it a pleasant dream for you. A happy dream. I thought you deserved that much. Life…” He looked towards us, and those eyes were all too human. “Life is a nightmare, Ku.”
“Give back my father,” whispered Ku, softly.
“How I wish that I could. He died, Ku. Long ago. Peacefully. In his sleep. His soul became too thin, too worn, to keep his body going. The only thing holding him together now is me. If I were to leave him, he would die. I am sorry. Really. You don’t know how sorry.”
“That sword isn’t yours,” I whispered. “Give it back to me. I don’t know what she was up to-”
“I am afraid not,” said Ku-Thule, resting the sword on his shoulder. “Whatever happens from here on out, I will have revenge. But I wish a long and happy life to the two of you. I understand if I am not invited to the wedding.”
“What? But-” began Ku-kaili.
“A pact. A sacred bond. A connection. Something both sides must desire.” Ku-thule made a noise that I presumed was a chuckle from the way his shoulders shook. “Sometimes, we must take what we want, mustn’t we, Daryl?” He turned away, and tossed the unconscious Atlantean through the opening, and took out a brick. “The Temple’s God. It will be weak. It will need to be nurtured. Horace would be terribly disappointed if it died.” He tossed it gently through the portal after the Atlantean. Then he was gone.
I turned towards Ku. “What was that all…”
The words trailed off, as I saw her expression. Flushed, her eyes very wide, her head lowered. “My first time,” she squeaked out, her voice a bit strangled. “I gave away my first time, like that-”
She looked up, and swallowed. “It’s- nothing to worry about. We can make it right, but later. We need to get out of here, before-”
There was a flash. A terrible concussion. A sound louder than anything. I grabbed Ku, and pulled her forward, and through the gate, moments before it shut. I pulled myself out of the water, onto the small pier.
Tens of thousands of Atlanteans crowded the water, staring up at the view. I didn’t blame them. It was the greatest city in the world.
The U.N. Tower loomed overhead, just down the shoreline, the Queensboro bridge visible just a little way in the other direction. The sound of traffic filled the air, as I slumped back onto the pier, staring up at the sky. Back home.
I had fought off monsters. I had saved the girl. I had done it all. If my father could see me now…
And I abruptly realized, it didn’t matter whether or not my father saw me. It didn’t matter whether he ever saw me like that, or whether he even gave a damn. Ku had seen me do it. And some part of her had responded to that kiss.
It was amazing the things a little hope could do for the soul.