Cold rain splashed across my face. I gasped, opening my eyes, and tried to sit up. I was pinned down against a cot, rope drawn painfully tight around my wrists, my ankles, my waist, my neck. I could shift around a little bit, and that was all. I blinked in the low light. I looked to the side, and saw Mannfred in a similar situation, pinned to what looked, for all the world, like an operating table. Stacy stood over him. I thought it was Mannfred, at any rate. All of his clothes had been removed, leaving the disturbingly sexless white plastic mannequin there, a bullet hole through its head. She sighed as she studied me.
“So… What is this all about?”
“What?” I said, befuddled. “Mannfred hitchhiked with me! He was safe! He wouldn’t have hurt you, he helped me out, he fucking saved me-“
“Shhhh, shhhh,” she said, hand slipping in and out of her pocket quickly. “I don’t doubt he did help you. What I’m wondering here is, why did he help you? Why do these things listen to you?” She tilted her head, her eyes on mine. They were blue, I realized. I hardly ever looked at people’s eyes, but hers were suddenly very striking. There was a small vial in her hand. “There are a few possibilities I could see. I could understand it being any one of them. I tell you what. Let’s go through them. See if any of them rings a bell with you.”
“Stacy, please, don’t-“
“Shhhhh.” She tilted the vial, and something clear poured out. Smoke began rising from the plastic, as pits and holes dug into it. She smiled, closing her eyes. I blinked, and Mannfred was frozen in a position of agony on the operating table, arms and legs twisted. “You know what it reminds me of? Ripping the legs off an insect. Is the insect feeling pain? Is cortisol flooding its system? Is it becoming traumatized for life when its legs are ripped off? It writhes, sure, but is it actually in pain, or do we just interpret it that way? Of course, that begs the question- Do we feel pain? Really? Or is it just the doll part of us, the mannequin, writhing in pain because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do?” She held the acid over her arm.
“Stacy, for gods sakes, just let Mannfred go, please, you can do whatever you want to me-“
She poured the acid. I felt the bile rise in my stomach as her skin reddened, smoked, a chemical burn appearing across her arm. “You see that?” she said, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “That’s humanity. The choice to not react. To overcome the mannequin. To not pretend to hurt.” She smiled, as she held the vial over the mannequin again. “So. You’re safe from the mannequins. They don’t try to kill you.”
“One of them tried to strangle me!”
“So you say. So you claim. But I can’t really trust what you say, can I? Only what I’ve seen.” She sighed. “So, let’s see… You could be a mannequin. One that doesn’t follow their rules. But that doesn’t make much sense. Why would you look like that? Why would you be different? No, you’re not special. You’re nothing unusual. You wouldn’t be so bad at this if you were.” She tilted her head. “What do you think?”
“I think you have lost it, and just poured acid on your own arm,” I said, trying not to lose it. “I am also thinking it is just my luck that the last woman on earth was a fucking psychopath!”
“And the last man on earth was a filthy traitor to his kind. That’s it, isn’t it? Who was it? Maybe you had a little contact with the Atlanteans? Thought that queen of theirs was pretty, a nice face, a nice figure… What did she offer you, hmmm?”
“I’ve never met a damn Atlantean! I’m a shitty engineering student from a small college town with a fucked up family, I don’t know why the mannequins don’t attack me, but I suspect it’s because I never strap them down and cut them apart with a fucking Bowie knife!”
“This?” She smiled, as she reached behind her, and drew out the knife. “KA-BAR, actually.” She twirled it in her hand, and drove it down through Mannfred’s pinky, severing it cleanly. It rolled off onto the ground, out of sight, and I could hear it clicking against the ground. “You’re very rude. Unusual for someone in your situation. Expecting reinforcements, maybe? For your friends to show up? Did you sabotage the building?” She frowned over her shoulder. “Unlikely. No, no, I don’t think that’s going to have happened. Though it has been raining hard. This area’s not used to a lot of water… If there were flooding…” She frowned. “That’s another possibility. That you made a deal with the mannequins.”
“What?! You said you don’t think they’re people!”
“Even animals can make deals. What do you think a dog is? A deal a human and a wolf made, a long time ago. You’re like a dog. Not quite human, but… cute, in your own way.” She smiled woefully. “So. What did they offer you to sell me out, hmmm? If they cut my throat, you get to live your puny little life with your vapid sexdoll? Sell out the rest of humanity to live in comfort? There’s a lot of names for something like that.” She chuckled.
“Why the hell would they even need me to do that?!” I asked, my temper breaking. “You’re a lunatic! You were probably going to shoot yourself any day now, without another human being to torment! You’re like every other self-absorbed narcissistic psychopath I’ve ever had to have the displeasure of dealing with! And I don’t care what the fuck you do to me, but stop hurting the fucking mannequin, because they have been, every single one of them I’ve met, kinder and more decent people than any human I ever met!”
She watched me, silently, her eyes fixed on mine, her lips set in a line. “You know, I always wondered. What if it was just… one person?”
“What if the end of the world was just because of one angry, lonely individual. One psychopath. Maybe…” She slowly turned the knife towards me, her arm outstretched. “There can be weird individuals. Right? The Atlanteans said as much in those pamphlets of theirs. A single extraordinary individual- Who knows what they could manage?” She tapped her fingers slowly on Mannfred’s ankle. “You’re a lot happier in this world, aren’t you?”
I felt a cold chill grab my guts. Not fear, this time- Not of her, anyway. “What are you suggesting?”
“This is your dream world, isn’t it? You hate humans. You hate us all. But the mannequins… They seem to just do what you want, don’t they? Awfully hostile towards me. I mean, confessedly, I killed a few. But they’re just so… violent, here. Towards everyone. Maybe… Well, maybe, just maybe, that’s because I wasn’t supposed to be here. I wanted to survive too badly for you to change me, or kill me, like you did everyone else.”
“You’re insane. I’m no one special. You said so yourself!”
“Who knows what special looks like? Who knows what you are? Maybe you’re the one who was behind all of this. Maybe you’re pretending to be distressed by watching me do this, or maybe you really care about these fucking mannequins.” She drew the knife across Mannfred’s cheek, leaving an ugly scar in the plastic. “Maybe you’re the one who killed my world. Who killed humans. Maybe you didn’t realize exactly what you were dealing with.” She approached me slowly, her breathing slow. Her eyes utterly intense. Water dripped from the corner of the room, plinking softly against the ground.
“I’m not responsible for this,” I said, hoping very much it wasn’t true. “I- I was lonely. I hurt a lot. But I didn’t want anyone dead.”
“Well. I guess in your sick, fucked up head, they’re not really dead, are they? They’re empty, hollowed out, but they’re not dead. They’re still moving.” She grinned toothily as she approached me, the knife out. “Maybe… Just maybe… if I kill you… They’ll be back. Maybe it’ll make everything right again. Turn them back into people. There’d be a lot to explain, god knows, but just maybe…” She took a slow, deep breath, and rested her hand on my throat. “And even if it doesn’t… It’ll make the point, won’t it? That you can’t just kill humanity, and not expect to be punished.”
She raised the knife into the air, the point gleaming wickedly in the light. Then the lights went out. They were replaced, a moment later, with dull red emergency lights.
“What the fuck?” She looked up, frowning. “The generators should be on. What happened?” She looked down at me, her eyes wide. “What the fuck did you do?”
There was a distant crunch. “I swear,” I said, softly. “I didn’t do anything.”
There was the smell of ozone in the air. She sniffed a couple of times, and her eyes widened. “The rain. Shit. Shit! This place was never built for that, it’s practically desert. The fucking generator room must have gotten flooded! The-“ She looked up, her eyes widening. “The caves.”
She kicked open the door, and ran. I immediately began to struggle. I could hear the sound of gunfire, growing more distant, fading into the distance. I writhed a bit, pulling as hard as I could at the bindings. I heard Mannfred doing the same. “Come on, buddy. You okay?”
Mannfred slammed an elbow loudly against the bed.
“Yeah, I understand. Fuck. I’m sorry, Mannfred. I’m so sorry about that. I’m sorry I got us into that. Sorry any of this happened. Should never have left home. Should never-“ I froze.
In the hallway, outside, was a feminine mannequin. A scar ran across the side of its face. It was naked. A knife was visible in its hand.
“Stacy!” I shouted. A drop of water fell from the ceiling, onto my face. I grunted, closing my eyes, shaking my head. When I opened them, the mannequin’s head had turned to me. “Stacy! For fuck’s sakes, I’m not responsible for this, and a mannequin is about to kill me!” Another drop of water fell into my eyes again. I tried to angle my face away from it, but it was impossible while keeping my eyes on the mannequin. I gritted my teeth, blinking away the water. The mannequin was inside the room, now. “STACY!”
There was a distant chatter of gunfire, cut off suddenly. I felt the pit of my stomach fall out. Another drop of water fell into my eyes. I fought to keep them open against the discomfort, the blurring. They teared up, smearing the world into patterns of light and darkness. When my vision resolved itself again, the mannequin was standing over me, knife in hand, another one, also feminine, a few steps behind it, this one carrying a full bottle of tequila. It was dressed in a pair of boots and a leather jacket, tight jeans on. I was going to die, I realized.
“I don’t suppose it would help to say I never wanted to hurt you,” I said softly. “Mannfred? Buddy?”
There was no response from Mannfred.
“Guess you can’t talk with him, can you?”
I saw the drop of water swelling on the ceiling, growing thicker, beginning to pull away.
“This is a lousy fucking way to die,” I said, and smiled. “Sorry I never got to say goodbye, Dolly.”
The waterdrop fell. My eyes blurred and I shut them tight. There was a crash, and a spray of something wet. The funny thing was, it didn’t hurt at all. Just an overwhelming peace, and the scent of alcohol.
There was a press of metal against my wrists. I snapped my eyes open. The scarred mannequin was slumped over the table, shards of glass embedded in the plastic. The other mannequin, the dressed one, was bent over me, holding the first mannequin’s knife against the rope around my ankles. “What? What the hell? Is this some kind of game?”
I blinked, as the water fell in my eyes again. When my eyes cleared, the mannequin was holding out a phone. I saw a call from my number, the call the previous day.
“Dolly?” I said, shocked. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Dolly didn’t have an answer for me.
“Oh, god. The phonecall. Wait, you were following me?” I paused for a moment. “That seems extremely wise, now. Definitely better than my instincts. Thank you for ignoring me. Come on, we’ve got to get out of here, as quick as we can.” I was breathing hard, my eyes flicking to the unconscious mannequin. I closed my eyes again, and the ropes snapped, the knife cutting through them. I took the knife from Dolly’s hand, and cut the ropes around Mannfred. “Help him, would you? I’ll take the lead. If I see Stacy… You two run. I’ll distract her.”
I set forth. There were shell casings and collapsed mannequins everywhere. Efficient shots to the head and the chest, killing them. How nightmarish must it have been for them? Pinned in place by the merciless gaze of a monster who could move while they were paralyzed?
Not that I was much better off. She’d decided I had to die. I didn’t really believe that I was responsible for this, that I was the one who had killed the world. I couldn’t. That was too much to place on my shoulders. All I could focus on was the insane scenario I found myself in. That, and the endless rain.
I stopped at the door into the caves. I stared into them. Mannequins- Hundreds of them- lay within. Hacked to pieces, slowly, methodically. I thought I recognized the one that Stacy had tortured on the video tape. Some of them had their arms raised. One had its hand raised to the door. I turned towards the other two. Mannfred had an arm slinged over Dolly’s shoulder. “Did you come in through here?” I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, Dolly was flashing me a thumb’s down. “God. She was dumping bodies here.” I looked into the caves. “She said there was a way to the surface. A way for us to get out. We need to find it, get out of here, get to the surface… Just get the hell away.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and straightened my back. “Come on. It’s our best chance.”
I looked over my shoulder, and started. There were mannequins, there. Dozens of them. I swallowed slowly, keeping my eyes wide open. They were all around.
“Look… I’m sorry about what she did to you. I’m sorry that Stacy hurt you. But I’m going to try to get out of here. If you want to follow me, I’ll do what I can to protect you.” My eyes went to Mannfred, scarred and pitted by the acid, and my stomach clenched with guilt and shame. “I don’t know how much that is. But… it’s my offer.”
I turned my back to the mannequins, and breathed in, stepping forward. I heard a soft commotion behind me as I walked forward, but no sudden, violent pain or death. Maybe it was because the rest of them were scared. Maybe the scarred one had been a ringleader. Maybe it was just because I had Mannfred and Dolly with me, and they were vouching for me. The mannequins weren’t explaining a damn thing.
The darkness grew intense as I walked, but there was a soft luminescence coming from a string of lights leading along. I followed them as best as I could. I looked back occasionally to make sure everyone was keeping up with me. The mannequins had gathered up the broken remains, carrying slashed and maimed companions as best as they could.
I felt something wet under my fingers. I looked down, and saw water dripping off them. I looked up, and could hear the distant tap of rain against rock. I felt like crying with relief. We were almost out of this place. I didn’t know what the next step was. Running, probably forever. There was an entire world, there had to be room enough for me to get away from Stacy.
Light broke through. Soft, gray light, but beautiful. A low, sloping tunnel out of a cave mouth. I broke out into the light, and sighed with relief. I stood in the melancholy, rainy day, puddles of water gathering around my feet as I walked onto the green, half-drowned grass. It was curious, but despite the constant rain, the grass seemed as healthy as ever.
I turned, and saw the mannequins frozen in a tableau of evacuation, spreading out around the cave mouth. I blinked, and frowned. More had emerged from the cave, but the rest hadn’t spread out. They were still bunched in tight quarters around the entrance. My stomach dropped as I looked up.
Perched on top of the cave mouth, her rifle in hand, Stacy smiled. “Killing field, hmmm? How’s it feel, Jesus, leading your flock to the slaughter?”
“Really?” I said, softly. “I just want to go, now, Stacy. I just want to leave.”
“You killed my world,” she said, softly. “You don’t just get to leave.”
Dolly stood in front of me, her shoulders hunched, her back to Stacy. I reached out to her, resting my hand on hers. I took the gun she was holding out to me, and raised it, pointing it at Stacy.
“Really? Last woman on earth, and you’d kill me to protect a bunch of statues?” She smiled.
“I don’t want to. I really don’t.” Then her gun was pointed at me. “Please, Stacy. Just let us go.”
“You didn’t think there wouldn’t be consequences for killing everyone, did you? They’re not real. They’re just an echo. Humanity’s dead.” She chuckled softly. “Love is love, not fade away,” she singsonged, her eyes empty and gray, before continuing in a normal tone. “You fucking monster.”
The rain fell all around us. She stared down at me. I stared up at her. Thunder crashed, cacophonously, and I closed my eyes, dropping the gun. When I opened them again, she had settled the rifle on her lap.
“What was wrong with us?” she asked, softly. “Why did we survive?”
“I don’t know,” I said, softly. Then I frowned. “Please. Why do you have to hurt them?”
“It feels good,” she said, softly. “Lets me forget that the world’s dead.”
“You know,” said a third voice, soft, and gentle, “I am always amazed by how the apocalypse can bring out the best in people.”
The two of us turned, as one, and stared. A woman stood there, who definitely hadn’t been there before. She was dressed in a white robe that exposed her bare shoulders. A tear-drop tattoo was visible in black ink on dark skin. Her hair was long and dark and delicate, and her eyes a shade of blue as light and soft as Stacy’s were dark and hard. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“The world that left you behind.” She sighed, looking between the two of us. “Thank goodness I finally found you. I really thought for a moment that you would shoot each other. You,” she said, gesturing towards me, “I was on the fence about. You,” she said, nodding now to Stacy, “I was sure would shoot him. What made you change your mind?”
“I missed,” said Stacy, shrugging. “It’s raining. Aim’s bad.”
“What?!” I said, staring up at her.
“Well, you didn’t shoot me, so I would’ve felt really like an asshole to take a second shot!” she said, glaring at me. “Fucking dollfucker!”
“What is this?!” I said, my voice edging towards hysteria. “What the fuck was all of this?!”
“Aaaah. Are you familiar with quantum immortality?” asked the woman in the white robe, her head tilted, smiling a bit.
“Yeah,” I said, as Stacy said “No.”
“Pseudoscience,” I continued. “The idea that you can’t die, because in every world where you would die, your consciousness escapes to another where you won’t. The many worlds hypothesis turned into a feel-good immortality. Bullshit.”
“The universe doesn’t work like that. Mostly,” said the dark-skinned woman. “There’s not enough ‘room’ for endless worlds. But, well. There is enough room for there to be… splits. At moments that matter. At moments that shape the world.” She sighed softly. “Humans have such a drive to survive. It’s one of the few things that give me hope. Every time the apocalypse looms, every time it threatens, someone stands up. And so often, so very, very often… They die in the process. All those heroes we forget about, dying to save the world. But they don’t die that easily. Sometimes, in a rare few cases, they get pulled along into that other world.”
“That’s… What are you saying?” I asked, frowning.
“It was a lost god, you see, that did this. Ripped the humanity from the world, tore people’s souls to shreds and left them mindless dolls. You two got mixed up in it. Wound up meeting. You fought the thing, stopped it. You died in the process, giving up your lives to prevent this. The only way you could have survived was to not get involved in the first place.” She waved her hand. “Thus, this world, and the two humans left in it. A world that you inhabit only because you were so desperate to survive that you would find yourself in an empty world rather than die. And without humans, a festering wound in the spiritual landscape.” She held out a hand, cupped, and rain filled it, reflecting the gray sky.
“And who the hell are you?” asked Stacy.
“My name is Heather. I bury such wounds beneath water. Leave them encased in a never-ending sea, to hide what happened there, so no lost god can fester here, and grow strong enough to threaten the world again. I will confess, I didn’t expect you to be trapped here. It was the radio broadcast that clued me in. I’m glad it did, but it was still a damned challenge to track you down before you killed each other.” She sighed. “The human instinct for self-destruction is almost as strong as the one for self-preservation.”
“They’re still alive?” said Stacy, her voice soft, tears running down her cheeks- Or maybe it was just the rain. It was hard to tell. “My father? Everyone? They’re not dead?”
“Can we go back?”
“Of course,” said the woman, her eyes soft, compassionate. “Why would I deny you that?”
“But- We died.”
“It was not the same person. The man and woman who died made the choice that lead to their death. You are not really the same person. But…” She sighed. “There may be some consequence. I’ll be damned if I know. This is the first time I’ve found anyone on one of these worlds. There might be others, in the worlds I drowned, held in a stasis below the endless waves. But I wouldn’t know how to find them. I can at least save you.” She chuckled. “Starfish on a beach.” She waved a hand, and then, Stacy was gone.
“She killed people.”
“The mannequins were not, are not, people,” said Heather, her voice soft, compassionate.
“How can you know that?” I asked, my voice growing heated, fist clenching. “The things they did-“
“They have no soul. No essence. They are inanimate objects. They were only what you and Stacy expected of them. To you, faces in a crowd. To her, tormentors and victims. They were not really people.” She looked aside, at Dolly, and Mannfred. “Well. Not until you made them into people.”
“Don’t ask me how it works. It’s the nature of humanity’s mad, beautiful world. And in a world so empty of people, that regard you had for them does quite a bit of work. Give it, oh, perhaps a year, and they could become people. Unfortunately, this world does not have a year. It will fall below the waves, soon. I could return you to your world, but… Well, you are not a remarkable person, I fear.” She stepped closer, and rested a hand on my shoulder. It was gentle, comforting. Like I had sometimes dreamed a mother’s touch was supposed to be. “I am sorry. They would never become people, there.”
“You said there were other people, stuck in these worlds.”
“I assume,” she said, smiling apologetically.
“So… What if I could help? If I could… search for them, for you? With Mannfred, and Dolly? I could… I don’t know. Is there something I could do?”
She frowned. “You don’t want to go home?”
“There was no one for me, there. Nothing. Just an empty life, just a lot of… nothing.” I chuckled. “She said that I was happier in this world. Stacy, that is. Maybe she was right.”
“Mmmm. I suppose I could offer you such a thing.” She rested her hand on her chin. “You’re taking on an impossible task. Do you know how many times the world has ended? Do you know how many times it has come within a hairsbreadth of apocalypse? It’s something I am intimately aware of. More than any of my Sisters,” she said, and the capital S was easy to hear.
“It’s not like I was doing anything worthwhile with my life. I can quit, right?”
“Then… why not? I’d like to see those worlds. See what remains of them. And… maybe, I can help some people.”
“Well. That is… noble of you. I’d say surprisingly so, but I knew that you had it in you.” She looked at the mannequins. “They aren’t anything more than what you put into them, you know.”
“I know. It might seem a little pathetic-“
“It’s like me,” she said, and there was a brightness in her voice. “I think I was nothing, until humans thought something more of me. There’s something sweet in that. Something I… miss, I suppose. Yes, I’d love to see you go.” She paused for a moment, and frowned at me. “You won’t become famous for this, you know. As far as most people are concerned, the world has never ended. Even among those who know of the truth… What you’re doing is little more than a drop in the bucket of the work of saving the world.”
“Yeah, but it’s important, right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, and smiled ruefully. “Not all of them will have a place to return to.”
“Yeah, but they’ll have some sort of choice, and…” My eyes went to Dolly, and Mannfred. “They’ll be able to come with me, right?”
“They wouldn’t exist outside of this world. Not as they are.”
I lowered my head.
“Does that change your mind?”
“No. It’ll still be lonely, but… It’d be worse to go back home. At least I can do something worthwhile, here.”
Heather watched me, as I lifted my head again. Her expression was bemused, her head tilted to one side.
“Which one of them?”
“Which one of them would you choose?”
“I-“ I looked at the two of them. “You can do something?”
“Yes. Which one?”
I opened my mouth, and closed it. “I-“
“I’m fucking with you. I can make both of them people.” She grinned at me. “You’re willing to help me with a task that has been… Well, mine, and mine alone. Soothing my conscience, a task that is far greater than you could imagine. You’re getting into a terrible trouble, Patrick. Such things deserve to be rewarded. And I admire any man who, wounded by the world, given intense and deep pain, can use it as a source of strength. Thank you.” She stepped close to me, and gave me a soft kiss on the cheek. Her lips were warm and soft.
I felt it, then. The flow, the branches. The many worlds she had drowned. Their number staggered me, made my heart clench in fear. All of the drowned Earths, all of the time that the world had narrowly avoided catastrophe, growing ever more numerous as my mind approached the present.
More than hundreds. More than thousands. The task was staggering in its enormity. But I thought I could feel something. I frowned. “Three more people on this world.”
“Really?” said Heather, her head tilted to one side, eyes curious. “I didn’t even know. But then, that is why I share those powers. I certainly don’t know anything.” She smiled. “You can feel the way to walk between worlds?”
“I think so.” I reached out, feeling it like sliding my hand into a river’s current. Turn it the right way, and… it’d be easy. “Thank you. Is Stacy…”
“She was under a great deal of pressure, arriving here. Too much television. An episode of Doctor Who that had a rather… serious effect on her, when she was only ten. It’s a shame what parents let their children watch.” She smiled. “She’ll be damaged. But I think she deserves a second chance. Don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Humans aren’t really my thing.”
“Of course,” said Heather, and she chuckled. “Good luck.” Then, she was gone.
I felt a soft, warm hand rest on my shoulder, squeezing it gently. And a voice I’d never heard before, a young woman’s voice, said, “Patrick?”