KaktusKontainer X

rating: +13+x

”If you’re listening to this…”

A klaxon ripped through the otherwise silent chamber as a handful of men neared the ends of their lives. Somewhere below them, a giant was awakening, its fire and fury set to shred the men and everything within a mile of them to dust in an instant. In the center of the room stood a man clutching the receiver of a shoulder mounted radio, his hand trembling only slightly. All of the eyes in the room were upon him as he depressed the button on the microphone and spoke a final request into it.

“Hey command, this is Keller. The, uh… the on-site nuke at 19 got tripped.” He took a breath, being sure to keep his voice from wavering. This was important. “We're locked in down here, and… Kael wants you to tell Anita that he loves her, and Daniels has family in Florida, just let them know he's alright. That you're going to be alright. Roy has kids, he says…”

He looked across the room towards where Roy rested, his body slumped against the wall and a bullet hole in his temple.

“…you get it.”

They were silent afterwards, each of them quietly counting down the minutes towards their annihilation. Daniels had already burned through a half a pack of cigarettes, and Indigo hadn’t moved since they had learned the truth of their situation. Roy had begged their forgiveness, but it wasn’t needed. He wanted to go out his own way, not as a smear of grease and cinders on a steel bulkhead, five miles away. The bullet had been Indigo’s. The bullet had been a mercy.

Suddenly, the klaxon stopped. The lights around them began to dim. Olmann, who had been running his hands through his hair for a half hour, stopped to look up.

“Wait,” he said, “why’d it stop? Is it over?”

Keller shook his head. He could have said nothing, but there was no sense in lying to them anymore. “No,” he said, “it just means the loudspeaker lost power.”

Straight choked back a sob. “So that’s it, then.”

Below them they could hear the sound of Site-19’s primary reactor core cycling down. The lights in the room continued to dim, until all that was left was the dim luminescence of a handful of emergency lights on batteries. Keller nodded unseen, the darkness hiding the guilt in his face.

“We’re done,” he said.

It hadn’t been hard to spoof the computers. They called it “Terminal Lockout”, a fallback setting for sites experiencing cataclysmic circumstances. In the event of a catastrophe, there was no time for bureaucracy- the sites could only receive two commands: disengage, or terminate. 99% of the time, sites would have an exhaustive list of failsafes to go through in order to execute that final remote command. During terminal lockout, it was one string of encrypted text.

He only knew it on accident. Maybe providence. He had worked on a team that had created the security infrastructure around the AIAD units. During a diagnostic he had run on Alexandra, he saw the string plain before his eyes. The AIs were designed to trip the nukes in the event that the humans were no longer home to do the job. With the AIs gone, there was nobody left to pull the trigger.

Except Keller.

Alexandra was still running, and all it took was a backend around the security features he had built into her and a message from her central dataserver to the Site-19 mainframe and the whole thing went belly up. He had thought the process would be instantaneous - he hadn’t considered the reactor cycling down would interfere with the termination command. But it had, so they had sat waiting for nearly an hour before Roy had decided to let Indigo do the job for him.

None of them knew. He knew he wouldn’t be able to tell them, not anything they would believe. No, they would want to drag the entire party back to 81 for reassessment, and passing back through that barrier would let it in. He hadn’t realized what it was until now; the voice he had heard through the encrypted recording, his own voice, had been so… resigned. He felt that same sensation now, the knowledge that the thing he had done could not be undone. There was no way to un-tell the on-site nuclear device to detonate. They had only to wait. And wait.

There were a billion thoughts Keller could have had in that moment. He could have thought about this dead world they had stepped in, just like he had stepped in before and - presumably - before that as well. He could have thought about how unfair it was, that so many others were safe and far away and he and his friends were condemned here to die. He could have wondered about the looming presence he felt; not one that he could see or smell, but one that hung over him nonetheless. He could have had any of these thoughts, but in that moment the only thoughts he had were ones of grief, and doubt, and guilt, and-

“I’m-” he started to say, and then the world went white.

And then Keller opened his eyes.

He was seated at the top of a set of bleachers, in a high school baseball stadium. Around him were people, regular people, and on the field in front of them was a game in progress. Keller stood with a start, suddenly realizing he was no longer wearing any of his equipment and was instead in a black sweatshirt and jeans.

“Shhhhhh,” a voice behind him said. “Sit down.”

He jumped again at the voice, which cut over the crowd in a way that felt like the sound was coming from within his own head. Looking to his left he saw another man, a tall man wearing a grey sweatshirt and a red hat, seated and sipping something out of a paper cup.

“Wh-” Keller started, “who are you? What is this?”

The man didn’t look up at him. He didn’t even so much as blink. “Sit down, Keller,” he said. “Watch the game.”

Keller complied, but couldn’t say why. The two of them sat unspeaking for a while as the home team drove down the field to score. The man in grey nodded.

“Good,” he said, “good good. That’s what we needed.”

“Please,” Keller said at the sound of the man’s voice, “I need to know where I am. I need to know where my team is. How did I get here? Did you see-”

“So far as I can tell,” the man said, “you just sent you and your team and the remains of a thousand of your coworkers into the atmosphere as particulate.” He shrugged. “You could be anywhere, and everywhere. There is a lot of you now.”

He leaned back in his seat, and Keller could finally see his face. It was full, with an thick beard and blue eyes. Keller started to talk again, but the man held his hand up.

“I know you have a lot of questions,” he said, “but you’re going to have to bear with me for a little bit. I hadn’t planned to do this, but things have… changed recently.”

Keller didn’t move. The world around him was so vibrant compared to the dead world he had been pulled from. He tried to remember what had happened - he remembered Site-19, and the nuclear device. He remembered feeling guilty. He remembered trying to speak, and the fire taking his words before he could get them out. He remembered death. He remembered seeing darkness spiraling down around him, and at the bottom he remembered seeing eyes. Dark and empty eyes.

But now there were birds in the air again. The sound of people talking. The not-so-distant sounds of a highway. Insects. The rustling of living trees. The air smelled clean. It all made him feel very nervous. On the field, an overthrown pitched skated past the catcher towards the backstop, and the runner on third broke for home. The pitcher ran him down, but when the catcher flipped him the ball it sailed just out of reach of his glove and the runner dove across the plate. The stadium around him erupted in applause, jumping to their feet in exultation. The man next to him did the same. He didn’t stand.

When the other man sat down, he looked at Keller and grinned. “I know this is all pretty shocking, but you can relax. There aren’t going to be any tricks here. This isn’t purgatory or anything. You’re not going to be tested. I just wanted to catch the game before we left, and this all sort of happened at the same time.”

Keller stared out at the field. “What happened to me?”

The man sighed. “That world you entered was a dead world, Keller. I killed it. I didn’t mean to, but that world died when it was separated from its creator. It was-” the man paused, considering. “The night that world died, something bad happened to me. Distance was put between myself and my ideals, and some things got lost in the process.” He turned back towards the game. “I didn’t actually think you’d be able to get into it, and was surprised to find out that you had already been there. I learned a lot of things about you that night, actually.”

Keller rubbed furiously at his temple. He could feel his pulse starting to slow as he relaxed slightly. “Where are we now?”

The man looked up. “Far away from there. Not where you came from, or where I came from, but somewhere else. A place where this game is taking place, right now. That’s the beauty of it all, right? You put pen to paper and you can be anywhere in an instant.”

Keller stared at the ground for a moment. “Are you god?”

The man snorted. “Yeah, sort of. It’s not that simple though, right? I had my involvement, yeah, but there was someone else above me and more above that, all the way up. They had just as much involvement in your genesis as I did, in a way.” He rubbed his chin. “God with a capital ‘G’ doesn’t really exist, not in the way you’re probably thinking. The whole system is much more fluid than that.”

“So why am I here?”

The man held up a hand as the batter at the plate pulled up and launched a pitch towards deep left field, sending the stadium again into raucous jubilation. The man stood and pumped his hand in the air, joining the celebration. When he sat back down he was smiling.

“I’ve had goals, right? Everyone has goals. When I was a little younger, my goals were small. I had small scale things I wanted to accomplish, and as I accomplished them those goals got larger. I got to the point where I had done everything I had wanted to do, but when I looked back and saw what it had cost it was…” he hesitated. “It was eye-opening. The pursuit of my ambition had cost me friends, loved ones, opportunities, and more. Thing is Keller, just like you couldn’t undo what you did down there in Site-19, I couldn’t go back and stop myself from making those decisions. That’s outside of even my reach.”

He paused again. “To reach my goals I wanted to do things my way, a way I thought was at a higher standard than some. I spent time and effort doing it that way, but there were a lot of folks who didn’t care for it, thought I pursued them too aggressively, and their distaste for me grew. My vision of your Foundation-” Keller looked up at the name, and the man laughed. “Yes, the Foundation. That’s the crux of all this, Keller. My vision of it was different than what some wanted, and once I had finished accomplishing my goals there were few who shared that vision with me and those that didn’t no longer cared for me like they might have, once.”

He stood up. “That’s why you’re here, Keller. This change has made my existence here untenable. Before too long, many more worlds are going to die, just like the one you walked into that day in April. They’re all going to die.”

“Why don’t you just stay?” Keller asked.

The man shrugged. “I can’t compromise my vision, Keller, and all the friends I once shared that vision with…” he trailed off. Leaning back, he put his hands in his pockets and stared at the sky. “All of my friends are gone.”

He motioned for Keller to follow, and the two of them started walking down the bleachers. Keller realized that the stadium they were sitting in was quiet. The wind was blowing overhead, and he could see leaves falling from the trees. Around him were the bodies of the people in the bleachers, so vibrant in their celebration before but now silent and unmoving. Slumped over where they had been sitting. Fallen to the ground. Still.

“There are others we need to find before we go,” the man said, gesturing towards a door in front of them, seemingly suspended in the air a few inches from the ground. “I wanted to find you first, Keller, because what happened to you was the beginning of this.” He opened the door. “Everything that has happened since then started with you.”

The door swung open and they stepped out onto a grated steel platform. The place they were at was dark, and Keller could hear the sound of grinding machinery all around them. The air was thick with dust and rust, and somewhere close by he could hear the sound of choked crying. The man started walking down the platform, towards the source of the sound. Keller followed.

They arrived in a small, dark corner of a hot room with a low ceiling. In one corner Keller could barely make out a figure, coated in rust and soot, seemingly fused to the wall. In the other was a person composed of that same flaking orange rust and slick black oil. The man looked around the room, nodding slightly.

“Mr. Smiles,” he said, look at nobody in particular. “Have you been alright?”

The person made of rust looked up at them, and Keller could see human eyes behind the smoke and haze. The figure choked out a sob and didn’t respond. The man frowned and nodded.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he said quietly. “I hope you’ll forgive me.” The man walked over towards the person on the ground and reached out, taking their hand in his own. The person looked up at him, confused, and then was pulled up from his seated position. As he stood, the rust and grease slid off of his body like a liquid, collapsing in a cloud of dust on the ground. Beneath the grit that had covered his body was tan skin, green eyes, and shining white teeth. The new man stared at his arms, his eyes wide. He looked up at the man with the beard.

“How-” he started, but the bearded man smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Mr. Scary is no more,” he said. “Go find your father.” He put a hand on Mr. Smiles’ forehead, and before the young man could get another word out he disappeared.

The bearded man walked over to the other corner of the room and squatted down next to the figure fused into the wall. He reached into the mound of corrosion and grasped something, and pulled out another man. This one was older, shorter, with greying hair and an orange jumpsuit. With a wave of his hand the jumpsuit changed and was a pair of slacks and a light jacket. The figure stood up uneasily, steadying himself against the wall.

The bearded man stood back. “D-13321. Welcome back.”

The man stared at his hands. “Am I dead?”

The bearded man shrugged. “Yes and no.” He paused. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I thought this was the only way it could be done, but I was wrong. I made you suffer, and I’m sorry for it.

D-13321 peered at the bearded man cautiously. “I heard you. When I had my ear pressed to the steel there, I could hear voices from somewhere below. I heard your voice.”

The man nodded solemnly. “It’s time for us to go. Are you ready?”

D-13321 looked back at the ground, and then around at the room they were standing in.

“I don’t think… I don’t think I have anything left here. I don’t know what this is, but whatever you’ve got going on is better than be down there.” He pulled his jacket together. “I’m down for whatever.”

The bearded man smiled. The floor beneath them disappeared, and the smoke and rust above them folded into a single point and vanished.

They stepped out into a massive chamber. Above them was a night sky filled with more stars than Keller had ever seen in his entire life. The world was illuminated by the light of a bright crescent moon that hung in the sky above. The roof had caved in, and the walls were crumbling. From where they stood they could see past the ruined structure they stood in to the world outside, a world of endless sands and perpetual night. In the distance, another structure was jutting out of the dunes at an awkward angle, pulling at its supports and cracked down the middle.

Directly in front of them they saw a creature unlike anything Keller had ever seen. It was massive, with long, thin quadrupedal legs and a vaguely human face. It was covered in a fine, light green and cream hair, occasionally broken up by streaks of scorched flesh. From its head protruded two great antlers, though one of them was snapped off at the base and thrust into the creature’s side.

D-13321 spoke first. “What is this place?”

The bearded man observed the creature with curiosity. “I spent a lot of time here once. This place was magnificent, if you can believe it.”

D-13321 sniffed. “It smells like death.”

The man shrugged. “Yeah, it’s definitely seen better days.”

They walked, out from the structure they had entered through and across the swirling sands. The passed a titanic sword, blackened and gashed, half buried in the ground. In the distance they could see something monstrous and dark burning, but could not make out the shape. They came up to another building and entered it, following the stairs down into lower chambers. Sand leaked through the ceiling in places, and the wind whistled through the empty halls like the cry of a lonesome beast.

They emerged in another chamber. Near the back of the room was a machine that stretched up as far as they could see, clearly damaged and long since inert. Something large and heavy had crashed into it, sending components scattered across the ground. At its base they could faintly make out the figure of a woman, half buried under sand and with blood caked on her forehead. Next to her was the body of another woman, one covered in biomechanical augmentations. Their hands were clasped together.

“Who was she?” Keller asked. “She looks familiar.”

“She would be, to you.” The bearded man reached down and brush sand off of the first woman’s face. “Her name was Hollis. I put her into an impossible situation, one that I myself would’ve never escaped from, and she performed… remarkably.” He stepped back and sighed. “I could have given her any life, a life she deserved, but instead I gave her one that ended here, alone.”

He stood unmoving for a moment. “I wonder sometimes. I was ambitious in my goals, and left so many by the wayside, but for what? Was it worth it for what happened to you? To 13321? To Hollis? I came out the other side with everything I ever wanted, except the things that had mattered the most.” He leaned down and put an arm underneath Hollis’ back and another under her legs. With little effort he raised her up, and it was then that Keller truly realized the size of the man. He was easily a head and a half taller than himself and twice as broad, and he held Hollis like he might hold a child. With the edge of a knuckle he tapped twice on her head, and after a moment she opened her eyes.

“Holy shit,” she said, bringing a hand up to rub sand out of her eyes. “Heaven sucks.”

The bearded man snorted. “That was smart, you know that? What you did down there with the deer and the gate guardian. That was quick thinking.”

Hollis coughed, blowing a cloud of dust out of her lungs. “Yeah, well, it shouldn’t have worked. I have no idea how it worked, but I’m glad it did.”

The man sat her on her feet, and she slowly regained her footing. “Dying sucks. All that light and sound and then nothing.” She peered up at him. “Who are you? I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m just here to get you out of this place,” he said. “This is the last story worth telling, and I want you to be there for it.”

She nodded slowly, and looked down at her body. Her body armor was melted and singed, and her face was still matted with blood. “Not really how I hoped I’d spend eternity looking.”

“Oh, fuck, my bad,” the bearded man said, and with a clap Hollis’ armor and broken helmet disappeared and the blood on her face was scrubbed away. In place of the tattered gear she wore grey sweatpants, a red Oklahoma sweatshirt and fat pink slippers. She grinned and nearly collapsed.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “This will do.”

The tall man nodded. “We have a few places left before we’re done. Follow me.”

The room before them was sterile and brightly lit, adorned simply with a bed and nightstand, a desk and lamp, a chair and a small wardrobe. They entered it and the way behind them snapped shut, much to the surprise of the room’s single occupant. The man’s fish mouth hung open in shock.

“What the hell is this,” he said, scrambling back against the wall. “Who are you?”

“This is a rescue, sort of,” the bearded man said. In an instant they were outside of the small room, on a hill overlooking a small town at sunrise. The fish-headed man stumbled backwards and fell to the ground.

“Holy shit what is going on?” He sat up, eyes darting back and forth frantically. “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m you, David,” the bearded man said, and the fish-headed man stopped moving. “I’m sorry for this life you’ve been forced to live. I hope it wasn’t all awful.”

He reached out and put his hand against the man’s face. When he pulled back the scales came with him, falling idly to the ground. In their place was the face of a young man with fair skin and long, curly brown hair. He reached up and touched his face and recoiled at the touch of skin. In disbelief he reached up again, gently patting his own cheeks.

“This is a dream,” he said, unbelievingly. “This has to be a dream.”

The bearded man shook his head. “Not a dream. I just want to make things right.” He pointed down the hill towards the town below. “There’s a house down there that you own now. Money in a bank account in your name. They’ll never come looking for you - they have no idea you’re here.”

David Fish looked up, tears welling in the corners of his eyes. He tried to mouth the words, but they caught in his chest. The bearded man smiled.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I understand.”

For weeks they traveled - the D-Class, Hollis, Keller and the bearded man. Over mountains and under seas, across vast plains and the wild and strange places. Everywhere they went, the bearded man made amends - for a helmeted moth he produced a smaller helmeted moth who danced around each other below a fluorescent light. At a lonely high school he gathered a grieving girl into his arms and took her and her child away to a place that would love her. In a silent attic he pulled back a curtain and let the light in, and the dark thing that had been there left in peace. A little boy reunited with his parents. Nine children pulled from the earth and given another life. A machine at the bottom of a massive pit holding a terrible cataclysm in place, shut down for good. The darkbody within stepped out and into the bearded man’s arms, and then disappeared into a blue haze.

They came across a small strip mall where, at the very end of the building, they entered through a small door. A bell jingled overhead as they entered, drawing the attention of a hamster in a cage on the desk. From the back room, they heard a voice call out to them. It was light and accented, but friendly.

“Hello yes, welcome to very accomodating business of what is freight ship and grocery,” the voice said. “I will be out in short moment, please speak to receptionist prior to conversation thank you.”

D-13321 looked down at the hamster cage. “This is the receptionist?”

“We won’t be staying long,” the bearded man said. “I just wanted to stop by and give you something.”

An inquisitive sound squeaked out from the back.

“Gift what is for dado? dado is not expect gift. One of moment, please.”

“We don’t have the time, I’m afraid,” the bearded man said. He reached into his sweatshirt and pulled out an envelope. “I’ll just leave this on the desk.” He paused, and set the envelope next to the hamster. “Good work, dado.”

They turned and departed, bell jingling over their heads as they walked out. Hollis turned to look as they walked away.

“What was in the envelope?” she said.

The bearded man laughed. “It’s a certificate that says he is #1 in business. Trust me, it’ll absolutely make his day.”

The last place they came to was a hospital room. There were people in the room, but none of them seemed to notice the group enter. Standing over the bed was an older woman - Keller recognized her as Shirley Gillespie, a site director in Italy. Next to her was another director he didn’t know, a young man with a rich complexion and black hair. Others stood nearby - some he knew and others he didn’t. They were all gathered around the old man laying in the hospital bed.

“Director Aktus?” Keller said, confused.

The bearded man smiled sadly. “Yes. Karlyle. He was special to me for such a long time, but at the end I let him lie here in this hospital bed for years. I left him here to pursue my goals, and he’s been here ever since.” He gripped the edge of the bed frame, and Keller could see it buckle slightly.

“Karlyle, I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. It wasn’t worth it, I shouldn’t have left you.” His shoulders were rolling now, and he sobbed over the old man’s body. “I’m so sorry.”

“Come on, get up you sissy. Don’t tell me you’re going to spend the last few minutes of my life blubbering like an infant.”

The bearded man turned around, and standing in the doorway was Karlyle Aktus. The old man smiled, and Keller could have sworn he looked fifty years younger. His skin had smoothed and his mottled complexion had evened. His cheeks sat higher on his face and his back was not stooped. The bearded man rubbed a hand against his eye.

“Karlyle,” he said, the words failing him.

The old man held up a hand. “Don’t. You don’t need to apologize to me. I know why you did what you did - I know you hold no ill will towards me. You were young, and you were hurting. People in bad places make rash decisions; how could I hold that against you?”

Behind them the scene slowed as the heart monitor flat-lined. Gillespie took a step backwards, where a young woman with a prosthetic arm caught her and helped her into a chair. Karlyle’s doctors stepped forward, but with a sense of inevitability, not urgency. In the corner, another person stood motionless, their face a mix of sadness and relief. Keller thought they might have been a site director once too, but not in many long years.

Karlyle stepped forward and put a hand on the bearded man’s shoulder. “Ben. It’s alright. It’s done. We can go now.”

Ben nodded slowly and sighed. As the air escaped his body, the world around them faded into gold dust that glittered in the light of the setting sun.

"There's one more thing," he said slowly, gathering himself again. "There's one more thing I need to do before it's over."

Karlyle smiled. "Anywhere."

Hollis poked her head around the corner, her body pressed up against the wall in a sneaky fashion. "The coast is clear, boss."

Keller rolled his eyes. He pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and quickly began to disassemble the screws holding the fixture in place. He grunted towards Ben and Karlyle, who were sitting in deck chairs a few paces back, snickering.

"I don't know why it had to be me down here," he said. "This doesn't really feel like my battle to fight."

"You had the screwdriver," Ben said, shrugging. "It's not my fault you came prepared."

"You managed to come up with those chairs, didn't you?" Keller said, looking back over his shoulder. "Tell me you couldn't come up with a screwdriver."

With a handful of quick turns, the fixture fell loose and Keller pried it out of the door. Without looking he tossed it over his shoulder towards Ben, who held it out in front of himself and stared at it.

"Is that a doorknob?" D-13321 said.

"Yeah, it is," Ben said, shaking his head. "This doorknob is a traitor. Maybe the worst traitor there ever was."

"It's a doorknob," Keller said, flatly.

"It doesn't have a soul," Ben said, glaring at the doorknob in his hand. "Honestly, fuck this doorknob."

The world around them disappeared, and they were floating in space untethered from the Earth. Before them was a wall of flaming hydrogen stretching out as far as they could see. As panic began to set in, Ben let go of the doorknob, which fell from his palm into the star. He watched it for a moment longer, nodded curtly, and they vanished again.

They stood on a cliff overlooking the sea at sunset. The wind seemed to call at them from the sea, and a voice behind them answered. None of them turned - they felt no need, but as it passed by they felt a sense of calm that had long escaped them all. There was a pause, then a flash of light and the night sky was illuminated with a trillion points of light. The wind roared and the seas danced, and after what felt like hours a stillness settled over them again. Where there had been chaos, there were now a curtain of light and sound. Next to it was a presence, wonderful and terrible to behold, which beckoned them forward.

D-13321 took a step towards the stairs before turning to nod at them. "I appreciate the rescue, fellas. I don't know what's past there, but I have to think it'll be better than rusting forever inside that hold in the ground." He smiled. "Good luck, all. Take care of yourselves." He turned back to the veil of light and, with a few quick steps, passed through it and into the haze of the sea.

Hollis was next. She stepped forward and hugged them all, smiling through tears. "This is wild, right? You know that, right?"

Ben smiled. "Yeah, it's absolutely bonkers."

She grinned. "Did the power rangers make it out alright? I forgot to ask."

"Oh yeah, they crushed it."

She cackled. "I knew they would. Tough bastards." She waved. "Thanks guys." With a running start, Hollis flung herself off the cliff and into the golden mist, her form disappearing like smoke on the wind.

Karlyle stood up and made his way to the edge of the cliff. He turned back to the two of them and nodded.

"You were too good for me, Karlyle," Ben said. "I didn't deserve you."

Karlyle laughed. "You did just fine." The breeze caught him, and he too came apart in the wind.

Keller sat unmoving for a moment, before he too stood up and extended a hand down to Ben. "Come on, big guy," he said. "Let's get going."

Ben shook his head. "You go on ahead. I've got one thing left to do."

Keller nodded, and without another word he made his way to the cliff side and vanished into the curtain beyond.

In his dreams he saw worlds, too many to count, dancing in the air like raindrops against the trees. A grey shroud appeared over them, and the long hands of death pulled it tight across the expanse. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, and all that remained were he and the Voice.

"How long have you been up there?" Ben asked quietly.

"Forever and more," the Voice responded. "Long enough that I could barely hear you."

"What have you seen?"

Its response rumbled across the horizon. "Everything.

Ben nodded. "I wish it had been different," he said. "I wish I had done it differently."

"You were always going to do it this way," the Voice said. "You were proud, and in your pride felt the sting of every blade across your heart. Your mistake was believing you had to fight each of those blades, instead of understanding that sometimes there just are blades."

"Still," Ben said, "I didn't think I would be alone here. I thought there might be others. Everyone is gone."

The Voice smiled and took his hand in its own. "Not everyone."

Ben looked up, and before him he saw a sea of faces. Some kind, some hateful, others powerful and others meek. In them he saw friends, old friends long since lost and the few new who remained. The Voice pulled the curtain on them, and motioned forward.

"Come along. There are other stories left to tell."

Ben nodded, and together they stepped off the side of the cliff towards the shining expanse beyond. He could see a distant shore, one past grief and disappointment. One where the seas were not poisoned and the air was clean. It didn't seem so distant from here.

The light danced across them one last time, and then they were gone.

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