While godly resilience had kept Ryan alive, it did not prevent every single muscle in his body from being in pain when he woke up to a faint buzzing sound. He supposed he should be grateful – after being ragdolled around a parking lot, even if he wasn’t dead he probably should have broken every bone in his body. But at the moment, any feelings of gratitude were washed away by agony.
Groaning, he rolled over on his side in the silver bed. Across the room, there was another bed. In it lay Crystal.
Some people were just angelic when they slept. Hair perfectly falling around their faces, small smiles playing upon their lips, cuddled under the blankets.
Crystal was not one of those people. She was sprawled out on the bed, one hand flopped over the side. Her hair was a messy hazel halo, and her mouth hung open. That faint buzzing sound had been her breaths, not quite loud enough to qualify for a full snore but far too loud to qualify for any word more dignified.
There was a paper laying on the bed next to her, with a note on it. The ink had been slightly smudged by what was probably spittle.
If you’re up before me, check my arms. If the wounds are gone, wake me. If not, bloody let me sleep and get yourself some food from the fridge.
Ryan did check her arms, and the wounds were mostly gone. The flesh was still pink and puffy, scarred from where the chains had punched through flesh and bone. Ryan decided to let her sleep for a bit longer just to make things were fully healed up, and walked over to a silver box that definitely hadn’t been there before.
In the box was a variety of sandwiches in individually wrapped bags, labeled. Salami. Pastrami. Roast Beef Don’t Eat This One You Wanker. Turkey. Ryan grabbed the Pastrami and took a few bites. It occurred to him that this was the first time in his life that he’d ever been alone. Sure, Crystal was there, as the gentle buzzsaw reminded him, but she was asleep. No one was looking at him, no one was watching him.
It was a terrifying relief. On the one hand, the idea of being fully alone had always fascinated him. It had sounded wonderful in theory, but in practice, he’d always had the ability to make eye contact with a silent watcher. Not having that comfort was like walking a tightrope but the safety net was gone and had been replaced with a tank of boiling acid full of sharks that could survive acid and heat. And he didn’t have a gas mask.
The constant buzzing provided a degree of comfort, a reminder that there was another person there.
Ryan absentmindedly reached in and grabbed another, checking to make sure it wasn’t the Roast Beef Don’t Eat This One You Wanker. It occurred to him that, aside from passing out a few times, he hadn’t need to sleep, eat, or use the restroom since he’d stared into the nanoverse, and hadn’t seen Crystal do any of those prior to this either. Do I not need to anymore? Or I just need to do it less frequently? Now that he was eating, it felt good – felt great, really – but there hadn’t been any hunger or weakness without it.
Crystal stirred on the bed, looking up at him. Her hair had somehow gotten even messier in the process. “That better not be my bloody roast beef,” she said.
He smiled. “No, it’s not. How’re you feeling.” “Like I got stabbed in the arms and legs by some prick. Oh, wait, that’s what happened.” She got out of bed and walked over to the fridge, grabbing the sandwich. “Clever play, breaking me free like that. So, that was your first taste of gods clashing. What’d you think?”
Ryan chuckled. “It hurt. But it didn’t feel very divine. Aside from the chains and the dragging and a lightning bolt, it was mostly just…punching.”
She took a bite out of the sandwich and let out a happy little moan. “That’s the way it usually goes, love. We save the power for the big plays or the drama. Most fights between us really comes down to who tried out first, yeah?”
After a moment’s thought, Ryan nodded. “That’s why Enki waited till I was stopping the tornado to attack.”
A nod from Crystal as she took another bite. “Pretty much. Even with you being nascent, two on one aren’t great odds, even for a powerhouse like Enki. Same reason he forced me to hold back the tornado, even as he pushed it down. Much more effort on my part.”
He tilted his head. “No, don’t tell me. Because…” he finished his own sandwich to give himself time to think. “The storm wanted to form a tornado. That was where it was headed. So it’s harder to make it go against that because it’s not just pushing against Enki, but pushing against what the storm was already doing.”
She beamed at him. “Hole in one, love. You’ve almost got a first grade understanding of how we work going on there.” The tone was teasing, but Ryan still felt his ego deflate some with that. She patted him on the cheek. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you there.”
“In time to end the world?”
The patting stopped, but she kept her hand there. “Yeah. That’s about the long and short of it.” Her voice was sad. “But don’t worry – we’re not gonna kill everyone. We’ll figure out another option.”
He stared at her a moment. “Why? What happens if the world doesn’t end?”
She pulled her hand away slowly, letting it rest on her chest. “I told you, Ryan. The world dies.”
“Crystal.” His voice was hoarse. “Please, I need more than that.”
She looked up at him. “If you don’t, the sun expands into a red giant. The end of the world is a sacrifice that resets the sun’s life.”
He blinked at her. “But…that’s what the sun’s going to do in five billion years anyway.”
That at least got a sad laugh out of her. “True. And the sun going red giant has been five billion years away for about eight billion years now. Which means if we don’t do it, those five billion years come due plus three billion years of interest. It’ll probably go supernova right away.” She looked into his eyes and chuckled slightly. “Told you it was best to roll with it, love.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand. What about the rest of the stars? Wouldn’t we be able to tell?”
“No. Earth isn’t all that special. Happens on other worlds across the universe all the damn time, keeping the whole thing young. Can you leave it at that?”
“I…okay, yeah.” He could feel a headache coming on. “But how can you be sure?”
She finally looked away from him, but he didn’t take her hand off his chest “Because it almost happened. Last time. We…thought we could break the rules. It didn’t work. Barely did the reset before the world exploded.”
She nodded, and when she turned back to him, her eyes were wet. “That’s the thing, love. I wasted my time trying to stop it, and so the only way to save the bloody world was to go fast, brutal. We couldn’t save anyone. But we have more time, you and I, and I’m not…I’m not going to let you repeat my mistake, yeah? We’re going to find a better way, a way to end it without killing everyone.”
“No. Ryan. No buts.” The moisture in her eyes was beginning to spill over and out. “I was the bloody Eschaton. I know how badly buts go. So please, please, don’t try and not end it. Find a better way.”
Ryan took a deep breath. “Okay. Crystal, I promise.”
She sighed with relief and finally stepped away from him. “I must look a right mess, yeah? Let me freshen up.” She walked and a curtain of silver rose around her.
“One problem,” he said, unintentionally adopting the raised toned used to speak to someone in the shower. “We’re not going to get a damn thing done with Enki breathing down our neck like that.”
“I was thinking about that while I was trying to get to sleep. We need to call up the other gods. Enki will be back up to full strength.” Her voice echoed on the silver curtain. “And you’ve got some tricks, but you’re still Nascent, and I don’t like my odds one on one against him.”
“There’s more out there?”
“Oh, of course. Where do you think all the bloody myths and legends come from? I’m done back here, you want a go?” She stepped out from behind the curtain. Her hair was impeccable, her clothing new and fresh, and makeup had even been applied.
“Uh…sure.” He stepped behind the curtain. Light began to play over his body. “So how do we call them up? Do you guys have phone numbers or something?”
She laughed outside the curtain. “Hardly. Only one group can contact them all in time – the Curators.”
“Any chance they won’t help Enki?”
“Nope. They’re neutral as all else. Nice thought though.”
He stepped out from behind the curtain. He felt cleaner, neater, and his hair was also untangled. “Hey, any chance this thing can cut my hair off? After what happened last time, I think I’d like to drop from six inches to a nice buzz cut or something.”
She nodded, touching a few buttons. “Step back there, I’ve got you.”
A few moments later, his hair had been trimmed short. He ran his hand over his head. “Feels weird. So we contact the Curators and see what allies we can get for this?”
Crystal nodded, giving him an approving look. “Yeah. I’ll set a course for their home base, yeah? We’ll be there in a couple hours.”
Ryan nodded. “So what do we do until-”
She stepped forward suddenly, surprising him as her hand went up to his cheek, and she went on her toes so that her lips met his.
“I think we can find a way to pass the time, yeah?” She said, breaking the kiss with a smile.
“I…but Crystal, wh-”
She kissed him again, cutting off his confusion. When she broke the kiss again, she was grinning ever wider. “Ryan, love? Just roll with it.”
And, for once without reservation, he did.