It Takes Two
rating: +39+x

I lay on the hill and stare at the sky. The stars dance underneath the patchy clouds, casting no light above or below. I was on the committee that made the stars up. We had two days to figure out what they should look like, reconstructed from the shattered allusions and metaphors that remained. Did they look like eyes? Like glass? My proposal was for numerous suns, dimmed to a crystalline glow, close enough to see their ripples and motion across the sky. We chose Brandt's proposal: thin tendrils of elastic light. Occasionally they reassemble themselves into memetic triggers, self-reinforcing projections. I think that was what got it the greenlight in the first place. It certainly wasn't its aesthetic value. Did Brandt know that? Is that what I could see in the stars in his eyes?

"Why would he think my name was Jenkins?" I ask Annette. They are laying next to me, finishing a protein bar. I have already eaten, though I have already forgotten what. "We don't even have a Jenkins in the memetics department."

I KNOW.

They're more relaxed now, out of the site. We walked for one or two hours towards the city, me complaining the whole way. Finally they agreed we had gone far enough from the danger for the night. Now they are taking their time with their messages: full words, punctuation, little pauses in between words or for emphasis. I have never seen them like this, but it makes sense. Communication cannot be purely functional; it must have some art to it. Annette must compensate in other ways.

I DONT THINK HE CARED.

"I cared, though. I can't believe he didn't recognize his favorite employee!"

WHO WAS THAT?

I sigh. Beside me Annette gives a raspy cough.

Another day. We walk again. To keep busy I start assembling the deconditioner, piece by piece. If I do it slowly, and never look at the final product, I'll be fine. It will end up bundled into a little box. It is opening the box that is the problem. I think Annette knows, but they haven't said anything. Why not? Do they even care that I'm going to die because of them? My head begins to ache. What's the use of a heroic sacrifice if no one sees it? I allow myself to imagine the moment—the box opened, the world fading away to black. Annette standing over me, the pain gone at last. My selfishness sickens me.

About halfway through the day we stop at a road that leads to the city. I collapse gracefully.

YOU WILL NOT MAKE IT UP THE HILL.

Annette points beyond the city, to the hill. "No," I gasp. "God no."

WE WILL GET A CAR IN THE CITY.

Practically a novel for Annette. I continue to pant on the ground. Annette rolls their eyes at me, I swear. I don't know where they picked that up.

I WILL GET A CAR IN THE CITY.

"Thank you Annette."

YES.

And then they're gone, running off like a cheetah. The pain returns. I can feel tears leaking from my eyes. I allow myself another fantasy of blackness closing in. I shut my eyes and see stars.

Annette is shaking me. I sit up, bleary-eyed.

"Is someone here? Is something wrong?"

Annette hooks a thumb over their shoulder. I follow it and see nothing. I look around and, behind me, see a car, slightly used.

"Borrowed?"

STOLEN.

In the car now. The road is empty, even this close to the city.

"Who is this for?" I ask, looking out the window.

NOW YOU ASK?

"I had assumed it was an O5," I say.

YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT ASSUMING.

Another long one. "I'm surprised you know," I say.

ENGLISH IS MY NATIVE TONGUE.

I blink. Annette gives a long rasping cough. Finally I realize they are laughing. I laugh too. The laughter cuts off.

ELIZABETH WILLIAMS. DID YOU MEET HER?

I close my eyes and lean back. "I don't think so. Not a memeticist?"

NEVER. APPLIED TOPOLOGY.

"No, I never had much reason to." I open one eye. "What's she to you?"

WHAT IS IT TO YOU?

I let my eyebrows shoot up and close my eye again. "I see."

I feel like an intruder on these roads. They should be congested. There should be people living under the overpasses. There is no one. The roads haven't had time to decay yet; when the end finally comes, I imagine it will happen bit by bit, as little plants and shoots probe for cracks in the surface. Will gravel be left, in little strips? My headache has gotten worse. I can feel something stressed, deep in my head. Some girder or platform that is bearing more weight than it should. Little creaks. I think things are getting too bad. Already the surroundings are less clear, less vivid. I try to think back to where I slept earlier. Can I remember anything about it? What was there? I don't know. I look over. Annette is as solid as ever, at least. Black combat fatigues. Little black disc on wrist. Clear glass eyes. In a week, maybe two, they will be the only thing left.

Entering the city. There are people here, now. They just appeared, in the space between moments. Everyone is out today. There is lots of light, all of a sudden. I don't remember there being so much light before.

Everyone is in threes. Sometimes two men sandwiching a woman, sometimes two women sandwiching a man, sometimes no order at all. The shapes of the people are vague; I find my eyes sliding off of them, and my headache keeps ratcheting up in intensity, bit by bit by bit. The road is choked with abandoned cars. The walkers don't ignore themdon't even notice themand walk over and around them in ways that hurt my eyes to trace. My headache has turned into a screaming migraine. Inside one of the cars I can see still blurs.

Annette tries to nudge the car through.

WE HAVE TO WALK.

I nod. I can feel sweat pouring off my face.

We get out of the car. I can't feel any attention from the blurs. That's good. I stagger a few steps and start to fall before Annette catches me. We can make it a few blocks if I lean on her shoulder. I don't know if that will be enough. Every step feels like it's taking more and more out of me. I want to throw up. I want to lay down. I'm thirsty. My headache is worse. We continue. We continue.

I am on the ground. A blur is above me now. They stretch down an arm and say something. I do not understand them. They appear to be modulating in and out of English. They speak again. Where is Annette? I haul myself to my feet. A weight falls on my shoulder.

—I just want you to know that if we never see each other, I love you very much.

Those are my own words. I thought that was a good idea, over a month ago. That even if the end came fast, there would be no regrets. Stupid. It was a stupid idea. My own words.

"Annette?"

I fall down again.

"Annette?"

Something strong grabs me around the armpits and I almost scream. I feel something on the end of their arm tap on my chest.

INSD

They haul me along the sidewalk, heels dragging. Not good for my nausea. I feel my heels catch once, twice, three times on something, and then we're inside. Annette drops me. I try to stand up and vomit.

The floor is cool and smooth. It is bringing my headache down. I think the vomiting helped. I haul myself up on the ends of my arms and look around. I am inside. It must have been a house. Gaps in the walls let fresh air and light in. I run my arms along the walls. They are rough and textured. The wind whistling through the holes in the walls creates a happy melody. A bird flies from my teeth. I emerge into a large common area. There are people all around, coming in, coming out. Most of them are lounging, though, on the floor, on the walls, with each other. There is laughter, like the tinkling of the wind. I shut my eyes and see stars. Where is Annette?

I am being led into the room. High above I look down and see the space continue. The people (person?) lead (leads?) me to food. I am famished. I eat. There is music. How long has there been music? But there is music. They are making music.

Someone grabs the end of my arm. It is Annette, solid and real.

GO

The ground is shaking. They yank me up behind them, hard. That thing on the end of their arm starts tapping me again.

"What's happening?" More taps.

There is a roar, and a flash of light. Annette hits me and we hit the floor, wind rushing over us, blasting us. There is nothing but sound. It stops. We stand. Off in the distance, where the Site once stood, there is the slowly-rising mushroom cloud. Inside of it, I see stars. I close my eyes and see stars.

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