A Decision for Humanity

“Jacob! You are needed.”

Jacob woke up. Still blurry from sleep, he could only tell that a bright figure stood at the foot of his bed.

“Who . . .”

“You are needed.” The figure repeated. The voice was both musical and terrifying. Even after blinking the sleep from them, his eyes wouldn’t focus on the being.

“Needed for what?”

“Come with me.”

A doorway appeared in the middle of the floor, and the creature gestured for Jacob to enter. This had to be a dream, he decided, so he played along. As he stepped through the doorway, he felt the world twist and then right itself.

He found himself in a large room with screens covering all four walls. The door by which he had entered was no longer evident. The only other thing in the room was a four foot high square pillar in the center. On the top was a black button. Before he could ask another question, the figure spoke again.

“From this room, you can end the world. You need to press the button.”

“What?!”

“Press the button, Jacob.”

“No! Why would I want to destroy the world?”

Screens began to flicker on, and scenes of destruction filled the room. Forest fires. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Drought. Famine. War. Hospital wards.

“The world is dying. You can see it on every news broadcast. Instead of making everyone suffer through the slow demise, better to end things quickly.”

Before Jacob could even start thinking about how to respond, another figure, equally bright, appeared in the room. The newcomer spoke with a similar, but deeper, voice.

“This is low, even for you.”

“Exile, this is none of your concern.”

“Of course it is. We have an understanding. Both of us must agree to end the game.”

“Unless a human decides to end it.”

“So you brought him here to cheat.”

“I am simply giving humanity a chance to opt out.”

“You are being used, human.” The second figure addressed Jacob directly.

“I don’t understand what is going on. I was brought here to destroy the world?”

“I would advise against it, but the one who brought you here seeks that outcome, yes.”

“Misery and suffering have reached unacceptable levels,” the first responded. “Why not put an end to it before it becomes even worse.”

“So you would have them give up? Abandon hope? Take away even the possibility that they might overcome these challenges?”

“They have had decades with no appreciable progress.” The first’s voice was even and sounded matter-of-fact.

The second turned again to Jacob. “It is ultimately your choice, human. I oppose this course, but I cannot stop you. Indeed, I would not even if I could.”

Jacob looked from one figure to the other and back again, still unable to focus on either.

“I don’t want any more suffering and the world does seem to be a mess. But I cannot decide this for everyone. How much hubris would it take to think that I could?”

“But the world . . .”

The second cut off the first. “Enough. He has made his choice. You tried to manipulate the situation and failed. No more of this.”

The doorway reappeared. “Thank you for your choice, Jacob,” the second said to him. “Please return to your world.”

As Jacob stepped through, he heard the first call after him. “If you change your mind, you need only call out for me.”

The next morning, Jacob awoke in his bed, unsure of what to make of his rather vivid dream.

The Nameless Bar

The bar was dimly lit and quiet. Places like this usually fill up as the night gets longer, but not here. The only people that frequent this nameless bar were people who needed a particular sort of help and the people who provided such services. Or people who were lost. Julia hadn’t been here in several years.

The illumination behind the bar was from one of the few overhead lamps. A middle-aged, burly man was tending bar. Drinking was not the primary reason people came here, so he had a bored look about him. He barely looked at Julia as she walked over.

“Is Lou here?”

Before the bartender could respond, another patron approached her.

“I haven’t seen you before. Something I can help you with?”

She barely glanced at him. “I don’t think so.”

He clasped her arm to turn her towards him. “Hey, now. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

She widened the portal inside the sleeve of her leather jacket so that a knife could fall into her hand. Raising the blade closer to his neck, she said in a low voice, “No one comes here looking for friends.”

Immediately, he let go of her and raised his open hands as he backed away. “No problem. Sorry to intrude.” Sitting down at a table across the room, he blended back in with the gloom.

“That’s a dangerous person to piss off.” The bartender gestured towards her knife. “And put that away. Weapons aren’t permitted in here.”

The knife slid back up her sleeve. “Fine. Now, Lou?”

“He’s not here.”

“Upstairs?”

“Look, lady, I don’t know you. You’ve already threatened one of my best customers. Lou isn’t here. Hasn’t been for awhile. Now I think it’s time you leave.”

Julia hesitated. He was clearly not going to be helpful, but she hated the idea of just walking away. Still, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she turned around and left the bar.

Halfway down the block, several figures emerged from the shadows of an alley. In front was the man who had approached her at the bar.

“We meet again.”

“Seriously? Are you just a walking cliché?” 

She tried to walk past the group, but the man grabbed her arm and spun her around.

“So rude. And after I offered my help.”

Whatever small bit of patience Julia had was gone. A quick spell opened a portal beneath him. He was halfway down the hole when she shrunk the portal so that he was stuck with only his torso sticking out of the pavement.

“What the hell!”

She bent down closer to his face. “Do I have to hurt you to get through to you? When someone tells you no, you leave them the fuck alone.”

One of the men who had accompanied him took a step towards her. Opening a portal beneath herself, she dropped down behind him and hit him with the hilt of her knife. The man crumpled to the ground. Everyone else took the hint and quickly left.

Julia walked back over to the man who was still trapped. “Now. What should I do with you?”

“What are you?” His terror was obvious.

“Who. Not what. People are not things. Didn’t anyone teach you that?”

“W…who?”

“Someone who doesn’t give third warnings. If I ever even hear about you, I’ll return. And you do not want to see me again.” Julia stood and began to walk away. Without looking back, she said, “Looks like it might rain. Don’t look up. I don’t want you to drown. You should be able to get out in a few hours.” She still needed to find Lou.

A New Shop

The empty storefront was in a small shopping plaza about a mile from the house. Inside, a layer of dust had built up in the small space. David didn’t need much room. The front was roughly twenty square feet, and the back area was half that. He could put small items for sale on one wall and have Julia set up a portal to the house in the back.

At first, Sarah had been opposed to the idea, but he managed to persuade her. Even throughout Rebecca’s rescue, he had felt superfluous. Life at the house had been stagnant; he had even considered leaving. Instead, he reflected on what he was really trying to accomplish.

The point in coming to the house in the first place was to learn more so that he could better help his people in the future. Moving to the house was freeing in a way; he was able to pursue research following his own imagination. But it was also isolating. Opening a shop was a way to connect with people, a way to learn what they really need. He would only sell simple, low power stuff. Things that would be helpful without being disruptive to the mundane world.

Sarah had helped him with the purchase and getting the necessary permits. The point wasn’t to make money, but to provide him with some structure. But first, he needed to clean the place fully. He summoned a small breeze and began gathering up all the dust.

Parting Again

“The Elder is gone?” Marie sounded unconvinced.

“Yes. My death ended him while I escaped. With my body empty of possession, Bailey was able to return my soul.”

Tears began streaming down Marie’s cheeks. “It’s finally over.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes.” As she watched her friendly silently weep in relief, guilt welled up in her chest. “Marie . . . I’m so sorry . . .”

“Ten years,” Marie muttered.

“What?”

Marie tried to wipe her eyes clear. “Ten years under his thumb. Ten years where my life wasn’t my own. Ten years where my body wasn’t my own.”

“I know.” Rebecca couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Do you? Do you know what he did to me?”

“Marie . . . I’m sorry.”

Marie stood and faced away from Rebecca. “I understand why you ran. I didn’t then, but I do now. He was awful.”

“But he’s gone now, and our lives are ours again.”

Marie turned to look at her. “So we can return?”

That took Rebecca by surprise. “You . . . you want to go back?”

“Of course. With the Elder gone . . . Well, it’s our family. Why wouldn’t we go back?”

“With what we’ve been through . . . What you’ve been . . .”

It’s our home, and he’s gone.”

Rebecca looked down. “It hasn’t been my home for ten years.”

Marie stared at her with her mouth open. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t go back. Phillip thinks I died. Maybe that means Peter believes I’m dead, too. As far as they’re concerned, I’m happy to stay dead. This is my home now.”

“What about us? What about me?”

“You don’t have to go back, either.”

“It’s the only home I know.”

Silence feel over them. Marie turned away again, and Rebecca stared at her hands. She knew how hard it was to leave. Had she not been forced to it by Phillip and Peter, she might have found it impossible. But she had been forced, and now Marie found herself facing a similar choice. With the Elder gone, Marie could return safely, but how would she handle the constant reminders of her long trauma?

That wasn’t the only reason she didn’t want Marie to leave. The uncomfortable truth was that, with Bailey leaving, she didn’t want to have to say goodbye to another dear friend so soon. She was afraid of the loneliness that would almost certainly follow.

Marie finally broke the silence. “I don’t think I can leave. Just come back with me.”

“I can’t. I wish I could, but even the short time I spent with the Elder convinced me I did the right thing in leaving. I wish you would stay, but I can’t go with you.”

“So that’s it?”

“It doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to leave. At least you don’t have to leave right away.”

“I don’t think I should stay away too long.”

“Well we can still keep in touch.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

Neither woman could look at the other directly.

Plotting in Secret

“So where are we?”

“Well, the worm failed.”

“How?”

“I’m not certain. It’s gone. And the target is still alive.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Peter confirmed it.”

“Did he get what we wanted?”

“Apparently not.”

“Incompetent . . . I knew it was a mistake to try to use him.”

“. . .”

“And the damn house is still protected?”

“Yes, it seems so.”

“So I’ll ask again. Where are we?”

“In a holding pattern, I suppose. We don’t have another worm available. Even if we did, without knowing what happened to the previous one, we couldn’t be certain the results would be any different. If you have any ideas, please share them.”

“Is there any other way to bypass the security.”

“The spatial mage is too good. Even if we could take it down, she’d know right away and probably restore it before we got very far.”

“Can we distract her?”

“How?”

“I don’t know. I’m just brainstorming.”

“If we came up with a distraction, we would still have to take down the spells. I don’t know how we would manage that, either.”

“What about getting him to come out.”

“Unlikely. As far as I can tell, he’s basically a recluse.”

“Well, we have to come up with something. And soon.”