It was the end of the worlds, and Mr. Jamison and I were arguing over peas. Not the mush you get in a cafeteria, but peas that smelled like grasshoppers and summer. Real, in the shell, peas.
Mr. Jamison detached his monocle and peered down at the pea pods on my outstretched hand. He made a huffing sound that poofed his drooping moustache. He looked like a side character in an old John Wayne movie, stuffed into fussy clothes.
“It is an altogether sensible looking vegetable,” he finally said. “But how will they help us to program the Back Button?”
He motioned to the collection of brass pipes and gauges that hulked on the sturdy worktable. Afternoon sunlight slanted from the warehouse windows and gave the Back Button a purposeful glint. If we could figure out what that purpose was, we could save the worlds.
I picked a pod off my hand and held it to the sunlight. “I think this pod is like the shape our worlds are taking now. The brane that contains the one hundred and nineteen realities is stretched thin and long, and our worlds are lined up inside of it.”
Mr. Jamison took the pea pod gingerly. He looked up at me as if for permission, then went ahead and slit the pod down the middle with his thumbnail. I didn’t tell him that the best way to shell a pea was to snap it in half. He studied the five round peas inside the split pod.
“But that would make our brane a very long pod,” he said.
“I don’t think so. I think our brane is exactly that long, and it’s trying to fit one hundred and nineteen peas inside of it. I think that’s why the worlds are getting squashed together.”
He grunted, not entirely in character. “Well, it is certainly a different way of looking at it. I congratulate you, Miss Pritchett, on finding the most inane way to re-explain a theory that came after the practical application thereof.”
I felt myself blush. If his character was wavering, I was too much in character in this confining simulation. I pursed my lips into a more suitable indignation. “I think we need to shell the pea. I think we need to remove ourselves from the confines of the brane altogether.”
“Impossible,” Mr. Jamison huffed.
“Well, and twenty years ago, would you have thought the collision of worlds was possible?”
I didn’t know how old he was. Most of the worlds had similar inhabitants, with similar lifespans to those on Earth. We of all the worlds had gotten along in the best fashion that people of Earth-nature could. That is to say, we ended the war last year because it was killing us faster than the collision of worlds.
“Would I have thought all this possible twenty years ago? Perhaps not,” he admitted.
I didn’t tell him what I would have thought. Twenty years ago, I had been two separate people.
“Alright,” Mr. Jamison said. “Alright, let’s hear it. How can we make the Back Button do what you want with the pea-pod?”
This simulation was a bubble of thought, an agreement between myself and Mr. Jamison, a bridge between two worlds. The only other real thing in the warehouse was the shining monstrosity of brass on the worktable. The Back Button could, by its very nature, be exactly what we wanted it to be.
I cradled my hands in the curved shape of a pea pod. It was my hope that the shell of the brane would peel back, and the peas of our worlds would arrange themselves across its surface. Our worlds would still be connected within this point in spacetime, but we would not be crowding each other for dominance.
The brass Back Button hummed. Water within its pipes started to boil, and steam hissed from its many valves.
Mr. Jamison’s eyes went wide. “You are doing it now? You are going to unravel us? We need testing first, woman, we need—”
I concentrated and, using the simulacrum of the Back Button, peeled back the shell of the pod.
It was called a Back Button because if it didn’t work, the simulation reset itself. It was a puzzle that could not possibly be solved until it was solved.
I perched on a stool at the worktable, idly toying with the lace cuff of my sleeve. Mr. Jamison sat not far from me, his face in his hands.
“This is the tenth time,” he said. Then, “So obviously the Back Button is not a pea.”
“Then what now?” he asked. “I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this—” He waved around the warehouse. The sun still shone at the same angle through the windows. “The clockworks keeping me here are powered at a great cost of energy. My thoughts are growing slower.”
We couldn’t fail. Entering a simulation was a one-way trip, and no simulation had ever succeeded, or we would not be here trying.
I pressed my hands to the table and spread my fingers wide to study them, to have something to look at other than Mr. Jamison’s growing dismay. Though I was largely a machine on the other side of this simulation, my body hooked into every manner of physical and digital outputs to project me here, I also had my limits. After what I felt was five days here without food or sleep, I was also growing weary.
Yet, if we wasted our moments as we were doing now, we wasted our lives.
We tried a complex unravelling using a thought-manufactured ball of multi-dimensional yarn.
We ended up where we started.
We tried believing that the brane was sentient, and asked it to unravel itself for us. Or, we pretended like it was pregnant with worlds and asked it to birth them out.
We even tried to offer ourselves as sacrifices to the living (G,g)od(s), because we were exhausted. It had been half-jokingly threatened in other simulations, but never tried.
We went back to where we started.
The sun through the warehouse windows always slanted at the same angle, showing the same gleam on the great brassworks of the Back Button.
I lay on the surface of the worktable, anything useful that had covered it before now pushed to one end. Mr. Jamison slumped in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs, his feet out in front of him. You would think if this place was born of our joined thoughts and collective research, we would have come up with ass-happy chairs.
“What do we even have left to try?” he asked. “We have tried thousands of ideas throughout all of the—” He waved around the warehouse. We couldn’t say the word “simulation,” as it blurred the simulation around the edges. As it was, because we were both thinking about it, the hard lines of the warehouse went hazy for a moment. Then we focused again on them being real.
“There has to be an end to the options,” Mr. Jamison finished weakly.
“For all I know,” I said, “we might need the brane to step on a piece of cosmic gum.”
I explained. I pantomimed chewing the gum and spitting it out. The simulation being what it was, I got my shoe stuck on the actual gum and managed to trip. With my skirts flying and feet in the air, he got the concept, and we tried it.
It didn’t work.
“It was worth a try,” I said, and shrugged and returned to the worktable.
Every time the Back Button went off, though, it was a greater drain on our energy. We didn’t have more than a few tries left.
I sat up. “Let’s have sex.”
He jumped as if struck. “What?”
“Sex,” I said. “Has anyone ever tried that?”
“I—what—” he sputtered. Then he tilted his head and gave me a curious, un-erotically scientific look. “Yes, I think that was one of the first things tried. Remember the two in the second simulation, who fell in love and decided to put it to good use?”
I did remember. We could talk of other simulations, as long as we didn’t compare the fact that they were simulations to the fact that ours was one, too.
“Are you that bored?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
I felt myself blush and waved my hands in an inarticulate circle. “I—well, I guess it’s not very in-character of me.”
“No,” he agreed. But it was with a weary amiability.
I studied my hands. “Do you have someone?”
The question spoke of things outside and was dangerous territory. But, maybe it would be better to let the simulation— and ourselves, by implication—dissolve now, rather than later in exhausted defeat. At least we still had some of our energy left.
“Yes,” he said, growing quiet. “Should we be discussing this?”
“Why not?” I said. I kicked my legs off the side of the worktable and jumped to the floor.
“Then, do you have someone?” he asked. Maybe he wanted the comfort of solidarity, the shared knowing of loss. Neither of us would see anyone outside of this simulation again.
“I had someone,” I said. I had once been two someones, and we had been in love.
Mr. Jamison stood, and then hesitated. His look was almost shy. He was longing for comfort, at the end of the worlds. He would not see his someone again, and I would not be my someones again.
I thought of a good use for the Back Button that had never been tried before, because no one would be so absurd.
“Do you want to dance?” I asked.
He laughed, his bushy brows lifting. “Dance?”
I made an elegant sweeping gesture and started to move in measured steps. The authenticity modules I’d downloaded into my augmented cortex kicked in, and fed me the steps of a period dance.
His laugh settled into a slow smile. “Dance, yes.”
He met me halfway, and we each fell into a dance that was similar, but as subtly alien as the differences between our two worlds, one strangely complimenting the other.
There was no music, just the swish of fabric and the scuff of shoes on concrete. And because the Back Button did not seem to be any good at fixing the end of the worlds, I decided it shouldn’t be used for that anymore. Not while we were here. I made it play a waltz.
Mr. Jamison laughed again, and we drew together. He took my hand, and I placed my other hand on his shoulder. And we danced, in and out of the slanted sunlight, a slow whirl about the wide warehouse floor.
After a while, the music slowed. I pressed my cheek to his heart and heard it beating, fast and steady. His chin rested on my head.
“I wish I hadn’t come,” he said. “Alana didn’t want me to go. I knew she understood why, but no one really understands why.”
So much reference to the worlds outside the simulation fuzzed my head, but then I made the decision to simply incorporate his reality into this one. We were here, were we not? In this place of possibilities, we could own the moment. The Back Button continued its soft purr of melody.
“Did you have a choice?” I asked.
He was quiet for a long moment. We swayed softly, as the tune from the Back Button turned somber.
“I was a criminal,” he said. “Nothing vile—I was an expert at getting into and out of tight spaces.” He cast a look at the Back Button. “Not so expert as they thought.”
I nodded. In my own world, before they had begun to tap the minds of the merged insane, they had experimented with genius sociopaths.
“It is a waste,” he said. “I don’t know why we try. Nothing we have done, or anyone has done, has worked.” He paused. And then he asked, with more hesitation than the question merited, “Were you a criminal, too?”
I stiffened. I couldn’t tell him what I was. I had no claim to my lives before, and I had failed now at the sole purpose of my new existence. I had failed to save the worlds.
“Can we just dance?” I asked.
So we danced.
We lay next to each other on the worktable, because we both needed the contact of someone warm beside us. This simulation was too large, and we were too small and alone inside it.
The Back Button was silent.
The warehouse rafters creaked.
What were the people thinking, who watched us outside the simulation? No one in the other simulations had squandered so much precious time and energy.
I resettled my hand that was intertwined with Mr. Jamison’s. We watched the dust motes drift in the slanted sunlight as if they were moving stars, and held the answers.
I had been thinking, throughout the silence that followed our dance. I wanted to tell him what I was. I needed him to know, whether he was repulsed by me or not. How much trouble could I get in? They could yank me out of the simulation for it, and I’d die. Well, I’d die here anyway. What were a few less hours?
“I’m not human,” I said.
Mr. Jamison’s bushy brows drew down. “You are…a mechanical automaton?”
I snorted. “I am not all the way human,” I corrected myself. “I am a computer-augmented abomination of a being.”
“Well, that isn’t so bad.” He reached to brush hair out of my eyes, and I jerked away from him. I shoved fully away from him, and felt keenly what I was. I was not a woman, I was not a man, I was not human, I was not anything.
My visage in the simulation must have flickered, because his eyes grew wide.
“Yes,” I hissed, “I am one of the merged.” Maybe that wasn’t what he was thinking, because he sat up sharply at that.
“Yes, I was cracked.” I made a sharp motion at my head. I got down and began to pace.
He watched me pace. Was he condemning me? Could sociopaths condemn anyone, really? Why did I care what he thought?
Because I needed someone to care.
When I had cracked, no one cared—there were too many of us. When they woke me up as this new being with a singular purpose, no one cared except that I complete it.
Finally he asked, “What was it like?”
I stopped, too disgusted at the question to reply.
“I’m sorry. I was curious—we didn’t have merged on our world, not quite like that. Others from other worlds overlapped with us, but we did not merge with ourselves.”
The simulation flickered again in my thoughts, and I viciously incorporated all of this into it. The warehouse had lost its rusty look, and the sun shining in at the same angle was slightly more orange. Maybe from his world?
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He raised his hands as if to, what, comfort me? He dropped them again. “It must have been hard.”
“Would you like to have merged with your someone?” I asked.
“No. Of course not.” He shuddered. “I’m sorry—did you—”
I cut him off with a sharp gesture. I ran my hands over my mussed hair and gave the Back Button a solid glare, because conquering it right now was better than thinking about myself, and my past.
“What if we—” I said.
No ideas came. Nothing I could sift through. My failure loomed like a neon sign over my head, pulsing, screaming. I pressed my hands to my ears.
“Damn you!” I screamed at the Back Button. I decided to damn it to all of the deepest hells, to see if that did anything, because hell would be better than this existence right now.
It didn’t work.
But the simulation didn’t fully reset. We’d put too much of our own worlds back into it. That had never happened before, everyone had always been told to keep their worlds separate, lest they destabilize the simulation.
But it hadn’t destabilized. The simulation felt different now, but stronger.
We stared at each other. Fatigue dragged at my arms and neck, willing me to lay back down. Dark circles sat like bruises under Mr. Jamison’s eyes.
The Back Button, softly, began to play music.
With silent consent, we came together and began to dance.
“What was that?” I murmured.
He shook his head. He didn’t know.
Our dance was a slow and heavy dance.
“So neither of us had a choice in coming here,” he said.
We danced silently for a long moment. The music from the Back Button flared into harpsichord arpeggios.
“Maybe being what I am, a thief, is what I was made for,” he said. “We’re all programmed, aren’t we? Whether through a deity, or genetics, or our own disposition.”
“But I was programmed,” I said. “I was used. I had no choice. This is my only purpose in life, and I have failed.”
He pulled away enough to look down at me, a smile jaunting his lips. “What, to come and comfort a dying man?”
It startled a laugh from me. “We’re both dying men,” I said.
We continued to dance, and the music grew dreamy.
“Then let me comfort you, dying man,” he said softly. He wrapped his arms tighter around me, and I around him.
The Back Button clicked, whirred, and made a brass ding.
In the moment before it engaged, my eyes opened wide. The one thing we had not tried, in all of our simulations, in all our attempts to shove the worlds apart, was to bring the worlds together. To bring ourselves together.
I stood with her on the sidewalk outside of our building, an autumn breeze kicking leaves down the street. Something pressed against my leg, and I looked down to see a brown paper grocery bag, the shattered glass of a jar rattling as I nudged it. I looked up, and my hand was still pointing accusingly at her. We had been having a fight, I remembered this fight. I remembered the sidewalk and the chill breeze and the anger, but I couldn’t remember what it was about. All fights from before had seemed trivial once the worlds had started to end.
I lowered my hand and met her eyes. I drank in her face, as she memorized mine. The sassy half-smile that curled her lips, the two rings in her eyebrow, one glinting a chip of aquamarine.
The Back Button had worked. It had brought us back.
We met each other halfway in a crushing embrace.
The memories started to fade, as if carried away with the leaves. The memories of being one, not two. Of cold metal and purpose. Of Mr. Jamison—and I frantically hoped he was also with his someone, in his world.
And then there was only us. The two of us. We locked arms and carried our groceries the rest of the way to our building. I suggested we watch John Wayne movies, and she laughed, but didn’t protest.
This story originally appeared in Escape Pod.