When I finally left the diner, it was late evening. The street was dead quiet, despite the number of people in it. They stood there and looked at me, eyes devoid of emotion. They didn’t chat with each other or glance away, unnervingly still in their intense stares. Puppets, of course.
The street was full of them, so much it could be a parade or a festival, were it not for the silence. My eyes darted over the crowd, but my girlfriend was nowhere to be seen, the familiar face I could not recognize was absent. Even the face of the abomination, the one with a yellow hoodie and a sock puppet of a wolf, was not there. Nothing but the faceless crowd.
“Have you thought of your final wish?” They whispered, all at the same time. I blinked, but stood my ground.
“Can we stop with the creepy hivemind shenanigans?” I snorted, looking around at the crowd. “I’d rather talk to a single person, please. The rest of you can do synchronized ballet for all I care, but I don’t want to hear more than one voice replying to my questions.”
The crowd parted, calmly and silently, revealing her again. She sported a wry grin as she lazily walked towards me, brushing some of her filthy blonde hair off her face. She no longer had the puppet as she walked up to me, stuffed both hands in her pockets and tilted her head slightly, with a curious expression.
“Shoot,” she said.
I sighed, trying to ready myself for this. Keeping my mind away from what was at stake.
“If I asked you to… To stop the end of the world from happening. Would you do it?”
She shook her head before I had finished my question. “I understand the impulse, but… No. There is nothing I can do to directly prevent it from happening.” She smiled. It was a cold and detached smile, but not antagonistic in any way, like a parent who just heard a child say something funny. “I am not all-powerful, and there are things even I will not cross.” she added.
“I had to ask,” I muttered, trying not to feel disappointed or despairing. If I gave up now, I knew I would never get up again for the rest of my brief life.
“Anything else?” She asked.
“One more question,” I replied, which caused her to smirk.
“Go ahead,” she spoke, no sign of irritation or impatience. From her perspective, she had all the time in the world to answer my questions, I suppose.
“Is there any way to save humanity from… That. From what you showed me?” My voice cracked, and I silently berated myself for this show of weakness. It was hard to tell how much she knew or what she felt, that thing with its countless eyes staring at me. But she paid no attention, frowning in thought as my nervousness grew.
“Well, is there?” I held my breath, waiting as she still ignored me. Then her eyes locked onto mine and she relented.
“The answer is complicated,” she said. “For example, I could subsume the identities of everyone on earth, let them all become a part of me, and let them survive the apocalypse this way. Would that make you happy?”
“Fuck that.” The words came out of my mouth before I could register them, flat and angry. I swallowed my feelings and continued, attempting to appear calm. “Being part of your hivemind is not what I’d call surviving.”
If she was offended, she did not show it. “Yeah, I thought so. But maintaining everything the way things are is not an option. If you want humanity to survive the incoming doom things will have to… Change.”
“Change,” I repeated, narrowing my eyes in suspicion. “What kind of change?”
“There are many paths,” she spread her arms wide, in a mocking gesture. “None of the easy. Or pretty. Or painless.” Her grin widened.
“But it’s possible,” I repeated, not daring to move my eyes from her.
I took a deep breath. My path was set. “Then this is my wish,” I spoke. “I wish for you to help me as much as possible, within your power, to save humanity from the incoming destruction, by which I mean save as many people as possible, hurting or changing them as little as possible. You may not help or interfere with the fate of humanity without my consent. You will also not hide information from me, purposely mislead me or, through omission, lessen humanity’s chances of survival. You will also do your best not to let me come to harm unless I give my express consent, and even after my death you will still follow my last directions until humanity’s survival is assured.”
There was a pause, a moment of tense silence as I heard my own heartbeat thundering in my chest, waiting for her answer. She broke the stillness by bursting into laughter. She giggled and howled, propping herself on her knees to avoid falling as she laughed and laughed until she was gasping for air. I stood there in tense silence, waiting for her to finish.
“Sounds like you spent some time thinking up the wish. Did you cover all your bases?” She chuckled, as I stood awkward and tense.
“You, uh… You said I had one wish. Well… That’s my wish,” I said, as my certainty vanished under her laughter. “Can you do it?”
Her laughter relented, but she still sported a wide grin as she spoke. “I’m not some sort of djinn or devil that will twist your wish to screw you up for kicks, Cody! Nor am I some sort of computer that you have to program to be helpful,” she snorted. “You want me to help you ensure humanity survives. Yeah, I get it.”
“Will you do it?” I asked, rubbing my sweaty palms together. The future of mankind could be changed in this conversation, I was keenly aware.
She shrugged. “Sure, I’ll help you. No signing in blood required,” she added, grinning. “It’ll be a fun roadtrip.”
“Roadtrip.” I couldn’t even be surprised at how flippant she was, but my tension unwound into anger as her grin widened.
“You don’t expect to do it all from the comfort of your home, do you?” She chuckled. “I can show the different ways that you can help your people survive. But the real question is… Are YOU ready? ”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself. “Whatever it takes, I am ready.”
She did not deny or contest what I had said, but instead raised a skeptical eyebrow and shook her head. “You were worrying about the wrong thing, you know. Wording that wish super-precisely. Afraid of being tricked?” She scoffed. “It’s not that which you need to be afraid of, to be honest. I’ve seen people wish for all kinds of things. Power, secrets, even money, and I gave them all what they wanted. Exactly how they wanted. And yet... Some were still killed by their wishes anyway, cursing me with their last breath.”
“Those people, the ones you granted wishes for… Why did they die?” I asked, guardedly taking a step back.
She paused for a moment, looking away at nothing in particular while deep in thought. “They were not ready for the gifts I gave them. Some got drunk on power, making too many enemies and stupid decisions until the weight of that power crushed the life out of them. Others were not ready to learn the secrets I gave them. The new things they saw drove them mad.”
“And none of that was your fault?” My voice dripped with suspicion, but she only grinned at me in return.
“I did not intend to hurt them. Is it my fault that so many people wish for things they are not prepared?” She chuckled to herself. “Humanity’s obsession with self-destruction is something that will never cease to fascinate me.”
“Is that another dig at me jumping from the balcony?” I asked.
“Why did you jump?” She shot back, immediately making me uncomfortable. As I looked away, my mind went back to the moment I jumped; it felt like an eternity ago but had only happened a few hours back at most.
“It all felt wrong,” I muttered at last. “Everything was off; it… It felt like some sort of dream. But, deep down, I knew there was something wrong. Something horrible lurking under that dream.”
“Something horrible,” she repeated in a flat tone, unconvinced.
“You need to improve your illusion if you want to fool anyone,” I retorted. Her relentless questioning was making me even more upset than before, despite my resolve to keep calm in front of her.
“Oh?” Her lips formed an o-shape in mock surprise, before melting back into a grin.
“I mean… A sexy teacher ten years above me proposing in her own office? Really?” Shaking my head, I continued, “Two hot female roommates totally willing to split an apartment with a guy. And flirting. AND cooking me breakfast, honestly that’s the part that really threw me off. Who does that?”
“Is it so hard to believe you could live a happy life?” She interrupted, all hint of a smile gone from her face.
I was speechless for a moment, and my reply to her surprised even me.
There was nothing else for me to say, and she let the silence linger, digesting my answer, before sighing in disappointment.
“If you really don’t want a happy life I can’t force it on you, Cody,” she said. “But I warn you, this little mission you want us to do? The whole ‘saving the world’ thing? It will break you, one way or the other.”
“I don’t care if it does,” I answered, “if there’s a chance to prevent… That. That thing I saw...” My voice trembled, but I stood my ground, staring back at the woman without flinching.
“I will help you,” the Queen in Yellow smiled sympathetically, shrugging as she added, “but I cannot guarantee that you will like the results. If you walk this path, you court your own destruction, as surely as the ones who wished for power or knowledge. And you can’t save your precious humanity without either.”
“I can’t sit back and do nothing,” I replied. “That’s not an option.”
She chuckled. “Then the fate of mankind is in your hands, noble hero,” she recited, her tone faux-heroic like something out of a movie trailer. It took a moment for me to realize that, apparently, what she said was true.
“We’re fucked,” was all I could reply.
“Hmm, maybe,” she replied, arching one eyebrow while looking around her. Then she turned back to me and smiled. “This will be a long and tiring path. We’ll have to travel far and do much if you want to succeed. Are you ready for that?”
In the silence that followed she looked at her surroundings, the street in front of the diner lit by lamp posts and the puppets surrounding us while staring blankly. I noticed how completely quiet the city had gotten in our conversation, not even the distant honking of a horn or some barking echoing on the buildings. Not even crickets or any other sign of wildlife, nothing but that deathly silence.
Then the King in Yellow reached a conclusion and walked towards me. As she did, without fanfare, the other puppets started melting. Eyes and noses slipped and splatted on the ground as their chests sunk into their legs, all losing their form in seconds. Clothes also dissolved as they melded into each other into various hues of skin-colored goo. That goop seemed to sink into the ground, even as the last traces of individuality faded into that homogenous amalgamate of people. Before I could catch my breath, they were all gone, vanished into the ground.
“I spent a lot of time working on this place,” she said, putting her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “Pity.”
“What?” Disoriented, I looked back and forth and realized that now the lights of the city were blinking off. First the ones further away, buildings and towers in the distance. Then the wave of darkness swept towards us, street lights, apartments, stores, all winked out around us as we were plunged into darkness. There was no light except the night sky and its stars which I could suddenly see more clearly than I had ever before, not even when camping out when I was younger.
“What did you do to my city?” I whispered angrily at the figure next to me.
“This place was never real,” the Queen replied in a mild tone, not betraying any particular emotion. “Nothing but a stage I built for you. We don’t need it anymore.”
“A stage? You mean… The whole city?”
I could do nothing but look mutely at the lights winking out, farther and farther away, fading into the distance. Then there was nothing but darkness as far as the I can see. Everything was silent and cold.
“Meh, it’s not a big deal,” she said. “I’ll leave the buildings around, too much of a hassle to remove them right now.”
Still stunned by that insane display of power, I said nothing as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. She faced towards me, her face still too dark to discern, but said nothing. There wasn’t even any wind in this place, wherever it was. It was cold, empty, and had the perfect stillness of a corpse.
“Can… Can you take me home first? My real home… planet? Or world, I guess. Just for a bit? Before we, uhh...”
“Before we go on a interdimensional journey to save the world you know?” She finished.
“I have some things to do before I leave for something like that,” I replied quietly.
“Sure,” she said, extending me her hand. “Take my hand and we will go immediately.”
My hand went up to met her when I hesitated, for the briefest moment. The enormity of what I had witnessed, as well as the other things I had seen and heard tonight, the unimaginable responsibility on my shoulders. All of these thoughts coalesced into a moment of panic, a desire to run away, to never meet her again, to live another life, any life, that would prevent me from having to walk that path.
But what I told her that moment was right, I had no other option. So I held her hand and in an instant we were gone, leaving the dark city finally empty of all life.