It’s been a while since I’ve done any short fiction; this one came to me as I was falling asleep one night, and got stuck in my head. I make no warranties as to its quality.
The Very Beginning of the End
“You have to listen to me.”
Anthony almost didn’t. The number of useful conversations he expected to have with people who hung out in New York City alleways and hissed out, “You have to listen to me,” in low, croaky voices hovered somewhere slightly below zero. But as a simple reflexive instinct, he glanced over at the source of the voice, and what he saw stopped him cold.
It was a man in a suit of armor. For half a second, he thought it might be some sort of SCA thing, someone who was dressed up for a Renaissance Festival and was also terribly lost, but the armor didn’t look medieval. It looked…damaged. Like a car that had gone through a narrow tunnel and scraped most of the paint off, exposing the bare metal beneath. A few tiny flecks of red paint here and there were all that was left of the original colors.
“Please. There isn’t much time.” The armor came with a faceplate, but it was cracked and shattered in places, exposing burnt flesh. Anthony started to pay a little more attention–if this was some sort of protective gear, and something had happened to damage it this badly, then there could be some sort of crisis. Maybe he could help.
“Okay,” he said, unconsciously pitching his voice in the same tone people used with infants and crazy people. “I’m listening. What do you need?”
“I need to warn you,” the man in the armor said. He leaned against the wall, although Anthony couldn’t tell whether it was out of relief or exhaustion. “It’s coming. You have to stop it, you have to…” He stopped, and Anthony could hear him gasping for breath. “It,” he panted out urgently. “Is. Coming.”
“Okay, sir,” Anthony said. “I think we need to get you to a hospital. You need medical assistance–”
“There’s no time!” the man in the armor snarled, adrenalin giving him a surge of vitality. “It wouldn’t matter anyway, I can’t survive here. This universe is anathema to me. The suit protected me long enough to get through the dimensional barrier, but it wasn’t made for that kind of strain. Don’t worry about me. It’s this world that’s important. You have to stop it from happening here.”
“I don’t understand,” Anthony said. The words sounded like garden-variety crazy, the kind of rambling you’d hear from any homeless guy hanging out in an alley, but Anthony could feel the panic coming off of the man in armor and it felt real. “What’s coming? What’s going to happen?”
“It’s an…effect, a disruption to the laws of physics,” the man in armor replied. “We never developed a name for it–I only realized it existed at the very end, when reality had fragmented too completely to repair. That’s why I’m here–it starts so small that by the time you notice it on your own, I’m afraid it would be too late for you too.” He paused, gathering his thoughts.
“It begins as a memetic infection,” the man in armor said, slowly sinking into a seated position. Anthony came closer so that he wouldn’t have to shout. “An idea without a source, an idea that doesn’t make sense but seems to. People start…” His words dissolved into a wracking cough.
“They start making masks,” he said when he was finally able to resume speaking. “To conceal their identities, to make themselves anonymous. Sometimes the masks don’t even cover their whole face, but it doesn’t matter. They believe it will work, and somehow it does. And they go out wearing the masks, and…”
He reached out and grabbed Anthony’s wrist so suddenly that Anthony didn’t even have time to recoil. Anthony could hear the whirr of servo-motors as the fingers gripped him. “They think they can stop crime. All of it. Everywhere. By going out in the middle of the night, wearing a mask, and punching anyone they find committing a crime. And the crazy thing is…for a little while, it actually kind of works.”
“Um…” Anthony wasn’t sure if that was supposed to require a response. He had no idea what to say if it did–it was so far outside anything he could possibly have expected that he couldn’t even frame an answer.
It didn’t matter–the man in the armor kept talking as though he was supplying Anthony’s half of the conversation in his head. “I know! Does that even make sense? Manhattan is something like thirty square miles with over a million people, but these guys go wandering the streets and just happen to stumble on three or four major crimes a night! But they don’t question it. None of them do, because they’re no longer operating on the same logic they did before. Because it’s already started.”
The man in the armor sagged slightly, as though remembering some private pain. “And it gets worse. The memetic virus gets into the greatest minds of each society it infects–chemists, roboticists, physicists. It gives them amazing, miraculous, world-changing ideas, but…” He lowered his head. “I designed this. Every circuit, every motor, every diode. A functioning cybernetically controlled exoskeleton, capable of lifting a hundred tons and surviving environments from deep space to the ocean floor. And do you know what I did with it?”
Anthony shook his head, but the man in the armor wasn’t really looking at him. He also wasn’t waiting for an answer. “I attached laser cannons to it so I could shoot bad guys. That’s what it does to you. When it’s affecting you, everything seems so clear. So pure. The world’s problems are all caused by bad people doing bad things, and if you can just stop them with your fists or your knockout gas guns or your laser cannons, then everything will be…better.”
The man in the armor let go of Anthony’s arm. His hand hit the ground with a clanking thud. “It’s that damned purity that’s so seductive. Everything seems wonderful at first, the beginning of a new golden age that you and your buddies–because it’s never just one of you, there’s always a team or a league or a secret society, someone who will tell you that you’re doing the right thing–that you’re going to make happen. And at first it all works. You always win.
“But then there’s the other side of it. The criminals…they start finding their own superweapons. Sometimes they change themselves, alter their bodies’ genetic code whether accidentally or on purpose. They stop being bad people and start being monsters. And if they’re monsters, well…don’t you have a duty to fight monsters?”
He sounded sad, now. All the urgency was gone, replaced with a quiet, aching melancholy. “And then, just when you can’t take it anymore and the monsters seem like they’re winning, you get your very own angels to fight against the devils. Like a silver lining to the darkest cloud. They dose themselves with chemicals, blast themselves with radiation, warp their genomes into impossible new patterns, and if you notice that maybe the laws of physics aren’t the same as they were a year ago? You dismiss it. Who ignores the evidence of their own eyes? Who considers the idea that maybe the universe is being corrupted into a different shape?”
The man in the suit laughed. “Who has time? There’s always another bad guy to punch, another monster to stop. A new one every month, sometimes the old ones returning from the dead like a bad dream you can’t shake. More heroes, more villains, the effect slowly warping the world into a never-ending battle for…I dunno. Truth, justice…something like that. You get caught up in it. Everyone gets caught up in it.”
He was silent for a long moment. Anthony wondered if he could try removing the faceplate to give him more air, but before he could try, the man in the suit continued once more. “Everyone…” he said, his voice weaker than before. “So many people, by the end. The battles get bigger, the stakes get higher, the world becomes…stranger. Until by the time you see people doing real magic, summoning actual demons and gods from strange pantheons, it just seems like a part of existence you simply weren’t aware of. Loki? Thor? Oh, they were probably just hanging out in Asgard until last year. That totally happens. It doesn’t even seem crazy.”
The man’s voice had developed an uncomfortable-sounding rattle. Anthony had the feeling he wasn’t going to last much longer. “And you don’t notice that your life has degenerated into a series of endless fights, and that the escapes get narrower and the victories become more and more pyrrhic. Your friends die, they change sides…sometimes they come back from the dead, just like the bad guys, and that doesn’t even seem strange to you anymore. I died once or twice myself, and it didn’t do me any harm.” He shrugged. “We stopped paying attention to the laws of physics ages ago, because there aren’t any rules to anything anymore. The rules of the effect are the only rules.
“But you can’t sustain a universe that way. The laws of physics don’t change because if they did, how could tomorrow possibly be the same as today? Once you can time travel and hop over to parallel reality and rip apart the fabric of space-time to make room for the space gods to come through and judge humanity, how can the universe survive that for long without coming apart at the seams? It can’t. It goes up like a gasoline-soaked rag wherever there’s a convenient flashpoint.”
The man in the armor had slumped down onto his side. Anthony had to lean in close to hear him. “We tried to fix it. The best of us and the worst of us both, we tried to repair the damage. But we couldn’t, not without unmaking ourselves. The whole universe was the effect now, you understand? If we repaired it, it would all just come apart again at the seams. It’s too late for us, but you…you can still fight it. I hope. Don’t let it happen here, Anthony. Don’t…”
He trailed off into silence. The rattling breaths slowly subsided to a chilling silence. Anthony took off the faceplate, but the helmet was empty. If there was any flesh inside the machine, it now existed only in Anthony’s memories.
Anthony removed the helmet. He covered the rest of the armor with trash bags–there’d be time enough to come back for it later. The helmet, though, that was where the interface was. He had to take a closer look–if it was real, if it worked, then he could replicate it. He could make good on all the promises that the man in armor had talked about, do all the things that man never did. He could change the world.
He walked back to his lab swiftly, his brain already racing with potential applications. Artificial limbs, deep sea exploration suits, construction, search and rescue…he could feel the ideas unfolding in his head, designs and breakthroughs etching themselves into his consciousness. He could imagine the finished product, gleaming red and…gold, perhaps? Yes, gold. It would be beautiful.
“Hold all my calls,” he barked out to his secretary as he walked past. He could feel an all-nighter coming on, and he didn’t want to be interrupted. The suit would be his most magnificent invention, capable of doing great things…or terrible, he soberly realized. In the wrong hands, it could be a devastating weapon. He’d have to keep it to himself, use it secretly until he was sure it wouldn’t be misused. By bad people.
“Of course, Mister Stark,” his secretary replied. But he wasn’t really listening.