Days passed in unbroken darkness. The rolling farmland led Sullivan and Rhea through a one-gas-station town where they looted as much food and as many useful supplies as would fit in the car.
Just when he thought that getting sent to another world would free him from his visions, he had one in the middle of the grocery store. Rhea found him slumped against the fruit display, surrounded by tumbled oranges.
"So what was it?" she asked once he could stand.
"A waste of time," he replied. "Pitch blackness, disturbing noises, the usual."
He didn't bother clarifying that the 'disturbing noises' had been screams of pain.
The town lacked hotels or houses. Nothing but businesses, the market being the largest, so the duo spent the night there. They ate a dinner of fresh fruits and name-brand cereals, and used all the kitchen towels as makeshift bedding in the relatively warmest central aisle.
Throughout the night, strange noises came from every direction. The soft beep of a scanner, a squeak like wet sneakers on tile, a chug in the ventilation ducts, a scrape or tap from here or there. Sully sat up often to listen, anxious about how many unseen spaces surrounded him.
Every time he laid down again to sleep, he'd start up a new variant on the same nightmare, made of chains and silks and helplessness. Sometimes it was Rhea at the reins, chaining him into some clockwork harness, yanking on the feeding tube like a bit and bridle. Sometimes it was the monster - or the man that inspired it - and Rhea stood there, flipping between her fingers the crystal grenade that had saved Sully, and instead of using it she only watched.
Same old, same old, really. Just with new actors.
He woke to the clatter of soup cans avalanching on the other end of the aisle. He and Rhea bolted up to see a hump of red flesh advancing slowly toward them.
"What is that?" he said.
"I think it's… meat," she said.
It was a solid blob of meat sliding and growing across the floor like a bleeding tidal wave. The meat section in the back of the store had apparently merged together into a single mass and grown steadily overnight.
"Time to go," Rhea said.
They hurried to the exit. Sully glanced over at the produce and floral sections; they'd burst into tangles of spliced plants so thick they formed a solid wall. He touched his stomach in concern, thinking back to dinner.
They escaped the market unscathed, the last fluorescent lights blinking out behind them. A shattering rumble came from the back of the building as the meat mass broke through. They entered the old four-door car in the parking lot, with its back seat overflowing with food and supplies, and drove away yet again to find a new place of safety.
Back again to a lonely highway. The rain lessened, the sky lightening to gunmetal gray over miles of undulating pasturage. Large, dark shapes meandered shiftlessly in the grasses. At first Sully mistook them for livestock, but when a curve in the road brought the car closer to a crowd of them, he saw instead they were mouthless, cyclopean hulks dragging themselves forward on two forelimbs. Viscous, inky manes oozed from heads that turned in unison to follow the passing vehicle.
"Hey, wanna go cow-tipping?" he said. "There's no way it'll end in disaster."
Rhea chuckled. "Whose tortured psyche did those sad sacks crawl out of, I wonder."
"The one-eyed deal gives me some idea."
The hulks watched but didn't follow them, and hours of driving later brought them to another town. Rhea slowed the car as they both looked around for lootable buildings.
Every building was the exact same building. Up and down the streets were duplicate rows of the same old house with distinctive pink shutters, the same quaint yard with the wooden whirligigs shaped like birds, the same gravel walkway lined with rabbit statues and flowerpots. Every intersection bore the signs for Marigold Street and Azalea Street.
Rhea didn't stop but kept looking. Sully grew unnerved for the hundredth time. Everything about this world seemed designed to unsettle. He shouldn't be afraid of an old lady's old house - but it was so wrong to see it here, far from Earth, several dozen times copy-pasted. The repetition felt like a visual 'Pop Goes The Weasel'. Any second now they'd turn a corner and find a house made of meat, or painted with blood, or a monster would pop out and attack them. Any second now.
The houses just kept repeating, with no signs of being lived-in (by anyone or anything). There were no cars, no lights, no movements.
No, something was different. Sully didn't notice it on the first few streets, but by the fourth iteration he did: the houses were getting a little closer together each time. Just a little.
Rhea sped up, clearly giving up hope on Pink Shutterville. She had to wend a zig-zagged path. Every intersection was a T rather than a cross; no streets went straight through.
Watching the houses go by was like watching a flip-book, giving an illusion of motion in an eerily still place. By the fifth street, the houses were inches apart. By the sixth, their walls were touching. By the seventh, they were intersecting. It looked like shitty level design in a video game where the designer didn't bother checking if the polygons were overlapping.
The houses grew further together. Whirligigs stuck out of rabbit heads. Flowers stuck out of gravel. Windows stuck out of doors. The houses didn't accordion, nor were they damaged. They just got closer and closer and closer. Sully had hoped the streets would get shorter as a result, thinking maybe all the houses would combine into one and leave the shortest street possible. They didn't. The streets stayed the same length, only having more houses to compensate for the space.
And then the final street, where the houses overlapped until they did merge into a single unit - a row of single units, separate with separate yards, not touching, identical to the first street.
Rhea turned off the street for the last time, finding open country again beyond. The sky had lightened more, drizzling faintly. They could see for miles. The road appeared to lead toward a distant treeline.
Sully sighed. "If I had a nickel for every time I wanted to say, 'well, that was weird'…"
"That's it. Next town we find, I'm looting the booze," Rhea said. "I can't take this place sober."
"Oh, yes, drinking and driving. Perfect. That will definitely increase our chances of survival."
"I'll wait until we're stopped for the night! Just gotta find a place that's safe to stop."
"What, uh… What are we looking for again?" Sully said.
"We're trying to find this world's version of California where we can find its version of Ragnaro Co. headquarters."
"Rhea…" He leaned forward to gesture at the gray, bleak landscape. "I think we've established that this isn't Earth. Everything's so different here, there's no way to tell where we're supposed to be on a map. You said yourself that GPS doesn't work, right?"
"What do you suggest? Drive aimlessly forever?"
"That's exactly what we're doing now!"
"I don't have any better ideas, Sully! You think I took a class on what to do if I got sucked into a portal to another dimension? I'm just trying to keep us alive here!"
"I just… I'm tired of staying on the run. I haven't had a break since I came out of my coma," he said.
"Not my fault something attacks us every time we stop," Rhea said. "Listen, I know you wanna dig your heels in and wait it out, but 'it' isn't going away. We are. From what I remember, the machine uses some kind of template each time. There are supposed to be checkpoints to rendezvous at."
Sully thought of Whitney's warnings about Ragnaro Co. They've become corrupted. They exist to mass-produce meals.
"I just feel like this world is…" he said, "actively hostile to us. Something's seriously gone wrong with the project. Even if the world didn't intentionally get rid of the checkpoints, it's definitely screwing with us anyway. Everything it's thrown at us so far is straight out of a nightmare. And even if the checkpoints are there, I just don't trust Ragnaro Co., okay?"
"You've told me."
"I mean it! Your people are corrupt! You said this monster eats worlds, right? And now the company's making worlds? How do we know they're not just feeding it?"
Rhea side-eyed him. "Funny choice of words there. You been using a computer or a phone lately?"
"I - um. Why?"
"Because this world lies to you! Of course it's hostile, duh! You think it holds back when you find shelter, sticks to just using literal monsters, stuff you can see and touch? When it glitches up this badly, it'll start faking voices and saying whatever it can to throw you off your game."
"But… What? How would you know?"
"Because I still had my phone when we got here. I tried to call for help, remember? And it got weird. Someone answered and they started telling me to watch my back around you, that you'd betray me, you were lying to me, you were going to kill me…" Rhea sighed. "I had your phone too. That's why I didn't give it back."
Sully frowned. She had his phone all along? Had Whitney called her too?
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" he asked.
"When you live your whole life hearing voices, you get used to not being believed. So I just kept your phone away from you and hoped it wouldn't become an issue. But it sounds like it already has."
The treeline on the horizon grew closer and taller. The sky continued to pale as the rain let up to barely a mist. His head hurt.
"I got a call in the hotel room," Sully admitted. "They said -"
"That I was going to betray you, not to be trusted, yeah yeah. Whatever drives us apart. Like a predator singling out the prey, splitting the herd."
"So… so what now? Are there really checkpoints here, or is the world completely off the rails?"
Rhea didn't answer right away, staring ahead. "There's definitely something wrong with the world. Maybe the monster got in, or it's just a virus, or some kind of magical mojo I don't understand. But yeah, something's wrong. All I can hope for is that the original programming is intact enough to give us some guidance. Some safety. Maybe a way out to a different, real Earth."
Sully watched the forest approach, a jagged, toothy dark wall against the silvery sky. He thought he could smell smoke.
"How many Earths have you been to?" he asked after a while.
"Not counting yours? Just one. Mine. Destroyed," Rhea said.
"I… Oh. Uh, what was it like?"
"Earthy." She leaned forward to eye the trees ahead.
"Is there another 'you' on my version?" Sully said.
"Nope," Rhea said. "Pretty sure that's why Ragnaro even let me leave the building, no chance of running into my doppelganger there. And yeah, I looked myself up to make sure."
"Maybe you're a man on my world."
"Eh, who knows? I didn't care enough to keep looking," she said. "You know, it's weird. On my Earth, California didn't have fireflies."
He raised his brows. "What?! That's hard to imagine."
"Hah, not for me! I came out west and - it was a little sad, never seeing any fireflies lighting up the night again. Then… then the apocalypse came, and Ragnaro moved to your Earth. I didn't believe it at first. Who believes you moved into a parallel universe?" she said. "And then I saw them again, for the first time in years. Blinking everywhere. That's how I knew."
"Huh. Are there any other differences like that?"
"Sure. You ever heard of a koala bear?"
Rhea smirked. "Yeah."
The trees stood before them, uncannily tall and immense, without gradation or build-up of smaller growth, just a wall of titanic evergreens.
"So what the hell's a koala b-" Sully stopped as they entered the forest and plunged suddenly into darkness again.
He twisted to look back. Darkness behind them. A sense of dread welled up in him.
"Great…" He turned forward again.
The rain had stopped entirely, but the silence unnerved him, so used to the constant noise for so long. The car's headlights bobbed over the soft earth road and thick blankets of brown pine needles. Tree trunks upwards of several feet wide passed them by. The forest floor was bare, almost hollow, made of empty space between the tree trunks and beneath their closed-in canopies far above, giving the impression of a cathedral. Only where a cathedral might echo, the forest muffled sound.
"Yeah," he muttered, "great. First we couldn't see, now we can't hear. Maybe we'll get cold enough to lose our sense of touch, too."
"Man, don't even jinx it," Rhea said.
He felt a pulsing ache in his right eye and temple.
"Speaking of sight," he said. "It's glowing."
Rhea looked at him oddly. "What?"
"It's on the right side light, it's on, coming on." Glowing was overtaking his right field of vision. He had to verbalize a warning to her. He was full of dread and time, threading through his head.
"Oh hell, you're about to seize, aren't you?" she asked. She sounded so strange, so filmy. Everything was behind a film, grainy and glowing and strange-smelling.
"It's smoke." He gestured with his left hand at his right. "Mind them. Arm, don't let it I might hit something." No, that wasn't what he wanted to say. "I'm ss…seeing… Don't pin. Nothing in. I won't bite."
"Yeah, nothing in the mouth, you won't swallow your tongue, I know. Don't worry."
He was sure he said something else, but he didn't know what.
The sky was razor sharp and the walls were looking right at him. He reflexively tried to shield his eyes, but he had no body to act with, and no eyes to shield. The white walls were sharp and slitted, glaring between the dove-gray stencils painted on. Behind him came a droning howl like an organ in an empty room, and in his moment of distraction the stencils moved.
Those weren't stencils, those were shadows. Something was on the wall, converging on him with their black eyes.
He tried to move, but he wasn't there. He wanted to shrink away, terrified of the shapes he couldn't define, the watching things he couldn't watch back. He felt a wrench down the center of his skull as he pulled himself out of the vision and into another.
"Lines and masks. It's got to be her," someone said in the dark.
"You're just being paranoid! There's no proof!" someone else rebuked.
Sully couldn't clearly see who spoke, only that they were part of a group standing on a pier. The sky flashed with silent lightning, arcing from building to building like a tesla coil, reflecting on a bay of glassy black water.
something moving out there
"Look at the bullet."
just grazes its cheek
"That doesn't prove anything. But whoever she is, she did something - said something that made me listen. No, not listen. Obey."
don't let her speak
Another wrench. Sunlight flooded his eyes again. He threw an arm over his face and found himself surprised to have them this time.
Wait, wait. No, he wasn't supposed to be there. He only saw, he didn't enter the visions! It was happening again, just like the restaurant, stepping into a scene from another timeline entirely.
He knew this place. A small town, quaint and flowery. Little corner gas market, little niche shops for the passersby (playing up the town's scarce historical relevance), a little park with little plaques, a lot of cracks in the sidewalk, and warm winds off the rice fields. A fruit truck trundled by, leaving a wake of strawberry smells.
"So what do you want to see?"
He jumped and turned at the voice behind him, then did a double-take at the speaker, an older, broader version of someone he used to know. Sully tried to voice his confusion, but all that came out was a high-sounding: "A comedy."
It was then he noticed-slashed-recognized the exterior of his home town's brick movie theatre, covered in posters, and sporting an old-fashioned marquee.
"Naturally," the other said. What was that boy's name again? Jim? Jerry? Jeremy. "Man, aren't you hot in those sleeves?"
Sully looked down at his arms. They were prickly with humid heat, and sore with immediately recognized pain. He could time how fresh it was without looking. He started to feel sick at where he was, dizzy with claustrophobia. He folded his hands behind his back and shook his head.
"It'll be cold in the theatre, I figured I'd plan ahead," he lied. He had to get out.
Jeremy shrugged and looked over the posters. "How'd the concert go?"
Sully felt the tug of words wanting to come out, and let himself slip into autopilot, observing the vision from within. "It went great. Minimal fatalities. I'm practically a shoo-in for the Grammys."
"Did it really go great, or was that all sarcastic? I can never tell with you, Sibyl."
The name hit him like a baseball bat. His ears rang, his stomach soured. He wanted to run screaming down the street and never stop.
Instead, a little laugh came out, and he said, "Yeah, it did. Didn't miss a note. No seizures." But there had been concern. Seizures and sore arms. Nobody had known about the latter. He had to get out.
"Glad to hear it." Jeremy put an arm around Sully's small shoulders. "Sorry I missed it."
He was a silly idiot and a meal ticket, a way out of this sunny little shithole. Sorry you're such a nice guy, guy. You're all beauty and no brains. The contextual memories flickered in little by little, framing the scene in Sully's head.
"So, I got a weird letter today," Sully said. "Some research institute called Ragnaro said they were doing research about my, um, condition."
"I was asked to participate. They're paying… a lot." He took a deep breath. "But it's a long drive." And I'm never, ever coming back.
"Just tell me when, and I'll take the time off to get you there."
Smoke. Something was burning.
Sullivan's head and body ached. He opened his eyes and tried to get his bearings.
He was in a room now. Brown. Wooden. Cozy, but not cramped. Softness. A sofa. A sofa in front of a fireplace. The logs shifted, sparks spun away.
A plush chair sat nearby, and Rhea sat in it, asleep with her chin on her collar and her hands hanging over the sides. Sully slowly sat up, wincing at sore muscles and broken bones.
"Hey," he said.
Rhea's head jerked up. "Good, you're back."
"Found a cabin in the woods. I know, it sounds ominous. It's not a bad pad." She stood, stretched, and cracked her neck. "There was even a stash of food and booze."
"How long… was I -?"
"Dunno. You talked for a while first. Not that it made much sense."
"Last I remember, I…" Sully rubbed his head. "We drove into the woods."
"Yeah, you started babbling and muttering. Made me think of those Oracles in ancient Greece. Then we found this place, and I actually managed to get you in here and onto the sofa. Good thing, too, 'cause I wouldn't have been able to carry you! Anyway, then you started convulsing and passed out."
He stood and looked around. It was a spacious all-wood cabin home with a loft, an open kitchen, and a large stone fireplace. Romance-era paintings adorned the walls, and art deco sculptures and potted succulents lined the mantel and shelves. The windows were uncomfortably large and numerous, but at least the curtains were closed.
"You're right, it's not a bad place. Did you check it all out to make sure it wasn't haunted first?" he said, wandering.
"Yeah. No guarantees something won't pop up later, but it's safe for now."
Sully worked out the stiffness in his muscles by exploring the house. It was a mix of swanky modern - polished wood surfaces, a second sofa made of leather, state of the art kitchen appliances - and homey rustic, with the weathered, red Persian rug under the dining table, the chandelier made of a wagon wheel, and the hand-crafted birdhouses and embroidered doilies.
After locating the bedrooms and bathrooms, he returned to the main room where Rhea was pulling out dishes and glasses.
"This place is unbelievably nice," Sully said. "Way outside of my tax bracket."
"See? A nice place to stop and catch our breath."
"And get lulled into a false sense of security and torn to pieces."
"We'll cross that bridge when we get killed on it. Go on, have a seat, I'll bring over the chow."
Rhea gestured at the assorted places to sit. Sully ambled over to the fireplace and sank onto the earth-tone Mexican blanket in front it, leaning back against the sofa.
"These are some really incongruent design choices…" he commented.
Rhea carried over a porcelain plate piled high with strips of jerky and roasted peanuts. "So what did you see?"
"Mm, stuff and things." He plopped in a handful of peanuts while she went back for the drinks.
"Ooo, real personal stuff then!" Rhea said.
"Yup, got a visit from the three ghosts of Christmas. I saw the girl I left behind for gold and the boarding school where I squandered my youth. It was really touching."
"Look at you, getting all defensive. Adorable." She returned with two glass tumblers and a bottle of whiskey, and joined him on the floor to start pouring.
Sully gave her a wry look. "What I'm saying is I'm pretty sure it wasn't a real future vision. It was like the vision of dating you, just some alternate timeline."
He took the glass, sniffed it and took a sip. It was warm and smooth. He held up the glass to admire the glow of the fireplace through the amber liquid.
"Yeah?" Rhea kicked off her shoes and stretched out, leaning against the chair.
He kept sipping in between peanuts and bites of jerky, not answering for a few minutes. "Saw my ex. In my hometown. I um… I was going by my old name. I'm pretty sure none of that will come to pass, unless this world really pulls out all the stops to make itself a nightmare."
"Saw some confusing stuff with walls moving, and lightning and people talking about a bullet, I don't know. The visions have been making less and less sense for a while now. I think it has to do with Ragnaro. They were never this chaotic and disorderly before."
"High concentrations of Q-Aether, distortions of space-time, stuff like that," Rhea said with a shrug. "What kind of ex?"
"What do you mean 'what kind'? The kind I broke up with. I'm not a widower."
She laughed quietly. "I meant guy or girl."
"Uh, you think I'd still be alive if I'd effectively been an out lesbian in that place?" He snorted and kicked off his own shoes. "God, you should've seen the shitstorm the first time I cut my hair short. Yeah, it was a guy. Jeremy…"
"Aw, so wistful."
"I dunno. It's hard to miss anyone from back then. I cut ties pretty hard." He finished his glass. "Or they got cut for me. Whatever."
"What do you think would've kept you there? In that other timeline," Rhea said, refilling it. "What's the fulcrum?"
"That… damn scarf," he sighed. "Mom was just so aggressively passive-aggressive, pushing the feminine shit on me. I mean, it's - no offense - it was just -"
"You don't see me wearing silk and lacy frilly things either, do you?" Rhea said. "None taken."
"Well I had a vision about it. About that day. Two visions, actually. Two ways it could go down. One way was… just smile and nod and say, 'gee, thanks so much! I LOVE it!' and stop fighting them. I guess that's the way it went in that Bizarro world." He nodded at his arm in its makeshift sling. "This was the other way, the way it really went. The last straw for everybody involved."
Rhea tilted her head back against the chair, staring at the ceiling. "They manifested pretty monstrously there."
"If only that's what they really looked like. Then no one would've taken their side," he muttered. "You know, I… I really kept thinking that I…"
She watched him quietly. He stared into his drink.
"You live your whole life being plagued by visions, seizures - being the frail, helpless little girl." His face twitched. "And the first time you step outside the lines, start questioning authority, questioning yourself, and they go, 'Oh, is this from one of your hallucinations?' Boiling everything down to just losing your grip on reality. They didn't wanna hear it, my condition was an easy scapegoat. 'You don't mean that, it was just a bad dream, you're just confused'.
"Eighteen years of that… Of getting it drilled into your head how 'those queers are going to burn in Hell'. Of, 'they're just faking it for attention,' of, 'they just need to pray harder and they'll be cured.'" He knocked back the rest of the glass and held it out for another refill; she obliged. "Eventually you - Eventually I started to believe them, or at least I wanted to. I did pray, a lot. I wanted so badly to be…"
"'Normal'," Rhea said. "Or whatever the wanted you to be."
"Yeah." Sully swigged. "And then, hell, I was confused because, I did like men? Then I thought, what if I don't? What if that was an act to try to be 'normal'? Then I - then I thought, maybe I am a lesbian? But how do you even know if, what's really you, and what's…" He made a dismissive grumble, the whiskey making him less than able to articulate the thought anymore.
"Anyway, I hitch-hiked my way to the hospital with my one good arm," he said. "Found out they'd dropped me off their insurance, since I was an adult now. Never heard from anyone in my home town again. Good fuckin' riddance."
Rhea chuckled. "I'll toast to that." She raised her glass.
He clinked his glass against hers. "Cheers, I hope they rot."
"You know what else is a shame? Before your arm got broke here, I looted a music store. While you were out cold in your hotel room. I've had a violin stashed in the trunk, thinking it'd be a way to lighten the mood sometime. A little peace offering."
"Oh, god, really?" Sully gave a rueful laugh. "That's… that's actually really nice of you."
"Yeah, so hurry up and heal already so you can play me some sick jams!"
"Excuse you, they're called 'melodies'. And they're not sick… they're ill."
Rhea laughed. "Pardon me, maestro! I was not aware of the proper terminology."
He chuckled. "If you ever fit a piano in the trunk, I can play the lower half for you. Everything under middle-C. Howzat?"
"You need to take up the kazoo, clearly."
He snorted. "Yes, clearly. Mm… do you hang out with Mel? I feel like, like you'd get along."
"Neh. She keeps her distance," Rhea said.
"You were friends in one of my visions. She actually introduced me to you in that one…" Sully said. "I feel like if we actually met in, in better terms, we'd - You know, like you could be friends with my friends if the world wasn't ending."
"That is literally the nicest thing you've ever said about me. Making progress!"
"Okay, okay, don't go tooting your horn over that. Still gotta…" He realized his glass was empty and set it down, pushing it aside. "You know, gotta, make it out alive. Whoof, I'm done drinking."
"Hah, you are such a lightweight! Oh well. More for later. Let's go clubbing sometime and get wasted on jello shots."
He laughed. "You say that like… I haven't already."
"Ohhh? What's this? Mister Classical Music Hermit has a wild side?"
"Pffft, come on. Raised in a little town, all, strict religious no-nonsense, strictest assholes in the world, duh? As soon as I was free I cut loose. I can't remember most of it but I'm told I was a hoot."
"'A hoot', wooow. Is that how kids talk these days?"
"It's how drunks talk when… when they're drunk and… forgetting words. Shhit, that stuff's really hitting me. How full did you fill my glass?" he said with a laugh.
"Man, if I knew this was all it took to get you to open up, I'da done it ages ago!" Rhea said, moving next to him in front of the sofa. "So what kind of trouble did you get into once you were off the leash?"
"All… sorts. That's… that'd take an essay. Hell, that'd make it worth it to see home again, to see the looks on their faces if I told them -"
Rhea interrupted him by kissing him. He hadn't quite processed that it happened until she broke it off.
He gave her a bleary, bewildered look. "Wh…what?"
"Wanna fuck?" She was already halfway onto his lap halfway into the question.
"Oh," was his dazed response. Wait, what?
She kissed him again, more forcefully, threading a hand through his hair, grazing his scalp. He shivered and kissed her back, putting his good arm around her on reflex, before his brain could process the actions. But hadn't she tried to kill him? Wasn't she dangerous? And warm, and close, and feeling so nice…
He mumbled a "sure" at some point after she'd already unbuttoned his shirt. He didn't know if she even heard him.