XX

The gods play with my being.

Yes. I'm back. I've missed this stellar place. When I drift through the void, I feel powerful. Almost like I've transcended the field of mortality and become divine. Maybe that's how Heaven wanted me to feel. Perhaps it simply wanted to give me the illusion of absolute power as I was kept a prisoner forever more.

What was forever, to a human? An infinitely long time? Infinity had no meaning here. Everything here was infinite to a human. I shudder to think of what infinity was to an angel, to God – and the horrible things that would do to a mere man's body. I train my thoughts on the void and feel them in the air around me. My own mind is a planet, and I am its god. Immortal. All-powerful. This is what I am.

"Salvation."

What?

"You've reached salvation. You've purified yourself."

I tried to comprehend the words. Was it a warning? What did it mean? An infinity of knowledge within me, and I couldn't figure it out.

"Can you hear me, Alice?"

The voice suddenly directly addresses me and ruptures my own thoughts. They scatter about, my focus exploded into a trillion little fragments, and I suddenly feel powerless.

"You do, don't you?" the voice continues to say.

I turn around. Even in my stupor, I recognize the voice. It had once been bound to the Earth, a voice which announced the ambitions of a mind too powerful for its body before. Now it was free to do as it wanted. She'd been seen as delusional on Earth. But now, she'd achieved exactly what she'd wanted.

Chayne.

I can see her tremendous form rear over mine. A hundred feet tall, hair made of whipping black fire, six eyes flickering like will-o'-the-wisps, clad in a subtle glow not too dissimilar to that of a twilight sky. She's wearing a necklace of golden pearls, within each a world she's made to her liking. Her body is translucent, comprised of a flashing, non-corporeal substance that radiated with the powers of the void we drifted through. She'd tailored herself a cloak of raven feathers and a pair of six, darkened, seraphic wings. She'd become immortal. She'd become divine. She's a god; the Black Queen of Heaven. She grins at me with a mouth filled with stars, traces of purple energy trailing out of her lip like plumes of smoke before fading off around her.

"Look at what I've become, Alice," she gloats. "Look at what you've made me. The stars themselves are toys to me. I'm cosmic."

I do my best to back up. I feel nothing happen. Even when I'm adrift in a world with no boundaries, I'm still rooted to the spot.

"Go away," I say, my own voice pitiful compared to her image. "You've lost, Chayne. The program has failed."

Chayne laughed, her six eyes widening and flaring up. "Lost? Child, I've achieved everything I possibly could have wanted! The program was a failure, yes. But what fails on Earth matters not here, Alice. We are gods, now. You and me alike."

I remain unconvinced. "And Ash?"

Chayne chuckles with an air of humor. "Somewhere in here, I'm sure. But the fate that befell him is unfortunate as compared to us. Look at us. We have reached salvation."

I continue to defy the Black Queen. "I'm not a god, Chayne. Neither are you."

"Naive as ever," Chayne replies. "Look at yourself. Your mortal body has been left as a mere shell of itself back on that diseased world. You've become free of sin. Of all that horrid nonsense that taints the common man. I never thought you of all people would be the one to join me in ascension, but we are no longer human, Alice. Heaven took you because it wanted you back; I can think of no better a fate."

"I think... I'd rather remain human, then," I say.

Chayne frowns. Her expression of disapproval carries a massive energy to it. "What a pity. You have a gift nobody will know of again and you deny it. You are still bound down to Earth's values. You deny your own power, Alice. Accept it."

"Never," I say, my voice quavering. "I don't want this. I just want to go back home and build my life again."

Chayne's smile returns. "I'm afraid that's no longer an option, child. I have the power to break the Boundary on my own, now. That I shall do. Nothing has changed, Alice. Humanity is still doomed to judgment, and I name myself the judge."

"No," I say, once again defying the Black Queen. "If I can use this power in any way, it'll be to stop you. You're not going any further, Chayne."

Chayne laughs, her regal laugh stretching out through Heaven. "Do not mistake my power, Alice. I envision myself a benevolent god. But I can be capable of all the wrath of Hell as well."

She extends her finger towards me. I can feel her will shaping into energies around it. In a split-second, those energies manifest physically and strike my form as a bolt before flashing into non-existence. I feel myself hurtle through the void and my focus and will once again shatter and be cast off to the winds of eternity. An ungodly fire wells in my very being, burning me, torturing me, damning me. Chayne was judging me.

"Can you feel your own imperfections being washed away, child?" the Black Queen says. "I will not see your power wasted. If you choose not to use it and condemn yourself to those filthy man-made values, so be it. You will be the first I remake in my image – and you will stand by my side."

I can feel the fires burn away at my soul. Every human feeling I took with me to Heaven I feel smoldering away. All these imperfect emotions, my innocence, everything once normal to me. I desperately struggle against it. My own power is bending against me.

I call out, desperately. "Chayne... Chayne, you know this is wrong! With all this power... surely, surely you must realize the responsibility that comes with it? The lines you need to draw?"

Chayne smiles. "Most certainly, Alice. I do not abuse my divine power. The reason you see this as torment is because you have not yet been shown the truth. This is merely... education. Once you are like me, you'll find it so much easier."

"So you're giving up everything you found precious in your life for your delusions?!" I cry.

Chayne grows angry and the fire burns hotter. "There is nothing I consider precious, Alice. There is nothing in Earth worth saving. Nothing. Never has been."

"What about your daughter?!"

The fire stops. Chayne doesn't seem to know how to react. I immediately seize the opportunity before she can cast it away.

"You remember her, don't you?! You have happy memories. You've buried your own grief. You're ignoring it, but it's still there, Chayne. You're not as free of these things as you think. Your own philosophy is flawed!"

Chayne glares at me with a divine wrath. "No, it isn't. I've cast aside those horrific memories, child."

"Then why have you stopped!?" I yell.

Chayne doesn't reply. She struggles for an answer. She looks inside of her own being. Within, she looks at everything she's ignored head-on. All that grief. That hatred of the world. Everything that makes her human. What she considers flaws are still within her.

The truth of this imperfection hits Chayne hard. She clutches her head and starts screeching out in that same banshee voice in defiance of it. "No. Go away. I'm perfect. I've already ascended. I've reached salvation. Go away! Go away! You speak falsehoods, Alice! Filthy, damnable lies!"

The fire in me dies out and my own god-like power flares in place of the Black Queen's. I feel pity for Chayne. She's become nothing but a well of hatred, ignorance, and delusion.

"No, Chayne. That's life. That's being human. You've seen horrible, horrible things. But the world – what everyone else you've ignored and tried to condemn consider precious to us – doesn't deserve this."

Chayne roars and the divine mask of her form fades away. Her wispy eyes turn to roaring flames and she becomes a lashing thing of absolute hatred.

"Be quiet! You can't comprehend this! You can't comprehend me!" she protests.

I remain undaunted. "Be at peace, Chayne."

I use every inch of the power Chayne said I have to will her not, seizing the moment of my advantage against Chayne. By my command, a searing white fire starts from within her heart and bursts out her chest in a raging inferno. Chayne devolves into frantic screaming as the rest of her body starts to crack and burst aflame. The existence of her own flaws in this perfect state ruin any illusion of omnipotence she might have had and consume her in the same way Heaven consumed Ash's mind. The Black Queen falls from grace after the few minutes she reigned, the raven-cloak withering and her eyes fading to sparks as Chayne's form burns up and fades to non-existence with a scream that echoes through Heaven. She goes in agony and refusing to come to peace with her flaws, with the depression that's driven her into this descent heavier than ever. That, on its own, is a forlorn tragedy.

I don't think anything could have convinced her to reason, sadly.

As Chayne dies, my own power starts to fade with a sigh. I can feel my own grip on Heaven slipping. Chayne's being vanishes into the depths of Heaven, perhaps to become something less than a soul, perhaps to serve as sustenance for the blind, unknowing angels, but Heaven collects its dues. I am no longer needed here. I inwardly know I should be grateful at the fact I'm being allowed to return to reality, but I still can't help but feel sad that the touch of Heaven is gone before it begins.

Regardless, our worlds are not meant to collide. Both of us part with this knowledge and come, finally, to peace.

My eyes, for the final time in Paradise, opened from the wake of unconsciousness.

I could quickly make out everyone piled around my unconscious form start to move and murmur at my sudden return to consciousness. Tango, in an instant, shot themselves over to my form and looked me dead in the eyes, their one arm clasped firmly onto my shoulder. Though I still felt a little dazed, I cracked a wide smile regardless.

"Hi, Tango," I said, beaming.

Tango returned the dorky grin and embraced me, tightly. We shared a laugh – though it was more a voiceless cough on Tango's end – and I stood myself up. Lavender, Jilton, and Darby walked over to me. It was a literal miracle we'd all managed to survive this ordeal.

"Christ, Mint, thanks for giving us a hell of a scare!" Darby said with a nervous laugh. "What the hell happened? Chayne dove into that weird ass portal before it closed and you just sort of... blacked out."

I concentrated. Thank God – maybe even literally – I could no longer feel the crack trying to drain out my mind. It was Heaven-free. Perhaps I wouldn't have to go mad like Ash.

"Chayne's gone," I summed up. "So's the threat of Heaven spilling into our world. All the portals should be gone by now."

"Then the program's failed."

Another voice, certainly not that of any of my companions but still something I recognized, sounded from a source at the end of the room. Startled, I looked over my shoulder to whoever said that, ignorant to a frown suddenly appearing on their face.

It was the Director. Charles Waits. He was leaning on a cane, still as gaunt as ever and his eyes still bleak and lifeless. His sudden grim presence dampened the mood a little, like a clown having a heart attack at a birthday party.

"Charles?" I said, confused. "When did... uh, when did?..."

"Half an hour ago," Charles replied in a gruff voice. "I noticed the portal in the Courtyard suddenly blink out. When Jen..." He cleared his throat upon a sudden glare from Tango which only soured the mood further. "...when Tango's mind was connected to Heaven and subsequently severed, I believe it may have had something of a chain effect. None of the weak spots in Paradise are active anymore."

I couldn't help but feel some sort of relief at that.

Jilton yawned and walked up, eyeing Charles over. "Then I think it's settled, then, Mr. Director. Your diabolical plan has been foiled."

I felt an urge to sharply reprimand Jilton for that quip, but she said it with a playful sarcasm and Charles seemed to take it in good heart, giving a wheezy laugh.

"It seems so," he said, simply. "Can't say I'm terribly sad over it collapsing at this point in time."

Jilton smirked. "You've still a few loose plot ends you've yet to tie up, Mr. Director. I believe you owe me one trip up to the penthouse suite. All of us, actually."

Charles solemnly nodded. His eyes met Tango's, for a second. They hadn't said anything, obviously, but they'd simply been staring at their father for the longest time, waiting for some sort of an acknowledgment. Charles seemed to ruminate and dwell on what to say before he said it.

"I'm sorry, Tango," he said. "I've said that before, and I'll say it again. I cannot make amends. But we can at least work towards our goal. The Phantom still exists, and so long as we do not know how to cure it, it continues to threaten the existence of our Earth. With your consent... I would like to devise a proper cure, this time."

Tango seemed to consider things. I primly folded my hands behind me and stepped to beside Lavender as we awaited their decision.

Silently, they nodded, their face flat with a determination I'd seen on them from the first moment I'd seen then in my room. So little and yet so much had changed.

The barest imprint of a smile appeared on Charles' face. He looked behind him. "Then there is nothing left for us here. I'll let you all gather up what you need and say what you need to say. We have all the time in the world."

Charles took the first few step out of the room Tango had been hooked up to, walking out of sight and through the door. We all looked at each other.

"Seems we finally get to break out," Lavender said, happy triumph in her voice. "This is what we've been waiting for. All of us."

"From the start," Jilton added. "You've been wandering this place for about eight weeks, haven't you, Lavender?"

She laughed. "I most certainly was. That's an exciting story of its own."

"I'd wager!" Jilton said exuberantly. "Bet none of us could've predicted this would be the resolution. We're walking out heroes."

I considered that. I considered what I'd said to Jilton I a while back. We're not heroes, Jilton. We're survivors.

It probably still had a grain of truth to it. What had been done in the past affected the future and could not be changed. We'd been bribed to come here; an exploitation of common cruelty, as Chayne had said. What we'd signed up for, what Ash had done, what Charles had allowed – they were stains in the past that could never be erased. I reasoned with myself.

What happened in the past was simply a lesson for the future, after all.

"That we are," Lavender finally said. "As I said... Whether or not the world has a place for us here, I'm confident we can rebuild our lives."

Jilton gave a wide grin. "Hey. We're still all legally obligated to three-hundred million for each of us from the hands of the Association itself. Three-hundred million. That's a lot. Red Clover was never expecting to pay us when they weren't even expecting us to survive."

Red Clover, either way, was essentially in ruins now. I pulled out the phone I'd pocketed. By all evidence, the weak spots had decimated all the staff on at least the forty-ninth floor. Sucked them into Heaven and plunged them into a fate beyond imagination. Maybe they'd become gods. If there were any survivors out of the facility, the failure of this and the exposing of everything Chayne had attempted to have covered up would bankrupt them for good.

Jilton and Lavender caught up in a hearty conversation about what they'd experienced as me, Darby, and Tango regrouped.

"Hey, scamps," Darby said. "You ready to bust out of this cesspool?"

I smiled, alongside Tango's spirited nod. "Definitely!"

Darby scratched his stomach. "Good. Maybe we could settle down somewhere. Me and Gladys acquainted pretty damn well over the time we knew each other. We could buy a bloody mansion or something. Be some sort of crazy-ass family."

Me and Tango started to laugh at the prospect of that. "Oh, and I imagine you figure you'd be the father?"

Darby had an expression of mock sternness. "Damn straight I'd be the man of the house. I'd gut us a deer every Wednesday. Mommy Gladys can cook it for you kids."

Tango had devolved to mute snickering behind me. "And what about Jilton?" I asked.

Darby half-heartedly shrugged. "She can be the crazy aunt or something. She can turn our lives into a fucking sitcom. Four Buggers & Me."

We had another merry laugh. Finally, I turned back to Tango and smiled.

"Hey," I said. "Glad we're both alright, Tango."

Tango gave me a grin in response, seemed to trying and think of a way to respond, then reared down to the bag containing their items – which I noticed now had been placed by their side, likely while I'd been unconscious – and plucked out the HF hairbrush. After straightening their hair a bit, they took out Toucan Sam. From beginning to end, he'd maintained his smile. That was an impressive feat. I gave him a happy little wave, and me and Tango shared an almost longing glance at each other. Finally, I gave them a solid hug of my own.

"Nothing's changed, Tango," I said. "Maybe you think you're worthless. Maybe you think this all fell to chance and you're just some stupid toy of fate. But I still mean what I said all that time ago. I'll stand by your side no matter what. You're worth it to me."

We shared a few more tears. Finally, they were of happiness rather than of fear. It was a strange but happy feeling, to me. Rather than dreading the enigma of what came next, the future was, for once, bright.

We finally looked back at Jilton, who'd broken off conversation from Lavender to look back at us. "You all ready, then?"

"As I'll ever be!" I replied.

Darby yawned sardonically and shuffled past her. "Just so long as we get out of this dump, I'm happy," he said, presumably still thinking of his brilliant pitch for Four Buggers & Me.

I gave a side glance to Tango. Sam in hand, we exchanged a mutual nod of finality, our minds still on the subject of everything that had happened, and we followed Darby and Lavender out the door. Jilton slammed the door behind us and we made our way back to the Courtyard.

The Red Clover nest was obviously shaken, but the distorted parts of reality had returned to normal, making the final result of what we saw more like the aftermath of a mild earthquake rather than a reality-bending nightmare. Still, we saw no Red Clover faculty. Some part of me was grateful, and another part of me worried for whatever happened to them – and if whatever had broken out was still loose. We made our way out of Chayne's secret compartment, to the elevator that led us back up to the Courtyard, and went straight to the observatory where Charles was waiting. The tree in the center of the Courtyard no longer seemed so otherworldly. Its leaves were starting to go scarlet and the smell of fall came into my nose. Simulated or not, that on its own was a pretty sight. Charles was waiting on the second floor of the observatory, by a side door at the right end of the observation deck me and Tango hadn't seen previously.

"Up here leads to the surface," Charles said. "We're marooned on an island in the Pacific Ocean a few thousand miles from America. Paradise Association's headquarters are in New York. I figure that's where Tara went last. Everyone came here through plane or boat. We'll be taking the latter."

Thinking things over, I pulled out the cracked smart phone. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be service. Or even wi-fi. The distortions in reality probably screwed it up.

Charles tapped a button by the door and quietly waited as the double-door parted. The room – one final elevator – was jet-black and pathetically narrow. Presumably it wasn't the only way down to Paradise, but it was at the very least the one of closest convenience.

We all uncomfortably huddled into the elevator. Charles tapped the button again, the doors closed, and the elevator started to move upwards. A familiar tune started.

Ooh ooh ooh, ooh, ooh ooh, ooh ooh ooh...

That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh...

Of course. This time, it was Darby who freaked out and started cursing. "For fuck's sake, do these fucking elevators not play anything else!? Christ!"

Charles chuckled quietly. "This was me and Tara's favorite song. We played it during our wedding. We played it during our honeymoon. We played it when we bedded each other, and-"

Lavender coughed, loudly. "Ahem. Charles. Please, not in front of the kid."

She quietly signaled to me. The implications of the song and what Charles was saying soared a clear mile over my head. "What? Why is my age relevant to this?"

Everyone else seemed to consider that. Then everyone in the elevator burst out into laughter at once, leaving me feeling lonely and perplexed. Even Tango seemed to pick up the hint.

"Not fair," I whined, my voice once again devolving to a squeak the others no doubt considered adorable.

The song buzzed off, eventually, and the doors opened. A sudden burst of light flooded into our line of sight and we all covered our eyes. A saline breeze coursed into the elevator, and the usual ambiance of a buzzing light was replaced by a sound of rushing, soothing waves crashing on a beach. When we stepped out of the elevator, I felt not a cold, hard floor under my feet, but warm, sand-caked grass. Everything was so wide open. The sky was a placid shade of blue, the area around us covered in forest and tropical-looking trees. The air was chilly in a way we hadn't known to us. We shivered, but it felt natural and calming. Behind us was a structure jutting out of the sand, a weathered sign on it marked with a familiar acronym:

P.A.R.A.D.I.S.E.

The world ahead of us stretched out to a beach and a vast, indomitable ocean, and a continuation of the beach curving north to the horizon. I was struggling to see it through the sun rubbing itself harshly in my sensitive little eyes even as everyone else took it all in with awe. Jilton restrained a smile as she saw me squinting in disappointment.

"Anti-climactic, I imagine?" Jilton said. "Don't like the sunlight, pale-face?"

I looked over at her, my eyes narrowing and my face going deadpan. "I can feel everything else perfectly. This is the open world, huh?..."

"It's beautiful," Lavender finally said, savoring the feel of the grass on her toes. "So much more... free."

We were silent for a moment, taking in the atmosphere, before Charles finally tapped his cane against the grass and beckoned us further. At the side of the island not far away was what seemed to be a colossal storage, the side of which was open to the water. Within were several dormant motorboats. A five minute walk was all it took to get to the storage, Charles opened the door with a key card – which Tango was staring at with hatred as they protectively clutched the Key of Utmost Convenience – and the door to the storage opened.

We all walked onto a wooden side path, structured identically to a pier, the pillars supporting it festering with barnacles and the planks we stood on damp with the swishing, foamy water underneath us. The storage was cold and a little dark, the sun blotted out by the walls next to our immediate position, but the roof was raised high above us and the blue sky was still very visible in the open section out ahead. Charles walked up to one of the many stationed motorboats, before pulling one a little closer to the pier by the cord binding it. It was fairly big, ivory white, with enough seats and room for the six of us and what seemed to be a built-in cooler by the back of the boat, elevated above the engine. The orange seats looked cushy enough and the thing was in perfectly serviceable condition to drive us at least away from the island to perhaps a plane further inland.

Charles got in first, and Lavender steadied the boat as we all got in. I found myself in a seat next to Tango at the very back of the boat, before Lavender stepped in to seat herself next to Darby directly ahead of me. The boat rocked and bobbed underneath us, and Charles eventually undid the cord and took out a silver key from underneath the wheel. The boat started up, the motor loudly kicked in, and after a bit of deliberation, we started to move away from the pier. Tango held onto their items protectively, in particular Sam, as I looked back. Finally, the boat took off and Charles, without a word, sailed us off into open water, the sun coming back into view and our ears dominated by the loud buzz of the motor.

The boat bounced on the waves, splashing us every occasionally with an spray of refreshing, bitter-tasting sea water. I looked behind me. The island, Paradise, and every horrible thing that had happened to us was getting farther and farther away. After ten minutes, it was a simple speck on the horizon we would never return to. I sat back as Lavender and Darby caught up with another conversation ahead of us.

I had a hundred things I wanted to say and a hundred more I was thinking about. But the cool wind blowing against my face as we raced out into the open water, the open world and the radiant sun and the brilliant sparkling waves I was experiencing all again for the first time, was all a simple pleasure I decided to simply bask in. I looked over at Tango. They'd closed their eyes and were letting their head loll back against the back of the seat. Evidently, they were doing much the same.

For once, I decided not to overthink things and simply enjoyed everything as it was without the fear of danger. I let my head hang back, closed my eyes, and let myself fall into a well-deserved proper slumber as we all sailed out to the future ahead.

I dreamed of an open ocean, that day.