Ruiz Duchamp heard a sound in the distance.
Probably nothing. Ruiz continued to pace in his studio, moonlight shining through the glass roof and casting shadows across the room. Felix had passed on the invitation; the only thing that Ruiz could do now was wait.
Ruiz turned to the doorway; he had waited long enough. The Critic adjusted the grey tie on his grey shirt, grey fedora matching his grey eyes. Every wrinkle in his brow exuded an aura of impossible normalcy, a feeling that this lone individual was the one true constant in reality. Ruiz grinned. His audience of one had arrived.
“The one and only. And what should I call you? Do you prefer ‘Critic’? ‘Doctor’? ‘Professor’? ‘Administrator’? ‘Reverend’, even? Dare I call you ‘God’? Or, perhaps, shall we go with… ‘Nobody’?”
“I think ‘Sir’ will suffice.”
Ruiz clapped his hands in unspeakable ecstasy, moving to the man’s side.
“Sir, yes sir. Right this way, sir, may I take your hat and tie, sir? Welcome, sir, welcome, to my glorious masterpiece!”
Ruiz flung his hands from his body, theatrically standing in front of his completed work. The lights flicked on with an electric hum, sawblades spun on with a whirr, neon signs flashed brightly, rows upon rows of deadly contraptions lined the hall. Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ played from the house speakers.
“WOWWEE, SIR, WOWWEE! GO KILL YURSEFIL!”
Ruiz paused, realising he wasn’t sure how to pronounce ursefl.
“Yur… yursefil? Ursefell? Oh, never mind, it’s pronounced ursefl, silly me.”
The Critic adjusted his fedora.
Ruiz laughed, plucking a yellow circular saw from a shelf.
“No, sir, no it’s not. You’re not looking at it with the right mindset, you’re not looking close enough. You’re the right audience but you’re looking at the wrong thing, sir. Look at this until you really, really get it, sir, then you’ll understand the exhibit.”
The Critic took the offered saw in his hand. He appraised it briefly. Uninteresting in all respects.
“This is nothing.”
“Sir, I’d never show nothing to Nobody. Look harder.”
The Critic stared at the circle of metal. He stared into the thin coating of paint, literally inside its composition, then noticed the pattern of brushwork. It was not completed in discrete layers, in fact, the brushstrokes seemed to weave together in three dimensions, the dried paint tangled impossibly. It was so subtle that, in fact, nobody would ever notice it. Nobody but Nobody. He looked deeper, beyond the coating, into the metallurgical structure of the disc. The internal flow seemed to twist and turn through impossible spaces, incredible tension pulling the fabric of reality taut within the hardened disc. He looked deeper, into the molecular structure; there he saw five-dimensional warping that should, by all accounts, cause the disc to shatter into dust. The atomic structure was bent through eight dimensions, beneath that, the protons were pulled across eighteen; the constituent quarks below were crackling across twenty six and below that he could feel the tension of uncountable vectors in uncountable spaces. The Critic inhaled deeply, apprehension setting in. Ruiz cackled madly.
“It’s all perfectly fine, sir, it’s perfectly normal. There’s enough stress in that disc alone to destroy the planet, and sir, I’ve got five of them, and a hell of a lot more than just saws in here. I have no idea what you’re looking at, even now. I was painting blind, I can’t look that deep, but I searched for it and felt my way around and knotted the stuff together and there you go. I was very careful about it, sir, not even you could unravel this tapestry; the knit is much too tight.”
The Critic looked up at the buzzing, whirring, slicing death machines. In every one of them, he felt the inimitable pull of the impossible. He could tell they were all joined to the humble chair sitting in the middle of the room. Ruiz’s mad grin relaxed into an apathetic melancholy. He gestured and nothing but moonlight was left, silence fell, and then gestured again, and, with an audible arc of electricity, a spotlight shone onto his centrepiece.
“Of course, you can’t possibly let this stand. Someone as erratic, as unpredictable as me, to have such untapped force at his disposal? Frankly unacceptable. Certainly, you could try to pull these things apart yourself, piece by piece, thread by impossible thread, but I don’t think even your hands are steady enough for that. One wrong yank and you’d wipe all life from the earth. Luckily for you, though, there’s still one hanging cord. You grab this metaphorical cord and pull, it all collapses, the tightness drops, the tenseness on the world dissipates and I’m left with a bunch of boring little trinkets. You know what I mean, don’t you sir?”
The Critic’s face moved uncomfortably, staring at the illuminated chair.
“Come, sir, let me show you to your throne.”
Ruiz grabbed the grey-suited man by the arm, pulling the suddenly limp figure to the centre of the room. Ruiz pushed The Critic down onto the chair, fastening straps around his legs, chest, and left arm. Ruiz placed The Critic’s right hand upon a large red lever. A polaroid camera faced directly towards The Critic’s grey fedora.
“Now, this is the thing that I’m most proud of, sir. This piece, I call ‘get ur foto takkn’, and I do hope I’m pronouncing that clearly enough for you. You see, all you need to do is sit right there, get nice and comfortable, pull that big old lever, and then this contraption here, the good old polaroid, takes a picture of you! And also you get electrocuted and die. This does, of course, unknit all of my other fancy stuff, completely disabling my ‘armaments’. But that last bit’s only happening because it’s you, sir, the rest happens for everyone.”
The Critic looked dully towards Ruiz, fedora barely blocking the harsh spotlight from his eyes.
Ruiz turned and sat to the side of his camera, shrouded in darkness yet dappled in moonlight.
“Because I hate you. Because I need to hold someone responsible for all of this, all of reality, and it may as well be you. You sit in the darkness and plan and plot and you think you’ve got it all under control. Well, you don’t have it under control. If I’d wanted, I could have just set this stuff off yesterday, and nobody would have breathed another breath. And that’s not a stupid, shitty double meaning thing with ‘Nobody’, you’d be dead as well, sir. You presume to have the authority to take care of everything, when in reality, you’re the one who has the least control. Look at you, old man, sitting in a bland little suit, hopping about and reassuring everyone. ‘All part of the plan’, you say. But there is no plan, there is no grand scheme, and it’s only by incredible happenstance that the world hasn’t been obliterated a trillion times over. You’re not getting your shit together, so I need to kill you. With you gone, people will take your place. Deconsolidation of the power base. Restructuring of the system. A universal paradigm shift. The ultimate defenestration.”
“All I’m hearing is the incoherent rambling of a madman.”
“A madman? You’re calling me a madman? You’re the one who made me like this, grandpa, you’re the one who set it all in motion. Sitting around playing with a bunch of fucking puppets, masks upon masks upon masks, playing at being Everybody and what’s in the middle? I know as well as you do, Nobody lies behind the masks. Lies and lies and lies and lies. So I’ve sat you here, subtle hints and triggers forcing you into submission, into apathy, into apprehension and servility and all of that good stuff. But I’m not going to kill you, sir, no sir, no sir. That’s your big red lever to pull.”
The Critic drummed his fingers on the handle.
“And what if I sit here and do nothing?”
“Then I’ll walk over to the wall, press that button, and boom goes the metaphorical dynamite.”
At once, a large red button began to glow.
“So, sir, take your pick. Die by yourself, unknown, unloved, a nobody until the end, and silently save millions, or die with me, die with all of us, and with the last of your waking moments watch the world burn. I’m not fussed either way, sir.”
Ruiz pulled his right leg up to rest upon his left.
“Why did you make him to begin with, sir?”
“You know who.”
“I honestly don’t.”
Ruiz stood and pulled The Critic by his tie, watching him wince as his airways cut off.
“You don’t even remember. You pull impossible shit and move on, you switch masks and dance away. You refuse to shoulder responsibility for your own actions and entrust the world upon the shoulders of cripples. Fuck you, sir. Redd really was just like you.”
The Critic’s eyes widened.
“Redd… that was years ago. Long before I found the hat. You mean he actually… oh. Oh, I am so, so sorry. He wasn’t meant to leave. He wasn’t ready. I made a mistake. I’m so sorry.”
Ruiz crinkled his face, tears pouring unrestrained from his eyes. He let the tie drop, pulling The Critic’s old and wizened face into a bearlike hug.
“This is not for me. This is not for you. This is for him. This is for him, you useless sack of shit.”
Ruiz walked back to his seat, staring straight at the old man’s grey, sorrowful eyes.
“You want to show me you’re sorry, you pull that fucking lever. You want to make the world a better place, kill yourself. KILL YOURSELF! WOWWEE! GO KILL YOURSELF! WOWWEE! Wowwee…”
The Critic lifted his arm, placing it firmly upon the lever. His face hardened.
“For what it’s worth, Ruiz, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m-”
The glass roof shattered, shards falling down into the hall of death. Ruiz widened his eyes as a perfectly circular hole appeared in The Critic’s fedora, blood and skull fragments bursting from the puncture. He felt a pressure in the room release as months of impossibility was pulled free, a hollow whine echoing in the space as reality reassumed its authority. Ruiz covered his head from the shards, turning his head to the sniper laying comfortably on the roof among his corpses. The shooter waved to his brother, malicious grin covering his face. Ruiz screamed the only words he could string together.
“YOU FUCKING KILLSTEALER!”
Pico Wilson rose from his throne, throwing his rifle through the ruined roof and clattering onto the glass-covered floor, saluted mockingly, then turned and disappeared into the darkness. Ruiz thought to give chase, but knew he was likely already too far gone. He turned back to the old, dead man, grey matter glistening as blood stained his otherwise pristine suit. Ruiz pulled the fedora from The Critic’s bloodied head, flawless circle still punched through the front. Ruiz pushed his finger through the hole and wiggled it around.
The lever remained unpulled.