"How long have we got?" Matthew said, his stomach growling.
Zeke had been looking at his watch almost constantly for the last twenty minutes. “Three minutes, ten seconds. Nine seconds.” A pause. “Five seconds.”
“Which way did you say it is?” Matthew asked.
"How many times have you asked that?" Zeke said.
"Too many, I think," Matthew replied.
Zeke shuffled and looked at the backpack beside him. Fuck, I don't wanna carry this thing any further, he thought. Foundation tech had gotten to a sci-fi level towards the end, but as the seriousness of the crisis grew, the R&D boys just quit trying to miniaturize. This thing, they probably figured, would be carried on a truck. Well, that was a great thought, back when we had gas.
"How much further?" Zeke asked.
"Two miles. And we have about…" Matthew looked at his watch. "…three hours before the window closes. We gotta get up, dude."
"Oh, shit, really?" Zeke said. "I was gonna suggest a quickie while I was flat on my back. You make this sound all urgent and shit."
"You aren't boyfriend material, Zeke," Matthew said, straight-faced. "Get the fuck up. Let's go save the world."
"You weren't so grumpy back in Atlanta," Zeke replied.
"It's the end of the world and I'm indiscriminate. Sue me. I told you it wasn't something serious. You wanna wax nostalgic about a hookup until the window closes, or do you wanna pick up that backpack already?"
Zeke was already standing up. "Come on, let's do a thing."
"How many times do you reckon we've done this by now?" Matthew asked.
"Do you remember an apocalypse that's slipped my mind?" Zeke replied. "This seems pretty fucking fresh to me."
"You know what I mean. What the Overwatch fuckers said during the briefing."
"You bought that shit? Parallel universes? Other versions of Ezekiel Washington and Matthew Cloar wandering the countryside, getting into sexually confusing escapades and making last stands against the end of the world? You think there are really millions of us?"
"I mean, I try not to think too hard about there being more than one of you in the first place, but yeah, I have no reason to think they were gonna make this up. It's already stupid enough."
Zeke tried to shrug, winced with the effort. "Makes a dumb kind of sense to me. Get one of these scantron machines to the exact right coordinates, turn them all on, magic away the dying of the light. It's no stupider than half the other shit they apparently did that made this happen."
Matthew kept walking for a few minutes in silence. "You think we're gonna see our families again?"
Zeke shook his head. "Fucked if I know. I hope so. They said there was a chance that when we undid this, we'd all revert back into a world where it never happened. I figure it'll probably be one of those paradox things where there's just one ideal world, and we won't be in it. But we'll have made it possible. Us and all the others. I guess that's worth something, knowing that some Libby's gonna see her daddy again somewhere." Zeke would have had tears running down his face if he had been properly hydrated.
The walk was phenomenally boring without conversation. Just mile after mile of flat Tennessee countryside, the occasional hill, empty houses, empty towns, cannibalized rat piles, lots of tattered American flags still on poles from where their owners never thought to take them down before dying. Disrespectful, Matthew thought.
"God damn, how much of this state got ratted out?" Matthew said. "I figured we'd be well into spider country by now."
"Nah, the Proletariat never got out of Arkansas heading this direction," Zeke said. "I think their chairman crossed a Fifthist something or other, made a blood enemy out of the Lake County and Memphis congregations at the same time. Not easy to get rednecks to agree with something happening in Memphis, I can god damn well assure you of that."
"Oh, shit, yeah, you're from around here," Matthew said.
"Paducah, sure. It's across the border north of here. I mean, you know," Zeke sputtered. "It was north of here, before the Franklin War."
"I'll pretend like I remember what that was," Matthew said. "I was busy with the balrog, remember?"
"I still think that sounds like horseshit," Zeke said. "You were from Philly, weren't you? Not that close to the Centralia dee zee."
"You're a fucking peach, you know that?" Matthew said, too exhausted to be disgusted. "You get that he got hungry after he picked off all the Amish, right? Trust me, Philly was definitely a fucking Disaster Zone. It's probably as flat as the rest of the Eastern Seaboard by now."
A few more minutes in silence. "Not that you give a shit," Zeke said, "but at least my fuckers got got not long after they got my town."
"What, the Franklinites?" Matthew said. "They not around anymore?"
"Nah, portal sucked the whole state up, dropped them off in fucking Greece somewhere. Samus, Thracia, one of those dumbass islands. Whole state of Franklin got dropped on top of some third-world country out there."
Matthew snorted. "Are you seriously that inbred? You didn't hear about that thing down in Samothrace?"
"Matty, I didn't give a fuck what happened down in Samez Trace or who the fuck knows what. All I know is, judging from the way they got to die, they apparently got lumped in with the rest of the Middle East, somehow."
"Oh, shit." Matthew said. "The Devourer?"
"Fuckin' A, the Devourer. Couldn't have happened to nicer people."
More silence. The location grew closer. The two were now on Evergreen Street, looking for a park. It wasn't hard to find. A small device on Zeke's waistband, which had been chattering quietly ever since they entered the Dresden city limits, started going off a little more frequently.
"How many fucking skips were in this shithole town?" Matthew asked.
"Enough to make this shit work, apparently," Zeke said.
Matthew nodded. Overwatch had been very specific on the location of this Scranton anchor, and it wasn't a geographic coincidence; apparently the anomalous concentration in this town centered on Wilson Park, which (judging from the presence of playground equipment) was right in front of them. Activate this one in the right spot, which Overwatch had assured them would be easy enough to find once they were there, and something something portal to something something realign the dimensional something something and everybody gets cake and gets to go home. Matthew liked ragging on Zeke for being a dipshit, but it wasn't like he understood this any better than Zeke did. He had been a guard before all this started; Zeke had stacked boxes for six years.
But Research was specific. That Zank guy in particular. Has to be these two, he said. It's always these two.
Zeke was trying to stay stoic, but the weight of the backpack was really starting to get to him. "Here, swap out with me," Matthew said. Zeke didn't even feign protest, gingerly slipping the straps off and passing it to Matthew, who traded him his own pack with mere incidentals like food and equipment. They were near the final hill.
Peaking the hill, Matthew and Zeke saw two sights that were somewhat unusual, even for this last day of the bizarre closing act of human history. Hovering in the air next to a swingset, about twenty meters off the ground, was what was, unmistakably, a spiky purple rubber ball.
Directly underneath the ball was a teenage boy, poking at what appeared to be a small Kindle Fire. Matthew hadn't seen one of those in years, at least not one of the civilian kind. They approached the sitting form.
Standing less than a meter away, Zeke cleared his throat.
"Shh shh shh shh shh shh shh," the teenager said. "Shut the fuck up for a minute. Don't say shit to me right now, dude. I'm about to get this shit."
Filthy, smelling like God knows what, tired to death, Zeke and Matthew both sat down in front of the teenage boy as he poked at the tablet. Zeke looked at his watch and mouthed to Matthew. Forty-five minutes, he said.
Matthew looked at the tablet. The kid was poking at something on the left side of the screen, then dropping that thing off in the middle of the screen, where it started shooting at little forms marching in from the right side of the screen. The people on the right side of the screen were gaining ground slowly, and judging from the little sound effects, eating their way through the things the kid was dropping off. But the things kept shooting, and the stream of forms coming in from the right slowed down. Then the kid hit one thing on the left and dropped it right on the forms on the right, and they seemed to blow up into dust. A trophy emerged on the screen, the kid tapped on it, and the screen went white.
"FUCK YES," the teenager yelled to the heavens. "WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!" He flipped the cover back onto the tablet, pushed the power button, and set it off to the side.
"Sorry, finally beat that thing," he said. "Been playing it for most of the time I've been sitting here. You guys are slow as shit."
Zeke was too grateful to be sitting down to be pissed. "Well, how long have you been sitting here?"
The teenager shrugged. "I quit counting after the third year or so. And I'm pretty sure they canceled time last month anyway, so it doesn't really matter."
Matthew nodded. "So are you, uh…are you our spirit guide or something?"
"Something like that, I guess," the teenager said. "I'm Tyler, I lived in this town for years, I ascended to a higher plane of consciousness thanks to some aliens who blew up part of the elementary school, then I got spit back when they gave up on this universe. That was 2017 or so, I think. You know anything that happened around that time that scared them off?"
Zeke looked at Matthew. "Yeah, sort of. You know how dangerous people are kept in prisons?"
"Kind of," Tyler said. "I think I remember hearing about those when I was human the last time. Why, did something break out?"
"Kind of," Matthew said. "Everything broke out. A couple things at first, then some attacks from some other groups, then a war, then some more things, then some more attacks, then another war, then everything blew up. Most of the species is dead. But we're going to fix it, we think? I dunno. I think you're involved somehow."
"Oh yeah," Tyler said. "Xyank told me all about it."
"Of fucking course he did," Zeke muttered.
"This is the spot right here," Tyler said. "Set up the Scranton anchor, point it right at that house — " he pointed at a house across the street "— and fire it up. It'll connect with the others within the hour."
"Dude, we don't have that kind of time. The window's going to close —"
"There's no window," Tyler said, cutting Zeke off. "Xyank just told you there was to motivate you to move faster. Not everything he says is strictly…true, so to speak. He's very liberal with what he says to get what he wants."
"That's comforting," Matthew said.
"Eh, who gives a shit," Tyler said. "What are you gonna do, leave this world like it is? May as well do what has to be done already."
Zeke shrugged. Matthew shrugged. Tyler shrugged. The three of them began assembling the Scranton anchor.
Zeke punched in a four-digit code into the keypad, then the pound key. Matthew punched in another and hit the star key. Green lights, whirring.
"Did we just fucking do it?" Zeke asked.
"I think we just fucking did it, man," Matthew said, looking at Zeke.
"Aw, shit," Zeke said, then grabbed Matthew around the shoulders and kissed him. The two made muffled sounds for a few seconds.
"That's sweet as hell," Tyler said. "That's a good way to go out."
The kissing slowed, slowed, stopped, separated. Both men looked at Tyler.
"What the fuck do you mean, 'go out'?" Zeke asked.
"He just means, like, before the thing resets or whatever and we go back to our regular universe. Before the big reset, when we go out and go back to like it was before. Right?" Matthew said, looking at Tyler, his heart sinking.
Tyler continued to look at the two men, lips pursed, then he burst out laughing. "Oh, shit, Xyank really fucked you two, huh? Is that what they told you this was about?"
The Scranton anchor began rattling, then smoke came out of it. A high pitched whirring sound grew louder, louder, louder still, then all the lights on the Scranton anchor died. The central ball opened and retracted. Nothing seemed different.
Zeke looked at the anchor, walked around to the other side. "What the fuck is th —"
An otherworldly screech, then a dull, multicolored blast streamed out of the middle of the Scranton anchor, right at Zeke's chest. It started out narrow, like a firehose stream, but then it widened to three meters wide suddenly and blew Zeke down the hill into the road. Zeke was slammed into the asphalt, Matthew seeing his back and then the back of his head flattened out against the black street. Matthew saw the blood spurting out of the back of Zeke's head before the stream covered him up completely.
Matthew turned to Tyler. "What the fuck is this?" he said.
"What?" Tyler yelled over the roaring sound of the stream.
"What the fuck is this?!" Matthew repeated, louder.
"It's the fucking end, dude!" Tyler yelled.
"I thought we were fixing this!" Matthew yelled.
"There's no fix, dumbass," Tyler replied. "The damage is too deep now. There isn't always a way to save things. You gotta just pick how you go out. Planetary euthanasia. Overwatch picked this one."
Matthew turned back to the stream. A dull color was spreading out across the ground. Matthew noticed some movement from the landing spot. The stream was alive, made up of something that was crawling away from the point of impact. The living things were bouncing off one another and plopping into the grassy ditch on either side, crawling over one another.
Some of the creatures were meandering up the hill. Matthew saw more clearly once they got closer.
"What the fuck…kittens?"
"Yeah, kittens," Tyler said, the roar continuing. "Whole universe full of nothing but kittens. Immortal, self-sustaining kittens. We're gonna drown in them. They don't eat, they don't need to feed, they don't do anything but meow. Even in complete vacuum, they just meow and crawl over one another. Enough kittens to immobilize a perpetually-healing dragon. Enough kittens to put out a lethal star. Enough kittens to choke the Devourer of Worlds in fur and purring. We die, they either die or spend eternity in feline hell. I guess it's revenge?"
Matthew just stared as the stream widened more. "How much bigger is this gonna get?"
Tyler shrugged. "Everywhere you put out Scranton anchors? They're all doing the exact same thing. All the rips are gonna link together, tear together, form one big one. A three thousand mile wide episiotomy straight to the kittenverse. Xyank even had a formula for the…oh, what the fuck did he call it? 'Felidae gradient'? The planet'll be kittens all the way up and down, from Ciudad de Marianas clear to the Lagrange points, in less than a day. And then the kittens'll keep going, out to space, out of the solar system, out to the Oort Bakery. I hope the furry fuckers like cake."
Matthew had no capacity for surprise anymore. "When will they link up?"
"I told you, dude. Less than an hour. I give it probably half that, judging from the stream."
Matthew half-sat, half-collapsed to the ground. Tyler sat beside him.
"Xyank told us we were special. Told us we always did this, in all the other universes. It was always us two that went out to stop the apocalypse. We always saved the world."
"Xyank may have been full of shit, or he may have just phrased things differently than you remember," Tyler said. "I saw some things in other universes when I was…something other than human. I saw you guys do your thing. He wasn't completely off. Whenever the world was ending, you guys were always there. But I'm pretty sure it always ended this way. One of you dead, the other one watching. It's not a happy story."
A kitten strolled up the hill towards Matthew's feet. He thought about stomping the little white fuzzball, then thought better. Not like it's his fault, Matthew thought, rubbing his head.
"I think I should name it," Matthew said suddenly.
"Please don't name it Zeke," Tyler said immediately. "Don't make my last action be punching you in the balls, which is what I think Zeke would want me to do."
"You didn't know him," Matthew said.
"I did not," Tyler admitted. "Either way, something more creative than that."
Matthew turned to his backpack, rustled up a black Sharpie marker. The stream of kittens flowing into the street widened a little further, began to buckle. Only a couple of minutes left, Matthew thought. He grabbed the kitten and carefully wrote something on its forehead, then chunked the kitten into the growing pile down the hill.
Tyler looked. "You made a decision?"
Matthew nodded. "I named it 'Centralia Bound.' I hope the balrog chokes on him first."
They sat in silence until the world roared and went black.