He slumped in the chair, making himself forget his circumstances. Erik had gone with Drake and Bridgette to bury Lacey, grumbling that the others didn't know how to make a body disappear. Griff stood outside the barn, looking uncomfortable, leaving only the man named Ingrid to watch him.
Ingrid moved closer. “Why did you come back?”
Zack shook his head, not sure he knew the answer anymore.
Ingrid leaned closer. “Can you endure the torture and the dark? I will return to free you in a few weeks if you can.”
Zack shook his head again. He could not bear it. Not for a moment longer.
Ingrid came still closer, until his lips were by Zack's ear. “There is something else I can do. Something that will stop all of this.” He heard Ingrid lick his lips. “I have the power to open the sky.”
Zack twisted around to look at Ingrid. “The Creator opens the sky.”
“No, Hess,” Ingrid whispered. “I open the sky in world after world. The Creator isn't out there waiting for our reports. The Creator sacrifices Itself to bring a world into existence and sustain every particle of matter. Until I open the sky, there is no Creator. There is only the world and us.”
He swallowed. “You can end the world.”
“If I had known what was done to you last Iteration, I would have opened the sky sooner. If you cannot bear what is done to you, I will stop this Iteration now.”
Seven billion people live on this world. Even if only one in a hundred is truly happy, that is seventy million lives that want to live. Zack shook his head. “You can't do that. You can't just kill every person in existence.”
“They will never know a moment of pain. Between one moment and the next, they will simply cease to exist. It is the fate of everything that is made to one day be unmade, Hess.”
“You can't kill creation to save me.”
“They're not real. You are.”
Zack shook his head. “Everyone keeps saying that. But what makes us any different from them? Just because we don't die? That's not enough.”
“No, Hess. We are so much more than these creatures. Every particle of their matter is sustained by the Creator's essence. But we are more than that. We're not sent here to observe for the Creator, Hess. We are the Creator. Tiny slivers of the Creator embedded within the world to experience Our creation.”
“Don't do it, Ingrid,” Zack said. “No matter what they do to me. No matter what I say. I don't want you to do it because of me.”
Erik's voice boomed from the barn door. “Why all the whispering, Ingrid? Do you have secret business with Hess?” She strode inside, hard eyes skewering Ingrid. “Here I was thinking Griff must be our rotten apple. Never considered the possibility that you organized this whole operation just to make sure we failed. Is that how things stand here?”
Ingrid sneered at Erik. “Your mind is twisted from your hobbies. Remember the role I played last time. Ask yourself if it makes sense for me to betray the cause I started and championed. I still think you released Hess so that you wouldn't have to follow the rules we established. The reason I am whispering with Hess is I want him to tell me the truth of his escape.”
Erik looked back and forth between the two of them before settling her gaze on Zack. “I'll get the truth out of him.”
“No,” Ingrid said, “you will make him say the words you plant in him.”
Erik's hand drifted to the holster at her waist.
“Car coming,” Griff shouted.
“Get rid of them,” Erik said.
From outside, the sound of the approaching car grew louder. Erik scowled at him. “Be very quiet, Hess. Things can always get worse. Always.”
The car's engine grew louder. Zack heard Griff's shouts for the vehicle to get off private property. The car door opened. Griff repeated his demand. A shot rang out. “Shit,” Erik said. She pulled free her handgun and ran to crouch at the side of the open barn door. Ingrid ran to the other side.
From where he sat, Zack saw Bridgette emerge from the house, take a hit to her shoulder, and duck back inside. Quebec strode into view, handgun held at the ready, swiveling to point first towards the house, then towards the barn, then back again. Erik took aim.