It was like waking from a dream. Only the nightmare was real. Hess twisted to look at his bindings. The cuffs were of professional quality and would require time and effort to break or pick. But the chair was something else. While solid in appearance, the thick rungs of the ladder-back were held in their tongue-and-groove placement by wood glue more than anything.
Hess seized the slat with both hands behind his back and simultaneously twisted and drove back on one side. The glue snapped and the rung came free along one side, wood splintering along the edge. Hess seized the rung in both hands and pulled it out from the opposite side.
He stood quickly, brought his cuffed hands below his glutes, sat and lifted both legs, and brought his hands up the front of his body, still bearing the splintered rung from the chair. He launched forward into a run, crashing into Erik and slamming his makeshift spear into her throat, severing one of her carotid arteries and piercing her trachea. His hands, still bound together, seized the gun from her hands. He glanced at the weapon. It said Glock along the side and beneath that 9mm. The Creator tended to recycle things from one world to the next. Ammunition types were much like languages and measurement systems in that they never varied much.
Hess raised the gun and fired off three rounds rapidly into the back of Drake, who squatted over the downed Elza. Bridgette – no, Kerzon – raised her weapon and fired at him. Hess fired his last round, missed, and felt the trigger go soft under his finger.
At that moment, the entirety of creation began to scream its destruction in a terrible duet, high screech and deep rumble announcing the end of the world. No! Hess ran from the barn, pointing the empty Glock at Kerzon, driving her back.
Invisible to all but them, the force binding Observers to the world evaporated, torn aside to reveal another direction available to them. The sky was open. Kerzon puffed out of existence. Hess crashed to his knees beside Elza. Her eyes met his. Broken and bleeding, she recognized him and smiled. “Find me fast,” she said.
“You have to wait,” he said. “We can't leave yet.”
To the side, Drake vanished.
“I'm sorry, Hess,” Ingrid shouted. “The situation escalated too far. I want them to think the Creator objected to the fighting.”
Hess picked up Elza's dropped Ruger Security Six, stood, and aimed at Ingrid, hoping there was an unfired round inside it. “You are no friend of mine, Ingrid. You led the others against us last Iteration.”
“I am not Ingrid.”
He pulled back the hammer of the gun. While the double-action revolver would fire without the help, Hess knew cocking the pistol would create a shorter trigger pull and increase his marksmanship by a small amount. At the twenty yards between him and Ingrid, he could put a piece of lead directly between her eyes provided Elza had maintained her weapon as he’d taught her. Provided there was a live round left to fire. “You convinced a lot of people that you were Ingrid.”
“I know enough to play the part.”
“Who are you?”
“My driver’s license says Jerome Whittaker.”
Hess narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”
“I'm the twelfth Observer, Hess. The rest of you took the name of the identity you wore when you first met another, so I guess that makes me Jerome.”
Hess glanced down to Elza. Her wounds were closing quickly. All about them, Creation continued to scream its two-toned swan note, rumbling and screeching as if it were tearing itself apart. “I don't believe you. How could an Observer hide from us all this time?”
“Because my job is to prevent situations like the one you had last Iteration. I get the executive summary of your lives planted in my head every Iteration. I know the twists and turns of every Observer's long life. I know where each one of you is inserted at the moment of Creation. Avoiding your attention is easy. I stay hidden because mingling doesn’t serve my purpose.”
Hess hesitated, then lowered the gun. “What happens if we stay here?”
“The twelve of us are pieces of the Creator. The Creator cannot awaken and draw back Its essence from creation without all of us. I imagine the world would continue to turn so long as one of us remains in it.”
Elza pushed to her feet. “We can't stay here, Hess.”
“It's my fault he ended the world.”
“You hate all the worlds, Hess.”
“But they don't. They screw up everything again and again because they are stupid and selfish, but they love their lives, Elza.”
She turned to the twelfth Observer. “Does this noise ever stop?”
“I don't know,” Jerome said. He pointed at Hess. “But he might.”
“Hess? How would Hess know?”
Jerome smiled. “You never told her, Hess?”
“Told me what?”
“That he stayed behind on that first world,” Jerome said.
Elza met his eyes. “You went back to the tent.”
“I had to. We left things unsaid.”
Jerome spread his hands. “And does the sound ever stop? I only get a summary, Hess, not the actual memories.”
“It ends after five minutes or so,” Hess said.
“Then I wish the two of you the best.” Jerome vanished.
All around them, the horrible sound reached a crescendo and ceased. “I like him,” Elza said.
Hess took her hands in his. “Elza, I am so, so, so sorry for turning them against you. I never meant for you to be hurt.”
She placed a finger over his lips. “I will face imprisonment a hundred times, Hess, but you can never forget me.”
“Never. I swear.”
Elza looked around the empty farm. “So what are we going to do with this world? There's no one around to stop us from any insanity you can conceive.”
“This might sound crazy, but I just want to watch them.”
“Before we get to that, I have a stolen car with my prints all over it.”
Hess held her handgun out to her. “How does this sound for a plan? Find a key for these handcuffs. Meanwhile I berate you for carrying a revolver instead of something with a clip. Then we wipe the car for prints and abandon it in a bad neighborhood with the doors unlocked.”
“You know that clips jam.” Elza pulled a universal handcuff key out of her pocket and released him as she talked. “Usually at the worst possible moment.”
“That happened once in a hundred and forty-four Iterations.”
“It happened the first time I needed to shoot someone,” Elza said. “And it wasn’t my fault I had to charge into a gunfight today. So drop the issue. We need to take care of some things and then I want to eat real food. I’ve been eating out of vending machines for days now.”
Hess looked in the direction the others had carried Lacey's body. “We're not doing any good here.” As they walked towards the car, Hess placed an arm around her shoulder. “Considering Jerome’s revelation, I think it's time to tell you something.”
“Let me guess.” Elza waved at her figure. “This body is your favorite.”
He nodded. “I was going to say that. But I want you to know why this time.”
“Because it's flexible?”
“Because this body is the one that’s with me.”
Elza raised up on her toes to place a soft kiss on his lips. “Are you sure that's the only reason? I know you are partial to curves, but this body is flexible.”
She flashed a smile. “I'll show you later, Hess. We have to dump a stolen car and get some food and maybe a drink or two or ten.”
Hess snapped his fingers. “I know just the place to eat. The Penn Brewery is just half an hour away. Their food is supposed to be good and I know their beer is amazing.”
“Is that a microbrewery? You're a beer snob, aren't you? It's Iteration twenty-six all over again.”