It said a lot to Connie about the events of the past few days that she wasn’t fazed by the abomination in front of her. The beast’s legs pawed the ground, thick as tree trunks. Muscles rippled along its torso; its neck swung down to reveal a nest of spikes in place of a face; Alan Maccain himself streamed out of its back on a ribbon of flesh. When he saw her, the IT worker drew his thumb across his throat.
There stood Connie in her pyjamas. Exhausted from walking, stomach running on fumes, alone beyond lonely, she dug in her feet, letting the Net of Truth settle between them. She took in the temperate air with steady breaths – after all they’d thrown at her, she wasn’t going to fall now. For Team Shameless, she’d win.
Although Alan had just leapt kilometres to reach her, the battle that took place concerned the meter between them. The beast inched forward with all the weight and speed of a glacier while Connie, without giving up any ground, leaned back, spreading out the net further in front of her. The beast stopped short; they froze. Then Alan prowled around her in circles like a panther, while she tracked him with her eyes.
To absorb Connie’s memory, Alan had to clear the net, which could cut him apart in an instant. But to defeat Alan, Connie had to lower her defense to attack him, and if she only scored a glancing blow, she’d be open, unable to draw it back before he sped into her.
She matched him: at every turn, every feint and change in direction, Alan found himself about to step into the net as he sought to close the gap. He matched her: as big as his legs were, they flitted to and fro with a ballerina’s poise, and they never lingered enough in one spot for her to commit.
All things being equal, it came to a stalemate, but Connie was working at a disadvantage. As if being exhausted wasn’t enough – her legs were wobbling as she struggled to maintain her position – it would only be a matter of time before Faust triggered another vote, the rush of energy from which would allow Alan a buffer to overwhelm her. There had to be another way.
“Stop,” she cried, startling him. He leapt backwards, quadrupling the distance between them, and she felt a little satisfaction at how tense he was.
She said, “I wanna talk.”
Saheel’s phone rang. Keeping a steady grip on the net – he was obviously bending his knees to leap forward if she dropped her guard – she answered.
“You cheat!” he bellowed, the anger of his voice making the speakers buzz with distortion. “What have you done, Conneh? What’s going on?”
She shrugged. Throughout her life, Connie lied to give herself a better image, but this was the first time she truly wanted to deceive.
“I was gonna ask you, man. We were on top of you in that carpet, and then everything just… broke.”
The beast stopped getting ready to leap forward. It crouched down, pensively.
He said, “What do you mean, broke?”
Connie gestured to their surroundings. “Looks pretty broke to me. Dude, I’ve just been walking around in circles for the past day. I haven’t seen anyone or anything. I thought maybe *you’d* have some answers for *me*.”
Her stomach rumbled louder than a trumpet.
She said, “I’m sick of talking to an elephant thing. Are you human, or not?”
The beast folded up into itself, until it was the size of a man, and a naked Alan MacCain ambled up towards the net, looking as normal as anything save the stitched-over mouth. Oh, and the tumour the size of a football that sprouted out of his skull until he pushed it down, whereupon it sprouted out of his chest, writhing.
The phone buzzed. “I know as little as you do, Conneh. Where are we? I couldn’t even move until you started voting again! I thought for sure you’d be along to finish me off!”
It was only because Connie was holding the Net of Truth that she felt it bristle subtly. “Why would I finish you off?”
“What do you mean? We’re enemies!”
She shrugged. “I don’t have anything against you, man. You want to know my true enemy?”
He stared at her with those mild-mannered, squinty, beta-male eyes, and nodded.
“This fucker right here.” She flicked her wrist so he could see the wordcount. “If you help me get rid of that, you and I won’t have a bad drop of blood between us, Alan MacCain.”
That, at least, was the truth. Alan shoved the tumour back into himself; it rose out of his stomach. He stepped to the side, amicably, conveniently at the point where her net was thinnest.
“I’m glad you feel that way! They forced me to play, you know! I don’t have anything against you, Conneh – they forced me to pick someone, and all my enemies were already dead! I don’t know what’s happening any more than you do!”
The Net of Truth bristled. Connie smiled. “That’s alright, man. Truce?”
They stood there woodenly, frozen. Neither made a move to shake hands.
“You really don’t know what’s going on?” she said.
He shook his head, and if he didn’t notice the Net of Truth trembling that time he must have been blind.
“If I were to guess,” he said, carefully, “The energy from your last vote was too much for the sandbox, and now we’re adrift in the writer’s consciousness – that is, the consciousness of Faust.”
Even though the Net of Truth tremored between her fingers, he nearly caught her off guard, he nearly made her fall to her knees in shock, but as it was she just about managed to stay upright and he played off his attempt to leap forward as squishing the tumour into his foot. What a lie! Connie couldn’t dream of saying something so outrageous with a straight face.
“Uh, luckily,” said Alan, sweating, “I know where he is.”
“You have wings, right?” Connie exhaled. “Can you take me to him? If he’s the author, then the dude’s gotta know what’s going on.”
“Right,” said Alan, “And since everything’s broken now, I bet we can get him to deactivate the wordcount.”
He sprouted a pair of angel’s wings, dripping wet with blood. She reeled in the net, carefully, and he stepped forward as she did so until there was barely a foot between them and Connie’s heart was thumping in her ears.
“Grab on,” he said, “Maybe there’s a way out of this for both of us.”
“Sure,” she said.
Again, neither moved. And then, at the same moment, both seized their chance. Alan leapt onto her, knocking her onto her back, and he began to hoover up memories of hastily-told lies during embarrassing moments, of long nights spent queuing in taxis outside stations, of quick hook-ups and slow, burning regrets. Within seconds, what little remained of her life force would be his, and he’d be free to feel the breeze of the real world tickle his real body.
As for Connie’s attack? She yelled, “Alan, grow!”
2Y; MAJORITY REACHED
She didn’t struggle. Her thumb flashed ablaze like a torch and energy coursed into him, and even as he squashed her, she wrapped the net around him. She held it tight. Elephants worth of Alan attempted to break free of his humanoid shell, and every single skin cell was grated apart as it expanded into the net. Chunks of flesh fell about her, rivers of blood poured onto her, but Alan MacCain did not escape her trap. She pulled the net at both ends, tightening it, squeezing the rest of him like a juicer.
He played double or nothing, and what he got was nothing.