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IV

Connie never got why people cooed and fawned over babies – they just looked like ugly little people, and she’d long burned all the photos from her pre-makeup childhood. There was nothing beautiful about Foetus Faust as it begged for death, and she dug her nails into the phone case to suppress the urge to pop the baby like a zit.

“Oh no, Baby Faust,” she cried, “Why do you want to die?”

It wasn’t really lying if she didn’t try to sound genuine.

The foetus sighed in its sweet little person voice and said, “Is that how you two have been playing the game all along? Distracting yourselves from the bleakness with flirting? It might’ve been a winning strategy for the first few waves, but time is running out, guys. Hurry up and kill me.”

Faust frowned. “Thank you for giving me a second chance, and I want you to know we don’t intend to squander it. But under no circumstance am I going to end your life, my little coochie-coo. I’m growing ever sick of being associated with a suicide motif, and I refuse to pave a route out of this nightmare on my own corpse!”

“Okay. You’ve got like 3000 words, my love. What are you going to do?”

Faust looked at Connie blankly, and they shrugged. They sat down, staring out into the endless nothing, trying to tease out any dash of inspiration.

“We can do it,” said Connie encouragingly. “Not killing him, I mean, like… just generally do it, in a happy ever after kind of way.”

But it didn’t exactly encourage any ideas to come up – the two of them had mastered their emotions and nothing more. At best she would be able to die with a smile on her face. The Djinn, reliving the past, the superweapon – all had been Team Fear’s idea, and where had it led them but down a dead end? Now everything was gone.

“Do you want a hint?” squeaked Foetus-Faust.

“I’m not killing you,” said Faust, indignant.

“The 70,000 door?” asked Connie. “Maybe that was the key to getting out of this mess. Do you reckon we could vote that back in ?”

“What do I know?” said the baby. “I’m just a foetus.”

Dousing the flesh mound in energy it couldn’t use, they voted the door back in. It was by all accounts as perfectly generic a door as could possibly exist, flat and white and wooden, stained by a long streak of Haralda’s blood, and crested with the green glowing number 70,000. Connie gripped the handle and nudged it open.

She recognised the street – an alleyway in Barden, roaring with the distant sound of traffic, thick with the stench of dust. It was drizzling, a few of the droplets blowing in and cooling Connie’s face, and the murky overcast sky made a soft bed for her eyes against the brightness in which she currently stood. Home! She welled up, all joy and tears.

Faust scooted away, perhaps worried she was going to leap onto him again in happiness. He said, “That’s the real world, right?”

“Yes,” the phone replied. “Louis was very much against including it, but all blank pages are required by law to have an emergency exit. Seeing how you obliterated it, I wonder why.”

Connie couldn’t contain herself any longer.

She was sick of this stupid faux heaven, or blank page, or whatever it was. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of being able to stroll into a café and shove a bacon butty down her throat. But just before she took a step through, Saheel’s phone rang out in a tone that pierced her ears.

“You do NOT want to step through yet,” shouted Foetus-Faust. “There are rules!”

Faust sighed the loudest he’d ever sighed.

“Don’t sigh at me, my love! Your Democratisation of Reality only works in this reality. If you step out there, you won’t be able to vote the wordcount away.”

“Okay…” said Faust. “So, like, just vote to abolish the wordcount?”

“I’m sure as hell in favour of that,” said Connie.

They held up their thumbs, watching them glow eagerly. Connie could already taste the mix of bacon gristle and ketchup.

2Y; INVALID PERMISSION

“What gives?” she yelled. “Are you thumbsing me down, you little shit?”

“Vote again,” said the baby. “And actually watch what happens.”

They did, and Connie actually watched what happened. As soon as they put their thumbs up to propose the motion, baby Faust’s thumb swung reflexively downwards.

“The game is the flesh mound,” he said. “No flesh mound, no game, no vector for audience attention. I’m the most grotesque lifeform ever spawned, but a lifeform nonetheless, and that comes with a certain set of biological imperatives.”

“In other words, you’re rejecting us on instinct? Well, it was nice knowing you, man.”

She looped up her Net of Truth so that it was coiled around into a suitable noose – with enough squeezing, she’d finally get to see that thing pop. Then she saw Faust’s eyes widen in horror.

“Connie!” he shouted, backing further away, clutching the child to his breast.

“Fuck,” she said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why, but I feel like I have a biological imperative to kill that thing. There has to be a way around it without killing, man, but…”

She didn’t want to finish the sentence. To her, the flesh mound seemed a fair trade for their lives, and it was becoming difficult to empathise with Faust’s wishes.

“I’m really not too fussed about dying,” said the baby.

Faust said, “Of course you aren’t! You haven’t experienced the abject nothingness of eternity! How long do you think you ‘won’t be fussed’? A hundred years? A thousand? There won’t be a me to love you and to guide you. There won’t be anyone. What’s more, how can you know for sure that killing you will stop the wordcount? I’m begging you, baby, tell me there’s another way.”

“Nah,” said the baby. “I’m the part of you that’s already dead. I knew my fate the moment I joined this game. And I’m like 90% sure killing me would end the game… there’s probably no one reading after this many words, so the accumulated level of attention should be safe. Just kill me, you weirdo!”

“Why? Why would you throw your life away?”

“Are you asking a Faust why he wants to die? For any good cause, really. We’re a sucker for playing the martyr. And I was thinking maybe, in the 1/9 chance that I won, I could hunt down the eight who brought themselves back to life, and maybe through some kind of energy reversal put the players of this game back in the right place. Just to stick it to Louis and his lunatics.”

Connie’s phone beeped. “Baby Faust…”

“I just texted you their names and locations. It’s a long shot, but who knows? It might just work.”

“That is admittedly a pretty big long shot,” said Faust. “Woe is me, for I am an idiot. I am still not killing you.”

Connie looked at the first name on the list.

“Hey, this guy lives in Barden. We could pay him a visit.”

The baby said, “Remember if you leave, you can’t vote again. The wordcount is your priority. We’ve burned through 1000 more just talking. Please, hurry up and kill me! It’s the only way to end the game!”

Connie looked at Faust, who stood still and passive. She began gathering up all the courage she could get to perform the unspeakable action that would sever their friendship.

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