She didn’t want to open her eyes. When she did, all she saw was a blurry mass of brownish pink. The antiseptic smell convinced her that it was probably the ceiling in a hospital recovery room, which would have made more sense if she hadn’t been handcuffed to the bed.
Willow groaned softly, her voice sounding strange and remote as she tried to focus on the blurry mass. She blinked a few times, her eyelids feeling dry and rough, and she tried to figure out why everything hurt. She felt as if she were bruised from head to toe. Just shifting her weight in the bed made her wince. Why was she in pain? She couldn’t remember getting hurt. She’d escaped from Perry’s prison, picked up the book he’d traveled into, then…
The sensation of being thrown through the front windshield of a moving car.
Traveling had hurt, is what happened. It wasn’t supposed to do that.
“Take it easy, Purple Girl…”
Willow turned her head and saw a dark, blurry figure. She blinked a few more times and the dark, blurry figure sharpened into the figure of a man sitting in a chair.
He was lean, with pale skin and black, slicked-back hair. He wore a black two-piece suit, black trenchcoat, black tie, white shirt. His eyes, dark brown, peered at her with intelligence, but his mouth was turned up in a half-smirk that suggested his intellect wasn’t always kind.
“Purple Girl?” Her voice was raspy and weak.
The man’s half-smirk grew into the real deal as he shrugged. “Your costume. We were trying to figure out what exactly it is you do, and the only thing we could work out was that you really like the color purple.”
She could see clearly now. She was in a private recovery room, which was a little unusual. Usually there were at least two beds. Usually the beds didn’t come with manacles. Other than that, it was pretty standard: bed, table, sink, single chair by bed, monitoring equipment, door (closet), door (bathroom), door (exit).
“What’s wrong with purple?”
“Nothing,” the man replied. “If you’re Prince. Are you? Prince?”
“Who are you?” The guy was baiting her and Willow didn’t like it. “Some kind of cop?”
“You figure that one out all by yourself? Hey, maybe you’re a super-brain. You a super-brain?”
Willow forced herself to keep her temper in check. “You’re not in uniform. You dress like a Fed. So… FBI?”
“You tryin’ to piss me off, Purple Girl? Because you’re off to a great start…”
The door leading out opened and two more men in black walked in. Correction: one man (tall, thin, very dark brown skin, short-cropped hair, sunglasses) and one woman (Asian, long black hair, a little on the short side, strange, reddish tint to her skin).
“Take it easy, Agent Grant.” Sunglasses was in charge, apparently. The annoying one—Grant—shrugged and got out of the chair.
All three of them were dressed in the same black suit, white shirt, black tie combo. Agent Grant was the only one in a trenchcoat. The other man was the only one wearing sunglasses.
“Miss, my name is Agent Phillip Henry. I’m with the Department of Homeland Security.”
DHS? That didn’t sound good.
“With me are Agents Grant and Hu,” Agent Henry continued. “You’ve already met Agent Grant.”
“Yes,” Willow said. “Thank you so much for that opportunity.”
Agent Grant’s mouth twitched.
“Agent Grant is known for his charm,” Agent Henry said. Willow chose to believe he had the most amazing deadpan she’d ever seen. “But that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in you, miss. You appeared out of nowhere in the middle of—well, in the middle of a place you shouldn’t know anything about, and that you absolutely shouldn’t be able to get to, even if you knew it was there. You made the kind of entrance that makes certain parties interested very in making you go away.”
“We’re not those parties,” Grant added, “but some of them do sign our paychecks.”
This was getting out of hand. She should jump home, right now, then contact Dave and figure out what to do next. But she remembered how it felt getting here—what if it hurt that much trying to get back? What if it hurt more?
“I think I want to talk to a lawyer,” Willow said.
“I’ll bet,” Agent Grant said. “That’d be pretty great, huh?”
Willow cursed inwardly. She couldn’t remember anything about this universe! She’d tried going through the serial once and wound up only skimming—too grim for her taste. The name Henry tugged at her memory, though. She needed to stall. “So… no lawyer, then.”
“Miss, your actions have placed you on a list reserved for metahuman terrorists.” Agent Henry spoke as if he were lecturing at a college. “You’re essentially considered unstable nuclear material that’s been illegally smuggled into the country.”
“Also,” Grant said, “purple. I mean… come on.”
She began to associate Agent Grant with a very specific part of his anatomy… which reminded her of something from the story.
“That’s his superpower,” Willow muttered.
“Beg pardon?” Agent Henry leaned in a little further.
“Agent Grant,” Willow said. “That’s his superpower. Being an—” Her eyes grew wide. “Division M!” She shouted it excitedly as important bits of memory bubbled triumphantly to the surface. “You’re with Division M!”
Agent Henry nodded. “That’s right.”
“Right. And you, Agent Philip Henry…” Willow locked her gaze on him. “I need you to take off your sunglasses and look me in the eyes.”
He actually looked startled for a moment. “Pardon?”
“I don’t really have a lot of time,” Willow said. “I’m not your enemy—I’m really, really not—but when I explain to you what’s going on you’re going to think I’m either a liar, or that I’m crazy. It’ll be a lot easier to convince you I’m not crazy if I can convince you I’m not lying from the start. So please, please, take off your sunglasses, make eye contact, and listen to me tell you exactly what’s going on.”
Agent Henry self-consciously brushed his sunglasses with his right hand. “If you know anything about what I do, you ought to know there are specific procedures and protocols that govern—”
“I’m a metahuman terrorist, remember?” Willow tried not to glare as she said it. “And I’m volunteering.”
Agent Henry turned back to look at Grant and Hu. Grant nodded slightly. Henry looked at Hu.
“You pretty much have to do it,” Agent Hu said. “You knew that before you got here.”
“What makes you say that?” Agent Henry asked.
“Because you took me and Grant,” Hu said. “If you wanted ‘by the book’ it would be Collins and Frank.”
Agent Henry stared at her for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. He turned back to Willow. “When I make eye contact, you will be incapable of lying. You can choose not to speak—I can’t compel you to say anything you don’t want to say—but if you try to lie, no matter what you try to make yourself say, you will wind up telling the truth. Do you understand?”
“Let’s go,” Willow said.
Agent Henry took off his sunglasses. His eyes were very green.
Willow told him everything. The room was silent. Then, with deliberate formality, Agent Henry put his sunglasses back on.
“Agent Grant, Hu and I are going back to the other thing. Please see that our guest is released from her manacles. Have her uniform and personal effects returned to her. Then arrange for a meeting with the old man.”
“Old man?” Willow asked. “Who’s that?”
Agent Henry hesitated a moment. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard your story.”
“It isn’t?” Willow was mystified. “That doesn’t make any sense. Who else told you?”
“The old man.”
* * *
The room was stark white, filled with equipment Willow didn’t recognize. In the middle of the room was a medical coffin, and in the medical coffin, barely visible through the translucent, smoky-black paneling, was the silhouette of a man. Agent Grant nodded to one of the four doctors in the room, and moments later the coffin rose off the floor, tilting forward, so that the figure—whoever it was—was hanging in a standing position, facing them. When the table stopped moving, two other doctors released plates at the face level of the medical coffin, causing it to swing open.
Willow could see the face and shoulders of a man in his late fifties. She recoiled from shock—his face was little more than mass of scar tissue, some from burns, some from cuts. He was missing an eye. One of his shoulders twisted unnaturally, as if the skin had melted, then reformed.
“He’s still under,” one of the doctors said. “We’re bringing him out. It’ll be a few.”
“What happened?” Willow asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“A lot of bad stuff,” Grant said.
“Who is he?”
Agent Grant didn’t answer.
Willow tore her gaze away from the scarred man to face him. “Agent Grant?”
Grant shrugged. “I think he wants to tell you himself.”
“What does that mean?” Willow demanded. “Look, I still don’t know what’s going on, and if you have any information that can help me—”
Willow broke off abruptly and turned to the scarred man. He was awake, his one good eye fixed on her.
“Is it really you?” There was something about his voice…
“It’s her,” Agent Grant said. “Agent Henry verified it personally.”
“Thank God,” the man said. “Jen—we don’t have a lot of time…”
Willow stared. That voice… it was older and rougher, but…
The scarred man nodded. “Sort of. And I’m…” his voice caught for a second. “I’m really glad to see you again.”
Willow ran through all the options that she could think of where this man could actually be her brother. “You’re from the future.”
The scarred man—Perry—smiled. “You can thank Nico. Time travel works in his reality. He managed to find a way to make it work across realities. It wasn’t easy after everything went to hell, but we didn’t have many options…”
“Nico is working with you,” Willow said.
Perry shakes his head. “Not like that. Hear me out, OK? This is important and you’re really short on time.”
Willow nods briskly.
“Good,” Perry says. “OK. Basically, I win. It screws us.”
Willow forces back an I pretty much figured that out on my own, thanks and waits.
“You missed me by two months,” Perry said. “The young me. I showed up about two months back. I opened my first portal here, into another universe. Then I went there to open the second. I’m still there at the moment—the portal in that place is tricky—but I’ll be moving on soon.”
“To do what, exactly?” Willow asked.
“To do what I told you I’d do,” Perry said. “I’m tearing down the barriers between realities. I’m trying to find the One True Reality. I’m trying to get back at our parents for shoving me into that place, and I’m trying to get back at you for not getting me out. I’m trying to lash out at everyone and everything who I ever imagined did me wrong, by proving to all of existence, once and for, that I’m right.”
His voice was ragged by the end of it, tight with indignation, and hurt, and barely controlled fury. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then pressed on.
“The first portals are unstable. They’ll all collapse on their own in a year or two. But if I open enough portals before the first collapses they’ll start connecting to each other, forming a self-sustaining chain. I only need to open ten portals to do it. Once I open ten portals, they start spreading on their own, and the chain becomes a web.”
“You only need the omnilocators at the beginning?”
Perry nodded. “And it works, Jen. I succeed on a level I never thought possible. For a brief, shining moment I feel vindicated as I watch the barriers between realities topple over like well-placed dominoes… and then it happens.”
He shuddered for a moment.
“I don’t know how all these realities work. I don’t know if writers imagine them, and they spring into being out of thought, or if they already exist and writers are inspired by them on some level. Maybe it’s both: the universe influences the writer, the writer influences the universe. What I do know is that when I ‘set those universes free’—when I remove the very plots that constrain them—I set loose a legion of horrors that not even the combined might of every reality in the universe can resist.”
Willow stared at Perry blankly. “What horrors?”
“Think,” Perry says. “Was there ever a time you read a book and thought to yourself no, I will never go there, not ever, under any circumstances? Those universes exist. Somewhere. Even some of the ‘kinder’ universes are kind only because the story went a very specific way. Remove the constraints that force the story in that direction? Those universes become horror shows too. When you think of enemies, don’t think of me. Think bigger than that. Think Lord Foul… Palpatine… Voldemort… Randall Flagg… Damien… Sauron… Cthulhu… Azathoth. I set them free, Jen. I unlocked every universe there was for them. And they came. They came, and more came, and even more. In the end we were drowning in things that had no mercy, no restraint…”
He shudders again.
“We fought back, of course. We all banded together, old grievances cast aside in order to try to save what was left of reality. We fought for a long, long time. You and I fought side by side for years, and for a while I thought we might have a chance… but you fell. After that, everything went south. We were losing. We were desperate. Nico came up with a plan: send me back in time tell you what I was trying to do. To make it possible for you to stop him—me—before I open that damned tenth portal.”
“Why not stop him yourself?” Willow asked. “You know what you’re doing better than anyone.”
“Traveling here hurt, didn’t it?” Perry said.
Willow blinked in surprise. She nodded silently.
“It’s the portals,” Perry said. “When a portal is opened in a reality, using our power to get there is… difficult. The best explanation I have is that it creates interference. The more portals I open…”
“The more interference,” Willow says. “The more it hurts.”
“Having an omnilocator helps. If you use one with your abilities, you should minimize the damage. At this point, with so few portals open, it might not even hurt at all. But in my time… too many portals. I knew it would be a one way trip, and I knew I wouldn’t come out the other side in one piece. So we chose to send me here, a week before you arrived. It had the necessary tech to keep me alive at least long enough for me to talk to you. And it had a man who could tell when someone was telling the truth.”
Willow tried to think of something to say.
“I brought a few things with me,” Perry said. “A list of where I open the first ten portals. A few books that might help you when you get there. A few omnilocators to minimize the pain of travelling. Also a few of your personal effects: that earpiece you always wore. Some rings you had on your uniform when Doctor Apex and I caught you, and those handcuffs. If Agent Grant will give them to you…”
“I will,” Agent Grant said.
“Good.” Perry fixed his good eye on Willow again. For a moment she saw a flash of his old self: his youngest self, still full of hope and passion and resolve to do what was right. “Stop me, Jen. I don’t know how—go to the second portal, where I’m wrapping everything up. Go to the third portal and lay a trap. Or, I don’t know, do something unexpected. You’re good at that. What you decide, stop me before I open that tenth portal. Stop me. Save this universe. Save every universe.”
Willow looked at the scarred form of what her little brother would become.
“OK,” she said. “I will.”
What does Willow do?