“Dr. Niwwel, if you summoned the thing, why can’t you just send it away?”
Lylia held her tongue. It wasn’t that Malou was stupid, and most of the time it wouldn’t even bother her, but she was running out of ways to explain an unexplainable being. “I didn’t summon it. I just created a way for it to access our world.” She peaked out at the dark hallway—the problem was there was no precedent. Did it matter if there was light? Could the creature even see light? And would staying quiet even matter? Lylia stroked her long, blonde hair as she thought.
“I’m sorry. You must be getting tired of all these questions.”
It was so hard to be mad at someone who kept acknowledging their flaws. “It’s okay. I know it must be confusing.” Lylia couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was her fault Malou was still in the building to begin with. Not that it really mattered. The creature wasn’t particularly bound by the same matter-based confines that Earth creatures were. Maybe nowhere on the planet was safe.
“Can we stay here? Are we safe here?” Malou popped her head out as well, peering down the hallway for signs of the plasma colored of burning light, the only visible material the creature left behind. “I don’t see anything.”
“I don’t think we’re safe as long as we’re still here.”
“Do you think it’ll leave the building?”
Lylia didn’t know how to tell Malou that the creature didn’t even exist in the building as it was. “I hope not.” Cautiously, she crept out into the middle of the hallway. It felt silly to be sneaking around, but she couldn’t help it. It was so human to only feel safe when walls were around to support and protect. “I don’t think it’s coming. Hurry. We can go down this hallway. It’ll lead to the stairs.”
Malou nodded and her dyed green hair bobbled in its pigtails. “After you, Dr. Niwwel.”
“Really, Malou, you can call me Lylia.” Being called Doctor by someone her own age was weird, but being called Doctor by someone who’d been in every one of her elementary school classes was even weirder.
Malou followed. “But you worked so hard for your doctorate. The least I can do is show you the respect you deserve.” Malou smiled and Lylia did her best not to melt. She’d promised herself when she started tutoring Malou in physics that she wouldn’t let that smile get to her anymore, but Malou was so earnest, so… so genuine, that Lylia almost couldn’t help it.
She was so dazzled by Malou’s smile that she almost didn’t catch the blazing light splatter behind her. “Malou, look out!”
A cabinet behind her suddenly became corrupted, spitting sparks and shuddering in and out of existence before half of it was suddenly away. Lylia felt the hair stand up on her arms. “Run!”
The air stung of burned metal, rasping away at the back of Lylia’s throat. Malou was faster than her by far, but she kept pace. “Come on!”
After a while, Lylia felt her heart start to pound more and more. If only she didn’t work on the top floor—they’d be out by now. They made it close to the stairs, and Lylia grabbed Malou’s arm right before she went down the stairs, dragging her into a broom closet.
“What’d you do that for?”
“Going down won’t help,” Lylia wheezed. She needed to work out more. “It’s not… I mean, it’s not confined by floors.”
“It can go through floors?”
Lylia bit her lip. They seemed safe enough now. Maybe she should try a third time to explain that the creature she’d released wasn’t going through the floor, it was completely apart from the floor.
She hadn’t meant to become a doctor in the first place. It just seemed like the only way she could continue to study and to learn about what the emptiness in atoms really entailed. She’d always been fascinated by the way humans always seemed to accept nothing but truth, but didn’t question the truth they knew.
“But what’s in between the electron and the nucleus?”
“Nothing,” her professor had snapped. “Quit asking that. This is just where we are in science right now, okay? Sorry it’s not good enough for you. Finish your work.”
Her curiosity had developed from wondering what the emptiness really meant to wondering if there was a separate way to exist. When she argued for her dissertation, a hypothetical reconfiguration of matter that didn’t involve atoms or quarks or any subatomic particles humans could conceive of, the faculty had been confused and baffled. One professor had gone so far as to declare that it was more science fiction than true science. However, she’d gotten her doctorate anyway, and away she went.
The experiment wasn’t supposed to even work. Lylia had long given up on her own theory, but the premise behind it still stood, in her mind. Countless graduate students flocked to her, to hear her crazy lectures about worlds within our own atoms. The machine she’d fashioned wasn’t supposed to be capable of creating real atomic disturbances—the only other atomic disturbances the world had ever known were military based, so there was no way they’d ever give her something with real power. She’d had the grad students (and Malou, although Lylia still wasn’t sure why she was there) gather around her as she fiddled with it, answering their questions the best she could and firing back some of her own. The machine had never done anything before, no matter what she did, so there was no reason anyone would expect it to do much of anything other than look science-y.
So when the machine had malfunctioned and spewed black smoke and the… the thing (Lylia called it a creature for Malou’s sake, but it wasn’t like any creature or any being that had ever been noted in any way before) seeped into this world’s atomic formation, it had caught everyone by surprise.
At first Lylia, like any good scientist, was fascinated. She had proof! Proof that our physics weren’t the only physics out there—matter didn’t work in the same way, physicality didn’t work in the same way, and the universe wasn’t empty after all!
It was a glowing moment for science.
Until suddenly one of the grad students’ arms disappeared. The blood that splattered the ground flecked Lylia’s shoes as she should there, shocked, helpless as bits of the floor spluttered and vanished and the building’s infrastructure suddenly turned to nothing against the impossibility of a physics-less being. Chaos ensued, filling the hallways with shouts as the being engulfed everything it encountered, turning it into a form of matter imperceivable by humanity, intangible in the same regard. Later, hiding under her desk (not the smartest plan, she knew, but she panicked, okay?), Lylia figured out what she’d unleashed—a being able to interact with the physics and composition of this world, but unable to be interacted with by the physics and composition of this world. It was enough to make her head spin, so explaining it to Malou… Calling it a creature was just easier.
“I’m sorry,” she told Malou now, holed up next to the stairs. “I can’t… I can’t stop it. It defies all nature, it defies all… rational thought. It’s not of this world and it shouldn’t be here now. I’ve released it and I’m so… I’m so sorry.” If she hadn’t been so terrified, Lylia thought she would cry. Even now, with fear freezing her blood, Lylia felt tears well behind her eyes and in the catch in her throat.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“It’s my machine. My lecture. My experiment. It’s literally my fault.”
“You didn’t know this would happen. Nobody knew. Nobody could know.”
“You should’ve gotten out when you had the chance.” Malou hadn’t evacuated with the others, she’d rushed to Lylia’s office instead.
“I couldn’t leave you.”
“You should have. You’ll die here. I can’t tell you anything about this… creature. I could have doomed the entire Earth.” Lylia began to cry, tears and snot dripping down her cheeks. It wasn’t the time or place, she knew, but she still felt bad for how ugly she must look. “You’re going to die, and everyone I know is going to die, and it’s all my fault.”
“The world was doomed anyway,” Malou said. “And you don’t know that you’re going to die. I mean, you said the creature wasn’t from our physics. Maybe it’ll… make us like it.”
That was highly illogical, but so was everything. “Maybe, but even then our entire lives, everything we know, will be taken away. I wish there was a way I could… I could distract it somehow, so you could escape but I…”
“I couldn’t leave you,” Malou repeated. “I couldn’t.”
“We’re going to die here.” Lylia’s sobs echoed down the hallway, and she no longer cared if the creature was able to perceive sound or not. “We’re going to die here and I never—”
“You never what?”
Lylia didn’t know. There were lots of things she’d never done. She’d never snowboarded, or owned a bird, or bought homeowner’s insurance. She hadn’t told her parents goodbye. She’d dated boys in high school and undergrad, but she’d never really felt in love with any of them. She’d never told Malou how beautiful she was.
The thought popped into Lylia’s head before she could stop it. She’d promised herself she’d never admit that to anyone—not even herself.
But if there was ever a time, now was it.
“You’re pretty,” she said, her voice squeaking like a grade schooler.
“I just wanted you to know you’re really pretty.” This was so dumb. This was remarkably dumb. Lylia wanted to say more but she couldn’t.
“Oh.” Malou stared at Lylia. “I don’t know what to… I—oh. Thank you. You’re… you’re pretty too.”
Lylia felt the blood rush to her face and knew it must be a violent red by now. Violent red with puffy pink eyes—Malou was just being nice. “I’m sorry, I made things weird, it’s weird now, it’s our last hours on Earth probably and I’ve just made it so weird.”
“So I’m sorry! We’re up against a unseen, intangible something and I just made everything weird.” Lylia hiccupped. She’d stopped crying, but her face was still a mess, she knew.
“Well, I’m glad you did, or I was going to.” Gently, Malou put her rough, calloused hand over Lylia’s.
“I like you,” Malou said, the left corner of her mouth turning up into a grin. “I think I’ve liked you since we were in grade school together. That’s why I wanted you to tutor me, I wanted to get to know you better. That’s why I went to all your lectures. I like you.”
“Oh,” breathed Lylia. “Oh.”
“So I guess, if this really is our last couple hours on this planet”—Lylia didn’t bother correcting her—“then I guess I want you to know. I like you a lot. I think you’re funny and kind and so passionate about everything. So… yeah.”
“Oh,” repeated Lylia. “I don’t know what to—”
“You don’t have to say anything. I know this is probably a weird shock, but I didn’t want to disappear without you knowing, okay? I just needed you to know—”
“I like you too,” Lylia spat out. “I like you too.”
For a second, the two sat in silence, listening to the sparking of a light that the being had absorbed half of earlier in the day. Then Lylia began to cry again.
“Oh! No! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you—”
“No, no, I’m happy,” Lylia said, frantically wiping her tears. “I mean, I am a little. I’m just sad that we’re not… we’re not going to see the future that would come from this.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess that’s true.”
“I just wish we had more time.”
“Well, we have time right now. And who knows—maybe when the creature takes us, we’ll end up together in its dimension.”
Not a dimension, Lylia’s brain blathered, but it didn’t matter at all. Tentatively, she turned her hand up and laced her fingers though Malou’s. “There’ll be no tomorrow,” she warned.
“It sucks,” Malou said, nodding.
“But right now we’re together.”
“Makes it suck a little less.”
Lylia laughed. Yes. Every action they took should just be to make things suck a little less. “Of all the people to die with, you’re not a bad choice.”
“And at least we know that wherever we’re going, we’ll go together.”
Lylia wept as the creature’s plasmatic flickering came into view a little down the hallway and bits of air and floor disappeared, leaving behind blank nothingness of the physics that Lylia couldn’t perceive.
“Together,” Malou murmured into her ear, and they closed their eyes.