The world's smartest man – and now its most prolific mass murderer - stands, transfixed, watching the snow fall through the hole in the ceiling.
"Hi," a pleasant female voice says.
He jumps. He turns to see her.
She must be a hallucination. There would be no other explanation for a dramatically pale-skinned young woman with a fluffy mane of black hair, dressed in nothing but black jeans and a black leather jacket, who managed to get in here without being noticed. The Ankh around her neck ties into his obsession with ancient Egypt, of course. There would be no other reason for a young woman to have an Eye of Horus curling under an eye.
He doesn't like the way it glints, the way she sits on the steps and dangles her legs with a relentlessly amiable look.
"I'm imagining you," he mutters. He distantly realizes that it is getting very cold, and he should retreat to a secure room if he doesn't want to perish of hypothermia shortly.
She laughs. "Oh, Adrian. If you were going to hallucinate someone pretty, it wasn't going to be a girl." She hops down onto the marble floor, her black combat boots making a substantial 'clump' that reverberates through the empty, silent fortress.
"Who are you, then, if I am to humor you?"
"Before you figure it out, I want to assure you that I'm not here for you yet, not necessarily." She hugs herself and he can see that her nails, too, are black. "I had to pick up Bubastis and Rorschach. He was kind of upset that I looked like this. Called me a whore, the poor thing. I had my second thoughts when I put him in the world, but it's not like I get to choose."
"This is nonsense."
"You keep standing here; I will be leaving with you."
"You're claiming to be Death."
She nods. "Normally people don't get to see me after they're born and before they die, but you've been practically lighting flares to get my attention. I didn't have any time to read a book today, I can tell you."
He reluctantly retreats to an inner, inner sanctum, well-insulated. Comfy chairs. A radio to contact his private jet to come get him, should he choose to employ it. He's not all that certain he wants to. "Since you're here, I should offer you a drink."
"I don't need anything, thanks."
He smoothes his cape before he sits down so it won't get wrinkled. "If you are Death, and I'm not saying I believe it, what is your objective in showing yourself to me?"
"I want to tell you three things. The first is that I may have my own preferences – anything that's around long enough starts picking up a personality – but in the great scheme of things it made no difference that millions of people were killed today. By you. A hundred years from now I would have taken all of them." She looks around. "You really like the color purple."
"I like its connotations of royalty." He steeples his fingers. The girl who is either a hallucination or evidence that the image of the Grim Reaper is a grotesque misnomer spreads on her back on the floor, admiring the hieroglyphics painted on the ceiling.
She laughs. "You remind me a little of my brother. One of them. He's good-looking, egotistical, and very much a bastard sometimes, which is kind of true given that none of us have parents."
"Are you trying to make me rationalize my actions and mitigate my guilt?"
"No. That's not something I deal in. I am as I am. I like it when people are nice because I think that just makes everything more cheerful, you know? But I'm there for the nice ones just as often as the unpleasant jerks. I was there for your Alexander. He was worried about what would become of his empire. I was there for Genghis Khan, and Ramses, Victoria, the Emperor Norton…"
"The Emperor Norton?"
"I liked him best. I don't think you would have." She sits up and looks him in the eye. "Everything matters. Everything dies. Not only people. I have met with planets and stars and galaxies, for they too end one day."
"Dr. Manhattan says nothing ever ends."
She sighs. "I took Jon Osterman before he reassembled himself, and one day I will take Dr. Manhattan as well. He may be a god, but I am a function of reality, and I have been around for a lot longer than he has."
"As for me?"
"As I said, you don't have to die right now. Either way, you will carry what you have done with you."
"And the second thing is?"
"There is more than one Earth, more than one Milky Way and Universe. I walk through the uncounted number of realities and do my work. I can't tell you what would have happened in this one if you had behaved differently."
He sags a little. For a moment he almost hoped –
"But I will tell you that there are scores of Earths where you did nothing, and there was nuclear war. There are scores of Earths where your fragile peace still fell into nuclear war. There are Earths where you did nothing, and Dr. Manhattan disarmed all the nuclear weapons in the world; no especially large number of people died on a day corresponding to this one, and Armageddon was never a threat."
Her voice grew stronger. "There are Earths where costumed heroes never came to be, Jon Osterman either never lived or simply disappeared after his accident, where you exist as an inventor, business executive, and sometimes a champion of gay rights. There are Earths where Nixon was replaced long ago by a young president who ended war and ushered in a new utopia without shedding a single drop of blood. There are Earths where the Soviet Union fell without war, rotten from the inside by popular discontent, where the Berlin Wall was torn apart by thousands of ordinary people with pickaxes and their bare hands."
He takes this information in and sits in silence for a few moments. He then asks quietly, "What was the last thing you wish to tell me, in the ever-so mystical number of three?"
"Something happens after you die. You never find out until then. And you never find out what happens to anyone else."
"And what do I do now?"
"You can take the radio or you can take my hand. Which will it be?"
In dozens of Earths, he calls for help. In other dozens, he takes her hand.
In every single one, the snow continues to fall.