A/N: Epilogue remains. Thanks for everything :)
In the days before the Final Event, Astrid's modeling software ran day and night. It had its own dedicated setup, with monitor, stationed by the hall to the back room.
Every morning, Astrid input new values from the reports that had been delivered during the night, and its projections would adjust accordingly. Sometimes the adjustment was for the better, extending the point of convergence by a few days, or a week, or just a few minutes. Sometimes it went the other way, which nobody liked at all. Either way, the numbers stood to remind anyone who dared look that the end was, indeed, near.
Everyone reacted differently to the doomsday monitor.
Astrid treated it with detached indifference, entering values and letting it run.
Olivia checked it like clockwork, once when she arrived in the morning and once when she left at night. On the nights she didn't leave, she gave it an extra stare as she went for the cots in the back office.
Peter tried not to look, because when he did, it caught him like a trap; and Walter would only look when he thought he'd managed to make a difference in the numbers, though he was invariably disappointed.
Despite being confronted daily by the forecast on the screen, none of them truly comprehended the meaning of the little dot at the end of the graph. They were stuck in a paradigm of observation — as if the final collapse of the universe would happen around them, not to them. Something they'd witness, rather than something that would annihilate them well ahead of time.
Sometimes, briefly, driving late at night or in the last moments before sleep, the truth of it broke through like a gut-inverting taste of infinity and was quickly shaken off with a shiver, the unpleasant aftertaste cleansed with coffee, Red Vines, cat pictures, loud music, and anything else, anything at all.
At 4:32am, the big old house was asleep.
The owl clock ticked charmingly in the kitchen.
The furnace snored softly in every room.
The refrigerator happily cooled Walter's amino incubator and his banana pudding side by side.
In the cooking-hardware-and-liquor closet, a mouse rolled Peter's last dried fig toward a hole in the baseboard.
In the bedroom at the end of the hall, Walter slept surrounded by Barq's bottles filled with once-warm water.
In the big bedroom to the right of the stairs, Olivia big-spooned Peter, who was curled in a c-shape to accommodate the height difference and still keep his head on a pillow.
For a minute, all was pleasantness.
Then, just as the mouse absconded fully with his fig, Peter's phone buzzed.
They buzzed and buzzed and did not stop.
The sound siphoned Olivia out of dreams and into waking night. She put her hand out automatically to grab her phone but got the Black Box instead, sitting where she'd left it, as her phone jittered off the nightstand and onto the floor.
"What's going on," Peter mumbled. Somehow he'd gotten his phone in hand and clicked it silent with his eyes still shut. He squinted finally in Olivia's direction, where she was counterbalanced on the edge of the mattress, trying to fish her phone up without putting feet to cold floor. "You okay?" he asked, as she pulled herself back up.
"Yeah," she sighed. "Fine." She swiped in the call and turned away with its screen to her cheek. "Dunham."
Peter stayed horizontal, mashing a few fingers over his forehead to see if that might make him feel more awake. It didn't, really. He picked his phone up again, because it was Astrid who'd called him, and now she was calling again, so he thought he'd better answer.
"Nite Owl Midnight Bowling and Burger Lounge, Randy speaking," he said. And then, a minute later, much more quietly: "Oh, shit."
Peter took a quick shower before waking Walter — not because Walter needed the sleep, but because Peter needed the time to wrap himself in some kind of calm comportment, tight enough that it would hold for at least a few hours. Somewhere between turning the water on and stepping under it, time started to expand, and every action became superstitiously important. Was there still a path that might save them? Was he on it right now? And would he step off it if he spent an extra second shampooing his hair? Would he step off it if he didn't?
After five warm, anxious minutes that felt much longer than they lasted, Peter toweled off his hair and hung his towel on the rack, wondering as he did it why he'd bothered.
Would he ever be back?
Would there be a towel, or a house, or a him, twelve hours from now?
He brushed his teeth, and when he was done, he dropped the toothbrush deliberately on the counter next to the sink and let it stay there.
Olivia stood in the center of the bedroom, regretting her FBI training for maybe the first time in her life. It took over in the presence of a certain level of adrenaline and was almost impossible to escape.
It heightened her focus, made her sharper, but it robbed things of the glow she wanted most to see in this moment. Her eyes took impartial snapshots and gathered facts when all she wanted was to feel sentimental. She tried to feel her memories of the rug by the bed, the quilts layered above, the deck of cards Peter had saved, but it was interrupted and bleak. Her eyes darted to corners; her focus attacked the smallest sounds; and a countdown ran in her head, over all else. She'd been trained into it for so long she couldn't step out of it now.
Frustrated, she pulled an outfit together and laid it out on the bed.
After a moment, she tossed the Black Box on top.
After another moment, she picked it up again and threw it away.
When Peter finally walked in on Walter, he was sleeping peacefully: not snoring, singing or counting, for once.
Instead of turning the lights on, Peter tiptoed in soundlessly to the bed and sat down. Into the depression he created, a few pleasantly heavy 2-liter bottles rolled and settled against his hip. He put a hand on Walter's shoulder and held it for a minute in the dark.
"Hey," he whispered, finally, giving Walter a little shake.
Walter's eyes peeped open.
"Is the pudding done?" he asked.
Peter opened his mouth to say, no, this isn't about the pudding, Walter, the world is ending, but he couldn't get either one out. He rubbed Walter's shoulder, instead, then stood up. "Where," he said, "is the very best weed you've got?"
The very best weed Walter had was under two layers of screws in the hall closet vent.
"You know you don't have to hide weed anymore," Peter said, exasperated, struggling to turn the screwdriver with his fingertips a centimeter off the floor.
"Yes," Walter said, "yes I'm aware."
"Just keep it in your sock drawer like a normal person."
Walter scoffed. "I'd need a much larger sock drawer."
Peter grinned. The last screw klittered to the floor, and the vent cover came away. He leaned it against the wall and stood back for Walter to perform the excavation.
"You certainly would," he said.
While Walter rolled his stash in the kitchen, Olivia took a shower with hers. She'd gone deep into the bathroom cabinets, found every fancy, pricey thing she'd ever accumulated, and brought it all in with her.
Jasmine tea shampoo. Coconut ash and oatmeal amino conditioner. A rosemary-smelling sugar scrub, topped off with a whipped blackberry goat's milk soap. By the time Peter walked in, the bathroom was fluffy and humid with a full, lush spread of scents, and Olivia was steamed like a dumpling.
"Smells like the mall exploded," he said, waving a hand in front of his face to clear the steam.
"Get used to it," she said. "This is my everyday from now on." She tipped her head back under the water. "Feels like- ah!" Peter'd stuck his hand in through the shower curtain to form his own opinion.
"Like Walter's homemade pizza dough," he finished for her. His hand slipped out through the curtain again and she heard the rustling of his clothes being removed.
"Pizza dough," she said. "No. I don't think so."
"Mmm, I do," he confirmed. His pants landed against the door, belt clunking against the baseboard. "Like those little dough balls he makes. Before the second rise? All coated in olive oil?" The shower curtain pulled back and he peeked in before stepping over the rim of the tub.
"An oiled-up dough ball," she hardlined, half-grinning, as Peter stole the water. "Is this some new game you're running?" He scrubbed his hair wet, shucked the water off his face and looked her up and down.
"Well," he said. "I guess you're a little pinker."
"You're a dead man," she said, but he was already dropping to his knees.
No-one wanted to be first out the door.
The three of them stood in a little human clump in the middle of the kitchen, like they were seeing it for the first time. They studied their own historical record: every kitchen stain scorched onto the stovetop; every dish left drying in the rack; the dent in the ceiling from the pressure cooker explosion.
Walter's eyes were glassy and calm. He'd mixed himself a potion that smelled like a Mystery Flavor lollipop and taken it all in one swig. A reserve of Red Vines rested in the pocket of his overcoat like wilted, headless flowers. As Peter and Olivia stood by the kitchen island, he went over and whispered something to his favorite blender.
Content to observe from afar, Peter petted down the back of Olivia's hair. "Anything you want to whisper to before we go?" he asked quietly. He'd already said goodbye to his desk and played his favorite coda on the Yamaha.
"I'm good," she said. But she turned around impulsively, compelled to drink in the sight of the old couch and fireplace and piano one more time.
As a herd, they made an unspoken but unanimous decision to take the station wagon.
Olivia slid into the cold driver's side, Peter graciously accepted shotgun and Walter sat in the back, resting his head against the window. As seatbelts buckled, Peter slipped a joint out of his peacoat pocket and sparked it, taking a long, deep drag. He offered it to Olivia — because if ever there were a day for the lawman to break the law, that day was today — but she declined with a tight smile and stretched her hands on the wheel. Peter passed back to Walter, instead, and reclined slightly in his seat.
"Whhhhhhoohh," he exhaled. His eyes slipped closed. "Walter...is this laced?"
Walter took a dainty sip of the joint and smiled. "Of course."
Olivia sailed the station wagon through a deserted, pre-dawn Massachussetts.
Nearly alone on the highway, the Oldsmobile swam over the weather-beaten asphalt with a sort of automotive laissez-faire: chassis floating up and down, slow and groovy around the shocks, tires rippling over the cracks and joints with a peaceful hum. She kept the car at a steady fifty-five: maybe the slowest she'd ever gone on the highway. Probably the slowest Peter had ever gone, ever, including parking lots, but he seemed content not to hurry her at the moment.
They were both watching: scouring the scenery for handsome trees, familiar constellations, the way the grass grew in the median. The smallest details, the dullest colors. They wanted them in a way they hadn't before they knew they might not encounter them again. Olivia had hoped to see the sun rise on the drive over, but the sky was as dark as the Boston metro sky could get. Pink clouds roosted over the city, blinking planes hovered toward Logan, and on the horizon rested an ethereal glow that marked her final destination.
It wasn't like Olivia'd been through more than one apocalypse, but suddenly this particular end of the world seemed sadder and more lonesome to her than others might be. Not just the end of an Earth but the end of a universe, the erasure of an entire cosmic string that included this unmown median, that McDonald's cup on the side of the road, and all the little lights she could see from the highway. No volcanoes, no asteroids, no aliens...just the void, quietly licking its lips, then nothing.
From the Hallsbury exit, the void appeared as a bright and undulating light, like the corona of a busy truck stop. As they neared the site, though, the roads narrowed and the trees thickened until they could barely see the any sign of it at all.
The last mile took them down a single dirt lane packed with cars on both shoulders, right up to the crumbling stone walls. There were always a few local gawkers at every scene, but not like this: Peter counted Connecticut plates, Vermont, New York, summoned from all directions by the light in the sky. He didn't envy Broyles' perimeter unit today.
Most of the vehicles were vacant — sight-seekers gone seeking — but one van caught Peter's eye. It might've been the man with night-vision goggles standing on the roof with a walkie-talkie, or the museum of paranoiac bumper stickers plastered over the back windows:
ET went home.
OSWALD WAS A PATSY.
If you're reading this, thank the millitary-industrial complex.
Peter put a hand on Olivia's arm as they pulled up adjacent. "Hey, stop here a sec," he said. "Roll down your window."
He leaned over her lap, toward her open window. "Hey!" he called.
The shape on the roof paused, then looked away from the woods and down into the car. From his high vantage point, his view was of Olivia's lap and Peter's face, practically upside-down, peering up at him.
"Hey!" Peter said again. "Are those the new Stealthmasters?"
"What are you doing?" Olivia whispered, but Peter ignored it, continuing to smile guilelessly up out of the window.
The weirdo clicked something on his goggles, maybe a zoom, and studied Peter for another moment before deciding to respond. "5200 DSOs," he said.
"You spring for the infrared?" Peter asked.
"Smart." Peter looked forward down the road, toward the site. "Any luck getting closer?"
The weirdo hesitated again. "Closer to what?" he said cryptically, which seemed ridiculous in light of the night vision goggles and dozens of spectating vehicles. Peter wasn't deterred. His half-face disappeared for a second, then reappeared along with an outstretched hand, holding his FBI ID open.
"Think this'll get me through?" he asked.
The stargazer reluctantly came down from the roof, lured by the federal logo. He came timidly up to Olivia's window while she stared ahead, remaining totally impassive. She had the impression of a squirrel being coaxed in for a peanut. The car's headlights illuminated a ratty t-shirt: Anything you can code, I can code better.
Peter waggled the ID at him. "What do you think?"
The weirdo took it and held it quite close to his face. The 5200 DSOs, apparently, did not come with room for prescription eyewear.
"Pretty good," he said finally, and handed it back. "But the grannymobile's gonna blow your cover."
"Spent all the car money on the ID," Peter said, with a smile.
"Well good luck. It's a hundred yard perimeter. They've got people in the trees."
"Military?" Peter said.
"Has to be. We're talking everything but tanks."
"I heard it was a weapons test," Peter said, stretching even futher across the car and lowering his voice. He could feel Olivia supressing a snort, or laughter, or something. "Department of Energy covering for deep DOD tactical. Green energy."
"What's your source on that?"
This was silently accepted. Then, suddenly, a crashing in the trees drew both of their attention. Olivia's hand almost, almost went to her hip holster but she quelled the reflex just as a toady figure expelled itself from the woods.
"Langl-" the toad started, but stopped himself as soon as company became clear. He lifted his own pair of Stealthmasters from his face. "Who's the narc?" The weirdo looked back at Peter and realized he hadn't asked.
"Peter Knight," Peter said. "Hi." He waved awkwardly. "Maybe you read my work?" Olivia bumped him from below with her knee: his work?
The two strangers glanced at each other, then back at him.
"Fringe Science Digest?" Peter said.
"Never heard of it," the toad said.
"Really?" Peter said. "Damn." He played a very convincing disappointment. "Well, if we get anything good, maybe we can exchange? For the upcoming issue."
The strangers exchanged another silent look of extreme debate. Finally the tall one slid a card out of his pocket, reached past Olivia, and pressed it into Peter's hand, face down. "We were never here," he said then, and the both of them backed away from the window.
This seemed to Olivia like the natural end of the encounter. She rolled up the window and eased off the brake, and the car picked up speed again. Not until a few dozen yards had passed did she ask: "What was that all about?"
Peter smiled his canary smile. "I know them," he said.
"From what weird episode of your life do you know them?"
"Not in person," he said. "But I've been reading their work since college. They put out the best theory on JFK I've ever read; I mean, ever." Off her tart look, he added, "Look, that's what I thought, too, until I read it." He adjusted in his seat and tapped his fingers against his knees. "I've been pirating their magazine for, like, 20 years running, and I think an exclusive on the end of the world would clear my conscience. Maybe a few words from an official — but anonymous — FBI source?"
Olivia scoffed sidelong. "Sure," she said.
"I'll do it," Walter offered from the back, not lifting his forehead from the window. He hadn't spoken for so long, they'd assumed he was asleep. "If I get to pick my own pseudonym."
The car waddled the last hundred yards down a barely maintained tractor path, past a deconstructed fence and directly onto the field where the FBI had set up a temporary base of operations. Olivia slowed the station wagon to a crawl to navigate through the parked cars, floodlights and wandering agents, as close as she could to the center of things, tires crumpling the frozen dirt until Broyles appeared like a reaper in front of her bumper. She rolled down her window partway, put the car in park and waited for Broyles to say, 'took your sweet time', but he didn't. Just waved a hand at her to get out; come with.
She killed the ignition and looked to Peter. In the absence of the engine sounds, she could hear a lot of shouting.
"You go," he said. "I'll get Walter going. Call if you need me."
She nodded and slipped out of the car, following Broyles' trail into the center of the commotion. Peter unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to the backseat.
"Hey, Walter," he said, nudging Walter's knee.
"I'm not asleep," Walter said, lifting his head from the frozen window.
"I know. They want you to help with the Amber. You up for that?"
Peter went around the car to let him out, his long, slow steps silhouetted against the yellows and blues and reds of emergency flashers. With every exhale, the ice of his breath refracted the lights into glowing clouds. When he pulled the door open, the last of the warm air in the car rushed out all at once.
"Broyles had it picked up," Peter said, offering a hand to pull Walter up out of the back seat. "All of it. They just need you to make it count."
Walter looked up at him and nodded stiffly. He allowed himself to be hoisted out of the car. Two agents approached, looking green and a little bit sweaty despite the chill. Walter thumbed a pristine joint from his pocket and handed it to the palest one.
"A little something first," he muttered. He fished for his lighter, then held the flame out. "Yes," he said, more forcefully as the agent leaned in without hesitation. "A little something, first."
Peter headed off to find Olivia.
The first Observer arrived on the crest of the neighboring hill just before dawn, unnoticed and barely visible in the dark. It took out its little glasses and peered down at the clamoring with the same old indifference.
By the time someone took notice, there were more of them: a picket fence of bald men in suits, lining the ridge, folding and unfolding their glasses and taking their little notes without expression.
They didn't approach.
Nobody approached them.
"If they're going to help, let them," Broyles briefed the rest. "If not, so be it."
Sunrise came to Walter as he sat under a tree, another unlit joint rolling slowly, meditatively between his fingers.
He wasn't hiding, per se, but it was all right with him if he weren't found. This tree was peaceful. This tree was not in chaos. This tree was not worried about what was coming over the fields.
He'd left junior agents Dombrowski and Sprague hustling in busy circles around the stockpile of Massive Dynamic canisters, trying to remain convinced that deploying the Amber was worth their efforts.
All the Amber Massive Dynamic could've produced in the next year wouldn't be enough to stop what was now in motion. The way the sky looked over the hill reminded Walter of a movie: the one with the green ghost and the giant pink Jell-O mold. Who you gonna call.
He leaned heavily against the tree and studied the roots by his feet. The bark patterns ran and broke, ran and broke, streaming eventually down into the dirt. There were no worms in winter. Where did they go?
Nina Sharp had appeared. She was in front of him, looking impatient. Had she been looking for him, or just happened to stumble by? Maybe she only wanted to sit under the tree. It was a nice tree. And big. Certainly room enough for two.
"Walter," she said, hoofing closer. "Peter said you might be helping with the Amber." She shook a clod of cold mud off her inelegant boot. Walter had never seen her in boots before.
"The Amber," Walter said precisely, "will not help with anything. So I am not helping with the Amber."
"I see." Nina paused. Or was she waiting, trying to wear him down with silence. "You won't even try?"
"I am sorry," he said, truly apologetic, "but it would be a terribly poor use of my time."
"Poorer than this? Hiding behind a tree?" She was angry, suddenly. Angrier than before. And that made him angry.
He blinked. He frowned. He looked up at her darkly. "I did as you asked," he said. "As Belly instructed."
Nina's face changed.
"I did not interfere. I did not unduly influence. I didn't build that machine."
"Is that not exactly as you instructed? Is that not exactly as Belly instructed you?" For a second he felt a rush of violence, an outburst about to explode, but then a wash of calm came over him instead, smoothing his face from forehead to chin. He remembered the joint between his fingers, lit it, pressed it to his lips and lost the will to toke it mid-breath. He set it down on his knee, where his pants began to quietly smolder.
"I could have built it," he said finally. "The instructions were all there, in those papers. Belly knew it. That's why he brought them back."
"There has to be a reason," Nina said. "You know William. You have to know that, wherever he is, he's doing whatever he can."
Walter said nothing.
"We have to trust him," she said. "We have to get up and keep thinking. Keep trying."
But Walter pursed his lips and shook his head, and Nina realized his faith had run dry, too late to change a thing.
"If this universe is the one to be saved," Walter said, "then why isn't Belly here?"
Nina couldn't answer that.
Olivia had been consumed by Broyles' directions, so Peter had gone wandering instead. He'd made paths between equipment and vehicles and agents and the regiment of Massive Dynamic whitecoats who scurried from screen to screen. He'd kept a good distance between himself and anyone who might want to ask him a question, because he had no answers for anyone, even with his mind chewing through its last working gears trying to find some.
For a little while, this avoidance had held time itself at bay. The void didn't grow, nobody died, and nothing happened at all, as long as he kept walking and didn't hear a word of information from anyone. But eventually the sun rose, and when it did, all the time he hadn't acknowledged accelerated past him anyway. The fishtank-blue glow of dawn touched his face, his coat, everything, and the void glimmered forebodingly in the center of it all, a pretty wound that would never heal.
Peter left his circuit and hiked further afield, following a narrower tractor path to its end: a sunken boulder too large to move with a plow. The unmowable grass in front of it was pre-trampled — a deer bed, maybe — and when he sat down in the matted spot, the boulder butted nicely up against his back. He let his neck go and allowed the rock to cradle the back of his head as he looked up into the sky.
Like Walter, he wasn't trying to hide, but the rock did it well, making him impossible to find… unless, of course, someone happened to share with him some sort of deep and unbreakable connection.
Peter felt Olivia coming, then heard the grass crush under her boots, then heard her speak, in that order.
"Hey," she said. She'd stopped in his sun and he squinted up, putting a hand behind his head to get a better angle. She seemed wretchedly angry, which confirmed to him that no solution had yet presented itself. If she'd come to get one from him, she'd wasted the trip.
"Hey," he said, and the sun went behind a cloud. After a moment of silence, she got down on the ground next to him, sharing the rock. When the sun came out again, they both closed their eyes against the bright.
"At least it's a nice day," he said. The marijuana was wearing off him. There was another joint in his pocket, begging to be toked before it winked out of existence, but he didn't want it anymore. No more muddling. The sun was bright and cool, the clouds were fluorescently white, and Olivia was warm and real. He reached out and held her hand. She clenched it.
"I could use a few more nice days," she said tersely.
"Wish I could give 'em to you," he said.
She shifted restlessly, trying to be content with earth and sky, but it didn't come as easily to her as it did to Peter.
"What the fuck were we supposed to do?" she said finally. "Why all the tests? And the William Bell stories? The documents? Why go through all that, if it was just going to come to this?"
Peter rolled his head back and forth against the rock. "I don't know," he said. But the truth was that he didn't want to think about it all that closely. When he started groping around too deeply in the narrative of the last few years, it became uncomfortably apparent that much of it had been built on intuitions and leaps of faith: a fragile house of hypotheses that could only be tested when it was too late to rebuild.
The Observers, the ZFT manual, Olivia's abilities, William Bell, the half-truck that slid out onto a busy city street — these things had been coaxed together into a single story: a story so bizarre it had to be true. And Walter had helped him believe, and Olivia had helped him believe, and in turn he'd helped them believe, all of them part of the same freaky cult that gained momentum with every test and Fringe event and body in the lab.
They were going to save the world.
This truth justified their efforts.
Their efforts justified this truth.
And, safe within the tautology, Peter had stopped questioning the foundational precepts of their story, which, now — as the dragon crawled out of its cave — seemed grossly shortsighted. They'd focused their efforts so tightly, at what expense? What had they missed? Could they have saved themselves, each other, everyone, if they'd just taken a big step back?
He should have seen these failings, but the whole thing had seduced him: the strangeness, the excitement, and the importance it granted him, which was the most embarrassing and pathetic part.
Without the pretty blond telling him his father was the key to unraveling a conspiracy, would he have ever bothered to see his Walter again? Would he have acquiesced to share a hotel room if Walter hadn't promisingly recited Pi to sleep? And were the grocery store parades bearable only insofar as Peter could coax Walter to say something smart, something big-wordy between the tin-hat ramblings about instant oatmeal, something so that he could glance askew at the new mom with her baby in the shopping cart and assure her with a single look that he was doing something more significant than just coaxing an old man through the Kroger?
The truth was, four years ago, an ordinary father wasn't enough for him. Nothing ordinary was. It all had to be special, intriguing, wild. If it weren't, then all those people he'd abandoned and all the problems he'd run away from: he'd left them not because they weren't enough, but because his own ordinary fears and failures were too much. And that meant he'd been seeing Walter in the mirror for most of his adult years, which would've been fine if he hadn't relied so heavily on blaming Walter for everything wrong with his life.
That was then, of course. He felt differently, now. But still. He blinked into the sun until his irises hurt.
"You're a good person," Olivia said softly. She knew his secrets, and she still thought this. It made him feel clean.
"Took me a little while," he said.
"Maybe so," she said.
In the sky, a little flare of iridescence kited across the sky, some offshoot from the void, and the cold fork of panic poked Peter gently between the ribs just to remind him it was still there: the end of the world.
"This is so fucked," he said, but he said it calmly. His current level of terror was so strong that it could overshoot panic altogether and catapult him to place of non-thought: a warm eddy of emptiness. The sky was still blue. Olivia was still in love with him. The breach was crawling across the ground toward a point of incredibly rapid expansion and no fucking return.
They squeezed hands.
And then in the back of Peter's mind there came a very odd ping: a shock of recognition, but not his, and not Olivia's. He sat up on his elbows, then pushed up all the way.
"Is that…Walter?" Olivia said. She'd felt it too.
Peter scanned for his father and located him stumbling out from under his tree, staggering toward the crest of the hill, trailing Nina, who was clambering over the muddy hillocks so fast her boots were slipping. It didn't take much looking to see that everyone's head was turned toward the regiment of Observers on the horizon, where suddenly one of those things was not like the others.
In fact, one of those things looked very much like William Bell.
"Is that…?" Olivia asked, getting to her feet.
"Holy shit," Peter said.
For a stoned old guy, Walter was hard to catch. Peter chased him up the hill as best he could, scraping dark wet stripes into the grass as he climbed, and Nina Sharp fell further and further behind, unaccustomed to hot pursuit.
Olivia wasn't as interested in the reunion. Despite the hope she could feel fluttering up in Peter (and in Walter, too, albeit faintly), she had none of her own to add. If William Bell were capable of doing anything, he would've done it. He'd done enough, already, and look where it'd gotten them.
She turned her back on him, on the Observers and all of it, and loped instead toward the FBI huddle, where Broyles and Astrid stood by an iceberg of monitoring equipment. It was stacked only a few dozen yards from the verge of the breach, on track to be consumed in short order. Under Broyles' direction, junior agents were already carrying components away piecemeal to a safer, more distant staging ground.
While Broyles pointed and shouted, Astrid watched the hill that Olivia had left behind, where Walter and William Bell had finally collided in a flailing ball of elderly punches and deflections, with Peter dodging and pushing distance between them.
"Is that really William Bell?" she asked.
Olivia leaned against a portable table. "Yeah," she said. "But don't hold your breath." She put her attention to the monitors that the junior agents hadn't yet taken away. "What's going on?"
"Nothing good," Astrid said. "It's losing stability pretty quickly, so the models are pretty much useless. It might double in an hour, it might double in a day-"
"It might double in the next five minutes," Broyles interrupted. "Where are you on this?"
Olivia knew he wasn't asking about her, personally. At this point, Broyles' 'yous' implicated Peter and Walter, too; the three to whom he'd given every resource, every allowance, in the hope that they could be prepared for this moment exactly, when it came. And here it was, and she couldn't bear to tell him the unforgiveable truth. She shook her head and gave him the one whole second of eye contact she could muster before staring back into the blinking equipment. Broyles didn't say anything. He turned away, walked off a few yards into a quiet pocket and slipped his phone out of his pocket.
Astrid sidled in between Olivia and the monitors, blocking the unforgiving data from view.
"If there's anything," she said. "Anything you're not sure of, anything you haven't really tested…now would be the time."
A few feet away, Broyles spoke quietly but fervently into his phone. Olivia hadn't heard that tone from him since his divorce. She realized she didn't know who he was talking to. Who did he have in his life, now? Who was at stake for him?
"Olivia," Astrid prompted.
"I'm sorry," Olivia said. "Did you want to call someone? Your-" She hesitated. "-dad?"
Astrid blinked quickly and it was like Olivia could see her brain switch over, from hope back to detachment. "We did our thing," she said. "I'm here now. Until it's over."
Broyles circled back in, all determination and ferocity, snapping his phone shut with the vigor of a bear trap. "All right," he declared, "I don't care what we try, but we're damn sure trying something. Tell me what that's going to be, Agent Dunham."
Olivia tried to think. At this proximity to the breach, static was rasping at her like a charged comb. She wished viscerally for Peter or Walter to stumble back down the hill, William Bell in tow, and make a suggestion: any suggestion at all.
"I don't—" she said. "I don't—"
Broyles' javelin stare warned her not to finish that sentence. All she could do was shut her mouth and look into the breach like the solution would fly out at her. And then, suddenly, something did fly out at her: the breach itself.
It happened fast, like a wave breaking.
Astrid barely had time to realize what was happening. Broyles was slightly quicker: he had time to pull Astrid behind him with one arm and put the other out in front of himself as if it could halt the lurching void. Olivia reached out for both of them — not to shove them safely away but to pull them close, which Astrid didn't understand until the breach had stabilized once more, and she wasn't inside it.
Instead, the void had closed around them on all sides, encasing them in a hole barely larger than a closet. The hole hadn't included Broyles' outstretched arm: it was sunk deep into the glowing walls, engulfed up to the elbow. When he jerked it back, everything below the joint was gone. His reaction to this was bizarrely silent, far too calm to be anything but shock and well-practiced compartmentalization working hand-in-hand.
Astrid was less stoic. She murmured a quiet ohmygod and tried to shrink away, only to realize there was nowhere to shrink. They'd been swallowed, saved for later in some bizarre second stomach. She looked to Olivia for an explanation, but Olivia didn't see: she was standing with her eyes shut tight and her hands fisted at her sides. As Astrid watched, the walls of their little bubble quivered like soapskin in the wind, expanding with Olivia's ribcage in tandem with her breaths.
Then, silently, a little depression appeared in the wall in front of them. Astrid watched it deepen, widen, and burrow slowly toward the world outside. As the wall thinned, she could see vaguely through: the fuzzy shapes of Peter and Walter storming back down the hillside toward them; Nina Sharp coming around in a panic; a gaggle of agents standing back from the edge with absolutely no idea what to do.
Astrid was in their same boat.
The hole continued to grow.
Slowly but steadily, it punched through the wall entirely and started to peel outward, expanding. First quarter-sized, then plate-sized, then big enough to shake a bathmat through. The air filled with a tonic smell, and Astrid considered trying to leap through. Broyles must have felt her twitch, because he clamped his remaining hand on her shoulder to keep her from trying.
She tried to stay calm.
Suddenly, she heard her name, called in a deeper way than she usually heard it: it grabbed her attention even in her panic. It was Peter.
"Astrid," he repeated. He'd come to a stop in front of the hole, about ten feet away.
She met his eyes but could not speak.
He attempted a smile. "I know this isn't really the time," he said, pointedly, "but I need you to relax."
I need you to relax was not usually a precursor to anything nice, and Astrid tensed up before she could stop herself.
"Nope; other way," Peter coaxed, softer. "Relax. Think about something- yep. Yes. Good."
As he spoke, Astrid started to feel the strangest she'd ever felt in her life.
"I know," Peter said, soft and almost fading. "I know, I know, I know." It sounded like an apology. "Relax. Relax. It's going to be okay." This, he said as the weird feeling became much, much weirder.
And Astrid — at a crossroads between absolute chaotic panic and transcendent surrender — went, in her mind, absurdly and automatically, to her gynecologist's office. She went to the poster of the palm trees on the ceiling, to the feeling of pleasant, empty-minded surrender. And Peter slipped right in behind her.
Her fear evaporated, fizzled away, and so did everything else. She felt far away. Detached. And when her limbs began to walk her toward the little hole, she wasn't the one doing the walking.
Peter moved each part carefully, with an untrembling balance she couldn't have achieved, matched perfectly to the undulations of the void. Olivia opened spaces as she'd gone, little divots to fit her toes and fingers and knees.
When her last foot cleared the glimmering edge, she got one final push away from danger before falling back into her body like a two-ton weight. It collapsed her to the ground, where she flailed to get as far away as she could as Peter — with a firm grip around her ribs: a real grip, with his real hands — pulled her along.
"It's okay," he said, "you did great. You're okay." He dragged while she crawled until she'd gotten enough of a hold on herself to stop and sit still, then he left her for the agents to take and went back for Broyles.
The agents who swooped in to help her were wearing gloves, and for some reason it bothered Astrid intolerably. She swatted them away so she could watch, unmolested, as Peter brought Broyles through. Broyles looked just as she must have — a confused marionette — and when he collapsed on the grass, Peter was on his knees under his bad shoulder, helping him claw along just as she had, albeit with only one arm.
Olivia came out last, after all was done.
She came out without Peter's help. She moved slowly, her exit hatch bending around her. From its walls, rainbow flares bent and dipped toward her in the shape of a magnetic field, and suddenly Astrid recognized that Olivia hadn't made the bubble by holding back the void: she'd done it by drinking it in, soaking it up like Maude in the New Room.
This was good, Astrid understood, because it'd kept them alive, but it was also not good, because charging Olivia's capacitor was only half the equation, and there was no New Room here to protect them from the rest.
Olivia had to know that. She stepped clear of the breach to applause she didn't seem to hear, and as the hole sealed up behind her, she made no move to step away. Then, somehow, maybe through whatever Peter had opened up inside her, Astrid heard Olivia think to him.
Stay, she said, and that short word communicated her plan. She was going to take it away: take her little bomb to the Other Side and set it off where it couldn't hurt anyone.
Astrid felt Peter's panic detonate as he understood the same thing. He'd been at Broyles' side, taking a closer look at that arm, but now he scrambled to his feet, and was running toward Olivia before he got his balance, tripping over nothing.
Was he going to stop her?
Astrid struggled to yell, anything that might stop him. Olivia could do this; she could do this easily; she would be fine.
For an eternal moment it seemed like Peter might reach her in time, but as he got close he was pulled up short, like someone had pushed him, and he yelled back at that force in futile rage: a NO so violent that Astrid felt fear.
And then Olivia was gone.
Peter yelled at the faceless nothing: "It's not going to work!"
As soon as Olivia opened her eyes, she realized her error.
This version of the field was not empty.
And not just, 'not empty': in this version of the apocalypse, it seemed like the entire FBI had shown up.
She estimated a body count: 300, more or less, wandering between the flashlight smears and equipment farms.
With a clash of familiarity and wrongness she recognized Broyles and Astrid — not her Broyles and Astrid, but Broyles and Astrid just the same. Their shapes leapt out at her like Where's Waldo. She saw them at about the same time that they looked up and recognized her, and their reactions were immediate and contagious. In seconds, the entire milling sea of personnel had taken their cue and gone silent, staring at the woman who'd appeared from thin air.
Her plan was bad.
She couldn't kill these people.
But she couldn't go back, either.
There was only one option remaining.
It wasn't a good one, but it was the one she had.
She stepped backwards, directly into the breach, and was enveloped completely.
Peter stalked the space where Olivia'd been, tight with fury, yelling at Walter, who was clawing at Peter's sleeves and coattails, trying to keep a grip on his son.
Suddenly, Peter went tense and still. He stared off into the distance, as if listening for something very quiet and very far away.
"Son," Walter seemed reassured slightly by the change. He let go of Peter's sleeve to put a gentle, coaxing hand on his shoulder. "If I know Olivia at all," he said, "I know she can take care of hers-"
Peter bolted. He was gone before Walter could get his grip back, disappearing into the oily gleam without a word.
Now it was Walter's turn to yell.
Inside the breach, there was nothing. Peter had expected to see something, at least: flying toasters, laser Floyd, the fuzzy superimposition of two universes. Instead it was all just dark and gray, a bland and funereal wallpaper, accompanied by a persistent gunning sound like a locomotive far away.
He yelled Olivia's name into the thick, warping air and realized two things: one, that normal sound didn't carry in the void — it banded up and stuttered into nothing, like a rock skipping out over a dark lake. And two: he was already short of breath, a problem that was only likely to get worse as the merge tried to insert atoms between the atoms in his lungs.
He focused on attenuating to the in-between, like he'd practiced with the beacon. How much time would that buy him, stomping around in an atomic trash compactor? Hopefully, he wouldn't need long. She'd be here any second.
The void hurt.
Olivia hadn't expected that. She'd expected it to kill her, but she'd completely skipped over the part where it might hurt her. It felt like the time she'd swum through a clobber of jellyfish, a blooming, slimy cloud that stung her tip to tail until she ran out, screaming and flinging the sticky tentacles off her skin. At least then she'd been able to scream. Now she could barely even open her mouth.
But then something jerked hard and fast on her arm, pulled her sidelong like a roll in the undertow, and the sting faded. Peter. His cosmic flexibility enveloped them both, she realized, keeping their atoms neither here nor there. Keeping her alive.
Unfortunately, he was the absolute last person in the world she wanted to see. Despite her fervent will to live, if he stayed in here with her, the discharge would kill him. She would kill him.
"Peter," she said. "Leave."
But he only held her tighter. "You're welcome," he said, tripping over the words. The breach was doing exactly what it was born to do, interleaving his atoms with atoms that didn't belong there, and it was messing increasingly with his motor functions.
"Don't make me do this," she said, radiating despair, in a tone that pulled on his guts like teeth.
"It's okay," he said. "It'll be okay." He wasn't sure if it was true. It didn't matter if it was true.
"Peter, they need you," she said.
"They need us," he countered.
Her face flexed into the shape of crying, though she wasn't. She was furious. "I don't want this."
But it didn't matter what she wanted, or what he wanted. It didn't matter how hard they'd tried to fix things or how much they deserved to live, or how badly he wanted to stay forty more years with Olivia's freezing feet in bed and her casual disdain for his favorite beer and her hair on the wall of his shower: they were going to die in the next sixty seconds, or they weren't, and all Peter could do was what he felt was right.
"You wanted an idea," he said. "This is the only one I have."
She gave up.
He put his arms around her and hugged, gently at first to get a feel for the level of resistance, then harder. Their bodies were blurred in the breach, atomic mud in water, and he was able to pull himself through her, into the same space she occupied. They melted together with an effervescent burn. It occurred to Peter, as he was doing this, that it was possible that no amount of cellular attenuation would set them right again, but at this point there was nothing else he could think of to try. Inside her was the only place he'd be safe; and inside him, her.
As he sunk deeper, he began to taste the full delirium of energy racing through her. It was hot and sharp, glitter in a windstorm, except it went all the way through him and never let up. It took his breath away, which was almost funny in that he wasn't sure how he was breathing, anymore, at all. Were his lungs still solvent? Were his blood vessels? Was it just luck that these things were still interacting?
Before he could think much more about it, a fiery corona began to bloom in front of his eyes, over their enmeshed skulls, banding and undulating like the Northern Lights. It was the only true light anywhere in the void. A little crackle of something zinged from their forehead into the ether, and heat began to melt down through their shoulders.
I love you, he thought to her, inside her, picking out each syllable with vast effort.
He could barely feel her anymore.
Could she feel him?
A feverish glow ignited like a bonfire around their head, the flowering of an incredible amount of light. And then: vast expansion, like his already fuzzy edges were eroding, fraying. He felt like he should hold on, somehow, but he was there was nothing to hold, just tiny pieces slipping out of his control, scattering in wind, evaporating under a brilliant light that was shining through his skin from the inside.
They came to on the ground, being violently shaken: not by the void, not by forces beyond their control, but by Walter, who had Peter by the scraps of his half-gone clothes and was hugging him around like an amateur wrestler, and by Broyles, who'd thrown himself bodily on top of Olivia and scooped her up with his one arm, yelling and grinning while Astrid and Nina clutched each other in a bizarre, jubilant circular hop.
Olivia's slowly-focusing vision bounced with clouds and sun and Broyles' wide-open face. She grabbed at his shoulder clumsily to get him to slow down, hold still, lay off the manhandling for a second so she could get her bearings back. Tough luck. He swooned her left and right and then Astrid came over and grabbed her around the chest from behind and things only got worse.
Peter didn't bother asking for mercy. After the first few thumps of his back against the dirt and squeezes of his face into Walter's sweaty hands, he pulled himself up and clung as tight as he could to Walter's shoulders, burying his face between his neck and sweater, trying to buffer the throttling as much as such a thing was possible. He hung on until he felt Walter disentangle. He dropped back onto the grass and Walter's face blazed down at him, haloed in too-vivid light.
He looked different.
His eyebrows were gone, Peter realized, and his face was red. Very red.
For the first time it occurred to him to turn his head. Squinting into the light, he saw the void: still there, still glimmering, but a hundred feet away now, across a space of charred earth. He craned his neck a bit more, hair dragging in the dirt. Behind him and a bit to the left, he saw Olivia clutched like a prize pig between farmers, not yet squirmed free.
She felt him looking and looked for him, too. They caught eyes at the exact moment Peter heard what Walter was saying: repeating, actually, in a frantic and delighted shout: "Yes! Yes! Yes! Now, again! Again!"
Peter shook his head the best he could while keeping eye contact with her, until they'd both broken into upside-down-puppy smiles. Then he let his neck relax, looking back up into the blue and white. Tears tracked through the dirt on his cheeks, down past his ears.
"You've got to be kidding me," he muttered, but his smile remained.
Way up on the hill, over it all, the Observers had all turned to stare fixedly at William Bell, who was jumping up and down, punching the sky as ferociously as a delicate old man could.