World's End

Crack, crack, crack—the predictable sounds of bones snapping. There's no reason to care: it's a symphony he's heard before over and over again. And it's gotten tiresome, like listening to white noise. Before him, a gang of pretentious hooligans cry and weep, trying to nurse their wrist, leg, arm—or whatever they broke. He hadn't looked when they struck. It was too pathetic of a spectacle that it isn't even worth a sideway glance.

"Are you done now?" he mutters in a weary voice.

No comprehensible answer. Typical. The shit I put up with, he thinks as he steps away from the mess of cut sinew, tears and blood below. At least, at night, he doesn't need to endure the accusing stares of onlookers. Without a care in the world, he walks away, leaving yet another mess for the authorities to clean up.

•••

He goes back to his dorm with a slightly stiff gait. As he ascends the stairs, he sees one of his many nameless neighbors—his recollection of names is horrendous—who notices a distinct look in his eyes. At least he isn't wrought with fright at the mere sight of them, unlike the rest.

"So… another gang tried their luck?" the neighbor asks tentatively.

"Hm-hm," he says in a monotone voice. A short silence follows.

When he moves up the steps, his neighbor speaks up, "You want to… I donno, go out drinking sometime? Only if you want to. I know you like to be left alone because—but…" The neighbor scratches the back of his head, the right words not coming to him. There's tangible awkwardness from the neighbor's lack of tact.

He could just tell him that they're both underage and leave it at that. But instead he shakes his head and answers, "It's not my thing." For some reason, his neighbor seems disappointed. Was he expecting him to say yes?

"Oh, OK," the neighbor says with his hands deep in his pockets. "Um, I'll be going now."

Before the neighbor leaves, he asks with a strong voice, "What's your name again?"

Surprised and unsettled by the sudden question, the neighbor veers his head towards him and babbles quickly, "—zura. It's Hamazura I mean."

"Hm. I'll remember that name."

Unsure of the intent behind those words, Hamazura shakes his head sheepishly and goes down the flight of stairs as he does the opposite.

•••

He enters his room, yawns and lies down. Or rather, he lets himself flop on his bed like a lifeless body. He fishes out from his back pocket a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, and proceeds to indulge himself. By the time the cigarette's length becomes non-existent and the stench of chemicals and tobacco fill the room, the annoying itch in his soul is a doused ember. And that's when he notices, as he squishes the cigarette butt into the ashtray on his nightstand—

"So you're a smoker?" a distinctly mild-mannered voice says, almost in a taunting tone. In the hallway stands a shadowy figure that inspects him. "That's the first time I've seen you with that trait, Accelerator."

With only faint moonlight piercing through the thick blinds, there's no real eye contact. But the air is heavy, the tension a spark away from exploding. And the spark comes: Accelerator spins his body off the bed in a lightning quick lunge towards the intruder, creating a gust that sweeps the entire apartment. Most couldn't hope to have the reflexes required to dodge such swiftness and raw power—even if they are at peak physical form. Yet somehow, to his astonishment and slight disbelief, Accelerator is grasping at air.

"That's not very polite of you, attacking a guest like that," the stranger taunts further, now on the bed. He has a clearer view and sees that the stranger is a woman, despite the fact that a peculiar mask covers her face. Two bumps jump out of the obsidian skintight suit she dons. "And your place was so tidy," the stranger notes in an ironic manner. Papers, pens, DVDs, cigarettes, butts, ashes and turned over furniture litter the floor and carpet. But thankfully, the coffer maker is intact—it's the only possession he cares for.

"Who the fuck do you think you are? Another negotiator? Another offer from the Dark Side?" His posture is aggressive; his words are barked out; his patience is almost spent. "Listen, I don't fucking—"

"Don't be so aggressive. I'm not from the Dark Side." Limply, she lays a hand on her hips and poses like a model during a photo shoot. Without seeing her mouth, he can somehow tell that she's smirking at him. No, worse: she's outright mocking him. "I'm not even from around here anyway," she says with an inauthentic, aristocratic huff.

Accelerator wonders why he hasn't continued his attacks. Curiosity? It's not every day someone can just walk in and stand up to him for more than a second. "You're an outsider?" Accelerator asks.

She kicks her legs and stands back up, facing him. "You could say so."

Arrogance. Pure and simple arrogance. That's what she is emitting, thinks Accelerator. "You have ten seconds to say your name and tell me why you are in my room. Be glad that I find your stunt amusing."

"A name? What if I don't have one?"

She has one hell of a backbone to dare talk back. Accelerator rolls his eyes and insists, "You have to have one."

Another smirk forms on her lips—he knows it. "Do you even know your own, Accelerator?"

The remark makes Accelerator's nerves stiff; he looks at her with a blank, bewildered stare. It strikes him in a way that brings cold sweat to his forehead. How does she—?

"If you need a name," she interrupts his thoughts, "call me Keeper." Graciously, she extends a gloved hand in a formal greeting. Yet another hidden smirk appears.

•••

"…milk?"

"No."

"Fine, like me. It's the right way to drink it; no softening up the taste."

Accelerator resorts to courtesy for the time being as he prepares a pot of fresh coffee. The coffee maker and the organic beans he feeds it are all worth a small fortune, but the rich taste it delivers is worth it. For Accelerator, it's only a small portion of his monthly allowance anyway. It's one of the tamest things he could be spending his money on. Others in his position could've gone out every night to sweaty orgies with the money he invests in coffee—and they'd still have leftover cash afterwards.

The virtues of abstinence, Accelerator thinks cynically.

Keeper is sitting at the kitchen counter, fingers bunched together below her chin in a calm and thoughtful gesture. With all the lights on, her suit glints occasionally with a strange pulse. Its materials are very advanced technology; it's not in the same league as even the most refined Hard Taping Accelerator is aware of.

"I hope you're only admiring my suit," Keeper says with a smooth voice.

The coffee maker rings, and Accelerator takes out two colorful mugs. One has a citation of Lenin: "For an eye, two eyes. For a tooth, the entire mug." The other has drawings of cute white bunnies kissing. He fills both of them to the brim then shoves one in Keeper's grasp.

"Sorry, I'm not into annoying brats," Accelerator counters.

"Hm-hm."

Keeper doesn't seem to agree, but nods regardless. She brings the mug near her face; the mask morphs around her mouth to let her pale pink lips sip the steaming black coffee. Meanwhile, Accelerator stares, his jaw twitching; a big red vein starts to protrude on his pale forehead. The only reason he had offered coffee in the first place was to get that mask off.

This woman, Accelerator mulls while sipping his own coffee. "So? How is it?"

"…It's the best I've ever had," Keeper compliments, smacking her thin lips together, savoring the taste.

"Money well spent then." Accelerator leans his back against the counter and begins to sip his own coffee. "So now, tell me what this is all about. You seem like you mean business to be this informed about me."

"Hm? I'm sorry if I'm giving off the wrong impression, but this has nothing to do about you personally. I happen to know the general events in your life, like that funny little name problem of yours, since we've met several times before."

"…What the hell are you babbling about?"

Keeper puts down the mug, and her mask's fabric hides her lips again. "Do you believe it will be ever possible to travel between universes? Through the void between the multiverse's membranes?"

Accelerator's eyes narrow down. After a moment of thinking, he turns around, his brow crumpled into a mess.

"You haven't answered yet," Keeper says plainly.

"You're not going to make me believe you're—" A jolt goes through his brain as he senses something new. Acting as a six sense, his AIM Field has suddenly come in contact with a foreign one of outstanding power. Keeper's suit has subtle red lights flickering in its fabric.

"That suit, it—"

"Controls AIM emissions to camouflage my energy signature? Among other things."

Most AIM fields he couldn't even notice were there. But this one is overwhelming by its complexity—one that outdoes anything that has been accomplished by Academy City to this day. If she wants to, Keeper could easily crush him and Number One by clicking her fingers. That, he has no doubts about. Her previous remark then repeats in his mind, 'I'm not even from around here anyway.' Putting two and two together, he figures out what exactly is going on, and who Keeper really is. Even if he knows it's ridiculous—almost impossible to conceive—he can't ignore it.

"Oi, don't crap your pants," Keeper pipes up, waving her hand in front of his face.

Accelerator stays still and shakes his head, muttering a few words to himself in a fit of disbelief: "What the hell, what the hell, what the hell…"

•••

After Accelerator had gotten over the shock of discovering he was having a cup of coffee with someone able to navigate the deepest layers of reality and travel across the multiverse, an hour of esoteric conversations followed until midnight. About everything and nothing. Surprisingly, he managed to grasp what Keeper said without her simplifying her vocabulary.

With the coffee pot empty, the clock now at 12:00 AM and their last conversation now coming to a close, Keeper summarizes her thoughts, "Infinite universes equals infinite possibilities. Of course, in the scope of reasonableness and logical coherency. I doubt you'll ever find a universe where human beings evolved so that their heads and asses swapped places. In a certain sense, there are a finite number of universes. But for the sake of succinctness, it amounts to infinity for us humans."

Accelerator is seated on a stool next to Keeper and nods, "Yeah, that's what I figured."

"But you never know how events will end up. Determinism and Free Will are simplistic ways of looking at the way reality works out. Some things are written in stone, some aren't, and some can be erased and rewritten. Even someone with my abilities can't even begin to account for all this and find the objective truth. That task might be accomplished by someone with a Personal Reality that can account for every fundamental aspects of reality."

A thought emerges and Accelerator voices it, "That sounds like what Level 6 is supposedly—someone who can do God's calculations. Despite being a bunch atheists, the scientists in this city seem closer to theologians that empirical scientists sometimes."

Keeper's head tilts to the side. "Oh, so you know about that?"

"Heard about it. Rumors say that Number One has been trying to achieve it for years. I couldn't care less."

Keeper laughs softly. She has a tendency to do that. A lot. It annoys him slightly knowing Keeper is keeping a lot of knowledge to herself. Not that he can blame her: it must be the strangest feeling to see the same people in so many different situations.

"So how many variations of me have you encountered?" Accelerator inquires.

"A few. Most were identical besides minor details."

"Minor details?"

"Gender, power level, general attitude. Things like that."

"…I can't imagine myself as a woman. I rather not even try to."

"You were rather cute though," Keeper comments. And he's convinced that she's smirking under that mask of hers.

"Anyway," says Accelerator. "You still haven't told me why you're here. Talking like this is fine and all, but I'd like to know what's going on for you to be coming to this universe in particular."

"Hm. I guess I've been procrastinating for long enough," Keeper sighs. She walks off into the main living area of the apartment and remains silent as she thinks deeply. "I don't choose where I go usually. I have a boss. This is what I do in life. Despite my power and abilities, I need assistance. I need directions if I don't want to end up lost in a weird pocket of reality someday. It's not like I surf carefree through the multiverse y'know?"

"I see."

Keeper tenses up. "And—ugh, I don't really know how to say this."

"Is it that bad?"

Keeper wrings her hands. "Um, yeah. Sorry."

Accelerator clucks his tongue. "Just say it. I'm just about ready for anything."

"Well… You were born—I mean this specific universe was born just recently in cosmic time, due to the intervention of an incredibly powerful being. Or beings. And actually, there might be more universes like this one. We're not entirely sure yet."

"Get to the point."

"To put it simply, this universe is missing a variable—a critical variable. Without it, your world will quickly collapse into a primitive, cosmic chaos without form."

Accelerator can only snort—a quick, shaky snort. What else can he do? There's no use in getting emotional when faced with something so absurd. "It's taking its sweet fuckin' time though."

"That's what you think," says Keeper carefully. "But from what we can figure out, this world is only a few hours old."

Accelerator springs out of his seat. "W-What?"

"Yes, I know, you have memories. But think of it this way. Imagine if I were to take the source code of a complex computer program. Now, imagine if I made an exact copy of that then deleted a line of programming critical for the program's overall stability. It's quite close to what this universe is. You may think you lived here for fifteen years, but that's just residue from being a copy."

Nothing comes out at first. Broken words, onomatopoeia, but certainly nothing comprehensible.

Accelerator takes a deep breath and says, "So my memories, they are—"

"Only figments of your imagination? In a way. It happened to you. However, you are mistaken in thinking you actually lived them. Somebody who is exactly like you did, in the unaltered universe used to make this one hours ago. At least, that's the best explanation I have as of now. Not even my boss knows for sure though."

"…"

"I understand it's a lot to take in. But you're the only one I can trust with this information. Even if your role here is lesser that what you usually are."

"…"

"It's hard to explain the specific cosmic mechanics, but the general flow of events in this universe is derived from another. The difference being that whoever spawned this universe, for whatever reason, took out the critical variable and—"

SLAM.

The violence of the hit startles even Keeper. "A-Accelerator?"

"So," the albino says slowly, his clenched fist buried in the now broken dry wall. "So long story short, my universe is fucked?"

Keeper doesn't want to answer, but she bobs her head up and down.

"…is there still time?"

"It's hard to estimate. It all depends on the different distortions this world faces from this point on."

"And what's that exactly?"

"I can't explain that to you without grasping at straws. But know this: the variable that's missing acts like a recovery console for a computer. If core system files are corrupted, you can restore them with a backup version in memory. However, this universe has no such thing. So, if the core files of this world are corrupted beyond repair, it's over."

"So I have to avoid possible distortions?"

"If you can keep large-scale conflicts from occurring, this can buy me and my boss precious time."

"Large-scale conflict? Not conventional wars I guess."

"Yes. I mean major uses of esper and magical powers. Especially at once."

"…magical powers?"

"Ugh, yeah. Those exist too. It's really complicated."

Accelerator rubs his temples and groans.

Keeper knows she can't stay here much longer; there are many matters she has to attend to. With a haw, she reaches for her hips, where her suit morphs to reveal a hidden pocket. "Almost forgot—my boss wanted me to give you this." Gingerly, she goes up to him and puts a tiny black vial in his right palm.

"What's this?" Accelerator wonders.

"No idea. Read what it says."

Indeed, a note is glued on it. It reads: 'Do not open. Keep this in your pockets at all time. When faced by an impassable wall, only then can you use it. You will know when.'

"Got it," says Accelerator, dropping it into his back pocket along with his lighter and cigarette pack. Even if he has no real hope, he won't refuse the slim chance Keeper and her superior are offering him. Whoever they are. "And what about you? I doubt you're going to stick around."

"I'm going to try to find a fix for this universe," Keeper announces. "Even if the variable is missing here, my boss thinks we can import a stray one."

"Stray?"

"Considering how there are infinite universes, perhaps we can find a variable that's in limbo somewhere. Don't think we're going to steal one from a functioning universe. We have standards when it comes to these delicate operations."

"Alright."

Keeper lingers on the albino before strutting to the window. She pushes the blinds aside, and a shining full moon greats them. "If this universe hasn't collapsed in on itself by the time I come back, we can save it."

"…"

"Oh, and Accelerator…"

"Yeah?"

"It was nice knowing you anyhow."

And in a nanosecond Keeper vanishes out of existence. As if she's only a product of his imagination. Accelerator wishes he could trust himself enough to not consider the possibility that he has been hallucinating all this time. Already, he misses Keeper's lively presence.

And now he stands alone, feeling a crushing sensation of loneliness in his chest. He's the only one who knows. He's been unchained and dragged out to the cavern to see that what he took as reality is but an illusion.

"Knowing that your days are numbered changes your mindset," Accelerator rumbles. With a newfound and sudden craving for new experiences, he remembers the offer made by his blond-haired neighbor. Hamadura was it? I guess I'll have to take him up on that offer. Accelerator stands there, chewing his bottom lip absentmindedly. Slowly, he lights up a cigarette and chews on it too, like dumb cattle grazing pasture.

"So, this is how the world ends huh?" he says to himself, hearing the words echo in his empty, messy apartment.