I advanced slowly into the lair, trying to stretch out my senses beyond their human, mortal limits. Danger, the kind of danger that could instantly and permanently put my lights out, lurked around every corner. I needed to trust my intuition.
Right now, my intuition was sending up all sorts of smoke signals and setting off all kinds of alarm bells about the corner ahead. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but I tightened my two-handed grip on the purloined pistol I’d taken from the entrance guard.
After all, with his head staved in, he didn’t need it any longer.
A couple of skeletons lay against the far wall, white bones grinning insolently at me. I tried not to look at them, keeping my eyes up. Couldn’t let myself get distracted. Trust the intuition, that little voice in my head that, somehow, told me what was about to happen just before it occurred. “Be calm, Alex,” I whispered to myself. I waited for it to happen.
The first of the pair came around the corner, gun held low so that it wouldn’t block his vision. I shot him between the eyes, wincing despite myself at the sudden loudness of the gun in the enclosed tunnel. He fell backward, his gore painting a Rorschach blot on the wall behind him.
His companion roared, holding down the trigger on his own automatic weapon. Trusting in that sixth sense, I threw myself back against the wall, hiding behind the shelter of the corner as bullets chewed up the skeleton across from me.
The magazine clicked empty. The guard cursed, and I heard him fumble for the reload.
I shot him before he could slot the fresh magazine into the automatic weapon. Head snapping back, he dropped to the floor, landing partially atop one of the sprawled skeletons.
I advanced down the tunnel. Up ahead, I knew, the narrow passage widened into the main chamber, where he waited for me.
Just one more to kill, I told myself, feeling that exhaustion weighing heavily on my limbs, dragging down my every movement. One more, and I’d be free; I’d be safe.
I came around the corner – and there he was, amid huge machines that rose to the ceiling, panels blinking with innumerable lights that flickered on and off in an incomprehensible rhythm. Hundreds more skeletons lay in this room on the floor, almost covering it with their bleached white bones. Some lay thrown back against some of the machines, others just sprawled out on the floor as if trying to take a nap. So many people must have died here, opposing him.
Him. He stood there on the central dais, almost like a villain from some sort of video game, his eyes on me. He wore a tattered robe, gaping open to reveal a ruined and aged body, kept alive by his terrible machines that pumped vitality into him, tried to sustain him. His hands hung open and empty, at his sides, but I didn’t trust him in the slightest. My weapon snapped up, pointing at him.
He threw back his head and laughed. “So, the hero is here again!” he called out, his voice deep and mocking. “One more time around!”
“I’m here to put a stop to your horrors, Emperor!” I shouted up at him, my knuckles white around the grip of the pistol. “No more massacre of the innocents! No more horror and destruction! I’m here to kill you!”
For some reason, this just made him laugh harder. He laughed until he choked on his own spittle, bracing one hand on his knee as he hunched forward and coughed. When he bent forward, I saw the tubes extending out from his back, pulsing as they roped their way across the floor to connect him to the peripheral machines.
“Give it a rest,” he finally got out, once the coughing subsided. “I’ve heard it all before.”
My eyes flicked again to the skeletons, but I couldn’t seem to keep my attention on them. What did they matter, after all? They were dead, failed in their quest to kill this monster of a man before me. I was still here, still had a shot.
My finger tightened around the trigger of the gun. One shot, right in the head. Even his macabre machines wouldn’t be able to keep him alive through that. But for some reason, I hesitated.
The man’s expression suddenly twisted into a sour snarl. “Oh, just try already,” he snapped at me. “It won’t make any difference in the end. I’m just as much a puppet of them as you are. Get it over with.”
A puppet of them? Of who? He’d been alive since before I was, his vast army waging war and destruction across the globe. I grew up in the shadow of his statues, joined the underground resistance movement to tear down the face of this dictator that stared back at me from posters on every wall. I’d lost my closest friends to his drones, seen my allies slaughtered beneath the gunfire of his minions. I carried every atrocity on my shoulders, had come here to finally lay them at his feet and make him suffer for them.
But something in his words tugged at me. I hesitated, my brain railing against my immovable muscles.
He sighed, his shoulders dropping a little. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t even remember, do you? Poor bastard – although, maybe, I envy you. All feels new to you, doesn’t it?”
“Stop trying to confuse me,” I said, the gun twitching in my hands.
The twisted grin reappeared. “You don’t!” he crowed. “You think that this is the first time! Unbelievable!”
“The first time for what?”
He lifted a twisted, gnarled hand, gesturing around at the half-ruined chamber where we stood. “You’ve been here before, Alexander Harvey,” he wheedled, cocking his head to one side. “Come on, put that lump of putty you call a brain to use. You’ve been here before, more times than I can count. Remember?”
How did he know my name? What was happening?
“I’m going to kill you,” I said, trying to keep conviction in my voice. But suddenly, the intuition in my head sparked, and my eyes flicked to one of the nearest skeletons.
A gun lay near its fingers, just out of reach. It looked just like the one in my hand.
And in that instant, I saw a flash of a memory that had never happened to me. I’d sprawled there, my legs refusing to respond, fire radiating up the remainder of my severed spine, the Emperor’s grinning corpse on the ground near me. I’d killed him, and the machines all around us roared in an intensity that built until I couldn’t even hear myself, couldn’t think, it all went white as my mind spun away from me…
“Yes,” the Emperor hissed, taking another step forward from the dais. The heavy cables that fed him vitality scraped across the bones on the floor as he advanced. “You remember. You’ve been here so many times before…”
I took a step back, then another. I looked up at him, feeling my jaw hanging agape. “What?” I moaned out softly. “What is this? What’s happening?”
The Emperor’s smile grew more twisted, almost a grimace of pain. “Machines happened. You hold me accountable for all of this? I’m just another puppet. They’ve figured it out, know that they need me as the figurehead. And every time you kill me, they just… reset.”
“Reset?” I echoed.
His smile was a rictus of pain, now. “Reset. Purge. You shoot me, I go into the light, and then they drag me back out.” His voice rose in intensity, his tongue lashing against half-rotted teeth, his eyes widening. “Back to the start, back to do it all again! Kill them, burn them, kill them all, again and again and again!”
I tried to take another step back as spittle flew from his mouth, but the bones caught at my heels, sent me sprawling down to the floor. I remembered, now. I remembered dying here, over and over, so many times, always with the corpse of the Emperor somewhere beside me, the computers around us making more and more noise as their activity rose in a crescendo up to make it start again…
“I’ll destroy them,” I got out, shifting my gun to the machines around us.
This produced another hacking laugh. “You think I haven’t tried it before? Don’t you remember, Alexander Harvey? Dying at Verdun, at Florence, at Stuttgart? Dying, and seeing the white light come over you…”
I couldn’t look at him. My eyes roamed over the skeletons. So many, everywhere, not even counting the many more that I’d passed on my way down to here. And the flashes of intuition, that I’d come to trust to guide me? Those had come from past times, before it reset?
“How many times?” My voice sounded hoarse, and I barely managed to shape the words.
He shrugged a wizened shoulder. “Thousands, maybe tens of thousands by now.”
“But why?” I looked down at the gun in my hands, its twin on the ground beside the skeleton.
“Error, as far as I can tell. They’re programmed to dominate, destroy all enemies. But they also have some sort of failsafe, make sure their leader stays alive.” The Emperor tapped his own half-collapsed chest with a long nail. “Me, for my sins.”
“But what if I die without killing you?”
He hacked, spat a gobbet of something bloody off to one side. “At some point, I can’t take it any longer, pull my own plug. No more variety once I win, you know? Still trapped here, still dying, never dead.” His eyes burned with hatred as they fastened on me. “At least you get to live, before you kill me.”
My mouth fell open again. Live? Live in fear, under the constant threat of dying to his own army of destroying robots, his drones that dropped bombs indiscriminately, watching everyone I loved die before my eyes?
The gun was up in my hands again, pointed at him. He didn’t even try to move aside; he just threw back his head and laughed. “Yes, the idiot’s way out! One more time around, so that I can see you again, walk through it all again, watch the realization bloom once more on your stupid little face! Do it!”
“And everyone else?” I asked. “They all reset, when you die?”
He shrugged. “Far as I can tell.”
“Good.” And I shot him in the throat.
He dropped to his knees, choking as his claws tried vainly to stem the red tide pouring down his chest. His eyes, wide, locked on me as I rose shakily to my feet.
“I might suffer every time,” I told him as he slowly died, “but at least I forget each time. You? You have to remember it all, suffer through it all again and again. I might be in hell – but it’s worse for you.”
The machines around us grew louder, intensity building up until I could barely hear my own voice. “So why not?” I shouted down at him, standing over him and screaming my words into his wide-eyed, wrinkled face. “Let’s go one more time around!”
And then, as whiteness swept out from the machines to consume me, overwhelming me with oblivion, I raised the pistol and shoved it into my mouth. Just before the whiteness swallowed me fully, I pulled the trigger.