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The Years We Died

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2026

Peter looked at Olivia, his wife of five years now, and thought, as he often did, about how beautiful she was, how much he loved her. And, as was often the case these days, the thought came lanced with pain, as she started speaking about how the world was breaking, as the world had been breaking slowly ever since he had destroyed the other universe.

"There's a stage 3 tear now," Olivia said. "We've initiated Amber protocol."

Astrid said, "At least we got an Electrilight bomb this time, we can see what those End-of-Days terrorists were trying to do. Peter's been looking at it."

"Well?" said Olivia. "Anything?"

"No," Peter replied flatly. "Not only can I not tell you how the thing works, according to all the readings, it shouldn't be working at all. You know, there's probably only one person on Earth who can tell us how this thing functions."

"Walter," said Olivia, nodding, and then, becoming very still: "No: there are two."

*

Peter had expected Secretary Bishop to bluster, to refuse to help. He had even come prepared for threats. He was not prepared for Bishop's solicitude, almost fussing over him, insisting that he sit down and have a cup of tea. (Peter only pretended to drink the tea, just in case.)

Once they were both seated with cups of tea, Secretary Bishop gestured to him. "Tell me what's going on. Things must be bad if you're…" He trailed off delicately. Peter could finish the sentence for him: if you're willing to ask me for help, when you have killed my whole universe, everything I ever loved.

"It's bad," Peter said grimly. He filled Secretary Bishop in on the events of the End-of-Dayers, described the Electrilight bomb.

"Ah!" said Bishop. "Yes. I've seen these before. You know, the way these are made, there are residual traces of strontium-90. They'll leave a radioactive signature; you can track down the End-of-Dayers that way. Use the current radiation tracking maps; exclude readings inconsistent with strontium-90, and you'll have your terrorists."

"Thank you," Peter said fervently. And then: "After all we've done to you, your universe — you know, I would have thought you'd be more bitter."

What had he expected? That Secretary Bishop might kill him, or perhaps someone he loved: this universe's Walter, perhaps, or Olivia. And yet the Secretary was, apparently sincerely, offering his aid.

Secretary Bishop smiled gently at him. "Perhaps someday you will understand why I am helping you. Someday."

2028

"Have you gotten rid of all the End-of-Dayers now?" Secretary Bishop inquired.

Peter paced forward and backwards. "Yes. We hunted down the last member a couple of weeks ago. But the tears aren't slowing down, they're accelerating. Two level 3 tears in Boston this week alone."

"Well," the Secretary said, "if my knowledge can help you in any way, you need but ask."

Peter shook his head. "I appreciate the help you've been giving us, but it's not enough. But I did have a question for you." He hesitated. "Olivia — Olivia's pregnant."

Secretary Bishop smiled widely. "Peter! What wonderful news. I am so very happy."

"But she's not sure she wants to have the baby. Not with the world getting worse."

Bishop shook his head. "Oh no, Peter. You must have the baby. Of course you must. You can't stop living just because of this."

Peter looked at him. "You're right. That's what I was thinking as well. I'll talk to Olivia again."

Secretary Bishop said, "I look forward to having a granddaughter. Yes, I look forward to it very much."

2030

They could not stop it. The events were accelerating. There was not enough amber in the world to patch the tears. Two major tears had started to engulf large regions of California and Oregon, as well as parts of Canada. Fringe Division was just barely keeping up with the events in the northeast United States.

"And how is Henrietta?" Secretary Bishop inquired.

"Oh, she's wonderful," Peter said fervently, grateful to think about something happier than the tearing of the universe, the deaths and the deaths and the deaths. "You know what she said recently —" And he started plunging into a rapid-fire description of Henrietta's new words and phrases. "Language acquisition in children, it's the most amazing thing —"

If Peter's voice was slightly raised, slightly manic, Bishop gave no sign. The older man listened carefully to every word, his hands folded, not moving at all. "Good," the Secretary said, once Peter was done cataloging Henrietta's achievements. "Good. I am glad you know what it is to be a father, my son."

2031

There was nothing they could do. There was nothing. Ambering protocols were failing. Whole countries had started to be swallowed up by the tears.

They had even taken Walter, this universe's Walter, out of prison.

"It's too late," said Walter. "It was too late when the other world was destroyed. Our two worlds were linked, and the death of that one meant the death of ours, and the death of time itself."

And he walked into the edge of a tear, and was gone.

"No!" Peter screamed, but there was no coming back from it.

Secretary Bishop was standing next to him, face drawn, very still. Peter turned to him. "What Walter said. Was it true?"

Bishop nodded.

Peter said numbly, "You've known this all along, haven't you."

"I figured it out shortly after you destroyed my world," said the Secretary.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You didn't ask."

2032

It was all gone. The world was almost entirely gone: countries and continents swallowed up by the tear.

Fringe Division alone was still left; they had had the best and most sophisticated ambering equipment, and even after the rest of the world had been swallowed up, for a time they had been able to paper over the parts of the tear closest to them. But even that ability was gone now. Peter could see the edges of the tear reaching out into the one room that was still left on Liberty Island, to the only people who were still left: Broyles, Astrid, Walternate, Olivia, Henrietta, and himself.

That was all.

And as he pressed Henrietta closer to the center of the room, Broyles said, "I'm sorry, I can't --" and fell into the tear. And the edge where he had fallen grew a little larger, and enveloped Astrid silently.

"Mom!" Henrietta said, with terror in her voice. She had already lost friends and teachers, of course, though Peter and Olivia had managed to protect her enough that these were the first deaths she had actually seen. "Dad? Agent Broyles and Agent Farnsworth — they're just gone — I'm so scared —" And somehow, even more than the deaths alone, this made Peter flinch. He saw the stricken look on Olivia's face.

And he turned to see Secretary Bishop's face, and the look of long-awaited triumph.

"And now you understand completely," Bishop said softly. "I thought of revenge, oh yes, so many times. Once I thought I might shoot Olivia, so that you also could have the thing you loved best in all the world taken from you."

He smiled, and there was something terrible and cruel in the smile. "But then I thought: why take only the thing you loved best, when I could wait, when I could wait and see you lose everything you ever loved? As I did?"

The chasm that was the death of the universe loomed over them, and the last thing Peter saw was Secretary Bishop's smile as the tear reached out to engulf them all.

***********

(And the last thing Peter heard was Olivia's voice, saying sharply, "Wait! Peter! What did Walter say before he died? The death of time — if time itself is failing —" her voice got faster and faster, trying to outrun the tear — "the rules of time might not apply for one instant; if we can use that to go back, to make a different choice—")

(And as he understood Olivia's words, his consciousness hurtled back twenty-one years previously to where he sat in the Machine. And he and the Machine vanished. And the unraveled edges of the two universes knit themselves back together.)