They were on the way to Fatboy Headquarters downtown when it happened. A switch was flipped, a device emitted a ray that was partly explosive and partly radioactive, and the world was ended. At least as they knew it. Wendy and The Middleman were shielded by the Middle mobile. They weren't even wounded by the initial attack. They were beaten nearly to death by their foolhardy and belated charge against the Fatboy guards.
They were dumped in a cell for weeks, taking turns holding each other and trying to make limbs knit by pressure of bruised hands. They were doing better than anyone who didn't work for Fatboy. He could only imagine, The Middleman said painfully, that HQ was being dismantled. Ida was being dismantled. Perhaps another Middleman would arrive, but they couldn't count on that.
At least once she thought about dying, just letting herself drift off to sleep. But he was The Middleman, and he noticed her ration of water was untouched. What was meant as the last help she could give him became a splintering argument. He shook her with his own healing body. He kissed her mouth roughly and barked at her until she got to her feet. He walked her around the cell for longer than she thought he had it in him, then he fell to his knees and hugged her hips.
“Don't leave me alone, Dubbie.”
They got better, more or less. They could both walk, if not run. Their minds had adjusted. Their hands were permanently joined so he could keep her on Earth. They fucked with little thought to the security camera. All was transparent. Inciting more anger than the destruction of everything was not something to fear.
She lay on his right side. His left arm would not straighten and she needed to be cuddled. It had been a month or more since they washed. She suspected they had a toilet only so the cell wasn't too filthy for the Fatboy janitorial staff. Wendy rubbed her fingers on The Middleman's chest, uselessly because she had only numbness in them. If she tried to paint she would be back to her kindergarten splotches.
Her mother was dead. She couldn't hold out hope for anything else. There was no way to go in person, so she had to assume the worst. Lacey had Noser, and the loft was in a sturdy ex-factory. It was possible for them to have hidden in the laundry room. Getting across town was a plan as good as any. Tyler had been happy to tell them Middleman HQ was a crater. Manservent Neville gave an order to let them go. His cheery grin was as much a taunt as his job offer.
“Very well then,” he answered, to Wendy's spitting refusal and The Middleman's seething. “I wish you the best of luck and I hope never to see you again. It would be a shame to kill the only man who has a chance of surviving this outside my protection.”
The sky was gone. Orange grey haze replaced it, and what was alive out in the world was hungry and wounded. They killed three dogs that converged to kill them, and cooked the meat over a fire in a ruin of an office building. Wendy choked the meat down, aware of the tears in The Middleman's eyes as he had butchered a german shepherd. They didn't have time for emotional appeals for animals.
They reached Wendy's building on foot the second day. Lacey was dead, and the loft was open air. Wendy was scrounging for anything of her previous life, and a memento for her friend, when she found a blood trail that was still wet. They followed it to the basement to find Noser, bald and burned from radiation. He was dying and The Middleman whispered as much to Wendy. She disagreed. They moved Noser to a nest of blankets and fed him water they didn't have to waste. They sat with him and let him rant his delusions. He cried for Lacey during his brief lucid moments, but did not recognize them.
Wendy found precious bars of glycerin soap, wrapped in handmade bamboo paper. There was no running water, but she gathered rainwater and bathed out in the open. She took The Middleman aside and pushed a handful of clean rags and the bar of soap into his hands. He sniffed it sadly, remembering the young woman who would pay four dollars per bar online to know it was vegan-friendly and fair trade biodegradable.
Once they were clean it was even harder to look at Noser. His skin was peeling so badly sheets of it came away when she held his hand. He looked at her blankly for a long time, and eventually croaked, “Wendy?”
“Noser! You're going to be fine. We're taking care of you.”
“Not going to be fine. No sunshine when she's gone. Hurts . . . “
He was awake for only a few more seconds, exhausted by the effort to be a shade of himself. After a maelstrom of tears and hysteria, Wendy accepted he had asked to die. But she wouldn't accept the task.
“He can get better,” she told her boss. “I know he can pull through.”
“Physically it is possible, just as anything is possible, Dubbie. But I don't think it is likely and he is suffering.”
The Middleman went out to look for food and water, and Wendy realized he was risking his life without her to help her friend. She held Noser's hand for a while, made him ask again to die, and promised she would see him on the other side. Her hand clamped over his mouth and pinched his nostrils shut. He didn't struggle except at the very end when he didn't know better.
Her partner returned to find her digging a grave in the parking lot. He helped haul Noser's body up and covered it.
He made her eat and drink, made her sit up by holding her in his lap. The menu was something furry, but smaller than a dog. She didn't ask what it was. The taste of his fingers feeding her was the only reality she had. They lay down to sleep and he tried to talk to her because her eyes wouldn't close. She didn't answer but her hands clawed into his clothing.
“Dubbie, I'm still here,” he said. “I'm never going to leave you. Please don't leave me.”
They planned missions – like the old days. They went back to Middleman HQ and took what might be fixable. They scouted for a location to settle in, somewhere they could protect. They met a few survivors. The Middleman, his charisma intact, told the suspicious group they were trying to find a place where it would be safe. They could band together and live.
Dubbie believed he could save these few, but she was not sure about herself. She had a constant ache that wasn't poorly set bones. Her heart was lost. Her body just pushed for her to give up. It was all her fault. There were a million clues from Tyler; she even took a tour of Fatboy with him, and saw the lab where the ray was developed. She was an apprentice Middleman and should have been paying attention. It was all her fault she had hesitated to act when she realized Tyler was being called away to activate the ray.
Manservant Neville had only completed the first part of his task. He had destroyed the world but he wanted to be its saviour now. The victory was winning back the trust of the remaining citizens.
Wendy waited to break until they established a tiny colony of survivors. Those able guarded the ex-building and went on missions to find food and other supplies. They made one cleared out corner a hospital ward and she was the first patient. She refused to move, would not eat or drink, barely slept. Her body was not harmed more than any of the others. She was young and fit. Her mind refused to function.
The Middleman sat with her when he could. He spoke to her because he knew all the others thought her empty gaze was eerie. He started thinking about what he could do for her. There was no way to feed her intravenously. There was no nurse to protect her and check her condition as it bottomed out. The other survivors were complaining she contributed nothing and was wanted by Fatboy.
Being The Middleman, he had a few more options than most. He could hand her over to Tyler and be fairly sure she would live. But she wouldn't be his Dubbie anymore. She wouldn't be the same person. He could call upon one of the friendly extra-terrestrial communities to take her in, but she would never see another human again. She was very strong and might be able to cope.
He could send her to an alternate universe and hope his double cared for her as he would. But his universe had let him down, and there was no way to tell where she would go. There was no way to get her back for certain.
He needed her to live more than anything else, more than her anger as she realized where he was taking her. Wendy was too weak to do damage when she punched his face.
A pinch to pressure points in her neck and she was fluid and limp in his arms. Her body was disturbingly frail as he settled her on Tyler Ford's doorstep. The young man would find her within hours. He would take her in and put Manservant Neville's medical facilities to work saving her life. Wendy would get well. She might hate him and be brainwashed by her old lover, but she would live.
The Middleman hid and kept watch until a Fatboy guard found Wendy and called Tyler. The young man looked eager and worried as he arrived. He knelt on the dirty steps and scooped her up like he deserved her. He held her gently, and The Middleman was sure he saw love in it. Evil men loved like all others – believing themselves justified in the privilege.
She would hate him. She might even forget him, which might be worse. But she would live, and it was all he could do. If Wendy Watson was somewhere in his world he could find her again.
He was three blocks away before he fell to his knees and emptied his stomach with gagging sobs. She was somewhere. She was not there.