NPCs • by Edward Ashton

“Hey,” Dana says. “I think I just had an epiphany.”

We’re sitting on the roof of her apartment building, feet dangling over a ninety-foot fall to the darkened alley below. Across the river, the full moon squats fat and orange, just above the horizon. I take a pull at the fifth of schnapps we’ve been passing back and forth and breathe in, breathe out. Maybe she’ll let it go?

She takes the bottle from me and drinks, her face twisting into a delicate grimace as she swallows. “I’ve just realized,” she says, “that this is all bullshit. The multiverse is infinite. Life is a game, we’re all just NPCs, and nothing we do makes a goddamned bit of difference in the end.”

Apparently she’s not going to let it go. I take the bottle back, take another long pull, and set it down on the roof behind us.

“NPCs,” I say. “Non-player characters? Like in a game?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m the hero in my world. You’re the hero in yours. For each other, though?”

I wait for her to finish the thought. After a long silence, she reaches for the bottle. I’m about to tell her that maybe she’s had enough, but she’s not interested in drinking now. She holds the bottle out over the alley, then lets it go — and like I have so many times before with Dana, I find myself counting seconds, waiting for the crash.

***

It’s later, and we’re sprawled on her couch — me at one end, her at the other, with our legs tangled up in between — when Dana says, “What’s the closest you’ve come to dying?”

I shrug. “I had croup when I was a kid.”

“That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Well,” she says. “My dad almost lost me in the ocean when I was two. I had meningitis when I was seven. I was in a car accident when I was twelve. I got mugged when I was nineteen. That was a good one. The guy tried to shoot me, but his pistol jammed.” She hesitates as if she’s lost the thread, then squints, shakes her head, and goes on. “The point,” she says. “The point, Zachary, is that no matter how bad those things were, I couldn’t die. Because I’m the hero of my own story. You see?”

 “People die all the time,” I say. “Forty thousand people die every day.”

“That’s some classic Blue Oyster Cult statistics, Zach.”

“Maybe,” I say. “Still true, though.”

“Only in your world, friend-o. They’re all still alive in theirs.”

I roll my eyes. Dana sighs and sinks deeper into the cushions. I pick up the remote. The selection at three in the morning isn’t great, but eventually I find The Matrix on one of the movie channels.

“Here you go,” I say. “Is this what you’re talking about?”

Dana squints at the television, then back at me.

“What? No.” She untangles her legs from mine. “You’re making fun of me, Zach. Don’t.”

“I’m not making fun of you,” I say. “It’s just…”

“It’s just what?”

“Well… this is all dorm room talk, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything.”

Her eyes narrow, and my stomach twists into a tight, hard knot.

“Dana…”

“No,” she says. “Don’t Dana me, Zach.”

She gets to her feet and steps away from the couch. I open my mouth, hesitate, then let it fall closed again. We’re in Dana-world now. Nothing to do but ride it out.

“This isn’t dorm talk,” she says. “This is revealed truth.” She holds out her hand. “Come on. I can prove it.”

***

“One toss, Zachary. Heads? I jump. Tails? You do.”

We’re back on the roof, hard against the edge. Dana holds a quarter in the palm of her hand. A cold west wind ruffles my shirt and pushes the hair back from Dana’s face. She looks like a superhero surveying her city.

“This is crazy,” I say. My heart is pounding, and I can barely hear myself over the roar of blood in my ears. “Nobody’s jumping.”

“Nobody real,” Dana says. “Just NPCs. This coin flip is a split point. Your world goes one way, and mine goes the other. We both walk away. The NPCs jump. For it to work, though, we have to commit. If it comes up tails, you have to go.

I start to answer, but she cuts me off. “Don’t worry. It won’t. Not for you.”

She makes a fist, the coin balanced on her thumbnail. I could reach out now. I could knock it away — but I don’t know what she’d do then, and I’m afraid to find out. Dana smiles.

“Sorry, Zach. I’m gonna miss you.”

The coin flies.

The night falls silent.

After what feels like far too long, Dana catches the quarter in her right hand and slaps it down on her left wrist. Her outline blurs in the moonlight.

“Wait,” I say. “Don’t look.”

She glances up at me. “What?”

“Please. Don’t look.” My mind races, and for an instant her face wavers before snapping back into focus. “Look. You say we’re NPCs. Fine. But… sometimes NPCs are important, right? Sometimes they make the game. Sometimes…” My voice falters. Dana looks up at me, one eyebrow raised. I sigh, and look away. “Sometimes the game wouldn’t be worth playing without them.”

Dana hesitates, one corner of her lower lip pinched between her teeth.

I take a half-step toward her. “Please?”

Her eyes drift down to the alley below. I start to reach for her, but even as I do I realize we’re too close to the edge. I won’t be able to stop her. If she goes, she’ll take me down with her.

She doesn’t, though. Instead, she drops her hands. The coin bounces once on the roof’s edge and falls. The world shimmers.

“New timeline,” Dana says.

Our fingertips touch.

Above us, a cloud slides across the face of the crescent moon.


Edward Ashton lives in Rochester, NY with his wife, a variable number of daughters, and an adorably mopey dog named Max. He is the author of the novels Three Days in April and The End of Ordinary, as well as of short stories which have appeared in venues ranging from the newsletter of an Italian sausage company to Escape Pod, Analog, and Fireside Fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @edashtonwriting, or find him online at edwardashton.com.


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