Some of them are Marvel's. No money. Don't sue.
Kai and associated characters are mine. Don't use them without permission or what happened to Pete will look mild. And you'll see JUST what I mean in a few minutes once you start reading. ;)
Rated sorta [R] for the above-mentioned image.
The apocalyptic 'shifting universe' this is set in was created by Alicia McKenzie and introduced in her recent story, 'Aspects.' The concept is used with her permission. :)
Comments always welcome...
The sky is blue, the grass is brown, and the mud on the slide to the left is red. For now. Any moment that might change, so it's best not to trick yourself into counting on the stability. Two days ago we were ten miles from here and it was all desert. Yesterday the sand turned to glass and cut my feet and ripped to shreds the soles of Jean's boots. This morning it was grass, though, and I'm pretty sure it's gonna stay that way long enough for me to fall in love with it before it shifts again.
There's a bright side to everything, isn't there? 'Tis better to have loved and lost, as the saying goes...
Actually, fuck that. I never liked platitudes even when they had a sane world to apply to.
"Hand me the rope?" Jean asks, only it's more of a 'tell.' I don't take issue with it. It's hard to get mad over petty bullshit when things are so completely wrong everywhere else. I reach absently into the pack behind me and find the rope, and it's rough and fibrous and definitely rope-like, but when I hand it to Jean she gasps and I look and it's not a rope at all anymore; it's a snake.
I drop it before it strikes. Jean kills it with a look. Diamondback rattler, inexplicably minus the rattle. Pretty deadly; belongs south of here. Looks more like dinner than danger right now.
"I'll cook it," I offer.
"That's okay. I will."
That's pretty much as close as she comes to humor nowadays -- making fun of my food preparation techniques, like in the old days. "I've gotten better."
"I'm not that brave."
I'd call her a bitch if I had the energy to say it with a smile, but it hardly seems worth it. "Okay."
What the fuck. She'll make it better than I would anyway.
The sky stays blue even though my internal clock is trying to tell me it's the middle of the night. After dinner I bank the fire while Jean settles onto the blanket she salvaged from what used to be a hospital before it became another morgue. She's offered to share it once or twice, but common sense dictates that we stay separate at night in case a bad shift happens. Better odds that way.
You can't see stars in a day-blue sky. The moon's up there though, squatting like a fat little bowling ball over the clouds. If I close my eyes I can pretend...
Pretend what? That I can count the stars?
Why not go grander? Pretend I can understand what happened to the world, and that I can do something about it. Pretend that Jean's garbled explanation of 'Apocalypse' and 'we lost' makes as much sense in my head as it evidently does in hers. That'd be a nice thing to pretend.
"Snake needed salt."
"We don't have any salt, Kai."
"I'm just saying."
"You complained about the cantaloupe, too."
"That's because it tasted like--"
"I don't want to remember what it tasted like. I want to sleep."
Sure she does. Sleep's the world's favorite pastime these days. Most painless way to go. "We never talk anymore, Jean."
"We never talked before."
'Before.' It always sounds like it has a capital 'B' on it these days. "Maybe we should've."
"You don't like me."
"I don't like a lotta people. Doesn't mean we can't talk."
She sighs quietly, but I hear it. I imagine she's staring up at the sky, too. "What do you want to do tomorrow?"
I think about it. About 'tomorrow.' We've been walking south for the entire two weeks since we met up, but when there are stars in the sky they tell me that we're farther north each night. I bothered telling Jean that at first, then stopped when I saw that she didn't really care. North, south, east, west... probably doesn't matter.
Except that I've got this odd little desire to make my way down to Florida... to trudge around the panhandle and see old stomping grounds and remember when it didn't snow in South Florida during midsummer...
... find Mama Francis' house, even though I know it's pretty well pointless, and just... just see...
Goddamned ridiculous stupid-ass dreams.
Tomorrow, right. What do I want to do tomorrow? "I'm thinking... maybe walk a different direction for a ways...? We could go north..."
I keep hoping for something more spirited from her. That old redhead temper, maybe coupled with some sign of how fucked up the world is. Just... I dunno, some kinda crack in the façade of calmness, to make her seem real again.
Maybe it's all tied in to whatever happened to Scott. She won't tell me. Not that I've asked. And she doesn't ask about the things I've seen, and neither one of us mentions much of anything about anyone, and I most definitely don't comment on the cracked red shades she wears ninety percent of the time...
The sun joins the moon in the sky by the time her breathing levels off to something resembling sleep. The temperature's climbed by about ten degrees, and somewhere nearby I hear the buzz of flies over meat. Scent tells me what kind of meat, though, so I don't bother going to look even though my stomach's growling. I'm not just being squeamish -- I do honestly believe that the body is just a casing, and once a person's dead, if it's a matter of survival... But it's rancid, I can smell from here, and I don't think either one of us could keep it down.
I almost wish a shift would come and do something to get rid of that stench.
They're unpredictable, the shifts. At first we thought we had them figured out -- six days, then three, then twelve, then six. But the rhythm was a false one, or else the big picture was too big for us to see, because pretty soon the order dissolved into senselessness and the shifts were coming two weeks apart, two days, sometimes one atop the other...
And then everything fell down.
World-wise, I mean.
Governments, people, buildings; a world unified in common helplessness. Without any strings left to pull, Darius was nearly hamstrung. We were all called in -- everyone with a link to the real heart of the organization -- and those of us who made it were told to find answers, any way we could. For me I thought that meant opening a raw wound and contacting an old flame. The old flame. He and his were involved in this somehow, I knew it, and... well, I'd seen them pull the world from the edge of insanity once or twice before...
Logan. Where's he today? Tonight? Whatever. Pete said he saw him die, but Logan dies less easily than I do, and I'm still breathing...
... breathing. Now there's a memory. When it was down to Pete and me and it'd become obvious the world was shit and he and I spent all our spare moments bitching about The Way Things Were to forget about The Way Things Had Become, I thought for a little while that we'd make it, just on pure orneriness. People, I mean. Humanity. Give us a shot and we thrive, right? We're the species that overran the planet in an eyeblink of cosmic time. How could we not pull through?
The shifts... sometimes I swear I can hear reality ripping right open, as long as minutes before they hit. It's this soft little scream -- air with a voice -- then pressure across my skin and against my eardrums, pounding softly...
When it came through that night... I remember curling up, covering my ears, gritting my teeth against the not-quite-sound of the wrongness, and then his voice, "B-bleedin' h-hell..." and I looked over and his lungs weren't quite where they were supposed to be anymore. Not quite on the inside anymore.
I crouched down next to him -- didn't touch. Tried to think of something to say and came up with, "God... damn..." and not much else.
"B-bloody fuckin' Ch-christ..." Fingers curling into soil, body alternately trembling and still. "I didn't... didn't... b-bloody fuckin'..."
Gallows humor. Pete's stock-in-trade. He evaluated, accepted, and somehow found that trademark fatalism again before I found a single word that wasn't a curse.
He said he guessed cancer wouldn't kill him and asked for a fag. We didn't have any, so I found a twig and stuck it between his lips and told him it was a cigarette. For a while we just sat, and he bitched a bit with these raspy little words, and eventually I found enough gumption to complain right back about how fucked up this was, and why'd he have to be such a stupid jackass and sleep right in the path of a shift, and goddamn, wasn't it a chilly night? And after awhile he was moaning an awful lot, so I swallowed a lump and asked conversationally if he wanted me to take care of that. He said no thanks... he'd just wait a little longer for another shift to come along and fix him right up, if it was all the same to me.
Before it was over he said Kitty'd better be waiting right outside the gates of heaven, if there was any such place, 'cause there was no way he'd be getting in if she didn't phase him through. I told him to save me a seat at the bar in the Other Place if she wasn't, and he'd better not be a selfish bastard and drink all the booze, and he chuckled and called me a daft bird and died a few minutes later.
For a while I kept track of who was dead and who might not be, but in the past weeks I guess that's come to seem pretty pointless. I wasn't even all that surprised when Jean showed up, actually just in time to grab my half-frozen ass and haul me out of a zone that'd gone from California-sunny to seventy-below on the space of a few of my admittedly panicked heartbeats. All I recall thinking was how easy it would be; damage me bad enough... freeze out the symbiont... let me get lost in ice...
I still don't know what she did -- the most she'd say was that she could sometimes make the shifts obey, just a little, when they felt like it -- but she got me out and built a fire and that quite possibly is the only reason I'm alive tonight to stare up at the sun and moon. For survival purposes alone it makes sense for me to stick to her like glue, but beyond that... every now and then, seeing what she can sorta do, I find myself hoping again...
Darius might still be out there even now. I like to believe that. If anyone can keep his head and organize terrified people and find a way to beat this unreality, Darius can. Somewhere in my mind is the surety that he can convince chaos to make sense, and that means that I've still got a purpose out here, learning what I can by just walking and hoping and maybe one day finding out how to get back to report. Bullshit? Probably. But it's comforting bullshit and I've gotten rather fond of it.
Is Zach still alive, I wonder? Jack? Remy, Ororo...
I'm so fucking tired. Tired of walking, tired of starving, and most of all tired of wondering. Why's it have to be so big? What can a person like me do against the whole goddamn world?
Tomorrow I think we'll definitely walk north. North, and maybe end up heading south, and maybe after awhile we'll get to Florida and I'll be able to lay a few ghosts to rest. After that, who knows? Reconnaissance in what used to be South America might be worthwhile. If I can get there. If it's still there.
Before I know it it's morning, or something not dissimilar, and I'm cracking gummy lids and rubbing at my face, and it's nearly a minute before I realize I don't smell the rancid meat anymore, and it's nearly two minutes before I notice that Jean's head isn't really attached to her neck. In a line neat-as-you-please, cutting through dead grass and slender throat, is a furrow in the earth like something a plow would leave behind. Several of them stretching away now that I look, as if some silent farmer came and tilled his field across the edge of our camp while we slept. Her body's untouched, thin and bony as it's been, lying cold and peacefully on the dead grass. Her eyes are open under the glasses, looking right into mine when I crouch beside her and gently pull them off.
I wonder if she saw it coming. If I were a little less tired, I might wonder what it was.
I can't help thinking of Pete again, and that bar that's probably not waiting. It's not in my nature to pray -- who or what would I pray to? -- and I still haven't tried to figure out what I think about any sorta afterlife, but for the moment... just for the moment... I wanna believe. I wanna know how to.
Jean's still staring. Carefully, feeling oddly deferential, I replace Scott's glasses over her eyes. I swear she looks like she knows a secret. Maybe The Secret, if there is one. Too late now, even if she could tell me. The temperature's dropping, my skin's beginning to tingle and my eardrums are starting to ache. Somewhere on the edge of perception I think I almost hear a scream. Another shift is coming; it'll be here any moment.
Something tells me this one's gonna be a cold one.