Friday, January 1, 2016

Life After: PI-Ch1 Time Changes (Revised)

[The original version of this chapter was done under time pressure and stress.]
[Hopefully, this version is better.]
[Shin Possible is the creation of Blackbird.]

Part I: Things Fall Apart
Chapter 1: Times Change
Chapter 1: Time Changes

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2029 - Earth

Jacob was wiring something together from components he'd ripped out of cellphones. With the boss he never found himself this bored, but with the boss taking time off for personal reasons, and him needing to stay in fighting trim to be able to fulfill his duty when she came back, he'd been hiring himself out to lesser lights of the villainous world.

With them he felt like the great Shego, before she switched sides, if she'd lost her nail file.

So on the way over he'd picked the pockets of some rich kids, stripped their phones down to the bare essentials, and was now making something. He didn't know what; he didn't care. At the moment he was maximizing power and reception, because those made sense when you started with cell phones, after that he'd probably work on transmission strength.

If you just did what came naturally, you could actually make a lot of progress on a project before you knew what the project would be.

It was certainly better than listening to the slob, who passed for his current employer, drone on.

Mancer was nothing like the boss. He was an nth rate villain who didn't even know that the suffix “-mancer” meant “seer”, as in a prophet or oracle, not “mage” or “magic user” in general. The man couldn't even get his own name right, how could he possibly hope to accomplish anything?

If some hero didn't show up to stop Mancer soon, Jacob thought he might scream. But he concentrated on the device he was making as a way to keep hold on his sanity.

Then the door exploded inward, and there was a distinctive green glow amid the dust and debris of the shattered frame. Jacob smiled. This was why he took the job. He could in fact care less about Mancer's money, but not much. There simply wasn't that much space between the amount he cared and absolute apathy for the caring less to take place in. No, he needed practice, and whichever one of them it turned out to be, Jacob was sure he'd get that.

* * *

Shin walked into the room, a very sparse underground lair mostly in brushed concrete, and saw the stolen relics on a central table arranged for some kind of ritual, already in progress from the looks of it. She also saw her arch nemesis, Jacob, quickly shove something into one of his coat pockets.

“Starting to think you're following me, Possible,” he said. “How did you even know I was here?”

It was half true. When she'd heard about the artifact theft she'd figured the local authorities could handle it until she found out Jacob was in the area. She wasn't going to throw local cops in the path of her arch nemesis even if this whole thing did seem like it was beneath his pay grade and her notice.

Still, it was only half true, and she wasn't about to feed his ego. “You think too highly of yourself,” she said. “I'm here for those,” she pointed at the artifacts.

“Those trinkets?” Jacob asked in obviously fake surprise. “Besides, I thought you brought your girlfriend along on occult missions.”

“She's taking some children trick-or-treating,” Shin snapped.

“That sounds very responsible of her,” Jacob said. There was no jab there, just a simple statement, but Shin knew an attempt to throw her off her game was coming.

“I was looking forward to spending tonight doing that--”

“You are aware it's still light out, right?” Jacob asked,

“Some of the kids are really young,” Shin said. They'd be dropped off at their respective homes before it got too dark, it was all planned out. “Anyway, I was looking forward to watching the children with her but somebody--”

“Has to be the grown up in your relationship,” Jacob said. “So when the call came in she stayed behind to be the responsible one while you came out to play. I get it now.”

Shin had been planing to say that somebody had to go and break the law on Halloween. He made it sound like she wanted to be here instead of with her girlfriend. She was through with the verbal stage of the fight, she tossed a ball of plasma in his direction.

* * *

A key factor in any fight was maintaining an awareness of your surroundings, otherwise you could dodge right into a wall, deflect a blow into a multiphase tachyon transducer, or step right off a cliff.

It was in the course of maintaining that vital awareness that Jacob noticed something.

“Time out,” he called to Shin.

Once he was sure there wouldn't be any plasma coming his way, he addressed Mancer.

“The elder Possible looks pretty young there,” he said pointing to to a hole in reality itself, hovering in the air, that showed the spot in space and time Mancer intended to affect.

Mancer didn't respond to Jacob and instead continued reciting an incantation that he erroneously thought was in Latin. The fact Mancer didn't know it wasn't Latin set Jacob's mind somewhat at ease. What harm could a fool like Mancer really do?

“I hope my real boss rejoins the game soon,” Jacob said to Shin, “freelancing sucks.”

“My heart aches for you,” Shin said in perfect deadpan.

“You have any idea regarding how long ago that is?” Jacob asked Shin.

“That's the transportulator,” Shin said pointing to a device her mother was standing near in image of the past.

“Dr. Dementor's hardline transporter?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah.”

“Which Drakken tricked your mom into stealing it because she's so very easy--”

“Yes.”

“Caused no less than sixteen people to become convinced we were living in the Matrix?”

“Yes already!”

“When did your mom deal with it?” Jacob asked.

“High school,” Shin said. Jacob's eyes went wide. “Near the start of junior year.”

“Mancer!” Jacob shouted. “You can't mess with 2004! I won't even be born if you screw up that part of the timeline!”

Mancer did finally look at Jacob. “That's of no concern to me; I was already around.”

“You think you'd be the same person with more than twenty years of your life swapped out for those in the new timeline!?” Jacob shouted. “You'll annihilate yourself and turn your life and body over to someone else!”

“I'm protected,” Mancer said.

When a ball of plasma exploded against an invisible sphere that, Jacob estimated, was centered on Mancer. Jacob did the only sensible thing. He flinched back and raised his arms to cover his face for protection.

“Warn me before you do something like that,” Jacob shouted back toward Shin, then he turned to Mancer again, “You think a magical shield is going to save you from changing the entire damned timeline?”

“No,” Mancer said in a condescending way. That was good, condescension could lead to explanation. “Whosoever takes one of the thirteen malachite amulets from the sacred urn,” Mancer said gesturing at a skyphos, which was nothing like an urn, “is immune to timeline changes.”

The skyphos was inside of the invisible bubble, Jacob couldn't reach it. Besides, he had a different question, “Why thirteen? There's just one of you.”

“Feeble minds such as yours cannot hope to understand the complexities--”

“The spell called for a full tribunal, didn't it?” Shin asked.

Jacob turned to Shin and didn't hide the confusion he was feeling.

“A tribunal is composed so that it has one and only one member who was born in each of the lunar months,” Shin explained.

Jacob nodded. Thirteen months in a lunar year.

“If it's intended for a tribunal it means that they thought anyone attempting to do it on their own was dangerously stupid,” Shin said.

Mancer snorted like any half-rate villain who'd had incompetence exposed, and then said, “You clearly don't understand the--”

“You weren't smart enough to modify the spell into a single practitioner affair,” Jacob said, “so you took the much easier shortcut of tricking the spell into thinking there were twelve other people and then preformed it as originally written, right?”

“You served your purpose,” Mancer said. “You distracted her until the ritual itself protected me and now nothing can stop it. See!” He pointed at the hole in reality that was a window through time. The image of Kim Possible dialing the telephone number of her school in preparation for using the transportulator flickered, then she was shown to have dialed a five where in the original timeline she'd put in a six.

Jacob was confused.

“That's it?” Jacob asked. “You've summoned power so great it threatens to tear the universe asunder and all you did was change a six to a five?”

“Don't underestimate the little things, my former employee,” Mancer said.

“For want of a nail?' Jacob asked.

“Nothing so subtle,” Mancer said. There was cruelty in the laugh that followed.

Shin turned to Jacob, “What if the changed number was a cellphone number?”

A look of horror passed over Jacob's face. There was a reason that the transportulator was hardline only.

“Nothing so provincial,” Mancer said.

Mancer grabbed one of the malachite amulets from the skyphos, then disappeared in a puff of something Jacob was pretty sure wasn't logic. The world around them started to warp and twist.

“Grab the malachite!” Shin shouted. Jacob lunged, taking on faith that the magic shield had disappeared with Mancer, and got a piece just as the last remnants of the spell collapsed into nothingness.

The room went dark.

* * *

Jacob coughed somewhere to her right. “That is foul,” he said.

Shin agreed. The air, which had been fine before, now made her want to retch and her stomach churned with every breath she took.

Shin lit her right hand. The green glow showed a largely unchanged lair, the walls were where they left them, the ten remaining malachite amulets were where they'd fallen when she and Jacob had knocked over their container in their rush to get one each.

“Show off,” Jacob grumbled, looking at Shin's lit hand. Then he reached into one of his pockets, rummaged a bit, and finally removed one of his improvised inventions. When he put it on a small illuminated disk was held in the palm of his hand. When he activated it, which he did in spite of it having no obvious controls, it became a flashlight, shining out in electric blue.

“Now who's the show off?” Shin asked, but Jacob seemed more concerned with what he was seeing.

Shin looked around again, with the added light from Jacob she could see massive changes that had been invisible before.

Every surface seemed to be covered in mold, explaining the foul air, and mushrooms had grown through the floor and walls in cracks that hadn't been there before. What little wood there had been was rotted. Metal rusted.

It got worse from there.

“This whole place is drowning in decay,” Shin said.

“Let's get out of here,” Jacob said, “before we inhale something we'll regret.”

“I already regret it,” Shin said.

They were nemeses, but they'd worked together more than once and, as long as neither of them acknowledged camaraderie, it shouldn't complicate their relationship too much to do it again now.

Shin collected the ten other amulets into a pouch, and followed Jacob out of the room.

* * *

Jacob heard Shin emerge from the remnants of the building, walk over the same rubble he'd come over, and finally stop beside him. He barely registered any of it.

“This was a city when we went underground, right?” Shin said.

Jacob surveyed the wreckage again. Buildings reduced to mounds, roads and sidewalks cracked by what passed for vegetation --mostly myriad forms of fungus that seemed to have decided to replace trees, bushes, grass, and everything else that grew-- other places where it was simply impossible to tell what had been road, sidewalk, building, and so forth, rust heaps that might once have been cars and trucks, --no sign of recent human habitation. Also not enough rubble. It was as if the fallen tops of the buildings had been reduced to dust and blown away.

Then he said, “We'll want to look for new construction--”

“Less than 25 years old,” Shin said, “or thereabouts.”

“Exactly,” Jacob said, “What changed after he changed time.”

“How could one digit change all this?” Shin asked.

“Your mother was teleporting,” Jacob said. “Where she went, we don't know. What she found there, we don't know. How, if at all, she made it back, we don't know.”

“You think she brought something back with her?” Shin asked.

Jacob nodded.

“Something from elsewhere.”

Jacob nodded.

“Then the question becomes, 'What could have done all this?'” Shin gestured to the remains of the city.

“I don't know,” Jacob said as he looked around again, “but I haven't seen chipmunk or squirrel or heard a single bird chirp, since we got outside.”

* * *

“You think everything's dead?” Shin asked. Fungus seemed to rule the city, so something lived.

It didn't just live, it thrived to an impossible degree. Various mushrooms ranged in size from normal to the size of trees. Other fungi in evidence had relatively thin membranes instead of stalks or caps, and the membranes folded in on themselves into strange shapes. Somewhere between those two two were orange peel fungus, which Shin recognized from her time as a pixie scout, it didn't fold that much, and the cup shape kind of almost looked like a mushroom cap sometimes, if you squinted. They definitely weren't supposed to be waist height though. In their own way they were as impressive as the tree sized mushrooms. Other things were all stem, they reached up in the twisting bending columns that Shin thought she recognized as “coral fungus”. There were also ones that were mostly bulbous things in clusters like some kind of strange, sometimes giant, grapes.

When she looked for a living thing other than fungus the best she could do was note that a single tree in the distance existed and even looked alive.

“At least it's colorful,” Jacob said.

Bright orange fungus, white fungus, red fungus, bright yellow fungus, a bit of pale purple fungus. A fair range. It was colorful. But that was hardly the point.

“Forget the scenery,” Shin said, “Just do your mad science thing and--”

“Angry science is seldom good science,” Jacob said.

“You know what I mean,” Shin said, “just--”

Something moved in her peripheral vision.

“What?” Jacob asked.

“Did you see--”

Something else moved.

“Saw it,” Jacob said. “Back to back?”

“Yeah,” Shin said. Jacob pulled his hand-flashlight off and pulled out “gloves” Shin had grown to hate. They didn't look like much: wires connecting various small panels --mostly disk shaped, which seemed to be Jacob's preferred format. The disks at the palms didn't look all that different from his flashlight, actually.

The gloves had two main functions. One wouldn't matter as Jacob didn't have his hoverboard. The other was that it allowed him to catch and redirect her plasma. It was like the xistera hand mods on her mother's battle-suit, but worse.

Soon he was out of her field of view, one of the downsides of standing back to back, but by the time Jacob's shoulder blades touched her own she heard the soft hum that meant the gloves were active.

“Pass me ammo?” Jacob asked.

In each hand Shin formed a plasma ball the size of a softball, then shot them straight back.

“Thanks,” Jacob said.

“I don't like that they're not letting us see them,” Shin said.

“That's what worries you?” Jacob asked.

“If we don't know what we're facing, we can't form a plan,” Shin said.

“Which is why it's an unremarkable tactic to keep an enemy off balance,” Jacob said.

“So what's got you worried O' great and smart evil one?” Shin said with what she figured was just enough contempt that it would let Jacob know how she felt without damaging their ability to fight as a unit.

“That they're swarming,” Jacob said.

Shin hadn't been paying attention to that. She'd been so focused on trying to get a clear look at one of them that she hadn't noticed how much movement she was picking up in the unclear looks. Bodies mostly hidden by what used to be buildings, or behind the tree sized mushrooms and assorted other fungus. Non-stop motion at the periphery --the one place neither she nor Jacob would be able to get a clear look.

“Unless you're planning on repeatedly stopping during combat to give me fresh plasma,” Jacob said, “I've got two shots before I'm close combat only.” Shin nodded even though she knew Jacob couldn't see it. “I don't like the idea of letting that many opponents get close.”

“Getting soft?” Shin asked.

“You wish,” Jacob said.

Then the charge started.

They came from all sides and rushed the hero and the villain.

When Shin saw how they looked, she said, “If they wanted me off balance they should have let me see see how they looked from the start.”

Jacob responded with, “Given that they look like that.”

Four shots of plasma were fired, and the battle was joined.

* * *
* * * *
* * *
2004 -- Earth

“It really does work like a phone,” Kim said. She dialed the number for Middleton high school back in the US. There was a ring, then a high tone, then a trilling tone, and Kim was gone.

* * *

By the time Mr. Barkin said, “Last call for Kim Possible,” Tara was pretty sure everyone in the auditorium knew why Ron's act had gone on for so long. He'd always been there for her and he'd been doing it again. Stalling so that she'd have time to make it from wherever she was.

Sometimes Tara thought Ron was a bit too loyal. This time he'd given himself a head injury, in the stunt that finally ended his act, just so Kim could make it to a largely meaningless competition. Sure, Bonnie had pushed Tara into showing up for what she saw as her inevitable victory, but apart from the people in the room, who really cared about the talent show?

At the resounding silence, the utter lack of any sign of Kim, Mr. Barkin said, “Ok, then--”

There was an explosion. Tara felt the shock wave as much as heard the blast.

Mr. Barkin said, “Nobody--” and that was when the lights went out, and everyone panicked.

Then came the sounds of screaming from backstage.

Tara didn't actually decide to get out of her seat, she didn't decide to rush through the darkness, she didn't decide to move toward the screaming. She just thought, Ron, and found herself on her way. She said, “Sorry” and, “Excuse me,” to the people she bumped on the way.

She was up on stage, almost at the curtains, by the time the first light sources came on: BlackBerries that parents in the audience thought to turn on so they could use the light from the screens. By then the screaming had stopped.

As she moved backstage she followed the lead of the parents, though the only light her phone produced was a from a pitiful green diode that served to let her know the phone was on. Still, with her eyes adjusted to the darkness, a small LED was all she needed.

She found Ron unconscious, his head bandaged, Rufus standing guard over Ron, and no one else.

The emergency lights came on. When her eyes adjusted to the new light she saw blood and a few scraps of clothing. A bunch of blood on the floor and a nearby wall in one place, a trail of blood leading out a door. Someone had been hurt --a lot-- and then their bleeding body had been dragged from the room.

Tara cautiously looked through the doorway the blood trail led out of.

What greeted her was a regular hall, except for the blood. Since it wasn't a controlled environment like the auditorium, light came not just from the emergency lights, but also from outside. It had to pass through a window, a classroom, and a door window to reach the hall, but Tara was willing to take what she could get.

Sill, other than the blood trail, there was no sign of whoever had been hurt or whatever had hurt them. Tara knew better than to go off alone; she was about to close the door and get help when the emergency lights started to flicker and die.

It caught her attention and interest.

She knew that Middleton High wasn't exactly a paragon of safety, but there was no way the emergency lights had batteries that would fail this quickly. Something was wrong. The failures had started at the far end of the hall, but they were steadily making their way toward her, and thus the darkness approached. Tara had an deep, disturbing feeling that something was coming for her.

She felt a chill that she thought she was probably just imagining, slammed the door, and ran to join the others.

* * *

“Someone is missing and hurt!” shouted a blonde girl Josh didn't know that well. A cheerleader maybe?

Josh generally tried to help out where he could, but he had another reason for going to help this time: Kim was the only person he knew of who was missing. Going to the Spirit Week dance together was the closest they'd come to actually going on a date, but they both liked each other and Josh thought there was a connection there.

He definitely felt concerned for her in a way that was different than the concern he felt for others.

Josh reached the backstage area at the same time as more or less everyone else who had answered the girl's call which meant that he ended up in a crowd where the view was mostly of the backs of people's heads. The audience of the talent show had been mostly adult relatives of the performers, which meant most of them were tall enough to stop Josh from seeing much of anything.

He heard Barkin ask, “What's going on here, Ms.--” and knew something was very wrong. It wasn't like Barkin to stop in the middle of a sentence.

Josh pushed through the crowd a bit in hopes of seeing what had made Barkin--

And then he wanted to vomit.

Josh was pretty unshakable about a lot of things, but he wasn't good with blood. Barkin gave orders to some willing volunteers and they left to follow the trail of blood. Josh stayed behind.

Almost everyone else went back into the auditorium where the debate over whether it was better to stay in one place or bravely run away was still ongoing. That left him in the room with the blonde girl and Stoppable, who was unconscious. Maybe he could do something to help Stoppable. That would be something, at least.

“Is he ok?” Josh asked the blonde girl.

“I don't know,” she said, “There was no one else here.”

Josh nodded. Whoever had been treating Stoppable must have been the one whose blood...

Josh pushed the thought from his head.

Someone was going to have to assess Stoppable's head wound. For some reason half of his head was bandaged even though his injury really, truly didn't call for that. He'd hit his head very hard, but it hadn't broken the skin and there should be nothing under all the bandaging but a lump. A large lump probably, but just a lump.

Josh was pretty sure he could handle a large lump, so he said, “Maybe we should take a--”

And the phone rang.

Of course the phone rang. By now there must be have been a dozen calls from frightened parents about an explosion at the school, and that was assuming that calls about the … missing person hadn't been made yet.

Hard line phones still worked when the power was out --something about drawing power from their own line or ... something-- so of course the phone rang. Josh didn't actually want to be the one who answered but the blonde girl seemed intent on staying at Stoppable's side, so he picked up on the third ring.

“Ron!” the voice on the other end said.

“No, this is Josh Mankey,” Josh said. “Ron's hurt.”

“Not Ron too,” the voice said. Then it asked, “What happened?”

“Who is this?” Josh asked.

“My name is Wade, I work with Kim and Ron.”

Josh nodded to himself. Everyone who knew about Kim and Ron knew about Wade.

“Ron hurt himself doing a stunt for the talent show,” Josh said. There was nothing Wade could do to help with that. What really interested Josh was something Wade had said. “What did you mean when you said 'Ron too'?”

“Kim's missing,” Wade said. “She tried to use the transportulator to get to the show but--”

“What's a transportulator?” Josh asked. In spite of the situation, he couldn't help but be amused by the name.

“It's a teleportation device that piggybacks its signal over the phone lines,” Wade said, “but when she tried to get to you guys Kim just disappeared.”

A connection was made in Josh's mind. “There was an explosion--”

“An explosion?”

“Yes,” Josh said, “pay attention. There was an explosion, could that have been,” Josh suddenly found it very hard to speak. Finally he managed to finish his question with, “Kim?”

“I'm looking into-- no. If it were Kim I'd be getting at least some kind of signal from-- that's not important,” Wade said. “Based on the timing it probably was somehow related to what happened to Kim. I need Ron to--”

“Ron's unconscious!” Josh shouted. He hadn't meant to shout. It just came out that way. He felt bad about shouting because Wade had no way of knowing about the state Ron was in. Still, Ron wouldn't be helping. Josh said, “Tell me what to do.”

“Ok,” Wade said. Then the line went silent. It stayed silent. Josh was about to assume the connection had been lost and hang up when Wade spoke again. “You'll need to pick up equipment from Kim's locker. I'll contact you when you get there.”

“Ok,” Josh said, “I'm going but we've got more problems than just Ron and Kim, can you contact emergency services?”

“What happened?” Wade asked.

Josh looked at the blonde girl, “It's Kim and Ron's friend, Wade, can you tell him what happened?” he asked. “Something happened to Kim and I need to go.”

She nodded and took the phone.

Josh heard her say, “Wade, it's Tara,” as he left the backstage area.

The auditorium was about half empty when Josh crossed it, apparently there had been a fifty-fifty split, more or less, on the “stay or go” debate. It made it easier for Josh to run through it, then out of it, and the halls were clear as he headed in the direction of Kim's locker.

* * *

“Wade, it's Tara. I'm friends with Kim and Ron,” Tara said into the phone.

“Can you tell me what's going on?” Wade asked. “I think Josh left some things out.”

Tara told Wade everything that had happened. When she finished, she heard a flurry of typing and then Wade said, “Fire, police and medical services are already on the way because of the explosion, I'll make sure they know that there's a wild animal or something--”

“Or something,” Tara said.

“-on the loose.” Tara heard typing. “That's odd.” More typing.

“What's odd?” Tara asked.

“There's more help headed your way than there should be.”

There was an unexplained explosion, someone had been mauled and was missing, possibly dead, Ron was unconscious, Kim was missing --though apparently Josh was working on that-- what could possibly be more help than they needed right now? So she asked, “What does that mean?”

“It looks like all of Middleton's emergency--” typing. “It's not just the high school.” Wade said. More typing.

“What's not just the high school?” Tara asked, though she had a feeling she didn't really want to know the answer.

“Local 911 has been inundated by calls in your area,” Wade said. “Animal attacks, strange sounds, unexplained blackouts” typing “Everything is centered on the high school.”

“Great,” Tara said. She didn't have any emotion left to give.

“Police are advising people to shelter in place,” Wade said. “Tara, get yourself and Ron to a safe place and then barricade yourselves in.”

“Wade,” Tara said.

“I have to go.” The line went dead.

“Damn it,” Tara said.

Then she went to Ron again. “Wake up sleepyhead,” she said in a way that she hoped hid her fear. The last thing she needed was for Ron to wake up in a panic.

* * *

It was strange being told the combination to a locker by a voice from inside of it, but all things considered it was one of the most normal things since the talent show went wrong.

As soon as Josh opened the locker, Wade said, “Josh, change of plans,” over the video link on the computer Kim kept crammed in her locker. “Fact-finding and Kim-finding is on hold.”

It took Josh a moment to process that.

“What do you mean finding Kim is on hold?” Josh asked.

“Something very bad is happening in your area right now,” Wade said, “and everyone who left the talent show after the power outage --including you-- is in danger.”

“Go on,” Josh said, trying to absorb the new information.

“The animal attack, which you didn't mention, isn't an isolated incident,” Wade said. Josh felt a moment's guilt about not mentioning that, but only a moment. There was a lot going on and he didn't think it was wrong to be concerned that Kim might have been blown up. “They're happening all around you.

“I needed you to get everyone who's out in the open and send them somewhere safe,” Wade said.

“If they're happening in the area shouldn't we get out of the area?” Josh asked. “Also, in case you forgot where I was headed next, there was an explosion here. What about the boom?”

“The area has a two mile radius and is expanding,” Wade said. “Everyone needs to get inside behind locked doors until we figure out what's going on. As for the boom, unless you've got a reason to think it wasn't an isolated incident, the ongoing animal attacks are a more immediate concern.”

Josh thought about that for a moment, since when did Team Possible take a run and hide approach?

“I can't blame you if you don't want to take the risk of helping,” Wade said, “but Kim is missing, Rufus weighs less than a paperback--”

“Seriously?” Josh asked.

“I know, with all he eats you'd think he'd weigh more,” Wade said. “Anyway, that's Kim and Rufus. Ron is unconscious, and if she listened to me, then Tara is dragging Ron to a hiding place as we speak, so you're kind of the only person I'm in contact with on scene and I could really use some help rounding everyone up.”

Josh thought it over and then said, “What do I do?”

“Obviously Kim took her mission gear with her on her mission, but there are still some useful things in Kim's locker. Outdated tech, backup gear, that sort of thing. You're going to need . . .”

* * *

Ron had woken up, but it was touch and go, and he was barely capable of supporting his own weight. He wasn't going to be going anywhere in a hurry. Still, Tara was preparing to get him out of the area when Barkin and the others who had followed the blood trail ran back into the room and slammed the door behind them.

“Block it with something!” Someone shouted.

Three adults were holding the door closed, and when something on the other side hit the door it looked like they might not be enough. There was a growling sound that, Tara estimated, came from something very large, and then there was the horrible sound of something clawing at the metal door.

Two members of the party were clearly injured. All were afraid.

For a moment Tara was frozen with indecision. It was just a moment though. She'd long since learned a lesson that neither Kim nor Bonnie had managed: delegate.

“Do I help you or evacuate the others?”

“Evacuate the compromised premises!” Barkin shouted.

“Got it,” Tara said. She turned her attention to Ron, “Sorry, we don't have time.”

“Wha?” was all Ron said before she started to pick him up.

Ron was over Tara's shoulders and she was heading for the auditorium within a few seconds.

“Rufus?” Tara asked.

“Uh-huh?” The rodent asked.

“Keep an eye on him for me.”

“Ok,” Rufus said before he climbed onto Tara and then onto Ron.

When Tara was on the stage she made use of an asset gained from cheerleading: a shouting voice that made microphones and amplification unnecessary:

“Listen up everyone, it's not safe here and we have to move somewhere else.”

“What's going on?” Bonnie asked.

“Not completely sure,” Tara said, “but apparently the police are telling people to shelter in place so we just have to get to a safe place to shelter.”

“Define safe,” Someone said.

“Someone's been mauled here,” Tara said, “there are a bunch of reports of wild animal attacks in the entire area, and no one knows what that explosion was.”

All that remained was to determine what the safest place in the school was. Tara was in favor this debate taking place on the move, and led by example.

When not everyone chose to follow her example she added, “Also, one of the killer beasts is in the process of breaking down a door to get into the backstage area.”

Everyone looked at the curtain that separated backstage from on stage. A moment later everyone started to exit the auditorium.

* * *

Josh had made contact with just five groups so far. Admittedly some of them were pretty large, but they were all stragglers who'd gotten turned around in the high school's halls. He wasn't sure how much of a difference he was really making. Every time he'd made contact he'd given them directions from Wade that, hopefully, would lead to them joining up with Tara's group.

Most of the work of finding the people had been done with a prototype Kimmunicator which showed him human heat signatures, represented by red dots, superimposed on a map of the school.

Wade's voice crackled in, Josh guessed that the crackling was part of why this particular Kimmunicator was filed under “abandoned prototype” rather than “back up; early model.”

Wade said, “Josh, I've done some work toward adapting the system we're using to locate other people to also show . . . non-human heat signatures.”

“Non-human?” Josh asked. He probably didn't want to know. Don't think about blood.

“It seems impossible, but I'm picking up things that are significantly colder than the ambient temperature and not heating up. Ordinary cold blooded creatures would slowly warm or cool to room temperature, but these things . . . it's like someone reversed the polarity on warm blooded metabolism.”

“You do realize that what you just said makes no sense and doesn't really mean anything, right?” Josh asked. He'd taken biology class, he'd paid attention to the part about thermoregulation.

“It always worked with Kim and Ron,” Wade said. There was a short pause then, “Anyway, I'm sending updated protocols to your device. Avoid the blue dots.”

There was a bit of static, then several blue dots appeared on his map in addition to the red dots that had been there before.

One of them was close and getting closer.

“Wade, one of the blue dots--”

“Run!”

Josh did.

“I'm sorry! I didn't notice that one,” Wade said quickly as Josh ran down a hall. “I'm going to go radio silent and then see if I can find a way to lure it away from you. Find a place to hide, Josh.”

A moment later he didn't have to place his faith in a blue dot on an electronic map. A crash behind him had him turn to look at a mass of black fur, he didn't make out much of anything about the shape or size, but he did note the pristine white teeth.

Before he saw it he didn't think he could run any faster, after he saw it he was running faster without trying or indeed thinking about it.

A random, completely unfounded, downright Ron-like, probably-bad idea popped into Josh's head and he headed for the cafeteria.

* * *

Tara surveyed, for what seemed to be the thousandth time, the people she was with.

Barkin and his group had caught up to them after doing what they could to seal the backstage door and then the most direct doors out of the auditorium. Barkin had advised that they seek out a half-forgotten fallout shelter under the gym building. It was the best suggestion anyone had had so far. That just meant getting through the halls from the auditorium to the exit, across open space to the gym, and from there to the shelter.

If the auditorium hadn't recently been refurbished, of course, they'd have held the talent show in the gym and thus be there already. Sometimes even good things turned out to be bad things.

Tara focused on the task in front of her. She was carrying Ron to a place he'd hopefully be safe and shepherding these people to the same place. Wade and Josh had both sent more people her way, and their group had grown in size.

Now they had perhaps as much as a three quarters of the people who attended the talent show.

They just had to make it somewhere safe.

The smell of blood coming off Barkin's group and some of the newcomers wouldn't make things easy, though and they'd already had to turn around several times to avoid the sounds of large animals.

* * *

Josh made it into the cafeteria only a few seconds ahead of his pursuer and vaulted over the counter. Now he put all of his hopes in mystery meat. No self-respecting predator would ever think to touch stuff, and hopefully its smell would disguise his own.

He tried to slow his breathing, but had no luck.

Then he heard the doors forced open with a crash.

He wasn't sure if he could breathe now even if he'd wanted to.

It followed his scent, or perhaps just intuition, to where he jumped over the counter, but then Josh heard the footfalls stop. There was sniffing, just over the counter, and only mystery meat between Josh and those shiny white teeth.

* * *
* * * *
* * *
2004 – Unknown

“It really does work like a phone,” Kim said. She dialed the number for Middleton high school back in the US. There was a ring, then a high tone, then a trilling tone, and the world was gone.

When Kim hit the ground she was moving forward fast, even though a moment ago she'd been standing still.

The jagged ground scraped her all over before she came to a stop.

“Dementor must not have ironed all the bugs out,” Kim said as she got to her feet. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized that she was in a cavern of some sort. Some other part of Drakken's lair?

If it was, it was a part he hadn't been using. There was no sign of human activity anywhere.

The fact that she could see was oddly disconcerting considering that there was also no sign of any light source. The stone offered no clues. It seemed to be an nondescript flat gray, but it could simply be that the lighting was too dim for her color vision to be working.

The “room” she found herself in had several tunnels leading out of it implying it was part of a larger network of underground caves, but it offered no evidence of how the network had been formed. It showed no signs of being carved by erosion, there were no signs of mineral deposits being laid down, nothing looked cut or broken, if a weaker or more water soluble type of earth had been washed out to make the cave, it had left no evidence behind.

Knowing from experience that up was usually a good way to go, she picked the tunnel that most looked like it could lead there.

Drakken had confiscated her Kimmunicator and she hadn't actually stopped to get it back, she'd dropped the ring communicator in the not-actually-bottomless “bottomless” pit when the shark had smacked her in the face with its tail. Wade probably had her chipped, just like Ron, but that didn't mean she could contact him.

She was on her own for now.

* * *

Kim had been going so long with no sounds but her own footsteps and breathing that at first she wasn't sure whether the new sounds were incredibly faint real sounds, or her imagination trying to give her the chance of pace she so desperately wanted. She did her best to find out.

As she drew nearer she was sure that there was something walking through the tunnels and caverns. Unfortunately she was also sure that it wasn't human. The soft footfalls weren't in the right rhythm. The breathing was all wrong.

She almost lost the sound after an echo caused her to take the wrong turn, but when she got back on track she was closer than ever. It was definitely an animal. A big one, she thought. But a big one with soft feet.

Not that Kim expected to find something with hooves in a cave, caves tended to be hostile to hooved animals, but she was putting together whatever information she could pull from what she was hearing and right now it said large animal with soft feet.

She finally caught up and found herself peering around a corner at a giant mass of black fur. It was hard to make out in the dim lighting, but the tail was what allowed her to figure it out. There were only so many things that had a tail like that. It was a black dog, but too big to be a normal dog while, at the same time, much smaller than she'd expect a super-villain's pet project to be.

It either didn't notice her, or didn't care. Since it seemed to know where it was going Kim decided to follow it. Maybe it knew the way out of this place.

In the process she was able to get a better sense of what it looked like as she glimpsed new angles whenever it turned. Significantly large than a Saint Bernard, shaped like a wolf, soot black fur, bone white teeth.

* * *

The dog she'd been following joined up with another that was just like it. Same breed? Same litter? Whatever the case the first dog fell in beside the new one and they continued to wherever they were going.

For what she estimated to be fifteen minutes Kim was following the two dogs. Then another joined. Later another, and another. Each time one joined in with the others they sped up a bit.

By the time there were dozens of large, unkempt, nearly identical dogs Kim was sure that someone had bred or cloned a dog army. At last things were making sense. While she had no idea whose lair she was in, she could easily face off against whatever villain was thrown at her.

All she had to do was follow the dogs to wherever they were going, then there'd be a gloating super-villain who would explain everything.

Plus, the dogs seemed to be doing a good job of moving in a generally upward direction and, unlike her, they never ran into a dead end.

* * *

Kim slipped.

It barely made a noise maybe-- Kim cursed canine hearing; at least ten of the dogs had broken off from the group and were coming her way

Where before Kim had had a goal and direction --get out, go up-- now Kim wasn't thinking ahead at all. Every move she made was strictly in the moment. Would a zig or a zag be better at shaking her pursuers? Jumps down broke line of sight more quickly than running on level ground so soon she was deeper than where she'd started.

* * *

Kim finally thought she'd lost the last of the dogs, but she was now thoroughly lost. She was also exhausted. What little map she'd created in her head was useless now, she had no idea where she'd been and where she hadn't.

Worse, some of the places she'd jumped down were ones where she was pretty sure that she couldn't get back up again. Drakken had confiscated her grappler too.

She just had to try to get the lay of the land from scratch. Again.

* * *

Kim followed a light, but all it led her to was a cavern with glowing threadlike growths spider-webbing around it. Kim knew that the correct term was “mycelium” but she always thought of them as “mushroom roots”. They looked like roots, they were connected to mushrooms (sometimes) so “mushroom roots” made sense to her.

How deep did they go? Could she be near the surface?

There was no obvious way up to find out. A detailed search of the nearby parts of the cave system did yield fruit, though not of the sort she was looking for.

“Honey Fungus,” Kim said to the empty air. The tightly packed honey colored mushrooms were things she remembered from her days as a scout.

“You're a plant pathogen,” Kim said to the mushrooms, “where are the plants?”

The soil pile they were growing from could be wood that had rotted beyond all recognition, but if it were it would have had to get in there somehow, and she wasn't seeing any sign that a way out of the caves was nearby.

She ate some of the mushrooms, knowing they were edible.

* * *

Despite her best efforts Kim seemed to be going deeper into the caves, and the ecology made no sense. An albino salamander hurried to hide from her on a wall covered with oyster mushrooms. They grew on trees, not stone. They weren't lichen, and even if they had been, lichen needed sunlight to survive.

Green light that led her into another chamber was a tightly packed clump of bioluminescent mushrooms, again tree mushrooms, again no wood in evidence.

It was possible, if unlikely, that the wood was always hidden by the mushrooms themselves, but if so, where did the wood come from?

If she was getting deeper then wouldn't that mean she was getting farther away from things the mushrooms could feed on?

Unless the cave were upside-down. She wouldn't put it past some of the villains she knew to make a lair where the gravity was somehow reversed.

* * *

The next big surprise was a cave of dead moths. Thin white tendrils extending in all directions from their corpses.

Kim really, really did not like these caverns. She'd been in various cave systems in her life and not once, before this one, had one tried to shock her by throwing a room full of dead insects with God knew what growing out of them.

Where had the moths come from? She hadn't bumped into any before. For there to be dead moths there must logically have been live moths and it didn't seem likely that they would all have died in the exact same place: this particular cave.

She moved on. Quickly.

* * *

Soon she had soil beneath her feet. That had to be a good sign, right? Soil didn't just come out of nowhere, a whole host of natural processes went into creating it.

Also, some live moths.

* * *

At first it had been faint sounds, but she followed them and the sounds resolved into words. Someone talking, at length, to him or herself. Standard super-villain stuff. For the first time since she lost the dogs, she was comfortably in the presence of something that made sense.

She approached while sticking to the shadows.

Finally she was able to make out the words.

“The dogs go first like always, but the dogs haven't gone for ages. The way they're going it must be a big one, first in centuries and big, big like never before. Doggies and darkness go first, clear the way. Then the unseen, and finally the population gets to move,” the voice said.

Even though she hadn't heard that much yet, Kim was already prepared to reach two conclusions. One: the voice was female; two: she wasn't going to get anything out of it. Whoever it was was simply too far beyond sense.

“The people move, but not me, not me, gone ages ago. Should be unseen myself, so they say. So they say. They say, but I won't settle for that. No, no. Why would I go there. Ought to be a person, I should. Why would I give up that? No, I just have to find-- Hello there.”

Kim couldn't see the source of the voice yet, but somehow she was convinced that it was talking to her.

“Why don't you come out, young one? Let me see you.”

That was quite coherent. Maybe, just maybe, Kim could get answers.

“Don't be afraid,” the voice said, “I won't harm a hair on your head.”

Kim continued down the tunnel she was in and soon came to the entrance to one of the caverns.

“Why, I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt that lovely body of yours.”

Ferociously creepy, but a chance at answers. Kim walked into the cavern.

Water pooled in the far end of the cavern, it looked like some kind of underground stream must have bumped into a depression here or something. On the near side was what might be an improvised dwelling for one or two people, it was hard to tell. Nearer still was the source of the voice.

“Not something so fresh. No, no,” the owner of the voice said. She was an adult dressed in old clothes. Like Jamestown-reenactment old. She was also somewhat transparent.

“Such a fresh, warm body, still juicy, wouldn't want to harm it in the least,” she said.

Slim possibility of a hologram, but probably a ghost. Kim hadn't dealt with a ghost before, but she'd seen a fair amount of magic.

“I'd never harm a body such as yours, what with there being so little chance of having another so fresh sent to me.”

Very creepy ghost.

“Where am I?” Kim asked.

“Why the After, deary,” the ghost said. “All those restrictions placed on you before are gone now. Wouldn't you like to get out of that confining thing and take a look around?”

“What thing?” Kim asked.

“That delightfully fresh body of yours; doesn't it feel like a straight jacket?”

Very, very creepy ghost.

“It places so many limits on you. Don't you want to fly?” the ghost started to move towards Kim. “I promise I'll take good care of it while you're gone. Not harm a single hair on its juicy scalp. I'd never have that.”

Kim started walking backward, maintaining the distance between herself and the ghost.

“I think I'll be keeping my body on,” Kim said. “If you could just tell me the way out of here.”

“Oh, you don't want to go that way,” the ghost said, “hairy stinky dogs there. Doggies always go first. They can smell the air from the living world. Drawn to it, they are.”

“Just the same,” Kim said, “I think I'll be going now.”

“That's not nice,” the ghost said. “Didn't anyone ever teach you to share?”

“Definitely going,” Kim said.

“The fastest way is to fly, but you can't take that fresh body of yours with you when you fly,” the ghost said. “So if you really want to go, just fly away and I'll keep the body safe.”

Possibly the most coherent thing the ghost had said since, “Let me see you.” Definitely the most disturbing.

“Going,” Kim said with what she hoped was finality. Then she ran.

Today was, apparently, a day for running.

* * *

Kim felt that she was almost spent. She didn't have another run in her. The ghost had been hard to shake. She had to be more stealthy. So when she finally saw a sign of civilization, she was in full creeping mode.

By now there were other signs of life. Flies buzzing, a hideous smell like meat was rotting, wood mushrooms growing from actual wood. And it was the wood that interested Kim most of all because it was in the form of a building.

It seemed to be a bar, more or less. An old, decrepit, decaying, disgusting version of a saloon. The rot was most definitely not a dry rot.

Light came through the windows and the door, sounds of indistinct chatter drifted out, and Kim definitely wanted to see who was in there before they saw her.

Kim crept to a window and peered inside. What she saw made her want to retch. They were standing and sitting around, drinking and talking like ordinary people, but they were so very clearly dead.

Putrid decaying corpses. Rotting flesh hanging from bone. They wore moldy tattered clothes on the verge of simply falling apart.

She strained her ears and listened to the conversation nearest her. Three of them around a table, all male.

“This is the biggest opportunity in centuries,” one said, “maybe more.”

“I'll believe it when these eyes see sunlight again,” a second said. Kim thought that he might have been blonde, but she wasn't even sure what she was seeing was actual hair. “Until then it's just more talk.”

“The first hounds have already gone through,” the first said, clearly enthusiastic. “Word is they're meeting no resistance.”

“How could there be resistance?” the third chimed in. “They've kept us all locked up down here for so long they hardly remember we exist, much less how to fight us.”

Was that possible? Was it like with wildfires? Could it be that having no “controlled burns” of fighting these things in recorded history meant that the world was unprepared for them now?

Kim shook her head. She'd stop them now. She could do anything.

“Dogs and darkness have an easy time making it to the other side--” the second said.

“And they'll pave the way for us,” the third countered.

“I'll believe it when--” the second said again.

“We'll know soon enough,” the first said. “The important thing is that if we do get the chance, we can't afford to waste this opportunity.”

“I'm just glad it didn't open in their territory again,” the third said.

Whose territory?

“Life lovers,” the second spat.

“As it was, so it shall be,” the first said, raising a glass. “It was our world before and it will be our world again.”

“I'll drink to that,” the third said.

“I'll drink,” the second said.

Kim didn't want to watch that display and crept away from the building.

-

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