Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Life After P I, Ch 3: If we can make it through the night (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
Chatper 3: If we can make it through the night

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~~2029 – Earth~~

The two had long since stopped running and were now walking down their chosen road, the remains of an interstate highway.

They were three moving beacons, the twin green lights of Shin's hands, the blue beam of Jacob's palm-light. Anything with functional eyes --photo-receptive cells of any kind really-- would spot them, but at the moment they were more concerned with something that had no body parts at all.

With dusk passed, darkness ruled. Shapes seemed to flit in and out of existence, and the shadows moved in ways that didn't quite match the lights that ought to be casting them.

Shadows weren't erased by the three lights, they were frightened off by them.

* * *

“It's got to be an hour and a half since we stopped running and started walking,” Jacob said. “That's a lot of time to think; got any idea what they are?”

“Yeah,” Shin said, “I know what they are.”

Then why the Hell didn't you tell me?
Jacob thought but didn't say.

“I can't figure out how there could be so many, or why they're here, though,” Shin said.

“Well that's the same as everything else,” Jacob said. “What are they?”

“They're nothings,” Shin said.

Jacob sighed. “For people who don't know . . .” he couldn't think of the word, or words, for what he wanted to convey, “whatever the hell the term is.”

“No idea what you're talking about,” Shin said as Jacob tried to chase through his memory to find the words.

“Inside baseball!” Jacob said triumphantly. “For people who don't speak inside baseball could y--”

“What difference does it make whether the baseball is inside or outside?” Shin asked.

“I didn't make the language, I just speak it,” Jacob said.

“Well, what does it mean?” Shin asked.

“I don't speak spook --unless by 'spook' you mean 'spy' because I totally speak spy, not well mind you, but I speak it enough to have some understanding of what CIA types are saying,” Jacob said. “But this magic crap is something I don't know the terminology for, so for the benefit of the lay person over here, walking next to you, surrounded by things that appear to be living shadows, what do you mean when you say that they're 'nothings'? Because I've got a feeling that they're not sweet things you whisper in your girlfriend's ear.”

“See, that made sense,” Shin said. “Is it so hard to say things that make sense?”

“What are they?” Jacob said in a near growl. He didn't like being kept in the dark. He didn't like it literally, and he really didn't like it figuratively.

“They're absences, lacks,” Shin said. “They're the lack of light, the lack of heat, the lack of life.”

“That's very enlightening,” Jacob said, and it was only half sarcastic.

“Most of them are barely sentient, they can be kept at bay by heat, light, and life in large enough amounts.”

“Like sunshine?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah, like sunshine,” Shin said.

It explained why they only came out when the sun was setting.

“What do they want?” Jacob asked.

“What anything wants,” Shin said, “to thrive. They don't really think, they don't have a concept of good or evil, they just want to expand, to spread, to fill up any available space with themselves.”

“Like human beings,” Jacob said. “What happens if they fill our space with themselves?”

“No heat, no light, no life,” Shin said. “Do the math.”

“It's a race to see whether they snuff out our life force directly or kill us with hypothermia?” Jacob asked.

“The hypothermia is more likely,” Shin said. “A lot more likely. They really are just . . . nothing.”

“Anyone who's ever built a laser cannon on a space station knows that nothing can be really hard on a person.”

“Well, the good news is they aren't an absence of air,” Shin said.

“Mixed blessing at best,” was Jacob's response. “Vacuum might be cold, but because there's nothing there it takes a long damn time to freeze anything. With a full air supply, we'll freeze a lot faster.”

“You're always a ray of sunshine,” Shin said.

“I try to be,” Jacob said. There was no need for a sarcastic tone, some things had it built right into the words and the context. “So we can't up our life, but we can totally increase light and heat by making a fire.”

“Yeah,” Shin said, “but most mushrooms have too much water in them to make good bonfire fodder.”

“I'll keep an eye out for anything different,” Jacob said.

“Good,” Shin said.

“I could have been doing it already if you'd told me what we were up against when you figured out yourself.”

“Whatever.”

And with that, they lapsed into silence.

* * *

The surface of the highway was cracked, warped, eroded, missing in places, and so forth, but there was still enough of it to make it easy for Jacob to pick up on the sound of footsteps.

Footsteps behind them that seemed to be following them.

It took Jacob a few moments to be sure he wasn't hearing some kind of echo, then he said, “Someone's following us.” A moment later he added, “Or, you know, something.”

“I hear it too,” Shin said. “Don't look back.”

That didn't seem to make any sense, but this was a day for not making sense, so Jacob just asked, “Are you sure?”

“I'm sure,” Shin said.

* * *

“So,” Jacob said, “About the not looking back thing--”

“Don't look back,” Shin repeated.

“Whoever or whatever it is has almost caught up to us,” Jacob said.

“You're talking to a witch's girlfriend on Halloween night after being attacked by an army of dead people--”

“And animals,” Jacob said. “Don't forget the bear.”

Shin shivered. “I can't forget the bear. I want to, but I can't. The point is, don't look back.”

“Ok, Orpheus, I won't look back,” Jacob said.

“Did you have to use that reference?”

“Could be worse,” Jacob said; “I could have called you Eurydice.”

* * *

Shin was sure something was different.

They'd been through groves in the darkness before, but this one was different.
She tried to look more closely at her surroundings to figure out what was different. The dark pillars around them this time were definitely the source of her sense something about this grove was unlike the others. Not like stalks of mushrooms but . . .

“This was a birch grove once,” Shin said.

“Thank you pixie scout,” Jacob said. “Will it burn?”

Shin took a closer look at the husks of trees around them. “Dry rot,” she concluded. “It'll burn.”

“Bonfire?” Jacob asked her.

Shin nodded, not even sure if he was looking in her direction and said, “Bonfire.”

* * *

“Well, light it already,” Jacob said. Shin hesitated.

“What?” Jacob asked.

“There's a thing about fires today. . .”

“More Halloween stuff?” Jacob said not bothering to hide the fact that his annoyance bordered on anger. “Like me not being allowed to eat my damned apple?”

“I haven't eaten since lunch either,” Shin snapped back at him. “It's just that if we start this fire we need to keep it alive.”

“That's the plan,” Jacob said impatiently.

“Bad things could happen if we let the fire die,” Shin warned.

“Bad things like being pursued by living darkness?” Jacob said. “Or maybe living corpses? Or maybe--” having our entire world erased by changes to the timeline, he'd been going to say. Shin interrupted him.

“Bad things like it's possible our lives will be linked directly to the fate of the fire and the flames dying will mean death for us too,” Shin said.

Ok, maybe that was worth worrying about, but, “We agreed that the keeping the darkness back was worth the risk before we even left the city,” Jacob said.

“Yeah,” Shin said.

“Before you came to your disturbing death-by-hypothermia related conclusion as to what the darkness was,” Jacob added.

“Yeah,” Shin said. She lit the bonfire they'd set up with a burst of plasma. “I just don't like the idea that my life might be tied to something as ephemeral as fire.”

“My nemesis isn't the type to die just because a flame went out,” Jacob said.

* * *

Watching the fire made Jacob philosophical. Not that it took too much to do that.

Still, the fire. It destroyed, but in the process, it created a brilliant work of shifting art that was one of a kind. The flames consumed, but they caressed rather than devoured.

Air, spark, and wood all came together to create light, heat, and ash. It was the changing of forms.

He turned his attention to Shin. She was sleeping while he took this watch.
They'd flipped, he'd lost.

Sleep could make anyone seem likable. Without the power of speech or posture, one would never know that she was an irritating moralizing hero who had been constantly ruining his working days since they first met.

She seemed almost . . . innocent. Like she might have been one to run with his friends when they were kids. Looting dumpsters for food, pulling up grates on the road in search of warm places to sleep, maybe picking the occasional pocket.

While she slept it was easy to look at her and pretend she was a decent human being not the self-righteous child of the world's greatest moralizer and the biggest defector in the history of those who worked outside the established lines of the system.

Not that Jacob blamed Shego. He certainly had little respect for what she'd become, but receiving a full pardon in the wake of an alien invasion and having her cherished princess within reach obviously put more pressure to change on her than anyone could be expected to resist. So she'd been swayed.

He didn't blame her for that.

But, still, here was her spawn. One part Shego, the poster child for reform, one part Kim Possible, poster child for never wavering hero. And yet she looked almost . . . normal maybe?

Redeemable? Like someone who had potential?

Jacob threw some more dead wood on the fire and stoked the forming embers.
When you just looked at the flame, but knew nothing of the purpose, good and evil disappeared and you just saw the thing, you saw all of the potential but none of the hang-ups.

In her sleep, Shin looked like a potential friend.

When he was younger there had been times when a group was in a place where Shin would say they didn't belong just because it was all illegal or some such, and he'd had his turn at watch. He'd seen sleeping friends then.

When he couldn't sleep, but he pretended to so his sister wouldn't stay up to worry, he'd seen sis sleep.

Those were the only people he'd ever seen sleep before. The other kids he'd run with once; his sister.

Allies. Family.

Shin slept like them.

No way to tell that she was the fire that burned down your home, rather than the fire that kept you warm. Not when she was asleep.

* * *

A voice seemed to come from a great distance, “Get up!”

“Five more minutes,” Shin said. She didn't even need to give thought to it. It was her standard response.

“Now!” the voice said, closer now. “I need your random-- to Hell with it.” The voice was very close now. “They're getting away with the pan-dimensional vortex inducer!”

Shin was on her feet in a moment, shaking the sleep from her eyes and ready to fight or chase. Then she remembered what was going on and was trying to think of something truly nasty to say to Jacob when she noticed that he was bathed in blue light.

“Any of your random lore talk about that,” Jacob asked, pointing at the bonfire burning in shades from cerulean to cyan with perhaps just a hint of teal sprinkled in.

Yes, yes it did. “Run,” she said.

“What about keeping the fire--” Jacob tried to ask.

She grabbed his wrist and pulled him, “Forget it; just run!”

She lit the hand that wasn't holding his and, as soon as she was sure that he was running with her, let go of him and lit the other. Soon after he had his palm-light on again. A moment later there was a sound like very, very close thunder and air rushed back toward the birch grove threatening to knock them over.

“What the Hell?” Shin asked as she and Jacob helped each other up.

They were barely running again when the same thing happened back and to their right, then their left.

She didn't even understand the damage and didn't try to look at it. She didn't dare slow herself by looking anywhere but forward.

If she looked she'd turn, if she turned she'd slow down, if she slowed down...

She forced herself not to think about that and just ran.

Blue flame on any other night meant little to nothing. Flame color depended on temperature, what was being burned, trace elements, and various other things. But tonight blue flame meant a supernatural entity had entered the room.

The outdoors was a big room, and Shin doubted that even Logi himself could turn the flames that blue by mere presence.

Something had come, something powerful, and whatever it was was so interested in them as to knock the fire test off the scale.

Based on what little they'd seen of this changed world, she'd known it probably wasn't friendly before things went boom.

By her own light, she saw an obstruction ahead. “Left!” she called out and received a helpful shove from Jacob. At any other time, in any other circumstance, a shove wouldn't be a helpful thing, but at the moment she appreciated the ability to make a tighter turn and showed that appreciation by shaking the plasma from her right hand and giving Jacob a yank to allow him to do the same.

* * *

It felt like fleeing a tornado they couldn't see, not that Jacob had a lot of experience with tornadoes.

Sounds of destruction behind them, beside them, around them. They were being targeted, with the only plus side being that whatever was doing it didn't seem to have very precise aim. Not terribly accurate either.

But what the hell was going on? If things were exploding then the shock should-

Jacob shouted over the destruction, “It's super cooling --colloquial not technical sense--”

“Don't talk,” Shin shouted back, “run!”

“-the air,” Jacob said. “Air shrinks to zero point one five percent of its normal size when liquefied.”

Jacob stumbled and Shin helped to steady him.

“Shut up and run!” she shouted at him.

“That's a lot of space to fill,” Jacob said, “so near vacuum equals implosion and that's what's going on.”

“No talkie,” Shin shouted, definitely angry now. “Run!”

“Of course to do that,” this time Shin stumbled over something, gods only knew where they were or what they were getting tripped up by, regardless Jacob helped her up while running, then said, “It has to drop the temperature to below negative 320 degrees.”

“Fascinating I'm sure,” Shin snapped. “Shut up and run.”

“And it's doing it with obvious intention and targeting,” Jacob said.

“Would you just--” Shin shouted.

Jacob finally made it to his point, “I thought you said they were barely sentient.”

“I said most were,” was Shin's reply. “Will you shut up now?”

“Yes,” Jacob said. “Up shutting.”

And he did.

* * *

They'd both fallen so many times, they were doubtless scraped and bruised all over, each had helped the other too many times to keep track of, but it wasn't doing them any good.

They were running out of energy, and it was gaining on them. The air was colder than it had any right to be, and soon it wouldn't be throwing poorly aimed attacks at them to kill them, it would just engulf them and they'd become what it was: nothing.

Shin had never heard of a nothing this powerful before, nor one this smart. Certainly not one this large.

Hunting was entirely out of the question. Nothings tried to grow, spread, and even reproduce, and that meant pushing beyond the bounds of afforded them by the heat, light, and life, but to hunt living things? It was unheard of.

They were forces of nature: no more malevolent than nighttime, and as impersonal as a sunburn.

So why was this happening?

Was this one territorial? The life nothings were most hostile to, by nature not intent, was animal life. The life that threatened them most was warm blooded life and bioluminescent life. The draugar did not offer warmth, life, or even light.

That last was maybe-

The ground came up and hit Shin in the face. Jacob yanked her to her feet and she could feel the weakness in his arms. His legs must be doing just as badly. Just like her own.

“Keep up, Possible,” he said, but there was no fire in it.

He obviously knew what she knew: it was just a matter of time.

Jacob had gotten to figure out how the implosions worked, Shin was going to figure this out. Even if it was, very literally, the last thing she did. She would figure this out.

Like she told Jacob, draugar weren't zombies. They might not be people --or animals-- anymore, but they weren't stupid. They could have had the ruined city lit up just as easily as a human population. They didn't. Maybe they were afraid of what was chasing Shin and Jacob now.

Maybe by being the only living animals, and having a fire, a source of light and heat, an anathema to nothings, they'd marked themselves as enemies. But that only made sense if it had a reason to oppose those things rather than flee them.

Could this one be territorial?

She'd never heard of such a thing, but she'd never heard of this.

Could be that being out in the open with a bonfire was all it took to make this one come after them. Could be that that was equivalent of charging someone weapons out. Could be-

Both of them stumbled as the terrain changed drastically. It was a steep slope. It might have been an embankment, it might have been a natural feature, but whatever it was, they couldn't let it slow them down much. Shim scrambled up it and then heard Jacob fall and slide down.

She went back for him, pulled him up, and then had her plan of berating him die when she realized how much he was shivering.

“We're not going to make it, are we?” she said, right arm around him, left hand burning as bright and hot as she could manage.

“Stupid hero can't do math,” Jacob said through chattering teeth. Of course he'd go out with insults. It was, after all, their relationship.

She didn't say anything. The world had gone quiet. There were no more implosions. The nothing knew that it had won and was simply going to engulf them, the air grew colder.

“Jacob and Shin, subtract a Jacob, what's left?” Jacob said.

“I'm not leaving you,” Shin said.

“Stupid hero bullshit,” Jacob said.

She let go of Jacob, stood up straight, turned back the way they'd come, lit both her hands, and took a few steps toward what she assumed was the general direction of the center of the nothing, and tried to pick her last words.

Jacob's palm-light flickered and died.

She considered stealing from one of her mothers: I'm not going to let you kill Jacob; that's my job. Didn't fit. For one thing, it wasn't her job to kill Jacob. For another, it could send the wrong message since one mother had said that about her other mother.

She could feel her plasma cooling and see it dim.

She considered some sort of over the top thing about how she was the light holding back the darkness or saying that she'd claimed this ground and the nothing shall not pass.

The darkness was becoming so great it was hard to see anything, even her own hands.

Her consideration was broken when Jacob asked, “So, we're definitely going to die, right?”

That simplified things. She certainly considered telling him a comforting lie, but she wasn't going to have her last words be lies. So she just said, “Looks that way.”

There was a sound that, though familiar, Shin couldn't quite place, and then a sudden flurry of light.

Small lights with no apparent source danced around her

“Fireflies?” Jacob asked.

Shin turned to Jacob and got a better view of the situation. While the lights were flying in both directions and didn't seem to have any fixed course, they were all vaguely tracing the same shape: a large circle around herself and Jacob both.

“Will-o'-wisps,” Shin said, “Don't follow them.”

“Not Jack's lanterns?” Jacob asked in an amused tone.

“It's not funny,” Shin snapped, “they lead people to their deaths for fun.”

“I'm not actually laughing,” Jacob said. True, but he wasn't taking the situation nearly seriously enough. “And I'm not going anywhere.” That was a more pertinent point. He was still shivering. Still chattering teeth. “Aren't they supposed to be off in the distance?” he asked.

“They usually are,” Shin said, “I've never seen them this close and I don't--” Shin remembered the sound that she didn't recognize but knew was familiar. She took a closer look at Jacob, specifically his hands. There it was. “You bit the apple.”

He shrugged, “I'm not dying on an empty stomach.”

“I told you not to,” Shin said.

“Hey,” Jacob said, “notice how we're not facing immediate death from encroaching darkness anymore?”

He was right, and that was why she wasn't exactly complaining. They hadn't just pushed it back with their initial appearance, the wisps did seem to be keeping the darkness at bay still. They didn't seem to be losing any ground to it at all.

The most powerful nothing in history, and it was being held in check by a few dancing lights.

She thought about the situation for a bit, considering various possibilities.

“If we sleep the wisps will take the apple, then they'll leave, and we'll die,” she finally said. “We'll have to sleep in shifts. Again”

Jacob nodded, “The one who's awake guards the apple but also feeds out just enough to keep them interested.”

Finally he was taking the situation seriously.

* * *

Jacob accepted Shin's help as they walked, surrounded by the living lights, looking for a good place. He was simply too tired and far too cold to maintain professional animosity. Beyond the fact that his aching legs could use all the help they could get, the hands Shin held him with stayed lit at a low level, providing much needed warmth that circulated through the rest of his body.

Eventually, they found a place that Shin pronounced, “Good enough,” and, with her help, Jacob lay down on the ground.

* * *

Shin got first watch, she'd said that it was because she'd slept most recently, but the truth was that she was worried that Jacob was nearly dead.

Her plasma was both more and less versatile than most people imagined, but one thing the wild mass guessing public did get right was that she didn't have to worry about hypothermia under most conditions found on earth. She had internal heating the likes of which no earth creature --save those in her immediate family-- could compare to, much less match.

Jacob, on the other hand, was an ordinary human being who was simply at the high end of the scales when it came to athleticism and invention.

It was a decent camp, there wasn't wood, but there were enough dry-ish growths that she got a small fire going. Of course, they'd come this way with not much light besides that which the wisps had provided them. That was disturbing. She told herself that they hadn't followed the wisps, strictly speaking, they were just utilizing the wisps' light while the wisps followed them. She was able to accept that rationalization, even if she wasn't sure she believed it.

She made sure to throw out tiny bits of apple on occasion, she didn't want the wisps to lose interest. They circled at a steady distance, and right outside of that dark on dark danced in a malevolent fashion. The nothing that had chased them seemed to have attracted other nothings.

They wouldn't have the same power, intelligence, or malicious drive, but they were still dangerous.

She turned her attention to Jacob. Shin could tell by his breathing he was nearly asleep.

“Finally,” Jacob said, his voice so groggy Shin thought he might be talking in his sleep, “something else in the animal kingdom that's not dead.”

Shin didn't pay attention until Jacob said, “See?” and held up his hand. There was a large wolf spider on it.

Shin smiled.

“Normally a spider is just a spider,” she said, “but tonight that means that you've got the spirit of a loved one watching over you.”

Jacob sighed as he put his hand back down and let the spider crawl away, “Must be for you then. Sis is like us,” he closed his eyes and was almost asleep, but after a long moment, he said, “too young to have been born here,” and then he was really gone.

While Jacob slept, Shin thought about that. It wasn't just Jacob's family. Her older sisters, her friends, her rivals, Kieran . . . if Jacob was right about the effect of changing the timeline, and it made sense that he was, none of them would exist.

She and Jacob didn't belong in this world, and so many of the people she cared about had been erased from existence entirely.

On the up side, Jacob didn't snore. On the down side, Shin had never felt more alone.


~~2004 - Earth~~

Tara was too cold to use her cellphone properly. Her fingers didn't do precisely what she told them to do, she was shivering so much she was at risk of hitting the wrong buttons, so forth. Bonnie dialed Wade. Tara had asked Ron to, but Bonnie had insisted.

Holding the phone was an easier thing that didn't require fine motor skills, so she was able to talk to Wade on her own.

"Wade?" she asked when the ringing stopped.

"I'm here," Wade said.

"The other things," Tara said, "the ones that aren't the dogs, they're dark and cold."

"Can you be more specific?" Wade asked.

"No, you don't understand," Tara said. "That's all they are."

"Dark and cold?" Wade asked. A charitable conclusion was that he was perplexed. Less charitable conclusions would be that he was incredulous or possibly even trying to humor her the way one might humor a small child in the middle of a schizoid break.

"They don't have any solid parts," Tara said, making an effort not to get angry at Wade for failing to understand the concept. "They're just empty air where the inside is darker and colder than the surrounding area."

"Ok," Wade said, his tone now a neutral acceptance.

"And if the amount I'm shivering right now is any indication," Tara said, "They can be really cold when they're in a swarm."

"There was a heat spike and then they seemed to scatter," Wade said.

"Fire breathing," Tara said. "I figured dark and cold wouldn't like fire."

"Since it's light and hot?" Wade said.

"Pretty much," Tara said. Then she paid some attention to her surroundings again. They were in the fallout shelter, which was quite spacious. It had obviously been designed to hold everyone who would normally be at the school -a thousand students with associated faculty and staff- plus area people who didn't have a closer shelter.

It more than fit their needs. People were having wounds treated, other than that nothing much was being done by anyone. Most people seemed stunned or afraid; everyone seemed run down.

* * *

Josh hoped everyone else was having a better time getting clear than he was, which had been the plan. The relay had to end somewhere, and the last person wouldn't have anyone distracting the dogs. He'd chosen to be the last person because he happened to be in charge of his group, and he didn't want to order anyone else to do the most risky part. If he'd known how hard it would be, maybe he'd have done something intelligent like let one of the track stars, who had volunteered and probably would have been more likely to survive, take the job.

As it was he was staying alive mostly by means of having arms. The dogs were big, the dogs were scary, the dogs were fast, but they were incapable of changing direction as quickly as a human being who could reach out, grab onto something, and pivot around it as if they hated their shoulder with a fiery passion and were just begging it to become dislocated.

He'd tried doubling back to the auditorium because the stage rigging there was the only place in the school accessible solely by ladder, but so far it was all he could do to keep one step, sometimes less, ahead of the dogs. Actually making directed progress proved entirely impossible.

Josh pulled another tight corner and, as his shoulder cried out to him in pain, saw what he considered to be the least appealing sight he'd ever seen in his life: three more dogs at the end of the hall he'd just turned into.

At the earliest opportunity, he smashed himself into a classroom door -he didn't have time to see if it happened to be locked or not- ran across the room, and jumped for the window at full speed.

On the other side he didn't appear to be impaled by any large pieces of glass and didn't feel liked he'd severed any major blood vessels, so he assumed he'd live at least a bit longer and started running to what he thought was the nearest way back into the school: another window they'd broken, that one with something less fragile than a human body and as part of a coherent plan.

He needed to get back inside because the only thing that had kept him alive so far was being more maneuverable in the tighter indoor spaces.

Once he was moving at a decent pace in what he thought was the right direction, he hit "the hole that looks like a button belongs over it" on the Kimmunicator and said, "Wade, we have a problem," the moment he heard it crackle.

"I see them," Wade said, "but they weren't there a moment ago."

"I don't really care where they were a moment ago right now," Josh said. It was harder to speak than he thought it should have been. He was running out of steam.

"I'll tell you the moment I've found a way to help," Wade said, "Until then I don't think you want me distracting you."

"Find it fast," Josh said.

* * *

When Tara's phone rang she answered it with, "I was about to call you."

"We need to help Josh," Wade said. "Wait, why were you going to call me?"

"Josh," Tara said. "He's the only one from the distraction that hasn't made it in. What's going on out there?"

"He can't shake the dogs," Wade said, "and it looks like they're materializing inside the school, so now there are more of them and they've joined the hunt."

"Materializing. . ." the truth was that Tara didn't really care about how things fit together right now. However, some part of her brain was still looking for patterns and trying to put puzzle pieces together. That part had an idea. "At the explosion site?" Tara asked.

"I don't know," Wade said, "maybe."

"Not important right now," Tara said. "What do we do to get Josh safely in here?"

* * *

Ron's head still hurt horribly, but he was steady on his feet and he was, he felt, ready for action. When Tara picked up the phone he listened, all that he could really make out from Tara's side of the conversation was that Josh needed help.

He thought he vaguely remembered Tara talking to Wade over one of the school's phones around the time she stopped carrying him and he started walking. Maybe she was talking to Wade now.

"Is that Wade?" he asked Tara.

Tara nodded.

"May I?" he asked. Tara just handed him the phone. "Wade, what's the sitch?"

"Kim tried to use the transportulator to get to you, but instead she just disappeared," Wade said. "There was a possibly related explosion in an unoccupied area of the school, but no one's been able to check it out because giant black dogs have been attacking people. I can't tell if they're related to Kim or the explosion.

"It would be an extraordinary coincidence if they weren't, but we've seen bigger ones on a monthly basis so-"

"What about Josh?" Ron asked.

"The dogs seem to be coming from inside -I don't know how- almost all of them have left the area and are terrorizing the rest of Middleton, but about a dozen are still there, and they're chasing Josh," Wade said. "They're too fast to outrun, too close behind him to hide from, and all of the work he's doing to evade them has got to be wearing him out."

Ron thought about it for a moment. "Is the roof safe?"

"How would he get to it?" Tara asked.

"I'm with Tara on this one," Wade said. "Even if he could manage to get the keys to unlock the maintenance access to the roof, which is doubtful when he's on the run, he'd end up showing the dogs the way."

"My grappler is still in my locker," Ron said.

"Are you sure?" Wade asked. "I don't even remember the last time you used it."

"Trust the Ron man," Ron said.

"The Ron man has a head injury," Tara said. "Maybe you should sit this out."

"Ok, so you'll need to get to your locker, have time to go through your mess, get the grappler, and then get to Josh," Wade said. "All with a dozen death dogs of doom on the loose."

Wade sighed, "Can I talk to Tara?"

Ron was confused. Where did Tara come into this? "Uh, sure," he said and handed Tara her phone.

* * *

"Josh is running out of time, and Ron's plan is the best idea --the only idea-- so far," Wade said. "I can't exactly scan Ron through your phone, I need you and Rufus to decide if Ron is really up for this."

"Ok," Tara said into the phone, then she looked at the naked mole rat whose head was peeking out of Ron's pocket. "Rufus, do you think we can keep Ron safe?"

Rufus said, "Sure thing," or at least Tara was pretty sure that was what he said, and gave a salute.

Tara said, "We're doing Ron's plan," to Wade.

"Wait, we?" Ron asked.

"You're not going alone," Tara said. Then she realized her mistake and said, "Sorry," to Rufus. "You're not going as the sole human," she amended to Ron.

"I'm coming too," Bonnie said.

"What!?" Ron and Tara said in unison.

"T, I'm not letting you go out there with only . . . him to keep you safe," Bonnie said.

It might be legitimate concern, it might be that she was hoping that saving Josh Mankey would win her a date with Josh Mankey. Probably both, actually. It didn't matter.

"Josh doesn't have time for us to argue," Tara said as she headed for the exit. Bonnie and Ron fell in beside her. "Bonnie, give me your phone."

Tara called Wade on Bonnie's phone, "Wade, I need you on this phone and my phone directing two of us while we make distractions to give Josh and Ron the time they need," she said and then handed the phone back to Bonnie.

* * *

Every part of Josh ached and he was so exhausted that simply collapsing to the floor seemed like the most inviting of all possible options. The fact that that would get him mauled and possibly eaten was seeming less and less important the more time went on. He just wanted to stop.

For the love of all that was holy, all he wanted to do was rest.

He'd been going in erratic vaguely circle-like things forever, counting on the tight corners he was making to keep on buying back the seconds he was constantly losing to his pursuers.

The Kimmunicator crackled to life.

"Thought you forgot about me," he said. It felt like hours since they'd spoken.

"Sorry," Wade said. "There's not a lot to work with so-"

"Just tell me there's a plan," Josh said.

"How do you feel about rooftops?" Wade asked.

"Please make sense," Josh said. It was more pleading though. Would this damned night ever be over?

"Grappling gun to the school roof, unless the dogs can fly or climb vertical walls they won't be able to follow," Wade said.

"I can't go back to Kim's locker," Josh said. Too much straight line, not enough tight corner, the dogs would run him down before he made it.

"Ron's getting the grappler," Wade said, "Tara and someone else are running interference."

Tight corner, shoulder pain, but at least the sound of a multi-dog pile up, though even that was losing its appeal. The only thing that mattered was somehow being able to stop going.

So, talking to Wade, difficult though it was, might be worth it.

"Someone else?" Josh asked.

"I didn't ask her name," Wade said, "but she should be working to get you some breathing room."

"God, I hope so," Josh said.

* * *

Tara and Ron had an easy time getting to the school, with all the dogs in the area tripping over themselves to try to get to Josh, the only thing they had to avoid were newly appeared dogs leaving the area.

It wasn't that hard. Bonnie had stayed behind in the gym. Unlike the school building itself, the gym had a simple --easy to locate and use-- back up generator. Once the gym had power it could be put to good use, which is what Bonnie was supposed to do as soon as Ron and Tara were clear.

Part one of the plan was to try to break up the dog pack chasing Josh. It carried with it some risk. A dozen giant dogs in a school hallway probably were slowing each other down, and certainly if two tried to fit through a doorway at once they'd go slower than one, so fewer dogs after Josh probably would mean that they were going faster. But fewer was the first step on the way to none.

Bonnie's voice came over the gym's PA, "Attention to all of the angry dogs in the area, you seem to have made a mistake. The Middleton Mad Dog is singular, not-black, a bulldog, and played by a sidekick in a mascot mask he made himself."

There was a reason Bonnie's talent show performance had been ballet and not comedy.

"Now that I've cleared this up for you, I expect you all to leave. You have interrupted the talent show that I was about to win and I want you gone."

After that things just got more generic, but Tara had to admit that Bonnie was doing her job. It would be impossible for the dogs to miss that something had changed and there was something happening at the gym.

In addition to turning on the PA system, they'd powered up everything they could find power switches, knobs or dials for. With the entrance to the fallout shelter firmly locked behind them, the only person at risk at the gym should be Bonnie herself, and she had Wade to tell her when the dogs were actually on their way in.

They'd figure out how to get the dogs back away from the gym later. Right now they needed to get them away from Josh.

Her phone rang. She answered, "Go, Wade."

"It looks like several of the dogs are breaking off their pursuit of Josh and heading for the gym," Wade said. "Also I have some sort of good news."

"Sort of good?" Tara asked.

"The other things," Wade said, "the cold dark things, it doesn't look like they're staying in the area; after you drove them off the first time I guess they didn't want to stick around. Plus, analysis of their movements earlier suggests that they weren't hunting so much as they happened on the people making the crossing from the school to the shelter."

"Sort of good," Tara said. She didn't feel good about it. She didn't feel bad about. She didn't feel about it period. She just mentally filed it away.

"Well, it means you don't have to worry about them right now," Wade said.

"Thanks for the update," Tara said. "What about dealing with the rest of the dogs? There's no power in here so we can't just distract them with the PA."

"Yeah, and the explosion seems to have been in the main office so there might not be anything there to use anyway," Wade said. "I'm trying put together an inventory of what's in the school to see if there's anything useful, but the record keeping is atrocious."

Yeah, Tara thought, almost as bad as the safety standards. Then the proverbial carcinogenic chemical light lit.

"Wade," Tara asked, "could you get us to the science labs?"

Ron, who had been uncharacteristically quiet so far, said, "Please tell me you're not going to open an inter-dimensional portal with Justine's . . . thingy."

"No," Tara said. "Creative idea, but no. I was thinking more of recreating some of the more mundane mishaps, just on purpose and directed at the dogs this time."

* * *

Wade had said that some of the dogs had been drawn away, but Josh hadn't noticed a difference.

Then there had been a prolonged lack of communication. Josh liked to think that he was generally a positive person, but he was beginning to suspect that maybe he should just accept that he was going to die soon and try to make peace with it. However one did that.

At the very least it had to be better than all this running.

Then something went boom behind him, with a flash of light, and he couldn't help turning, just a bit, to look.

He fell over and ended up sliding a bit and rolling a bit on the floor. He didn't bother trying to get back up. It was over.

Then he felt himself being lifted up.

"Come on," someone said, "before they find another way around or realize that it was all flash and no substance."

"Wade, Tara's plan worked," someone else said, "where's the nearest exit?"

* * *

"How many windows do you think we've smashed tonight?" Tara asked Ron and Josh. Ron was looking a lot better; Josh was looking a lot worse.

"No idea," Ron said just before smashing one more. "I do know you set part of the school on fire."

"I didn't notice a fire," Josh said.

Given that the first thing he'd said to Ron and her, at least a full minute after they'd started carrying him, was, "Am I dead?" Tara didn't think Josh had been noticing much at that point. Still, he was right, there had been no fire that time. Just a strange bubbling pink gooey mass that had a tendency to explode with bright light, loud noise, and very little actual effect upon anything.

"He's talking about earlier," Tara said, "before we got to you." She and Ron carried Josh out of the window. When they set Josh down and Ron fired off his grappling hook launcher, which was, for some reason, shaped like a hair dryer, Tara asked Ron, "Do you think it's still burning?"

* * *

"Booyah!" Ron said once Tara and Josh were safely on the roof. He'd have preferred to have the others go first, but he couldn't help lift if he were on the ground, and Tara was lighter, so it made sense to have her be the one getting Josh up and him to be the one to go first.

Josh, for his part, barely seemed able to stand, much less climb the side of a building.

Now they just had to get Bonnie and themselves to safety.

* * *

Josh woke up --he didn't remember falling asleep-- in a room that he'd never seen before. It was a big thing with low ceilings and bare concrete walls. Someone was talking to a group of people, when Josh picked it up, she was mid sentence:

"--word that the high school will be one of the primary evacuation centers tomorrow, so all we need to do is stay the night here, then we'll be flown to safety tomorrow and professionals can handle this."

A bit more awake, Josh could see that the speaker was the blonde girl who had been watching over Ron in the backstage room. Josh had been assuming that she was Tara ever since Wade first used the name.

That was ok for a name over a Kimmunicator, since all that he'd really needed to know was that “Tara's group” was the one he was directing people to, not who Tara actually was. Now that they were in the same place he'd have to check, at some point, that that really was her name.

"Who put you two in charge?" someone in the group asked. It was the kind of thing that, even though, in the form of a question, was pretty much always raw invective. This time wasn't any different than that usual.

"Uh, we three," Bonnie said. Josh didn't know Bonnie much better than he knew maybe-Tara, but Bonnie was impossible to miss. Bonnie made sure it was always that way. That meant that Josh had no problem remembering her name.

"Sure, whatever," the same someone said. "Why are you people in charge?"

"Because no one else is," the girl who might be Tara said. If she was then she had saved him. The whole rescue was a fuzzy blur, but he remembered someone saying, “Tara's plan worked,” right after the dogs stopped following him, and Wade had said before that that Tara, Ron, and someone else were involved in the rescue attempt.

If she was Tara, or “someone else” for that matter, Josh would have to thank her.

Possibly Tara added, "As for who put us in charge, Wade did."

"Who?" someone else asked.

"Team Possible's tech guru," Ron said

"The one who got us to this shelter alive," person he thought was Tara said. "Or did you fail to notice that the whole thing was coordinated over the phone."

Josh didn't know Tara, obviously. He didn't even know her name for sure. But he'd seen her around and he knew that she usually wasn't confrontational. He'd never seen her in a fight, never heard her utter harsh words, seen no indications of animosity of any sort. She'd always seemed to be friendly to whoever she was around.

So, the way she had responded was definitely not normal for her. It had been a long night, nerves were frayed.

"If Team Possible is running things," the first someone said, "then where is Kim?"

"Missing," Ron said in a way that made Josh fully expect it to be followed by, "you--" wait, did Ron even swear? Regardless, the way it was said made Josh anticipate a "you [something very bad]" that never came. Ron left it at a single word.

It hung in the air for a bit. Josh wanted more information but knew that there probably wasn't any. The search for more information on what happened to Kim was called off before it even began.

Ron, probably-Tara, and Bonnie's phones all rang at the same time.

* * *

"Wade, I can't tell you how much I don't want to hear bad news," Tara said.

"Sorry," Wade said.

"Just sitch us," Ron said and Tara heard it in weird double because she could hear him directly and over the phone.

"Remember how you said the cold dark things could make it really cold when they swarmed, Tara?" Wade said.

And Tara felt a sinking feeling.

"They're swarming," she said; it wasn't a question.

"They're appearing much faster now," Wade said, "much, much faster, and they don't appear to have any intention of leaving the area. If the temperature keeps dropping at the present rate-"

"We'll be dead before morning?" Tara asked.

"Uh, yeah," Wade said. "Pretty much."

Tara looked at the crowd of people, who were all reacting to what they'd heard her say. She looked directly at the senior who had been asking about why she and Ron were in charge before, and said, "If anyone else wants to be in charge, now would be a great time to step up."

Barkin was off inspecting the something or other, or else he'd have claimed command, but of the people who were in this part of the shelter, no one said anything.

"Ok, now that that's settled," Tara said, then she returned her attention to the phone, "Wade, do we have a plan?"

* * *

Ron, Tara, and Bonnie had gone to a corner of the shelter to plan. It happened to be the corner that Josh was in because he was a part of this too by now and, more importantly, he'd gone trick-or-treating with Ron last year as one half of a two person unicorn costume, and as far as Ron was concerned anyone who would do that was totally cool in his eyes.

They put Bonnie's phone on speaker because the prototype Kimmunicator had an annoying crackling sound and of the phones Bonnie's had the best speaker mode. Then they started to brainstorm.

It went, Ron thought, fairly badly.

"It's not that I can't make something that produces enough light or heat to drive them off, given what it took last time and extrapolating for-"

"Wade, I think you're losing the second half of your bifurcated thought," Tara said.

Ron wasn't sure what bifurcated meant, though it presumably had something to do with the number two and fur.

Wade, obviously, did know. For one thing, he was Wade. For another, he responded, "It's just that I can't do it in time."

"Could you help Ron and Rufus build something?" Tara asked.

Ron said, "What!?" at the same time Bonnie did. Then he said, "Jinx, you owe me a-" and stopped when he caught Bonnie's glare.

So it was straight on to the complete confusion, "What makes you think I can-"

Bonnie, being Bonnie, cut him off, "T, he can't build some super science device."

"Are you sure?" Tara asked.

"Yes!" Bonnie said.

"Tara, I'm-" Ron said.

Tara, being most un-Tara-like, cut him off. "Rufus can program a VCR, you once built a doomsday device, and Wade is a certified genius. I think the three of you can come up with something."

Ron tried to think of when he would have built a-- right: when Rufus briefly became a super genius and everyone thought it was Ron. Drakken had kidnapped him and forced him to build a doomsday device which, while not leading to doomsday, did in fact, surprisingly, work. It had given him the confidence he'd needed to stop failing algebra last school year.

* * *

Bonnie tried to stop herself from shaking. Her hands in particular since she was assembling something that was supposed to save their lives, but really if she could get any part of her to be still she'd count it as a win. Her mouth was clamped firmly shut to stop her teeth from chattering so she couldn't even complain. The rest of her was not so easily stilled. The shivers ran deep.

She plugged in a wire with numb fingers, and looked for the next part.

They'd talked through it all inside, of course, but that wasn't the same as assembling it. Not out here.

It was snowing.

The roof of the gym made sense. It was a high place so the light would have good range, it was a roof so they could be safe from the dogs.

Her fingers were numb. It was snowing.

"Everything's hooked up," she heard Tara say. "Now we see if you're as good as I think you are."

Under normal circumstances Bonnie might roll her eyes or think, "No innuendo there, nope, none at all," but these weren't normal circumstances.

We're all gonna die
, Bonnie thought.

"Cover your eyes B," Tara said. Bonnie did, not that she thought it would matter, not that she thought this cobbled together thing would even work. She did because Tara was a friend, and she saw little harm in humoring a friend who, like her, wouldn't live to see tomorrow.

Then, at the edges of her vision, where the arm she was covering her eyes with met her face, she saw red light. As if she were shining a flashlight through her fingers.

"I told you it would work!" Tara said.

Bonnie couldn't be sure, but she thought she felt less cold.

"So, how do we get off the roof without blinding ourselves?" Ron asked.


~~2004 – The After~~

Behind her Kim heard shouting. Alarm was being raised. She kept running. There was a tiny impact on the rock to her right --chips of rock seemed to jump from the wall of their own accord-- she heard the shot a moment later. That was no shotgun.

Someone had obviously broken out a rifle and they hadn't missed by much. Whoever it was was too good of a shot for her to risk giving them another. She had to break line of sight.

She was near an exit to the chamber, but not close enough. A glance at the ground showed a loose gravelly consistency. She dropped into a slide, a bullet passed through the air above her.

Much too close. Much too good of a shot. She had to get into the close twists of the tunnels; the open air of the cavern was a death sentence.

She rolled and twisted to position herself, then launched into a sprint. Almost as soon as she was safely around a corner she heard another bullet hit the rocks. She didn't turn to look, but it sounded like it had landed right where she'd been a moment ago.

Kim, very definitely, hated guns. Give her energy blasters, death rays, Rube Goldberg traps, and so forth any day.

All plans were on hold now. Her presence was known, they were firing guns --actual bullet-shooting guns-- at her, survival was the only concern right now.

When she'd started to get called for dangerous missions her mother had sat down with Kim and told her that she couldn't help anyone if she didn't look after herself.

That definitely would be true if she died here.

What even happened if a living person died in the After? Would she just stay in the exact same place? Would she be sent to a place with people more like her?

She didn't want to find out.

She was running for the third time since she arrived and two things wouldn't leave her mind.

The first was that this time was different. She wasn't being hunted by animals, as it had been with dogs, nor was she fleeing from a single person, as had been the case with the ghost. This time an intelligent and organized group was after her.

The second was that the day, if it was the same day, had been long and tiring. If she needed to run as fast or as far as she had before then she would fail, her pursuers would catch her. She simply didn't have the same energy she started with.

Given the work Kim did, it was important to be able to distinguish between temporary exhaustion --which could be recovered from fairly quickly, hours at most-- and actually being tapped out. This was the latter. She wasn't spent for the moment, or even the hour; she was without any reserves to call on.

If she survived she would need to find a place to hide. To rest and recover. If she survived.

* * *

Kim was still going as fast as she could, but it wasn't what it used to be. She'd slowed into a jog, and was doubtless losing whatever gains she'd made on her pursuers.

And then she saw the millipede. It was bigger than a person. Well, maybe not bigger. Longer than a person was tall. Perhaps it had less volume than a person but . . .

As it crawled Kim watched with horror and tried to remember what it was that had seemed so important a few moments ago. Big. Huge. It was really, really big.

Oh God, it was . . .

A voice behind her, she couldn't make out the words, pulled Kim back into the moment. She realized that she was standing completely still. She didn't remember stopping. She didn't know how long she'd been stopped for. Didn't matter, she'd lost precious seconds, maybe more. She resumed her exhausted jog and mentally cursed herself for letting a mere giant insect send her into a near catatonic state.

At the next fork she'd try to fake a trail in the direction she didn't go. Maybe that would buy her some time back.

* * *

Kim had finally bought some breathing room, but it would be useless if she didn't find a place to hide. She needed to lose her pursuers; she couldn't just stay ahead of them indefinitely.

She searched the shadows of this cavern looking for anything--

“Aren't you an odd little one?” a female voice commented. There was something strange about the voice. It didn't seem to come from anywhere. Normally Kim could pinpoint a sound, distance and direction, without even trying. Sure, since she'd landed in this place there had been many misleading echoes, and intentional tricks could mess her up a lot too, but there wasn't any sign of either echo or trick and yet she had no inkling of where the sound had come from.

Kim looked around and saw nothing but rock, dirt, decaying plant matter, and ferociously large spider webs. It wasn't the worst cavern she'd been in. It didn't even rate in the worst ten. No sign of the source of the voice though.

No indication of threat from it either. True, it probably would turn out badly, but before it did maybe Kim could gain useful information by speaking. At least she might learn who was here with her.

“Who said that?” she asked cautiously.

“Oh... 'said' isn't the right word, dear little friend,” the voice responded. “My species doesn't have a larynx, so I'm afraid English isn't something I could vocalize.”

Kim processed that somewhat disturbing tidbit and decided that, if she graded on a curve, it only rated as a weird factor of two on as scale from one to ten.

“English,” the voice 'said'. The tone was musing, more focused on its own thoughts, it seemed to Kim, than the conversation. “I haven't seen one such as you since Vergil was giving guided tours. Back then what you know as English didn't exist.

“That was almost a century before your English bard Chaucer famously wrote in his native tongue. I doubt you'd recognize his language as English, dear little friend.”

That was true. Kim had once listened to an excerpt of The Canterbury Tales recited in properly pronounced Middle English once. It had been beautiful and captivating, but she hadn't understood it in the least and Kim wouldn't have known it was a form of English if she hadn't been told before the recitation.

The voice had said so many words, but Kim still had no idea where the voice was coming from or, for that matter, how this communication was taking place.

“If you aren't speaking,” Kim asked, “why can I hear you?”

“Why I'm thinking at you, dear little friend.”

Kim wasn't sure what to make of that.

“Why haven't you shown yourself to me?” Kim asked.

“Because you haven't asked me to,” the voice thought at Kim.

“Would you let me see you?” Kim asked.

“If you'd like, dear little friend,” the voice said.

“Please and thank you,” Kim said.

“Turn around,” the voice said.

Kim did and at first she saw nothing. Then she caught a hint of movement above her. She looked up and saw something descending slowly. The closer it came the clearer it was. Two ball like sections --like a figure eight or a peanut-- and some protrusion... oh God, eight legs!

Kim stood statue still as the giant spider descended. She didn't want to, she needed to put more space between herself and her human-like pursuers, for one thing. She should still be moving as fast as she could, but instead she could barely breathe.

Two of the eyes were larger than the rest and the spider was now so near that she could see her own reflection in them.

It was the spider's abdomen, though, that drew most of Kim's attention. The cephalothorax looked more or less like she expected a cephalothorax to look, aside from the fact that it was larger than her own thorax. The abdomen, though, there was something odd about that. It was covered in strange lumps. Kim didn't expect a spider, even a giant spider, to have an extremely bumpy abdomen.

It was when Kim caught hints of motion in the bumps that she realized the truth. The bumps weren't part of the spider. The bumps were not growths on the spider. The spider was carrying it's very live young on its abdomen, and each of the bumps was itself a giant spider. A baby spider that was already giant by spider standards.

That was the revelation that allowed Kim to breathe, to move, and to resume her exhausted jog.

“You'll never escape,” the spider thought at her.

“Am I caught in your web?” Kim asked, hoping that sarcasm would beat back her fear.

“I don't have a web, dear little friend,” the spider thought at her calmly. “I'm a hunter, not a trapper.

“The webs were here when I moved in, and I keep them around because I feel they give the place a nice ambiance.”

“I'm not interested in your interior decorating!” Kim shouted. It might have had more effect if not for the fact she had to do it between ragged breaths and it was, at best, at half volume.

“Then to the point,” came the spider's voice. “I was not referring to myself when I mentioned that you would not escape. The ones who chase you are not far behind and would have found you sooner or later even without your shouting.

“You know I'd have heard you just as clearly if you merely thought your commentary in my general direction, dear little friend.”

“Fine,” Kim thought trying to send it in the general direction of the spider. “Whatever.” Kim didn't slow her pace. “You underestimate my chances.”

“Oh,” the spider thought back, “I don't doubt that you'll put up a fight, but this is no place for creatures from the living world. I very much doubt you'll survive.

“Even so, dear little friend, do fight. Fight until your dying breath,” the spider thought at her. “Then the ones who catch you will be wounded. Easy prey. I believe you've noticed that I have a family to feed. It would be a shame if we only had you to eat.”

* * *

This was new. A tangled mass of twisting tunnels. To reach it she had to jump hip deep in decaying something, but it might be just what she needed: a place where she might be able to lose her pursuers without needing to be faster.

“I harbor no animosity toward you,” the spider said.

“You said you'd eat me!” Kim shouted in her mind.

“It's what I do; it isn't personal.”

“It's personal to me!”

“Really? You had some personal grudge against everything you've ever eaten?” the spider asked. “It seems a strange way to live to me. It must be exhausting to have so many vendettas and harbor so much distaste.” There was a pause, but not long enough for Kim to figure out how to respond. The spider continued, “Tell me, if you find yourself without enemies, do you go hungry rather than eat something you have nothing against?”

“It's not the same,” Kim said.

“I imagine that the things that have died to feed you didn't like the prospect of dying any more than you do.”

“I don't hold conversations with my food--”

“That's awfully impersonal --just kill them and eat them-- especially for someone who takes things so personally,” the spider thought at her. “But to the point: are you suggesting that you'd find the prospect of me eating you more appealing had I refrained from conversing with you first?”

“I don't eat things capable of holding conversations. I never eat anything as sapient as you or me.”

“How could you know that if you don't talk to your food?”

“You're planning to kill me,” Kim thought. “Conversation over.”

“No, I've said I'm going to eat you,” came the spider's voice. “If you'd paid attention you'd know that I'm not planning on killing anyone until you're already dead.”

“That's very comforting.”

“In fact, you could say that I'm planning to avenge you. And then eat your killer once the deed is done.”

“I think I'll pass on the whole dying and being avenged thing,” Kim thought.

“I doubt that, but I encourage you to try,” the spider responded.

“So that it'll be easier for you to kill and eat my pursuers.”

“As I said.” There was a moment's silence. “It is strange for them to have come so far, and with such conviction too. You must have angered them a great deal, dear little friend.”

Kim sent no thoughts in the spider's direction.

“They rarely come into our territory at all.”

“I wonder why.”

“No you don't. You don't wonder because you believe that you already know,” the spider said, “but you are incorrect about their reasons, dear little friend.

“It has nothing to do with squeamishness such as your own.”

“Then what is it?” Kim asked.

“They are death and we are life. We convert death into life -- the others more so than I. The others feed on death, I feed on the others, and one day I, in turn, shall be fed upon and so all of us together perpetuate life.

“Those who chase you have no interest in new life, new growth, or rebirth.

“They would freeze themselves in death and prevent any life from benefiting from what they refuse to leave behind,” came the spider's voice. “They wish to remain in their former bodies so badly that they've willed new bodies into existence here in the After, but they cannot escape the fact that they are dead.

“Instead of feeding a new generation of life, their bodies decompose in a most unnatural way. Microbes and small bugs might feed on them, but for the most part . . .

“Well, they dislike the idea of being eaten even more than you do, and so they refuse to stand aside and let new life be born of what they ought to leave behind.

“They are decay without regrowth, they are death without life, and so they hate everything that we represent.

“What I eat, dear little friend, gives life to me and, since I share, to my children as well. When I am gone my body will give life to whomever should happen to eat me, probably a carrion eater, and that one will in turn be eaten to give life to yet another.

“You may be disgusted by what we do, but without the endless cycle of death and life all life would cease.

“Whether I eat you today, or you prove me wrong, live to a ripe old age, and aren't fed upon until you're laid to rest in your grave and the much smaller agents of regrowth upon your word feed upon you, one day you will be the fuel that allows something else to keep living. That is how the cycle will continue. Your death will give life.

“Those you flee would see that cycle stop, simply because they fancy themselves more worthy than the things that would feed upon them.

There was a pause, and Kim wondered if the spider's monologue had truly ended or it was for some kind of dramatic effect.

“On your left,” came the spider's voice.

It wasn't, exactly, that Kim trusted the spider. The reasoning did make a certain amount of sense though: let Kim weaken the others, then pick off those left standing after the fight. So she didn't really hesitate. Kim lunged sideways and her body smashed into one of the corpses that had been chasing her. A gun was dropped into the muck they were both wading through and Kim did her best to keep her pursuer from the area it had fallen in.

* * *

“It seems I was wrong, dear little friend,” came the spider's voice.

“About what?” Kim asked aloud, slightly smug.

“You've made it through my territory alive, and now no one chases you. It seems you won't die today after all.”

“You must be disappointed,” Kim said.

“Not in the least, dear little friend,” came the spider's voice. “You weakened my prey wonderfully, and my family will dine well for some time now.”

Kim tried not to think about that.

* * *

Time was impossible to track in this place, so she had no idea how long she'd been going --minutes, hours, days?-- when carelessness caused her to bump into a brownish sphere the size of a beach-ball.

She had barely been managing a walk. That kind of extremely low speed collision normally wouldn't be a problem at all.

As she was picking herself off of the ground she saw the sphere begin to uncurl into some kind of insect with segmented armor.

“S-sorry, I didn't see you there,” Kim said. “It-- it was a mistake so. . . no hard feelings, right?”

The bug didn't respond and simply walked away.

* * *

Kim was barely keeping her eyes open when she reached the ants.

She didn't run, she didn't freak, she didn't do much of anything. They ignored her.

“Look, are you gonna eat me?” she asked.

One of the giant ants looked in her direction, but only for a moment.

Kim trudged onward.

* * *

The ants, it seemed, were farmers. Kim was near one of their mushroom groves when exhaustion finally took over and she staggered toward a place to lay down in a sort of controlled fall.

She was sleeping amoung the mushrooms moments after collapsing completely.


*
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* * *
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Good God, this took forever.  For reference I had everything but Kim in the afterlife done early (I think) and it was only Kim's part that I had to get done.  Meaning that since the beginning of March I've been trying, and until now failing, to get this finished.

Much of the spider and pre-spider segments were written pen on paper when I couldn't look at screens for long because concussion.

Originally Kim was going to have a much larger meeting with the ants where she tried to go around, found the colony was too big, and finally risked using their tunnels.

The thing is, Kim had a long day and it kind of made more sense to just have her mostly out of it and just staggering in search of a place to collapse.

As always, Shin and Kieran are the creations of Blackbird, used with permission.  Kieran will not be appearing in this story since the timeline change is, in fact, a big deal.  The only people from 2029 who will appear are those who have been sheltered from the timeline change in one way or another and Kieran isn't such a person.

Similarly, don't expect relationships to turn out the same.  Shin is the child of Kim and Shego via mad science (which is definitely up to the task of making that work) but that doesn't mean that Kim and Shego will end up together in this timeline.

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