[This is my third attempt at this chapter and I'm still not completely satisfied. All major changes are to the After section, and that's what I'm still not completely satisfied with. I think it all comes down to the fact that Kim doesn't have anyone to talk to and is avoiding interaction. Thus what is needed it descriptions of sights and sounds and smells and such, and I'm not terribly good in that arena.]
[Shin Possible is the creation of Blackbird.]
Chapter 2: Dying Light
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▲▲▲▲▲▲▲▲2029 – Earth
They were fighting corpses. It was the single most disgusting thing Jacob had ever done. Eating food from dumpsters featured in many fond memories of childhood. Wearing the same clothes for months without washing them because you've only got one set? Not that bad.
Crawling through a sewer as part of a prison break? Very disgusting, but not on this level.
The corpses weren't well preserved at all. Exposed bone, exposed brain, blood that was disgustingly not like the blood of the living. The gross decomposition that you'd expect. There was some variation between species because for the most part only the humans had been embalmed, and even then not all of them. Perhaps not even most.
A very dead dachshund tried to jump and bite his thigh. Jacob kicked it away.
“We can't keep this up,” he said to Shin.
She was doubtless having an easier time, since they seemed to fear fire. He was keeping a ball of Shin's plasma in his left hand, but he couldn't wield it the way Shin could.
Also that meant he had to keep his hand largely open, he couldn't even make a fist on his left side. That limited combat options.
Things were not good.
“We'll make for that grove and try to lose them in the . . . trees,” Shin said.
Jacob didn't see any trees so he asked, “What trees?”
Shin made an, “Ugh,” sound, and then said, “The giant orange mushrooms,” after a pause.
Jacob looked around a bit, and then said, “Got it.”
* * *
“Now?” Jacob asked as they ran through the mushrooms.
“Don't have enough of a lead yet,” Shin said. “In a second.”
“I thought zombies were supposed to be slow,” Jacob said.
“They're not zombies,” Shin said. “Set me up.”
Jacob got in position to let his hands act as a springboard for Shin and she vaulted onto one of the mushrooms. A moment later she helped him up.
The dead things reached where they had been.
* * *
Jacob was laying on his back looking up at the sky.
They hadn't heard noises below them for a while. The army of the dead seemed to have dispersed.
It hadn't taken that long, really. Though shadows were long, the sun had yet to set.
Jacob sighed and then spoke. “Given that it took them time to build up a swarm, they're obviously not that densely populated. If we use stealth we might be safe from them.”
“Yup,” Shin said.
“You said they weren't zombies,” Jacob said.
“Notice how they didn't try to eat us?” Shin asked.
“So I guess Ishtar didn't knock down the gates of the underworld.”
“Never mind,” Jacob said.
“Oh,” Shin said in a way that made Jacob think she might actually know what he'd been talking about. “Epic of Gilgamesh reference.”
“Good catch,” Jacob said, honestly surprised she'd gotten it.
“How do you know The Epic of Gilgamesh?” Shin asked.
“The internet, books, misspent youth, the fact the prison you sent me to had a good library, oral tradition --take your pick,” Jacob said to her.
“I--” This caused Jacob to actually get up enough to look at her. Shin usually didn't hesitate like that.
“I'm sorry about prison,” Shin said. “I didn't know they'd try you as an adult.”
Because juvie would have been so much better, Jacob thought.
Jacob thought about Shin's apology for a bit before replying with, “Sorry about ruining your Halloween.”
“Thanks,” Shin said. “We'd better scout a bit before we lose the sun.”
* * *
Jacob looked around at the rotted out interior of what was once a building. If he tried --hard-- he could imagine that there were aisles once, a counter, the signifiers of business being done. He could imagine it, but that imagination was forced on him because there wasn't much non-imaginary stuff to base such imaginings on.
True, it was better preserved than a lot of the former buildings they'd seen, but that didn't mean much.
Finally he asked, “You're sure this used to be an electronics store?”
“Of course I'm not sure,” Shin said. “I said that I think this was one. I didn't memorize a map of every business in the city just because I happened to have a single mission here.”
Jacob looked up and down what he thought were once the aisles. There just wasn't anything left. Nothing that stood out. Nothing that grabbed the eye. Nothing that said, “Someone made me.”
There was only --an admittedly small slice of-- nature. Fungus only, thankfully; none of the noxious mold. But mushrooms and their many-shaped multicolored ilk were not what they were going to need to have any hope of returning to the world they knew, or rather returning the world they knew to existence and thus to them.
And all Jacob was getting out of looking was fungus. Mushrooms, foldy things that seemed to be attempting to represent the hyperbolic plane in the normal Euclidean world, sprouts with no . . . mushroom-thing on top --like mushrooms that decided to be sharp-- ones that were packed close together, ones that imitated trees, ones that reached skyward or pushed sideways.
But no technology.
“Well there's nothing we can use here,” Jacob said. Something caught his eye and he knelt down to pick it up from among the yellow fungus that was growing like a carpet of grass in this section of the former store. It was metal, iron containing metal, but beyond that it was impossible to diagnose. It was all rust on the outside and no real substance.
“Can't even tell for sure what they sold here,” Jacob said, standing back up. “If it was even a store.”
* * *
Shin checked her pockets and pouches.
Communicator, grappling gun, multispectrum specs, music player she hardly ever used for actual playing that she'd gotten two Christmases ago, antiquated MP3 player with no wi-fi access that she did use because, as much as she liked Wade, she didn't like her mother's best friend having access to her play-lists, compact --mom insisted that anyone facing off against “laser guns”, which seldom actually used real lasers, needed to have a compact-- stick of chewing gum, ballpoint pen, rebreather.
She checked her communicator, again. No signal from anywhere. Could be that being so close to a major magical ritual scrambled it, magic did have a habit of doing unpleasant things to her electronics, could be that with 25 years worth of divergence no one in this timeline was using the frequencies her gear was meant to pick up, or it could be that no one was transmitting anything.
“Uncle” Wade would probably never forgive her if she gave a villain his technology and told him to “go wild” but if they didn't find something Jacob could work with soon Shin was considering doing just that.
There wasn't a lot to be said for the rebreather or the compact that could redirect energy bolts, at least she didn't think there was, but maybe Jacob could do something with the technology used to make the communicator or multispectrum specs. Certainly the communicator had a lot of sensors built right in and the specs would add even more.
Probably not enough tech to make a time machine with, but maybe enough to find other people. There had to be someone else.
Still, hope wasn't lost just yet. She could wait on sharing her stuff. He wasn't gutting his stuff.
They just needed to get some idea of what they were facing. What had happened, what they'd need to do to set things right
* * *
Shin was doing some sort of introspective Shin-thing in front of one of the buildings they'd thought might be worth searching. They'd been wrong, it had been a bust, just like everything else.
Not that they'd had much time, but the shadows were getting longer, the sun getting lower, and god only knew what kind of night vision dead people had.
Maybe it was appropriately bad. That would be nice. More likely, considering their luck today, it was actually very, very good.
They shouldn't linger, but a closer look revealed Shin to be taking an inventory. That was actually a good idea.
Jacob hadn't come to work equipped for much today. Flashlight, plasma catchers, the thing he'd been making out of cellphones as a means of maintaining his sanity while waiting, screwdrivers, soldering tools, a piece of circuit board he found pretty, Audel's Machinist's and Tool Maker's Handy Book, an apple, a small monocular, random odds and ends, so forth. There had been candy corn, but he'd used the supply before Shin had even shown up.
Not a good sign given their total inability to find anything usable in this world.
But the exploration hadn't been without benefits. The upper floors of the buildings were gone, the floors around ground level reduced to hollow mounds at best. Basements were toxic mold pits but if the preservation pattern persisted below ground level then maybe --if they could make gas masks or something-- they might find things that worked in those basements.
Certainly the one they'd started in had been the best preserved place they'd seen and Jacob was coming to believe that it being the best preserved had nothing to do with the fact the ritual had taken place there and everything to do with the fact that they wouldn't willingly venture into air that foul to see other, equally well preserved, basements.
So basements might be the way forward.
Not today though, today they needed to find a place to hole up for the night. Jacob took another look around and saw something that hadn't been there before: shapes like people and perhaps a dog or wolf or some such. The light was bad, and his eyes were a bit tired, but he was pretty sure that they didn't number among the living.
Time to get Shin. Time to do it quietly and without any sudden movements. As the beings drew closer he was more and more sure that they were dead.
* * *
Jacob came toward her and said, “We have to hide,” while indicating some dead things headed their way.
Shin looked around; there were plenty of places and no real way to determine which was best. She pointed to a nearby mushroom grove, and said “Orange ones served us well last time.”
Quickly and quietly they slipped into the grove of massive orange mushrooms. Shin and Jacob watched from behind mushroom stalks as the dead, six dead people and one dead canine, walked by. When Shin thought they were safe, she returned to what she'd been thinking about before. She'd share her resources with Jacob --let him butcher them to make whatever needed making-- if it came to that.
But first they needed some idea of what was going on, so she said to Jacob, “We need to get the lay of the land.”
Jacob was his usual helpful self and responded with, “Civilization collapsed, decay has been turned up to an absurd degree, and we're hiding from demons in a grove of bright orange mushrooms.”
Shin corrected, “They're not demons,” without even thinking about it.
“Ok, so they're not demons and they're not zombies,” Jacob said. “Care to share what they are?”
Shin took a bit of joy in Jacob's frustration, but just a bit. She was supposed to be a the good one after all. “They're draugar,” she said.
“Oh, that explains everything,” Jacob said with what Shin recognized as his maximum sarcasm.
“They're spirits who refused to abandon their earthly bodies in spite of being dead, usually it requires a nigh impossibly massive feat of will and also utter contempt for the natural order of life and death --or growth and decay, I was never clear on that point-- and for whatever reason it tends to be the worst aspects of a person that manage to return to and reanimate the body.”
In fact, some sources suggested that anyone who was sufficiently unpleasant was a potential candidate, meaning that having bad aspects made the odds of returning to one's body to life even more likely. But this was graded on a curve. More likely than most to come back from the dead was still pretty unlikely.
Shin sighed. “Whatever Mancer changed,” She said, “he obviously made it a lot easier for stubborn spirits to reanimate their corpses.”
“And they attacked us because?”
“Don't know,” Shin said. Then she shrugged. It was a good question, but one she didn't have the answer to. So she decided to engage in rampant speculation, “Maybe these ones are territorial, maybe they've had bad experiences with the living before and wanted to get preemptive.”
“So maybe they swarmed us and tried to kill us because we were trespassing and they wanted us off their lawn,” Jacob said. “Oh, yay.”
“It's not important why, what matters is how,” Shin said. “We need to find out what happened after Mancer changed time.”
“Well everything I might make a time viewer out of rusted, rotted, corroded, eroded, imploded, collapsed, or decayed so--”
“I know,” Shin said. “Let's hold a seance.”
“Because that makes sense,” Jacob said.
“It does!” Shin insisted. “We could get living witnesses to the altered timeline.”
“Your proposed living witnesses are dead,” Jacob said.
“You know what I mean,” Shin said.
“Your girlfriend is magic,” Jacob said. “You, not so much.”
“I'm not talking magic,” Shin said. “Today is the first day of Allhallowtide,”
“So we put on costumes so the demons can't get us,” Jacob said, and Shin caught his total lack of interest.
“So it's one of three days when the border between life and afterlife is extremely slim. Tomorrow is--”
“All Saints' Day,” Jacob said. “Know any saints?”
“Maybe we could get Saint Francis of 'I talk to birds' or Saint Christopher of 'Doesn't my story remind you of the thing with Jason, Hera, and the river?'”
“The day after All Saints' Day,” Shin said, starting to get angry, “Is All Souls Day. Any dead people at all.”
“And yet I can't seem to recall any cases of non-magic people summoning ghosts on All Souls Day,” Jacob said.
“Given that dead people are walking around,” Shin said, “I think that the usual barriers are a lot more porous than usual, add to that the dip on All Souls day, plus the fact that I've picked up some stuff from Kieran--”
“I wish she were here instead of you,” Jacob said which threw Shin for a moment, to Jacob Kieran was “Shin's girlfriend”, he never even used her name. Why would he-- “She'd have a better plan.”
Shin snapped, “Do you have a better idea?”
“I hate you sometimes,” Jacob said with annoying calm.
“Just sometimes?” Shin asked her anger evaporating as she got ready for banter.
“There's a reason we only ever team up when the fate of the world is at stake,” Jacob said. Then he pulled an apple from his pocket and was about to take a bite out of it.
“Don't!” Shin said as loudly as she thought she could get away with without giving away their position to anyone or, more importantly, anything that might wish them harm.
“I'm hungry,” Jacob said.
“It's not just the barrier between this world and the afterlife that's weak at this time of year,” Shin said. “It's also between here and the fae world.”
“So?” Jacob asked.
“Their favorite food: apples,” Shin said. “You bite into that thing, they smell it, and we might have to deal with them too.”
Jacob shook his head, “Isn't bobbing for apples something you rich kids do on Halloween?”
“Why is it that everything with you ends up being a class issue?” Shin asked. She was sick of having the fact she wasn't born poor held against her.
“Why is everything with you a moral issue?” Jacob shot back. “Good and bad, black and white, dark and light, light and. . .” Jacob paused, and --Shin noted with a tiny bit of triumphalism-- put the apple back in his pocket without biting it, “shadow.”
The way he said that last word bothered Shin.
“Into the open,” he said, rushing out of the mushroom grove himself. “Now!”
Shin followed and asked, “What is it?” once she was clear.
“Look at a shadow, any shadow, then look at the light source,” Jacob said, pointing to the setting sun. “Tell me what's wrong.”
At first there didn't seem to be anything off to Shin. But the closer she looked the more she was sure that the shadows were too dark and too large. Then she realized that some of them seemed to be consciously stretching out toward them.
“They're alive,” Shin said.
“How much you want to bet they're not friendly?” Jacob asked.
“No bet,” Shin said. “Light up?”
“They'll see us,” Jacob said, but got out his palm-light anyway.
Shin knew Jacob wasn't talking about the shadows, which seemed to already sense them . The draugar they'd been avoiding would be sure to see them if they were the only light sources around, but if they didn't make light then they would have no way to keep back the shadows. So they'd need to go where the draugar weren't.
“Out of the city?” she asked. Jacob nodded. “Run!”
Shin lit her hands, bright not hot, she saw the beam of Jacob's light, and the two of them ran in the direction that seemed like it would take them outside of the city limits most quickly.
2004 -- Earth
2004 -- Earth
Josh heard the thing pacing back and forth on the other side of the counter. Either it had lost him and was sticking near the place where it lost the trail, or it knew where he'd gone but had serious reservations about coming closer to the mystery meat.
Then Josh heard a phone ring. Maybe that was Wade trying to get its attention. Please, please, please let it be drawn away by the sound of the phone.
The pacing stopped. Then, when it started moving again, the footfalls were uncertain, assuming it wasn't just wishful thinking on Josh's part, as if the thing weren't sure whether to continue after Josh or investigate the new noise.
Finally Josh heard the thing walk from the cafeteria, whatever remained of the doors wasn't swinging well on the hinges based on grinding sound produced when the thing left. When the grinding of the hinges stopped, Josh could breathe again.
For a while Josh did nothing but sit there, still hiding behind the counter, catching his breath. Then the prototype Kimmuniucator, which he'd set on the floor to his right, crackled to life again.
“Josh,” came Wade's voice. “You should be clear to move now.”
“I'm gonna need a moment,” Josh said, his body was only now beginning to relax and doing so slowly.
“Ok, it's past time I checked in with Tara's group anyway,” Wade said. “Push the hole that looks like a button belongs over it when you're ready to move again.”
Josh nodded. After a moment he realized that accomplished little, since the Kimmuncator was still on the ground, and not pointed in a direction where Wade would be able to see his head. So Josh said, “Ok.”
* * *
Tara found herding an auditorium full of people --or about three fourths of that, as the case may be-- through the halls to be much more difficult than she would have expected.
The school wasn't that big so there weren't too many halls she had to herd the people through. But there were the animals to avoid so it meant keeping them all quiet, not walking too fast, definitely not running, occasionally dumping a lot of the people in a classroom or three so the amount of space they took up in the hall would shrink to something small enough to avoid detection, and repeatedly having to turn around when they were almost to their destination. The fact that the last leg of the journey would be in the open wasn't very appealing, but they were having a hard enough time just getting to an exit near the gym without an animal sighting turning them back.
Also, Ron was getting heavy on her shoulders.
There were some improvements since they first set out. Barkin had taken point, which was a very Barkin thing to do, leaving her to only have to worry about keeping the rear of the group under control. Barkin had also given them direction.
But then there were some downsides too. Barkin's group had been bloodied, as had some of the groups Wade and Josh had sent her way. She put those who smelled of blood in the middle, hoping that those ahead of and behind them would mask their smell with that of a large mass of people who didn't want to be there. Since that was the smell of a school, and they were in a school, it was the closest thing to camouflage she could manage.
A phone near her started to ring. Tara carefully set down Ron, when the phone call was over she'd see if he was ready to walk on his own. Until then he could sit with Rufus. The naked mole rat would watch over Ron while Tara was occupied.
Someone else, a senior maybe, reached the phone first, picked up, and handed the receiver to Tara.
“Wade, I presume,” Tara said.
“Yeah, it's me.” Wade said.
“I don't like it when people hang up on me,” Tara said. She didn't have it in her right now to muster the outrage she thought it deserved. She'd become emotionally exhausted ages ago.
Wade was defensive, “I'm trying to save as many people as I can.”
“So am I,” Tara said, “but if you want me to have faith that you focusing your attentions elsewhere will end up saving more people then I'd like at least some faith sent my way over whether or not there's person-saving value in continuing the conversation.”
“Ok,” Wade said.
“Especially since you can apparently contact me whenever you want,” Tara said, “while I can't contact you.”
Tara heard typing.
“Cell reception in your area is unharmed,” Wade said. “Do you have a phone?”
Once Tara had Wade's number in her phone's memory, Tara asked, “So what's the situation?”
“I'm able to track the creatures now,” Wade said. “You're safe at the moment. I've been drawing them away from people by making calls to empty areas, but I think they're already realizing that a ringing phone doesn't mean food.
“Most of the ones that have appeared have actually ignored the school and moved outward,” Wade. “There are only about a half a dozen on school grounds.”
“That's very comforting,” Tara said. She hoped the sarcasm made it to Wade.
“Do you have anyone who's gotten a good look at one?” Wade asked.
“Several,” Tara said, “but right now the group is moving on. I'll call back when I've caught up to one.”
“How's Ron?” Wade asked.
“I'm about to check,” Tara said, “Bye Wade.”
Tara hung up without waiting to see if he had anything else to say.
She walked to Ron, squatted down to be eye to eye with him, and asked, “You ok?”
“My head feels like Shego punched me,” Ron said.
“That tends to happen when you bash it into a stack of cinder-blocks,” Tara said.
“The cinder-blocks were supposed to break,” Ron said.
“They did,” Tara said. “Right after you did.”
After a pause Tara asked, “Can you walk, or do I have to carry you again?”
“I think I can walk,” Ron said.
* * *
Four times Josh had thought he was ready only to find himself unable to actually pick up the Kimmunicator and contact Wade. On the fifth time, though, he managed it.
“Wade, I'm ready to move,” Josh said. “What can I do?”
“Let me-- ok, there are only two isolated groups still in the area,” Wade said. “Both are too far from Tara's group for me to feel comfortable just giving them directions.”
“Ok,” Josh said.
“If you can join one, bring it to the other, and then bring both to Tara,” Wade said, “that's probably as much of a difference as you can make right now. With the Kimmuicator to guide you, you should be able to steer clear of the animals.”
“Right,” Josh said. It wasn't, exactly, that he didn't believe it, it was more that he didn't like trusting his life, or the lives of others, to something that should be possible.
“I'm doing what I can to keep the animals away from everyone,” Wade said, “but there's only so much I can do from here.”
Josh looked at the map on the Kimmunicator. “Any advice on where to go first?”
“I'd recommend the group to your northwest,” Wade said.
Josh appraised the group of red dots representing the people, looked at the blue dots representing large, angry animals, and worked out what he thought was the best route.
* * *
The first person Tara came across who had encountered one of the animals was Brick Flagg. Given that he seemed to be on the verge of a panic attack, she decided it was better not to have him be the one to describe the big scary animals to Wade. Also Brick wasn't the brightest ever.
The next was Junior who, in spite of his moments of insight, was generally not the best at picking up on things.
Then Penny, best known for her work for various charities. She was cradling her right arm, which was looking better, Tara thought, than when she'd joined the group.
When Penny's group had made contact, her arm was still bleeding, and it was wrapped in her shirt because they hadn't had anything better to bandage it with. Now it was in actual bandages and, while it might still be bleeding, definitely wasn't dripping anymore.
“Penny,” Tara said to get her attention. When she had it, she asked, “Do you think you could describe the animal to someone who's helping us?”
Penny nodded, so Tara called Wade and said, “I've got someone who can describe one of the animals here. Before I give her the phone, I figured I'd give you an update.
“We're headed to a fallout shelter under the gym. It's very slow going because this many people can't exactly sneak passed anyone or anything so whenever something we don't want to meet gets in our way we have to change course. Hiding and unhiding is also a time consuming project.
“Some of the people here, including Penny --the girl who's going to describe the animal for you-- need medical attention. Ron is semi-lucid. Pretty much what you'd expect.
“You get all that?”
“Yeah,” Wade said.
“Ok,” Tara said. She handed the phone to Penny and said, “His name is Wade, he's doing what he can to keep us safe.”
Penny nodded and took the phone.
“Hi,” she said, “what do you want to know?”
Tara wasn't sure if she should stay with her phone or go back to the back of the group.
She'd left Ron and Bonnie in charge at the back. The look on Bonnie's face had been wonderful, but she'd actually had a good reason for the choice. Ron still wasn't recovered enough to take over the responsibility, while Bonnie had the presence, force, and attention to do it but lacked Ron's experience with bad situations.
Hopefully together they'd be up to the task, if they didn't kill each other.
Tara had made the argument that if Bonnie did this she'd be even with Ron for saving their lives at camp Wanaweep and saving Bonnie specifically when she'd been kidnapped by robots. It wasn't a particularly good argument, but it was one that would appeal to Bonnie. The only thing Bonnie could stand less than having to work with Kim or Ron was feeling like she owed one of them something.
In the end Tara decided to stay with the phone and listened to Penny describe the animal.
“It was a dog,” Penny said. “Yeah, well it was the biggest dog I've ever seen.” Pause. “No. Bigger.” Pause. “Not shaped like that though, more like a husky or something.”
Great, Tara thought, a dire wolf of doom.
“Its fur was all black. That's how it snuck up on us. It was hard to make out in the darkness.”
“Its claws are sharp. Really sharp. The wounds on my arm are more like incisions than lacerations.” Pause. “I volunteer at the hospital every Saturday.” Pause. “The impression that I've gotten from people who were bitten is that the teeth aren't that sharp.” Pause. “Yeah, more ripping than cutting.”
“I don't know . . . smaller than a bear.” Pause. “It was really cold . . . I didn't even think of it at the time, but shouldn't it have been hot?”
“I can't think of anything else; anything in particular you're interested in?” Pause. “Ok.” Penny looked to Tara and said, “He wants to talk to you.”
Tara took the phone and said, “Wade, go.”
“I can guide you passed the dogs,” Wade said, “but given the size of your group and how fast the dogs can move, I think we'd have to do it in stages.”
Tara surveyed the group again then said, “It'd take a lot of stages.”
“Is there anywhere people can wait until--”
“If there were a safe place we'd use that instead of the fallout shelter,” Tara said.
“If they can keep turning you back just by walking around at random,” Wade said, “Then you'll never make it to the fallout shelter.”
“Then guide us around them a little at a time,” Tara said. She started walking towards the front of the group. If there was going to be guiding that's where she'd need to be. “We'd be there by now if we could tell when the . . .” Tara still wasn't up for calling monsters that were hunting them “dogs”, it seemed to understate the problem, she settled on, “things,” and then finished with, “were following us and when they weren't.”
* * *
Josh had about a dozen people, eleven to be exact, with him as he made his way toward the final group. Movement was done by sprinting to the next spot to hide when there were no blue dots around, catching their breath, waiting for a new opportunity with the blue dots not in the way, and sprinting again.
Even with the breath catching he was getting worn down, and he could see the others were too.
The Kimmunicator crackled to life.
“Well, I found out what the animals actually are,” Wade said.
“What?” Josh asked.
“Dogs,” Wade said.
“There's no such thing as a dog that big,” Josh said.
“Obviously not normal dogs,” Wade said. “You look like you're pretty close to getting everybody.”
“Just have to cross the tennis courts,” Josh said. The tennis courts behind Middleton High School were a large open area enclosed in chain link fence. The only idea that Josh could think of that was worse than going through them was going around them.
Thus the final sprint would be across a large open area in a chain-link cage, in the dark, where they might be mauled or eaten.
“I don't have any help I can give you out there,” Wade said. “In fact, I was hoping you might have ideas.”
“About what?” Josh asked.
“Tara's group is trying to get to a fallout shelter under the gym because it seems like it's the safest place,” Wade said. “The problem is getting them there. There's safety in numbers, but it's also a lot harder to move a larger group.
“I can't figure out how to get the dogs away from them for long enough to let them get there,” Wade said.
Josh could. Josh could think of a great way. It just wasn't one that he particularly liked.
“What are you thinking?” a member of his current group asked.
“We need bait,” Josh said. “The phone idea was good, but if we really want to get them out of the way we need someone to catch their attention and then lead them somewhere else.” His voice shook a bit as he said it. He remembered running for the cafeteria.
Running from one of them was a lot worse than running in hopes of avoiding them.
“I'm on the track team,” another member of the group said.
“So am I,” a third chimed in.
“Ok,” Josh said, “But can you sprint a long distance run? Because that's what it would take.
“We could break it up,” was the response. “Like a relay.”
“That's a good idea,” Wade said. “The Kimmunicator could always be with the runner, and once someone was done with their leg and the dogs were after the next person, they'd know the way back to the gym was clear.
“We could move all of Tara's group, and all but one of yours,” Wade said.
“We still have to get all of my group,” Josh said. “I'll call you back when I'm across the tennis courts.”
“Got it,” Wade said. The signal shut down.
Josh looked at the map. The red dots, the blue dots. Then he asked, “Everybody ready?”
He got nods of yes, but he knew the truth. None of them would ever be ready. Definitely not him. They just had to deal with going when they weren't ready.
So he said, “Run!”
* * *
“A distraction relay?” Tara asked. Then she had to tune out Barkin talking about military tactics. A sound tactician would be useful here, but Barkin just strung together words in a way that sounded vaguely meaningful while in fact being completely vacuous.
He'd been in the military, sure, but he'd never been one to make plans, only execute the orders that were passed down to him after the plans were made.
Tara had to think it over for a while. She believed that a larger group was in fact safer. No one had survived a one on one encounter with the animals. There were a couple of cases where someone just managed to outrun having such an encounter in the first place, but every single person amoung them who had actually faced off against one of the animals and lived had done so because other people in their group had been able to help them get away.
Still, what good was sticking together if they never got to a safe place? There had to be an endgame beyond surviving the moment if any of this were going to mean anything.
They rounded a corner and saw a severed hand, nothing else left of owner but blood.
“Alright,” Tara said, “I'll start looking for volunteers.
* * *
“For the record,” Josh said, “I think this is a stupid idea.”
“Noted,” Wade said. “You don't have to participate.”
“No,” Josh said, “I'll do my leg.”
Then Josh handed the Kimmunicator to another student, and got ready to hide and wait.
* * *
“If we want to keep all of the dogs in the area occupied, we need to start with three runners,” Wade said.
“We know that Wade,” Tara told him.
Wade had lines open to two other people which, plus her, made the three runners.
“Ok, Tara, you're up first” Wade said. “Go . . . NOW!”
Tara sprinted away, loudly burst through a door she'd never understood the purpose of anyway because it just separated one hall from another section of largely identical hall, ran down the second hall-
“The first one heard you and is on your trail,” Wade said over the phone. “Take a hard left at the next intersection.” Tara did and, out of the corner of her eye, saw a large black form in one of the classrooms.
She didn't slow down.
“You've got two,” Wade said. “When you reach the end of the hall go outside and turn right.”
She bodily slammed into the door, using the impact to kill her forward momentum, and then sprinted to the right.
“Third one's coming,” Wade said, “that's all of them in this direction. I'm calling the next leg.”
In front of her a desk smashed through a window. She jumped in, someone else jumped out, and her leg of the journey was over.
She stayed out of sight, ignored the pain where the broken glass had cut into her, and tried to slow her breathing.
The three dogs passed the window and she was free to return.
She was walking slowly, still trying to catch her breath, when her phone rang.
“Tara,” Wade said, “I need you to get back to the others.”
“What's going on?” she asked, even though her exhaustion made her want to say, “No.”
“I don't know,” Wade said. “I'm getting strange temperature readings. Not like the dogs, but I think there's something headed for the group.”
“On it,” Tara said and started running back to where she'd left the others.
* * *
Josh was waiting to be the last leg of the relay, in theory the group should be mostly safe by now, all he had to do was to keep the dogs occupied for the runners to make it back.
Someone ducked into the classroom he was waiting in, he snatched the offered Kimmunicator on his way out of the room and then ran. Before long he could hear the dogs behind him. Was it six or seven? He didn't quite remember.
“Josh, I've updated the map to show something elses,” Wade said. “Or somethings else. We don't know what they are yet so your best bet is to stay clear.”
Josh glanced down and saw that the red and blue dots had been joined by areas colored in a lighter blue than the dots marking the dogs.
That seemed wonderful. Entire areas of question mark, rather than just points of dog, that he'd have to avoid.
* * *
As Tara approached the gym she saw that most of the group was already inside, so that, at least, was good news. She also saw dark shapes --though “shapes” might be giving the things too much credit-- which she thought were approaching the people.
She couldn't seem to focus on them. Her eyes seemed to want to go right through them. Definitely not dogs.
The dark things reached the group a moment before she did and . . . they seemed like darkness. But how could there be darker dark than dark? How could shadows move?
They also seemed to be bad for the people. Whenever someone touched one they flinched away, but soon everyone was surrounded, soon after engulfed, and whatever was happening, it was slowing them down.
If they were somehow creatures of darkness, then Tara thought maybe light could keep them back. It was a major leap, but she didn't have a lot of options.
She ran into the group, thus into the darker dark, and was immediately chilled to to the bone. She made for the center of the dark and shouted, “Rufus, Diablo Sauce!”
The rodent threw her a packet and, with fingers shaking from the cold, she replicated a stunt from Ron's overly-long talent show performance: Fire breathing.
The darker shadows scattered, leaving everyone outside in the not-as-dark dark of a cloudy night, and the cold dissipated with the departure.
Tara herself, however, had been reduced to a shivering mass.
“Great trick T,” Bonnie said as she helped Tara to her feet.
“She got it from my act,” Ron said as he too helped Tara.
Tara just shouted, “Everyone get inside!”
Ron and Bonnie helped Tara follow her own command.
2004 – The After
2004 – The After
Kim didn't know all that many dead people. Most people she knew were in her age group or professionals near the prime of their careers. Not too many older people. Still, Kim had faith that dead people could not be wholly bad.
The mention of “Life lovers” had given her a new goal and, in theory, a new direction. She was going to find the good dead people and get advice from them on how to get back to the world of the living and how to save the world of the living once she got there.
She wasn't trying to get up, she wasn't trying to get out, so she'd have a different approach, ideally she'd go in an outward spiral to search for these other dead people's territory, in practice she'd probably go on a pseudo-random walk in which she tried to angle to the left more often than the right, but not so much more often as to go in a circle.
She was without Team Possible, but she was still a Possible and that meant she could do anything, even deal with this ferociously weird sitch.
She just had to be more careful. When she was solo she tended to underestimate the amount she usually relied on backup. It was how she ended up secured to a wall inside of the world's largest cheese wheel. It was how she'd been captured by Drakken this time.
She couldn't afford to make the same mistake again. Not here.
Just because anything was possible didn't mean that a given thing would come easy, just because she could do anything didn't mean that she would be able to do a specific thing if she let herself get sloppy. She didn't have Wade, she didn't have Ron, she didn't have Rufus. And she didn't have much in the way of resources.
* * *
Even in the afterlife, it seemed, there were things that could make you giggle.
She'd found that the deeper she went, the more signs of “life” there were, so now her attempted expanding spiral also had a downward trajectory. There were settlements she'd skirted the edges of, mockeries of those in the living world, and here, it seemed, a sign that indicated “No Ammit Allowed” assuming she was interpreting it correctly.
After someone empowered by Anubis had tried to take out his grudge against pro-wrestlers, Kim had decided that Ancient Egyptian Religion might be worth her attention. As such, she could easily recognize a picture of the eater of hearts.
Given that Ammit was a god known for sending dead people to a second, more devastating, death, Kim could see why dead people might not want her around.
Other than the sign, this settlement didn't have much of interest to Kim, there was no indication that she might have crossed into a different territory, and thus no reason to risk the attention of the ones dwelling in it.
* * *
“Everything dies,” Kim softly said to herself. If she was right she was looking at a river god. Dead river, dead god. It was like half remembered echoes of water, afterimages and impressions, a sense of water without actually getting wet. It was like a happy memory that had turned sad because of the knowledge that one could never relive it again.
It made Kim want to cry.
It wasn't, however, what she was looking for.
It had attendants, and Kim had no way of knowing if they were good, bad, or neutral dead people. She gave them a wide berth and continued on.
* * *
Time was difficult to gauge. There was no sun, there were no stars. Kim didn't wear a watch. She was without her usual gadgets.
How long had it been since the river god? How long since the last bad-dead-people settlement?
She was now in a place that had to be filed under "Ferociously Weird".
It looked like a carnival --an American-style traveling circus-- that seemed remarkably pristine, given the decayed state of everything else she'd encountered, but was also entirely empty.
Just a large place with rides, games, bright lights, attractions of all sorts, and a total lack of anyone in it. No one, living or dead.
Not creepy at all, that.
There was a strange mist in the air, strange because none of the other caverns had had any, that spread the glow from the lights well beyond their sources. As Kim surveyed the area she decided that her best way forward was to go through the carnival. The only passages out were on the other end of the cavern and if she doubled back she'd have to go a long way.
If she went around she'd be out in the open for a long time, where if she were in the carnival itself she'd have lots of potential cover to hide in if anyone did show up.
As she approached, Kim had an increasing feeling that the entire area had a dreamlike quality to it, though she couldn't really say why, and she had the impression that she was getting further from the reality she knew.
“Further”? Or was it “farther”?
Once she arrived she kept low and made sure there were always things obstructing line of sight in as many directions as possible. She felt like she was floating as she made her way through the place, and size and mass didn't seem to have as much meaning.
She passed empty concession stands, booths with games and prizes but no vendors, no operators. She was hungry and thirsty, but didn't trust the unguarded concessions.
A hurricane ride came to life as she passed it, for a moment she thought she'd been spotted but no one came, just a large mechanical ride operating on its own with no one in it. The mist and the spinning warped and twisted the light, which seemed to leak out of the lights themselves more than it seemed to shine.
The effect was almost hypnotic.
Definitely “further”. No amount of distance could explain this, it was entirely about degree.
If she made it out alive, if the world didn't end, she was totally going to do a great job on the “problem words” quiz in English class next Friday.
She made it the rest of the way without incident, and was glad to put that particular cavern behind her.
* * *
Kim expected ghosts to look like they had in life, but the ones she was seeing now were, at best, caricatures of humanity. Traits exaggerated almost beyond recognition.
The worst were the gluttons at the banquet table. They were like something from the fever dreams of fat shaming fitness peddlers. Watching them made Kim feel sick, and she averted her gaze, but in the crowd here they were almost unremarkable. They were the worst, yes, but hardly by much.
Mixed among the twisted people were some who didn't even appear to be human, and maybe they weren't, but if so Kim had no idea what they were.
Twice is a coincidence, Kim told herself. This was three times. The river god, the deserted carnival, and now this. She wasn't in the same place she started. She'd obviously successfully passed into some different territory, but she didn't feel she was in the land of the life lovers now. She didn't know where she was.
Next time she had a chance she'd take a hard left. Best to skirt the territory of the bad ones to make sure she didn't miss the ones she was looking for by making too wide of a spiral.
* * *
After traveling through largely unremarkable less surreal surroundings and uninhabited caves, Kim heard a sound that was like an injection of joy straight into her heart. Or … maybe the pleasure center of her brain. Whatever.
It was a slow, steady, almost annoying dripping of water.
At least she assumed it was water.
With energy she thought she'd long since lost she ran to chase the source of the sound, hit several dead ends --echoes could throw one off so easily-- and finally located the source of the dripping sound.
Cautious at first, she touched it, smelled it, looked at it as closely as she could, and finally concluded to the best of her ability that it was indeed water.
She was so thirsty that she wasn't willing to wait for the water to drip, she licked it off of the wet rocks, then, when she reached the point where she thought she might lose more than she gained by doing that, positioned herself so that when it dripped the drop would fall into her mouth.
Drip. Wetness. Drip. The nectar of the gods. Drip. Hydration. Drip. The stuff of life. Drip. Wondrous, wondrous water.
* * *
Kim cautiously approached what looked like a standard American cookie cutter home in suburbia, right down to the white picket fence. Of course it was showing signs of wear. Paint on the fence peeled, the wooden siding was warped and, in some places, missing. Instead of a grass lawn was what Kim might euphemistically describe as compost, or, if she wanted to be more honest with herself, as a giant festering pile of sick and wrong ick.
If things were going as planned then this was not a friendly place. After wandering so far afield, the revised revised plan called for skirting around the hostile territory so that she didn't risk missing her target by going too far from the center on her first pass. Then she'd go further out if she'd done a full circuit without seeing any indication of where the “life lovers” were.
The only way to make sure that she did that was to first get back to the hostile territory, and then back off a bit. Thus, even if everything was going exactly according to plan, this was not a place she'd be safe.
She quietly hopped the fence and tried very hard not to think of what she was standing in. It didn't work. Trying not to think of something never worked.
At least she was wearing her mission clothes: no bare skin below the waist.
With the disgusting lawn behind her she just had to go up the. . . Kim felt wood start to buckle beneath her and heard the beginning of a structure breaking crack. How did the dead people use these stairs? How much lighter could a corpse really be?
Before the step could give way she backed off, then she crawled up the porch steps. With her weight distributed over a larger area, the stairs held.
She crept to a window and looked in on a scene that was, in it's own way, more mind bending than the empty floaty misty dreamlike carnival had been.
If they weren't dead, if their walls and bodies weren't rotting and moldering, if agents of decay weren't feasting on their flesh in a way that made Kim want to vomit, if all of these things weren't true, they'd look a 1950s TV family straight from central casting.
They were watching an ancient television that must have been operating on some kind of magic because Kim was pretty sure that she could see rust lined voids where some vital components were supposed to be.
“While the gateway is nowhere near stable enough for any of our forces to pass through at this stage, rest assured that the lesser beings are gaining a foothold in the living world,” a voice from the TV said. “We recommend that you channel all of your anticipation into preparation. Various military and militia organizations are accepting and training new recruits in record volumes. Stay tuned and your local broadcasters will tell you about the options to enroll near you.”
Having confirmed that she'd passed back into enemy territory, Kim made her way off of the porch, across the compost, over the fence, and back the way she came. She'd try to stay just outside of their territory now. Occasionally heading back in to make sure that she hadn't gotten too far away.
* * *
By now Kim was pretty much ready to encounter anything. At least she felt that way. Hulking nine headed vaguely person shaped thing? Seen it. It didn't seem malevolent, but Kim decided not to bother it, and stay well out of sight, just to be on the safe side. A talking squirrel mumbling to itself about how “the corpse chewing serpent”'s insults weren't what they used to be? Been there but stayed out of its way as it seemed to be in a hurry. Girl who could turn into sand? Avoided her. She did seem malevolent.
Even so, the trips she took back into the hostile territory were always unpleasant. That she was in a place with rotting corpses that could still walk around, talk, and do things like that didn't faze her anymore. The concept wasn't a problem. They were putrid and noxious, though. They were surrounded by all possible markers of death and decay.
Their buildings, like their bodies, had been turned into mockeries of the ones used by the living. Kim doubted it was through any sort of intent, they just suffered under the weight of entropy, and were slowly devoured by decay.
That could still get to Kim. Her mind was prepared to deal with this sitch; her stomach was not.
Also, their conversations were entirely unhelpful. Scorning the living seemed to be a required part of any conversation, so at least she knew that she wasn't hiding from the “life lovers” by accident, but whenever they said anything of substance they always seemed to take for granted things that Kim didn't know. The very information that Kim wanted to learn was what went without saying for them. At least that was how it seemed.
* * *
“Look, I'm not one of them --I don't think those in first-life are somehow more worthy than us-- I just don't see why we'd even want to return to that wretched world.”
There was “them” again, but no indication where “they” might be found. “They” were always “them” never, “those guys up north” or “the people across the river” or anything at all that indicated who or where “they” were. It's not as if Kim could use the information, she didn't have a compass or a map, but it was still frustrating that the only marker of “Them” beyond occasional mention of “life loving”, was the fact that it was always said with the utmost disdain. It wasn't helpful.
Couldn't someone just say, “Of course you know Bob. . .” and deliver all the information Kim needed?
Kim shook her head turned to sneak away. Then she slipped. It wouldn't have been a problem but she instinctively reached out and grabbed for something to steady herself on. Her left hand caught a windowsill. Rather than support her weight the board split.
There were shouts inside the building, but Kim was more concerned with getting on her feet and running than trying to listen.
A door burst open as she reached the edge of this property. The voices became easier to make out, “It's probably just--”
“No! We can't take any chances with a gateway open!”
In any world a shotgun pointed in her direction was more than enough impetus for Kim to make a tactical retreat. That it was fired was almost more a formality than anything. So long as the shot missed her, and it did, a loaded gun being pointed at her was no less of a reason to run than a loaded gun being pointed at her after it had fired a shot. Even if she hadn't already been leaving, it was definitely time to retreat now.
In this particular case she had no one to regroup with and no reason to try to get around the person with the gun. She just had to get away. She kept running.
The only worthwhile note I can think of is that Junior mentioned in the 2004 segment is one of the characters from Tick Tick Tick, which is one of the few episodes I've done a decon of at this point. Mind you, you don't need to know that because Junior is only mentioned in one sentence and that sentence contains all the information needed to understand his role in the story.
Well, also Ratatoskr, because in spite of the fact that I'm not planning to get into the mythology I want to have Norse undertones and this is presumably one of the unfashionable parts of the outskirts of Helheim. If I could do the idea justice, I'd kind of like to have Kim wander into Spirited Away, take a look around, conclude that she's clearly wandered too far, and head back to the Norse quarters of the afterlife.
As long as I'm on the subject of the encountering Ratatoskr section, the many headed thing is just an ordinary troll, the girl that can turn into sand is one of these.