We made our way to the location I heard we could find Black at from a mostly reliable source. An old apartment building awaiting demolition in the Red Zone. I had loaded up on everything I had that could be used as a weapon or an infiltratory tool while still being able to move unencumbered, but the preparation turned out to be moot. It was a trap, and we were quickly surrounded by at least ten with weapons all pointed at various parts of our anatomy, and from a glint in the window of a busted skyscraper in the corner of my field of vision, those were only the ones we could see.
“I surrender,” said Carter. It wasn’t something to deride, because I wasn’t sure if the orders not to kill me were still in effect and in any case they certainly wouldn’t extend to him.
“Cute.” The sound of boots, and the group parted, just enough to show Smugface’s smug face. “You think you have a choice.” An equally smug looking brunette girl with very piercing blue eyes walked calmly next to him. From the way the body language shifted around me, I guessed she was either second in command or a visiting VIP.
“Well,” Smugface said, hands in pockets. “Fancy meeting you here.”
I gave him a flat stare, because I knew coincidence had nothing to do with it. I’d been fed bad information, and the worst part was that Carter was in danger because of my recklessness. “Black isn’t here, is he?” I said.
He grinned, which was a bad sign. “Oh, no. Firebug told you he’d be here, and even though he’s…”
“A pyromaniac twit?” suggested second in command.
He snapped his fingers. “Exactly. Even though we have to keep him locked in a cupboard, he’s no liar.” There was a pause. “He doesn’t have the space to fit the concept inside his head along with all the ‘ooh shiny’. What did you do with him, by the way?”
I shifted guiltily. I hadn’t told Carter, but he’d been locked inside the safehouse when I burnt it down. I’d forgotten I’d left him in there until I heard the screaming, and by then it was too late. From the sound of it, though, it was the way he would have wanted to go.
“Ah, I guess we have to get a new one. Shame.” Despite the apparent levity of the words, there was something deadly running underneath them. Smugface was not happy to hear of the late Firebug’s demise. Or, read of it from my face. Whatever.
“We could have this one right here,” Second said mischievously, pointing at me. “Klingon promotion.” I narrowed my eyes and decided to cut to the chase.
“Black. Where is he? Where are you keeping him? What have you done with him?”
“Ask him yourself. Skoll!”
The crowd parted just enough again, and there he was, the girl from the hospital, Grey, hanging from his arm. They both were glaring daggers at me.
“Well, looks like this is going to be a very touching reunion, so we’ll just go and take out the trash, give you three some privacy.” They began hauling Carter off. “Wait!” I said. “Let him go, he’s got nothing to do with this!” I moved towards him and faster than I could blink my arms were pinned and a knife was at my throat. Grey, I guessed, from the colour of the hoodie on the arms doing so.
“No can do! He’s a very valuable lesson for anyone who tries and works with you.”
“The lesson being,” a soft voice I didn’t recognize sounded next to my ear as I watched Carter and the rest go around a street corner and disappear and I turned my head as little as was allowed to me to see it was Black. “That anyone who does has their lives ruined because of you.” The tone was sharp and acerbic.
“My name is Skoll,” he hissed. “Not some petty little half assed moniker you decided to call your pet proxy.” To my other side Grey hissed in affirmation. “And my sister, my actual sister, who you almost killed, is Hati.”
“I despise you,” said sister said, and the words practically dripped with loathing. And it was not unwarranted. I licked dry lips.
“Skoll,” I said, the name sounding unfamiliar to my ear. “I was only trying to help you get better… to make up for…”
“Something you willfully did to me in the first place?” Anger ran through the words like a river. “You didn’t try very hard now, did you? I was nothing but an experiment to you, don’t lie.”
And now I was getting angry. My hands curled into fists. “I’m not! What I did to you was terrible, and I tried to rectify it, and maybe I got distracted…” He scoffed. “No! Listen! I got distracted, I get distracted by everything, I can’t focus on any one thing and it’s screwed up my life even before I met you, but I never stopped looking for you, I did things I’m not proud of, because I thought you might be hurt or worse and I did genuinely care!”
He seemed taken aback, and then his face hardened.
“You cared about your pet. Fetch, Black. Sit. Stay.” The tone was mocking. “You cared about your so called Cure; “Imagine if the side effects could be mitigated!” I remember you saying. I remember everything.
“You,” he said, prodding me in the chest with a finger. “Never cared about me. Because you never knew me. And if you had really wanted to do the right thing you would have given me back to my family. But no. You wanted to have your cake and eat it too. Well now I’m going to enjoy watching what they do to you.”
“I… you’re right. You’re right, I’m sorry.” When had I stopped thinking of him as a person, rather than a collection of ideals? Had I ever in the first place? I looked down at my feet, the fight gone out of me. I’d only ever wanted to do the right thing, and it seemed like all I did instead was fuck up.
“Too late.” The words were like a snap of teeth. “And while I’d love to stay and watch you realize exactly what a terrible person you are, we’re on a schedule. Hati.”
Movement, something sharp piercing my neck, and then only blackness.
Waking up from being dosed with tranquilizer is never an instant and always an unpleasant experience. My head throbbed, my mouth tasted like something fuzzy was growing in it, and my limbs felt unresponsive and leaden. Although, as I tried to move and found myself restricted, that last one was probably more the ropes tying me to the chair. I groaned, and managed to force my eyes open.
“Welcome back, sleeping beauty,” said a disinterested voice. It belonged to Second who was sitting in a chair across the suspiciously plain white room from me, reading a Popular Science magazine and sadly not being bound to it. I decided she must be my evil twin, so to speak.
“Thousand Eyes,” she said, finally looking up from it. “And of course I know who you are. I’d shake your hand, but I guess you’re a little tied up.”
“How long have you been thinking of that one?” I said, in the complete opposite of a good mood. “Why not untie me and we can introduce ourselves properly,” I suggested.
“Mmm, nice try,” she said, returning to the magazine and flipping the page. “I guess I should go and tell the others you’re awake, but eh. After this article.”
Wow, she really was my evil twin. My expression in response to this could basically be summed up as “: /”
“Why are you even here,” I said flatly.
“Well,” she said, not even looking up, “someone needed to keep an eye on you while you were out, and I could spare two. Who better to do so?” She looked up and grinned, and it was a hyena grin. The magazine was folded and set aside. “Elsewhere, they’d call me an oracle. Here, I’m just the person who knows things. I watch, and I’ve been watching you for a looooong time.” Well, that was mildly creepy. But your standard average proxy creepy. “I’ve been wanting to meet you properly for a while,” she continued. “Oh, your past is interesting…” I stiffened at the word, and her grin became a knowing smile that said plain as day she knew exactly why. “But your future…” she gave a delighted shiver. “I’m privileged to see it, I really am.”
For the first time, I didn’t want to know something. I didn’t want to know what that future entailed. “I guess that means you guys are letting me go?” I said, not really expecting an affirmative.
“Well, yeah,” was her response. “We still can’t kill you yet. Doesn’t mean quite a few people don’t want their pound of flesh first, and you’ll probably be getting a crash course in what can be done to someone without killing them.” Her glance at me was sly. “I’m sure with your expertise your imagination can fill in the gaps quite nicely.”
“Oh, and of course,” she said airily, “Your boyfriend’s set to be executed tomorrow.” I spluttered. “Executed!? …boyfriend!?”
“Mmhm. Really, the only reason I volunteered to watch you drool for hours was so I could be the one to get to tell you that. Your reaction was worth it!”
Carter was immortal, though. Unless they knew that, and had some way of mitigating that. Or it could all be one massive headgame.
“Well,” she said, getting up from the chair, rolling up the magazine and putting it in her pocket. “Time for me to go. Have fun thinking about how you can’t save him! I’ll,” she pointed at one eye and winked the other, “be seeing you.” She walked around behind me where the back of the chair prevented me turning my head to look, and there was the sound of a door opening and shutting. She was laughing all the way.
Fifteen minutes later, it opened and shut again, and there was Hati, with a red toolbox and a small smile on her otherwise dour face.
I won’t say what happened next. I’m sure you can all guess, and I don’t want to either remember or talk about it more than I have to. The only important part is that my reaction to pain had not changed. Of course, when you’re tied in a chair, you can’t exactly retaliate against the person lovingly tending to you. I’m sure they found my snarling and struggling very entertaining.
Until the lightbulb blew, showering me with glass. I didn’t care. Everything went black, and I felt the knifeblade pause. Electric sparks flickered between the exposed terminals, and in those brief flashes, shadows looked wrong, something I cared about only in hindsight. Sharp and jagged and mine. I pulled against the ropes, and this time the ropes gave, the sound of them snapping thread by thread. Hati pointed the knife at my throat. I spat blood at her, and then lunged.
It buried itself in my shoulder, but I had her by the throat. The door opened, admitting someone with a gun, who fired a warning shot that cracked the tiled wall and echoed terribly in the confined space, and as my attention shifted Hati vanished from my grip in a cloud of black leaves.
The light died again, and the next time it flickered I was inches from the gunman’s face, teeth bared in a rictus snarl. That close, and that fast, he could not raise the length of the gun quick enough to avoid having his eyes gouged out. He howled.
I grabbed the gun from his loose grip and viciously slammed the butt of it up into his face, before my attention turned to the observation window, behind which Smugface could be seen. I punched the blastproof glass, and it cracked. My hand was bloody and broken, but I didn’t care; I struck again, deepening the cracks and causing a chunk to fall out. Smugface had taken out a cellphone at the first strike, and as I pried at the glass and he ran for the door, I could catch the tail end of a “Kill Carter, now!”
When he was gone I growled and leapt through the glass, cutting myself on its jagged edges, and made to follow. But as soon as I ran through the door, everything changed.
On the other side, the building I was in was decrepit. Large holes in the sides gave an unparalleled aerial view of a rusted, ruined version of Christchurch. A blood red sun oozed in the east, staining the entire sky that colour, and the wind that blew dust and ground glass into my face howled mournfully.
Moreover, my thoughts were suddenly clear. Every single one of my wounds hurt and hurt like they should, clamoring for my attention. Going through the door had turned off the feral state as surely as flipping a switch. As I turned back towards it, the wind slammed it shut, and I could see a piece of paper fluttering on it. I plucked it off, staining it with blood.
You have one day.
I never want to see you again.
I recognized the handwriting. Black’s. Skoll’s. The paper crinkled as my hand curled around it. I carefully folded it and placed it in my pocket, before opening the door again to find the same room I’d left… if it had been aged by the elements for forty years. I looked back at the ominous sun. Was it just me or had it risen a little further in the time I’d been here?
Red in the morning, shepard’s warning, I thought.
I set off, with some difficulty because the elevators were naturally out of service and parts of the stairs had gone missing in places. Judging by the speed the sun was moving, I had no less than five hours to find Carter’s location before… something happened. Presumably the collapse of the loop. On foot. And then I had to get Carter out of whatever situation he was in. While injured. All of it combined a very tall order.
I had a good idea of where they were holding Carter. I had not been idle this entire time, and I had a comprehensive mental map of all the proxy bases in Christchurch; they were unlikely to have taken him outside of it. In the end, I narrowed it down to the most likely option, crossed my fingers, and hoped I was correct.
The streets were incredibly dusty, coated in five inches of silver grey silt in places. The place was isolated, empty. Walking on flayed feet hurt. I made my way to an abandoned, beat up looking car, smashed the window in with a handy piece of nearby rubble, and opened the door. And after a few tries at trying to remember how hotwiring worked, managed to get it going… for five seconds. The engine coughed, spluttered, and died, and would not turn over again for love nor money. I banged the dashboard and saw why; the vibration jostled the fuel dial and it slid down to point at E. Typical. The fuel must have evaporated.
It took roughly eighteen more tries before I found a car that had enough fuel, had full tires, didn’t appear to have any other physical damage and actually worked. Instead of heading straight for Carter’s presumed location, I made a few stops first. Often, what I was looking for was destroyed or missing, but I managed to quickly scrape up what I needed.
The sun was halfway down from its zenith when I was attacked. Dark, shambling things, vaguely humanoid but… wrong. Desiccated. One swiped at me with misshapen claws and I threw a brick at it, which bought me enough time to get back to the car. They didn’t stop coming, slinking out of the woodwork, the worse than condemned buildings, and getting anywhere soon became an exercise in running them over. They made no sound at all.
I arrived at the ruins of the proxy base before the sun set, and couldn’t stop. I kept driving around the block around it, hearing claws scratch off the paint and crack the glass. They were thick enough in number that little but black could be seen out the windows and the car was definitely struggling to keep moving. Eventually, it was too much for it, and the engine cut out. And all I could do was sit there and listen as seams were pried at around me, and count down the minutes.
The collapse of the loop was sudden and jarring, especially since my sudden reappearance in the middle of the no longer post apocalypse themed street did not endear me to the car that crashed into my rear end. I got my rough bag of goodies, pulled on my gas mask and scarpered, jumping over a fence.
Mercaptans are some of the most godawful substances known to man. To say that they stink would be to say that the ocean is ‘a little wet’. The people who work with them are seldom invited to parties, because even fifty showers is never enough, and any stained clothing can only really be burnt as there is no hope of ever salvaging it.
The one I had, t-butyl mercaptan, is used in small amounts to ‘flavour’ natural gas and give it its distinctive smell, as gas is pretty near odourless in its pure form. I checked the direction of the wind, moved upwind, uncorked, and then recorked the vial. That was enough. I hoped Carter would forgive me for this.
Naturally, if you smell gas in a house, you get out of there pretty fast. I couldn’t give them the opportunity to transport Carter out via the Path before I could get to him, however, so I tossed in a canister of homemade smoke and tear gas through a window for extra confusion, before kicking in a different window and leaping through, every single part of me voicing it’s complaints about all the moving it was doing.
No need to check all the rooms; he’d be in the basement. There were shouts and cries all through the house, but with the smoke covering me it was easy to avoid being seen. They’d left the basement door open in their haste to get out, and sure enough, there was Carter, tied to a chair which was bolted to the floor. I’d bought boltcutters with me, but I was still glad it was rope rather than chain. I tossed him the second gas mask, although how much good it would be after exposure I wasn’t sure, and began sawing through the ropes with a knife. In minutes he was free, and we raced back up the stairs, out through the back door, and across the lawn.
“Stop!” I heard someone shout, and suddenly there were bullets chasing us. I stopped, and turned. “Walk back,” said the voice, whose throat was clearly raw. I slowly reached in my pocket, and pulled out a lighter.
“Let us go!” I shouted. “Or I’ll light us all up! Don’t think I won’t!” There was hesitation. I slowly began walking backwards, tugging Carter’s arm to do the same, holding up the lighter all the way until we were out of shot. Or so I thought. There was one last report of a gun; Carter turned and fired back… I don’t know where he got his gun. Probably picked it up while we were escaping the house. Then we began running like hell, although I tripped and to my embarrassment, and probably his, fell heavily against Carter. That’s when I noticed the blood seeping through his shirt, stemming from the abdominal area.
“You’re bleeding,” I said, stupidly. The world was starting to become fuzzy at the edges, the adrenalin of the past hours that had been keeping me going these last hours beginning to wear off.
He looked down. “I’m bleeding,” he replied, sounding surprised by this revelation. The blood was profusely leaving the wound, dripping down and leaving a trail of red splatters on the grass and concrete behind us.
“Nononono…” I said, as he fell forward, and I barely managed to catch him in time. “Come on, Carter, you need to stay awake.” Slapping him across the face did nothing. I looked back and forth and saw the crumpled body of the man he’d shot, running towards him and rifling through his pockets for anything that could help. Nothing immediately, but I took the gun and its remaining bullets for later examination, as something that could hurt Carter was a worry and needed looking into. Doing it in a weird loop universe was one thing, and doing so in a universe that contained cop cars that I could already hear the sirens of was another, but I broke into and hotwired another car; there was no other choice if I wanted us to make good our escape and treat him quickly enough.
It was touch and go for a while. Carter lost a lot of blood; thankfully, we had the same type and I was a compulsive hoarder; I had enough to set up a quick, rough and dirty transfusion, and tried not to think about the azoth he likely would be receiving with it. Fortunately, the bullet had gone through his liver and gotten lodged in it; that would regenerate nicely, and there was no nasty exit wound to deal with. Taking it out would do more harm than good, so I left it in. If it had been his stomach or guts, digestive juices would have started eating him from the inside out, and it would have been a slow painful death for him if he didn’t go to the hospital. I did what little I knew how, sterilized and bandaged the wound, applied a wrapped ice pack to it for pressure and cold, and waited.
I had a lot to think about.