I will warn you that this is post apocalyptic and dark. *waves a basket* I brought flashlights! It is, however, not as dark as... oh... say... TORCHWOOD: Children of Earth. *mutters violently* There's a happy ending, I promise. Assuming, of course, I get to the end before the turn of the next millennium. ^^
All standard disclaimers apply. Not mine in any way, shape or form. Please dry clean only; do not remove tag under penalty of law; offer void in Utah.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to read this.
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory (garnettrees)
"... I did love you once."
"Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."
"You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not."
"I was the more deceived."
-Hamlet and Ophelia; Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1
Kyle and Maia did not linger for long. Wordlessly, they dowsed the fire with dew-damp leaves and very carefully buried the evidence it had existed at all. Though Kyle had seen no one in the four days prior, there was a wariness wrapped around his spine-- the hard-learned lesson of not letting his guard down. Military bases-- both makeshift affairs, and those established in the Time Before-- tended to cluster around the outskirts of what the government called 'civilized districts'.
'Civilization', in this case, meant the rigidly walled cities Jordan Collier had once foretold, connected by tenuous, oft-patrolled highways. As if the strict screening and the need for Normalcy Papers in these districts was not enough, any Positive knew full well that they would not only be enemies of the state-- they would, much more horribly, be a prize. It was quite the fashion among military types, as well as the sickening new city aristocracy, to leave the comforts of home and "clean" the woods of Positives for sport, and as a hazing ritual for new recruits. Killing a Positive, especially one of the ever-diminishing original 4400, was considered quite the accomplishment. Once upon a time, the boy Kyle had been-- that tender, scrawny thing that had been so certain in his ideals-- would have balked at the brutality, but now the rumors that hunters had begun cutting off body parts as souvenirs did little but prickle an extra warning against back of his neck. Who had it in them to be surprised any more?
All around them, the forest seemed almost eerily still, with only dying animals and the ruins of old cities to populate its remote reaches. The four days Kyle had spent alone in it had made him feel as if he were the last man on Earth-- not a safe or comfortable mindset. Intellectually, he knew it was entirely possible he had passed by or even slept near a hunting camp, saved only by the fact that wireless communication became more and more difficult the closer one got to the Wall. Coordination by radio was impossible; the squads were, at least, as blind as the Positives wandering in the wild country. Kyle laughed a little to himself-- it was like having a deck stacked by a merciless but clever god. The insane black-jack dealer, throwing in one joker after another, laughing at humor only it could understand. He and Maia were not nearly close enough to the Wall to relax their guard-- and, once they were, there would be new, far more implacable worries to address. Soldiers and scavengers could be fought and anticipated; what lay behind the Wall, slowly seeping past its defined boundaries, was as alien as the unglimpsed depths of another planet.
They continued steadily northward, and eventually the strange, hyper-alert feeling Kyle had woken with condensed into a helpless dread, a sort of sleepwalking in which he was all too aware his nightmarish circumstances were real. Maia was quiet-- now and again they commented on the terrain, or stopped to make use of the bushes, but neither of them truly spoke. There was something hanging there between them, the knowledge that they could so easily ask about friends and comrades shaded and marred by what experience had taught. That answer of 'I don't know' or 'they're dead' was so much worse than imagining a person as you had last seen them. There was mercy to be found, if only in the still-photo of memory, in those mundane words last exchanged. If Maia had good news, she would have shared it already. Briefly, Kyle saw Richard's face, set in lines of understanding and regret, his mind's eye holding time still, erasing moments to come. Leaving Richard's small band had been almost as difficult as striking out from the ill-fated Promise City. In far closer quarters than renegade Seattle had offered, Kyle had shared meals and stories with those men and women, had fought and killed along side many of them. He had not been deaf to the whispers, to those sidelong glances that said 'family is one thing, but...'. Let them disapprove, let them feel betrayed; the news of Shawn's capture and intended imprisonment seemed to have severed something within Kyle's soul. Something he had not known about, not until it was bleeding out uselessly, somewhere back behind his heart.
'I understand what you're doing,' Maia had said, her dark eyes communicating what words could not. She did understand-- and she was one of the few.
They walked. Heavy, plodding steps; one after the other, measured and uncritical, as those on seemingly endless journeys do. The sky did not change, and the clouds were a swirl of ink in gray, muddied water. By the time Kyle's watch read half-past noon, they had reached a desolate stretch of road from the Time Before. Following close enough to hear the roar of approaching engines (though automotive transport was becoming more and more scarce), they never the less stayed out of sight as long as possible. At last, they came to a place where the two lane country road slopped upward, the road sign indicating it would soon merge into what had once been urban areas. Though Kyle did not stop to read the now-pale, sun-blasted posting, he knew what it would say. It was an anachronism-- it pointed the way to Tacoma and Seattle, cities that did not exist in this new age.
'Heaven on Earth,' Kyle thought suddenly, wincing as the unwanted words filtered through his mind. He looked over at Maia, and for a long moment his tongue felt as useless as ash in his mouth. Swallowing hard, he was able to make himself ask after the time.
"Mine says ten," Maia said, pulling the battered face of a wristwatch from her pocket. "It's been really off for a while, though. Probably only good for the chip, now." She sighed, considering the small mechanism for a moment, before shoving it back into her deep pockets. It was only then that Kyle realized she was wearing army-issue pants rolled up several times in the waist and legs.
"Mine worked pretty well at Richard's camp," Kyle said thoughtfully. "I don't know how much it's been affected, but it doesn't seem like we've been close enough for it to be completely useless." He raked a grimy hand through his equally unkempt hair. "Who the hell knows, nowadays?" A bit of rage, the youthful resentment that was no longer quite familiar, stirred in him. Time weighed heavily on Shawn, and Kyle felt its suffocating presence the way one might feel sympathetic magic. 'Too close,' each heartbeat seemed to say, 'you'll never make it'-- and here he couldn't even figure out if it was goddamned noon or not. The rage swelled and quieted a bit-- he knew it as an extension of the deep, burning hatred he so carefully caged. That they should take Shawn at all, should mark him and herd him to... "No," Kyle said, choking around the word. Maia waited patiently, only nodding when he managed to force out, "It's gotta be close to twelve."
"Four hours of good light left, then-- if we're being optimistic." Maia looked at the road critically, "We should try to get as far away from this as possible. Do you know where the Wall is, north of here?"
Kyle nodded grimly. "It runs near what used to be Yakima, then over to the north east to cut off the top part of Idaho."
"Yakima is awfully close. Still," she said after a moment, "I guess they thought the mountains would help keep the worst of it in Old Seattle. It's the delayed fallout they didn't count on."
"Delayed fallout?" Kyle parroted, wonderingly.
"They're using nuclear terminology for something that's not even nuclear, I know," Maia grinned humorlessly. It made her pretty young face difficult to look at. "Before I was taken, I remember when they first..." She shook her head, almost violently. "Let's get going."
Kyle nodded, thinking of those horrid black-and-white history book images, of Hiroshima, and of the worn sci-fi novels Shawn sometimes indulged in. Post-apocolyptic, and he remembered laughing, remembered watching flickering, disjointed movies in Shawn's basement, as they both made wisecracks about the giant irradiated animal-of-the-week.
(They're lying back on Dad's old, faded brown couch in the basement; so familiar with the lumps and springs in the ancient hulk that they know just were to sprawl their own unwieldy, coltish legs. It's late-- they've had too much soda and too little sleep, and there are times when the crickets at the basement window-well are louder than the jumpy, black and white film on screen. The scientist in the picture is gesturing wildly, cheesy lab-coat flapping, threatening the pretty young heroine. Drowsy and silly, everything he says strikes the boys as outrageously funny.
"I have harnessed the true glory of nuclear radiation; the beasts that guard my lair are the soldiers of the future!" More hand-waving, and the screen cuts to forced-perspective images of giant cockroaches and lizards, and finally back to the actress' look of almost comic horror.
"What they need--" Kyle says, forcing the words out between gasps of laughter, "what they need is--"
"Shhh! You'll wake Uncle Tommy!" Shawn's warm hand is on his face, half over his mouth, even as the other boy fights his own deep belly laughs. On screen, the girl is screaming, scrambling in the least productive manner possible as she attempts to escape the giant cockroach.
"You 'shh'!" Shawn may be a bit stronger, but Kyle is quicker-- he darts a hand under the arm attempting to restrain him and pulls at his cousin's nose. "Giant cockroaches! What they need is a giant Orkin Man!"
Shawn buries his face in one of the couch's flat, scratchy brown pillows, he's laughing so hard. The boys are a tangle of limbs-- plaid pajama bottoms and rucked up, faded t-shirts, warm and breathing in that barest of edge of chill only summer nights can possess.
"Oh my god," Kyle says, and promptly starts giggling again.
"Watch this," Shawn maneuvers so the arm he has slung around his cousin's shoulder can be used to point with authority. "I guarantee you, she's lose at least one article of clothing running from the cockroach, and after all that she'll end up right back where she started in the maze."
"Know-it-all," Kyle says affectionately.
"Seriously! We're going to see her ridiculously complicated 50's bra."
They watch, poised for Shawn's prediction as the orchestra reaches a tinny, oddly timed crescendo. There's running and screaming; the girl seems to trip every two meters and the film keeps cutting back to the laughing scientist-- but, true to form, eventually the heroine's modest blouse is ripped, and Kyle can see the tops of her pale, powdery breasts under their fan of lace. He's about to praise Shawn's mystical powers, when he realizes the older boy is asleep behind him, cheek on Kyle's shoulder. A stronger, slightly more tan arm rests on the younger boy's stomach.
Kyle closes his eyes as well-- it never even occurs to him to move.)
"It's in everything," Maia said presently, her soft voice somehow broad and powerful in the still forest. Kyle looked up at her sharply, tangled and sheepish in his own recollections. It had been a long time since the man remembered anything so vividly-- a long while since he'd thought of The Time Before at all-- but there it had been at his fingertips, memory ripe and ready for the taking. The immediacy of it, and his absorption in favor of his own dire situation made the soldier in him cringe. And yet, somewhere inside, beyond the ever-growing hulk that concerned itself only with where his body would sleep, find warmth, acquire food, there was a burning. The ache of a forgotten but deeply infected wound.
"In everything," Kyle repeated, his voice touching the words with different meaning. It was the past in everything, those shadows of a world gone, and it tasted rancid.
"The delayed fallout," Maia pointed out, voice sad but understanding. Her big brown eyes gazed at him, as if she could read the lines of his expression like the lines of the world's scorched palm. There were times Kyle wondered how she bore it, her poison-apple gift. It seemed to him that the future had long since ceased to hold anything anyone would want to see.
"Ah," he raked a hand through his hair, smiling at her apologetically. She shrugged, and that phantom smile darted across her chapped lips. Forgiven.
"All that 'radiation'," she cupped the words with finger quotes, "they hoped to contain behind the Wall when they struck Promi--" They shivered together, and switched tracks by mutual, unspoken consent. "When they struck Old Seattle," Maia corrected herself, "-- everything they swore they could protect the Typical Population from... it's in the air we breathe, and every time it rains..."
With all the sudden fury of a summer thunderstorm, Maia stopped in her tracks and whirled towards him. The broken, burning edge he'd sensed in her since they'd reunited was brilliantly exposed; he saw at once the terrified little girl and the young woman running only on her own stubborn sense of duty.
"They were burning dead babies down in Portland," she said, after a moment. Her voice wavered and her eyes were shiny, but her jaw was clenched hard. "Boxes and boxes of them. The smell." She took a deep breath, seemed to search herself for coherency. "We'd heard about the birth-defects. Kevin said he was a surprised we'd started *having* a birthrate at all again, especially in the West Coast districts. All we had to go on were rumors-- and the few doctors on *our* side were ready to admit there might not be a lot of viable births. Leukemia, thyroid problems, bone cancer..." A broken little shrug, "And that would be if they lived long enough to make it to puberty. So you can understand how surprised we were, how... almost *thrilled* when we talked to a midwife in Mill Valley. She said the defects had been bad-- monstrous-- at first, but that they'd started to level off a little. We came to Portland, and we were so *confused*... they were such little things."
Kyle took her by the elbows, though Maia still stood firm and straight. She was swaying on the inside, though, and-- because he knew the feeling well-- Kyle put his real, mutant hands on her and gave her an anchor. "Such little things..." Maia murmured, distant. "Webbed toes-- or extra toes-- malformed ears, harelips. Some of them did look really bad but, for the most part, they were just 'off'." A very specific, very terrible memory slithered behind Maia's pretty features. "There was this one-- a baby girl-- I guess she didn't drop the embryonic tail like the fetus is supposed to. She was born with it, like a little tadpole's tail. She had this head of dark hair, though, and this button-nose..."
"Maia," Kyle said, stomach rolling. He needed to distract her from her own internal wasteland-- he needed to hear the truth, though his eyes pricked hot with fire and there were tears on his cheeks. Maia's were dry but flushed; she looked as one gripped by a terrible fever.
"They have a True Image, Kyle," she said finally, grinding the words out. "Like a laundry list; how many fingers you can have, how many toes. Don't you *understand*? They killed that baby girl, they *shot* her, because of a little imperfection."
"Jesus, Maia. Jesus Christ..." He wasn't sure if he was holding onto her, or she to him.
"It was such a tiny thing! It wasn't important at all! And they did that to *all* of those babies. Our species finally starts reproducing, in spite of all the nameless *crap* in the air, and THEY have a True Image to uphold!"
Kyle swore, but it sounded old and tried in his ears, even under all the anger. "Oh, Jesus God." Heavy, wanting to feel more surprise. He drew Maia into his arms and they clung; she gripped the back of his dirty hoodie like a girl trying to wrench herself up out of hell.
'She's only seventeen,' Kyle thought distantly, holding onto her slim, starved shoulders. And, behind that, in his own weariness and despair, '*I* was only seventeen'. He held her, but there was no one to hold him-- Shawn's face floated in his memory, wavering between youth and the present. It wouldn't settle, it would not become distinct. Just Shawn, out of reach; and Kyle gave himself a split second to believe he felt warm, strong hands on his back, below Maia's curled fists. They hugged for one long, necessary moment; possessed of the right number of fingers and toes, but knowing they were not the true image, either.
After a moment, they parted, smearing dirt and tears with their hands. Then they began once more to pick their way slowly through the forest tangle, towards the Wall.
*makes a truly pitiful face* I would be forever and ever and ever in your debt should you be so kind as to comment. ^_~