vervaceous: (shadow)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 12/13
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Summary: Mike, Florence, and Tom travel to Arizona in search of the Maintainers, godlike programs that hold ultimate power over the code of the Realm. But things go horribly wrong, and Tom finds himself making a desperate journey into a world far outside his experience--a world from which he may not be able to return.
Note: I owe a huge debt here to [ profile] _shades_; the plot is hers. I merely flesh it out.

They argue, in the end. It happens quickly, because all the niceties of normal conversation are swept aside by bare reality, everything escalated and sped up to twice normal speed. Florence sits and watches them, Margie's face pale and pinched, Abe equally pale but stern, stubborn. "It's our house," he says, arms crossed as he stares Ash down. "It's been our house for... hell, for longer than it hasn't. What do you think they'll do to it, when they get here and find it empty? Leave it be? Leave a little note on the door that says 'sorry we missed you'?"

"Regardless," Ash says, and Florence can hear the patience in his voice, and hear it wearing thin. "What exactly do you think he'll do if he does find you here? You think he'll cut you slack 'cause you're both old-timers? You know him better than that, Abe. You know exactly what he's capable of. You've seen it."

"We're old," Margie says suddenly, raising her gaze out of her lap, and for a moment Florence can hardly stand to look at her. Florence is strong, but she never claimed to be calloused. She can't be, she's always known that; if she's going to be able to heal pain, she's going to have to be able to feel it as well. Not only her own, but the pain of anyone. The pain of friends and strangers, the pain of allies and enemies, so that she can take it into herself and work her strange alchemy. Now it's Margie in front of her, small and quiet and frail, and the pain is hanging in the air like smoke. So much has been lost, and now, no matter what happens, more will be. Always more.

Please, Tom. Please finish it.

"We're old," Margie says again, her hands turning slowly over each other. "We've had our lives. To run now... I can't help but think..." She looks at Abe, her mouth working slightly. "What's the point, Ash? Why fight it now? You should take Florence and go. Now, while you can. Maybe we could--"

"I'm not leaving you," Ash says, and it's almost a snarl. Rage, though not at the old couple staring shocked at him. Rage at everything outside, rage at his own helplessness. Florence feels something in her ache fiercely. She's heard that tone too many times before.

"Our home," Abe says softly, reaching for Margie's hand. There's so much sadness on his face, but under it there's a core of steel. "I won't fight you on this, boy. I don't have to pretend to like it, but I won't fight you. Margie, sweetheart." He gives her hand a firm squeeze. "We knew we couldn't hang onto this forever. It's a miracle that we did for this long."

Ash huffs a sigh of clear relief. Margie sniffles a little, but when she raises her head again her eyes are dry and solemn. She looks across the room, meets and holds Florence's gaze, and asks the question that, somewhere in the back of her mind, Florence had been formulating, though it feels like a strange question to ask now at the very threshold of potentially lethal danger.

"What about the calf? Are we just leaving him here?" She wipes at her nose with the back of one wrinkled hand. "Poor thing could hardly stand up when I saw him last, let alone walk anywhere."

Ash catches Florence's eye, his own expression so obviously doubtful and questioning that it's momentarily as though he's getting used to communicating with her without words. He shakes his head slightly. "I think we might have to... I mean, I know, Abe, but I don't see how we can easily bring him along if he can't walk--"

"You saw the color of it," Abe says simply, as though this simple fact trumps all others and will broach no argument. "You know we can't just leave it here, Ashkii. You know that."

Ash is silent a long time, leaning over his knees, and Florence watches him. She can feel him debating, one part of him warring with another, and she keeps her silence--and for more than just because she can't be any other way. What would she do? What can she do?

The calf has Mike's eyes. Just what exactly that means, how that's possible, she doesn't know. But she can't trust herself now.

"They're stories," Ash says at last. He hasn't looked up, his hands clasped in front of him in the early daylight, knuckles pale with tension. "That might be all they are."

"You can say that?" Abe's voice is still flat, but now there's something hot behind it like fire behind a wall of rock, anger bleeding softly through. "After everything you've seen? You were there last night, you damn fool. And what about her?" He lifts a hand toward Florence, who can't find it in her to flinch. "She's the Healer. You know it just as well as I do." He drops his hand again, looking away and out the window, out toward the road that none of them can quite see, though they can all feel the threat of it now.

"We aren't going to die here like this," he says quietly. "We aren't meant to. So we're not leaving it behind."

Ash raises his head, then, and the clash of wills is like a solid thing, a thing Florence could reach out and put her hands on if she wanted to, fearsome and crackling with something like electricity. She can almost feel the hair rising on her arms. Mike would side with Ash, she knows it. Just stories, whatever they are. Whatever she might or might not believe, he would insist that they weren't worth dying over, that a sick animal wasn't worth the risk, and if two stupid old-timers didn't have enough sense to pack up and get while the getting was good, they also deserved whatever came their way. He would have said it, and he would have walked out the door.

Or it's what he would have wanted people to believe he would do.

But that time is over now. And she can't leave him again. She reaches out, lays a hand on Ash's arm, and he turns his dark eyes to her. She meets them, shakes her head slowly, turns her gaze to Margie, whose face is still damp with tears.

"I don't fucking believe this," Ash says, soft, with every bit of the incredulity he's claiming. "Christ. Okay. It's suicide, but okay. We'll figure something out."

"Thank you," Margie says, and her eyes are still shining but her voice is calm. She nods to Florence, gives her the tiniest of smiles.

Florence returns the smile, though it aches to do so. She's thinking of Eli, of his cracked old voice. Boy thinks he's immortal. I'd rather he not get cured of that the hard way.

All of them, more like.

* * *

When he comes awake, he's already walking.

He doesn't know for how long he's been doing it. His legs ache, but that might mean anything. All of him aches. Blood is freezing on his cheek. The wind is howling around him again, snow flying into a vicious whiteout, but even if it were clear he would be half blind. Because the crows have extracted their price, bloody and steaming. He remembers the steam. Somehow he had seen that, rising from the slick curved surface of the eye as they plucked it free.

He doesn't want to think about that. He can't not.

Lost teeth, fingers, an eye. He's coming slowly to pieces. He almost laughs, thinking about it now. Taking stock of what he has, how far he's come, is it worth it? Not knowing how far he might still have to go? It'll have to be. Because he does know where to go, at least, though he can't see the ground in front of him, can't see the path he nevertheless knows he's following.

Guided by the raucous laughter of crows.

"Fuckers," he mutters, and something about how the word feels in his mouth makes him think of Mike, and there is no name for the wrenching twist in his gut. Had Mike known that it would take this much, in the end? Had that been why he had always been the naysayer, always trying to steer them away from talking it head-on? But in the end, he had taken them here, and he had paid for that. He had paid with everything.

Much more than an eye.

"Given you everything," he murmurs, staggering but not falling, lost in a world of white. Even up and down feel like nothing more than ideas that someone once had. "Okay? What else do you want? Just end it."

End it. At least dying would mean that he could rest.

But does it mean that? Down here?

He thinks of the lake in the cavern, surging with a moaning oil slick of damned souls, and terror grips his stomach like an fist made of the wind, shaking him, and this time when he staggers he might really go down on his face--snow in the eye socket, he thinks and laughs hysterically--laughing cut off when his palms smack into something unseen and cold and solid.

And the snow vanishes.

* * *

The buffalo calf's pale hide is soft, shockingly so. Once Florence has touched it, it's difficult to lift her hand away. She sits in the shed, the smell of hay sweet and dry in her nose, beams of sunlight slanting in through little cracks, motes dancing and spinning. She watches them. She can't look down into the animal's eyes just now. It's too eerie.

It lifts its head again, as it had when she'd first come in; it seems eager and asking for more of her attention. An animal gesture and an animal desire, but it still feels like more than that.

It feels as though it's trying to tell her something.

The Sisters had been silent--more than usual--regarding what comes after death. Something, certainly, but life had always seemed more important. Even though they had chosen to hide themselves away from the world, they were still in and of it, and it was what was done there that seemed most vital, most immediate.

God would look after the rest.

Now, she's not sure what she believes. That the dead can live again? The dying, certainly. Those close to the border can be recalled from it, if reached in time by a sufficiently strong hand.

But surely dead is dead.

The calf leans up, licks her hand, and she can't help but meet its eyes this time. The same. Exactly the same. Human eyes in an animal's face.

Slowly she pushes herself to her feet, bending and stroking the calf's head one more time. She turns, looks toward the door, the sun outside almost blinding after the dimness of the shed.

I can't let you die, she thinks, even as a large part of her still refuses to believe it. Not all over again.

* * *

It's a wall. His vision has gone flat and hazy and unsure, but he can see that much, anyway. And he can see more than that: A landscape spreading all around him that makes absolutely no sense, given when he had just been looking at, but perhaps nonsense can be gotten used to just like everything else.

Where there had been snow, there's dry gray hardpan. Where there had been wind, there's utter stillness. Snowfield to desert. And his hands against a wall, gleaming dully in the thin sunless light, metallic and rising above him into what might be miles.

He slaps his palm against it. Slaps harder, and it echoes all around him with a deep, eerie boom. He screams, embarrassingly weak and high in his own ears, and nothing happens.

Tom's knees weaken, again--past frustrating, past madness--and he slides down onto his knees in the dust, chest and throat tight like me might cry, though he knows he's so far beyond tears now.

Again, he wonders if it's even possible to die down here.

"Please enter your ID and passcode now."

Calm, pleasant, female, dead in that way that computerized voices are. Tom doesn't even lift his head, not immediately. He's hallucinating--he assumes it immediately. There's no way he could have heard what he just did. No way he could have done what he's done and gone through what he's gone through and now be asked to enter a fucking login.

"Please enter your ID and passcode now."

He's still touching the wall with his ruined hand, and it twitches under his palm. Cool, solid metal, and yet it twitches like shifting muscles under skin. He lifts his head and stares at it with his remaining eye, frowning faintly, as though faced with a mildly difficult puzzle. As he watches, the wall ripples, flows like mercury, and his hand sinks a few centimeters into it, the metal closing snugly around the outline of his fingers.

He's been feeling his options slip away like sand through his now-incomplete fingers. Now he scrapes around at the bottom of himself and finds none. He stammers, licks cracked lips, looks up and up at the gleaming barrier until his neck aches.


"Hobbes," he whispers, feeling the ludicrousness of it as he does. "Thomas F."

A stabbing in the center of his palm, quick and not even that severe given some of the other things he's suffered by now, but he yelps and jerks backward, the wall releasing him as he does, the fluid surface reforming and solidifying so quickly that he almost misses it.

Blood is welling up out of a small, thin slash in the center of his palm, not much more than a bad papercut. He stares at it, uncomprehending. After everything else he's given up--blood, fear, hope, parts of his own body--now he has to give this?

Suddenly he's angry, hugely and irrationally so. All of this, all of it, so far and so long and so hard, Mike Pinocchio's blood staining his shirt where he can see it and staining his hands where he can't, and it's not fair. None of it is even close to fair. It's seemed unfair before now, but now the injustice is monstrous, towering as the wall and twice as impenetrable. He lets out a hoarse, wild yell and flings himself at it, screaming obscenities, feet scuffling in the dust and his voice echoing up and out and swelling in his head, pushing him even further into madness like a chorus urging him on. He beats at the metal, kicks at it until his hands and feet are bruised, the bruises breaking open and beginning to bleed.

Somewhere in the incoherence coming out of his mouth, he thinks he hears Mike's name.

"Thank you."

The wall in front of him dissolves into a neat, small doorway. His hand vanishes into it mid-blow and he stumbles forward and nearly falls.

No fucking way.

He stares up and into it, squinting slightly, but the interior of the doorway is black and featureless, and it might be too dark inside to see anything or there might be nothing at all to see.

And yet. There go all his options.

He takes a long, slow breath and staggers inside, and the wall reseals itself after him, choking him in total darkness.

* * *

"We have explosives," Abe says. He's heading for the upstairs hallway at a near-trot, Ash behind him. Florence stands at the foot of the stairs, looking up and listening. Thinking. Since she walked in here, she's done what she always does everywhere: noted the exits, the defensible positions, the weak points. Now she's working bath through that data, trying to draw up a plan.

Explosives. That does even things out very slightly.

"Not a lot, and not that much bang, so to speak," Abe is saying, his old voice drifting down the stairs to her. She hears the creak of what she assumes is an attic door. "But I guess we kind of always knew we should be ready for things to get rough out here. Margie, she always hated 'em. Kept trying to make me--"

"I just hated the idea of getting rough," Margie says softly from over Florence's elbow, and Florence turns. Margie is standing with her hands moving over a dishtowel, her eyes still red from crying, a small, sad smile on her face. "We've lived out here for so long with nothing against anyone and no one to hold anything against us. I just hated the idea of that changing." Her smile fades then, and something cold and steely hardens her gaze. "But I guess some people just have it against everything. Don't they."

Florence doesn't quite smile, but it's something close to that, and she lays a hand on Margie's arm. Again--regardless of what may or may not be true about the calf, she'll probably be doing this almost constantly now--she thinks of Mike, of what he might think of all this. He might have called Margie and Abe delusional, and been quick with scorn, but she doesn't see that here. She sees hope, held onto for a long time, but not weakened with any lack of realism. Hope that also has a spine.

Abe had kept the explosives in the attic, after all.

"Come on," Margie says, covering Florence's hand with hers and giving her a squeeze. "We should get things ready out on the front path."

* * *

They finish just as the dust closes in on the road. Florence had watched it come over the horizon as they had laid the traps along the path, and she had felt the others watching it too, sending tension spinning into the air and tightening their breaths and movements.

Part of her still doesn't believe this is going to end well.

They've pushed furniture against the doors and windows, and of course Abe, in addition to his cache of explosives, has a chest of rifles in the bedroom, and boxes of ammunition--"For hunting," he had explained, though there had been something unspoken under that that suggested that he had always been mindful of another potential use for them.

Now... her, Ash, and an elderly couple who probably suffer from arthritis in both sets of knees. Mike would have laughed. Florence peers out of the slit between bookcase and armoire and smiles.

Come on.

The dust stops out on the road, starts to dissipate; she can see them now, eight big men on bikes--of course they're on bikes, she thinks with an internal roll of her eyes--and the one in the lead gesturing up the drive toward the house. Rusk. She can't make out his face, supposes there's no way she can be sure--but she can feel it. A darkness in the air like a bad smell. Hate has always been beyond Florence, but she can feel righteous anger, rage, and now she feels it clutching cold in the pit of her belly.

She wants the man who killed Mike to pay for what he's done.

Now, please, she thinks. Please, be just stupid enough...

The bikes turn and start moving up the drive in their shroud of dust, the m who she's sure is Rusk in the lead, and as they reach the halfway mark there's the first explosion. It's not all that large but it's large enough, vomiting dust and rocks into the air, and through the cloud she sees wildly spinning wheels, not all of them touching the ground, and over the roar she hears screams of surprise and pain.

"Yes!" To her right, Ash pounds a fist against the wall, and from the front bedroom over their heads Abe echoes the cheer faintly. "Fuckers, got 'em."

Got some, anyway, Florence allows, touching Ash's shoulder and looking at him with a mix of tight satisfaction and warning. Not all. And now they'll be mad.

Sure enough, shapes emerge from the cloud, dark and some in tatters--one bike subtracted from the five, it and its owner lying in a huddled mass in the rubble, flickering and disappearing. But not Rusk, and Rusk has learned from his earlier error, pulled back into the rear of the pack. Florence can see him now, can see the blood glistening on his face from a gash high in his forehead.

The second trap is two thirds of the way to the house, and before they hit it, Florence is suddenly and wildly afraid that it won't work, that it won't go off at all. But they do, and it does, and another bike vanishes into a storm of dust. Rusk lets out a yell of rage; from out of the settling cloud, the man is crawling, face a mass of blood, and as he emerges she sees that both his legs seem to be gone at the knees, sheared away by the blast or maybe by the spinning metal beneath him. He lifts a beseeching, bloody hand, flickers and goes out.

She feels another clench in her middle. Otherwise nothing. She would have healed him if she could. But he made his choice, and she won't lose sleep over him.

"Teasedale!" Rusk is stopped, staring toward the house--can he see their barricades now through the windows? Florence thinks he must be able to. "We just came by for a little chat, and this is how you treat us?"

"A likely story!" Margie in the other window, a stocky rifle in her hand; she doesn't look as though she likes it, but she can certainly make use of it. Briefly, she meets Florence's gaze. "You never come on social calls, boy. Mama never taught you manners!"

"But maybe I'm here to make amends." Rusk grins, and even at a distance his teeth gleam in the sunlight. "Come on, old-timers. You know I can just keep tossing men at you, and sooner or later you'll run outta things to toss back. And by then we'll all be cranky. Let's just skip all that business and no one has to get hurt."

"You're a liar, Rusk." Margie again, and that steely quality has moved from her eyes and into her voice. "Always have been, always will be. You go on your way and no one else has to get hurt--how's that sound for a deal?"

"Now, that ain't reasonable." Florence can hear the shark-grin in his voice, and in spite of herself, a shiver goes down her spine. "Word is, you got someone there we're looking for. A woman who doesn't talk much. How about it, honey?" His voice raises in a parody of joviality. "You wanna come on out of there, spare your friends a whole lotta trouble?"

"She's not fucking budging," Ash bellows. "You want her, she'll take you down before you can touch her. Or I will."

"Even so. Truth to tell, it's not just her we want, anyway. She's a nice bonus. But we've heard that you have another guest there. Someone awful... pale."

"Shit," Ash mutters. "Should've known." Florence looks at him again, questioning, and Ash looks back, grim. "He knows the stories same as we do. He knows it's powerful, anyway. And that's all he cares about."

"Last chance," Rusk yells. "You end this easy or we make it end hard."

"Fuck you!" Margie cries, lifts her rifle and fires. It's like uncorking a bottle full of pressure; there's almost an audible pop aside from the gunshots, and all at once everyone is shooting. Florence has been on battlefields of all kinds, in firefights with a few people and with dozens, but she's never become accustomed to the chaos of it, to the way actions and time run together and become indistinct, to the way that cause and effect themselves seem to break down and cease to function.

She guesses that not being used to it has kept her alive for this long. Contained panic can be an edge on which one can walk. She aims, fires, aims, fire, and fires without aiming consciously, trusting that her hands will know what to do even when her head doesn't. She remembers Mike teaching her, standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders; the gentleness had been slowly unearthing itself in him, pushing itself up and unfurling like a delicate little sprout after winter, and where before she had seen cruelty and coldness, he had begun to be kind with her. In his way.

Breathe. Just breathe. Don't think. You gotta learn to get out of your own way.

She sees one of Rusk's men jerk and go down in a sprawl, flickering into nothing, and feels cold satisfaction, not at his death but at being one step closer to safety. Ash winces sharply and she looks over at him, concerned; he's clenching a hand over his upper right arm, blood trickling from between his fingers.

"No," he says, waving her away when she lowers her gun and moves to help him. "Later. I'm fine, there's no time..."

Another explosion, and this one rocks the house and sends a blast of hot air and dust into her face, stinging her eyes. The last trap, close to the porch; when she chances a look out, she sees that it's taken the front steps with it, and now Rusk has one less man. Down to four. Even numbers.

"Game's over!" Rusk sounds choked with rage--or maybe with something else, fully half of his face smeared with blood and swelling nastily. The three other men look half shell-shocked, filthy and dazed. They can't have expected this to be so hard, Florence thinks with more grim satisfaction. Surprise. "When we get in there, we aren't gonna be nice to any of you."

"Come on then," Abe cries. "We got half of you. We're just getting started!"

Florence braces herself against the bookshelf and raises her gun to meet the rush.

* * *

Tom isn't completely surprised to be plunged back into darkness. Nor is he surprised when his footsteps echo inside it, as though it's hiding a chamber of vast size, nor when a glow whose source he can't see illuminates the floor around and a few feet ahead of him. He stumbles forward, his breath loud and harsh and rasping, still on the edge of falling--and if he does, he has serious doubts about his ability to go any further, no matter what ghost appears to urge him on.

"Hello?" he calls, and dissolves into coughing. Might be suicidal, to announce his presence like that. The cousin of the spider might be waiting here--or something much worse. But what else is he supposed to do? And an ending right here and now might not even be a thing he thinks he'd turn away.

And he knows where he is. He has no way of being sure, but he is nevertheless.

The floor ahead of him is black but iridescent, shot through with veins of some mineral that shimmer faintly in the light. Like marble and yet not like marble at all. It doesn't seem to have an end, but he walks and holds himself up, and pulls in breath to speak again.

The air is musty, dry. It reminds him of what he would imagine the inside of an Egyptian pyramid would be like.

"Hello? I'm here to see... the Maintainers."

And what would you with us, creature? The voice slides out of the darkness, sitting evenly between a whisper and a growl, but with no aggression in it. No emotion at all that he can discern, aside from the mildest kind of curiosity. For what reason to you disturb us?

Tom stops dead, swaying on his feet, blinking. The question, so blunt and so simple... and he's been sure this whole time, what he was coming here for. What he was sacrificing himself for. Dying slow, when Mike had died so quick, like a candle going out. Dying for something, when Mike had died because of a stupid fucking mistake.

For what?

"I..." He falters, shaking his head. "I'm here to... I've come a long way..."

There's a soft pulsing in the center of his head, beginning to swell. He closes his eyes, trying to think around it. Think, creature. You have come a long way, given up much, and now you must perform one final task. You must remember why you are here.

"I can't..." Tom moans. It's too much, this pulsing becoming a bright and hateful light behind his eyes, a headache beyond headaches, and he's so tired. He feels a tickle against his upper lip, raises his fingers to his nose, and they come away bloody.

They're gonna kill you, dick. Not that same voice. He knows this one. Get your shit together. You know why you're here. Everything you've been through, and you always remembered it before.

A pause. Tom feels as though he's groping wildly in the dark. Maybe because he is.

You can do this, Hobbes. I never believed a whole lot, but I believe that.

"I'm here..." He draws himself up, wiping at his face. Suddenly both angry and cold. "I'm here because I want to kill Omar Santiago."

There's another long pause, and all he can do is wait. Whatever happens now... he supposes at least he's done this much.

Well, then, little creature. And now he could swear that the speaker--speakers? Is this voice softly choral?--is smiling. Come forward, and we shall see what we can do about that.

* * *

Florence is still firing, but the firing is becoming increasingly blind. The dust is choking, harder and harder to see through, and splinters of wood are flying through the air, and every time she hazards a look out the bullets seem to come faster and closer. She's no longer entirely sure where Rusk and his men are, how many of them are left, and she doesn't like that. It's not good to operate without that kind of information. Know thy enemy--Mike's voice, again soft in her ear, her belly flat against the ground and her neck aching from looking down her gun sights. Know everything about him. Know where he is even when he isn't sure. Know how close he is to beaten, so you'll know how much further you have to go. You win by being stronger and tougher, but even more of the time, probably, you win just by having better intel.

Not now.

The wood around her--the walls, the armoire, the bookshelf--is beginning to look as though it's been the subject of attack from fantastically large and fantastically hungry termites, light streaming in from countless holes, chunks in danger of falling away entirely.

At some point, she thinks, at some point they'll run out of ammo--or we will.

"Come on!" A strong hand heavy on her shoulder; she wheels, keeping her body low, and it's Ash, his shoulder still bloody and now his face as well, his eyes wild. "We're heading to the back of the house. If we can't hold 'em there, we'll try to stop 'em at the shed."

Florence nods, shoving herself to her feet, staying low and firing as she stumbles back, her hand on Ash's uninjured arm. She feels him slide it around her waist, steadying her, and however awkward this might be--less so, if they don't survive, she thinks with grim amusement--she feels grateful for it.

He's not Mike. But for the moment he'll do.

She catches a flash of a dark shape, a gleam of blood, and lets off a string of shots in its direction. She sees no death-flicker, but she hears a yell of pain. Good. At least that's something.

* * *

Tom is in a room, a circular one, the full size of which he can't quite make out. Here's there suddenly, with no obvious point of entry and no clear transition from outside to in. Suddenly the light around him expands, and he's there, standing in its center and staring at three indistinct shapes on the curved far wall. Paintings? Sculptures? It's difficult to tell, though they aren't more than a few yards away from him. He squints, and his missing eye just makes the whole process more difficult.

Around the edges of the room, in the shadows, he's abruptly conscious of a series of... presences. Not even clear enough to be shapes. Things that might be eyes, fixed on him. His voice, when he speaks, is still shaking, but stronger and more sure.

"What is this?"

You've done very well, Tom Hobbes. You've performed very impressively. So much so, in fact, that we have decided to grant you a favor.

"A favor?" He turns where he stands, feeling something cold slither down his spinal column. There's something about that word that he most definitely does not like. Mike would be skeptical. Mike might be openly scornful of such an offer, after all of this. "What kind of favor?"

The Maintainers have many capabilities. We can be very generous when we choose to be so.

"And you're choosing to be generous now?" He doesn't quite laugh, and the sound that pushes itself out of his throat sounds like it might have come from Mike. "That's great. So, what, you're gonna deliver Santiago all gift-wrapped instead of just killing him?"

Better. We have been watching you for longer than you know, Tom Hobbes. We watch everyone, everything, all of the time. We see all that happens, and we measure the balance. You have lost much since you came to our realm.

"No shit." This time he does laugh, still peering forward, trying to see what's in front of him, trying to see the shadows around him. He wants to step closer to the wall, but something mostly unexamined is rooting him to the spot. "Psycho dentists with boats? Dogs with more than one head? Giant spiders? Your realm is a pretty fucked up place."

Not our realm. THE Realm. Your lover. Your friend. These mean more to you than the parts of your body. We know this, because if it were not true you would not be here now.

Tom goes silent, swallows against a sudden prickling in his remaining eye.

It is within our power to return everything to you that was taken, Tom Hobbes. Everything. Or, we can grant you what you say you came here to find. Suddenly, as though a curtain of gauze has been raised, the far wall snaps into sharp focus, and he sees them. First, Omar Santiago, flickering and indistinct, standing with his hands clasped behind his back and looking at something that Tom can't see. It has the quality of a grainy surveillance video, of watching someone without their knowledge.

But now. Right there. Within reach.

And next to him, encased in what look like blocks of ice and hanging on the wall like pieces of fine art, are Sophie Green and Mike Pinocchio.

They're both naked, pale, uninjured and perfect, heads slightly down, eyes closed, features relaxed. No video image these, but right there in three dimensions, and yet they seem so much less real. Tom can't move, can't breathe, all pain gone and with it all sensation.


"What?" The word comes out high, shaking, weak, on the edge of tears. He can't even look at them. He wants to look away. He doesn't. Sophie...

And Mike.

Choose one only. Our generosity extends that far and no further. You may decide for which you've come so far and lost so much. Which is worth the sacrifice. One death or one life. Yours.

He shakes his head, and as he does his knees finally give out, and Tom goes down onto the floor in a barely controlled collapse, a rough sob tearing out of his chest and echoing through the shadows.

Of all the tests, all the trials and the ordeals and every awful torture, he thinks this might be the cruelest of all.
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August 2011

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