vervaceous: (poison)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 10/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 3,365
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 [livejournal.com profile] _shades_; the plot is hers. I merely flesh it out.


It's easy to lose track of time, walking. He's done it before now, but this is the first time he's walked for this long with no change, no event to break the monotony of the path stretching out in front of him and the weird, silvery light falling all around him. The world begins to fade in and out; exhaustion catching up with him. From time to time he cradles his injured hand as though the wounds were still open and raw. From time to time he still tastes blood in his mouth, welling up in the hole where his tooth had been, though when he pushes the tip of his tongue into the gap there's nothing there but smooth gum.

Hungry, the spider hisses in the recesses of his mind. Hungry. He can't be hungry here. He has no body, not really; his body is lying on a cold slab, wired to machines. Kept alive by machines. Perhaps a machine himself, by now. Machines are not hungry.

Once, in the distance, he thinks he hears the faint echo of a dog's howl, high and strange like something in a dream. It shouldn't comfort him, but he thinks of the colorless eyes of the woman at the crossroads--thinks of them, but not a memory, because they weren't a thing that memory could capture--he thinks of them, and there's comfort there.

Where he is is peaceful, floating outside of time, stretching endlessly in front of him. Just as he doesn't need food, he doesn't need rest. He can dream while he walks. He is dreaming now. His mutilated hand reaches up and brushes absently at the crusted blood on his shirt. A dream, all a dream, and nothing to wake up from. Nothing to wake up into. He'll find the Maintainers, and of course they'll do what he wants, and then he won't have to do anything else.

There was a place, once, a place that he was going to, and he was going there with a woman, a woman with cornsilk hair who made him smile, who made him happy. He was going there but he isn't anymore.

"What with my whole world-wide wandering," he murmurs, a snatch of alliterative phrase from some forgotten high school class, the meaning lost and the words barely amusements. He smiles faintly.

What with my search drawn out thro' years, my hope dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope with that obstreperous joy success would bring.

Years, years... he stumbles on something he can't see, pitches forward, palms skidding over the path. It happens so quickly that he doesn't feel the pain, not immediately, until, kneeling, he lifts his hands into the thin light and sees the tiny pebbled embedded in his flesh, the blood welling up around them in little black beads.

Not the first time. He feels the pain, now, but it's pain without any significance and he brushes it aside with a degree of impatience. Scraped palms are not the worst thing that's happened to him so far. He shoves himself back up to his feet, leaving bloodstains on his knees. There's a path to follow. A lot of ground to cover. He'll keep walking. It's all he can do.

It's getting colder. It isn't until his boots begin to leave prints in the silently-falling snow that he notices it.


* * *


"Florence." The voice is muddy and distant, and it's pulling her out of a merciful darkness before she's ready to emerge. She moans silently and tries to turn away, tries to dive back down again, but it's already too late, she's rising, and she opens her eyes to see Ash peering down at her, his own eyes dark and concerned, candlelight flickering across his face.

Her breath stutters and her palms grope across the blankets on which she's lying, pushing herself up. Her body is stiff and aching, and when she's sitting her back groans a protest. She ignores it. She's starting to remember: the house, the shed, the calf.

The calf's eyes.

"Whoa, easy." Ash lays a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. "You blacked out again. We were worried."

Florence passes a hand over her face, looks up at Ash with an expression that she hopes is reassuring. There's no way to explain this, not easily. Still hazy with sleep, she looks around the little room; a sewing room, it looks like, and also general storage, with broken chairs stacked against the wall, blankets folded in a corner atop other boxes, and the single mattress on which she's lying, piled with more blankets and cushions. No paper that she can see. She meets Ash's gaze again, makes a writing motion with her fingers and the flat of her other palm.

"Okay," Ash says after a second or two of frowning. "Just a sec and I'll see what I can find." He vanishes from view and Florence hears him rummaging. She closes her eyes again, pinches the bridge of her nose. Even writing, she doesn't know how to explain what she saw. What she felt. It shouldn't be possible. Dead is dead, Maintainers or no Maintainers. And this is not their doing. She can feel it: Tom is still a long way from where he needs to be.

The eyes. Please, don't be playing games with me.

"Here you go." Ash sits back down at her side, handing her a rough pad of paper and a pen. The pen is spotty and very low on ink, and her hands are shaking, and half of what she writes is almost unreadable. But she gets it out, bit by bit, and hands the pad over to Ash with a faint smile. He holds it close in the dimness, peering at it.

The calf was dying. I healed it. Healing drains my strength. Sometimes it makes me sick. I'll be ok, though. I need to rest for a while longer.

"I'll leave you alone, then," he says, looking up at her, something behind his eyes that almost seems afraid. She lays a hand on his arm, reaches for the pad again, and he hands it to her.

The calf is very important, isn't it?

"Yeah," he says, dropping the pad back into his lap when he's read it. "It is. But we'll talk about that tomorrow." He looks very tired suddenly, and Florence touches his arm again, her mouth twisting into a concerned line.

You should rest, too.

"I've got a bed made up in the living room," he says, and chuckles softly. "Margie said she'd do awful things to me if I didn't leave you alone. But I wanted to check on you."

Florence nods slowly, smiling again. He's a good man, she's sure by now: his warmth, the gentleness of his strength, the way he'd been with Lisa and the people he counts as his friends. But there's something else that worries her a little, something about his eyes when he looks at her, something about the way he tenses almost imperceptibly when she touches him.

She hopes that this isn't going to be a problem.

Ash gets slowly to his feet. "Want me to take the candle?" he asks, and she nods. She wants darkness. She wants to rest, but she doesn't want to sleep. She needs to think.

"Goodnight, Florence," he says softly, and leaves the room on silent feet, shutting the door behind him.

She lies back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, at the patterns that emerge and fade on the stucco, illuminated by the sliver moon peeking in through the little window. Moonlight, and a moon. This is a strange world, but it isn't a world of nonsense.

She thinks about the little shed, about the calf lying inside it. Sleeping, now. She can still feel it. I'll see you soon, she thinks, and closes her eyes.

This is not how she'd thought things would go.


* * *


Winter was months ago. He remembers it, and he can conceive of the distance in a dim kind of way that is as much a memory in itself, a vestigial kind of thought that no longer has any practical purpose. But he remembers the winter, and he remembers huddling in a snow cave with Mike, shifting closer to him for warmth and expecting to be pushed away. And Mike hadn't. Mike had curled an arm around his shoulders and after a while they had gone to sleep.

Winter was months ago. It's not time for it yet. But it's snowing.

He walks, shivering, arms wrapped around himself. The sky is low and gray; at some point the night and the moonlight had faded and now it might be daytime, but for the thick, oppressive snowclouds and the curtains of white sheeting down in front of him, silent and quietly, creepingly dreadful.

He turns and he can see his footprints, and for a few moments he can believe that he exists until they're blotted out again, and then he might be nothing at all. A pattern of snowflakes, a shape emerging out of the white, formed and solidified by a gust of wind and allowed to be until the wind gusts again and wipes him out of existence.

I think, therefore I am. That doesn't feel so convincing in the Realm.

"I'm going to die here," he murmurs. He's really just trying out the idea, pulling it out of his head and turning it over and over where he can see it clearly, feeling the curves and angles of it and seeing how it fits. He thinks it might fit pretty well, but it's not a perfect thing. He doesn't want to die. He wants to rest. If only he could be sure that he might have one without having to take the other as well.

I'm going to die here. And a low growl, somewhere out of the heart of the wind or the heart of him, whichever is more of a real thing: You are not, dick.

He thinks he sees mountains, towers, vast things wavering in front of him like desert mirages, vanishing when he approaches them. He sees dark things lurking on either side of the path, tracking him, circling like vultures, hyenas, waiting for him to be carrion. But he won't be carrion. None of the meat on him is real. "Just go out," he whispers. "Go out like a fucking candle."

Like Mike did.

No, dick, not like that. I had a purpose. I fucking saved your ass. You die now, what does it get either of us? I'm still dead. And I never wanted your company either way.

"That's not true," he laughs, and the laugh turns to a painful, hacking cough, and he doubles over with his ankles buried in the snow, thinking about the solid warmth of Mike's arm around his shoulders, and it's like something that he can hold onto until the cough releases him and he can breathe.

After a few minutes he starts to walk again.

He sees other shapes. The black immensity of the spider, spindly and bulbous both at once, following at his side, dancing ahead of him, waving its legs. The dogs at his heels, running dark and silent. The great three-headed dog, come back to finish what it started, to claim its prey. Tall figures in hooded cloaks. Monks, the hermit in the hut, or the Maintainers themselves. He doesn't know what they look like, if they even look like men. He's assumed that he'll know when he finds them. But how to be sure?

"Florence," he whispers. She's healed his wounds once, but she can't save him from the cold.


* * *


The sun wakes her, streaming in through the window and hitting her face like something hot and solid. She sits up instantly, rubbing at her eyes, looking around her. The night before is a vague and hazy memory, but she remembers being so tired, and now she feels rested. Hungry. The smell of cooking meat wafts in through the cracked door and she pushes to her feet, pulling on her boots and raking a hand through her short hair.

Out in the hallway, she almost runs into Abe, walking with a heavy sack in his arms. "Cornmeal," he says cheerfully. "For breakfast, for the calf. He's doin' a whole lot better this morning. Not on his feet yet but raising his head up and lookin' around. Whatever you did..." He shrugs, grinning. "Worked some kinda miracle."

There's something about the way he's taking it, about the wonder mixed with the good-tempered acceptance, that's like a breath of fresh air, and she returns his smile, laying a hand on his arm and squeezing.

"You should go on in the kitchen," he says, still grinning. "Get some breakfast for yourself. I bet you must be hungry."

She is, and she nods, slipping past him and into the kitchen, a pan of bacon and eggs crackling on the stove and Margie turning, wiping her hands on her apron, smiling until the lines at the corners of her eyes deepen into grooves.

Florence has never thought about getting old. She's always somehow assumed that it wouldn't happen, that one way or another she would never make it that far. But now she wonders what it might be like, to have lines like that from a lifetime of smiling.

She thinks it might be a nice thing to have.

"It's good to see you up, honey," Margie says, pressing a plate of bacon and fried eggs into her hands. "We were worried about you, but Ash said you were okay. Why don't you take that out on the porch? It's still cool enough out of the sun."

Florence takes the plate, nods as her stomach lets out a grateful growl. She reaches out, touches Margie's shoulder and nods at the door with a questioning look. Where's Ash?

"I don't..." Then Margie's face clears as she understands. "Oh. He's out right now, checking the roads. He'll be back soon."

It's warm on the porch, but it's shady, and Florence sits down on one of the ancient rocking chairs with her plate on her knees. She knows that there are places like this all over the Realm, places that have somehow retained some of the light and life of the world before the bombs fell. She knows that they're there, but somehow they always surprise her, leaving her pleased and weirdly stunned. She munches the bacon and eggs, watching the desert, wondering if she has any right to feel as cheerful as she does. Mike is dead, Tom is missing, and she can feel danger gathering, circling, like animals in the darkness waiting for the kill.

But the eggs are still good and the bacon is still savory. Mike had always believed in taking pleasure when it was there to take.

There's a thin line of dust on the horizon. She watches it approach, chewing meditatively; she can't see what it is but something in her is telling her that there's no reason to fear it. It's coming towards the house, bright and swirling, and finally out of it comes what looks like a motorcycle, and what looks like Ash sitting astride it. Florence lays her plate down on the floorboards, gets to her feet and waves, and as the bike draws closer, the figure on it raises an arm and returns the wave.

She's happy to see him, happier than she would have expected, but when he finally pulls up in front of the porch and swings off the bike, his face is grave. "Florence," he says, pulling off his helmet and shaking out his black hair. "I was checking the roads. I gotta talk to Abe and Margie."

Florence frowns, moves down the porch steps and over to him, face questioning.

"It's..." Ash is sweating freely and he wipes a dusty hand across his forehead, leaving a rusty smear that looks almost like blood. "Shit. It's Rusk. I don't know how, but I think he got wind of the fact that you're here. There's men on the road, about an hour back. I almost broke this damn thing trying to get back here in time."

Florence looks back at the empty road, and then at Ash again. Rusk. She's known too many men like Rusk. From the beginning, he hadn't struck her as the kind of man who would have liked to let a target slip away. And there's Tom. To Rusk, she'll be a means to an end.

And he'll do whatever it takes to make her give him what he wants.

"Ash?" Florence turns. It's Margie, standing in the doorway and drying her hands on a dishtowel, her eyes squinting into the brightness. "I thought I heard you with that old bike. What's the news, darlin'?"

"Bad, Margie." Ash steps past Florence, a hand light and quick on her arm but his eyes on the old woman, and something almost like apology in his voice. "There's trouble coming. We don't have a lot of time."

Her face tightens, and instantly she looks ten years older. Florence feels a pang as she watches it, something tight and painful, something guilty, and she understands the apology in Ash's voice. These were quiet people, good people, making a life here in the midst of a dead world, and she can't help feeling that the look on Margie's face has more than a little to do with their arrival.

With her.

"We should talk to Abe," Ash says, glancing back at the road as though he expects to see something. "We have to run. Soon."


* * *


At some point he falls again and when he tries to get up, he can't. The snow has stopped, stopped hours or days or years ago, and the world all around him is vast and flat and white, the sky over him white, everything featureless and no longer any way to identify the path. Into that blank whiteness he falls, and lies with his face in the snow, his fingers and toes numb, his lips twitching slightly. Past shivering.

"The end," he whispers, and laughs silently. To come this far and have it finish like this. Not that any finish would really seem fair. His lips are cracked and crusted with blood. He rolls, groaning, turning his face up to the empty sky.

"Sophie." He won't be going home. Not now, not ever. Mike had known it, though he'd never said it, and now Tom knows it too. From a place like the Realm, there isn't ever any going home. When he'd seen her last she had tried to eat him alive, and now, when he lies in the snow and tries to see her hair, her face, her smile and the exact hue of her eyes, the memories are doing the same.

I'm so sorry.

Don't you apologize to her. The voice is harsh, angry, tired. Weak and distant, though he knows that applying any distance to it is impossible; it's coming from the depths of his own mind. You wanna give up, that's fine. You lie here and give the fuck up. This isn't the first time I was pretty sure I was gonna die for nothing. But if you're gonna let yourself die, you leave her outta this, because you won't be the only one facing a death sentence.

"You're already dead," he croaks, his tongue moving thickly in his mouth. Far, far overhead, two dark specks are circling on the thermals.

So are you. So is she. So is everything. Tell me something I don't know, dick.

"I can't," he whispers, and he would cry if every drop of water in his body didn't already feel frozen. "I'm sorry, Mike. I can't."

Don't you dare apologize to me, either. The voice is fading and flat, cold as the blood in his veins. Just die, you useless piece of shit. Die, if that's what you want to do.

Tom sobs weakly, turns his face into the snow with his lips numb and ice crystals forming on his eyelashes, and he waits. After a while, the dark specks circle lower.

Date: 2009-09-06 03:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_shades_/

"I'm going to die here," he murmurs. He's really just trying out the idea, pulling it out of his head and turning it over and over where he can see it clearly, feeling the curves and angles of it and seeing how it fits.


Oh, MAN. For some reason that really resonates with me. It's such a sad, powerful image and...uff, it feels like so much pain and sacrifice for nothing.

YOU ARE CRUEL AND ALSO FUCKING AMAZING. MAKE MORE OF THIS.

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