I'm back up to date, although wondering what the hell was I thinking. You know, in general.
Chapter XVI: Choice One
There are graduations of agony. The Survivor found herself in a lower one, as the shadows that had been feeding on her retreated as much as they could. She was left standing at the center of a circle of nightmares, her body whole again. There was still pain, of course. The shadows couldn't be seen without pain, their nearness alone poisoning the blood. And they were in their world. It was a place not meant for humans. Just the way light behaved seemed to exclude the concept of peace.
The shadows rippled, and the Survivor understood without being told. Some things were common to everything that existed, alive or not. The shadows weren't in pain — they were made of pain — but something was hurting them. Something somewhere was hurting them very much, enough that they noticed even here, even doing this. Enough that they had had to stop the feeding that nurtured and defined them.
The Survivor smiled. If they could be hurt they could be killed. She had some experience killing things that were already dead. Be it fire, lead, steel, or something else, she'd find it and come back here, because the only way to survive in a universe that had those things in it was to stamp them out forever. They were what was behind the Handlers' eyes, worlds and lifetimes ago, and as long as they existed somewhere, survival would be a rigged game that couldn't be won.
The shadows shifted, impossibly sharp teeth angling in new ways. They were asking for help. Neither prideful nor begging, because those concepts were alien to them, they were asking for her help as they had asked for her pain just minutes ago.
The Survivor laughed. She would have spat on them, but the gesture had lost her novelty subjective years before. It wasn't necessary, anyway. The shadows and her understood each other perfectly.
Or so she had thought, and yet here they were, asking her to save them.
"No." She said. "Not if you torture me for another ten years. Not if you threaten to kill me. Not if you threaten to kill the world."
The shadows shifted again, and when the Survivor growled at them they moved in coordinated chaos.
"They are saying they didn't do it," said the Military Man, who was held nearby on a wet and rippling dark cross. "I learned a bit of their language from the asylum's Director."
The Survivor shrugged. "I've seen the world end. These things are worse."
The shadows encroached around her. The survivor bared her teeth. "Back to the torture, eh?"
The shadows twirled. "'No'," translated the Military Man. "'We'll set you free.'"
She gasped in more surprise than pain as the shadows drowned her.
* * *
The Survivor woke up in a normal world. She could shower, she could work, she could buy shoes and collect books.
She couldn't do anything else. She couldn't stash ammo, water, and maps. She couldn't hide an axe under her pillow. She couldn't buy a knife every week. She couldn't be anything but a victim, and she couldn't scream.
When the illness came she knew it was the end of the world, and she knew what she had to do, but she didn't do it. Her deepest thoughts and truest instincts had no hold on her body, her actions, and her words. She panicked. She was hurt. She was lost. She fell ill.
She died, of course.
The Survivor woke up in a normal world. She tried to scream again but couldn't.
She lost the count of worlds, of epidemics, of ends. Her deaths became a blur. She stopped trying to force herself to survive. The core of what she was had been severed from her life, and could only watch as the same dreadfully monotonous scenario played itself out in life after life. Once, by chance, she saw a man that wasn't caught in the nightmare, but she couldn't call out to him. He was dying on the street, one of the first, kneeling on a sidewalk with practiced ease while she was swept by the crowd as if she were nothing but a mote of dust.
She didn't think she could become insane, and she was beginning to regret it. She went on living and dying, unable, not matter how hard she tried, to lose her mind or do something with it.
She was grateful when the shadows opened up one random day and swallowed her in their many-teethed arms. Her body screamed in pain, but she was smiling in her mind.
* * *
The shadows parted, letting the Survivor fall. She was trembling, eyes closed, fists pressed against the pulsating floor.
"Are you okay?" asked the Military Man. There were graduations of agony, and they had grown familiar with them and each other.
"No," said the Survivor. They had been tortured for what had felt like years, yet he had never heard so much pain and rage in her voice before. She had been a convenient weapon before. Now she sounded like a war.
"No," she repeated, this time to herself. Behind every nightmare she kept finding something worse. It wasn't a surprise, no. That had been the nature of the universe as far back and as deeply as she could understand She wondered if the progression would ever end, but that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was here and today. The hate she felt and who would pay.
The Survivor stood up. The shadows retreated. She spoke to them, but not looking at them. Her eyes were elsewhere, cold and hard, hurt and angry. "You will let us both go. You will give us what weapons and information you have, and the means to move from world to world as you do. And if you stand in my way I will kill you all." She approached a tendril of darkness and held it in her hand. It was a weaved out of sharp curves and poisonous metal, an instrument of torture that was also alive.
She ripped it off with her bare hand, thoughtlessly, as if her mind were elsewhere.
The shadows shifted closer to the ground. The Military Man barked a laugh. There was no need for translation, not this time.
* * *
You had always done everything the Doctor had told you to do. Before, when you were both in the asylum, and now when you were both in your home. The Doctor knew what was wrong in you, and how to keep it at bay. When you had killed all those people in that bus, he had kept you out of jail, and had taught you how to and whom to lie. He had explained to you that it hadn't been your fault, and had promised you'd get to do it again. He was now a head sitting over your television set, but that didn't change any of that.
You had put him there, so you could watch television while the Doctor instructed you. He had said it was fine, that your conscious self wasn't very relevant or good for anything anyway. You don't know what that means, except that you can watch television if you tune out the Doctor's monotonous droning, and that's all you want to know. Sometimes you watch all day long, not even standing long on any channel, but cycling through them for hours at a time. Nothing seems to hold your attention, reality the least, yet there's a calm of sorts in letting your mind drift between images and plots. You sleep and wake up without solution of continuity, and if you are feeding yourself or cleaning up you don't remember it very well.
Time passes. You realize you quit your job, but the Doctor tells you its fine. He had decided that it would be therapeutic for you to do so, and it does give you more free time. You begin to notice time not through the movement of the sun, but through the by now familiar schedules of the channels. Weekends have different programs, too. Sometimes you look forward to a particular movie the next day, but that's almost too far in the future, and you find it harder and harder to think like that. Even following a sitcom taxes your mind, and yet this makes it even harder to do anything else.
One day you realize that there can't be any TV shows, not with the whole world dying, but the Doctor's head speaks louder, and you forget what you were thinking about.
The remote control in your hand is as familiar as your heartbeat now, but you don't remember if the spots of blood on it were there before. They are on your hand, too.
Time passes. Sometimes you are more tired than usual, tired enough to feel it through the haze. At those times you wonder what you've been doing, and you recognize a familiar coppery smell. But its name eludes you, and you don't care.
It might have been weeks later, hours, years. One night you wake up, and the Doctor's head is grinning, and the remote control is a knife. You are using the knife to cut yourself.
"If you do it as I told you," the Doctor is saying, "you won't have to die at once."
You don't want to cut yourself, that's something you do to other people, that's something that happens to people who are weak and beg. You beg. But you keep cutting yourself.
The Doctor isn't looking at you anymore, but at something at your back. You wish you could turn around.
"Finally," says the Doctor, "Home at last." You stop cutting yourself, but you don't stop bleeding, and you can't do what you'd like to, which is to run away and find a bus.
Then the Doctor's face turns really ugly. "You!" he says.
You hear a man's voice behind you. "Doctor," he says. He sounds cheerful. "I'm afraid you are being drafted again."
"Feel free to argue," says another voice, a female one. She walks in front of you and picks the Doctor's head with one hand. In the other she's carrying an axe.