Under the Shadow

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Doppleganger by Seraphym (Tuesday, April 24, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Desperado by John Murdock (Tuesday, April 24, 2007)

(posted Tuesday, April 24, 2007)

A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. "A precipice in front, wolves behind "

Astra quickly corrected herself before Sera could say anything, even on the "family channel."

"Sorry--sorry!" her daughter said, stopping just short of throwing her arms around the green-skinned man. "I--I keep forgetting--"

Sera could tell from the startled way that the "General" looked at them all that this outburst had thrown him completely off guard.

All right then, she needed to take advantage of that. She stepped forward, and looked up frankly into his face. This Zach Marlowe did not sport the little "soul patch" on his chin that theirs had, and his hair was cut almost severely short. Like Sarge, he wore camos that had been new a very, very long time ago, though they were neatly mended and fastidiously clean. But otherwise, he was Bestial Boy's identical twin. She was going to say something, but Astra beat her to it, flushing a deep crimson with embarrassment.

"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean--" She hung her head. "It's just that--where we're from, our Uncle Zach...died. And we all..." The teenager looked up into the General's face, and there were real tears spilling over her cheeks and brightening her brilliant blue eyes. "...we all...cared for him. A lot. And Aunt Bella just..."

Poor little Astra, who had done so much for Bella during the worst of her mourning and had not really had much chance to give voice to her own, now turned away and into her mother's shoulder to sob softly. It would have taken a very hard heart indeed not to be affected by Astra's very real grief, and no matter what this world's Zachary Marlowe had endured, it had not hardened him to that extent. He blinked, made an abortive gesture of comfort, then turned back to John.

The Sarge gave Zach's counterpart a quick and concise explanation; that they were from another dimension, had been transported here during what they assumed to be a Portal accident of some sort while on a routine exploration mission, and so on. At least these people knew about the multiverse...it made that much a little easier...

The General sighed. "This all seem right to you?" he asked. "Not like these are plants of some kind?" Aedan and Ratt bristled at this, but Sera only nodded. She knew that this world's Zach--the "General"--wasn't trying to be rude, simply prudent. The Fallen delighted in deception and trickery, and would no doubt have multiple mechanisms in place in order to place one of their own pawns among their opposition. Paranoia wasn't out of line, not here.

"Sir, if you have any way of giving us a--an inspection, I wish you would do so," she said, projecting as much honesty as she could. "If you can at least verify that we are trustworthy, then perhaps we can help each other."

The General looked back at Sarge. "Whatcha think? Vic can handle this?"

"If she can't, no lie detector can," Sarge confirmed. "I say feed 'em, get the medic 'ere t'look at that boy, and ship 'em up-country. We might have some in-bound on the way 'ere, but there ain't any tellin' right now. Once we get 'em up to Vic, though, they ought t'be at least a bit better shielded."

"Get it done," the General nodded, becoming all business again.

Vic,{ Sera thought, as an hour later, she watched the medic fitting JJ with an IV "push" to get a concentrated supply of nutrients into him. I will be most surprised if that is not this world's Vickie. And I know that this John recognized her name, and Red's. It almost seems as if the only person missing here is a counterpart to me...but that makes sense. No counterpart to me could exist in a world Shadowed like this one. But that meant that this world's John still mourned for his lost love...

And had no hope of anything beyond death. No hope at all...

Despair, that was what she felt here, despite the outward appearances. These people were backed into a corner and saw no way out. This was not the passive despair that made people lie down and die; this was the active sort, the "I may be destroyed, but I am taking you with me" sort. But it was despair all the same.

Now that she knew what she was looking at, she sensed it all around her. Not everyone was affected yet, of course. But the leaders--this medic--they knew. The medic was treating JJ with a curious combination of determination to do his job and a kind of envy that when the end came, this boy would not be aware enough to know.

And once again, the Fallen were winning. She could not let that happen. Somehow, some way, she had to make these people hope again...

"You better go on to get some food and sleep, ma'am," the medic said. "Your boy'll be fine here."

She nodded, then hesitated. "Was there a woman here, some time ago? Named Bella? Bella Dawn?"

The medic sighed and dropped his head, his shoulders hunching. "Yeah, she was our lead doc. And--she was the General's lady."

"What happened?" Sera asked softly. "No--let me tell you. She lost control of her powers and became dangerously radioactive. Right?"

He nodded. "And no one could get near her but the General unless she was in this hazmat suit. But she didn't care, and she still worked like a dog, just like the rest of us. It got worse, though, and then one day--she was gone, just left a note behind. Said something had gone wrong to where she was dangerous, and she was gonna use that to buy us some room. General went after her, hell, we all went after her, but--well all we know for sure is that one of Their big installations got EMPed, and I mean hard, and the place was so radioactive They wouldn't even go in there. General went in himself and found her. There was another note with her, said to bury her there somewhere secret, to keep Them from taking it back. So I guess that's what he did."

Sera went off to join the rest of her family, feeling weary beyond belief. If ever there was an entire world that seemed to be impossible to save...

JJ at least was looking better and feeling stronger. Whatever the medic was doing, was at least helping her son's body.

If only she could reach him.

Something tickled at the back of her mind, but she was given no time to pursue the thought. For just as the medic finished his work on JJ, an alarm sounded in the buried lab-van that was the infirmary, and echoes of that alarm rang outside, in the corridor.

She had the feeling that Sarge was not going to be long in appearing, and indeed--as the sounds of purposeful feet pounded outside, and the medic swiftly assembled his gear, this world's John poked his head in the door.

"We're gonna get visitors," he said grimly. "Like I reckoned. Looks like we're all goin' up-country after all. Get yer family together; we're movin' out in two minutes, an' we can't spare any more than that."