Come the Apocalypse
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan-fiction based on characters and universe owned by Marvel Comics, and set within Alicia McKenzie's Shadowlands variant thereof. It has been specifically approved by the latter and accepted into continuity (such as it is), whereas it has no bearing whatsoever on Marvel's behavior. No material profit is intended or expected.
Note: The Nur in this story is the same one who shows up briefly in "Unexpected Companions" and who arrived at Oasis in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
I received some very strange looks when I initially informed my record-keepers that I wanted an assembly of the back-issues of tabloids beginning in 1983. They're usually not easy to nonplus. I imagine that when one works for a man who has lived as many centuries as most of his colleagues have years, one might expect some odd behavior.
Then again, I believe in the course of the past few generations I have spent little time and attention on the news sources considered less reputable. Unfortunately, until three days ago, they seem to have been the only ones who attended to the idea that reality might be fracturing. I should have been more alert.
Three days ago, an airplane carrying five hundred and seventeen people departed from Memphis. It was scheduled to arrive in Memphis, Tennessee in the United States the next day, though a warning had been issued that erratic weather phenomena in the mid-Atlantic, while posing no danger, might necessitate course adjustments that could alter the projected arrival time. Not to worry, they were prepared for such an eventuality and had plenty of fuel and pleasant but less vital amenities aboard.
While posing no danger. A routine phrase for routine and minor complications.
That aircraft never arrived. Communication was lost after we received a panicked transmission in which the pilot gave a perhaps fanciful description of a rift in the world and her attempt and failure to change course rapidly enough to avoid it that has been quoted, played and re-played on nearly every medium of widely targeted transmission available ever since the recording was released.
Perhaps not so fanciful. We have lost communication with the Western Hemisphere entirely, except for some very agitated people in eastern Brazil. They seem to be an aberration, and have reported a similar sort of fracture through the air and ground that cautious -- very cautious, as automated as possible -- observations have discovered meandering in erratic directions through much of the ocean.
I am extremely disturbed by this. While I admit to finding it difficult to believe we have actually somehow managed to lose a significant portion of the planet, we have definitely lost the passengers and crew of that flight -- I should never have permitted the safety requirement of having an operative telekinetic aboard to be rescinded -- and....
Actually, it's looking more and more probable that we really did lose a significant portion of the planet. Most of two continents.
We have at least lost communication with them. There are attempts to get around the problem, of course. Come to think of it, rerouting all transmissions and some cautious experiments at travel to the east qualifies fairly literally under that phrase. So do the efforts directed through Antarctica, which so far appears to be intact. Admittedly, with the large unpopulated regions it could be hard to tell.
My daughter was in Arizona investigating reports of a new hantavirus. I know very well that she can take care of herself. I trained her.
I would still prefer to be able to contact her.
I may be engaging in some digressive thoughts, but I am still paging through the tabloids -- searching backwards for early signs that may not have served us as warnings but might yet give some assistance -- when the door bursts open with a blast of heat and a man steps through the halo of flame.
I turn and rise at once, advancing a step and opening my mouth to ask sternly what he thinks he's doing, but have only time to ascertain that he is an utter stranger before, eyes wild and nearly panicked, he raises a hand to loose an energy blast that feels as if it wrenches at my very cells. I see him stagger -- barely -- as the world in my vision turns orange and -- gone.
That was unexpected. He actually managed to kill me.
I have few personal guards how. I am -- sometimes still to my own surprise -- reasonably popular most of the time, and as both a strong warrior and an External, I have little trouble with assassins. Most of those who *can* give me trouble would probably give nearly any guard I picked considerably more, and very few even try.
This man made a very impressive effort, but not enough.
I open my eyes and see that he has turned to my desk and has his back to me, inattentive, so I rise quietly. What is he thinking, giving me time to recover, repair damage, even push aside the lingering pain of the return? I thought the complications inherent in trying to kill me were common knowledge. Perhaps I flattered myself.
The tabloids seem to perplex him.
This time, I am the swifter and have -- however inexplicably -- the advantage of surprise. Silently, I seize and turn him, prepared to force him to his knees -- but they buckle instead, and I sigh in disappointment and support him so that he doesn't fold onto the floor entirely. It is not, of course, that I particularly long for more competent enemies, but it still seems something of a letdown. He started out so well.
Now, his eyes are wide and rolling with panic, his skin damp with the sweat of fear. I have an excellent view of this, as his head when he kneels is approximately level with mine. Admittedly, I am not tall for a male in this time and place, but this is still rather unusual.
I give him a slight shake in an attempt to encourage focus. "What did you think you were doing?"
All I receive in return is a strangled-sounding moan.
I ascertain that I cannot be interfering with his breathing, at least not to an extent which would prevent speech, and sigh. "Aside from trying to assassinate me. It seems to have been a rather ill-informed attempt."
"Monster!" His voice is choked, laced with an accent strange to me, but the word... all too familiar in more languages than I care to count. I rarely used to evoke a positive initial reaction. "Tyrant -- end you --"
"Coherence is not your strong point, is it?"
"You know what you've done!" It's fairly screamed, raw-voiced and rattling with saliva he's under too much strain to swallow.
"Of course I know what I've done. I'm not quite certain what *you* are upset about, however."
It takes several more minutes of sentence fragments before I gain a reasonably clear idea of his perceived grievances. I say perceived because while I am aware that there are negative consequences for some people as a result of certain of my actions, at this point I reach the unexpected but firm conclusion that he isn't talking about anything I *have* done. As a matter of fact, he doesn't seem to be talking about anything that anyone else has done, either.
For one thing, the Nile is still there. I can see it quite clearly from my office window. I drag him patiently over to look at it, but it only seems to throw him into deeper confusion.
Moving does, however, seem to have been a fortunate choice. As I turn to look around, under the vague impression that someone else might be on their way, the air rips open in the middle of my office -- the doomed pilot's words race through my head: "The world's tearing open in front of us, a rift in the world, air and water, *there isn't time to turn I tried--*"
In this case, the "rift" is going the opposite direction. The rest of the building has sheared away and is gone -- I first think it must be destroyed, then reconsider. It may simply be... elsewhere, somehow, because what *is* present on the other side of the line where the rift opened certainly isn't rubble, but it just as certainly wasn't there before.
I drag my assassin to the break, look down to be sure there's no one beneath us, and step over the edge to levitate downwards, collecting a few rather distressed employees along the way. This is a well-constructed building, but the architects can't have anticipated *this*.
If they did, they really should have mentioned it.
The assassin tries struggling, and I consider simply dropping him and seeing whether he can fly. Then he tries to attack a secretary, so I yank him away from her and snap his neck before letting go.
He does not fly.
I wave off her thanks -- figuratively speaking, as my hands are full. I had to do something with him. Besides, being in charge of the aviation subdivision of transport, she's had an unusually stressful week as it is.
After depositing my current companions on the ground and suggesting strongly that they leave the vicinity of the building, I rise back up it to search for more survivors.
When my feet touch the ground on the last descent, there is a soft splash. Puzzled, I walk through the thin layer of water, keeping as best I can to the line of demarcation where the rift first appeared. A handful of earth leaves a faint sting on my skin as of some poison; the texture is only of fine dust and water, nothing roots could grasp.
The mystery is solved when I reach a clear view of the Nile again -- in this strange new territory the rift left in its wake, there was no river here.
Water strikes earth where the new area begins and, with no path to follow, spills at random across the dust. Wasted.
My people, those I can find or who find me, look to me for leadership and protection. I give them what I can. For them I stretch my powers beyond where creativity, curiosity, and necessity have pulled them over five thousand years... but even I have limits.
I cannot stop the rifts. Shifts, the others have begun calling the different worlds and the splits between them, and I adopt the term. The shifts are inexorable; we learn to know when a new one will appear, to recognize the signs, but there is no way to stop or alter them.
Except one. I seem to repel them. When I walk toward a new shift it will usually retreat before me -- but not always, and what I do seems to have no bearing on whether it leaves behind the same place we've been or a new one.
I have always remembered that the world is wild underneath all we can do to it. When I was young it was taken for granted that this was the nature of things: animals and plants and the desert itself could kill if one was careless or ignorant, and sometimes what the world did could be neither controlled nor even predicted. So for my people then, life was a test, a series of challenges to be prolonged as much as possible.
My people now are accustomed to control, to mutant powers, to modern technology. There are those who can move the earth, those who warp reality itself.... The things we cannot control have not been felt so keenly for long years. Even I feel it; even I must remind myself after so much time of luxury for other pursuits that survival alone is not an unworthy goal.
They are confused, fearful -- yet still they trust me, though in all honesty I find the situation bewildering myself and fear for them. Little for myself -- I am difficult to kill, and if I die, well, I have had a long life. I think that for myself I most fear losing them, failing my people... my tribe, particularly when they do trust me.
It has been a very long time since I was an outcast, but this does not mean I take their confidence for granted. Especially when I cannot meet their expectations, or at least their hopes, and their trust still does not break.
We may not be able to control, but we adapt nonetheless as best we can. We are human; this is what we do. We may never be suited perfectly to every environment, but we change what we can. If this is not the world, it is ourselves.
So we try to cultivate food, and when a shift carries most of the garden away we change our strategy and build carts, carrying with us flats and pots of the next fertile earth we find, becoming nomads again but taking our land with us. This doesn't work perfectly -- some of it is damaged or changed in some shifts -- but it is an improvement.
We have been trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Initially, all the laboratories in imaginably relevant fields -- those we could contact, that is -- were directed to consider the problem. There were only a few remaining even at that time; as many of us as could arrange it gathered at one of the more promising.
Now that the laboratory is no longer habitable, we have turned to thought experiments. That includes nearly everyone -- it took very little time for the group as a whole to persuade the experts to explain their esoterica as well as could be managed under the circumstances, and even if it may be futile, attempting to make sense of the situation gives some satisfaction. It feels like doing something potentially useful; it is an intrinsically interesting topic; and it provides intellectual stimulation.
Ironically, for all my musings on control and the lack thereof, I find myself unable to shake the conviction that the world's new and strange behavior was somehow caused by humans. For good or ill, however, I don't know by whom.
We adapt. It is what we do... but we are unable to adapt to everything. A shift that opens while we sleep may give enough warning for a lookout to rouse the rest or for a sleeper to roll aside... but it may not. We lack the time to learn survival for every shift, lack resources for some that could be made habitable if only we had our home world as a stable base of operations.
We have no way to recover those who vanish across a boundary whose other side changes as we look -- or worse, step through.
It is this last that destroys us as a people, a group, a tribe. Death is comprehensible, expected. This separation is... too fast, too strange. We try to think of the shifts that steal our companions as predators, but we know there is a chance some are still alive, only lost. After all, to them we are lost in the same way.
We do all we can think of to remain together, but make certain everyone carries a share of supplies.
Perhaps some of those who disappeared together have not yet lost each other when, after hours of searching for my last companions back and forth across a boundary that changes at each crossing and occasionally tries to escape, I stop in the most hospitable shift I've seen for several minutes and admit to myself that I am, for now, alone.
I walk onward, choosing whatever path seems right in my eyes as I go.
We are like the water. Balked by limits we never expected, we scatter futilely in any direction.
As for me, I will look for soil where something may have a chance to grow.