Suggested listening: Several Days of Static Happiness (you probably shouldn't listen to all of it)
I... needed to get back, right? For all I knew I was drowning at the bottom of the ocean. All I had to do was let go, and I'd be back to my body. This was his choice, this death. Who was I to...
But, wait. What was I doing? Just leaving? Abandoning this guy to just die here?
I shook my head (or whatever the disembodied, astral equivalent of that was). Sure, I hadn't got any help when I woke up, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have welcomed some. I wasn't the one trapped in this dying or dead world, and I hadn't done anything but mock this guy who was on the verge of collapse since I showed up. I wasn't...
...feeling like myself.
With a shock I felt awake again suddenly - I was aware that I'd been thinking thoughts that weren't entirely my own.
The meanness - that cruelty - that wasn't me! I felt the tinge of alien thoughts, and recognized them. I didn't know if Ibix was trying to make me this way, or if it just happened naturally. I was embarassed by the things I'd thought under its influence - I was glad that at least Chris hadn't heard me. I was sure he couldn't hear my exact words.
Of course, that didn't mean I couldn't still try to communicate. Big emotions and urges seemed to come across.
I've got you.
Chris and I sat in front of the cave entrance for a few minutes, in silence.
I could tell that he was sweating pretty hard. When he finally spoke, his voice was broken. "Thank you".
He broke down after that and could only blubber for a while. I'm sure a few minutes ago I would have gone into another rage, but as it was I just felt sort of fond concern. The poor guy was at his breaking point. He seemed to recognize I was there, and separate from him. Of course he might just think he was going insane. Well, we'd deal with that when it came time.
"I almost... oh god, I can't.... thank you." He said a variation on that several times, then (with a little encouragement from me) picked himself up.
Alright I thought at him, onward and upward, buddy.
And he went. I had no idea if up or down was the right direction, but I had to bluff confidence for both of us. It was slow going, with his beaten body, but his mind was much more determined than before.
It was rough going. The tunnels were quite small, and the dirt had turned into mud in the driving rain. I felt more than a little like a worm as we clawed our way through. I'm reasonably sure if we hadn't had that moment of epiphany earlier Chris would have given up, and I'd probably have left him.
We were pretty determined at this point.
So it was with triumph that we finally broke free into the open air. With the rain pouring down, Chris howled out in triumph, and I admit I was feeling pretty pepped up too.
It almost made me forget that we were probably the last consciousnesses on a broken, alone earth. I chose not to remind Chris.
Lacking direction, we headed off to the east.
Chris was leaping off cliffs that he couldn't see the bottom of. Was there a tinge of recklessness to his bravery? Absolutely. But it was probably well-earned. As long as I was with him, there were no fatal mistakes. Uh, probably.
We were sliding down the cliffside, nearly falling. Poor guy must have really missed his family.
Author's note: the white sky was me finally catching the lightning
Finally, we reached the shore. It was a pretty dramatic drop into the ocean - there was no way we could swim it in this weather. Straining as hard as I could, I thought I could make out some lights in the distance. Lights! The city we had just moved through had been pitch-dark. Lights meant there could be other people! I think Chris was disappointed that we didn't find any people to talk to, but the mere possibility of survivors energized me.
Nowhere to go but west, man. Let's go!
I offered Chris all the support I could - half-dragging us back up the cliffs he'd so easily jumped off of. Maybe this'd teach him to just vault into the unknown!
We reached the entrance to the cliffs again, and this time headed west.
There was a small, improvised graveyard here. The graves were rough, and the names had been carved in crudely and colored in with what looked like charcoal or carbon. They were already running in the rain, but we were able to make out a few.
And of course "Chris Freeman, Rest in Peace".
Our little happy freedom train was pretty handily yanked off its tracks.
This could mean anything - maybe we jumped ahead in time, and people took us for dead.
Maybe we timehopped all over the place, and ended up here when we died.
He died. I mean when he died. Surely I left him before that!
On the gravestone, we found a logbook that looked just like the one we were carrying. Chris stored it in his back pocket, without opening it. I probably would have wanted to open it, but... he was plenty freaked out for now. I decided to give out some encouragement.
No time to worry about it. Let's keep going
We climbed, up and west.
Author's note: we're moving from right to left from here on out - just read the panels like one of your Japanese Anime Mangas!
We reached the top of the plateau, the grass soaked with the driving rain. The wind was picking up, and we were starting to shiver. We picked our way further west, lost in thought about the gravestone.
I still have not opened the other logbook. I'm too afraid of what I could find inside... Yes, the future scares me. But I can control my destiny. I can change all of that.
A little depressing, sure, but a darn sight more hopeful than he was a few minutes ago.
We saw a house up ahead. Chris seemed to perk up heading for it - maybe he knew the place? Anyway, even if it was just another abandoned shell, at least it'd be a place to get out of the rain.
Never have I been so wrong.
We heard some noises in the house, and, while I'd have preferred more caution, Chris called out "HELLO?"
The shuffling stopped, and before long we saw a small, dark-complexioned man and a thin, reedy woman with him. The man was brandishing a pool cue (and totally failing to look threatening at all), and the woman had a shovel. The man's face turned from fear to astonishment in a millisecond.
There was a general hullabaloo of hugs and "can't-believe-you're-alive"s. Chris saw fit not to mention me, which made a lot of sense, but did leave me vaguely irritated.
The long and short of it was there was some kind of accident at the lab they had collectively worked at. I was fully expecting to hear about some pulse of energy, and learn that this was all our fault (his fault), but instead it was a totally separate department in this lab - somebody working on some high-tech thing I didn't understand - chemistry and biology was the gist of it.
The upshot was things went south in a hurry, and some... thing overran the lab. Nobody who survived stayed around long enough to see what was going on, there were just a lot of screams, then not a lot of screams.
Sanjay and Claire and a couple others made it out - the rest fled in a boat, planning to get to a nearby island. Sanjay and Claire had stayed behind, and from the sheepish grins, I got the impression they were looking for Chris.
They were on the verge of giving up on finding him when we showed up, apparently.
It was the general opinion that the city was toast, and anybody who didn't get a pretty healthy head-start was... gone. Sanjay and Claire had stayed safe by staying isolated, so they weren't clear what happened, but people had been missing from the city for about a week now. No bodies, nothing.
They had found his notebook near the house we were at (it was apparently Chris's home), and put it near his grave as a marker. Chris had the nerve to look in it now, and there were simply long strings of numbers and characters. Chris got really excited, apparently recognizing them as the right size and format for settings for his machine.
This seemed interesting enough that he wanted to go back to check it out - Sanjay and Claire were against the idea, but lacking better ideas, Chris's enthusiasm prevailed. And back we went, the four of us.
I think I'm on the road that leads to my laboratory. Yes, I would swear I have taken this bridge hundreds of times. There is maybe a chance for this laboratory to be operative yet, and that I could get back to the past. That's the only way. But do I really have the choice?
Chris was still writing in his notebook, but I think it was a way to talk to me now (he not wanting to talk to himself, now that Sanjay and Claire were around).
I wasn't sure what Chris was planning - I suspect he didn't either. I guess the first step was to go back before all this happened, and fix things. It struck me for the first time that our stories were... pretty similar. Except that I didn't have a magical ghost helper.
Lousy pampered Chris.
It WAS a good thing for us that this bridge was still here - there was water underneath it - we were traveling across a bay to get to the lab - apparently it was isolated from the main city. Not isolated enough I guess.
Claire and Sanjay were talkative at first, and Sanjay in particular seemed to be in a good mood, but as we crossed the bridge that started to fade. We had no reason to think that whatever had... taken the people was still in the lab, but we were feeling anxious and paranoid nonetheless.
I'm doomed: part of the tunnel that goes through the mountains has collapsed. What am I going to do?
Honestly, it's like he hadn't learned anything - when you can't go FORWARD, go DOWN. The tunnel through the mountains looked like it was caved in on purpose - maybe to seal off the lab? But I knew that whatever was in the lab had managed to get to the city anyway, so it must have found a way through.
Sure enough, after a few minutes' searching, we found an open sewer grating.
Sanjay spoke up: he wasn't thrilled about heading into the sewer without a way to get back up. He would have made a better case, except that Claire was already jumping down.
"We could find a way to get out of here, Jay!" she shouted, "no reason to delay!"
Chris and Sanjay shrugged at each other, and hopped down.
I might have found a solution. I'm going to go through the sewer, or at least... what remains of it...
Author's note: the correct way to read these three panels is middle -> right -> left. We drop down, go right, can't, then go left
It smelled awful down here.
We fell a good distance, and the fall brought us to our knees. Chris told the others to stay put while he headed to the right to see if there was an opening they could get out of. I was glad that he did - we didn't walk more than a few hundred feet before we found a pool.
It was clearly the source of the smell. As we got closer, the dark, glistening surface became mottled - there were clots floating in it. It was a deep red color, and I was pretty sure we were looking at gore of some kind. There was a wet splashing sound coming from somewhere in the middle of it, and I was pretty sure we didn't want or need to know more.
We turned around and headed LEFT, with as much speed as we could without alarming the others.
But it wasn't any good. The smell was even WORSE to the west. We spent a good amount of time nearly gagging with how thick it was. There was a harsh conversation where Sanjay talked about rushing into things we weren't ready for, Claire seemed ready to pass out. Chris kept the group moving west, to his credit.
We heard more wet slapping sounds coming from the gore, and falling in seemed like a Very Bad Idea. The sewer was broken up - whole sections of floor were gone, crushed or cleared out. We were hopping above a huge pool of the gore. Claire almost fell once, and would have fallen in, but I managed to see her falling, and got Chris there in time.
There were tears in her eyes, and I had a feeling we'd have to take a break after we were out of here. But for now, we went west with all the speed we could muster. All of us were pretty terrified.
This place was something out of a nightmare. We lept and clung to the intact stonework as best we could. Christ, Claire, and Sanjay ignored the frothy mess below, but I kept an eye on it. Before long, I started to see things floating - things that might have been limbs, or bits of flesh.
Sure enough, before long whole bodies could be seen, some current carrying them west. Right before we started to climb out of the sewer, I saw a crush of bodies, with one of them sinking slowly into the muck, and bubbles rising from it.
I had no idea what was going on, and absolutely no desire to. Whatever got out of that lab... well, I was just hopeful we wouldn't run into it.
We were out of immediate danger - the stonework was complete here, and the smell was starting to fade. It wasn't until we got up that the group felt comfortable enough to collapse. Sanjay was shaking pretty bad, and Claire was crying. The group spoke in hushed tones. Nobody had any idea which project could have done something like this - maybe something in the biological wing? Whatever was doing this, it looked like it had a purpose.
Well, nothing had come after US yet, though I sort of thought I could still hear the wet slapping sound vaguely. I couldn't communicate things this complicated, I was pretty sure, but I did urge Chris on. He took the hint and started the group moving again, after they'd regained composure.
I don't know what I missed, but there isn't much left of my laboratory. I might be stuck here forever. My God, I want to be free.
I want you to be free too, buddy. Keep going.
The place was a wreck. There was none of the gore that we'd seen in the sewers, thankfully, but doors had been smashed open, the concrete work was crumbled, and there was a vaguely acrid smell everywhere. This didn't look to be the work of an explosion or fire - more like something thrashing around.
Sanjay and Claire went to the break room, and found it chillingly intact. There were newspapers, uneaten (molded) snacks, and a single overturned cup with brown dried coffee in it.
Moving west we found the "cold storage" room. Sanjay opened some of the lockers, and found them to be entirely empty. This was apparently the storage room for a number of samples of experimental organisms. Why were they gone? Released? Eaten? There were no answers here.
At Chris's prompting, we took the stairs up to his lab.
Sanjay and Claire were chatting about various people they knew in the lab, and who they though could have escaped. It was pretty grim, but they were at least laughing a little. Something about an overweight colleague who always managed to get to the meetings first and steal the best doughnuts - they were debating if his speed was doughnut dependent, and if it would hold up over long distances.
All told, these weirdos were probably the best companions you could ask for in a dystopia like this.
Chris was mostly quiet. He wrote in his diary once more:
Here we are: the gate seems to still be in good shape... But I'm scared by this deep black that seems to suck by its strength all the light of the earth, all hope... Why did I create such a thing? I don't know, and I really don't know where it's going to lead me this time. But I don't have a choice. I can't stay here.
Ugh. That read like bad poetry. Chris found a terminal, and input the first code into it. The portal hummed to life, thrumming in the dark.
That sound filled the room, and he, Sanjay, and Claire sat near it and talked about plans. They had no idea why the book had those coordinates in them. Christ didn't remember writing them. Ideally, it would take them to the past, where they could warn people.
It was clear that they led SOMEWHERE.
I realized after a few minutes of them talking that I hadn't offered any input, prompted Chris at all. I didn't need to - he felt responsible for his friends, or was just more together now, or something. Whatever the reason, he was doing things, making plans, without my help.
I felt a gentle tug away, and I followed. I no longer felt angry OR responsible. It was time to leave. In the face of despair, of panic, I had persisted, and so had Chris. I had learned how to nurture.
I like to think Chris didn't even notice me leaving. He was in control now.
He stepped towards the portal, leading Sanjay and Claire...
They faded away, as did I...
SUGGESTED LISTENING: THE TEMPERATURE OF THE AIR ON THE BOW OF THE KALEETAN
And once you're done with that: Ya Hey
I woke with a start. On dry land. I was lying at the roots of the vine. I felt it wriggling and twisting, and thought about it growing.
It couldn't have...
I hoped it wasn't involved in Chris's world at all. There was no reason to think it did (except that it seemed to be a theme everywhere I went). If it was, it was definitely malevolent.
I dug at the roots of the vine for a time, but the ground refused to yield - as fast as I pushed the sand away, more took its place.
I wasn't clear how the vine was rooting itself - the soil was too loose and granular, I'd think, to support such a massive plant.
Well, I might as well explore. Maybe I'd find something that could help me.
There was the sunken ship.
I thought maybe I'd check it out, starting with the crow's nes-
The seahorses said nothing, but watched me as they wriggled all over each other, silently. They didn't seem hostile or anything, but something about their slippery movements creeped me RIGHT out. I swam down.
I caught a glimpse of the little burrowing... thing that had led me to Chris. It burrowed beneath the sand, and this time I wouldn't chase after it. Godspeed, lil' guy.
I swam down to the deck of the ship. It was barnacled and covered in algae - it had clearly sunk a long time ago. I was still adjusting to the vibrant colors of this place, after the dark of Chris's world. It did feel a little lonely to be on my own, but this place DID seem much more - full.
And if nothing else, the sealife here was delightful! The starfish bubbled and crawled about on the deck while whole schools of colorful fish swam by - I was so engrossed in watching them that I didn't notice how long I was down there. It was a few minutes in before I realized with a start that I hadn't gone to the surface for air. Guess I didn't need to!
I think I probably made the right choice not abandoning Chris.
Swimming around on the deck, I came across a turtle shell.
Heh. The french turtle and his friendly translator were still around, anyway. I didn't see any evidence of the vine growing down here - was it uninterested? Why did it only grow up? Or was something down here keeping it away? I decided to venture into the ship.
The cabin was overgrown. Surprisingly, a potted plant still seemed to be doing alright.
The seaweed was wriggling around unsettlingly: maybe I was too shy after seeing the quick growth of the vine (and, you know, getting chased by it across two realities so far), but moving foliage set me on edge.
The picture hanging on the wall drew my attention. It was clearly pulsing with energy - the water was agitated around it, and the more I looked at the mountain, the more I felt myself slipping away. I'm sure I would have been pulled right through it, except that I was getting more used to this place, and realized what was happening. I kept the painting in mind as a future path to explore.
I decided to get out of there.
The walrus seemed to know me. I wasn't sure how usual that was - most of the animals so far had either taken no notice of me or been generally unsettling (I thought of the dragon), but the Walrus and the Ibix - it was like they knew me somehow.
I wanted to ask the Walrus questions, as he seemed fairly sentient, but there was just no rousing him!
Schools of fish continued to swim around, pressing against me. This place was vibrantly alive. I decided to look more closely at my surroundings.
This was surely the ship I was in - why on earth would a ship have a picture of its own sinking? Was this a recording device of some kind? It just repeated the sinking over and over. Who knows what it did, or why, before the ship went down!
I tried again to get the walrus' attention, but there was just no budging him. There was a painting behind him, so stepping over him as gently as I could...
My GOODNESS that was a dapper Walrus! Dressed in a judge's wig, and looking as sassy as could be. I looked at his wrinkled face, and wondered if he was the ancestor of the sleeping lump in front of me.
Augh! Well, that answered THAT.
I couldn't get any more out of the walrus painting, though. Both of them were useless. I felt a little of my goodwill evaporating. For all the connection I felt to, uh...
Wall Russ the Fourth I guess, I couldn't get a straight answer or anything helpful. I vaguely remembered the Walrus writing a letter I'd found earlier - something about procedure, and a coming authority.
I guess that could be me? I was certainly the only newcomer I'd come across. Well, except for The Vine. I guess it was as much of an authority as I was, heck, probably moreso. All I could do was... oh wait.
I reached out my mind to the sleeping Walrus, and felt a push downwards, into the depths of the ship. Alright, down it is then!
This was clearly a captain's room at some point. What with the writing desk, and uh... what WAS that to the right?
Well, careful observation paid off here. I'd get to it in a second.
There was a particularly beautiful view out the porthole - a thriving reef. It struck me how lush the growth was here, without the uncontrolled growth of the vine. I guess it made sense the vine would start to grow here - this was evidently a lush environment for growth.
I jumped back as a huge squid swam by outside - I guess there were predators for the schools of fish. This was a complete ecosystem.
Time to check out the writing desk.
A startled school of fish swam away as I opened the desk - how had they lived in there? I had a vague impression that they weren't there before I opened the desk. Was I... creating these creatures? I guess that would explain why there were new creatures everywhere I looked.
Maybe this place was the opposite of the dragon's den - maybe I couldn't HELP but affect things! The place was, in some sense, generative.
Maybe I was nurturing the life around here? I did feel more connected to this place.
I got a creepy feeling about that notepad - it was crudely scrawled on, but it seemed familiar. Did I know it? Was it mine?
I write... what? I was able to create some things - was that what writing was?
I name... to create and name a thing? That was true creation for sure, but what...
A ship... a ship... guiding like a missile? A rocket? Guiding a rocket? Why would I both create and...
What was good? What was evil? What did it mean to... what did I...
Etz Ha-Da-At tov Ve-ra
The world went fuzzy and PAINFUL. I blinked myself back, and found the notebook closed on the desk. That was more than enough reading for now. I could swear I saw something on the pad before I blacked out, but I didn't feel up to opening it again. I felt some urgency for the first time since I came back.
I decided to investigate the rest of the desk.
Heh. Couldn't turn anywhere without finding (making?) new life here.
Happy little guy!
I saw the pen and ink on the desk. Maybe I could write something in the notepad?
No, I guess not. Not yet anyway - I had no way of controlling the ink. I remembered back before I opened the bottle, and the ink slid back in the jar. I'd have to learn how to write before I could do anything with this.
So what was in the righthand-
Endless instruments swam out of the desk, making a clanging dissonance. I remembered them back in the drawer. I'd have to be a lot more in control of things before I could use this desk.
The phone seemed fully functional, curiously. I heard the dial tone, but I had nobody to call, so I hung up. I'd have to remember this place if I found any numbers.
The bottom drawer slid out to reveal a keyboard.
I could play a jaunty tune on the keyboard, but it didn't seem to do anything that I could observe.
This place and the desk back in the fire hydrant (that seemed so long ago!) were the most interesting places I'd found, in terms of their ability. They also had the opposite problem than the dens of various critters I'd found - instead of me being unable to do anything, I was unable to stop or direct their abilities. I could tap them, but I was carried along for the ride.
I resolved to learn how to use them.
Fish continually swam in and out of the rooms, going about their business. This place seemed more alive every moment!
I directed my attention at the eagle picture, and heard...
That... didn't sound particularly eagle-like. Hm. I guess the pictures weren't perfect?
Stepping into the room to the right, I found...
Even in this nonsensical place, I didn't really expect to find this. It seemed that I was on the top floor. Nowhere to do but down.
Who knew what was down there? Maybe there was a deeper layer to all this!
I had some direction now, anyway. I'd learned some skills already.
I could remember.
I could nurture.
I had lit the lamps. I had given hope to the travelers.
It struck me that I was strong, and getting stronger.
But once again, I was at a crossroads.
I could GO DEEPER. I could take the elevator down - I could look for origins, try to find the logic to this place, and learn to control things.
Of course, everything that I'd done so far I'd done not by searching for origins, I'd done by questing. In fact, the only benefits I'd gotten were side benefits, independent of what I was really trying to do.
With that in mind, I could STEP THROUGH THE PAINTING. I could venture into the unknown, go to the mountain, and see what I could see there.
It was a case of elevator down, or mountain climb up.
What did I choose?