"One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to be moved from the old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will only in time come to hate. In this there is also a residue of belief that during the move the master will chance to come along the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: "This man is not to be locked up again, He is to come with me."
― Franz Kafka, Blue Octavo Notebooks
Dana sat at the fire, warming her hands, wondering how long the brief respite would last this time. Never long enough was the usual answer.
The fire was the only warmth, the only real light in this place and it drew her and the others all in like moths. It was the promise of safety, fleeting as it might have been because they never came to it. They never even went past the gates. It was a small mercy, the only mercy in this terrible place.
In the distance she could hear the screaming, someone had tried to make the final sprint through the open gate, but one of them had been waiting. She didn't know which one because she'd been lucky this time and hadn't seen any sign of them as she'd worked to get the generators going and get the gate open. The others hadn't been so lucky, or two of them at least. Number three was still out there somewhere, because this place had rules and the rules were that there were always four and then one of them.
The screaming was shrill, probably the girl, one she didn't know which made it easier. There were a handful of her fellow victims that she knew by sight, some she knew by name and a few she'd bothered to sort of have conversations with. It was hard to make friends with people, or even care about them when you never knew when you'd see anyone again and most of your time was spent running in terror, trying desperately to keep one step ahead of them.
It was funny, in a sad, disgusting way, she'd gone straight from one nightmare to waking up in a new one.
And she'd kept waking up into it ever since.
At the beginning, before she knew the rules of the place, she'd been caught by them so many times, hung up on a hook to wait for it.
That was something she didn't want to think about. It made the rules and the rules were simple.
She and the others ran, they chased and it fed.
Pass out, wake up, lather, rinse and repeat. Over and over and over again.
At least there were rules, at least there was the chance to rest before it started.
Or maybe that only made it worse, made the fear fresh each time, made the pain worse.
A few of the others liked to brag that they were getting used to it, that they were making plans to fight them, that it was only a matter of time. She'd been gung-ho to go along with them near the beginning until she started to notice a pattern.
Recognizing patterns was important, it helped you stay alive. Know their routines, how they worked, where they like to hide, how they liked to hunt.
The pattern with the ones that wanted to fight back was simple. After a while she stopped seeing them. They vanished.
Was fighting back the answer? The way out?
Or was it a one way ticket to something worse?
Fear kept her from finding out, besides, it wasn't like she stood a chance against one of them.
Against any of them.
Rabbit was the worst of them.
She forgot the rules sometimes.
Dana stared at the fire, light that warmed, but never burned. She'd learned that from an argument that had degenerated into a shoving match and had gotten ugly.
There were rules.
Where would she end up next?
Hopefully the old hospital.
It changed each time she ended up there, different layout, but it was the same place and she'd gotten good at it. When she got to rest there she got things done faster, got to rest longer and if she met up with others that she knew or liked or wanted to help, she had an easier time keeping everyone alive.
If they were even alive.
The things they'd survived…
Tiffany, 'but please call me Tiff because it's what my friends call me', or as Dana called her, 'blond bitch' or blondie if she wasn't too pissed off at her, claimed that this was hell and they were there because of what they'd done.
Tiffany, Tiff, bitch, was closed mouthed about what she'd done, but Dana figured by the looks of her, all boobs and legs, no brains, it was the whole high school football team, most of the basketball team and about half of the soccer team.
Some of the others though, she could see that.
But if this was hell why was she here?
What had she done to deserve this?
On the thought of people who deserved it all, lucky number three had arrived.
He staggered through the gate, collapsed at the fire and stared at it like he was looking for answers.
Blood soaked his clothing. When he ran his hands through his hair it left his face streaked red. That was how she knew it was his own, because he was careful, not that it was necessary here.
So he'd been hurt, bad.
She sneered, "Professional courtesy only goes so far here, huh?"
He looked up, looked at her, "You again."
No rage, no malice, just bone weary exhaustion.
And maybe a hint of something else.
Always just a hint though, never enough for her to be sure of anything, to really press her luck.
They couldn't die, couldn't kill themselves, couldn't kill each other, but they could get hurt.
Did she want to see how much she could hurt him, because he deserved it, before he hurt her? It was just the two of them, no one to break it up.
Sometimes, if there were others who cared, they got broken up.
Sometimes they didn't.
The ones who fought a lot didn't last long.
Tended to disappear quicker.
That was another pattern to keep in mind.
So she wouldn't fight him, just in case.
The first time she'd seen him she'd mistaken him, rightfully, for one of them. Thinking she'd encountered something new she'd run, run right into one of them, Nurse.
Then he'd rescued her, or at least tried. She'd been caught so badly off guard that Nurse got a two-for-one when she finally managed to bring him down with a lucky strike with her saw.
He hadn't recognized her that time, but in later meetings, when they were both a little more used to the way things worked he realized who she was. He'd laughed, bitterly, but hadn't commented.
He didn't talk much, which was one thing for her to like about him.
The other was that he tried to help keep everyone alive.
Most of the time he was the last one out, she'd even seen him go back.
Like he had something to prove, or maybe to make up for.
As if he ever could.
Blackwatch, she knew by the look of him, by the way he looked at her.
When he was just him and them left she always rooted for them.
Even when it was Rabbit.
He stared at the fire.
She stared at the fire.
Why was it taking so long this time?
She wasn't going to complain about the longer than normal break, but with him…
She'd rather be alone or with Tiffany 'please call me Tiff' and her inane chatter about boys, college plans and the biblical end of times. Fun conversation all around.
He sighed, picked up his gasmask, turned it over in his hands, put it down and started checking his gear.
It was a pointless effort, all of his equipment only worked when it decided to allow it. Despite this he checked the grenade launcher, still no ammo, hadn't been for the past three or maybe four times the two of them had met up, which was a shame. Still, it had happened before so there was always a chance he might find ammo for it. Hopefully when she was around so she'd be the one to benefit from it.
The overcharged cattle prod he carried around was running low, but it still had some juice left. Odds were good that it would run out soon and then he'd have to wait for it to decide to let him have his weapons again.
The silence was a battle of attrition and he was better at it than her.
It was just the two of them right now, but it wasn't easier when there were others.
Everyone who noticed always asked why she hated him so much and she always answered, 'because he's a murdering, jackbooted asshole'.
That answer had put her on pretty bad terms with some of the others.
A lot of the others.
Fuck them though.
At least he hadn't denied it.
Hell, when she'd said to his face that she was surprised that he wasn't one of them, because he should have been, he hadn't even tried to defend himself.
When the others who had been there that time questioned him he admitted that, before all this, he'd probably killed more people than any of them. He'd shrugged, said there were things you didn't talk about even here, especially here. One of the group, a skinny little punk she hadn't seen before or since, looked at his gear, the way he was dressed and asked if he was a bounty hunter.
She hadn't bothered pointing out that what bounty hunter needed a god damned grenade launcher?
Idiots, so many of the others were idiots.
He'd opened up a bit more recently, remorse or desperation getting the better of him.
Desperation was her bet because he was looking at her again.
"I need to warn you," he stopped, looked away for a moment, as though afraid of someone eavesdropping. Then he laughed at his own stupidity. Of course something was listening in, it was always there, waiting.
She flipped him the bird, "I don't need your help."
"I know," he stared at her, through her, "That's why I'm letting you know. There's somewhere new."
That got her attention. She'd heard stories of how new places, new ones of them would show up from time to time, "Alright, I'll bite. Give me any hints you think'll help. Fucking asshole."
That shocked her so much that it took her a moment to come up with an appropriate retort, but it came to her, "So you got your ass handed to you and hung up on a hook by a friend? You must be so freaking jealous that he was the lucky one and you're stuck like this with the rest of us. How badly did you fuck up?"
"It," the way his eyes flickered upward when he spoke made what he was talking about clear, "Still wants me. There were plenty of places other than Manhattan, but I'm not going to let it have me."
That was some seriously funny shit, because it had him better than half of the time. How many times had she seen him hung up on a hook while it reached down? Heard him repeating the assholes' creed under his breath like a mantra when one of the others managed to convince her to help pull him down rather than leaving him?
She looked at him suspiciously, "What do you mean?"
"That doesn't matter," his expression grew deadly serious, "What's important is that you're going to need to be careful when you end up there because -"
The fire flickered and then blazed more brightly leaving afterimages dancing across her eyes when she opened them.
She was standing on a dark street, buildings towering all around.
Except it was all wrong.
None of the buildings were recognizable, some of them were leaning, collapsing in on themselves, but somehow still standing. Twitching red vines covered them, holding them up or pulling them down. In the distance sirens and muffled explosions echoed.
Lights flickered in the smoke and fog and clouds, the incessant thrum of helicopters circling unseen overhead.
This was the nightmare of a city that she'd been in before all this started, enough to ignite the desperate hope that she might be home, finally.
If not for the warning she'd just been given she would have been sure that the nightmare was over.
Was this real or not? There was only one way to find out.
She started making her way down the street, carefully.
No telling if a zombie, a mundane mugger or some monstrous version of a Blackwatch asshole was going to come for her.
Up ahead something moved in the shadows.
A patch of darkness broke away from the rest.
A human silhouette, normal enough to feel familiar. Someone like her then, or…
"Alex!" trying not to cry, she ran for him.
She was saved or at least safe.
Shocked, he took a step back, "Dana?"
"You have no idea how glad I am to see you!" Giving up on holding back tears she alternated between laughing and sobbing. He was trapped too, but at least they were trapped together and he was smart enough that between the two of them they could find a way out, "How long have you been here?"
Not too long was her guess, the hoodie and jacket were gone, just a pristine white dress shirt and immaculately pressed slacks, and he didn't look anywhere near frantic enough, desperate enough to have been around for long. He'd only been frantic right before and during everything going to hell.
He had his glasses on again, which was good, more like how she remembered him. A lot more like she remembered him. That was comforting.
The frantic desperation was gone, replaced by that cool aura of calm that she remembered from when they were kids. Nothing could get Alex upset, angry for sure, but never upset.
"I just got here, this is my third, no, my fourth time around," he opened his arms as she threw herself into them, catching her and lifting her off her feet with a soft grunt of effort.
"That's not good," she muttered against his collar, fresh and clean, no stick of blood and rot, "You're going to need to listen to me if we're going to make it through this one. Then I can bring you up to speed when we make it through the gate to the fire."
"Don't worry," Alex patted her on the back and held her in a hug, one that just like always, was almost too tight, "I've caught on quickly enough. It's not that hard really."
He held onto her until the laughter and sobs were done, then he lowered her back to the ground. She kept hugging him, afraid to let go.
Her brother was there.
She was safe.
It was only a matter of time before they figured things out.
If anyone could beat them, beat it, Alex could.
Something clattered in the distance.
He tensed, looked up.
"We're going to need to be careful," Dana pulled away to look, listen for the screams and shouts. Instead she heard a generator cough to life and she allowed herself to relax a little, "There's a Blackwatch goon somewhere out here looking for us."
"Really?" Alex looked at her, bemused, "Blackwatch? Who told you that?"
"One of them, Blackwatch, he's ended up here before and he warned me about it."
His eyes brightened with a gleam of recognition, "That idiot got the chance to warn you?"
Then he laughed.
Another generator came on.
The laughter stopped, "We'd better hurry."
Dana nodded. Almost halfway to safety and no sign of trouble. She doubted that her luck was going to last. It wouldn't let that happen.
"This way," Alex started walking.
Red vines snatched at her feet, threatening to trip her. Alex walked past them unperturbed, occasionally grinding his heel on one with a contemptuous scowl rather than stepping over.
Just like him.
How bad was it that she found his typical scorn comforting?
Up ahead was a streetlight, hooks hung from it. Proof of where they really were, as though it was necessary
Down the street she could hear frantic foot falls.
She looked up at Alex.
He nodded, smiled.
"Over here!" She called out, "We're over here!"
Two others, a guy and a girl she didn't recognize came running to them.
The four of them all together, and still no sign of any danger.
More foot falls, heavy breathing, then, a frantic shout.
"Wait for me!"
She recognized the voice. A mechanic his name was Jeff she though, and he'd showed her how to get the generators going, he did it for everyone because he figured that the more people who knew the better their odds of survival. No wonder the two of them had been started so quickly, but with his bad leg he was an easy target for whatever one of them they were trying to avoid.
She looked at the other two.
"Peggy," the girl introduced herself, "And this is Thomas."
Thomas rolled his eyes, "Not worth it. We'll never see each other again."
So they were new, but not so new that they had no idea how things worked. That was good except…
Jeff staggered into sight, "Dana!"
"Wait," Thomas looked at them, unbelieving, "You know each other?"
"Yes," Dana smiled, "And this is Alex, my brother!"
Her smile faltered slightly.
Something wasn't right.
"So you're the famous big brother," Jeff laughed, "Or should I say infamous?"
Alex scowled, looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"Don't worry, just reminiscing when we were at the campfire, only good things," Dana laughed nervously, her smile falling away completely as she hurried to explain, "Everyone here except you, me and the Blackwatch douche were taken before…you know."
"I see," he smiled reassuringly at her, "That certainly makes things easier."
"Yeah," she looked at him, looked at Peggy, Thomas and Jeff.
Peggy and Thomas were new enough that they didn't know the rules.
Jeff though, he knew the rules.
And so did she.
There were always four and one.
It never varied.
Her and Jeff.
Peggy and Thomas.
"Well, since you're all here," Alex smiled, "Let's get this done with."
It wasn't reassuring this time.
The vines that had been writhing across the ground snapped up to ankle level and constricted, binding them in place.
Ignoring the vines Alex strode over to Peggy and Thomas, grabbed them with fingers that were lengthening into claws and hoisted them up, one in each hand, to carry over to the streetlight.
"It's nothing personal," Alex had to raise his voice to be heard over the screams of pain, "When the Captain refused its offer the entity that created this place turned to me instead. Offered me the full truth, answers that no one left alive knew, the chance to see you again, and I accepted. Knowing who I was, who I really was rather than some fragmented, patchwork thing held together by Blacklight fixed what was broken and suddenly it all fell into place, helped me see what was important again. So the Entity and I have a deal, the same deal it makes everyone sooner or later, feed it so that can grow and eventually break through into the real world and then, once that happens it intends us go to do as we please."
He paused to heft his two victims onto the hooks.
Jeff managed to pull free of the vines, started to run.
Alex flicked his hand, claws twisting into a collection of hooks and barbs, black tendrils cording over his arm as it stretched out. Dana could hear the soft thud of the barbs impacting flesh and digging in, watched as Jeff staggered and was pulled back. A moment later he was on a hook as well.
Alex looked at her.
The vines let go.
She remained frozen, unable to run.
"Alex," she whispered.
"It's nothing personal," he shrugged, "I do my part and you do yours."
He grabbed her and she went limp in his grip, unable to find the strength to struggle as he carried her to the hook.
That was why she'd had her run of good luck, why the guy from Blackwatch had been given the chance to warn her. Because it, the Entity, fed on pain and she'd been growing numb, watched it happen with the others, right before they disappeared.
What better way to wring more out of her though than to give her hope, however fleeting?
"Or if you want," Alex adjusted his grip on her as he lined her up with the hook, making sure it would catch right between her shoulder blades, "We can work together. This time it certainly worked out well enough. Ask it."
She looked up, screamed in pain as cold metal dug into her.
She'd been right about him, Alex had found a way out.
He'd even shown it to her.
Above her spider legs unfurled from the sky.
The question was, did she want to take it?
Others, the ones who disappeared had taken it.
The chance to work together, with Alex.
Doing what he was doing.
Doing what they did.
Someone screamed. Jeff was swearing.
Alex was looking at her with mild interest, waiting to see what she'd chose to do.
No concern, no remorse that it had come to this.
"Nothing personal," she spat in his face and, when that didn't work, she tried to recite as much of the assholes' creed as she could remember.
She was pretty sure she got most of it wrong and when the spider legs, bristling with barbed hairs that scratched and tore, reached her it was all lost in screams, but Alex's look of rage was worth it.