This chapter is a complete mess, so my apologies. I wish I could blame it on the fact that Diana's mind is slowly coming apart at the seams, but it's mostly because my mind is coming apart at the seams.
So while I'd normally wait and add another 4000 or so words to this thing (you know, some more violence or what-not), I kinda just wanted to get this out there so I didn't have to worry about it anymore.
Hope it's otherwise readable. Enjoyable? I don't know. But if you can get through it without being totally confused or thinking that someone else started writing this halfway through, then I that's good enough for now.
Not like I'm gettin' paid for this, so...
Who Goes There?
She was lost in the depths of her mind again, lost and letting her legs carry her through the corridors on their own. It wasn't a volley of thoughts forcing her spotlight inwards this time: it was a memory, one of her and Bruce and Clark as they received a minor commendation from a world leader whose name totally escaped her. That wasn't really important to Diana—what was important, naturally enough, revolved entirely around the fact that the three of them were together and happy, having saved innocents yet again.
The leader of the country—whoever they had been—had left them standing on the podium as the crowd cheered. All three of them stared at their admirers somewhat sheepishly (it was, after all, their job); but even Bruce, who normally snarled at sunlight, was beaming just a little bit that day. They all felt lifted up whenever an innocent was saved, and if she remembered that day correctly, it had been a particularly flawless episode in the ongoing adventures of the nascent Justice League.
Diana saw the crowd thin in her memory, leaving the three heroes alone with each other for the first time in several days.
"That was fun," Bruce said flatly. "Remind me to buy this place so I can come here more often."
"For their sake," Diana said, "I hope it is usually not this exciting." She glanced at both Clark and Bruce. "Perhaps they can think of another reason to invite us back."
"I dunno," Clark said. "Hard to beat the kind of invitation they sent our way. Might seem too ho-hum for us."
"I suppose I could drop a few hints," Diana said, pretending to stroke her chin. "Maybe say that we enjoy the occasional fruit basket or incense and rum."
"That'd be an improvement for me," Bruce said. "I'm pretty sure someone tried to summon me the other day by sacrificing a goat."
Diana saw Clark turn with his brow raised as she supressed a chuckle. "Does Diana need to break out her lasso?"
"Well," Bruce said, turning to Diana. "Do you?"
She shook her head. "It is Gotham, Bruce—I believe you."
Her memory skipped then, as memories tend to do. They were walking off the stage when the images changed, invaded upon by something else from some other time. It was the present, of course—Diana could read that immediately. There had been no other time—especially not that long ago—where she watched Clark start to bleed out of his pores.
"You know what I think?" he said, oblivious to what was happening. "I think it's pretty damn good whenever someone other than America asks for our help."
"Language, Boy Scout," Bruce said. Diana, in her memory, smiled at the both of them.
"I believe I see where you are going with this," she said. "Though Batman is right—there are children present."
She was looking at Bruce when she said that. His face—
—didn't move or so much as crinkle.
"Harsh," he said. "Harsher than normal. I'd make a joke about that, but it'd demean the both of us."
"Wow," Clark said. "I forgot we only pretend to like each other." Diana remembered Clark saying that, but she couldn't see him in her memory anymore. There was only the concept of Clark, a barrier where she knew he should be. And Bruce was changing now too—his arms, for instance, seemed far longer than normal. Diana could see the changes in her memory—the corruption—as it happened in real time; but much like a particularly bad dream, she was completely helpless to change it.
"Continue with what you were saying," Diana said in her memory, smiling brightly, unaware that she was talking to what might as well have been a hole in reality.
"I'm just pointing out that it means we're not imposing—or, at least I think we're not imposing. People just want our help and don't assume we're acting because some larger group told us to. I'm thinking—I'm hoping—they just see us as people who'll give them a hand, no questions asked."
"And so we will not have to fight with governments or arouse a protest where ever we go," Diana said. She couldn't remember what she had been doing then and there—that part of the memory had been swallowed up in nothingness. "That would be incredible. I hope that is the case just as much as you, Superman."
"No political bickering, huh?" Bruce said from somewhere. The memory was collapsing in on itself—collapsing and Diana was still in it, still within the walls as they fell. "Then what are we keeping you around for?"
"Because Superman cannot catch you every time your chute fails?" Diana had said that—she had. But now it sounded distant and felt distant and the chuckling she had received from both Bruce and Clark was vanishing now, vanishing like they were vanishing, replaced by a howling in her mind and a composite image of Clark and Bruce, Clark as one of those creatures and Bruce as one of those creatures and they were standing and dripping blood and swinging flesh under a crackling monitor as smoke and darkness poured in and they were howling, howling some cry that couldn't have come from anyone with working human vocal cords and behind that howling was a faint voice, a tiny voice from a distant past that said:
"I hope you two never change."
And then she was back. She had torn through the encroaching darkness and was back—in the Watchtower's halls, sprinting behind the others. Her right knuckles hurt, and looking down she saw that they were bruised. She must have swung them into a wall or something—that was probably how she managed to dig her way out of her memories.
Gods, why did she keep retreating like that? Retreating and just…blanking out! Dissociating! Whatever word you wanted to describe a full-on mental retreat, that was it—that was what her mind was doing to her. Retreats were necessary, yes, but not like this—not remotely like this. It was why she had always said that strength was found in emotions: confront them, welcome them, utilize them, and mentally you would come out better and more enlightened that before. Running away from them though? The thing she was doing, the thing she was afraid everyone was on the verge of doing? That was cowardice, that was weakness, that was her being—
Vulnerable. Diana slowed her pace and took a moment to stop her teeth from grinding together. That was not something to feel ashamed of—not now, not ever. It was a universal constant: everyone was vulnerable in some way, varying with time and place, with interactions and reactions. That was one of the first things the Amazons had taught her, as well as being one of the first things she tried to export to Man's World along with like-minded thinkers. Vulnerability existed and to be ashamed of it was to overestimate yourself, cut yourself off from those that needed help, and create a world where anyone knocked to the ground would be mauled by a vicious horde. Such an outlook was unbecoming of a hero, but in this scenario—in a battle with an opponent as vicious as these things—to not recognize her vulnerability was to leave her defenses fatally open. It was like not switching your shield tactics when a brawler pulled out a bow: you would be killed before even taking a step forward.
Wires were getting crossed, that's what it felt like. Up was down and black was white—
(dogs and cats living together!)
—and that, that was the worst of it! Not only was she being drawn into the world inside her head, but that world was becoming increasingly nonsensical. How long would it be before thinking clearly became like wading through a bog? How until—
She looked over at Wally. He had slowed down—so had everyone else, but Wally's strides seemed particularly lethargic. Actually, no, that wasn't right: they seemed pained almost, not like he was physically hurting but as though he had a migraine.
(I can sympathize, Wally…)
Yes, she could sympathize. Which is why she should say something, right? Say something right then and there because clearly—very clearly—he was struggling, and she was the only one who noticed. All that previous crap about how "maybe this will slow us down" or "maybe we're just fighting here, we'll deal later," she'd made her decision. They could fight and they could talk; they could survive and they could heal. This was what leaders did, and that was why she herself didn't take the plunge and just admit how she was hurting, because leaders weren't allowed that luxury and besides Wally was hurting more and yes, vulnerability was a universal constant but not everyone could simply admit that they were struggling and—
(Stop. Stop Diana. You're rationalizing. There's no reason for this nonsense train of thought)
(And right now? You are not a leader—you, and everyone else, are trying to survive with a broken back and a fractured mind. Recognize that before you let yourself or others get hurt more)
Diana shook her head. She was right—right about the rationalization, right about how she could clearly say something herself, if she chose to do so. But she was also right to push ahead and realize that they couldn't just go on pretending they were all right. Looking at Wally, it really was clear that he seemed to be struggling the most. What John had said earlier, about Wally's age, it was true; and Wally was always well aware of his relative lack of experience. He handled it well—did not become consumed with proving himself—but…she had told John earlier that a psych evaluation might be necessary so many hours ago, and that had been when the only causality of this madness was J'onn. Now they had Clark and Bruce to deal with, and Diana suspected that nobody, including her, would be able to purge those images from their minds. To see your friends turn to mutilated and shambling corpses while they were still alive, changed beyond recognition by something, a something that everyone else might be infected with too—it would be too much for most to bear, for anyone to be expected to bear. Wally was young and Wally still felt he had a lot to prove; if she didn't want people to see her vulnerable, then how open to the idea would Wally be?
(Then you must ease into it…)
"Wally," Diana said. "Wally, here, look at me." He looked at her and tried to swallow. It became stuck in his throat, pushing his Adam's apple out an obscene distance. Then he tried to speak to her—in fact he seemed desperate to do so—but either his closed airways or his brain's inability to form words caught whatever he wanted to say in a phlegm-slicked net. Diana moved forward, kept the corner of her vision of Shayera and John, and lowered her posture until she and Wally were eye to eye. Shayera and John's faces oscillated between blank stares and a blend of every emotion Diana could name, each one fighting against themselves in a container threatening to explode.
"We are all struggling," she continued, "so you need not fight yourself. Take your time to say whatever it is you need to say—we will be here, and we will listen when the time comes." She gave him a smile, but noticed very quickly that it lacked almost all mirth. It was a show-smile, and she was convinced that Wally would notice within a second.
(You're using him because you're afraid you're using him because you're afraid YOU'RE USING HIM BECAUSE)
There was a slap, and Diana realized that she had just hit herself. It had cut off yet another round of babbling in her mind, but clearly everyone else had noticed. They were silent—and Diana could feel their eyes on her.
"You gonna be OK, kid?" John said eventually. Diana saw that he wasn't really looking at Wally when he said it—not completely, at the very least. His eyes were mostly over her and Wally's shoulders, focused on a patch of unmoving shadow some ten, maybe fifteen feet away. But they also had a tendency to drift towards her.
"Yeah," Wally said, looking nowhere in particular. "Yeah, GL. Sure. I'll be good."
(Only "be", not "am"…)
"We are each other's support," Diana said, kicking out whatever voice might work its way into her consciousness. Not now—she'd deal with that later.
Placing a hand on Wally's shoulder, she said, "Do not be afraid to use it."
Diana watched him blink, and then there was that look of trying to put thoughts to language again, of needing time to think and speak and then absorb whatever he had said. A metallic ripping noise dissipated this look the moment it reached their ears, launching them into combat-ready stances. Diana scanned around the group, but when she let her eyes fall momentarily on Wally's face, she was dismayed (but not surprised) to see it had completely vanished without a trace.
"Was that station noise or something else?" John asked.
"I know what I'd put money on," Shayera said. She looked quickly at Wally. "So, yeah, don't be afraid to talk. But be a hell of a lot afraid of the thing going bump in the night."
"Middle of the day," John said.
"Don't goddamn start with me," Shayera said. "It's not funny even when all my friends still have their faces in one piece." She scanned the ceiling like she was a computer program, then shook her head violently. Diana saw her turn to Wally and offer him as sympathetic a glance as she could muster, given the circumstances. What resulted was a look of cold worry.
(distance breeds safety distance breeds—)
Diana very nearly slapped herself again.
"Like I was trying to tell Cl—I mean…" Shayera sighed—a long, heavy sigh. "I'm sorry Wally, I really am. But you've gotta multi-task: if you're saying something, you've either gotta do it now or do it when we're running the hell away."
"Running where?" John said. His ring was pointing in every direction, like he was an automated turret. "I'm not opposed to moving, but it better be someplace safer than where we came from."
"And where the hell would that be?" Shayera said. John nearly scoffed.
"Exactly my goddamn point," he said.
Diana's mind briefly went blank, pushing away the sensory world until it was just her and the accumulated experience of ten thousand battles. These creatures had tactics. It was a horrific thought to have, but she couldn't deny the sight of an intelligent foe any more than an astronomer could ignore the Sun. It had left one shuttle and destroyed all the rest; it had clearly lured Clark—
(unless he was already one of those things…)
—to the Watchtower and infected him without her or the others knowing. And no, she would not—could not—consider even for a second the notion that Clark was already one of those things. She had her limits; that was far beyond them. It simply made no sense, not if these things were capable of planning like she suspected, because why call him up then? Why waste energy when an infected Superman could clearly do untold damage on his own down on Earth and besides if she thought that way, oh gods if she thought that way, then what was the point, what was the point because the Earth was already dead and doomed and you see Dr. Greenberg I am clearly living proof, living nervous proof that you are on the right track the right train of thought because I'm clinging, clinging to Earth and to her people and because if I think they are all dead then what point is there in doing ANY—
(STOP! For the love of the gods STOP THIS!)
It could plan, just stay at that thought. These things could plan and deliberately left a shuttle intact. Just one shuttle: all other means of transportation, of escape were…
(Gone, destroyed, and it nearly had us trapped in the monitor womb, because it knew we would go there and seal ourselves in, cut all communications, and dissuade anyone from looking for us)
(So it could deal with us covertly—us being its biggest threat on Earth if we managed to rally—then leave in their one shuttle with no one being any the wiser)
(Hera, it's going to try to leave!)
"The hanger," she said, loudly and in the midst of a pocket of silence. The sudden onset of sound startled the rest, and for a second, Diana was staring at the engravings of a green and glowing ring. It didn't lower until she started speaking again.
"The one shuttle it left," she continued. "It –they—may try to leave, either now or very soon. That is why all they left the one intact: this creature or creatures or whatever they are were going to kill us while we were isolated, or assimilate us when we were isolated—which is…is what I think happened to Clark—and then return to Earth with both the element of surprise and seven of the most powerful heroes on the planet contained, if not converted outright. The comms are down, our transporters do not work—there is only one way to travel between here and Earth, and these things wanted to be sure that only one type of being took advantage of this fact."
She paused: what she needed to say next left a lump in her throat as well. "And since they did not immediately flee, I can only assume that they want to do to us what they have already done to Clark and Bruce."
(Hera help me if I my ribcage turns into fangs…)
Whatever humour might have been in that thought died, both from the dire nature of their situation and the looks she was receiving from the rest of the League. A voice in her head told her to check for teeth growing on her skin, just in case—
(They would have shot me by now)
—but instead she just stared back, waiting for the first response.
Yet again, it was John who broke the silence.
"You want me—us—to go back into—" He stammered, then grimaced. "I mean that's not—no, no that is what I mean, I'm sorry but I do: you want us to go all the way back to where we were first attacked because those things might try and leave? That's it, right?"
"Yes," Diana said. Another rip sounded overhead, and Diana could imagine the Clark-Thing—
(Great Hera now I have to name these things…)
—tearing its way through the locked hanger door. It had his strength, after all—didn't it?
(Can these things do that? I think they can, but why? And…and does that mean what happened to Clark and Bruce is completely and utterly irreversibly—)
"We may be running out of time," Diana said, cutting her own thoughts off (and nearly clinching her fist over it in the process). "If they reach Earth—if they truly do want to leave—then we have utterly failed to protect the planet and its people."
"And then what?" Shayera asked. "What do we do after we've blown up our ride home?"
"Then we tend to J'onn, see if he is still locked away or has…has a change of condition."
Shayera blinked. "So you really think he might be one of them?"
(Yes no I don't know some would have drowned him in gasoline…)
"It is something we need to find out either way," Diana said.
There was a pause, an empty one where it seemed as though even the station was listening in. Then Shayera sighed, sighed again, and slammed the handle of her mace into her palm. It bruised at the moment of contact. Diana thought that she looked like she was being torn in half, then felt her own stomach churn at the image said thought conjured up.
"Fuck!" Shayera said. "Fuck, it makes sense. Perfect sense. Maybe not the J'onn part and maybe yes the J'onn part but…fuck, why didn't we just assume this? Why didn't we march off to the hanger the second we lost those things like we're goddamn expected to?"
"Because we're scared shitless," John said flatly. It sounded like a struggle to keep his voice even.
"We don't have time to be scared shitless! Do you want what happened to Clark to happen to Kyle? Or your neighbor? Or—or someone who can get a hundred people locked in a room together just long enough to convert the lot of them? 'Cause that could happen and we should know that could happen. Shouldn't we?"
Another metallic groan. Diana was now convinced that if it was them, these things. It was almost like they were mocking the non-converted still trapped in the Watchtower, like they just knew.
Then she heard Wally speak; he used a softer voice, but his question was blunt.
"Are we sure?"
"It is what I would do if I shared their goal. Myself and any other creature capable of organized yet violent thought." Diana was mostly looking at Wally when she said this: the glances from Shayera and John, the looks that they then passed on to one another after staring at Diana for long enough…she saw them, but her mind refused to register them at first.
"All right," said John. "OK. Then let's move. Stay close, check your six—double check you six—and walk lightly. Anyone drops, you pick them the hell up; anyone gets pulled into the ceiling, you blast until you've hit outer space, we clear?"
"Diana," Shayera said. "You wanna grab a sword or something?"
(I am hardly stable enough to carry a sword right now)
"Later," she said, keeping everything else internal. "Getting to the hanger will take priority."
"Right." Shayera spun around quickly, cast another look at John, and then began moving ahead. John followed, returning the look as she passed. This time Diana's mind did register what she saw, but she stamped the implications down for at least the immediate future. She and Wally were left, and before Wally started to move, Diana stepped into his view. She waved Shayera and John off as she looked Wally in the eyes.
"Wally," she said, "please do not forget what I said. You, me, the others—there is much to talk about, to discuss and cope. At some point, it is a conversation we can delay no longer."
He was quiet for what felt like a millennium, long enough for her to fear that John and Shayera had put too much distances between themselves and the ones left behind. But then Wally spoke, and true to Shayera's words, he did so as he burst into a quick stride. Diana followed closely and listened.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'll talk. Sure. I'll talk about signing my own death certificate, emphasis on the "died doing his duty," part. Then maybe we can have a conversation with Bruce, huh? About how the lot of us are supposed to just automatically take some absurd nightmare bullet for the rest of the species like we're some…some sort of anti-virus software with a cute name. Yeah, he'd rip the eyes right the fuck out of my sockets and make a noise worse than my mother being tortured to death but, hey, at least it's better than talking to J'onn—the Big Man still…still looks a bit like how he was before—"
He trailed off before stopping abruptly, still walking but now completely silent. As the pause grew longer and longer Diana could see that every second or so step was off, like he was falling onto his ankles. Eventually he stepped completely wrong and bit out a curse, only to increase his speed and grimace until his lips began to bleed, leaving Diana alone in the rear and wondering whether she should just let him go, let him cool off before she tried again. She needed to try again, before the unprocessed reality of it all swarmed him, swarmed her, drowned them both and pulled the entire rest of the group down into madness long before these things could lay claim to their bodies.
(Please, Wally—come into my office, sit down on my couch. I promise that there will be no boring questions about your childhood; I merely want to know which way you would prefer to die, that is all. Can you not see I am trying to help?)
Whatever escaped from Diana's throat was either another giggle or a quick and harsh cry. She could no longer tell the difference, and yet again, she had to restrain her own hands from slapping her face.
And all the while she watched John and Shayera, who couldn't keep their eyes off her for more than five seconds at a time.
To be continued...
Sweet Christ, I'm glad that's over with.
Note to self: don't start rearranging entire chunks of text without some kind of master plan. It's just gonna end up like a nightmare.