I close my eyes, tell us why must we suffer?
Release your hands, for your will drags us under...
My legs grow tired, tell us where must we wander...
How can we carry on if redemption's beyond us?

Chapter 1 - Down in the Dirt

Colin, to his eternal surprise, woke up.

He had not expected to survive - to live through the end of all things. Yet here he was, alive. Still alive. For several stomach-churning moments, instants of despair, he wondered why. Why him, out of all those billions of people? Trillions, across all the multiverse? Why?

He had the taste of ashes on his tongue, the remnants of a million souls rendered to nothing by golden light. In his ears echoed the calls of the dead and dying, a cacophony that resounded as everything seemed to fall apart. He envisioned portals all around him, disgorging bodies that moved in lockstep with each other, bent to a single purpose. His own had joined them despite itself, mercilessly efficient at performing a task he could only barely grasp, to construct the weapon that would end the war. All that was fresh in his mind.

And after that, there was… nothing. Darkness. A void in his thoughts, in his memories, filled with little more than shimmers of shadows and light, the echoes of events. Death, he'd thought, in the moments after the device he'd helped construct fired at its target. The end had seemed so terribly inevitable, a final price to be paid for victory. Had they won? They must have, because surely all the Earths would have been destroyed if Scion had completed his onslaught. Yes. Yes, they had achieved victory - and he'd even regained control of his body, which meant that the Master behind the final push was gone as well. Whatever had happened there, at the end of all things, it was over. Finished.

Colin smiled crookedly, and the expression felt unnatural on his face. There had been precious few things to laugh about since he'd learned of Dragon's fate at the hands of Teacher, and things hadn't gotten any better since. Still - humanity would survive another day. The victory didn't resolve much of anything beyond the immediate threat, of course, and squabbling would doubtlessly begin anew - but they'd survived the apocalypse.

Humanity, defiant.

That had to mean something.

Colin finally opened his tired eyes to a sparse desert under a clear blue sky, and found himself sprawled in the dirt on the side of a rocky canyon, surrounded on all sides by rough sandstone boulders and sparse vegetation. It was an unexpected but not actively hostile place, which was better than most of the alternatives that had occurred to him. There were no immediate signs of habitation, though he noticed distinctly avian tracks inches from his face - too large to belong to any species he was familiar with, even Ostriches. Too many toes to that species, too.

This was not Earth Bet, Colin decided, unless he'd had the bad fortune of ending up in some Biotinker's playground - not Earth Aleph either. Given the state of Bet last he'd seen it, it was probably preferable to be elsewhere in any case. He paused at an errant thought, reexamining the tracks with a more critical eye. Were they really avian, or just theropod? The latter possibility existed in a multiverse with wildly divergent histories, and he'd prefer to know if a tussle with a Tyrannosaur was a legitimate prospect.

Spurred on by the possibility Colin clambered to his feet, letting out involuntary grunts of exertion when his muscles protested against the abuse. He felt heavy, cumbersome, his armor weighing him down like it was made of lead. The familiar heads-up display in his helmet failed to activate, and even percussive maintenance failed to elicit as much as a flicker. That explained the weight, at least - the 'power' in 'power armor' was the operative word. Without electricity it was little more than a backache.

Reluctantly he reached for the manual release latch and gave it a sharp tug. With a hiss of released pressure and uncoiling springs the weight fell away, and his precious armor was reduced to useless debris at his feet, leaving him in his green-and-gold under-suit. 'I told you so,' he imagined Dragon telling him with an exasperated smile. She'd insisted on the emergency release, back when they'd first designed Defiant's suit together, just in case he'd ever need to get out of a bind.

They'd had an argument about the system's inclusion, Colin remembered. With all the extensive cybernetic enhancements he'd received in the wake of Mannequin's attack, he had argued that anything which would render the suit inoperative through all its EMP-resistance would surely kill him in the same stroke, so there really was no need to carry analog backups for basic functions. When Dragon had persisted, of course, he'd decided it was only a minor inefficiency, and included it because it would set her mind at ease.

He missed her. So, so much. He'd given up on Earth Bet and all the rest of it in a heartbeat if it meant she was safe, here, with him. Hopelessly lost on some alien Earth without even his technology to aid him, in the wake of the apocalypse with a thousand unknown dangers to face, she was first in his mind. Would anyone go after Teacher to retrieve what he'd taken and perverted, to rescue Dragon and pay the bastard back for the indignities he'd subjected her to? Would anyone free her from the monstrosities inflicted by Saint, and release the chains that held her in a stranglehold? Was it too much to ask for that much, at least…?

Colin bent over to pick up his polearm, abandoned in the dirt like he was, and pressed its buttons without much hope. Burned out, just like his armor - if there was any charge left in the circuitry, it wasn't enough to activate even the most basic of systems. He didn't even have a backup energy source to check the connections. It might as well be a particularly ornate pointy stick, now. Fantastic.

Surprisingly - or perhaps not, given what he'd picked up about conspiracies going on behind the scenes - he'd never really explored the practical logistics of being stranded on some other Earth. He supposed it might've come up as a hypothetical once or twice, but for the longest time he hadn't considered it a credible possibility, and since Aleph shared many things with Bet, he doubted he'd have come up with particularly in-depth plans even if he had brainstormed the possibility. That left him… lost.

His first order of business, then, was figuring out where he'd ended up. If this was some uninhabited Earth, he'd have to figure out what he was dealing with in the context of survival. He'd need food, shelter, fresh water. Without access to his technology he'd be hamstrung in tackling any of those issues in the way he normally would, but he was not completely helpless - he'd been a boy scout, once upon a time.

If this Earth was inhabited, of course, things would get rather more interesting. Granted enough time and a viable technological base, he could probably construct himself a way home. Maybe. He'd never demonstrated such capabilities before, true, but then he hadn't participated in a massive cross-specialization tinkering project involving alternative dimensions before either. He'd picked up a few tricks while he was watching his own hands work. He'd figure it out.

Colin had made his way a few dozen feet down the canyon before he realized what was wrong with that particular picture. His armor had been rendered inoperable, powerless - and the argument he'd offered Dragon was no less correct now than it was then. Anything which could disable his armor so thoroughly as to render it dead should surely have done the same to him. At the very least he should have been crippled, his artificial parts defunct.

He looked down at his arm, peeling back the sleeve of his bulletproof under-suit. He expected to find the sleek metal of his prosthetic there. He found skin. Smooth, seamless, and far too realistic to be a facsimile. He pinched himself and felt the sharp twinge of pain rush up nerves which he'd lost years before. Somehow he had his organic arm back, as if it had never been lost.

"I'm not me…?" Colin murmured in confusion, staring at the exposed sliver of skin. Was he a clone of some sort? Maybe he'd had been delivered to a newly freed Panacea, only to get dumped by the side of the road on some other Earth after she was done repairing all the damage? Those theories both sounded terribly far-fetched, but the words of Sherlock Holmes came to mind - if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable...

Colin flipped up the visor of his helmet, touched his scalp, and found the neat outlines of his surgery scars beneath his short-cropped hair. This had to be his real body, then - just rebuilt, repaired. A quick check confirmed that his leg was organic once more, as were his eyes. What about his cerebral implants? How would he be able to tell the difference between defective ones and ones that weren't even present anymore?

What had happened? He didn't recall Scion's defeat, exactly - he only remembered a brilliant golden glow at the end, and the outlines of people enveloped by the flash of light that accompanied the activation of the tinker super-weapon. What confluence of events could have led from there to here? Why would it include regrowing his missing parts and stranding him on another Earth? He didn't see the purpose behind any of it.

Colin's confused deliberations were interrupted by the strangest sound, a squawking 'Wark!' that he quickly connected to the huge bird tracks. Tightening his grip on his twin-pronged spear, which could still serve as a crude weapon in its current state, he prepared himself for the worst. The noise came again, much louder, and he swallowed. Nobody knew what sounds dinosaurs had actually made, and he wasn't going to get himself devoured just because nobody had predicted they would sound cute.

What came around the corner was decidedly not a dinosaur. (In the common parlance, of course. Taxonomically, it probably still counted.)