Chapter 2: Is it a bird?
Man, I feel like shit.
My head is pounding like a jackhammer on steroids. What the hell did I drink last night, kerosene?
With my eyes still shut tight, I frown. Something is touching my cheek, or prodding it, more like. Must have been what woke me. Can’t they see I’m trying to sleep off the world’s worst hangover here?
Time to give whoever’s doing this a piece of my mind.
“Mmmhn... ssstohppiiiit,” I whine.
“Told you she was alive,” a baritone voice responds.
I wouldn’t be so sure...
My eyelids rise like a dramatically opening garage door in a low-budget action movie. My vision swims and I stare up at... an angel. I rub my eyes and check again. Nope. It’s some kind of bare-chested birdperson. Next to him is... Iron Man. If I am dead, my afterlife is friggin’ weird.
I cough. It feels like an army of fire-ants treks through my lungs and everything comes rushing back to me.
Oh god. I got portalled here! And not the fun, two-way, blue and orange kind.
Blinking, I shoot up into a sitting position. The knifegrass cuts into my palms as I do, instant karma for my being rash, as always. I groan and clutch my forehead as my head spins. My body feels heavy. Perhaps I really have been gorging myself on too many free hotdogs... wait, hotdogs... Josh!
I lift my chin and swivel my head around, to find him lying next to me, on his stomach.
“Oh thank god, there you are; wake up buddy,” I croak as I shake his arm. There’s something off about him. His skin feels... wrong.
“... Josh?” Panic knots up my chest. I lift myself into a crouch and shake him a little harder.
No response. With great difficulty, I turn over his surprisingly heavy body.
His eyes stare back at mine, open, unmoving. The thing my brain was telling me was wrong, is only now filtering through. Josh isn’t breathing.
I stare at the lifeless husk that was once a boy seemingly made out of 90% smiles, with all the understanding of my five-year old self at grandpa’s funeral. Why is he just lying there?
“Guess your colleague didn’t make it,” the birdperson says. “My condolences.”
Shakily I get to my feet and bring a hand to my mouth. Tears well up beneath my eyes as I look around. The smell of blood and... other things that come out of dead people, hits my nose.
The comic con I was working at was a small one, relatively speaking. There were probably only about 3.000 people in the building when it happened. From what I can tell, there are maybe a hundred people left standing. The rest...
A morbidly curious part of my mind wonders how many of them died from the poisonous air, and how many of them were trampled to death into the knifegrass.
I look back at Josh, and notice the trail of red leading towards him. Did he... crawl over to me, before he passed away.
I swallow down the bile rising in my throat.
“Dave,” the birdperson says, holding out his hand. It takes me a while to figure out his meaning.
I shake his hand, the thin cuts in my skin prickling distractingly. The sensation helps ground me, a little. It drives away some of the numbness. “Emma. Do you guys know... where we are?”
It feels like a silly question almost. But it’s a start.
Dave shrugs, pulling his hand back, his deep brown eyes sorrowful.
“We don’t know,” Iron Man says, before coughing. “This world doesn’t seem to match any fandom I know either. I’m Alec, and ehm, sorry for your loss,” he adds, forcing his mask up with a grunt. It slides into his helmet. “It’s supposed to move electronically,” he mutters. “Stupid thing must have fried in the portal...”
I nod mutely at him. He unexpectedly has blond hair and a baby-face, matching his baby-blue eyes and entirely lacking the trademark Tony Stark goatee one might expect underneath such an elaborate costume. Makes me wonder how old he is. I kind of forgot his name already, so I decide to call him Iron Man.
There’s nothing I can for Josh now except mourn him, and I don’t feel quite ready to do that yet. It’s still too unreal. So I join Dave and Iron Man in roaming the field, looking for survivors.
That’s to say we walk around aimlessly, and Iron Man prods bodies he deems ‘hopeful’ with his foot as we go past. Walking on the knifegrass is odd. Despite how thin it is, it bends only very slightly under my weight. If I were much heavier, it would probably cut right through my sensible shoes.
A change in the light alerts me to what’s happening up above. A lightning bolt seems to crawl in slow-motion from the blue star to the orange one, resulting in a fiery explosion on the orange star’s surface when it finally hits. If my jaw could detach, it would be on the ground right now.
Iron Man rubs his nose. “Yeah, that happens about every hour or so, near as I can tell.”
Ah. I guess that’s... reassuring? Not the lightning or explosions, but the idea that there’s something... consistent, in this strange place.
As we walk, Dave talks to fill the silence. Or that’s what it feels like at least. He tells me he came to the con with a friend. They found the guy a few tens of corpses back. Didn’t make it. Back on Earth, Dave had just moved in with his girlfriend. They were planning to get a dog. A puppy.
He seems like a nice guy, and I honestly want to pay attention, but this is all too much. I’m really here. This all really happened... How much time passed since I got here? How soon will my roommates notice I’m gone? My parents? My eyes are growing moist again, but I blink it away.
Something sizzles in my pocket. I frown.
“Oh shit, we forgot about her phone!” Iron Man yells wide-eyed. “I can’t believe it lived this long; quick, toss it!”
With a panicked yelp, I remove my phone from my pocket and fling it away from me. It bounces on the knifegrass a few times, before coming to a stop against the body of a young man wearing a costume I don’t recognise.
It lays there for a moment. I hold my breath in anticipation.
When nothing happens for a while, I turn to Iron Man with a frown, expecting to find him laughing at me, but he remains focused on my phone.
I turn back just in time to see the bolt of lightning that suddenly bursts free from it, making the body it lays against twitch.
Iron Man moves towards it immediately after. Assured that the danger is over, I follow.
He nudges the body with his foot, but it remains still.
“Must’ve just been the electricity,” Dave concludes.
I glance at the remains of my phone, fascinated. It actually physically burst open, as if the energy within could no longer be contained by the shell. Weird.
“Ah, it’s a Nokia 3310,” Dave mutters. “That explains why it lasted so long.”
Iron Man turns to frown at me. “What were you doing with such an old phone?”
I raise a brow at him and point at the burning dog logo on my uniform. “It was cheap.”
“Fair enough,” he concedes.
I turn away from the remains of my phone with a deep sigh. At least, I was going to sigh, but after I breathe in, it turns into a violent cough.
“Careful,” Dave says. “I don’t think the air has become any safer to breathe.”
“It hasn’t?” I ask, my eyes watering. Just from coughing, I swear. “Then why aren’t we...” I indicate what lies all around us.
“I think we’ve adapted,” Dave says, before lightly coughing too. “Somewhat.”
“I’m just glad it’s breathable at all,” Iron Man says, giving up on finding anymore survivors. “Our next concern should be water. I really think we ought to just try it, man.”
Dave shakes his head. “We still have bottled water, it’s not worth the risk.”
“What is?” I ask.
“There’s a fountain in the centre of the field,” Iron Man says. “The water looks clean enough, it just... it moves a little oddly.”
“Even saying it’s water is already an assumption,” Dave says.
“Can I see?” I ask.
The waves on the water move... oddly. As if in slow motion, but only a little. The stone fountain itself is odd too; it looks like some kind of bird, but with sharp, shark-tooth like protrusions on its spine, which continue on its sparsely feathered, rat-like tail. At least the water spouting from its creepy, serrated beak appears to behave quite normally...
We walk a stone’s throw from the fountain, to a spot where some space has been cleared on the field. A pile of bodies in colourful costumes to the side shows how. Others are going around collecting food and drinks from dead people’s bags. There is a small pile in the middle of the clearing.
People sit around here in small impromptu huddles, mostly subdued, breathing with difficulty. An overweight Misty heatedly argues with someone in a uniform lamer than mine. Some are crying silently.
A costume-less middle-aged woman catches my eye; she is holding a small cloth-wrapped bundle and bawling her eyes out. I catch a glimpse of what it holds, and quickly look away.
Actually, now that I’m trying to stop thinking about it... I don’t think I’ve seen any children among the survivors. I take another look at the faces around me.
Seems like nearly all teenagers also bit the dust; Alec is one of the youngest I see walking about. There is some representation among the middle-aged, but most survivors appear to be in their twenties or thirties.
Question is, is that because they couldn’t handle the poisonous air, or because...
The shriek of the little Yoda echoes through my head. My eyes are watering again. Must be the air.
My throat is also burning something fierce, so I grab a bottle of water from the pile.
“Hey!” somebody yells behind me. “We’re rationing; don’t just take whatever you like!”
I turn to find Legolas glaring at me. When he sees me, his eyebrows turn up in surprise. The anger in his eyes quickly fades as they rake over my figure, lingering more than a tad too long on my chest. He puts on a smarmy grin. “Well, I suppose it’s fine to drink some water if you’re thirsty, but if you want to take more than that...”
He swaggers a little closer, but Dave and Iron Man subtly take up position next to me. I guess we’re sort of a clique now. Human nature is interesting. It’s also scary; I’m starting to get a bad feeling about being locked in a giant cage with a group of emotional, scared humans...
He falters, attempts to look stern, but still glances down at my admittedly generous cleavage. It’s an unfortunate feature of my uniform; I believe my boss said something like, 'If you wanna sell sausage in a bun, show 'em some buns and get them thinking with their sausage.' Sexist prick. Almost a shame he wasn’t working when this happened.
“If you want to take more I’ll have to register it under your name,” Legolas says. “So, what can I call you, sweet cheeks?”
“That’s fine, I just want this bottle of water,” I say curtly, unscrewing the cap and taking a few sips. The water feels strange slipping down my throat, heavy. But the seal was unbroken, so it has to be from Earth. I don’t return the bottle. Legolas stares after me as we walk off, no doubt checking out my, ‘sweet cheeks.’ Christ, what a douchecanoe.
Empty bags are laid out around the pile, which is nice, because I’ve never enjoyed getting knifed in the butt. We sit down. I attempt to close an extra button on my tight uniform, but soon give up.
“Man,” Iron Man says, “this sucks... why couldn’t I have just gotten my letter from Hogwarts, you know?”
“I hear ya,” I reply sombrely, “anything would’ve been better than this.” I lower my voice, and indicate Legolas. “What’s with that creep guarding the pile?”
Iron Man snorts. “He’s part of a group, a kind of ‘Survival Team’ or something. They’re led by this security guy from the convention.”
“They’re trying to organize the survival effort,” Dave says. “Make sure people play nice, don’t waste food and drink, and all that.”
I suppose that’s a good goal. It beats sitting around doing nothing. But he’s still a creep. Just my luck, to get stuck in another dimension with a guy like that leering at me.
All right, enough pity-party, Emma. It never got you anywhere before, it sure as hell won’t here.
I take a deep, steadying breath, and am immediately punished by the universe with a terrible coughing fit.
Right, note to self: don’t do that.
Dave ‘helpfully’ thumps my back a few times. I nicely gesture for him to please stop.
“So,” I finally say weakly, “what do you guys make of these walls?”
Dave sucks in a cheek. “At least 80 feet high, some kind of rock, very tough. Could be man-made, or... alien.”
“Any way to climb them?”
Iron Man snorts. “Not likely; those walls are smooth as jazz. Besides,” he says, tilting his helmeted head backward, “we think there’s some kind of ceiling.”
It takes me a while to spot it. A very faint hexagonal grid, covering the full width of the sky.
“Damn. Guess we’re not going anywhere,” I say, using my fingers to prod the knifegrass between my feet. Yup, still sharp.
Dave shakes his head again. “Actually... there are doors.”
My eyes snap up to meet his.
“A lot of them, actually, ten in each wall... but there’s only one wall where they open. And they let through only one person at a time,” he continues. “They seem to reopen at a random interval. So far... no one has come back out.”
“So...” I say, “let me get this straight. We have no renewable source of food.” They nod. “A water source that we don’t trust.” They nod. “And the only way out is a mysterious, solo, one-way trip into this deadly, alien dimension.”
“Sounds about right,” Iron Man says.
Whelp. Sounds like my death is still on.
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