Wiser Days: Part 3
by Alicia McKenzie
See part one for disclaimer and notes.
Dark. That was the first thing I noticed; it was really bloody dark. Even midnight in some of the godforsaken places I'd been on assignment had never been this dark. There was always some light, something--
But not here. Wherever here was. It started to dawn on me that not only couldn't I see, but I couldn't move, either. I couldn't even feel my body. Common sense told me that I had to be breathing, but I honestly couldn't tell if I was. I couldn't see anything, couldn't hear anything, couldn't feel anything--
Bloody fucking hell--no, I wasn't going to panic. Panicking wouldn't do any good. I had to figure out what was going on, what had happened to me. There had to be a logical explanation. As soon as I started to concentrate, things started to come back. A bar--I'd been in a bar, hadn't I? But--
*--were to dispose of him. He is not--*
*--not going to do that, Blaquesmith. They were using him--*
*--immaterial, Nathan, and I will not--*
*--fine. If you won't, I WILL.*
Silence fell again, and I listened desperately for something, anything else. I hadn't recognized the first voice, but there'd been something familiar about the other. Something--
#Wisdom, can you hear me?#
I knew that voice.
"--can you hear me?"
"'Course I can hear you," I grumbled. "You're shou--ting." I managed to finish the word. Far as I was concerned, that was something of an accomplishment, given that I wasn't used to being in the dark one second and finding myself sitting on what looked like an idealized version of some bloody Carribean beach in the next.
*What the FUCK?* It wasn't real. I was pretty positive about that. You didn't get bone-white sand, turquoise water and perfect skies like this in the real world. My mind reeled at the thought. So if it wasn't real, what the hell was it? Was I dreaming?
"In a matter of speaking." Cable walked around from behind me and sat down on the sand in a cross-legged position that was ramrod-straight and yet somehow relaxed at the same time.
I stared at him, unnerved. "What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?" I demanded, hauling myself back to my feet and looking around wildly. The water stretched out for as far as I could see, glimmering in the sunlight. Behind me, there was a forest, all the leaves and plants the same shiny dark green. For some reason, I had absolutely no urge to go thundering in there. There was a wind rustling through the trees very gently, barely a breeze. But it was a very, very cold breeze.
"It means it's not real, and you're not conscious," Cable said, sounding a little nettled. I had to admit, I didn't give a shit whether I was being difficult or not. I wanted answers, not some bloody run-around--"Whether or not you want to consider it a dream is entirely your choice."
I bit back the first obvious comment, and tried feverishly to think. "What are you doing in my head?" I finally blurted, coming to the only conclusion I could as I remembered what had happened in the bar. *You think too loudly, Mr. Wisdom,* he'd said. "What the hell happened?"
Cable frowned, studying me intently. "You don't remember the warehouse?"
I stared at him blankly. The last thing I remembered clearly--was the alley outside the bar. Him telling me he'd show me what this was all about. There was something after that, but it was all in pieces, blurry little fragments that I couldn't put back together into any kind of a coherent whole. "Not really," I finally admitted.
"I'm not surprised," Cable said, more evenly. So bloody calm--how could he be so bloody calm? I thought wildly. "You got hurt in a fight at the warehouse," he went on. "You were trying to free some of the experimental subjects, and another telepath jumped you."
"Another telepath?" I blurted.
"Yes, another telepath," Cable said, mimicking my tone. "What, you thought I was the only one around?" I opened my mouth, and then closed it again when I couldn't think of a good retort. Cable shook his head. "You're completely headblind, and you don't have even rudimentary defenses--don't they teach you basic shielding? He more or less turned your mind inside out, Wisdom."
The wind seemed even colder, now. "What--does that mean?" I asked a little dully, and decided that sitting back down would be a good idea. My legs didn't feel like they wanted to hold me--which was pretty funny, if this wasn't real. All of these physical reactions I was having--it was a pretty convincing dream, hallucination, whatever. I still wanted to know what this was, if it wasn't a dream.
"It means that you'll be a vegetable, if I can't figure out some way to repair the damage." Cable's expression was neutral, almost blank, but there was something underlying his words, something I couldn't quite figure out. His gaze lingered on me, his strange eyes troubled. "I won't lie to you, Wisdom," he went on as I stared at him, unable to think of a single bloody thing to say. "I'm a low-level telepath. I've never done this before, and I don't know if I CAN do it." That weirdly glowing eye of his flashed for a moment. "But I'm going to try," he promised, determination replacing that odd edge in his voice.
I swallowed. "Why would you bother?" I asked hoarsely. *A vegetable--bloody hell.* On the bright side, things were just starting to piece themselves together again. I remembered--looking down from somewhere, seeing people strapped to tables--"I was here to kill you, remember?" I went on, my voice getting more bitter with each word. What a mess. What a bloody fucking mess. "Why help me? I thought I was just in your way."
"Because I took you into that situation," Cable almost growled, his eye glowing brighter.
"So what, this is all about your pride?" I snapped.
He gave a sharp, totally humorless bark of laughter. "So what if it is?" he said challengingly. He was meeting my eyes straight-on, but there was a strange little defiant glint there, something that didn't really make a lot of sense to me. "Would you rather I didn't bother?"
I gritted my teeth. "No."
"Bastard," I muttered, shivering as the cold wind blew over me and half-wishing I'd managed to get him with a hot-knife in the bar. If I had, I probably never would have been in this situation to begin with.
"No," Cable said, sounding almost distracted. "You probably would have gotten yourself in worse trouble." He smiled at me thinly. "I know your type. I WAS your type."
"Right." The beach started to dissolve around me, and I swore. "Cable, what the hell--"
#I can't hold the image and work on the damage at the same time. I'll bring you back at regular intervals so you don't go insane from sensory deprivation, but that's the best I can do--#
His voice chased me downwards as I fell back into the dark.
#So why British Intelligence?# The question was almost unbearably loud in the silence. It woke me right up - at least, I thought I'd been sleeping - and I floated there in the dark, wondering how the hell I was supposed to answer. I'd tried screaming, some time ago - how long, I wasn't sure - and nothing had come out. I didn't want to make that mistake again. It had been--disturbing.
#Wisdom?# the voice went on. It sounded tired, somehow, strained around the edges.
I didn't answer. I didn't know how.
The voice sighed. #Okay. I can still sense you, so I know you're still--there. I'll try and bring you to the beach again in a while--need to finish what I'm doing and get some sleep, first.#
For some reason, that pissed me off. Must be nice, to be able to sleep peacefully and know you were going to wake up to something other than this bloody endless blackness--
#Oh, flonq you, boy.# Even anger didn't put any energy in the voice. #I could have left you to die. Blaquesmith would have preferred it that way. He won't help me--wouldn't even give me advice. I think he's waiting to see how long I can keep at it until I collapse from sheer exhaustion.#
Terror flashed through me, there and gone again so fast I could almost pretend it hadn't been there--almost. But the thought of him giving up, of leaving me here--
#I won't do that.# Quiet determination in the voice now, and it was reassuring, despite everything. #I don't give up, Peter.#
*Pete,* I thought feebly, trying to push the word out towards wherever the voice was.
Silence, for a moment. Then a tired chuckle. #Okay, Pete.#
"So what British Intelligence?" Cable asked me. "You never answered my question."
I blinked around. The beach was a little different. It seemed to change, every time he brought me back here. There were more rocks, here and there in the sand, this time, but the ruby-colored strings of seaweed that had been strewn across the beach since two visits ago were gone. The major change this time was the sky. The stars were out, but it was still full light down here on the sand. Weird--kind of pretty, but weird, I thought, staring out at the sparkling water.
"I don't know," I muttered, and sat down on the large gray boulder before Cable could. He'd stolen that spot, the last time, and spent some indeterminate number of hours lecturing me on Eastern European history, of all things. I hadn't complained; I'd just been too glad to be back and out of the dark for a while. "Seemed like the thing to do." I watched him totter unsteadily over and sit down in a sort of controlled fall onto the sand. "Why mercenary work?" I shot back, trying to ignore what I was seeing.
Astral forms reflected reality, he'd told me a few beach visits ago. At the moment, his looked like it had been hit by a truck or something. He kept--flickering, as if he couldn't hold the image of himself steady. The beach seemed as solid as ever, at least.
Cable shrugged. "Not much other alternative, after G.W. and I got kicked out of SHIELD." He sighed, and the wind echoed him. "I should probably say 'after I got G.W. and myself kicked out of SHIELD'. It was mostly my fault. He just went along for the ride."
I peered at him curiously, almost forgetting where we were and why I was stuck inside my own head. "Don't suppose you'd share?" There hadn't been much in his file about why he'd gone rogue, and I had to admit, I'd been intrigued.
He laughed. It was a real laugh, this time, not one of those cold little 'fuck off and die' laughs that I'd noticed he was really good at. "I was struck by a sudden attack of conscience," he said dryly. "At a very inconvenient moment."
"And now you're doing mercenary work?" I snorted. "Oh, that makes a ruddy lot of sense." He hadn't struck me as the inconsistent type--more like the type who picked one position, one set of beliefs, and held on through hell and high water.
Cable shrugged again, and his eyes were almost haunted for a moment. "The--conscience attack was an abherration, Wisdom." His mouth twisted. "Things like that don't generally matter to me anymore. I've gotten a little more practical, these last few years."
I studied him for a moment. "You sound like you're trying to convince yourself," I said slowly.
"And you have no room to talk," Cable shot back, his tone almost warning. I leaned back, away from him, almost unconsciously. "You're in this situation because you came here to kill me, remember?"
I laughed wryly. "Good point," I admitted, and dropped the subject. Looking around at the beach, I tried to fix the colors in my mind, just like I did every time. I didn't ask him how long it had been--I'd lost track of time way back, and I was fairly sure I wanted to know. "How's it--going?" I asked, hating the hesitant way the question came out. It was my mind, after all, and I did have the right to know--even if I was a little afraid of the answer.
"Slowly," Cable said very quietly. The colors around me started to darken. Night was falling, I thought, half-whimsically, half-fearfully. "I'm not ready to throw in the rag just yet."
"Towel," I murmured. "It's 'throw in the towel', Nate."
"Don't call me Nate. Peter." But there was a little ripple of amusement in his voice, chasing away the exhaustion there for just a moment as the beach faded into shadow around me.
He hadn't been able to hold it long that time, I thought anxiously. What if--
#What is, is.#
*That's got to be the most irritating bloody proverb I've ever heard.*
#Wisdom, you don't know the half of it.#
This was leaving me way too much time to think. There was nothing else to do, floating here. I couldn't pretend I was sleeping, couldn't imagine myself off having a pint, or in bed with that green-eyed blonde who lived down the hall. I'd tried. It had worked for a while, but not anymore. Everything always faded back into shadow--
I really had screwed things up here, I admitted to myself. The memories of what had happened to land me here had gotten clearer and clearer--whatever Cable was doing out there was having some sort of effect.
The images of those people, those kids, strapped to those tables still bothered me, but I could see so clearly just how stupid it had been to charge down there and start shooting off hotknives. I'd had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, no clue what sort of resistance I could come up against--I'd lost control and just reacted. Would have served me right if I HAD gotten myself killed.
And none of it had done the people I was trying to help any good at all. Nate had admitted that to me, a few beach visits ago. He'd said that by the time he got me out of there and went back, the people running the operation had packed up shop--and done away with their guinea pigs.
*They had a medical-grade incinerator,* he'd said, sitting on the rock and watching me calmly. *By the time I got there the only thing left were a few bone fragments.*
So there'd been no point to it. I hadn't helped them, I'd gotten myself brain-fried, and now I was floating here in the dark, no idea where my body was in the real world or how long I'd been here, not knowing whether or not I was going to spend the rest of my bloody life in the bloody dark--
#Wisdom. Calm down--you're making it harder--#
*Making WHAT harder?* I 'shouted' back at him almost hysterically. *I don't have any idea what you're doing, I certainly don't feel any bloody change--* Besides the memories, of course, but that didn't solve the problem of not being able to move, or open my eyes--
#I can't just snap my fingers and repair your mind, Pete--#
*I don't care!* Self-control was slipping away--I couldn't help it. I felt like I'd been hanging on by my fingernails forever. *You got any idea what this is like?*
A pause. #Yes,# Cable answered softly. #A little.#
It stopped me in mid-rant. *Like hell,* I retorted feebly, after a long moment. But he wasn't the type for false sympathy; I'd definitely gotten that impression.
#I've been--interrogated by other telepaths, Pete. Although I suppose 'tortured' would be the better word. They weren't looking for anything--they were just trying to break me.#
If I'd had any sense of being attached to my body, I would have shuddered at the tone of his voice. *How?* I sent back tentatively, and for a moment, just a flash, I was somewhere else: strapped to a flat surface I could just barely feel beneath me, surrounded by glowing--presences that I knew somehow were telepaths; screaming silently as they blocked me away from the world, made me deaf and dumb and blind.
Then they started to work in earnest, and even as the images were snatched away, leaving me in the dark again, I got one last flash of what it had been like for him, lying there unable to fight back as they set at his mind with invisible knives, cutting away all his defenses until he was helpless to protect himself---
If I'd had any doubt about whether or not it was possible to feel nauseated when you couldn't feel your body, it was gone now. *Shit--* I thought feebly. *Bloody hell--wish I hadn't asked--*
#Well, you did,# Nate retorted with a lightness that sounded a little forced.
I tried to calm down. *That meant to show me that I'm being a whining little bastard about this?* I managed to think at him. *That you had it worse, so I should just shut up and let you work--?*
#No,# he answered, sounding completely calm again. In control of himself--I was beginning to realize that was the most important thing to him. Control. #It's meant to show you that I survived that, more or less intact. So you'll survive this.#
*I don't feel particularly reassured,* I shot back. I felt like the blackness was spinning around me, actually, and the sensation of movement wasn't nearly as comforting as I would have thought it would be. *Remind me to laugh in your face the next time you offer me a peek inside your head.*
#Well, at least you're pissed off at me instead of falling apart,# Nate said coolly. #That's an improvement.#
*I was not falling apart!* I protested angrily.
#Could have fooled me.# His tone was almost nasty.
*You son of a--* I hesitated, feeling rather chagrined all of a sudden. *You're goading me, aren't you?*
I stifled the obvious retort, and repeated a few lines of a dirty limerick in my head before I spoke again. I'd been doing that a lot, lately; it seemed to help to have something to focus on, and obscene doggerel was definitely preferable to the bits and pieces of Tennyson and Shakespeare my brain seemed to have retained from school. *Think you might get back to what you were doing? I'd like to get out of here before Christmas.*
#Working on it, Pete.#
It was cloudy on the beach, this time, and everything else was gray, as well. The change in the beach bothered me; there was something wrong here, for sure, and I didn't like what that implied. I frowned at Cable, who was sitting on the rock, his shoulders hunched and his head nearly resting on his chest. "What's happening?" I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.
It took him a long, long moment to answer. "I'm--tired, Wisdom," he said, the words almost slurred. "Can't--hold the image."
"Then don't," I said, with rather more conviction than I actually felt. It had been too long since the last time he'd brought me here, and I'd been feeling definitely frayed around the edges again. "Honestly, Nate, if it's a choice between staying in the dark but getting out of here sooner, or having you kill yourself trying to make the accommodations a little better, I'll pick the first."
"Oh, good," Cable said faintly, and the beach vanished from around me like a snuffed candle.
I was left in the dark again, wondering. Worrying.
#Ever read Tolkien?#
It took me a while to gather my thoughts together enough to answer. It had gotten easier just to let go, let myself drift. So much easier. *No--* I sent back, not liking how difficult it was to form the word.
#What about C.S. Lewis? The Chronicles of Narnia?#
I thought. Narnia--no--wait, maybe. *The wardrobe thing?* I ventured feebly.
#Yeah, the wardrobe thing. Where the kids step through and into another world.#
*Your point?* I managed to ask. There was something weird in his voice. Didn't sound so tired, maybe that was it. I couldn't remember the last time Nate's voice hadn't sounded tired.
Something weird--almost satisfaction--?
#My point is hold on,# he answered crisply, #because you're about to emulate them--#
Something like sunlight, fierce and golden and blazing, shattered the darkness around me with a single blow. The shadows howled as they retreated and everything spun violently, the whole world wrenching apart and reforming, all within the space of an instant. I tried to scream, and heard a hoarse, rasping noise--
--HEARD it with my ears, for the first time in--
I drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and opened my eyes. Everything was blurred, and blinking didn't help, but I was fairly sure the thing above me was a ceiling. My body didn't want to obey the commands my brain was giving it, but I could FEEL it again, numb and awkward though it might be. I was lying on a bed or something, and there was something in my arm - an IV? - and tubes where there shouldn't be tubes. Something - a machine? - chirped softly in the background.
I tried to lift my head, to say something, but another croaking noise escaped me as--something, relatively man-sized but with yellow skin and a strangely insect-like face leaned over me and scowled.
"I dislike being left with so few options, boy," it said with great disapproval. "You should have died. I have no doubt Dayspring will regret his choice to save you."
Dayspring? Who the bloody hell was Dayspring? Giving up on trying to make my voice work, I managed, with great difficulty, to turn my head.
Cable was slumped in a chair beside the bed, his head sagging awkwardly to one side and his chest rising and falling in a shallow but regular movement. Asleep? My brain reflected rather sluggishly that it would be really nice if he woke up, before the giant bug did whatever the giant bug was planning to do--
"You are a complication," it said bleakly. "I must respect what he has done, but that does not mean I approve. Remember that in the years to come."
It turned and left. I shivered and managed to turn my head again so that I could look back up at the ceiling. It was white plaster, cracked here and there, but I'd never seen anything so beautiful in my life, I reflected disjointedly.
Nate never stirred in his chair. I took a deep, shuddering breath, and closed my eyes. I certainly wasn't getting out of this bed on my own, let alone dealing with the IV and all. I supposed I could have asked the giant bug, but maybe I'd better just wait for Nate to wake up--
The darkness was different. Not nearly so deep, and I could feel the bed underneath me, the texture of the sheets as I clenched my hands into fists.
Giant bugs or no, it was good to be awake.
to be continued..
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