O Fortuna


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title O Fortuna
Synopsis Secrets are kept in the shadowed forests of Providence.
Date February 18, 2020

It was not the best of times. Nor was it the worst of times. Fuck you, Charles Dickens. The war had been over for a handful of years, and those were definitely close to, if not the worst, of times. And while there was something resembling peace — so saith the great dick-tater Raymond Praeger who knows shit all about nothing in his safe space in Kansas City — there’s a bad smell that’s risen up in the humble settlement of Providence.

And it isn’t from the horses.

It probably isn’t the weathered cottage either, with its peeling paint and mis-matched shingles. Someone might even say it was once a quaint little house. A long time ago. Before the war. That someone definitely isn’t Chris Ayers. He’d set fire to the place and burn all the roaches inside if he had a say in anything. But since he doesn’t have a say in things…

Providence Settlement

New Jersey Pine Barrens

February 18

2:37 pm

“I don’t know what the fuck she knows.” Chris sounds utterly bored with the reasoning for visiting a certain newcomer to the small town of farmers and homesteaders. He isn’t really, he just doesn’t have the time to explain every last fucking detail of every last fucking idea he has. “She said she hears things, which probably means people talk to her. And she tried to listen in when fucking…”

He cuts himself off and scowls at the horse beside him. Jester couldn't give two fucks about who or what's being talked about. “Fucking mule,” the young man complains while the beast plods among more interested in snuffling for dandelions than listening to more bitching.


Chris turns his unamused expression over to the door. So we’re going to check in, see what she’s heard since last night. You know, like you do when you chase a Nosy Nellie out of your business.

A year and a half ago a quiet couple lived in this house with their son. The old farmhouse is relatively isolated and the people who lived here valued their privacy. So much so that no one had realized they moved out for more than a week. Their exodus from Providence was hasty, leaving most of their worldly possessions along, including the furnishing. Few people knew Randolph Burgess, save that he was a bow hunter who would trade venison in Providence. He kept his family life private and Providence respected that privacy.

Several months would pass before the house’s current occupant, a woman from out of town named Elisa, would come to stake up residence. It was Elisa who reported finding a makeshift grave in the backyard and the name Randolph etched on the makeshift wood marker. Randolph’s death going by unnoticed would be an afterthought, save for Elisa’s trail ending here bringing it all back again.

There’s an diesel-powered royal blue Volkswagen, circa sometime in the Regan administration, parked in the dirt driveway covered in a fine sheet of dead pine needles. Chris recognizes it as Elisa’s piece of shit car that she rarely uses. One tire being nearly flat is even more evidence of that. There’s no lights on inside, likely no electricity going to the house either judging from the lack of any generator noise. The front door is slightly ajar but the blinds to the house are drawn shut.

“Lucy.” Someone’s got some ‘splainin to do. Chris uses his best Ricky Ricardo accent as he approaches the partly opened door. The horse is left to fend for himself. Damn thing isn't likely to wander far, either. He's got it too good in Chris’ care.

He pauses just shy of pushing through the door, not because it's off putting. He isn't scared of whatever ghosts might be ducking around inside. He stops short of entering because just barging in would be rude. And he wants to listen for any telltale creaks or groans that would warn him against going further.

Chris waits for a full, silent count of three. Then, with his offhand, he grips the side of the door to ease it open. “Lucy.” Marco? Polo?

The house is quiet and with the blinds drawn on most of the windows, dark as well. There’s a distant sound of clatter a few rooms away; sloshing water and clinking dishes. It sounds as though someone is in the kitchen. But no one responds to the call inside. Chris spots a pair of shoes by the door, old canvas sneakers he’s seen Elisa wear before. There’s a dirtier pair of boots in the same size, caked in mud that look more military-issue. A few jackets hang right inside the door, but all of them are about Elisa’s size. From the looks of it she lives here alone, which tracks with what little Chris knows about her.

The sound of the dishwashing stops a beat later, and the whole house goes silent.

It might all look normal. But Chris scowls at the shoes and jackets like they've done fucked up and someone’s about to get their ass whooped. It lasts just long enough for him to lock onto the sounds in the other room, a particular clanked note drawing his interest. At least in as far as he's not scowling nor appearing bored.

The intensity grows when the sounds stop and the whole place is silent.

After a quick glance behind — Jester has wandered a bit to browse at a greener looking patch — he steps inside.

The door is left ajar, just as he'd found it. “Anyone home,” he calls from the doorway like nothing’s amiss. But Chris moves away from the opening. He moves purposefully, but with a practiced caution to keep his footsteps muted.

Nothing, just silence. The house smells faintly of lavender and red wine. There’s a grand but old set of stairs directly ahead from the entrance, a duffel bag situated at the bottom of the stairs. The second floor landing is nearly pitch black with no windows to shed light up there and the downstairs windows blinded as they are.

A living room is visible through a doorway to Chris’ right, old furniture seems ordinary enough. Nothing in there seems out of place. Taxidermied hunting trophies hang on the wall, though the ones he can see are covered in a coat of dust. They probably came with the house. To his left there’s a dining room through another door, the long dining room table would be fit for a whole family, and maybe one actually lived here at some point. The front hall continues past the stairs, where the kitchen sounds came from, probably the open doorway to the right past the dining room.

There are countless horror movies that depict this very scenario; a young man or woman just barely into their twenties, prowling through a house that's eerily silent. Potentially haunted, if not inhabited by a psychotic murderer. And then they die or barely escape and are traumatized for life. Chris really should know better. He's seen a fair number of those movies. Yet he pauses long enough to gaze up the staircase to the darkened second floor before continuing on.

“Hospitality is definitely lacking,” he murmurs, observing the lack of… anything. This is too fucking weird. The trophies are given a finger — not a fan of glass eyes staring back at him — and he moves on.

Through the dining room to the next doorway. He eases through sideways, like that's going to save him from whatever fucking psychopath is hiding on the other side of the wall. But that's what he does. Chris leads with a shoulder, followed by that half of his body and head, whispering to himself the whole time, “this better not be the next fucking Murder House. Fuck. I thought I moved to Providence, not Amityville.”

All of Chris’ externalized humor does little to make the situation feel less uninviting. The dining room is quiet, photographs on the walls depict people that aren’t Elisa. There’s two men, embracing, smiling. Happy. Another photograph of one of the men in hunting clothes with a bow and a quiver of arrows over his back, a dead deer at his feet. Another photograph of the two men with a boy of roughly ten or eleven years old, probably their son. All of them have a thin layer of dust on them. They, too, came with the house.

Only one chair in the dining room ever looks like it’s used, the one at the furthest end of the room from the entrance. There’s a teacup in front of it — empty — and a dog-eared copy of a book, but it isn’t in English. The cover reads: Мечта османа

Eyes up from the book, and Chris can see through a partly open door into a kitchen. There’s light in there, though the windows of the kitchen are covered in newspapering to block out line of sight. The light is diffuse, shadows deep. There’s no sound of dishes. No sound of anything other than the creak of old floorboards underfoot and his own breathing.

A smarter or more suspicious man would probably take a moment to consider the book on the table. After all, the lack of answer and the apparent absence of anyone in the home could make anything seem suspect. Especially when there had been noises just moments before indicating that someone else was actually inside. However, no one has ever accused Chris of being either smart nor particularly suspicious and he doesn't know whatever the fuck that language is anyway. The book is ignored except for a quick flip of some pages since he can't read it.

The tea cup is moved aside a few inches, the cover of the book left open to whatever random page he'd stopped on before his attention wandered back to the kitchen. The presence — he's pretty sure there was someone there, maybe someone back from the dead since that's a thing that keeps happening. He murmurs a few bars of the Ghostbusters theme as he crosses the final few steps to the door.

Chris brings a hand up as he reaches the door, fingers curled to keep it from moving further any direction. Don't need that thing giving him away anymore than his own mouth already has. As he holds the door he leans slowly in, looking around it and into the kitchen.

It nearly causes Chris’ heart to skip a beat when he looks to the right and sees someone right there, but that immediate startle is tempered by the fact that their back is to Chris and they don’t see to notice him. It’s absolutely Elisa, in a loose flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, standing at the kitchen sink drying dishes. Her head bobs up and down slowly to a beat Chris can’t hear, a pair of old foam-padded headphones over her ears and a spiraling cable going down to a battered looking Sony discman clipped to her belt. Her head sways to the side, eyes shut, dishrag smoothing across a chipped plate.


Eloquent as ever, Chris drops the epithet on a breath he was unknowingly holding. All the ghosts and spooks that've been manifesting out of thin air, people coming back from the dead. It all needs to stop because he's not fucking switching to decaf coffee. He scowls at Elisa’s back, like it's all her fault.

And technically it is since she didn't answer the first time he called in.

He stays in the doorway, arms folded over his chest and looking annoyed. Which is better than the bored look he often wears. “Hey,” Chris calls again, pitched to carry and, hopefully penetrate whatever obnoxious Justin Bieber shit the woman is listening to.

Chris can tell that Elisa hears him, because she lunges forward to the counter, drops to a crouch and tears something taped from under it, and pivots around fast enough to draw a fucking gun on him with the practiced speed of a professional marksman. He can hear the click of a safety disengaging as the gun squares on him and for the barest of moments he thinks she fires because of how loudly she shouts, “Fuck!

But there is no gunshot. Elisa rips her headphones off and drops them to the ground, the volume was turned up loud enough on them that he can hear brass horns and acoustic guitar blaring from inside. It’s familiar, it’s— Johnny Cash.

The first thought that forms when Elisa moves is to get the fuck out of the way. Chris twists where he stands, body spiraling toward the floor into what would look remarkably like a fetal position if he were laying down. It really just succeeds in making him a smaller target for the gun. He doesn't recognize the precision that Elisa wields for what it is. He doesn't recognize it at all because he's just looking to save his skin.

Arms cover his head. They aren't bulletproof, but that's what you do to protect your head and neck. And he tenses in anticipation for the shot.

That never comes.

The crooning tones of Johnny Cash tell him that much. Chris slowly stands, turns, stares at Elisa. “What the ever loving fuck!” He hasn't felt so charged with… annoyance isn't strong enough a word, but let's go with that, since the time quill-boy fucked up the raid on the gala. “Maybe you should, I don't know, look before you pull a gun? If I'd wanted to kill you…” The answer to that is pretty obvious, at least as far as he cares, since he made it as far as he was. “The fuck is wrong with you? Were you not loved enough as a child? Did your dog hate you?”

“What the fuck is wrong with me?” Elisa shouts, eyes wide. “What the fuck are you doing in my house!?” She screams, not angling the gun away from Chris but instead making sure its trained on center mass. “Do you just invite yourself in to everyone’s fucking house?” Her hands are shaking, adrenaline; shoulders rise and fall fast. There’s a clipped, stilted tone to the way Elisa is speaking. It doesn’t sound the way she normally does. Fear can do that to someone.

“Get the fuck out of my house before I actually shoot you!” Elisa snarls, slowly rising to stand up straight, motioning to the door out of the kitchen with a nod of her head. “Now!

“When their fucking front door is open. When they don't answer when I call inside. It's my fucking job to make sure the Fine People of Providence aren't murdered or worse.” Chris holds his hands out a little from himself, palms up, offering that answer as so obvious a drunk hamster could understand it. And most of it's true, though protecting the settlement usually doesn't range indoors, he will argue the door being open and no response as suspect.

He stays in the doorway, but his weight shifts to start backing up. A screaming woman with a gun isn't a good thing in any situation. He's fucked if she decides to make good on that threat.

His hands come down slightly. Chris isn't armed, so maybe he has that going for him. “Now back the bullet train up. You shoot me, there's fucking worse things for you than just needing to learn how to get blood out of the carpet.” It's probably true enough, there's some backing in his tone.

Elisa’s eyes narrow for a moment. There’s this split-second of recognition, followed by a slow lowering of the handgun and a wave of unnerving calm that comes over her. Elisa’s lips part, as if to say something, but nothing except a husky breath comes out. She looks, briefly, over to the sink where she was doing dishes, then back to Chris.

“You’re not fucking with me,” Elisa says as a matter of fact, even though her voice upticks at the end in confusion and question. The question isn’t for Chris, it’s for her. Elisa looks down to the gun in her hand, then back to Chris with another slow narrowing of her eyes. “Why’re you afraid…” she says, pointing the gun back at Chris, “of a gun?” It’s hard to say whether it’s Elisa’s sudden calm or the recentering of a firearm in his direction, but Chris suddenly feels to be in more danger than he was a moment ago.

Chris’ hands come down as the gun lowers, relief masked by a breath of annoyance. Of all the dumb fucking luck, he chooses to follow up on Elisa’s hearing things only to find out that she…



His eyes narrow toward a scowl, falls just short of that mark. “Talking to yourself is allegedly a sign of insani — ” He doesn't finish that sentence, opting instead to lift his hands again. Still unarmed, crazy bitch.

“Because guns fucking kill.” Duh. Chris shifts his weight backward, a foot slides to draw him back the way he'd come. “Jesus shit a brick, Elisa. Be pissed that I'm here uninvited but fucking put the gun away.”

Confusion dawns across Elisa’s face, lips parted and eyes narrowed. She lowers the gun, but it’s not in the way Chris would expect. It’s like she’s only now realizing something. Elsie doesn’t even keep the gun in her hand, instead she puts it down on the counter and takes a step toward Chris with that same expression on her face. Confusion.

“August.” Elisa says sharply, as if it were a weapon. She looks Chris up and down again, eyes narrowed. “You remember August, don’t you?” Her head angles to the side, and her mouth does something that almost becomes a smile, but instead becomes something more neutral. “August 30th.”

The horrific machine-whine of the octopedal robot blasts through the treeline as Finn brings himself into an intersecting path with it. The monocular-eyed machine comes to a grinding halt, halfway toppling a tree as it presses metallic girth into it. The machine’s lens eye narrows to a focus point, staring either at Finn or —

The noise that thing made howls in the back of Chris’ mind. He doesn’t notice his hands are shaking until he sees Elisa looks down at them and back up again. Her posture has completely changed, her expression has completely changed. She isn’t angry anymore.

She’s confused.

“Do you remember what happened?” Elisa asks again.

Finally. There should be some relief when Elisa puts the gun down. Chris feels nothing close to it. Annoyance buzzes like a mosquito, at her confusion and questioning, and he stares at the woman for a long moment. Long enough to remember the end of August.

“Who doesn't remember,” he counters. His hands are shoved into his pockets. Why the fuck are they shaking? “Fucking… murder robots coming out of nowhere. Shit gave me nightmares.” That must be the cause of his uneasiness. Even though he talks like the same would've been true for anyone who'd been in his situation. Chris stares at her for another several seconds. Then, as if the unspoken prompt wasn't enough, “Why? What? Were you even here then? What’s the… are you fucking with me?”

The fact that Chris has to ask that question makes the corner of Elisa’s eyes tighten. “Two questions,” she asks, creeping a step closer to Chris. “One, how did you get from the blast site to Providence?” She doesn’t give him enough time to think about it. “Two, what happened to that fancy armor Lang was wearing?”

He doesn’t—


Six Months Earlier

Ruins of the Jungle Habitat Amusement Park

The Black Forest, New Jersey Pine Barrens Outskirts

As the robot pauses in its movement, Chris raises the rifle, presses the butt hard into the meat of his shoulder. He doesn't bother with the scope this time. Being on the move would make it impossible to use anyway. Plus it's a large target and he's an okay shot. His finger finds the trigger just when the fucking thing decides to launch off again, but he turns with it and squeezes off a couple of shots. Just buying time.

“The fuck is going on,” Lang keeps repeating as he jogs ahead with Sharrow over his shoulder, “the fuck is going on!” As they continue to make their way southward, there’s a sudden noise that erupts from the far side of the visitor’s center. It’s a scream, mournful and horrific, Eileen’s voice in what can only be described as anguish and agony. Lang freezes in place, back straight and eyes wide, head jerked toward the sound.

With the overgrown visitor’s center occluding view of what’s transpiring, there is only Eileen’s suffering screams and cries to add context. Lang turns, taking Chris by the arm and arresting his movement. There’s a moment where Lang’s jaws clench, his brows furrow, and he looks like he might charge straight into the fray to go back for her. But then, fate changes his mind for him.

There is a violent thunderclap from behind the building, a sudden and thunderous flash of light followed by a slow-motion wall of flames rolling outward from the site. It doesn’t travel like an explosion should, there’s no shockwave, there’s no speed. It moves at a jogging pace, trees blasting apart in slow-motion detonation as soon as the pyroclasmic wall reaches them. The fire has no light, no heat, like a film negative of an explosion kicking up a dust cloud of ashes in its wake. Lang’s grip on Chris’ wrist becomes tighter, and he moves


Lang crashes through a line of nearby dead trees, dragging Chris with him. What is on the other side of the treeline is a toppled fence, and then a fifteen foot drop down into an animal enclosure. Lang lands on his feet, the servos in the knees of his armor blasting out with a flash of sparks, followed by buckled pieces of broken metal raining down around him. Chris lands with a crash on concrete, Sharrow dropped beside him with a wet wheeze.

A brilliant and colorless glow builds over the edge of the enclosure with the dull roar of a slow-motion explosion drawing ever closer. Lang hunches forward, doing what he was tasked to do, protecting the people of Providence. They might well be the last of them.

Close your eyes!” Lang hisses as he tries to shield Chris and Sharrow from the oncoming explosion. The light becomes brighter, the deafening roar of an explosion all-consuming. The ground shakes, the air becomes dry, plants wither and die, the air becomes stale.

Whatever you do

Present Day

Chris’ hands come up a little further when Elisa steps closer — she's still got that gun in hand so let's not get too crazy. His brows, drawn together, mark his expression with confusion. Everyone knows what happened.

Except the questions and insistence behind them…

“Lang’s armor was already shit,” he answers. Chris is no longer sure, though. “The explosion, Lang threw me and Sharrow into some kind of half-underground enclosure to avoid it. Kept yelling about…” His hands find his face and drag down it. “Fuck I don't know. We were banged up from the fall, shit was crazy, it was probably Finn’s luck that we got out of there and home alive.”

The expression on Elisa’s face is like an obnoxious kid sister who just found out she has something over her equally obnoxious brother. “You don’t remember,” she says with a gasp. “You poor shit, I wondered why you’ve been acting like such a — more of a prick than usual.” Elisa narrows her eyes and takes a step toward Chris, one dark brow raised and lips parted in a toothy smile.

“You really did get your bell rung, didn’t you?” Elisa asks, which—

Chris slouches as Lang hands him over. His vision is blurry, indistinct, but he can smell the scent of cloves in the air as she wraps an arm around his midsection. “He really did get his bell rung, didn’t he?”

what the fuck was that?

“This is unbelievable,” Elisa says with a light in her eyes. She cradles this moment between imaginary hands, and her near-fitful laughter is less imagination and much more uncontrollable.

Chris retreats another step when Elisa comes closer. It's not the time for regrets, but the thought that he should have left when he was first told to does cross his mind. A scowl begins to form, his weight shifts backward again, unsteady for a split second.

“The fuck are you talking about?” He grasps for annoyance, but there's an undertone of worry. If he can mask the latter…

Chris shakes his head, then presses the heels of his palms against his eyes. What was going on? “Are you… doing something?”

“You’d know it if I was doing something, друг,” Elisa says with a quick and unintentional slip into Russian. “You’re the one with all the tricks, mister.” She squints, leaning forward with her hands on her hips, lopsided smile and all, beyond amused. “I can’t believe it, you don’t remember a thing that’s happened. So it…”

Elisa looks around her house, then back to Chris. “Can you do it?” She asks, her brows raised. “You know,” she looks down at his hands, then back up to him. “Your trick?

Remember what? What is he forgetting? Chris shakes his head again, denying the possibility, the likelihood that he's missing something in all of this. It's got to be just Elisa and her hearing things. Maybe she's hit the Russian Spring Water a few times today already. He flicks a gaze past her, hoping to see a bottle laying around, or anything to explain Elisa’s sudden unnerving glee.

“I don't even know what you're talking about,” he insists, attention coming back to the woman as she leans toward him. “What tricks? I train horses.” But something in the way he says that implies a deeper concern. That's what she meant, right?

Fingers curl into palms then go slack again. Chris raises his hands to show they're still empty and nothing special about them.

“I bet you do,” Elisa says of Chris’ skill with horses. She takes another testing step toward Chris, one brow raised. “I wanted a horse when I was young, my family was poor. We could barely afford meals, and I dreamt of being an equestrian.” Elisa snorts at the notion. “You’re not a horse trainer,” she insists, closing the distance between them enough that she can jab her index finger into the joint of his shoulder.

You’re a survivor,” Elisa says with a rise in her voice. “You aren’t meant to be shoveling shit and bagging feed all day. You were meant for bigger things, and your own, dumb brain is keeping it from you.” She nearly giggles, teeth toying at her lower lip. “You really are your own worst enemy, Chris Ayers.”

Better a finger than a gun. Chris would still prefer to keep some distance between himself and Elisa. There is a chair that has other ideas when it clatters against the edge of the table and stunts a backward step to avoid being touched. “Bigger things.” He scowls, confused and irritated and uncomfortable. A hand drops to swat her finger away.

“If my dumb brain is keeping it from me and you know what it is.” Does he really want to know? “Fucking tell me already. I mean.” He huffs a laugh, it's forced, and what follows isn't actually funny. “Right now my legacy is looking like shoveling shit and dead people coming back is the best I can get out of life.”

Dead people coming back,” Elisa scoffs, which turns into a bark of laughter. “Oh sweetie.” One of her brows rise slowly.

“Don’t you remember the first time we met?”

Six Months Earlier

Ruins of the Jungle Habitat Amusement Park

The Black Forest, New Jersey Pine Barrens Outskirts

Close your eyes!” Lang hisses as he tries to shield Chris and Sharrow from the oncoming explosion. The light becomes brighter, the deafening roar of an explosion all-consuming. The ground shakes, the air becomes dry, plants wither and die, the air becomes stale.

Whatever you do, don’t open them!” Lang screams as the ground rapidly begins to shake. There’s a sudden explosion of air that rips over the top of the submerged enclosure. Lang’s ANCILLA armor begins to smoke as a wave of heat comes next. It’s an intense, scalding heat. Chris can hear Finn scream and roll to the side, right as a metal door and a heap of concrete crashes down on top of him, seemingly crushing him flat against the ground. Sharrow, too, howls in pain though it’s hard to say whether it’s from the heat or his injuries.

Suddenly, and without explanation, the heat stops rising. The air is uncomfortably hot, but there is an immediate change in air pressure. The roar of the explosion passing overhead sounds dulled, like someone closed a window to the sky. In that same moment, Lang struggles to move. He wrenches himself, twists at the waist, and then flops off of Chris and Sharrow, laying on his back face up at the sky, servos in his armor no longer functioning.

“What the fuck?” Lang whispers in disbelief, shimmering lights dancing in reflection in his eyes. Blearily, Chris can see all of this. When he turns his head to look past Sharrow, he sees what Lang has become entranced by. The explosion is bending around them, waves of black smoke, orange flame, and seething darkness that looks like liquid ink brushes and rolls over a perfect soap bubble surrounding them.

There is a low hum in the air. A soft tingle and static charge. And they are like statuettes trapped in a snow globe.

It makes no sense. Confusion sets a small scowl on Chris’ face, angles and lines pick up the dazzling light and inky shadows. He stares past Lang, comprehending none of what's occurring overhead but transfixed by it all the same. How is that happening? He starts to raise, pushing up on an elbow to get a better look, a hand lifting with fingers splayed to feel the air.

“The fuck is that?” Voice quiet, winded from the run and the fall, the young man asks the obvious question. He sinks after a few seconds, weight easing from his elbow onto the ground. Chris’ hand remains outstretched, eyes close tightly, briefly, against the swirling light and darkness. Then his face turns to Lang and Sharrow and his eyes crack open. One of them must be doing it.

The nightmare beyond the domed barrier is unfathomable. Scalding heat, seething flames, and whatever that billowing darkness is. As Chris looks around, Lang continues to struggle to move, smoke issuing off of the back of his armor. Lang turns his attention to where Finn is buried by rubble, then looks back up and over to Chris.

Soon, the darkness outside the bubble consumes all light and heat. It throws that sphere into near total blackness, save for a faint amber glow coming from the dome itself. Chris’ heart is racing, his hands tingling, his vision blurry at the edges. Like a passing storm, the cloud of darkness rolls past, letting the diffuse and gray light of a rainy day return, though only visible through billowing clouds of ash.

Chris’ head swims, his hands ache, and the barrier pops like a soap bubble before his world goes dark.

Present Day

“I found you, Lang, and pretty boy staggering out of the end of the fucking world,” Elisa says with a rise of her brows. “Lang had that old man over his shoulder and pretty boy was carrying your unconscious ass.” Slowly, Elisa puts her hands on her hips. “Your boss-man Lang said you saved all their asses.”

Elisa squints. “They think you remember,” she says with a pointed look.

“No. No, no.” Chris shakes his head at Elisa’s words, denying the unfathomable. “There's no way I could've done anything. No fucking way. I'd… I'd remember.” He's firm on that point, at least physically. Mentally, vocally, he's shaken. And for a moment he looks like he might get sick.

His hands scrub against the sides of his head before he realizes what he's doing and holds them away from his face in haste. “That's… I can't. I can't. I don't have…” He looks from his hands to Elisa. “I don't. I can't. It was negative.”

“Your IQ test results don’t count,” Elisa quips, taking a casual step back from Chris toward her kitchen. “Jesus Christ, you’re messed up aren’t you? Lang and the others must assume you remember, but everyone here values their privacy so much nobody’s bothered to check in and find out if you’re fucking okay.” Elisa included.

Elisa ducks under the kitchen counter and opens the insulated ice box, pulling out a pair of unlabeled brown bottles. Homebrew using recycled beer bottles. Not Elisa’s brew, but from someone else in town assuredly. “Sorry to be the bearer of biological news, Christopher.”

Elisa circles back around and offering out one of the bottles to Chris. “You look like you need this.”

“It's fucking impossible.” Disbelief puts a strained note in Chris’ tone. And something else gives it an edge. Fear, likely. Wouldn't Lang say something? Or fuck, even Finn? It's more acceptable that the latter of the pair take a pass since he was half buried at the time. But Lang — privacy aside, even just a hey man, you did a thing would've been nice.

His focus keys in on his hands when Elisa moves, still held out away from his body. “How…” It can't be true, can it? The test was negative, he saw it for himself, it was stamped right there on his old registration card. Fingers flex and relax as he turns his hands palm up then down slowly.

Chris looks up when Elisa returns. He isn't scowling, but there's an intensity to his gaze. It's almost a pleading, to go right along with his lack of acceptance. The bottle is taken with hardly his earlier consideration for what they suddenly mean — or do. He pops off without question, then tips the bottle back as though he's only just realized he's very thirsty.

Elisa hammers off the cap to her bottle on the corner of the kitchen table, takes a swig and sets it down. “I mean, there’s one way to find out…” she says. Then, as if it were practiced, she picks up the gun she’d left down on the table, aims it square at Chris

and fires.

Six Months Earlier

New Jersey Pine Barrens Outskirts

“C’mon, keep it t’gether…”

Staggering through the treeline, Joshua Lang keeps one of Chris’ arms over his shoulder. Lang’s face is smudged with ashes and soot and flakes of ash drift in the air like snow falling upward from the ground instead of down from the sky. Everything is a shade of gray. The ground is gray, the trees are dead, stickbare things caked with ash, the sky is a matte sheet of stone cold gray. It feels like another world, or like being underwater. There is no sound. No insects, no birds, no animals. Just the sound of Lang’s breathing and a ragged cough from having inhaled some of the ash.

“Finn!” Lang calls out, looking back and trying to find where Finn was a moment ago. He’d been carrying Sharrow. Lang sets Chris down, leaning him up against a tree that the younger man mostly keeps himself propped up at. “Finn!” Lang shouts back into the dead forest, his voice sounds like it carries for miles, but it echoes from the wrong direction, like it’s looping back on them from the other side of the planet.

“What the fuck,” Lang whispers, wiping ash out of his beard. “He was right behind me…” Stumbling backwards to Chris, Lang takes a knee and puts his hands on either side of Chris’ face. “C’mon kiddo, get your shit together.” He says, slapping Chris’ cheeks. “C’mon, stay with me…” he wipes blood away from Chris’ brow, unable to snatch the bleeding from somewhere in his hairline.

Seated, half propped against the skeleton of a tree and an elbow, Chris lets his head dip forward and rest chin to chest. The break in moving is a relief, it's too bright and his head is pounding. And he has no idea where Finn might have disappeared to. His eyes slide closed…

…Then crack open when Lang's hands lift his face. “Stop it,” he complains, flustering briefly with his hands like an adolescent awakened by an older sibling on a Saturday. He turns his face away from the slapping and prodding fingers, making sounds of protest. It's a small ordeal.

Eventually, Chris gets a hand under himself and musters enough to sit up again. “Fuck, you're loud.” It's the most he's said since the world returned to him. He places a hand on his face, eyes closing again. “I'm still here, just need a break.”

“Yeah, maybe not comparde,” Lang says with a pat pat of Chris’ cheek. Making him pissed guaranteed he’d at least stay awake. “We gots’ta…” the sound of a branch snapping nearby has Lang retrieving a handgun from the back of his pants. He trains it on the source of the sound but doesn’t fire, half expecting Finn to show back up.

It’s not Finn.

Woah,” comes from the opposite direction Lang and Chris did. Elisa comes stepping out of the forest with a half dozen other Providence residents. “Mr. Lang?” She asks, incredulous. “I thought— ” Most everyone who is with Elisa are armed, which at first seems normal. Lang notices their gear looks military, AR14’s, some of them hiding light body armor beneath winter coats. He doesn’t remark on it, just sticks close to Chris.

“Who’re you? Commando Barbie?” Lang asks out the side of his mouth, pretending not to notice the hardware the others have. The people who came with Elisa fan out, sweeping flashlights through the treeline. Elisa grimaces at the reference but doesn’t acknowledge it further. She instead comes to take a knee beside Lang and Chris.

“What the fuck happened out here?” Elisa asks, looking from Lang to Chris, visibly worried.

“Fucking stop.” Chris tilts his head away from those hands again and directs an annoyed flap of his hand at Lang. “Annoying shit,” he complains quietly, mostly to himself.

Arms fold against his chest when he feels that Lang might actually leave him alone for a minute, but the comfort of closing his eyes again is rudely shoved aside. Alertness cuts through the fog, like the sun breaking through the clouds during a storm. It's brief, a sharpness creeps over him as people who aren't Finn or Sharrow emerge from the trees that dulls when one of them calls Lang by name.

Chris half squints, one eye closed a bit more than the other. “I don't know, disaster?”

“It looks like a fucking nuclear bomb went off…” Elisa says as she looks up to the dead trees, “except— ”

Close enough,” is Lang’s approximation. He stands up beside Chris, fixing a momentarily concerned look down at him, then looks back up to Elisa. “He pulled our bacon out of the fire, big flashy forcefield thing.” It sounds like information, but Lang’s posture and tone — more familiar to Chris than Elisa — implies a threat. It becomes rapidly clear that Lang doesn’t know any of these people. His hand comes subtly to rest on his gun.

Elisa sees the gesture, looks Lang up and down, then over to Chris and back again. “We’re just being neighborly,” she says with a squint. “You see an old man in the woods?” She asks, motioning to the dead treeline with her chin. “Grandpa’s missing.”

Now, Lang has the context he was missing. He looks at the settlers with new eyes, sees them for what they really are. “We got him, he’s safe.” It’s not entirely a lie when Lang says it. But it’s close enough. “You tell Freyr t’keep on his side of the line.”

Elisa glances down to Chris, watching his eyes rolling back in his head again. “Your friend’s…”

Present Day

It was like a reflex. Chris saw the gun, heard the gunshot, and then…


All around him, a bubble of amber colored light has formed like a protective dome around him. It flattens and contours to the shapes of the room when they’re too large to envelop. It takes up so much more space than he remembered from those momentary flashbacks. Elisa stands, barrel of her gun lowering to the floor.

Motherfucker,” Elisa says with a crook of one corner of her mouth into a smile. She is illuminated by the candlelight glow of the barrier, looking at Chris through its mostly transparent surface. To Chris, it sounds like Elisa is on the other side of thick glass.

The beer bottle slips from Chris’ hand as the trigger is pulled. Home brew spills and splashes on the floor, the chair leg, his shoes. Hands reflexively move to shield his chest, face turns away, eyes tightly closed against…

a bullet that never even touches him.

His heart hammers against his chest, a ragged breath is pulled in. Elisa’s muffled voice prompts a look at her, but it's the barrier he confronts first. Retreat is the first and most realistic option, but the table and chair behind keep him from escaping.

“No.” Chris’ continued denial comes out as a croak. Color drains from his face and he rattles the chair as he takes a step to the side. “No this…” He forces his focus to move past the transparent shield to Elisa. “You. You fucking… shot… What if it hadn’t worked!?”

“I would’ve taken you to the doctor,” is Elisa’s somewhat distracted response, illuminated by the soft glow of the forcefield. She sounds far away when she talks, and Chris can hear his own voice reverberating around in the luminous bubble. He can see Elisa get closer, fearlessly so, and presses her fingertips to the forcefield’s exterior, lips parted in an expression of awe and wonder.

“I wasn’t expecting this…” Elisa says softly, but she’s close enough now that Chris can hear her. Where her fingertips touch the forcefield it glows brighter, rippling like the surface of water but having no give to it. She smooths her hand over the barrier, and it reflects in her eyes like an amber ring. “It tingles,” she says with a hint of youthful amusement.

Chris stares at Elisa. Just… would've taken him to the doctor? That's it? Shouldn't there be something else? He shakes his head, using the motion to find the edge of the table and the freedom he's been looking for.

It's a shock to find the bubble of amber light surrounding him so completely, the noise he makes next is strangled surprise. Chris recoils, physically pulling away from the shielding that curves around his side, lurching toward Elisa. He isn't interested in touching it. “What the fuck were you expecting?”

“I’m not sure, something… subtler?” Elisa answers with a look up and down at the bubble. She lifts her knuckles, then knocks on it with a hollow doonk doonk. Small flickers of light accompany where her knuckles touch the surface, rippling outward like the amber light was water again. “This is unreal, though.” She narrows her eyes, steps closer and angles her head just so.


she simply walks through the barrier.

Elisa emerges on the interior of the dome, turning her hands over and back again with curiosity. She’s now closer to Chris than she has been the entire time he’s been in the house. She smells of soap and beer and a hint of gunpowder. “Awful cozy in here, ain’t it?” She says with a crooked smile, lit from all sides by the amber glow of the dome.

Chris tips his head to look at the barrier. There is an undeniable uneasiness about it, about his having anything to do with it, but he studies it. So there's that at least. How could anything like this bubble be subtler? Even if it was clear instead of amber, there'd still be telltale signs of it existing. A hand lifts but he refrains from touching the walls. “How can this even be possible?”

He doesn't notice Elisa's movements until she speaks right beside him. Chris startles, nearly jumping sideways, and swivels to look at her. “What the absolute fuck! It's bad enough you tried to shoot me and then you go touching my bubble. Now you're in my bubble? Are you kidding me right now?”

“I was curious,” Elisa says with a look up at the glowing dome overhead, then back down to Chris. “You’re not the only one…” she says, moving her hand down to the back of a chair contained inside the force field, and her hand passes through it as if it weren’t there at all. “…who has a special trick.” Elisa lifts a finger up to her lips in a shushing gesture, followed by a wink.

“You’ve got something special here, Chris.” Elisa says with a smile in her tone. “Here I thought you knew all this time, but…” she raises her brows, “turns out it was a surprise to you more than me.” When she angles that look back down to Chris she can’t help but make the smile in her voice a visible one. “Now what?” She asks, taking a step closer.

Special isn't how Chris would describe the phenomenon. He's never been against abilities or the people who have them. He just never wanted one. There was something comforting in not having that much responsibility, as he often put it. Then to find out it's been a lie this whole time… It's enough to make anyone skittish.

That uneasiness about the bubble remains as he looks from it to Elisa. “Now?” He's not sure. His shoulders lift and he regards the amber-hued curvature again. “I don't…” He raises a hand to finally, hesitantly touch the barrier. His body sways before his fingers find the warm surface.

The shield pops. Chris teeters with a wave of fatigue. “Oh. Shit.” The outstretched hand grabs for the chair, the other reaches for Elisa.

She’s tangible when his weight comes down on her, one arm around Chris’ midsection and the other wrapping over him. She braces his weight well enough, but with a pivot of her hips moves to shift Chris into a seated position in an adjacent kitchen chair. Elisa follows through on that motion and takes a knee in front of him, one hand on the side of his leg. “Don’t push yourself, these things aren’t…” she searches his eyes, “ever easy.”

Slowly, once she’s certain Chris is still conscious, Elisa stands up and takes a few steps backwards, enough to look outside by the nearby windows. She’s checking to see if anyone else is around. Confident that the area is clear, she walks back to Chris. “For what it’s worth, it seems like Lang and Finn kept your secret…” she says nothing of Sharrow. “Guess now it’s up to you to figure out…” she brushes his hair from his brow, cups one of his cheeks in her hand and checks his pupils, continuing to talk to keep him engaged, “…if you want it to be one.”

Chris’ gaze has the slight distance of exhaustion, his cheek smooth and warm under Elisa’s fingers. He's awake and coherent, still processing the revelation. Relief prickles like a chill up his spine, masks the uncertainty of Sharrow’s knowledge about him; the old man was barely conscious and hardly alive. Lang and Finn never said a word, they'd assumed he'd known the whole time.

“This whole thing shouldn't be possible,” he points out again. Brows furrow as he finds Elisa’s eyes. “I don't even… Will you keep it?” It shouldn't need to be asked, Chris has watched her caution regarding her own ability already. But he seeks a verbal confirmation all the same.

Elisa smiles, a small, but thing. She moves that gentle hand on Chris’ shoulder, then kneels down in front of Chris, letting her hand slip from his shoulder to his knee. She is silent for a moment, brows lifted and thoughtful. “You sit here… rest. Finish that beer.” Her hand slips away from his knee and she rises to stand. “That’s what we do first.”

Then, with an effort to hide her small smile Elisa adds. “But don’t worry about me…”

“…I’m good at keeping secrets.”

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