“Nope, nope, nope.”
In the realm of the dead, there was no night. No dark reprieve from the inescapable glow. A state that wore on eye and mind alike in its obstinate refusal to diminish or fade.
This did not mean the Zone was without its own sort of cycles, however.
Every seven hours, perhaps eight, the thin, omnipresent mists scattered throughout the air would begin to thicken, coalescing into a deep, impenetrable fog that stuck to every surface with a viscosity not unlike that of cold soup. It's brightness, too would gradually increase until the traveler was left blinded but for the unending wall of light now spread on all sides before them.
Navigation in such conditions was impossible, and even ghosts seemed to prefer squirreling themselves away during these hours of fugue than to brave the blind depths the mists made of the world around them.
It was really nothing like night, but for conveniences sake, Valerie had taken to calling it as such.
It was now well into what she liked to consider “evening.” The mists had already weltered up, thickening strands not yet impermeable to the naked eye, weaving themselves into fantastic shapes ever larger across the atmosphere of the zone. Soon to merge, but not now, not yet.
While she normally preferred to travel as long as she could safely dare, Valerie had opted to settle down early that evening, using the extra time to sort through the goods held in the bug ghost's many sacks instead.
“Nope, nope, nope, weird, gross, and oh--hell no!”
Valerie yanked her hand free, shaking off the clear slime that coated her fingers as she threw the parcel and all its contents, still squirming, over the ledge of the small outcropping that served as her latest campsite.
If she were ever forced to say one nice thing about the Ghost Zone, Valerie would admit, grudgingly, that it did make a remarkably good garbage bin.
She sighed, allowed herself to stretch out and rest after yet another day of continuous exertion. One would not think riding on her sled for hours on end would tire her so, but it did. And when she added the additional effort of chasing down and interrogating that ghost--
She grimaced, still unsure it had been wise to let the creature scamper free, in the end. There had just been something in the way it had begged, had cried and whimpered as it carried out her every command with that slump of abject surrender that had just made finishing it off seem so, so...
Dirty. As though she would be in the wrong, somehow, for doing it.
It gave her such a sense of frustration. She couldn't help but wish that ghosts were precisely the emotionless hulls the Fentons believed them to be. Oh, ghosts were essentially selfish, no doubt about it, narssasistic chunks of ectoplasm that only rarely empathized with their own kind, and never with humans, but they did feel.
Phantom, the bug, even Plasmius, in his own, twisted way, it was no longer something she could reject.
A part of her hated them all the more just for that, as though it made her life better, somehow, to know.
Couldn't she just have this one thing? After all the shit she went through, all the misery she bore, couldn't this one thing be something simple? Goddamn ghosts, ruining her life, her stuff, and now her morals, too.
How was she supposed to be the hero here? how was she supposed to save anyone, much less Elle, if she couldn't crush one goddamn dirty bug?
Valerie flopped down on her back, staring into the viridian heavens with bitter eyes. The sky could not be bothered to stare back, rolling over in a cloud of mist instead.
She tried to breath, but it caught in lungs suddenly shriveled against a breast-bone to tight for air.
she clenched her fists, fingers squeezed into a shape fit for violence. Her body trembled, her hidden heart beat staccato as something hard and hot and sour twisted through her very soul.
“Stupid ghosts.” She whispered.
Her eyes were cold marbles, but deep within her chest, she was still burning.
Valerie grabbed a stone laying loose on the ground beside her, pushed herself back up, and lobbed it with all her strength at the offending universe.
“You won't win!”
She picked up another rock, tossed it even further.
“I won't let you!”
She threw another rock, then another, as fast as her arms could reach them, intent on stoning the high green heavens for all the wrongs it had ever wrought against her. Each projectile went higher and farther into the encroaching mists, which swallowed them whole.
“You hear me! Not now, not ever!”
Even her screams were muffled, now, pressed against her ears by the haze. The stones made even less a mark, vanishing into clouds unrippled by their passing, engulfed the sound of their landing, if, indeed, they landed at all.
Her chest heaved, her arm ached, but still her emotions threatened spillage. She felt at once utterly drained and full to bursting, squeezed of all verve even as her heart simmered still in some vague malcontent.
She flopped back to the ground, tired, but too troubled for rest.
It wasn't all hopeless, she knew. She had an idea of where to go now, closer than she'd dared to hope, if the directions of the bug she'd captured earlier were to be believed. Even if they were yet another lie, she'd still managed to buy herself some time.
She reached over to her right, where she'd piled everything of use from the insect's many stores. It was a pitiful stack, a single bag of food plastic wrapped or canned, adorned in letters and signs utterly foreign. But food it was, enough to keep her going a few days more.
She had set her stolen boot next to the parcel, and, resting just beside it, a crumpled polaroid weighed down by a worn leather fold.
She brought her hand down, shimmied the picture out from under its makeshift paperweight. Her other hand rose to brush across it, one last attempt, gentle, futile, at smoothing out the damage littering every aspect of its face.
It was fruitless, of course, but even broken beyond all repair, even with all the bitterness that lingered from the loss, the photo still soothed her, touching something deeper, more tenderly, than any hard flung stone.
She reached into the depths of her mind, grasping for those parts of the huntress that were always with her, woven in electric tapestry with the living currents of her brain.
Graphical Storage and Processing:
Recall request: Confirmed.
Data: Available, reporting 100% recall.
Overlay Request: Confirmed.
Initiating Command: Overlay:
The change took place in the space of a moment. cracked polaroid was made whole, Emerald fragments reformed into broad leaves struck through with sunshine. Golden light struck their rays through the gaps where shadows fluttered down across the youthful oak that cast them, springing proud and slender from a meadow thick with blooms.
Beneath the shade of that tree, nestled between the long grass arches, there was a family.
They were at a picnic, the three of them, quilt littered with the remains of their meal. Cold chicken and half eaten corn cobs peeked out from broad folds of cloth, plastic water bottles refracted the scattered sunlight in their crumpled facets, where it danced across the surface of what liquid yet remained.
The man of the family sat beside a big wicker basket, arm resting over the thickly woven lip of its hatch. His face not yet wearied, his mustache quirked in a second smile as he looked into the long vanished camera with an expression of shy delight.
Her father, Damian Grey.
A young Valerie could be seen sitting just in front of him, clutching a rubber ball nearly half her size. Grass stains streaked the young child's face, grin bold as she hoisted her rubber prize high above her head.
Besides the child, shoulders leaned in close press to the man beside her, there knelt a woman. Acorn brown and satin soft, head tossed back in jubilation bold as summer. Her heat dewed neck curved swanlike above shoulders hunched up in mirth.
Valerie traced the outlines of the woman's face, slowly, ignoring—refusing—the ragged edges that brushed against her thumb as she outlined the vanished forms of her lips, her cheekbones, her chin, alight with a youth yet lingering even as the glow of motherhood softened the hard angles of ignorant adolescence.
A beautiful woman, vibrantly, vivaciously alive.
You would never know, looking at her, just how fast it would all drain out, her every pore a sieve for the good health she would never more contain.
But Valerie wasn't thinking about that, now, just as she wasn't thinking about the photograph or the damage it sustained. Just for the moment, she allowed herself to focus only on the memory of a memory before her. If she imagined hard enough, she could almost see that sparkling smile turn, eyes opal dark and glimmering in delight at the chance to see her one and only daughter once again.
“Hey ma.” She said by way of reply. “Long time no see.”
“...Humans with ghost powers!? Crazy, right?” Valerie snorted, then paused.
“Or humans that turn into ghosts, or ghosts that—stay human when they die or whatever. The important thing is that there was a part of Ellie that was real. And if it hadn't been for Phantom, I'd have just left her there with Plasmius, to do whatever—to hurt—to—”
Valerie took a moment, struggling to admit out loud what she had already begun suspect for herself.
“—kill her. he was gonna murder a little girl, mama, and if Phantom hadn't convinced me she still had some human in her, if I hadn't listened to a ghost, I woulda let him.”
Phantom, if she hadn't listened to Phantom, specifically. It was a detail that still irritated her every time it came up.
The ghost boy had been so persistent, for so long in his charade of being a “good guy,” that most days, she simply tuned him out.
And truly, was that so wrong?
Up to that point, Everything Phantom had said in his own defense had been nothing more than talk. Oh, he said sorry, he said he felt bad about it, but at the end of the day, what had he done?
Ruined her fathers job and her life, then fled the scene like the criminal he was.
Stole for the hell of it and couldn't even be bothered to take the blame when he got caught.
(Valerie still had no idea why the ghost thought an “evil mind controlling clown guy,” was a reasonable excuse, at all, for anything.)
Who was always ready to fight, but never to help.
Never, not once, in all the wretched aftermath of the Grey's financial dissolutionment, had Phantom come to their aid. Not in the immediate events that came after, nor during the process of her father's dismissal, when he could well have stayed his expulsion simply by appearing, proving Damian Grey's assertions of spectral interference months before he would have been otherwise believed.
Not during the move from her childhood home to her current residence down in Elmerton. Too strapped to hire assistance, it had been down to Valerie, her father, and Fenton, who had taken his weekend off to help her move instead.
No haunting the creditors who dogged their every step, even now.
Hell, he couldn't even be bothered to tell the public that it was his fault her life was ruined! In private, yes, where he knew no one could hear. But never where it mattered, to whom it mattered, since that would require Phantom to actually give something up for once and admit what he did was wrong. Which he would never do, because Phantom, like all ghosts, was a fundamentally egotistical creature, right down to his very core.
No, Valerie had good reason to believe that she had Phantom all figured out: A showboating prig, full of hot air and false excuses, distinct from other ghosts only in his capacity to fool the masses into believing he was ever anything more.
Then Elle happened.
The ghost girl's mere existence had managed to throw Valerie's world into a whole new tailspin, leaving her reeling even as events conspired to yank more and more of her footing out from under her, teetering on the edge of her own understanding as all her convictions suffered blow after blow.
Friends acting as enemies.
While enemies acted as friends.
“I woulda let him kill her.” She repeated, “Just like I let him kill—end—All those other ghosts I gave him, just handed 'em over for whatever freak experiments he had cooked up.”
Just like she had snuffed out who knew how many other specters during her own patrols.
How many of them were still alive in there, she wondered, underneath the ghost?
Her mother's brows seemed to furrow in response, worried, no doubt, over what exactly her daughter had done.
“I didn't mean it mama, it wasn't my fault! It was all Plasmius, you know Plasmius? That knockoff Nosferatu all the time picking fights with Phantom. He used me and he lied, and—“ Valerie licked her lips futilely seeking moisture from a mouth gone dry.
“He played human to do it.”
Valerie felt a flush of rage and shame wash over her at the words. She had been used all over again, played for a fool and manipulated just like her so-called “friends” had used her before, dangling control and importance in exchange for the very essence of her soul.
To learn that she had struck the same deal with a different kind of devil, that all her power was a tool in someone else's hands had curdled into an ache that rivaled the raw burn of a whole new betrayal.
Because unlike the A-listers she'd run with not too long ago, or even Phantom, who she'd always hated, Vlad Masters had been a man she'd seen fit to trust.
“Plasmius was Masters, and—God, they even share the same first name—My sponsor, the guy who gave me my first suit, trained me up, even kept me and daddy off the streets when things were at their worst. And me stupid enough to think it was 'cause he cared.”
A hard exclamation escaped her throat at the thought, to forceful for a scoff, too sharp for laughter.
No such thing indeed.
“Everyone's out for something. Masters—Plasmius, he was out for Phantom, and I was just the pawn that was supposed to get take him out.”
That's part of what scares me too. Why was Plasmius so dead set on Phantom? Why'd he sink so much money into taking him out? Why does Phantom hate him back?”
And it was peculiar, how much Phantom seemed to hate Plasmius. Valerie had thought for a long time that it was some kind of territory dispute, a conflict over a rare and valuable thin spot between realities. After years of chasing after Phantom, however, it became more and more clear that the ghost boy's resentment of Plasmius went beyond that of simple competition.
The mere mention of the vampiric specter was enough to turn Phantom tense and snippy, as though the mere thought of the other ghost irritated him, somehow. After witnessing the two up close, Valerie's suspicions had cemented into certainty: Phantom hated Plasmius, and he hated him personally.
“There's so much I don't know, and no one to tell me. Plasmius doesn't know that I know, and until I get out from under him, that's how it's gotta stay.”
How Valerie was supposed to get out from under Plasmius was another question entirely. Plasmius, in Vlad Master's guise, was the sole reason the Grey family had managed to keep on top of its debts for as long as they had. To make matters worse, he also provided most of the materials Valerie's suit consumed for its more elaborate systems and weaponry.
Even so, the temptation to throw it all away and smash Plasmius' smug face against her boot was a strong one, stayed only by the fear of what would happen to her father if she tried.
“Phantom went squirrelly on me too,” she said. “I thought maybe I could get something from him, since we never ended that truce. But in the end, he was still just a ghost.”
She hadn't wanted to go to Phantom, in those days between Elle's escape and her decision to plunge into the Zone, had felt too much like would be admitting something, somehow, to do so. Had it not been for the fact that Phantom was her sole and only choice, she was sure she would never have asked at all.
Once she'd made the decision to do it, he'd been easy enough to track down. She found him—where else?—but In the middle of a fight, duking it out at altitude with one of the countless animal ghosts that regularly made their way across the paltry excuse for a veil stretched across Amity Park.
The fight had been easy, the conversation that came after it, much less so.
How could someone be alive and dead at the same time? Were they alive and dead at once? all the time? Did they alternate at will? Were they born? Were they made? How many were there? A lot? How did she spot a human-ghost if she saw it? Was there a way to tell? Or did you have to guess?
Phantom had been the one to tell her that these human-ghost, ghost-human things could exist in the first place, which had lead her to expect, rather despite herself, that perhaps he could explain them, too.
So it was only natural, really, that in that moment precisely, he had chosen to clam up. He knew nothing of these miraculous hybrids, could find out nothing concerning them, and as to finding them, he had no clue at all. Nevermind that it had been he who had first told her such beings were possible in the first place, the ghost was a veritable well of ignorance, utterly unable to aid in her pursuits.
“Ghosts are narrow minded and selfish, they go round everywhere like they've got blinkers on both sides of their head. You stick an idea in front of their nose, and they grab it if they like it, and shove it away if they don't. They don't consider where you got the idea from, they don't think about why its there, they don't even goddamn care why you picked it up in the first place. All that matters is somethings blocking their little slice of the world, theirs, specifically, 'cause they wouldn't never consider any other kind.
That was Phantom's problem, he wanted a truce yeah, but his way, not mine. A truce for beating things up, not a truce for trusting and talking or or anything that might give trouble to him. That wasn't how he wanted it to work.
He was even worse with Elle. She's the only other one I could talk to—not counting you, ma—who could tell me anything about anything about what was going on!
And Elle, I couldn't track her down. When she said she had places to be, I thought she meant like Phantom when there wasn't anything fun for him to hit, not just gone! I tried tracking her, I did, but it didn't work. Either staying human hides her, or she's run too far to track.
And stupid Phantom wouldn't help me with that, neither. It was just 'oh she's fine,' this and 'why do you care' that, like I can't worry about a human girl wondering on her own without nobody to make sure she's even fed!”
Not only had he been absurdly reluctant to answer her questions, but even had the audacity to wonder if they were at all related to her continued association with Plasmius. It was an insult, beyond all doubt, as though he didn't know how little choice she had.
As though he wasn't the one who forced her into making it.
“I guess so far as he figured, if Elle wasn't being kidnapped, then she was fine. It didn't matter that she's a kid, or alone, or was stealing apples just to eat. She was strong enough to survive on her own and not melt, and that was good enough for him. He just sat there when she left, too, watching her scat like any other ghost."
Did he know how far she intended to run, or simply fail to understand why he should care?
No matter how well he thinks he means, Phantom can't help the human parts of her. Just because she could beat any man that tried to take doesn't mean that she doesn't get—scared, or lonely, or—“ Valerie wriggled uncomfortably in her pallet of dust. “—Or that she doesn't need people. Phantom can't give that, and Plasmius is a sick piece of shit, so that left me. Just me. If I let that go, then Elle'd be alone for real.”
The worry in her mother's gaze didn't lighten, exactly, but it did shift, consternation giving way to curiosity mixed with a hearty topping of concern. It was easy to imagine the question she would have asked, if she could but speak.
“Then what is it do you think you're doing all the way out here, hm.”
Valerie sighed. This, at least, she had a clear answer for.
“I'm on a mission. There's this thing called the infini-map. Don't have all the details, but with a name like that?” She scoffed, “don't need 'em. Whatever it is, its good enough to send Plasmius into a fit just at the idea of laying claws on it.
If I could get something like that, imagine, I could find Elle in a heartbeat. No more lookin', no more running blind and hoping for luck. And when I find her, I could use it get out from under Masters thumb for good. Use it, sell it, whatever, with that thing, it would be easy. Me and daddy could be set for life.”
At the time, the idea had seemed brilliant. With her search for Elle stymied, and rental payments approaching their inevitable due, she had latched onto the idea of a Ghost Zone mission the instant her so-called benefactor had brought it up. It was a chance to bleed “Mister Masters” of a little more of his money, without actually having to tolerate his presence for any length of time. Even better, it presented an opportunity to do right by her father while staying far away from the quiet anger, the soft, dispirited sense of regret that had seemed to overtake him as jobs remained scarce, and Valerie continued to hunt.
Perhaps most selfishly, it was the opportunity for the Red Huntress to become what Valerie had had always wanted her to be: A free agent, no puppet masters, no expectations, just the world, and herself within in it.
It was one thing she truly did not regret, even now, lying in the dirt looking up at the memory of a memory ripped to tatters in her hands. Whatever else happened in this strange, wild place, it was her decision, her choice. She was finally in control.
Thinking of control, there was another reason why she wanted to speed up her search for the ghost girl.
“Elle's a good kid, but she is a kid, with a ghost in her she don't even know to fear. I'm not sure how long she can fight it like that without anyone to tell her what's going on. She needs someone who knows about ghosts,who can show her how to fight back, 'cause if she doesn't, I'm not sure how long she'll last until she ends up Plasmius.
It was an ugly theory, but explained a great deal. The identical looks, the raw antipathy towards Vlad, in particular, or how a full ghost could see himself as related, somehow, to a being that was something so much more.
All ghosts came from somewhere, and Valerie rather doubted Elle was truly Plasmius' only attempt at capturing a hybrid of his own.
“'Cause I think they're the same kinda thing. It explains why Plasmius wanted her so bad, and they change the same way, too. They go from being a ghost, ectosignitures and all, to being alive. Not some fake, but breathing, heartbeats, everything. There's something in them that's really, truly alive.
Plasmius and Elle, they're both alive," she whispered, "but only Elle's human, and I don't know how long that's gonna last.
I can't stay stupid about all this ghost shit, neither. There's so much they won't tell me, and Elle's my ticket to figuring it out. If I can find her in time, I could fix it. Bring her to the Fentons, maybe, take out the ghost before it gets too big, make cash, move out me and daddy and Elle all together. Either way, this is how I do it, right here, right now. This is my chance.”
No more being lead around like a particularly witless donkey for his carrot wielding master, no more suppressing every violent impulse that threatened to take her over any time she chanced to look “Mister Masters” in his insufferable face, no more long, interminable periods of her nose against a grindstone day after day, scraping her fingers bloody against poverty's wall in the way her father seemed convinced was better, somehow, for all the pain it so obviously caused him.
“I know it's risky, but it's worth it, it's gotta be. If I can get the infinimap, then I can fix everything, all at once. I won't owe nobody nothing, and I can start fixing things again, for everyone.”
And perhaps her mother agreed, as the shadow that had gathered against her brow seemed to ease, relaxing back into something more serene.
Valerie smiled, running her thumb over the place where her face once was, pointedly ignoring the sensation of absence in favor of the smiling visage still shining across her display.
“See, I knew you'd see it my way.” Valerie was pretty sure she'd had to have gotten her sense of adventure from somewhere, after all. “It's hard, but I'm fine. And when this is all done, it'll be more than fine, it'll be better.
Just you wait.”
Overlay image: Session end.
The memory of Theresa Grey vanished slowly, victim of her daughter's own reluctance to see her go. But vanish she did, sunshine grew pale and laughter faded, memory crushed into data and erased of meaning, and Valerie was once again alone.
She sighed, finally allowing herself to lower the photograph as she reached over for her other parcels, which she began collecting into a small bundle atop her chest.
Technically, she could reach over to put her mother with her boots and rations instead of the other way around, but found herself suddenly disinclined to do so. Without the stress of the day to keep her going, she found exhaustion pushing down at her very bones, keeping her pressed against the meager comfort of her body warmed hollow of dirt. No, lifting herself up as little as possible seemed a very enticing proposition indeed.
She grabbed both her boots, then her gloves, peeled off to reveal the same skintight leather which coated the rest of her, the remains of her wallet, and a single, battered bag, too smooth for leather, too thick for silk: All supplies from her earlier run in with the thieving insect from before, pared down to those goods and supplies she could actually use.
She chose not to dwell on how few of them there were.
Her mother came last, placed gently at the head of the pile, where she could look it over one last time.
She should have done this sooner, she knew, perhaps even the moment she entered the Zone. Keeping the photograph on her physical person was too much of a risk, one born of foolish sentiment and thoughtless desire. She had just wanted so badly to keep one good thing with her, somewhere tangible and real, she'd disregarded the threat she put it in.
Because if there was one thing death was guaranteed to do, it was steal everything and everyone it thought was yours.
Valerie placed her hands over the small collection, reaching once again into the inorganic hum prickling ever at the edges of her mind.
Unit_1 selected (Gen_Storage:)
Status: Stable (20% full)
Contents (See details)
Intake selected? (Y/N)
A flick of her mental fingers, and it was done. Boots, bag, and all turned into their own kind of mist, dissolving into the small pocket dimension that followed her always, shadows diffusing into the surrounding light, the weight of them dissipating until nothing but the memory of their pressure remained.
Valerie brushed her fingers over the space they left behind, a half smile tugged at the corners of her trembling lips.
“Goodnight, Ma,” She whispered. A grief like seaglass hung heavy on her heart, smoothed over edges cut no longer, though the heft of its sorrow lay leaden even yet.
“Sleep good now, you hear?”
No voice answered in response.
Valerie no longer expected it to.
Deep in the realm of the dead, a figure turned on its side, curled against itself on its small outcropping of stone. Legs up to its chest, arms clenched tight around its shoulders as it heaved, breath by mortal breath, seeking some moment of repose.
The mists swirled, wild and dense, rising up in wild geysers frothing at the edges with broad welters of electric power. Clouds merged, then rose into mountains while the wind lashed out against the world, snatching dense droplets of ectoplasm from the surroundings, carrying them along its writhing back before dropping them to soak the landscape below.
She stood in the center of the storm, felt lightning lighting lance through her body, sending her meters flickering. Not enough to harm her, not truly, but the brief sensation of heat was a small thrill, nonetheless.
Valerie thanked her lucky stars for intangibility. She would have been roasted, otherwise, this close to the center of the storm.
She had already spotted her target, a thick cluster of mist curling in on itself into unnatural hoops, power siphoned from nearby anvil heads fueling its distortion.
She breathed in, bracing her feet against her board.
Below her, the mists burst upward, engulfing her entirely. She couldn't see, couldn't hear for the roaring engulfing her senses. Even her suit was blinded, what little data it could glean from the roiling masses of supercharged ectoplasm crushed down to white noise and static.
She breathed out.
The geyser passed, allowing her to return her focus to the whirls, stuffed fat with cloudstuff compressed ever denser, throbbing knots pressed into the center of each misty hoop.
Lightning flashed, and they ignited, ectoplasm catalyzed into bright green spheres of terrible luminosity.
Valerie let go of her intangibility, an unhappy necessity if she wished to go in instead of through kicking her thrusters to the highest speed as she raced to meet one of the newborn portals before the storm snatched her into its maw.
The wind leapt, baying in wicked delight at her newfound solidity, while liquid ectoplasm slid underneath the grips of her board. Ice pellets clawed across her back, the beating thrum of the portal, rising ever larger in her field of view, knocked its heavy tune against her bones.
Then she breached the threshold, and in that instant, Straddled on the line between now and forever, all other concerns were rendered void.
It was everything, it was nothing, it was a rift chewed open with dull grinding teeth and spread dripping before a universe denuded that screamed, and screamed, and screamed in a a tidal rush of violation that swept her up in its current and drowned her breathing. It was an ocean pressed down to the confines of her sinus gushing upward to consume her brain. It was a chill against her skin, in was a burning in her teeth, it was an atom bomb lighting up a universe ignorant of flame.
Every gauge and meter in her suit were sounding alarms, but she was too distant now, stretched beyond herself as the illimitable space of space pulled her somewhere far away, red-shifting, green-shifting, warping past the point of her mind's ability to comprehend. A twisted, upside down, rightside up, spinning foreword sensation of needles stuck deep through the center of pupils blown wide, shattering into cosmic shrapnel scattered like buckshot through sinew, muscles, veins, torn flesh left to vitrify, then mend anew.
It wasn't something humans were meant to endure, it wasn't something anything, ever, was meant to endure, and in that brief moment of passing, Valerie felt a hot sting of doubt that this time, neither would she.
Then, just like that, eternity shrank down to an instant, a thin green border easily passed, and she was through.
She stood on her board, breathing hard.
" Never thought I'd miss a portal, but damn." Stable portals were an entirely different animal to their wild kin, something she had failed to appreciate until she had actually tried both. They were the stretch limos to a natural portal's bucking horse, and she was still left staggered every time, paralyzed and winded until the memories of crossing warped and melted back into something a human mind could bear. "Plasmius' has got it good.
She was still streaked in lines of green and purple from the storm, but her breath was steady and her head was clear, now, enough that she could start properly assessing her new environs.
She was somewhere dark, the hollow green of the portal behind her the sole illumination in what seemed to be a large warehouse, stacked high with boxes of siverish hue, textured like wood, reflective like metal, stamped in signs and symbols that made her brain ache at the edges where paint and canvas seemed to fuse.
Steady enough now to get moving, Valerie wasted no time flying toward the gleaming crates. Rough, splintered wood made contact with her palm, then vanished in a wash of steely particles as she sucked them into her storage units for analysis.
The portal behind her wavered, sending shadows scattering over all but the huntress, encased in her own red glow as she skated through the hollow spaces between the crates.
Her suit's ability to detail the contents of anything in the dimensional pockets she kept most of her things in was one of those functions she hadn't paid much mind to before she began scavenging in and out of the Zone. It was an easy way to check if something was edible, or rather, contained components of theoretical edibility. She had given herself a few murderous stomachaches already in learning the difference.
It also took a while for new substances to scan, costing her precious seconds in the wait.
Valerie checked behind her, making sure the portal was still there. Observation had taught her that those that formed at the very center of a storm lasted longest, giving her the best opportunity to find a world with something she could actually use, but natural portals were fickle things, rising and falling in erratic tempo with the storms that spawned them. Every second she wasted put her at risk of being trapped two dimensions away from her home reality.
It was this division of attention between the portal and the boxes that distracted her from the shadow moving out of sync, her sensors registered the motion, but made no alarm. It had no reason too: The thing in the shadows was not a ghost.
She felt her suit brush against her conscious, directing her attention towards a finished analysis. The information was, as usual, mostly unintelligible, either due to the suit's inability to recognize what it was scanning, or her own ignorance of the long, convoluted chemical names it listed for her there. There was one entry, however, she grasped immediately:
Valerie cut the list off there. If it was protein, then it was probably meat, which was good enough for her. Details could wait for a time that wasn't now.
She reached her hand out for the next box, already planning how many she should take.
She saw it then, a lunging motion in the corner of her eye. She had just enough time to catch a glimpse of feathers and long, white teeth before a massive weight slammed into her, knocking her off her board and onto the concrete below.
Valerie dimly registered something cold slicing into her abdomen as she reached a gun, any gun, something to stop the mouth full of knives from breaking her helmet like an egg.
She felt the weapon solidify in her grasp—one of her rifles—and brought the butt down, smashing it over the creature's head. Her opponent reeled back, giving her enough space to get her legs under its belly and push it off.
Behind her, the light of the portal turned unsteady.
Now with space to aim, Valerie turned the barrel of her gun on her attacker, aiming for the chest. She missed, sloppy, the creature faster than predicted, and the beam drilled into the thigh instead. Its screamed, half collapsing to its side. Clawed hands clutched the wound, dull red rivulets leaking between scales burnt half to ash.
Valerie swallowed back a knot of pure bile, then turned and booked it for her board.
By this point, the portal was beginning to destabilize, flashing bright, then dimming, a sick heartbeat counting down the moments to its terminal crescendo. Valerie could hear a scrabbling behind her. She did not turn around, did not pause for breath as she leapt on her board, forcing the scrapes under her freshly repaired suit to burn anew.
It wasn't enough.
She didn't have the time to look behind her, but the sudden yank down on one of her fins was unmistakable: Something had grabbed her board, and she didn't have the time to shake it off.
Thrusters were kicked as high as they would go, and she pushed on, opting for sheer force to overcome the deadweight.>
Shadows leapt high, then vanished, cutting the world into freeze frames. Boxes stacked in crooked silhouette; high, grey walls lit bright and then consumed, the whine of her jets mixed with the guttering warble of the thing behind her as it struggled to keep hold. She could feel something cold and sharp lodged in her ankle, jostled hard with every kick of her destabilized flying machine.
Turning required slowing down, so when a stack of silvery boxes rose up before her, she went straight through. Her board jolted, but momentum kept her going, crashing through a halo of gleaming splinters and crates sent tumbling to reveal the wavering portal dead ahead.
Valerie pushed harder, goading her engines as she aimed straight for the center of the breach.
The tip of her board pierced through just as the edges began to crumple, fraying into long strings of fire before abruptly seizing inward, collapsing in on itself in one last, grand spasm before vanishing, a smokeless candle pinched closed behind her back.
Valerie's last sight of that otherworldly warehouse was of the portal, falling to pieces before her eyes, the last sounds were the screams of her passenger, clinging still.
Then one maddening infinity over a thin green line was passed, and she was being half bowled over by the winds of the Zone. She pulled her intangibility over herself like a cloak as she threw her head back and wheezed, almost laughter mixed with adrenalin and fear in the middle of her throat, bubbling up in a croaking exaltation she just couldn't seem to stop.
She had fought a dinosaur. She had fought a real life dinosaur, in another world, while flying through a destabilizing portal for a couple of boxes of maybe food like a madwoman. It was crazy, it was nuts, she couldn't even imagine what everyone else would think once she told them.
The image of her father, face carved deep with worry passed through her mind.
Well, what everyone else would think, then.
A spike of pain up her ankle was a welcome distraction from the realization that, aside from Vlad Masters and her father, no one else came to mind.
It was an arm, three out of four fingers dug past her protective outer layer and into the skin, the tips dug deeply enough that her suit had opted to bind itself around, instead of over the obstruction.
Valerie grimaced, wrapping her hand around the base of the wrist.
“Like ripping off a bandaid.” She muttered.
And then she pulled.
The threads that made up the flexible portions of her suit didn't hurt when she pulled them, but she could always feel it, when she did, each fiber crackling against her mind in a manner that reminded her of pushing a finger through the layer of static that was wont to collect over the screens of old TVs. There was the actual pain her wounds being jostled as well, joining the alien crackle with the more familiar sting from the lacerations that lay below.
It popped out suddenly, just as she was beginning to think she would need a tool to dig it out, leaving behind three hollow trenches, rapidly filled with a mess of dark, squirming threads, weaving in and out of the wounds of their own volition to seal them against the corruption of the zone.
It had a sleeve, she realized, a white sleeve with the same sort of shimmer as the boxes had, in the warehouse from before. There was even a cufflink at the tip, a smooth disk of pinkish stone inscribed with a looping symbol across the face. The sleeve went upward, all the way towards where the forearm would be, had there been a forearm still to be had. Instead, her sight was met with an absolute cessation, a space where fabric and flesh were cut off so completely it was difficult to tell the forearm had not been formed in isolation of any body at all. The only hint to any prior contiguity was the red stain seeping through the fabric, still warm from the absent heart that once had pumped it just moments before.
She let go the arm, intangibility breaking alongside her hold. Watching as it was snatched by the hungry storm, which bounded away with its prize in a whirling instant, leaving behind nothing but a few lone, crimson drops, already turned half green before they too, were swept up in the maelstrom. Valerie was left to stand, inviolate and apart, as the wind whisked through her untouchable form, hand still half clenched around the shape of what she herself had thrown away.
She told herself that if lizards could regenerate limbs, then dinosaurs could, too.
Valerie turned her board as she sighted in a new group of nascent portals, aiming the tip towards the the largest of the cluster.
She had to save Ellie, she had to save Amity, and she had to save herself. No one else could do that for her, no one else would, and if someone wanted to jump in her way and cause problems, then that was their fault, not hers.
She breathed in.
She had done nothing wrong.
She pointed herself towards her new objective, narrowing her focus down to the goal at hand.
She breathed out.
A stranger met in passing, a chance meeting in another world.
Valerie sped foreword, a crimson lance cutting through the storm.
Just one more distraction she couldn't afford to make.
Valerie watched the last of the storm dissipate, thick clouds strung out into lines of pearls as they disintegrated back into ordinary daytime mist. Swarms of little blobs darted in and out of the dissolving mass, communal auras pulsing in a shape deceptively akin to some larger ghost as they swum in and out of the flagging cover.
The world below her, too, was a-bustle. Countless larger ghosts scurried over floating debris and islets, looking for portal droppage that may have been caught by the landmasses below. It was a safer, but less prosperous method of collecting living world goods, exposure to the zone at large practically guaranteeing any food would be fully inedible by the time it was found. The raw inefficiency, paired with the required proximity to ghosts, lead her to disdain the practice, preferring instead the empty center of the storm, where the winds were too wild for those unable to to simply phase through.
She could have also stolen, of course; had stolen, when she felt the need, or was simply especially angered, as with the thieving insect she had managed to squeeze directions out of however many days—weeks?—before. Ghosts of various kinds still persisted in trying to rob her whenever she made the mistake of sleeping somewhere they could see, and removing them of their own valuables when they tried was a practical and satisfying response. It was the low yield that had eventually driven her to find a more direct method: What food wasn't ecto-contaminated was almost always manhandled in some way, pawed at or even chewed on in an effort to divine its purpose.
When she realized most of these earthly articles were snatched from wild portals of the kind that appeared readily in the spectral thunderstorms that rolled through the Zone on a semi-regular basis, it had seemed an easy solution to her problems: She could skip the middle man entirely, get more food with less contamination, and rid herself of the increasingly uncomfortable clenching sensation that rose in her chest whenever of those would-be thieves began to cry.
And, by and by large, it had worked. While she didn't always find something in those scant minuets of spatial conjoining, it had been enough.
Then she had almost gotten trapped in an alternate dimension, shot a living thing, and watched a portal sheer off an arm like it was made of so much soft cheese.
The fact that most portals, or, at least, all those she had ducked into before, had been either devoid of life or otherwise threatless, the raw firepower provided by her suit, paired with acclimation to the get out of jail free card that was a human's ability to turn intangible in the zone, forced her to an unhappy conclusion: She'd gotten cocky, haste and arrogance blinding her to the obvious again. She had been too preoccupied to even consider the notion, now obvious, that anything smart enough to put things in a warehouse would be smart enough to guard it. Had she been a second delayed, spent even a moment longer, she could have been trapped, or worse.
She could have died.
She felt a chill roll through her, a shiver that had nothing to do with the ever lower temperature of the world without.
She could have died. An unknowable distance away from everyone and everything she had ever loved, caught in the portal as it was closing instead of her pursuer, sheered down the middle in the worlds ugliest magic trick. For a moment, she imagined herself like those faint drops of blood, corrupted green and consumed, half of her subsumed into something fundamentally foreign, becoming indistinguishable from it. The rest of her left to lie as a stranger, her decay nothing more than a curiosity, at most, in the eyes of whatever scaly inhabitant should stumble over her remains.
She had faced danger, and yes, even death before, but not like this. She had never considered it like this, never been forced to realize that she could be smeared off the pane of existence like an errant thumbprint and vanish. Death was inevitable, cruel and unfair and, if the existence of ghosts was any proof, played favorites like a bitch. She had known this, but she hadn't realized it, had attributed her continued existence to strength and willpower rather than a miracle of happenstance and blind, dumb luck. Had she not chosen to blow through that particular stack of boxes, instead of going around, had she spent a second longer trying to kick her attacker off, had she done anything, just seconds more, then that would have been it; Valerie Grey, dead and gone.
Fear rose up, jittering down her spine and gripping her heart in eagle talons. All her power, all her strength, and she was just as helpless as she'd ever been.
No guns could shoot happenstance, no scanners to reveal the unknown.
Valerie let the knowledge rattle through her, felt it's chill seep down to her bones, then put it down beneath the heel of her mental boots, where she crushed it, deliberately, meticulously, like the pest it was.
Fear was useless. Fear was what people did when they had no options and nothing better to do, crying in waiting rooms like sops going 'oh woe is me' and oh how could they as if saying it out loud made any difference for the pain. Valerie might be afraid, at times, but she was not helpless, and she refused to live in fear.
So fine, she had a slip up. Sure, she could have scouted a little more thoroughly, and maybe she pushed it a little in regards to time, but that didn't mean she completely blew it. There had been food in those boxes after all, each packed to the brim with repulsively squiddy, but ultimately edible stacks of meat. Between that and the portal that had spat her into the bottom of a reservoir, she had gained enough reserves to last her some time.
Days—or was it weeks?—into the Zone, and she was still doing fine. She had food, directions, and had nothing but a few rapidly healing cuts to show for the trouble. And if there were a few mistakes here and there, then that was just a learning curve. She wasn't about to let a close scrape and a damaged monster bring her down.
She would not stop fighting, especially now that she was so very, very close.
It appeared from where she stood as a thin white line, fading into view as the last remainder of the storm gave way, marked by jagged peaks and gaping canyons, afloat on the otherwise green expanse of sky like the pearly treasure ship of some cruel northern king.
It was the Farfrozen, of that there was no doubt.
She had made it, she had finally made it! After what seemed like forever, the lid of the chest that contained everything she needed was at last in sight.
Surely, pulling the treasure out would not be half so hard as finding the container.
Surely, she was almost done.
Like others in its chain, the mountain had been shaped.
Not so worn that its shape couldn't be made out, even from a distance, it was easy to discern the degraded cut of some broad chested beast, one horn broken, strong chin still hewed heroic despite the dirt frothing up and over like a madness from scowling lips.
Thick mists had crawled far enough down the sky to blind it, pooling in its sockets to their hollow brim, spilling over the edges into ancient trenches, carved by the passing of a hundred million nights before. The deep green traceries followed lines down to the shattered cheeks, drizzling down the unyielding jaw into its icicle beard, grown thick and heavy to the bottom of its mighty sternum, where it fused into a single sheet of ice.
By size alone, it was obvious: A master work of engineering, grand testament of skill. Cut with hand unrivaled, risen up and venerated, high flung fancy of a people who saw in the earth a canvas to paint themselves a portrait worthy of their name.
A ruin aged past its purpose, night kissed and crumbling, a slow unworking, a glory vanquished, or just forgot
Valerie had picked it as a stopping point because it had several overhangs that helped block out the snow.
She brought her leg down slowly, methodically, with an economy of motion born from a desire to minimize hurt. Beat a dull staccato of aching thighs raised up, then down again, crunching her heel down hard on the buildup of ice that had crept along the edges of her board
Anywhere else in the Zone, a mountain like this would be an island. Sole prominence of some otherwise flattened chunk, not one ruin among many. Not a single peak of a range, themselves diminutive in the face of the land from which they sprang.
Valerie kicked the last of the fouling from her board, watched them clatter down the back of a cold pillar before settling in an imperfection along its height.
It wasn't that she expected the Farfrozen to be small, she just hadn't considered that it could ever be so big.
Before, behind, at every angle, the snow and ice went on. A wide, never ending landscape dipping into river valleys, fringed with glass chime reeds, rising into ragged cliffs and crushed into canyons whose secret rivers revealed themselves in water spouts spritzing dense blue sludge over broad leaved crystals cupped to catch them as they fell.
She had been flying all day, telling herself over every hour that soon, she'd find an edge.
A wind blew in from the side, cutting through the pillars and setting bursts of snow dancing along the baffled air current beneath the giant's chin. Valerie shivered, but kept her focus on her board, prompting it to move.
Flying was fine, most days. She didn't hate it.
On really pleasant mornings, Valerie would even go so far as to call it fun.
There was a certain thrill to being up high, suspended by nothing but straps and thrusters with the entire world beneath her. She liked punching holes through clouds and twisting in barrel rolls tight enough to loose gravity and set whole body straining.
She liked how small it made things, how easy they seemed to hold.
But that was most days, when she was home.
Now, she'd been flying continuously, for hours stopping only to cast off encroaching ice, which collected ever faster as things grew colder and the night wore on. Her feet were killing her, sore muscles protesting up and down her thighs from keeping her upright.
Chilled flakes fell in sheets, remains of the system she had fought through earlier that day, wet, heavy precipitation intermixed with dry in a manner she would have thought impossible, had she been anywhere but the Zone.
Task over, she wove her way back into open air, exchanging the cold security of the mountain for what open air remained.
Immediately, snow began recollecting along the edges of her helm, refusing to melt, swirling in broad, graceful spirals as she dodged between fat fingers of mist, prodding through debris scattered in patches across the sky.
Valerie shuddered, an involuntary tremor rising up and down her body and wearing her worn out muscles even more. Her suit could protect her against most temperatures, and during the ghostly "day," it had, mostly insulating her against the unnatural cold.
Now, weaving through decayed archways set aloft, she clutched her arms and shivered as she flew.
It was one more thing she was planning on thinking of later, not too long later, mind, Valerie wasn't stupid, just not now. She just had more important things to do, like getting where she needed to go.
The infinimap, she was looking for the infinimap, or somewhere that looked like it might house it. Some key feature, some high castle, something, anything to prove her at least as close as she thought she should be.
Gooseflesh pimpled across the soft parts of her suit. Valerie scrubbed her hand across it, trying not to remember that one of the gifts from Mister Masters had been a coat.
Cold Weather Alert:
Temperatures registered below ideal
Disruption to homeostasis (Minimum, progressing) detected
Please seek an area better suited to biological and support processes
She swatted the alert away, but within seconds it was back, buzzing against her hindbrain like an insect as it prickled at her mind.
She snorted at the thought, then cursed, a sudden blossom of pain erupting in her shoulder. It was a brick, one of thousands free floating through this particular stretch of air.
The momentary distraction had cost her her intangibility, which, much like her body heat, had become harder and harder to keep a hold of as the night came in.
Valerie didn't trouble herself to wonder as to why. For all she knew, the spooks put them there on purpose.
What she did know was that it was one more obstacle in the long plot against her. The cold, the snow, the long mass of land so dense and wide she could almost believe she was back on earth, all of it conspiring to force her down, succumb to misery, and make her stop.
Too bad for them, then, that Valerie had somewhere to be.
Because she knew, ghost the Ghost Zone didn't work like that. No matter how powerful the ghost, their lairs could never be any bigger than they were. There was an end here, or barring that, some central point, some place where she could regain her conviction and find out for sure where exactly she needed to go.
It wasn't as big as it seemed.
Just a little farther.
The clouds kept coming, slowed only by the solidity of the land below, caustic streamers begat from glowering sky. Visibility that hadn't been good before turned worse, curtains of fog blocked off her sight at odd angles, ambient mist conspired to foul what clear air remained.
There were points where it was only possible to navigate around objects by the off color of their glow, tinting her surroundings blue or white just enough time to register there was something there at all.
Even large objects were no more immune, a few hundred feet above her head, a great half circle floated, mooring chains rusted white around its cream colored base. Half Amphitheater, half pantheon, eroded gods stood tall as the pillars they supported succumbed to obscurity, and were consumed.
Were it not for its mouldering foundation, which sent a continuous rain of pebbles to precipitate across her head, she might not have seen it at all.
Valerie cursed, swiping at a stone that clattered noisily across her head. She had lost her intangibility again.
Her brain was fuzzy, her body numb, thoughts crawled like molasses through her aching mind.
She didn't need the alarms buzzing in the back of her mind to know this was getting dangerous.
"Ten more minutes." She whispered to herself. "Got enough time for ten more minutes, I don't find anything then..." She licked her lips, dry and faintly fishy, remnant of the life threatening dinner she'd secured hours before.
If she couldn't find anything in ten more minutes, then she would have to call it. She hated the thought, but the pragmatic part of her was forced to admit that continuing any farther was perhaps, just maybe, a bit unwise.
Valerie swallowed the embitterment on her tongue, and set a timer for ten minutes.
It glitched immediately, like all her other clocks, so she started counting on her own instead.
Pale snow and shards of sleet intermixed with storm sculpted whorls of green and purple, frost swirling, suspended in strange galaxies within their vaporous bosoms, reluctant to fall.
The bones of a denuded cathedral, carved from ice, rafters like ribs in slow collision with the remains of an old stairway, each overburdened with great white collections, sloughing off in sheets in the direction of the wind.
It was nine minutes, - or was it eight? into the last leg of her journey that Valerie finally fell.
It was a mooring chain, unattached to any other structure, dim links knotting over themselves in ill defined formations, too dimly lit compared to the mists it nested in, too easy to miss until one came close.
She heard the impact more than anything, a hard snap paired with a sudden loss of place. The same sound came from her brow an instant later, this time paired with a white hot flare of pain.
It took several seconds to realize she was tumbling.
Her board was still running, doing its best to follow whatever orders she had last thought to give it. Her feet, still firmly strapped, were carried dutifully along.
Alarms screamed, too loud to think as her thrusters careened, wildly following the last orders given by her scrambled mind. She spun faster, harder, unable to grasp the reason why.
Something crunched, legs jolted, body lashed against its tethers.
A hard hit across the shoulder-
She was spinning, an out of control loop with herself at the center. Red splinters twisted with her, sole remnant of her shattered prow. Her thrusters weren't helping, all pointed in different directions, at least one of them smoking.
Another collision, small of her back flared before she could really register what had happened, head whipped back-
First, shut down the engines, cut both force and speed from her fall. Still tumbling, but slower now.
One last, hard hit, then a slide, ragdolling down a broad diagonal-
Next, recall her board. Lighten her load, slow her fall just that much farther. It was a chance to free up her feet while she was at it, supposing she could still walk once this was done.
Back to freefalling, then another surface-
A plume of snow, followed by a slide-
Not bleeding momentum fast enough, she needed to slow herself down and regain control before she hit something harder than her suit couldn't take. She had three storage units: One for her engine, one for her replicators and suit, and one for anything. She reached for this last one, grasping for something, anything, to stop the fall.
Managed to get a hand clear, just a second, but long enough-
A sword, based off blueprints she had downloaded off the internet after seeing Braveheart for the first time. Short, thick, reinforced with ectoplasmic power, kept from being repurposed more from lack of need than any real plans to use it. Not her first choice of weaponry, nor her second, but it would have to do.
A weight filled the empty space inside her palm-
She had one chance. Any longer, and her arm would be forced to bend, either beneath her, which would put the blade into her waist, or farther out, rattling it out of her grip entirely.
New formed hilt guided wicked steel, pushing down-
All her focus dedicated to this one act.
The tip bit in,bright red sparks leapt out at the sides of the blade, loosing an unholy screeching as the stone itself screamed offense. Her tumble turned to a straight slide as the force of the blade slowly lost to the sheer solidity of its opponent, finally bringing her to a painful, grinding halt.
Valerie blinked both eyes, and took a moment to breath.
Somewhere distant, everything hurt. Alarms screamed between her ears, a huge list of red texts and warning signs intruding in the corner of her eyes. Her visor was shattered, not enough for a gas leak, but plenty to ruin her vision, the world rendered into a broken kaleidoscope of shapes and colors, impossible to make out. Her sensors proved no better, blinkered by the mist.
Valerie stared at her fist, crude red geometries forming a cylinder of sorts against a backdrop of green and white. She was still gripping the sword, setting off fractal illuminations of pale pink in the bottom of her field of view. She could feel the heat from the edges of the stone, sole warmth against her fingers, utterly numb.
She was so cold.
It crossed her mind, sluggishly, that cold was trouble. Bad trouble. Something she needed to fix.
Vaguely intent on images of igloos and other hut, She hoisted herself up, or tried to. For the moment she managed to get her feet back under her, what pleasant detachment remained escaped her, and the world came rushing in, bringing with it an overwhelming surge of pain.
Every battered rib, every torn muscle, a thousand different cracks and bruises combined into a single, burning outcry, beyond the point of her ability to respond. Her head throbbed out of time with the rest of her, the muscles in her arms, back, and legs felt like they'd been torn, while the world outside seemed to spin anew in a sickening carousel of smears, shape and color blending, tilting, no matter how still she kept her head.
She choked, feeling the uprising before it came, but couldn't stop the release, which dribbled down her chin with the same low tide flavor it had going in.
The smell alone made her gag again.
Notification: Critical damage (See details)
System has detected damage to bio-executive facillities
Bio-processing facilities are a core function of the Red Huntress Unit
Please provide the correct repair materials to the nearest available intake valve.
Notification: Moderate damage (See Details)
System has detected damage to key organic support structures
Organic support structures are an important function of the Red Huntress Unit.
Please provide the correct repair materials to the nearest available intake valve.
The meaning of the messages pressed themselves into comprehension without her consent. She fell, collapsing back down against the frigid earth.
It was all too much: The unblockable messages, the dizzying fragments of the reality beyond, the pain, the misery, all piled on top of the final, crushing understanding of just how big all of it really was.
This world, that world, her world, their world whatever it was. It was huge, it was enormous, and it was all connected, all of it.
Buried beneath a haystack with no way out, still looking for a needle
What was she supposed to do?
What the hell was she supposed to do?
Notification: Moderate damage (See details)
System has detected Damage to key portions of life support casing.
External lesions in secondary skin across 48% of the structure
Fractured exoplates across 28% of the structure
Fractured endoplates across 60% of the structure
Please refrain from exertion during repair.
System has detected ongoing ectocontamination to host
Source: Contact, gaseous
Threshold: 24/100 (climbing 2%/###)
Valerie shoved away the other messages, which at last relented, and tried not to puke.
Should she lie down here? God, she was tempted.
Just lay her head down and sleep. If only the alarms between her ears would just shut up, she would.
With a groan, she pushed her feet back underneath her and prepared to try again. This time, she tried to lean most of her weight against her sword, still buried halfway into stone.
The world refragmented, her ankle, freshly torn, screamed out and threatened to give way. her stomach turned anew, every wound burning as she forced her way up. Her head spun and throbbed, trying to force her back down.
But Valerie stood.
Now all she needed to do was walk.
She could feel her suit trying to help, weaving temporary connections that would allow her to puppet her body wherever she needed it to go. It was an emergency bandaid of sorts, simple, but effective. Something to get her away and out of trouble until she could find somewhere to heal.
She didn't have the presence of mind to notice that it was slower than it should be.
Three fruitless tugs later, and she finally remembered she didn't need to pull her sword out to recall it, switching it out for one of her rods instead.
Threshold: 26.8/100 (climbing 2%/###)
Like all the rest of her arsenal, it was a weapon, a twin bladed staff that could be made to spout ectoplasmic fire on either end. Unfortunately, it made a rather poor survival tool, being more burn than heat, and highly concentrated. Too close, and she cooked, too far away, and she couldn't feel it at all.
It did, however, make a half decent staff, which Valerie made full use of as she trekked away from her crash site, dragging her body with her.
Ever since she first made her way into the zone, time had been slippery. Now, however, it was mercurial, fading in and out in vague segments, ill defined and hard to recall.
She was on a mountain. She was sliding down a slope.
She was lying face down from where she slipped.
She doesn't remember how.
She gets up, she falls down, she pulls the strings that pull her body.
She gets up. She falls down.
Threshold: 40.4/100 (climbing 1%/###)
She was down the mountain, or perhaps it's a plateau. She staggered forward, knees half liquid, her body shaking with those small, tremulous quakes that came on at some point beyond exhaustion, but before collapse. Her wounds burned, sores weltering green and pustulant from the ectoplasm that had worked its way beneath her skin. Their hardened heads scraped against the new patches of her suit.
Wherever she was now seemed to be some kind of forest, a nightmare confusion of plant and stone. Dim trunks turned the the ever-present mist aquiline from the color of their glow.
Her feet crunched over uneven ground, crushing the facets of strange fruits sprouting between dense clusters of geodesic growths, themselves frilled round with stems.
Many of the stones were fragile enough to burst beneath her boots, voiding their contents in brightly colored stains that turned each step into a game of suck and stick. And the snow, still coming down thick, piled up across her shoulders as she walked.
She was looking for - she wasn't sure anymore. Somewhere to sit. Not to hide, not cower, not even in the pounding confusion her thoughts had become would she admit to even considering so low a thing. She just needed a temporary sit, a shelter of some kind, somewhere she could feel safe.
She didn't find it.
The Red Huntress was a phenomenal machine, but Valerie grey, only human. Time and space turned to a slurry, and slid out from beneath her, and this time, her knees went with it.
Threshold: 52.2%, (Stabilized)
She was down without any memory of falling, threads given way and legs folded under, leaving her to stare uncomprehending at a self that she had never known to fail.
She could be dying. The fear that had bitten at her earlier that day had wriggled out and metastasized into present tense. She could be dying, alone and pointless, right here in the snow.
Her eyes started leaking, or perhaps resumed, tracing dried salt lines she couldn't remember making.
What was she even doing?
Couldn't find a girl, couldn't find a map, couldn't even find a way to get up off the ground. Wouldn't Phantom just love to see her now.
Ectocontamination in excess of 50% of threshold.
Dermal, Subdermal lesions, cell damage registered above ideal.
Thick, ugly sobs choked her throat, but she pulled herself forward, crawling towards some hollow she had spotted between the cracks in her visor. An animal pit, or just some hole.
Her makeshift heat source was dragged with her, intermittently burning her thighs when she allowed it to wedge too close to her skin.
She hated that she was crying, she hated that she couldn't seem to stop, every ounce of feeling heretofore controlled spilling across her face in a single, ugly mess, sobbing as she crawled
Warning: Total damage to systems above full-function threshold
switching to power saving mode
## seconds remaining.
Valerie felt more words jammed into her head, she felt them tumbling in, then out again from her over burdened brain.
She felt everything, all at once, jagged lines of emotion ripping through her, out of time with the burning of her body.
As soon as she drew close enough to reach it, she threw herself into the hollow, tumbling down with drunkard grace. Her staff, she kept her staff as close as she dared, savoring the almost comfort as it burned against her nose.
Not quite done, she reached out her hand, stretching the last, shredded tatters of her waking will towards one final, faded goal.
## Seconds remaining
Too much of the suit's power was too tied up in keeping her alive, so it came slowly red particulates swimming together at agonizing pace. With great reluctance did they piece themselves together, but come they did, coalescing with slow certainty into the crumpled remains of an old, old memory, practically a dream.
Dancing sunlight, a perfect summer, somewhere very far away.
She was too tired to smile, but somewhere, deep in the midst of her minds collapse, things felt a bit more stable.
/ Are you Okay?/
() Seconds remaining
"F'goff, spook." She didn't could hardly be bothered to address the threat, though she did take the time to shuffle her prize more safely beneath her. "M'busy"
Busy with what, she couldn't quite recall. She was aware, in a detached and fuzzy manner, that she should probably be concerned. The sudden, full body pillow that had come from nowhere made it difficult to care.
() Seconds remaining: Tertiary systems: Off
Secondary Systems: Off
Primary systems: Low power
In that last, hazy instant, watching some pale white bulk float ever closer, Valerie had just enough time to worry that it had come to take her mom.