|Wed, 23 Dec 1998
Lauren Fox email@example.com
On Reliquiae 1/1
*DISCLAIMER:* Arclight, Cecilia Reyes and all related characters are Marvel's. They're used here for fun, not profit.
*WARNINGS, NOTES, AND OTHER DETAILS:* I was trying to write a Christmas story, but this came out instead. I don't know why. I don't understand it. Go figure. This takes place during the Age of Apocalypse. Continuity? Bah humbug.
Comments are enjoyed thoroughly; ask before archiving, please... you can reach me at BelaLeBeau@hotmail.com. I warn you- this is all very, very morbid. If you're disturbed by gore or the bizarre, don't read this.
For Chrid. Why? Because.
She'd never seen it before, but stories about it had spread like wildfire throughout every hole in the ground she'd ever been to. The Atrocity Zone.
When Apocalypse had finished with the first Great Cullings, the bodies had been piled in the streets, victims of the massacres let to rot on the doorsteps of those 'strong ones' which had survived. No one had been particularly happy with that arrangement, and so, without further ado, En Sabah Nur had gathered his mighty forces and set them on to the task of moving all those millions of carcasses off to somewhere else- namely, the South American eastern coast, where radiation levels were already too high for anyone to live there.
"Miles an' miles o' skulls," an old sailor had told her, when she'd inquired about his journeys south over a beer in a backwater bar. "All you c'n see is dose skulls, a-piled up like dem Egyptian pyramids, an' dey stare out at'cha wit' dem black eyes like dey lookin' inta youse soul."
He'd been wrong. Looking out over it from where she was now, all she could see were ribcages, open and dry, pointing up to the sun like white bear traps.
"Purty, ain't it?" someone said from behind her. She only grit her teeth. "Like a coral reef, darlin', though I bet you ain't seen no coral like that b'fore."
"Just throw her out," one of his companions told him. "We don't have no time to waste."
"Rightly so, rightly so." He grabbed a handful her hair and forced her to look at him before grinning from ear to ear. "My mother's out there, girl. You say a good "Hello" to her, hear?"
And then he picked her up and tossed her off the boat into the water.
It was warm, heated by the cesspool of bacteria which extended from the old bodies out for miles. It took her a moment to find her bearings and swim to the surface, sputtering. Up above the old pirate was watching her with the ridiculous grin still plastered to his grubby face, waving almost cheerfully before responding to his captain's calls. She watched, dazed, as the ship moved away, and away, and away, until it was only a speck in the distance and her arms felt half-asleep, exhausted from the constant paddling.
She turned and swam toward the bones, trying to keep her face above the red water, until she reached the fringes of the skeletons. There she stopped, looking at it, and trying to figure if it would be better just to let herself drown, or to go and suffer through living- for whatever time she would live- on decayed organs long laid bare before the sea wind.
She opted for the second, with more than a little trepidation. With one hand she reached to grab a wave-washed spine and pulled herself toward the 'land;' with the other, she hauled herself up.
The first thing she did was vomit what little she had in her stomach out, and then, clutching her sides, she looked out over the waves and caught a last glimpse of the sails disappearing over the horizon.
"Bastards," she growled.
Phillipa Sontag had always been tough. She'd always been a fighter. She'd always been a killer. When she'd lost her family in the cullings, she'd hunted down and then systematically killed each member of the troop of mutant murderers who had carried out the killings. She'd made herself an outlaw, and lived like a queen on the streets- as close to it as she could get, anyhow. Unfortunately, she'd never been able to control her habit of drinking.
They'd captured her on the shores of Manhattan and, like any other pirate crew Apocalypse let raid harbors, they'd done it because they needed hard labor. When the machinery which kept the old junker running broke down, there needed to be oarsmen while the crew repaired it; when the sails wouldn't go up, someone was needed to lend the crew a hand. Phillipa, a mutant with superhuman strength, had been perfect. A metal restraint collar had been slapped around her neck when she had become particularly drunk in a bar, and that had been the end of her freedom.
It had been the collar which had kept her somewhat subdued, but when she had been able, she'd kicked and lashed at the sailors who drove her to her work with old cattleprods. They'd finally had enough of that, and, being as close as they were to the red waters of the lower Caribbean, their demented minds had come up with the brilliant plan of dumping her alive at the Atrocity Zone, instead of dead out in the middle of the Atlantic.
And so here she was: cold, tired, and green around the gills. The air was no warmer than black ice, thanks to En Sabah Nur's constant meddling with every corner and twist of nature. Her hands shook, and it was hard for her to breathe. Anyone less might have passed out. She didn't. She wished she could.
She forced herself to get up and move, if only to make herself think of something other than the events which had led up to this. That bridge was crossed- now she was going to have to get across a bridgless ocean, if she wanted to survive.
She knew, in the back of her mind, that it wasn't going to happen.
She shivered, and then tried to shake the water out of her clothes. They stunk worse now than at any time she'd spent in the filthy hull of the ship: a rusty scent with more than a hint of blood and salt. Her hair hung over her face, and she let it sit there- it blocked some of the view...
...bodies twisted, contorted, and then let to dry like that eternally...
... the mouths of skulls still open in screams...
..."dey stare out at'cha wit' dem black eyes like dey lookin' inta youse soul."
She went on like that for what seemed an eternity, before she heard a sound.
She looked behind her, but there was nothing. She moved on.
As her clothes dried, and she tripped again and again over mismatched bones, her thoughts became more and more erratic, more and more misplaced.
*I'm going to die.*
*Does that matter?*
*I wonder if there are fish in that water.*
*If I die, will my bones stay put, or fall between the cracks of the other skeletons?*
*I wouldn't mind some hot chocolate.*
*What will happen to my blood? Will it run over the others, or just dry up?*
*How long would it take to chip off the restraint collar with a bone?*
*I'll never see my mom again...*
*If I die, will anybody care?*
*Oh wait. Mom's dead.*
There was a rustling behind her.
She glanced back again, and watched the 'ground' for a long moment until she saw what had made the sound.
One of the bodies had moved.
Like a lizard, it pried itself up on its forearms, staring at her through glassy eyes. For a long time it stayed like that, simply observing, until she took a step away, lost her balance, and fell back onto the 'ground.'
It stood up tall, as skeletal as the ribcages it stood on, and with long strides and sure-footed steps it walked toward her, animal-like in its curiosity and hesitation. The closer it came, the more horrible it looked- the clothes it wore seemed to have been made from the remnants of those rotted on top of their previous owners. It had no shoes. Its bare toes gripped the hollow eye sockets of the faces it tread over like an animal's claws to keep its balance, until it came to her at last and held out a bony hand for her to grasp. She took it, not quite knowing what else to do. It felt as dry as sand.
"Va con me," it said. She blinked.
It didn't repeat itself. Instead, it began to run in another direction, shouting words she didn't know and waving its hands in the air like a madman. She supposed she was to follow it, and, trying not to look too hard at what she was passing over, she began to work her way after it.
They went a mile like this, and the island of bodies never once became thinner. She didn't see any water at all after she had gone a ways 'inland.' Her guide didn't seem the least bit repulsed, nor did it slow down or trip over the haphazard terrain at its break-neck pace, until it had come to a tiny wickiup sitting out on the expanse of carnage. The walls, she saw, were made of bones; the roof was covered with dried skins which, she realized with horror, were human; stretched arms and legs hung over the sides, green and brown.
It urged her to come inside, and then, when she'd finally forced herself to do so, it motioned for her to sit down. This, however, she wouldn't do- there was nothing to sit on but the charnel. Finally it gave up and vanished, leaving her to stand and try to accustom her nose to the stench.
It was back soon enough with several others, also resembling corpses. They gawked at her for quite some time before one of them, wielding what seemed to be a sanded-down femur, poked at her.
"Stop that," she snapped at it, and it recoiled like a snake.
"Muerde!" it shouted, and poked her again.
"Meer-de yourself!" she yelled back, throwing out a leg to knock one down. It fell, and then rolled around until it had gotten well out of her reach before getting back up. The others chittered amongst themselves excitedly.
Two of them finally marched forward and, before she had the chance to strike out at them, grabbed both her arms. She tried swinging them off, but they were stronger than her- she supposed, at that moment, that they were mutants of some sort- and hauled her away, dragging her behind them as they crossed the barren graveyard again.
It wasn't until she felt as though her arms would fall off that they dropped her in another little hut, this one with bones set about the entrance as a sort of barred door. "Goza," one mumbled at her, before running off.
"Wait!" she cried after him, "What do you mean?"
"He said to 'enjoy.' But you won't." She turned. There was another woman there, sitting with her legs Indian-style in a corner. "It's Spanish," she explained.
"A watered-down version of it, anyhow." The woman cocked her head to one side and looked her up and down.
"The translator," the other told her. "Their translator. They don't speak any English."
"You don't have a name?"
She shrugged. "It used to be Cecilia. But names don't mean much here."
Phillipa glanced out through the bones, and saw that others had gathered around the group which had brought her there. It seemed that she had come to a village of sorts. "What is this place? Who are they?"
"They don't have a name for it, or themselves. They were once Venezuelans, before the Apocalypse."
"But why do they live here? How could anyone..." she grimaced. She still couldn't handle the smell.
"At least here," Cecilia said, "nobody bothers them. Sit down. The corpses can't hurt you any more than they already have."
The point was well taken. Sontag crouched down across from the other woman, holding her breath until she could gather her wits again. It was too easy to allow her thoughts to drift to the fact that her feet rested upon three skulls. Outside, the crowd was getting larger, the foreign voices louder.
"What are they going to do with me?" she whispered. "Why am I being kept here?"
"They're keeping you here because they don't want you to escape," Cecilia told her.
"Obviously. And you?"
"They don't want me to get out, either."
"Why are you here, anyway?"
"I suppose I came the same way you did."
"You're not being cooperative."
"I don't intend to be. Sorry."
"How long have you been here?" she tried one last time. "How'd you get here?"
"Longer than you. Most likely the same way you got here."
With that, Phillipa gave up, and spent several hours waiting for something to happen. But nothing did. The woman sat and stared into space like a statue, giving no sign of looking or feeling or breathing, until Sontag felt like slapping her. She didn't give in to the impulse.
Outside, the 'tribe' had begun to move, the cluster falling into great rings, holding hands and mumbling what sounded almost like a chant. "What are they doing?"
"Getting ready for dinner."
"They do this for dinner?"
"They don't eat very much. Tonight, they celebrate a big meal."
"Because of me?"
"You could say that."
The chanting went on for what seemed like several hours, which stretched out until it was nearly dark. The sunset, or what she could see of it, was scarlet, scarlet over crimson and white. Had this been the old days, and the scene could be painted with swaying palms and clusters of birds-of-paradise, it would have been pretty. Here and now, it wasn't.
"When will they finish?" she asked.
"When they feel cleansed."
"They are praying for forgiveness."
"What for? What did they do?"
Phillipa stood as tall as the roof would allow, and grabbed what there was of Cecilia's raggedy collar. "Listen," she hissed, "You don't want to toy with me. My nerves can't take much more. So humor me and answer my questions."
"Or what will you do?" she asked, calmly. "If you tried to hurt me, they'd stop you. They need me to talk to the traders who make it down here."
"I can break your neck sooner than they can stop me."
"Then please, do it."
She was tempted to. "What are they doing? You said they were preparing for their dinner."
"And then you said they were praying."
"Because," she said, "even after as long as they've been doing it, they still feel uneasy about eating human flesh."
Maybe if she had believed that God would intervene, she would have prayed in unison with the creatures outside. But she didn't. If the Lord of Hosts really had any say in things which happened, Apocalypse would not reign. Churches and priests would not be burnt, the meek believers would not be thrown into living hell by the prevalent pagan. People such as these in the Zone wouldn't exist. Maybe she wouldn't exist- she didn't count herself among the good.
"If you don't think about it, it'll be better," Cecilia had the audacity to say.
"And how the hell am I not gonna think about this?"
"Think about your family. Think about your friends. Think about flowers and swans- I don't know, think about something. Just not this."
"I don't have family. I don't have friends. They're dead. I hate flowers. I'm not really too sure what a swan even is. And quit trying to be a comforter. I don't need it."
"No viaticum for the mighty," Cecilia mused.
"If it makes you feel any better, you would have died here anyway. The radiation would have gotten to you."
"At least nobody would have been making a cake out of my liver." She quirked a brow. "Why aren't you dead, then?"
"My powers protect me."
"But what about those..." she motioned vaguely toward the creatures.
"They mutated. They can stand it, somehow."
"This is completely insane."
The chanting was growing louder. It seemed as though there might have been drums beating along with the voices, but it was more likely the sound of many bare feet on flattened bones. The rings had become an intricate dance, the tallest of them swooping downward while the others marched outward, and then inward, and then around. She watched it as the sun went down, and flaming torches were brandished in the air.
"When will it end?"
"Soon," she answered. "They'll kill you quickly. They aren't merciless."
"They just eat all the foreigners who come near them."
"Not all. If you'd had something to sell them that they needed, they might have let you go. But you didn't. So they'll take something else that they need."
"What do they eat when nobody comes?"
"People die here all the time. And when they don't, everyone goes hungry. Sometimes traders come with huge crates of dried food, and there's no need to eat anyone."
The pirates, Phillipa thought, must have known about these people. May they all rot in the darkest corners of whatever came after life.
Abruptly, the noise stopped.
It was so quiet that she could almost hear the soft rhythm of Cecilia's breathing. The woman had turned away.
The bones which barred the door were slowly removed, and a hand reached in. Phillipa moved away from it, reflexively. "Va!" It shouted, and then grabbed her. More strong hands took hold of her, and she was borne away, too scared to scream.