CONTENT: PTSD, trauma, hurt/comfort, nonbinary Zenith
The weight of the truth has come bearing down on Zenith harder than ze could have prepared for, and the gap between Neo New Mexico and Maine has never felt wider. Some things can't wait for face-to-face meetings, and exile or runaway, the demons that haunt you are still of the same stock.
(Part 3 of Lost In Transit. sorry the first song embed is ugly lol i couldn't get it from bandcamp)
ZENITH:HEY. STILL ALIVE. CAN'T TALK. THINGS ARE REALLY TOUCH AND GO RIGHT NOW. WE'RE DOING OUR BEST TO MAKE IT OUT OF THIS IN ONE PIECE. IF WE DON'T, I'M SORRY. IF WE DO, I'LL CALL YOU LATER.
The call rings all of two times before it picks up.
"Sorry, were you expecting someone else?"
"You fucking jackass!" Okay. Bad time for jokes. "What the fuck is this? 'If we don't, I'm sorry?' What have you been doing?"
"Hey, hey, I had to be realistic, alright? I told you, this is what we do, things might get hairy–"
"I have been so fucking worried about you." She falters, and the momentum of your ire stumbles with it. "I know what you told me. But–I didn't–what have you been doing that's that bad? Bad enough that you'd have to say something like that?"
You're suddenly very, very aware that when nearly everybody you've ever known has moved in the shadows, it skews your perspective. It's easy to forget that other people don't have the same flippant disregard for danger that being a runner instills in you.
...That, and one other thing: you’re not sure anyone has ever been invested enough in you to be this distraught over your potential demise.
"Okay. Okay. I'm... sorry." It still takes some world-class tongue-biting to keep from making a jibe about how you’d expect her to be hardened to the real possibility of death, given your–her–background. You’re still coming down off an adrenaline high, she’s probably rattled from the unpleasant memories she’s spent the last few days wading through, and one ill-timed comment is all the catalyst those two factors need to spark an argument neither of you wants. "I wasn't trying to freak you out. Like, I know it was morbid, but dropping off the face of the earth without you ever hearing from me again seemed a lot worse."
"I mean–okay. Yeah. Sure,” she concedes, sighing defeatedly; some of the tension has slipped from her voice when she continues. “But you’re good now? Can you please tell me what the fuck is going on?”
"Yes. Okay. Well–okay. It’s been. A lot. Like, go grab a cold one and settle in, because this is gonna be your whole afternoon." Was that laughter? You hope it was laughter. "The main problem was that 4GET clocked us–"
"–Let me get to it! So, Dak had to break out of this Living Race–imagine death races, but easier on the racing and with a lot more death–and we had to take some... less-than-ideal routes to get back to the truck."
"And is there anything I need to know about that?"
"No. You don't want to. That wasn't the worst part, anyway."
"Then what the fuck was the worst part?"
"The guy strapped into a bomb vest who–I guess–held us hostage? In our own truck." There's silence, for a moment. Then one deep, long sigh.
"Okay. Explain the guy in the bomb vest to me."
"He shows up, says some guy called Ghostlord had him kidnapped and rigged up, and that he was monitoring us through this dude. He wanted us to take a plane to England so he could cash in on the bounties 4GET has out on us."
"The... right. Right. And he was gonna blow you all up if you didn't cooperate."
"Twenty nuyen for you."
"Fucking… So you leave for–like, two days, and–a bomb. Of course. A fucking bomb." The word is punctuated with the not-too-distant thunk of one solid object hitting another. “I should have fucking come with you.”
"That was–back in Legacy. My thing. Bombs, explosives, unstable materials. I probably could've disarmed that thing faster than he could sneeze."
"I don't know. I had a look, and it seemed pretty solid. Apparently Ghostlord was set to pull the trigger if anyone tried to fuck with it."
"Please. You haven’t seen some of the shit I’ve had to work with. But, I mean, you–you got rid of him, right? You're not going to England? I mean, you’re talking to me, so–"
"Oh, no, absolutely not. We ditched him."
"Did you kill him?"
"No! He was a real dickweed, though, so I came pretty close." Laughter–definite laughter, this time. "We dropped him off at a gas station. He's still alive. Or, maybe he's not. I don't know what he's done since we left him."
“Uh huh. So what happened to the vest?"
"Someone who broke out of Fyre Tower with us–old friend of Dak's, it turns out–he cut it off and. Uh. He jumped. Right out of the back of the truck."
"Oh my God."
"Yeah. I mean... If you'd met him, you’d get it. He did what he had to. He was ready to go."
"Maybe, but... still. Is Dak okay?"
"Dak is a lot of things. It's hard to tell. I'm not even sure what okay looks like with him. I think so? It’s not the first time this has happened, actually, but that was different. There are worse ways to die. Some people would consider it lucky, getting to choose like that."
"...I guess." You get the impression she might not agree. "So, you dropped this guy off–tell me you didn't rob him."
"We didn't rob him! You’re making a lot of assumptions about us.”
"That’s your own fault. You told me about the kind of shit you get up to. So is that the truth, or are you saying it because I asked?"
"I’m telling you, we did not rob that man." Net gains, right? "We did the opposite of robbing him. We gave him an ATV we had stashed in the truck."
"What the fuck? You had that just lying around, going spare?"
"We... appropriated it from some people who were trying to cash in on our bounty a little while back."
"You know, like normal people do all the time. You couldn't sell it? That thing's probably worth crazy nuyen."
"We're being actively chased down by, I think, at least four different groups of people at this point. Finding a safe buyer for a stolen ATV is not something we've had time to stop and think about."
"...Touché." Aubrey sighs again, and you can picture her scrubbing at her face with her hands. "So, where are you now?"
"Some other truck stop. We just stopped for a break. Everyone needs to eat, Pox needs patching up, and the cabin is so ;fucking gross right now. Dak just went into the store for supplies."
"What did you do to the cabin?"
“Do you wanna know?”
"We had to take the sewer to get out of Fyre Tower. I'll leave the rest up to you."
"You people are disgusting. I can't believe I let you sleep in my bed."
"Hey, that was pre-sewer. I was clean. I showered and everything."
"I know, I know." She laughs, softly. "But, um–you're not hurt or anything?"
"Me, personally? Not really. Couple of scratches, got hit with some biofeedback last night, and I haven’t slept in, like, 30 hours, but I’ll be fine. Dak's down two fingers, Pox needs wrapping up, and Tech is... well, he wasn't doing too hot to start with, so I'd say what he has going on right now is an improvement. I think we're mostly just tired."
"Down two fingers?"
"Just the pinkies! Listen, I told you, if I gave you a play-by-play of our entire night, we'd be here for hours. I've seen some of the craziest shit I've ever seen in my life in the–thirty-six, forty-eight, or whatever–hours I spent in that place."
"What did you see? Like, cool crazy or fucked up crazy?"
"Oh, it's fucked up, for sure. But, I mean–that place was huge. Like Denver, if Denver wasn’t, y’know, Denver. There's a floor that’s just a whole redwood forest."
"Like, actual redwood?"
"Trees, soil, mist, looks like it should have taken hundreds of years for it to grow in? Yeah. And if you go right out to the edge of the floors, you can look out and see for miles around you. Just, desert, everywhere. It’s… it’s beautiful, actually."
You think back to that view from the restaurant, out on the edge of the arrondissement. You think about how it struck you, at that moment, with the Arizona-Neo New Mexico desert sprawled out before you in the sun, how much of the world you haven’t seen–not in that light–and how much of it you want to. How badly you want to live to see it.
"I don't know how they keep that tower standing. I don’t know if half the stuff they do in there is tech, or magic, or both. They’re way ahead of anything I’ve ever seen before."
"So they're probably keeping a thousand dirty secrets in there."
"Oh, one hundred percent. They’ve gotta be doing a ton of science that’s UCAS-illegal. And, like, those living races? They’re just blood sport. It’s not like it’s underground. This was, like, in an arena, for an audience of thousands, like a football game. They sang their national anthem at the start! It’s fucking insane."
"Cool. So, remind me to never go there, ever."
"I didn’t think you’d even be interested. It's a place for, like, weirdo posers and rich tourists, and I didn't have you pegged for either of those." You hear her stifle a snort. "Hey."
"So which one are you?"
"I don't know. Both? We're not rich, but I feel like we had to do some posing to make ourselves fit in while the place was crawling with 4GET agents."
“They didn’t clock you right away?”
“No, actually, which is kind of impressive. You’d think they’d all have caught word from big shot Pender himself that they should be on watch for us, but I guess they really didn’t anticipate us turning up here. Someone higher up the ladder noticed when Dak went in for the living race.”
“And then…” She trails off, and you can hear her muttering to herself between quiet laughter. “God. Ghostlord.”
“What kind of shitty try-hard names themself Ghostlord? Fucking douchebag.”
“I know! It’s like, the kind of handle an edgy 13-year-old would pick. Dude couldn’t even come and do the dirty work himself.” Perhaps you’re trying to make yourself feel better about just how close you actually came to dying this morning. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. You glance down and idly kick at a discarded soda can at your feet. "So, are you–how's things your end?"
"Fine. Pretty normal, y’know. I got home, I did laundry, I went grocery shopping, fed my snake.”
"You have a snake?"
"Yeah. Ball python. His name's Bubsy. He's pretty good company. I figured a snake or something is the only sort of pet I can really have when I work weird hours and disappear for days sometimes." She starts, just barelystarts her follow up question, but catches herself before the words are fully formed. "I guess you don't... have anything like that."
"No. Not really an animal person. Pox was dead set on getting us a dog, but I think she’s given up on that at this point.”
"What, like, in the truck?"
"Yeah, which, obviously, no. We had some... weird stuff happen back in Fyre Tower, though, so now she's got a rat, and she's pretty happy with that."
"Does this rat have anything to do with the fact that you were crawling around in a sewer?"
"This one's clean! He's good!"
"I swear to God, if I ever meet you on the road again, I am not stepping foot in that truck."
"I can't say I'd blame you for that, even without all the rats and blood and shit. You have to be a specific kind of person to feel comfortable in Xanadu."
"Sure. That’s one way of describing it." You can hear her smile around the words, and the conversation lulls, briefly, before:
"So, um–" she stops, clears her throat, "–how's the--how are you holding up with the... memory thing?"
Mm. Mhm. That. It's been perched in the back of your mind this whole time, taunting, almost, providing a quiet commentary on everything you do that you’ve been trying your absolute best to drown out.
"We don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to," she hurries to add You really, really don't, but you can be candid with her in a way you can't with anyone else. "I just... y'know. It's. A lot. To come to terms with. If you're remembering anything now. If it was anything like what... we went through. I felt like I should at least ask."
You close your eyes for a moment and reach back into the recesses of your mind. Most of the specifics are still foggy. You're skimming over what should be years of memories and largely turning up blanks. But there's a few things; feelings, vague suggestions, a half-shadowed face here, distant words obscured by thick walls and heavy doors. Rooms, cold and clinical. The smell of sanitiser here, blood there. The thick, humid air of the dense Thai forests. Things that served as the backdrop for your childhood.
And then the more vivid images come. The dead bodies. The ruined buildings. The shouting. The pain, whether it was inflicted by surgical tools, biofeedback or bullets; it pierced just as deep no matter its cause. You remember cold nights and colder voices and those brief moments of relief, when it felt like you were doing the right thing, whatever the right thing was, only to know that your success would be short-lived and your next failure met with a new slew of punishments.
And it feels so much more real now than it ever has before.
"Yeah. No–I–um–" It's hot out here. Your mouth is dry. When was the last time you drank? Your legs are quivering and you’re glad for the wall to lean on and that nobody watching in the truck can tell from this distance. You think. You hope. "I'm just. Processing it. It's not all coming back at once. It's really picking its moments." Aubrey has no idea that you're supposed to die within a year and you think it might be better if it stays that way for now.
"Yeah. It... does that." Her voice is quiet. She knows the pain you're only now waking up to. "Just... y’know. Don’t… hide from people. Your friends. I used to fall into that trap way too often.”
“I thought you said you haven’t told anyone about Legacy?”
“...I haven’t.” She pauses. “Not directly, anyway. They know… things happened, but they think it was my ‘family’. The point is, your friends care. And, y’know, I don’t think they’re as bothered about all the war and murder stuff as mine would be. You… really got some good ones. Keep them close."
"Noted. I mean, I can't get much closer than being piled into a truck with them and puking and bleeding all over each other for two weeks."
"Is this a shadowrunner thing, or is this just you?"
"Honestly? It's mostly Tech. It's a Tech Wizard thing.”
"Uh huh. Is that dude, like, okay?"
"I think he's feeling a lot better right now than he has done for a couple weeks." A lizard skitters past you, its tail kicking up dust in its wake, and you glance over in the direction of the truck, where Pox and Tech are still waiting. And now those two weeks have culminated in... this.
You've gotta tell her where this is headed. You can't risk ghosting her again.
"Hey. Uh. Aubrey?"
"We're going to try and kill Pox's dad."
"No, like–that's where we're headed next. We're gonna do it today."
"...Uh–okay, sorry, what? I need you to back up, like, five steps and explain this to me."
"We–I'm not gonna tell you how, because it's not relevant, but we talked him into flying over here to meet with someone. He won’t know that someone’s us. Hopefully. If this goes to plan."
Aubrey is silent. You don't like that.
"So this is it, then," she says, finally. Her voice is flat; cold, almost. "You're really doing this."
"...Yeah. But, look, we said, if we get to Phoenix, if it looks too risky or things change, we can–"
"You know that if you do this, there's no going back, right?" She sounds... you don't know. You don't know how she sounds. "You kill him, and the whole world changes. You kill him, and your life is never gonna be the same again."
"My life isn't the same as it was, like, two fucking days ago. I don't even know what my life is anymore. It's not like I can opt out at this point. I don't have a choice."
"Would you? If you could?"
It feels like you should have an immediate answer for that, but when you reach for it, there's nothing there. You trip and stumble for a moment. Would you? Would you go back to a comfortable life of routine bank heists and vault break-ins, if you could?
Two days ago, you might have been tempted. Just a little bit. Just for a second.
Two days ago, you didn't know you had less than a year to live.
Pox is your best friend, and you love her.
You love them all.
Aubrey falls silent, and you don't know what you're supposed to say, if anything. Finally, she speaks up again.
"You really think you can get this guy?"
"I think we've got a good shot. Like, maybe it sounds like bullshit, but just... trust me. We've got an... asset."
“Sure. God. Fuck." She sniffs loudly. "This is, like, it. This is my whole day, now."
"Sorry?" Is that right? Apologising? “I don’t know what you want from me. This was always going to happen. I told you.”
"I just–" She stops, catches herself, takes a deep breath. "I've been lying to everyone I know for six fucking years, and then you come along, and it's–it's like I can finally breathe. Because I don’t have to lie constantly about my whole life with you. And, like, okay, I knew this was going to happen, but–not this soon. I didn’t expect it to be this fast. I don't–I don't wanna lose you."
You can’t decide if this is a guilt trip, an admission of terror, or, perhaps, a little of both. The knowledge that you’ll eventually have to tell her of your impending death passes through your mind again and you grab it and bury it deep, deep down where you won’t have to think about it for what you hope is a long time.
"You’re talking like I’m already dead. Look, I’m sorry, Aubrey, but I can't walk away from this."
"I know. I know. God. I shouldn't–I mean, this is what they set us up for, right? Shit like this. You know, we used to..."
"Do things like this? With Legacy?"
"...Yeah. Fucking–tactical combat, infiltration, all that bullshit. We were… trained. For this. And it’s horrible, going back to that place in your head, but you have to, sometimes, right? You have to do what you have to do."
"I guess. Yeah.” That’s how you work, isn’t it? You rarely think anymore about how or when you learned to fight, or to hack, or to infiltrate enemy defenses. You just know. Now it makes sense. Didn’t they say something about physical memories? They embedded these reflexes so deep in you that not even erasing your memory could rid you of them. Weak-minded or not, this is what you were made for. “Don’t you have to do that, too? When you’re working?”
"Kind of. I don't know. If I have to fight someone, it's not like... I mean, it's hard not to let go, just a little bit. I don't think I could do what I do if I didn't. But I don't let myself completely detach anymore. Not unless it’s life-or-death."
"I think I do that, sometimes. Or, I just started noticing, at least." Your fists curl in your pockets when you think back to Bailey. "Have you ever–have you ever hurt someone when that happens? Someone you didn't want to?"
"....No." But you came close, didn't you? You can still see Pox flinging herself at you, feel the pain of the gunshot wound rippling through your shoulder, picture the corpses in your magic-induced nightmare afterwards. "Almost, but... no."
"I haven't... hurt anyone bad. I've grabbed people. Hit them. No real damage done, just some bruises. But it's always, always in the back of my head. What if–"
"Next time is the time that you fuck up big."
"Yeah. I'm–" You pause, almost trip over the words; "–I'm scared of that, too."
"...You're a good person, Zenith." She continues talking before you have a chance to question her. "Your friends–they're lucky to have you. If you have to do this, then... you have to do it."
You nod, forgetting momentarily that she can’t see it, her words rolling around in your head. You’re a good person. You want to believe them. There’s so, so much evidence to the contrary from the first twenty years of your life, and the lines of morality are blurred these days, but some small, scared part of you that’s just now being uncovered wants to take those words and cling to them.
You don’t remember a lot. But you remember you wanted to be good, whatever that meant. You tried so hard to be good.
“I, um–” You fumble for an answer when you realise you’ve been staring into the distance for several seconds. “Thanks. I’m–we’re gonna make it out of this. If you saw what we just escaped, I don’t think you’d be so worried.”
“Yeah, well… I didn’t, so I am.” She laughs, but the sadness in it makes your chest ache. “Promise me you’ll give yourselves an out. If you can’t kill him today, you can try again, but if any of you die…”
“I know, I know. We’re making a plan. I’ll… y’know. Look, whatever happens, I won’t leave you hanging.”
You miss whatever she says next, because something else catches your attention; you peer around the corner, where the distinct sound of Dak Rambo taking any opportunity he can to make unnecessary conversation is coming from the propped-open door of the store. "Hey, um–I gotta run. I think Dak's done shopping, and I want to be in the truck before he gets anyone shot.”
"Jesus. Okay, yeah, go before he gets you into a fight. But, Zenith–" You're halfway to stepping out of the shade of the building when she falters, and you pause. "–Just–I don't know, get some rest, or something. You sound like shit."
"You do." She's not wrong, is the thing.
"I'll try, I'll try. Okay, really, I gotta go. I think I can hear the guy inside loading his fucking shotgun."
“Alright! Go! I’ll… talk to you later.” She doesn’t sound convinced.
“You will. I’ll let you know what’s up. I–yeah. Bye.”
It feels like such an unceremonious end to such a fraught conversation, but a glance across at the store as you scuttle back to Xanadu confirms your suspicions that, yes, the cashier does actually have a gun, and Dak is inciting a petty but protracted argument, so your decision to bounce was probably a good one.
(Pox asks if you’re okay as you haul yourself up into the cabin–no less gross for having been sat in the desert sun for twenty minutes–and doesn’t pry any further when you simply nod.)
Dak makes it back to the truck, eventually, miraculously unharmed and with… well, it’s not the worst haul. The smell of Clorox is better than old bodily fluids, and you get that water you were in dire need of.
You stop. You breathe. You reset.
And then, you drive.