I finally did it. I faced the Drive, and I lost.
It felt like a victory, at first. I could swear I completely decimated the thing. But then it began to rebuild itself. What happened after that is hazy, a hospital room and the Watcher and a lot of deja vu all mixed together in my head. The first thing I remember clearly is looking through my pack for a clue to what was going on, and finding this little book with a lot of handwriting that looked familiar. I read it from start to finish, and it set my head to rights again. I knew who I was, and I knew I needed to go find Adder, and also a good stiff drink. The drink I knew where to look for, so I decided to start there.
It was a quiet evening in the Common Ground. A couple of contestants were cooing over a kitten, and Neeip was behind the bar. I asked him for a drink, and he poured me a drink of the blandest, most tasteless stuff I've ever swigged. I asked him what was wrong with it, and he got all indignant at me.
This got Silcatra's attention, and she started asking me all these pointed questions about my memory and whether I felt any different and whether I thought I looked any different (the last thing I needed right then was a look in the mirror, gah. . .) until I started to worry about what she was hinting at. I finally got it when she had me check my own pulse.
I didn't have one.
I couldn't believe it. It was the biggest swindle ever: I got killed and nobody even told me. Why couldn't I have just been dead like a normal dead person? Why did my body have to get up and keep on walking around pretending to be alive? Honestly, this was the last thing I wanted.
I didn't want to make a scene, so I excused myself quickly and ran off to the other side of the Ground, behind the welcoming shelter of some hedges, before I really let it hit me. I didn't run far enough. Next thing I knew, Neeip was peeping over the hedge saying things that were no doubt sincerely meant to be reassuring. They weren't. Nothing could be. Not anymore.
Not even Adder. He was there suddenly, and he was trying to get me to talk to him, and I suddenly realized we were surrounded by concerned contestants, Neeip and Genevieve and Silcatra and a bunch of people I'd never even met, all standing around staring. Mercifully, Adder did that joker-teleport thing and moved us to his private quarters.
He didn't understand why I was so upset. He's been a zombie before, so I didn't understand why he couldn't understand. But he said he liked being this way. He liked it? Dulled senses and no dexterity, being trailed by insects at all times, body in a constant state of loathsome decay. . . I don't get it. This is no way to live. This is un-life. This sucks.
There was nothing he could say to make me feel better. Being Adder, it didn't take him long to figure this out. Instead, he reminded me of my one recourse: to take revenge on the Drive for this. But that could take ages, I protested. "Then the vengeance will be all the sweeter," he said, and his eyes gave off an uncanny green gleam.
Vengeance. Yes. I wanted that very badly, and if I couldn't find the Drive right away, there were plenty of other monsters to take out my anger on. "Give 'em hell," he said, as I headed out. I paused in the doorway and thought, I didn't even kiss him goodbye. But my memory of the pressure of his lips was swallowed up by a lust to tear at soft flesh with my teeth, cracking bone: the desire of death for death.
Surely I wouldn't really do that. Not to him, of all people.
This and subsequent entries are made in the writer's familiar script.
I didn't write any more in my journal as a zombie. It wasn't that I was physically incapable of writing; even when the flesh was falling from my fingers, I could still hold the pen (and my weapon, and anything else) solely because of a gift I received from Kuroiten long ago. Kuroiten is one of a statistically improbable number of people on this island with bizarre supernatural abilities. His gift was a glove made from some kind of futuristic material - I think he said it was a ceramic-based textile - and I watched him weave it out of what appeared to be thin air. Wearing it allowed my digits to function, albeit clumsily, even when there was nothing left to them but gristly bone.
No, the reason I didn't write was that I lost all desire to reflect on life. Once I managed to eliminate everything worth savoring or feeling pain over, everything else faded to shades of gray - figuratively, but it might as well have been literally, for all I cared. I just went about the business of fighting and killing and eating and fighting some more, mechanically, repetitively, until the Drive found me again.
But a few important things did happen while I was dead. Biff was starving without blood to drink, and while I tried to supplement his diet with fresh kills, it wasn't enough. I reluctantly passed him off to Mercury. I know she seems like an odd choice for our sole channel of communication with the Clan Tree, what with the smoking and all, but she strikes me as the type who is, at the core, actually pretty responsible. Adder accidentally walked in on the end of that conversation. I cringe now to recall how stricken he looked, but at the time I just excused myself to go kill some more things.
Hilaria apparently has a low tolerance for the undead (and who could blame her), so I asked NotAgain to take care of her for me. She took to him right away, and he seems to actually have some dairy experience. Not was actually the second person I asked to milk Hilaria for me. The first, Pyre Kasen, was clearly ill-equipped to handle the, er, job, seeing as how his robot fingers were blade-tipped. Pyre just about blew a fuse when I passed the request on to Not, though; he exploded into fury, then collapsed into paranoia, then seemed to be as confused as the rest of us about what had just happened.
In retrospect, I can kind of identify with that a little bit.
What else? I was stumbled upon one day - almost literally - by Cadye, who revealed herself to be astonishingly deft at surgery when she discovered what bad shape I was in. I confess it is tough for me to recall the details of our conversation at this point, but I am pretty sure that I managed to offend her, and that she was still completely gracious and gentle with me.
All this time, my body was rotting, and I avoided people even more strenuously as my decay became more pronounced. I won't describe it here, but even in my numbed state, it was by far the most horrifically disgusting thing I have ever experienced. Every day there were new disturbing developments, which I will not record here, in hope that I might forget them someday. The word "gruesome" doesn't really do it justice (and would be unfair to grues). Toward the end, though, I was basically just a crusty skeleton walking around with some mummified flesh stuck to it, which (while no picnic) was considerably less disturbing.
I had reached that point when, one day in Improbable Central, a robot wearing a nametag reading MARLY handed me a nametag as though I was supposed to be there, and I decided to go along with it, whatever "it" was. It turned out to be a treasure-hunting expedition, led by a creepy fellow named Mandelbrot and involving Ebenezer, Talkydoor, Ferryn and Calliaphone. We took a skiff to the middle of the lake, donned old-fashioned spaceman-style diving suits, and set out to explore a submarine wreck. Mandelbrot wanted us to retrieve a particular set of metal discs, so we were looking for them in the crates scattered across the lake floor. Some contained intriguing cargo - lipstick, jars of pickles, chocolate, beakers - but Mandelbrot was only interested in the discs. We still aren't sure if we found them or not, because the most likely container was snatched away by some kind of giant toothy fish-beast before we could even open it.
Mandelbrot led us in pursuit of the fish, and though I sincerely doubt there was any way we could catch the thing, it did lead us to discover an underwater dome where a bunch of machines were hard at work on. . . something. They wouldn't let us get close enough to find out what it was, and in the ensuing melee, both Mandelbrot and Ebenezer disappeared. The rest of us ended up fleeing in a submersible with more questions than answers, but at least we had some crates full of interesting souvenirs to show for it. Afterward I went to the Spiderkitty with Marlybot and Talkydoor, and dear Talky, being the only one of us three who could get drunk, did her duty and wound up passed out on the floor.
And then, after that, there was the Drive.
What I remember first was my heart, beating like a hammer. And all the colors. . . different, somehow. I could feel again, and that was good, and what I felt was good. And there was something nagging at the back of my mind. But muscles, skin, hair, tendons, all connected, blood flowing, lungs pumping, all moving, going, good good good to be alive.
Alive. Not dead. Was dead. Was bad. Did bad things. Hurt people. That was the nagging thing. I shook my head and was distracted by the feeling of air hitting my face in a new way. What was I now? I looked at myself. Kittymorph? No, those weren't hands. Those were paws. I couldn't see my face, but everything I could see looked. . . well, like a huge striped cat.
A. . . a tiger? How improbable is that?
I leaped, twisted around in midair, and dashed off at top speed, running, running, not caring about anything but the feel of strength and health and life and speed. I clawed my way up a tree and bounded down again, crushing the life out of imaginary prey. The smells! Smelling had never been like this before. It was like a second sight, a landscape of scent, a history painted on earth and air.
But again the nagging, sharper than a hunger pang. What had I done? I growled, accidentally, then more on purpose, finding comfort in the sound. But the trap door of memory came open anyway, and it all tumbled out: Adder. Oh no. Why did I hurt him? How could my head have ever been so screwed up?
Everything seemed very clear now, very simple, very vivid and immediate. The insecurities and deceptions that go with being human, the numbing fog of being undead: all gone, replaced by powerful, single-minded motivations. Hope. Fear. Hunger. Excitement. Contrition. Love.
I opened my mouth to speak, and discovered I was completely unable to make sounds resembling the English language. Instead, I raised my head and let loose a full-throated roar - the biggest noise I had ever made in my life. I had to find him. Had to. Now. Nownownow.
Searching, searching. Through Kittania, through Improbable Central, through the Common Ground. In the Ground I found Neeip, and Cadye. Neither of them smelled like he had been with them. But Cadye petted me and fed me and spoke to me gently. She is always so kind!
His smell was in the Clan Hall, but he wasn't there anymore, and his room upstairs was locked. There was a note, he left a note on the board. I had to squint at it a while to get the marks to line up into meaning: it said he had gone away. I kept searching. Through jungle, through grassland. I remembered that once, when he was sad, I found him in the swamp. I went to the swamp.
Walking through the muck, it turns out, is less fun when your feet are covered with fur. I bounded for the lake to wash off the mud. The water felt good. And no tracks to lead anyone to him, if he was here. I swam along the shore, looking, looking.
There. Him! There he is. And he spots me, locks eyes with me, and for a moment, time stops.
Why is he here? Camping out in the mud? So like him, to pick the most unpleasant spot on the Island. My obstinate beloved.
But now I've found him, I don't know what to do. He's. . . I want. . . He must hate me, now. After what I did. After he offered me all he had to give and I threw it at his feet and ran away, ran away and said don't follow me, ever! I should leave him alone. He came here to be alone. To heal from the wounds I gave him. I should go.
. . . I can't leave him alone. I can't do it. I need to be with him.
Besides. He might need someone to keep him safe.
He was staying in the remains of what was once a hut. Why did someone build a hut in the swamp? It couldn't ever have been pretty, but now it was a muddy, moldy wreck, smelling of mice and decay. No one else had been there in a long, long time.
That first night I kept my distance, lay watchfully in the doorway until the sun came up. He didn't seem afraid of me, or even particularly wary - not after that first encounter, when he clearly wasn't sure if he was going to have to kill me or not. He even spoke, more to himself than to me, about why he was there. He told me that he loves me, that he didn't know it until I left. And though my heart leapt up to hear it, I was aware that he might not want me back, even so. Because he also talked about the pain of losing me, about how hard it was to go on. I could not blame him for not wanting to put himself at risk of that kind of pain again, if indeed that proves to be the case.
For several nights, after a day of hunting, I would join him at the hut. I brought him some meat to eat, and was relieved when he cooked and ate it. And his heart seemed, gradually, to be getting lighter. I myself was supremely happy. Worry about the future and guilt about the past, though both still existed, couldn't drag me down; the present filled my field of vision. And when I was with him, that present was happy, even when clouded by concern for him. I took to lying beside his mattress at night, and he would pet me before he fell asleep. His touch, his smell, the sound of his breathing, were all pure joy to me, and the nights passed quickly despite being completely uneventful. (I like to think the presence of a tiger was enough to keep monsters at bay, rather than that my watchfulness was unnecessary.)
Then, when I was out hunting, the Drive came to find me, and I destroyed it again, without thinking about what that might mean. And when I regained consciousness, I had my own body back, as good as ever. A little weak, but I trust rest and exercise will amend that. With my body, I had my own mind back, and my own heart, and (after the inevitable period of confusion) my own memories. As with my other two post-Drive awakenings, I thought immediately of Adder, wanted keenly to be near him. But this time I not only recalled that I had hurt him, but understood the likely consequences of what I had done: guilt and worry were both back with a vengeance.
So here I am now, back at the hovel in the swamp, writing by the sunlight that sifts through the rotted roof. But he has gone, and all his things with him, save only this old mattress. I wish I still had a tiger's sense of smell, but I can no longer track him that way, and his bootprints are impossible to follow (especially because I didn't think to look for them until I had already walked all over; good going, Pod). I did notice the mark of a smaller boot, though; perhaps someone came to get him.
I don't know what to do next. I want to find him and talk to him, but what if he won't hear me out? What if, when I see him, I'm unable to say the things I need to say?
What do I need to say? I should probably figure that part out first.
It is unclear how a copy of this document came into the Watcher's possession, but here it is in the files anyway.
I've had a lot of time to think lately. And while I was thinking, I
figured out something I thought you should know.
When I told you why I was leaving, I was as honest with you as I knew
how to be. My reasons for leaving were all true, but there was
another reason I couldn't tell you about, because I was still hiding
it from myself.
The other reason was that I was falling in love with you, and it
scared me shitless.
I'm a coward, Adder. You know my history; you know I've never shied
away from romantic entanglements. But after a couple of early
mistakes, I became an expert in giving affection while holding back my
heart, in finding a reason to get out when things looked like they
were getting too serious. Because (as you know so well), when you
allow yourself to love someone, you give them the ability to hurt you
like nobody else can. And the odds are fair that, sooner or later,
being human, they're going to.
The night that you used your Joker powers to show me a possible
future. . . after that, for the first time, I was forced to really look
at the possibility that you might be more than just a new high-water
mark in my eventful love life. As beautiful as that vision of our
future together was, it triggered an alarm somewhere in my
subconscious. The alarm said, Get out while you still can, Pod.
I might have ignored it, might even have found a way to shut it off
eventually. But then I died, and I couldn't be any of the things I
had been for you before. I couldn't bear that. I didn't know whether
it would be harder to have you reject me, in that pitiful state, or to
have you continue to treat me like the old Pod when I had nothing to
offer you anymore but pain.
I didn't understand. And all of these factors came together to result
in the worst decision I've ever made in my life.
I said I was sorry at the time, but now I know that I didn't really
understand what sorry meant. Adder, I am so sorry. I want your
forgiveness more than anything I've ever wanted in my life. But I
understand completely if you're not prepared to give it. I am still
not sure I'm going to be able to forgive myself.
The thing I want second most is to tell you that I love you too. If,
despite how I've hurt you, you would ever consider taking me back
again, I would be yours in a heartbeat.
I know that you love me - present tense, not past - because you said
so once in the swamp. But I also know that missing someone, and
giving them access to your heart after they've crushed it, are two
very different things. So I make no assumptions about what that means
for us. If you have reservations, if you need space, if you just
plain can't be with me now or maybe ever, that too is completely
understandable. I promise to respect whatever you decide.
But I hope, and will continue to hope, that the vision you showed me
might somehow still resemble my future reality.
Either way, I want you to know that the hours I have recently stolen
in your presence in the swamp were precious to me. I would have told
you who I was if I could, but I ended up being glad I couldn't. If
you had known it was me, you might not have let me so close. And you
might not have told me the things you did. No matter what happens, I
will treasure that time with you in my heart forever.
P.S. If you want to talk, I'll be on the beach south of the Clan Tree