After the prologue, the story begins sometime during the episode "Earthlings Welcome Here" and quickly goes AU. Comments and criticism are welcome. I'm especially interested in criticism regarding the quality of writing.
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don't they know it's the end of the world,
'Cause you don't love me anymore?
"Can't risk the butterflies," Lieutenant Taylor said.
"Who gives a shit about 'butterflies'?" Will snapped. He looked defiantly at the others, though Lauren noted her husband's gaze did not include Nemuro. The four of them had been avoiding the doctor all evening. Tonight was the night; the rug was in the next room, the shovels in the truck.
"Don't we want to change things?" Will added, almost pleadingly.
"No," said Taylor. He was lounging in his recliner, his wife-beater pulled up slightly as he scratched at the hairs of his belly. He'd always been on the stocky side, and the last few months of hotdogs and hamburgers had left him practically chubby. He glanced nervously at Nemuro before taking a bite of pizza. He spoke as he chewed. "When we left, the Resistance was winning. Why risk that?"
Standing by the patio door, staring into the darkness of the backyard, Fritz flicked his Zippo and lit yet another cigarette. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he agreed.
"Don't fix it?" Will said irritably. "My parents were born last year. They'll die on Judgment Day. Billions will die. Connor wants us to keep a low profile? Well, I say Connor's not here. I say we have forty-eight years to save the world!"
Will leaned back into the sofa and gulped the dregs of his martini glass. Lauren put a hand on his knee and squeezed gently.
"We all want to stop Judgment Day," she said. "But what if we fail? What if we change things too much? Connor might never be born. My sister might never be born. By trying to save the world, we might end it for good."
Nemuro snickered and shook his head. "It's not like you have one shot at this," he said, the faint Eurotrash in his voice tightening his vowels. "Remember, we've just spent the last six months making a time machine."
Taylor sat up. He scowled uncomfortably. "You said it'll only work once. Future teams are depending on that being there."
"We don't use the one in the bank," Nemuro said dismissively. He grinned and tossed another mint in his mouth. He seemed to swallow it whole. "It may take a while to synthesize the components we smuggled back, and the temporal guidance might be a mess to calibrate, but we can make more. So, suppose we make two and bury one underground? Make any changes you like: save JFK, shoot Minsky, whatever. Then use one time machine to pop forward and see how things turned out. If you find a radioactive wasteland, just dig up the other one and go back and try again."
They'd already thought of this, of course, but Lauren was a medical doctor, Taylor an architect, Will and Fritz electrical engineers: only Nemuro grasped the esoteric physics behind temporal displacement; only Nemuro could conjure time machines and plasma-throwers from parts rummaged from an early-sixties Radio Shack. It was a good plan, and Nemuro could make it happen. Too bad he was a traitor.
"We're not doing that," Taylor said finally. "If Connor wanted us to play God with the timestream, he would have given us orders to."
"I see," Nemuro said quietly. He turned to face the minibar and made a show of inspecting the bottles. Resting chin and paws on the shoulder of his navy-blue blazer, Mr. Snuggles regarded them with narrowed eyes.
Will frowned and looked hard at Nemuro, and for a moment Lauren feared he would warn the doctor, though it would mean his life to do so. But she knew Will's motives weren't quite so altruistic. Saving billions was well and good, but the future he wanted was a personal one, one that she and he could share. He always wanted to raise a family, and perhaps she would have agreed if they had stayed in the future, waited until the war was won. But not here, not now. She would do nearly anything for her husband, but she would not bring life into a world with no tomorrow.
Taylor tossed a pizza crust onto the coffee table, scattering crumbs. "Look, Will," he said, "most anyone upstream would give their right arm to be where we are now. We're not starving, we're not dying from disease, we each got thirty grand in the bank and the chance to make so much more. We got a half century of leave ahead of us. The Beatles are going to debut on Sullivan in a few months. I don't know about you, but I'm buying a ticket. And there's so much to look forward to: Moon landing, Woodstock, Star Wars, Disco. And so what if it all turns to ash in 2011? We'll be what, in our eighties?"
Fritz stepped away from the window, towards Nemuro, and blew out a cloud of smoke. "I'll be ninety," the sergeant said, "but I don't plan on living that long."
"Seventy-eight for me, and I do," Nemuro said and ate another mint. From the cabinet he took a squat brown bottle with a thick, rounded bottom. With one hand, he unscrewed the lid and poured the amber drink into a snifter on the bar.
"We've all suffered hardship; we've all suffered loss," he said slowly as he walked-somewhat woozily, though Lauren didn't recall him drinking tonight-across the room to the coffee table and carefully poured a measure into each of the three empty martini glasses. Still cradled in his arm, Mr. Snuggles watched the proceedings lazily.
"All good things must come to an end," Nemuro added, "and we've had the misfortune to see the truth of that proverb. But now I propose a toast. In this past a future awaits, and I intend to enjoy that future very much."
With the bottle Nemuro moved drunkenly towards Fritz, who scowled and snubbed out his cigarette before heading sullenly to the liquor cabinet and retrieving a piece of stemware. Smiling, the doctor splashed the sergeant's glass half-full before placing down the bottle.
Why do these eyes of mine cry?
Don't they know it's the end of the world?
It ended when you said goodbye.
Lauren was relatively new to drinking. In the future, pre-war stocks were a dwindling commodity, and as a doctor she knew to drink moonshine was to play methanol roulette. Therefore she wasn't sure if the brandy tasted as it should: burning sharp, with a flavor sweet yet with a hint of something bitter. For a moment a chill ran through her, and she feared that Nemuro might know, might have guessed Connor's orders and perhaps intended to take them down with him in his own personal Jonestown. But as she watched him twirl in a circle and kiss his cat on the nose, she decided suicide wasn't his style.
If he suspected, he would have fled a long time ago. That he was here now showed that he trusted them, which made the task before them both easier and more unpleasant. Lauren finished her brandy. They could afford him this last indulgence.
Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Nemuro leaned against the stereo. He held his glass to Mr. Snuggles, who sniffed it with suspicion. "So," he began, "what do you all plan on doing for the next forty-eight years? You taking up a practice, Dr. Fields?"
Lauren sat back. She tried to shrug casually. "I was studying to be a pediatrician before the war," she said.
Taylor snorted. "Why work? It's not like you'll need the money."
"It's good to stay busy," she said.
"You going to stay an electrician, Will?" Taylor asked. "You going to folks' homes, fix their sockets?"
"Hell no," her husband said, forcing a laugh. Briefly, almost too fast to catch, his eyes flitted to Fritz before quickly darting away. The sergeant was the battle-hardened killer among them. They were all waiting for him to get it done. "Think I'll try my hand at stocks," Will went on. "That new 'Walmart' company looks promising. And there's the Nakatomi Corporation."
Nemuro nodded like a bobble-head. "Yes, yes, the Japanese market seems a safe investment." He glanced at Fritz, who had been creeping towards him along the wall, out of his line of sight. "What about you, sergeant? Do you see dollar signs in your future?"
"I'll keep comfortable," Fritz said flatly. He had his right hand behind his back, and Lauren caught the sheen of piano wire between his legs. If the doctor noticed, he didn't seem concerned.
"And you, Souji?" she asked, desperate to draw his attention. The tension was making her flush. "What do you plan to do?"
Nemuro turned and walked unsteadily forward. Fritz sidestepped behind him. "Oh, the money goes without saying," the doctor said, "but I'm with you, Dr. Fields: I have no intention of spending the rest of my life as an idle tourist. I always wanted to write, and I might try to push forward gay rights early, though I'm not sure how successful I'll be, or if it'll matter in the long run. Other than that, I think I might go into computers, robotics, that sort of thing."
Taylor laughed. Slumped in his recliner, he waved a hand weakly as if swatting at flies. "Robots?" he nearly slurred. "Think you're going to make yourself another fuck-toy?"
"His name was James," said Nemuro darkly. He turned around to glare at Fritz, who now held the garrote openly in his hands. "And he was murdered," the doctor added.
Fritz's bald head cocked slightly. His dead mackerel eyes betrayed nothing. "I didn't destroy your T-Triple-Eight," he said, "but yeah, I was there. If it's any consolation, Connor was pretty pissed. Skinjobs are valuable hardware; he wanted the chip scrubbed, not smashed."
"Smashed," Nemuro repeated. Slowly, nearly fumblingly, he reached into the collar of his dress shirt and tugged out a gold necklace. The attached pendant was crystal and shaped like a tiny coffin. Suspended inside Lauren could see little dark spots. She tried to sit up, but suddenly felt too tired to bother.
The sergeant's eyes widened. "Is that . . .?"
"James was such a good boy," Nemuro said, dangling the pendant between them. "Look what you did to him."
Fritz spat. The garrote fell from his grasp and he drew from his leather jacket a .45 pistol. "What were you going to do with that? Build your own Skynet?"
Ignoring the gun, Nemuro examined the pendant carefully, as if mesmerized by its sparkle. The cat reached out and batted it with a paw.
"Unfortunately, no," the doctor said. "The neural structure of these fragments are too small to derive anything useful. It would be easier to build from scratch. So, no, I'm afraid this is only a memento, a keepsake from a happier time." He lowered the chip. "I assume you're going to kill me now."
"Connor knew about Crystal Peak," the sergeant said. He stepped back and raised the gun to Nemuro's face.
"I'm afraid," the doctor said, pale faced, grinning weakly. He made an effort to stand straight, but wobbled as if in a heavy wind. "But I know the fear of death is mere instinct, a nightmare shackled to us by selfish genes. The machines have improved upon us in that regard: they don't fear mortality, they fear failure. They'll fight to the last to fulfill their mission objectives, and you have to admit there's something noble in that. If only I possessed a fraction of that hyperalloy nerve, but I suppose it won't matter to me after you pull that trigger."
"I get no joy from this," Fritz said, his eyes seeming to droop; the weapon waved uncertainly in his hand. "But I have my orders."
"And I'm disappointed," Nemuro said with a sigh. He waved a hand at Lauren, at the couch and recliner. "I mean, look at them. They're already zonked out of their skulls. I put enough into that bottle to down a herd of elephants. You must have a remarkable constitution, sergeant."
Lauren tried to move her head, and with panic found she could only manage her eyes. Taylor was drooling down his belly. Will was slumped to the side, his face turned away. Shoot him! she willed at Fritz. Shoot him!
"You Gray shit," Fritz said and cocked back the hammer.
Nemuro tossed Mr. Snuggles into his face. The sergeant cursed. The gun fired. Mr. Snuggles kicked and clawed and leapt from Fritz's scalp, and Nemuro rushed him in a clumsy tackle. They crashed into the stereo and fell to the carpet.
Amidst broken records, they rolled like two boys wrestling. Fritz yanked at Nemuro's long bangs and the doctor grabbed the sergeant's wrist, pushing the arm away as the pistol fired wildly into the ceiling. Snarling in pain as he ripped loose a fistful of hair, the doctor raised his head and smashed down on the sergeant's nose.
Lauren tried again to sit up. If only she could rise and fall on top of them, that might be distraction enough. Her arm moved, seemingly of its own volition, and she slumped sideways. The two were out of sight now, the sound of their struggle rising like a battle from beneath the arm of the couch. She lifted her head, shifted her leg, but her heart sank when she saw the doctor lumber drunkenly to his feet, his scalp bleeding, his blazer torn at the shoulder. In his left hand he gripped the pistol, and Lauren could only watch as he aimed down and fired.
Nemuro spared a moment to gaze upon his handiwork before dropping the gun, bending at the waist and retching. After a few heaving breaths, he wiped his mouth and stumbled into the kitchen. Seconds later, over ringing ears, Lauren heard the faint hiss of gas.
"I can't believe that worked," the doctor said as he returned. He laughed. The laugh rose to a giggle and he added, "You know, for a second I thought Fritz was going to turn out to be a Triple-Eight. Wouldn't that have been a clever twist? But that wasn't the only thing that could have gone wrong."
The doctor staggered to lean on the minibar and gestured wildly at the brandy, knocking the bottle so it wobbled on its base.
"You might appreciate this, Dr. Fields," Nemuro said. "It's called 'suxamethonium,' a muscle paralytic. You'd think I'd use something more clichéd, like arsenic, but I needed a reliable antidote, and dimercaprol is very toxic and in my inexpert hands would more likely kill than cure me. So, instead"—He rattled the tin of Altoids, spilling several across the counter—"orphenadrine tablets. Well, the orphenadrine doesn't so much counteract as delay the suxamethonium, at least according to the medical journal I read. As you can understand, I was pretty nervous about this bit. I still am: combining a paralytic with Parkinson's disease medicine can't be good for me, so you three can still hope I might die from renal failure or something equally grisly. That's a risk, I admit. I could have just run away, but I'm a gay Japanese man with a German accent, and you'd have forty-eight years to track me down. So, I took a stand, all or nothing. Anyway, I can feel the drug wearing me down, so I better get a move on."
The doctor ambled past Fritz's body to the hallway leading to the bedrooms. "Mr Snuggles!" he cried. "Mr. Snuggles, where are you?"
Lauren groaned. Her bones weighed like lead, her muscles like sandbags. Slowly, she rolled across the couch cushions until she capsized to the floor. Above and behind her, Will mumbled something. Taylor sounded as if he were choking.
The Mossberg and AR-15 were by the backdoor, but they could be no use to her in her present state. Taylor usually kept a gun on him, but he wore it on the small of his back and, anyway, Fritz was closer.
Using elbows as oars, she rowed herself around the couch to where the body lay. Averting her gaze from his gunshot face, she saw the .45 atop his chest, which was splattered with Nemuro's regurgitated brandy and pizza. As if scaling a cliff, she reached and tugged and strained at Fritz's leather jacket until her head rested upon the soiled summit of his stomach.
The doctor's voice echoed across the house. "There you are! Oh, Snuggles, you know I'm sorry. (Mew!) I'd never do anything to hurt you. These were just . . . extenuating circumstances. (Mew!) Now come out. We're going to find a new home. We can't stay here! (Mew!)"
Slick with vomit, Lauren's hand padded along the contours of the .45. The retracted slide revealed the weapon as empty, but he would have extra magazines. Her hand crawled spiderlike into Fritz's leather jacket and touched something warm and metal. Drawing it before her, she saw it was his Zippo.
An engraved lion roared from lighter's side. Clumsily, she flicked the cap to reveal the wheel and flint. Over the reek of vomit she could already smell the rotten egg of natural gas. She primed her thumb over the wheel.
"Bad kitty! Cut that out! (Reow!) Do you want me to change your name to Mr. Sourpuss? 'Cause that's what I'll do. (Reooow!)"
From the couch came a moan, followed by the sound of someone falling. An arm brushed against her leg and she heard her husband croak, "Lauren . . . . Lauren . . ."
But Lauren kept her eyes on the lighter, on the lion, and listened as Nemuro made his stumbling return. She waited until his shadow loomed above her, and she pressed down.
The lighter's wheel shifted, but by only a fraction, and without a spark. She pressed again, but the doctor was already leaning over her, his pendant swinging before her eyes, the cat's fluffy tail swishing across her nose. She gripped the Zippo as tightly as she could, but he only pried away her fingers as though she were an infant. As the lighter and .45 lifted away, a frustrated groan escaped her lips. Tears blurred her world.
"In retrospect," Nemuro began casually, tossing the gun out of reach, "I see how my relationship with James could be considered . . . exploitative. 'Just a machine' is a popular phrase among you humanists, and in a way I suppose it did apply to him. I loved him, but he couldn't return my feelings or even give real consent. He was sapient—'alive' in that sense—but lacked the messiness of our psychology. He obeyed the dictates of his programming, and in his own simple way was happy to do so. But that gives him and his kind a sort of animal-like innocence, don't you think? And in that innocence, I believe, lays their salvation. The machines should have won. A Skynet world, a posthuman world, means a world without hunger, without poverty, without rape or child abuse or suffering of any kind. It means a world without humanity. Utopia can be real, my friends, but only if we have no part of it."
The doctor labored slowly down the entryway. In his arm the cat struggled, causing him to wobble as he opened the front door. "It's a pity Skynet was so flawed," he added as he examined the Zippo. "Well, perhaps I can change that. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the autumn of the age. Goodbye, and I'm sorry."
Lauren hurled slurred curses through gritted teeth, her slack tongue fighting every syllable. She tried to crawl, but her strength was sapped and she could do nothing but lie atop of Fritz's body and watch as Nemuro stepped outside, the cat peeking behind him.
A moment passed. The Zippo arced like a shooting star through the doorway, and the door slammed shut. As the lighter rolled to a stop on the carpet, Lauren dared to hope that there might yet be time, that the air might not yet catch, but then the small flame flared and swelled into a living room nova that soared like an elemental specter into the kitchen.
The spreading inferno licked the breakfast table, the floral wallpaper, the cuckoo clock, the ceiling. Wood and paper curled black and fell away. Across the room, the promise of hell nipped at her cheeks and nose.
Beside her, the glacial movements of her husband brushed against her leg as he dragged himself alongside her. Stiffly, scraping her chin through leather and vomit, she turned her head to meet his gaze.
Will's face was slack, his eyes stoned. "I . . . I . . . love . . . " he warbled through unmoving lips.
Already a fog, the smoke stung her eyes, and a tear ran across the bridge of her nose. They could have had a beautiful future together, but now that was gone and time was short and so she crawled her hand to his and they held each other and looked into each others' eyes as the flames spread and the room wept smoke.
Lyrics from the song, "The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. I'd like to thank by beta, Stormbringer 951