Title: We All Fall Down
Author: Tara Avery
Acknowledgements: For the bloodthirsty Virginians. Thanks to Alicia K, Sarah Ellen Parsons and M. Sebasky, for beta. For Sabine, CazQ, wen, Isahunter and Jesemie's Evil Twin who have all ended the world differently, and broken my heart in doing so.
The world burns.
The sky has been the same shade of red-orange for days, like a ruddy sunset glowing on every horizon. Ash falls like dark rain, staining everything it touches with sooty dark. She looks out periodically but sees nothing different, nothing to let her know anything has changed for the better.
She can do nothing but wait. Even though she keeps the windows closed tightly the walls, the white furniture, everything is dark with ash. She thinks it's a fault in the ventilation system. It is a cruel reminder that nothing is sacred, nothing is safe.
After the first day, she stopped trying to scrub her world clean. Her knuckles are still raw, cracked. Even what little running water she has is black.
The first day was filled with screams. No one knew what was going on, of course. The sky filled with darkness so deep it blotted out the sun. People ran outside to take pictures, and others, to keep their eyes safe, peered at the dying sun through little pinhole-pricked cards.
Everyone who was outside died. She thinks probably the people inside died as well -- she just wasn't one of them. Some had enough time to scream, but most didn't. There one minute and gone the next, in the space of a heartbeat and a scream.
She had been at home, having just returned from a doctor's appointment. Everything's fine, Doctor Scully, nothing to worry about. She remembers that she was just about to press the blinking light on the answering machine when the world screamed and went dark.
She also remembers fretting about the unheard messages. One of them could have been from him. It doesn't matter anymore. Most of the world is dead. She thinks these words but they don't strike her as anything approaching reality. They are just words. She doesn't think of the laughing children at the doctor's office, or the harried mothers trying to fit too many things into a few short hours. She doesn't think of her own mother, perhaps out gardening when the darkness struck. She doesn't allow herself to think that if he had been alive to leave her a message, he probably wouldn't be alive now. If he was alive, he would have found a way to come to her. He promised her that.
She thinks instead of how nothing she had known could ever have prepared her for this. She had been half-prepared for giant ships to come sweeping out of the sky -- she just had not expected anything so soon. But there were no ships. There was no preamble, no foreplay. She was not prepared for the world to die in a sudden burst of fire, assailants unseen. She was not prepared to face this alone.
Within the walls of her home she lives her life as usual. She makes salad because it doesn't require cooking, although the vegetables are getting a little soft. The lettuce is limp, and she has no cold water to soak it in. For some reason this distresses her. Her stomach aches all the time.
She sleeps in the baby's room, curled up beside the empty bassinet that used to be white. She forgets what white looks like.
She's lost count of how many days it's been.
Walls that used to be lemon yellow are marred with dusty black splotches, which flutter across the walls like dark butterflies. She never liked butterflies much. She was always a little disturbed by the radical change from pupae to adult. Something confined to the ground could not spontaneously become something that could fly. It wasn't scientific enough for her. It was a little magical.
She feels like a caterpillar now, a chrysalis, curled up around her swollen stomach on the black floor. Her cocoon is her apartment. Sweat drips down her face, even though it should be fall, it should be getting cold. There should be a cold breeze. Snow is white. She longs to see the snow. In the spring she will turn into a butterfly and fly away.
She wants to be brave. She wants to escape this madness. She wants to rage. Instead she is hollow, limp, drained. Her body betrays her. She finds it hard to breathe the sooty air. It takes too much energy to move from one room to another.
The back of her neck throbs. She knows it is only a matter of time until they find her.
She closes her eyes and waits for spring.
From a world of ice, he walks into a world of fire. He recognizes nothing. Skylines are different. The sky is no longer blue.
He is too late.
Each step he takes grows heavier and heavier. There is nothing here to save. An empty Coke can sits in the gutter, blackened but still recognizable. Burned out husks of cars scatter the streets, forgotten like toys. The silence of the streets is broken only by the distant crack of beams as another house falls down.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
"We never stood a chance," he whispers aloud. His voice echoes along the empty street. Another beam cracks, this one closer. He feels the shudder under his feet as the building crumbles.
He doesn't let himself check the buildings, because he knows what he'll see. Just bodies. Just empty husks, like the cars. He doesn't want to walk anywhere he knows, because he's afraid he'll start recognizing buildings, start recognizing bodies.
There is one body he has to find, and then he can rest.
He coughs as a hot wind blows ash into his face. Unbidden, the image of a crematorium forms in his mind. His whole world has become a crematorium. A continent-sized concentration camp.
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
He keeps walking. There is nothing else he can do.
When he grows tired he finds a bench and sits. He thinks this might have been a nice neighborhood, before. The twisted remains of a jungle-gym stand nearby, half-buried in sand and glass. He hopes there were no children playing on it. Quick, though. There's something to be said for a quick death.
He refuses to count the dead. He refuses to think of the faces and places and friends he will never see again. He wonders if the Gunmen saw it coming, if they escaped unharmed. Probably not. The technology the invaders used was like nothing on earth. It was not a simple electromagnetic pulse or nuclear bomb. It was nothing that could be defended against. It was nothing humankind could ever have prepared for.
He wonders if there are any survivors at all.
They must have been tired of waiting, he thinks. Death instead of colonization. End the threat before it can truly become a threat.
Looking around him he wonders how they could ever have imagined the planet Earth a threat at all.
A sudden flash catches his eye -- a glint. He focuses on it and sees an improbable little dragonfly pushing itself through the air. As he watches, it shudders, pauses, wings immobile. He reaches out to it, but before it lands in his hand, it manages to pull itself up. The wings beat, glittering red and gold in the light of the fires. He wants to catch it in a glass as a reminder that once there was life. Once there was more than smoke and ash and death.
It moves on, sluggish but alive, and he is filled with something akin to hope.
She dreams. She dreams of blood and fire, of a red sky and a red ocean. The sky opens up and dead bodies rain down, smothering everything with the weight of a billion corpses.
She dreams that the baby comes early, and that she doesn't know what to do. "I'm a pathologist," she tells it, while it squirms weakly, too tiny to cry. Little lungs unequipped to breathe clean air struggle with ashes. "I don't know what to do with living things." She hugs the little baby to her breast and breathes, "I don't know what to do with living things."
I'm a pathologist. I can cut you up when you're dead, but all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put you back together again.
She dreams of yellow rooms going up in smoke, and of her mother, dying in the rosebushes while the fires rage overhead. She dreams of butterflies, a million black butterflies, whose beating wings sound like voices screaming.
She dreams he comes too late.
When night falls the sky is a darker, more violent red. There is no moon, but he has no problem finding his way. The landmarks are familiar now; he knows where he is. He knows he is near. This place is farther from the center of destruction -- buildings are whole. The streets are still silent, however.
Here he finds reminders of life: little pieces of cardboard, pin-pricked; a child's doll forgotten in the middle of the street, blonde curls ratty with soot; a set of car keys. He closes his eyes. It's more painful to see these small inanimate objects than he's capable of bearing.
He finds her building at last; sees her car parked outside. He had half-thought she might be at work when it happened, but decided against going there. He did not want to see those familiar halls empty, familiar offices with familiar corpses. He didn't want to apologize to them.
He didn't want to admit to them that he was wrong. Nothing he could ever have said or done would have saved them from this.
He opens the door to her building with trepidation. He knows what he'll find, but he's not sure he can stand it. His only comfort is that knowledge will bring rest.
Instead of a corpse, he finds her huddled on the floor in a pool of blood, rocking an empty stomach. He is filled with joy until she looks up at him with wounded eyes, eyes that have seen too much, eyes empty of recognition.
"I thought it was only a dream," she says in his general direction, as recognition slowly dawns in her eyes. Instead of joy or relief, her voice remains hollow. "I thought you wouldn't come."
"I told you I would come back to you."
Her face crumples. "You're too late."
"Scully, you're alive--"
"You're too late!" she screams. It is a sound unlike any either have ever heard before. They are both silent in the aftermath, while the echoes of her scream reverberate through the empty apartment, the empty street.
He takes a step closer, trying to see where the blood is coming from, trying to save her. She closes her eyes. "After everything we've seen, and everything we've done, it's not worth it, Mulder. Not after this. Not in a world full of ghosts. I can't live in a world of ghosts, not even for you. Not even for you."
For the first time, he notices that the room is set up like a nursery. There are mottled teddy-bears on a rocking chair, and a mobile of stars and moons and comets hangs above a bassinet. There is blood everywhere: the floor, Scully, the bassinet.
The bassinet isn't empty. Scully continues to rock, back and forth, back and forth, shaking her head. A tiny red face peers up at him from the cradle, silent. It looks so perfect. He reaches down, and his hand is so much bigger than the little face.
The body is cold, unmoving. Ashes, like black tears, rest on the baby's cheeks.
"This isn't your fault, Scully," he says. He is surprised at how small the baby is. The hands and the fingernails and the little tiny feet -- the whole infant fits into the cup of his hands. This is too much. He feels as though he is watching himself from a great distance. He should be screaming, weeping, laughing. He should be doing something, anything.
Instead he asks quietly, "When?"
Her voice is broken, scattered. "I thought I was dreaming."
"It's not your fault."
She says nothing.
"We have to leave, Scully. We have to get out of here."
"I'm not leaving." The words are spoken clearly. He can hear traces of the woman he knew in those words.
"We have to. They'll find us here. We have each other. We have to survive!"
"Survive for what?" She looks up at him and smiles. It's a cruel smile, twisted inward. It hurts him to see her so broken. "They'll find us wherever we go. I don't have the strength for this. No more running."
"Scully--" he protests, realizing how pale she is, how small. She's curling up inside herself, like a wisp of rice paper caught in a flame.
She shakes her head again. "What's the point? There's nothing left to run *to*. We failed, Mulder. Whatever it was we were supposed to be doing, whatever it was we were supposed to be saving -- we *failed*. I have a chip in my neck. They will be coming to find me. I'm bleeding, Mulder. I'll be dead before they come. You still have time, but this is where I draw the line. Everyone is dead. My pain will not save anymore lives. No more running. No more fighting. This is the end."
He looks down into the face of this dead child and sees truth there.
He lays the baby back in the bassinet. He can rest now.
Ashes, ashes we all fall down.
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Author's Note: For any of you familiar with her work, this story was heavily influenced by Sarah Slean's "I Want to be Brave". Virginia, this is my humble addition to the Pact. Thanks for reading.