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all the corpses stare back

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Ten sweeps. That's how long it takes for Damara Megido to lose her mind.

Ten sweeps following every timeline that might lead to success, going back to adjust the variables. Ten sweeps of watching her friends crawling slowly forward through the alpha timeline, watching them struggle and fight and tear each other down. Ten sweeps watching the team die when--again, again, again--it all goes wrong.

She is the most enthusiastic of the team when they go in. She has been given Time powers, the ability to go back and correct the timelines to keep them all safe. She can sense that all twelve of them will need to make it to the dwell point of a great choice, or they will all perish, and their world with them. She isn't sure where to go, but she's ready. She smiles the first time she jumps ahead, but when she gets to the end of the game, feeling like a dirty cheater, all she finds is bones. One of the smashed skulls has her horns, and crawling beetles lurk in the dry pit of its one visible eyesocket.

She throws up and returns to the group screaming, and doesn't attempt time travel again for a perigee. She's not sleeping. She's ignoring Rufioh, even though they promised to stay friends. He's hurt, but he understands she has to find the ectobiology thread of the timestream so she can keep them on the alpha timeline. She has explained it to him, but she stopped short of confessing that she can't find it anywhere, and the futures she finds are getting bloodier and more awful. For some reason--probably Game mechanics--she can't get any answers from their sprites. Her KangaSprite just makes a funny sort of machine noise and dissolves into pixels for a few moments when she asks for hints. The other sprites are no more informative. When she finally gives in to desperation and asks Meenah's gold-ringed OctoSprite about ectobiology, she gets the same funny electronic gulp-squeal and pixel storm reply, and knows it's no use. The pixels are green. What does that even mean?

Meenah just laughs and calls her an incompetent little dirtblood. Damara understands that word, dirtblood, but she does not show her anger. Meenah is a bully, and Damara will be better. She will show the Empress up. She will stop the taunting with her perfect performance at the role she was hatched for, unlike the fuchsia-blooded slacker. It's a tiny pearl of hostility, and she tries not to feed it, but it does grow.

She shudders and explores the timelines again. What she finds first dismays, then alarms her.

They make mistakes. So many stupid, deadly mistakes. She gets used to dead friends fast. A lot of the time she watches them die, but sometimes she goes in blind, checking for results on the darkest outreaches, looking for a doomed self who knows something. None of them ever come to her, and she doesn't understand why.

The mistakes become more violent as they progress through their echeladders. Damara jumps ahead and finds them, still and dead, their bodies rarely intact. The combination of Kankri and Meenah's kernel prototypings have given most of the enemy monsters horrific scissor claws. She finds Porrim split open, hair a fan of crusted jade and glossy black in the dirt. There are bugs in her mouth. Damara clenches her hands until her claws bite into her palms and refuses to scream. This is her job. It's not just about showing Meenah up. It's about keeping everyone safe from… that.

She wonders if she will ever get used to the filmed-over eyes of her dead friends. She could just not look, she supposes, but she has to know what went wrong. And so come the corpses: disgraced in every conceivable way, scattered in great chunks across battlefields that swarm with imps the size of hives. There are so many ways for her friends to lose this Game. Dungeon hazards, poisons, sadistic little booby traps.

She saves them all from the pit on her second try, but this is the timeline where poor Latula's eyes are torn out by a thing like a cat with a bundle of snakes in its extra mouth, teal and the remains of her eyes streaking down her cheeks. Another jump, and she's fine--until her teeth and skull are obliterated with one punch from an overshadowing Spectre that has infested Horuss. Next is the timeline where Damara manages to stop them letting Rufioh die on the bridge of spears, but Kurloz doesn't pick up the gem box fast enough and it vanishes, and now Mituna is the one who gets possessed by the Beast. That's the one where he burns Meulin to a crackled black and green mass that still breathes--raggedly--for an hour until Kurloz bows over her body and does something so it's finally over. No one says anything about it but they're all grateful that he did it, so they wouldn't have to. Damara can empathize. The things she's seen may have stopped being shocking the way they were, but they will always be terrifying.

Damara doesn't stay to watch them mourn. She goes back to the version of her friends who have a future, tells herself the doomed ones don't count, not really, they're a game mechanic. That's all. She warns them of the gem box trick and creates a timeline where they don't just die, they die running from a hyerdolich whose attack is programmed to coincide with them stepping off the bridge of spears. All of them are swept into its pit of knives, except her. Damara goes back again, forward again, gets the sword to Kurloz in time, and it almost works except this time Meenah and Kankri have a struggle over who claims the experience points and it stalls them getting out of the palace for just a few seconds and oh, here it comes, the rain of acid that fries both Captor and Meulin, and that's another failure to fix, and another, and another, all the while looking for the fucking ectobiology thread. She completes a stable time loop for the first time and cries from the relief. It doesn't last as long as the regret.

Fix one tiny mistake, and watch the bodies pile up. She gets everyone safely through their first two perigees and it's going fine, absolutely fine, until she feels that terrible slamming door sensation that means a doomed timeline. Everyone is about to be infected with a virus, released by yet another doomsday machine. Captor sees it coming just in time to shout, and even gets off a blast with his psionics to try and disable the machine before he falls down, coughing. She launches herself into the air, high above the spray, and jumps backward from her screaming friends as the gas cloud settles down over them. They aren't her friends anymore, just a doomed timeline. Her real friends are still okay.

There is still no sign of the ectobiology timeline. It's not a dead game, she tells herself. Maybe a glitch, but I can find it. She cries for hours and she doesn't know why. Nothing special will happen in that timeline, they just get sick and die. Maybe they'll get Not-real-Kurloz to put them out of their misery first.

She just can't stop the tears.

The next attack works, but for no reason at all--no fucking reason--she feels the flow of time go sour again, the future gated against them. Another fucking dead end, with no one even bruised. It happens. More important is finding the ectobiology thread. She leaves them to rest.

She grinds by fighting the same boss over and over. She's killed the Galmorth so many times she can smell the beast's rank piss stench in her hair and her clothes are soaked in dried blood that's been beaten back into softness through constant wear. She is the strongest of them all, now, but it's not enough.

She doesn't know enough about her abilities yet. This is not a doomed session. She can fix this.

She levels up enough to gain a new power: locating multiple copies. This will help, she thinks.She gathers hundreds of Damaras from doomed timelines and holds a fact-gathering meeting before she sends the others back off to seek a timestream that leads to the ectobiology lab.

She wonders what they're supposed to even do in a lab that's so important to finish the game. Test things on mice? Invent something to kill the King? She doesn't know, only that it's a requirement for completion of their Session.

The Damaras stay gone for weeks. Only two come back, visibly taller, haunted, arm-in-arm. One has hacked her hair down to a ragged fuzz. The other is weeping. They refuse to answer questions. They just want to say goodbye. They found an ending they liked, and no, she can't come. They tell her to await the word of the green, whatever that means, and then they vanish together. She throws her music boxes through the window behind where they had been standing. She will try teaming up with her clones many more times, collecting whole armies of Damaras, but the older ones hide from her or refuse to speak to her, and the younger ones don't return. She asks KangaSprite where they go, and gets a squeal of static and more acid green pixels.

There is nothing wrong with their session. It is winnable, and she can find the way. She wishes this could be someone else's job. Kankri's Blood power, for example, is kind of neat, if a little weird. And it's not central to the Game. She could really use a break right about now, but she can't relax for all the dreams.

Three perigees in and now she can finally sleep again, a little, but she's having nightmares every time she closes her eyes. All she sees around her in her dreams is piles of meat. This may be because whenever she wakes up, she's jumping a week ahead to find another variation on the tangled corpse panorama, all her friends piled in heaps their gray flesh mottled blue and brown and green, hands with curled fingers stiffened in death and claws that will never grow another micron. She steps in the first of this timeline's bodies--Meenah, and how did she not see the shape of the body in the fog, stupid, stupid--and after burning her clothes and scrubbing herself bloody she never fails again to watch where she steps in the failed timelines where it is too dark to see.

She doesn't look at corpse faces. She thinks she may go mad if she does. She tries not to look at their hands, either, when the hands are still attached.

This goes on for a long, long time.

Two perigees into the session, and the frustration is building. Everyone is banding together to try and unlock the Frog Golem from its glass prison. For some reason, the reward is a DNA code. The yellowblooded shithead can't blast it open. Horuss breaks a knuckle on it. Damara, playing along, drop a mountain peak on it. There's not a scratch on the glass case. It's no use; the Frog Golem puzzle has to be sung to by the Space player, but if she tells them before they figure it out, it will end in twelve more piles of reeking meat to step over. Some of them don't even look like they came from a troll once they're off the bone, but of course, the color gives their identities away.

She stops eating meat.

She stops eating anything.

She lives on potions, hating that ozone taste, glad it's nothing biological that will rot and decay inside her. She keeps a large stock for whenever she can't go on, which is often. This is the sweep she duplicates herself and asks for that one awful favor she can never have, the favor that never gets granted in any timeline. The duplicate tells her, it's not your time. So she strangles herself. That's the last body Damara Megido buries, and she does it without her powers. She'll never speak of it to anyone, in any language. She has learned Common Alternian during her travels. She particularly likes the swearing.

Four sweeps into Damara's Game, two sweeps into the alpha timeline, and Damara's starting to stay away more and more from the others. There's the pain of seeing Rufio and feeling nothing but sick horror, but there's something else. Everyone looks so small now. Just so fucking soft and young and stupid, and she thinks: are they my friends anymore, really? Do they even know me, or just the person I thought I was when I was their age?

A thousand thousand times, she tries to fix the timeline to make this thing winnable, but finds only what she comes to think of as the Future of Corpses. She gets used to the sight of her own ragged ashen skin peeling away in rags, the curve of pale exposed backs tinted in all the different colors of her team's spoiling blood, the way they start puffing obscenely under their too-tight clothing. Sometimes she pops in a century late, and it's just empty landscapes with roaming monsters. She explores.

She comes back to the team session and feels like she may finally snap when Meenah sniffs the air and tells her she smells like something died, no wonder Rufioh dumped her nasty ass. Damara almost dooms the timeline then and there by flinging a nearby fan of crystals through Meenah's face.

It's a sweep into the session, but Damara has been running the timelines for five. She hasn't told them anything yet, but Mituna is the Doom player. He stares at her and grinds his teeth. He stops what he's doing when she comes in, glares. Like they share a secret.

He knows nothing, she thinks. He is nothing. Just a stupid child with his constant droning on about how they are all in a dead session. She could kill him for that. Or just drop something on his head. Anything to shut his mopey fucking mouth. She likes Latula, she really does, but she's beginning to realize Captor is an asshole who doesn't respect the work she's been doing to keep his stupid prophecy from coming true. All the times she's saved his half-functioning ass from disaster, and how does he repay it? By scaring her to death. He's worth less than his thousands of doomed selves. At least they know how to shut the fuck up.

Damara finally finds the answer to the Future of Corpses one long midafternoon when she's so tired, all she wants is to go to sleep and never wake up. She curls up under the gem trees outside her transported hive and closes her eyes, hoping for a few hours of blankness. Anything for some relief. And for once, she doesn't have nightmares of crab-clawed dragons and glitching game constructs. It's a peaceful, green dream. She is visited by an older version of herself, old enough that her horns are two immense spirals and her hair a ragged cape to the floor. Her eyes are green as acid, and she has a smile like a grinning skull. She tells her younger self that the key to unlocking the next level is Rufioh. Green light shines down on her from a moon she's never seen on any of the Planets, and she just knows. Rufioh is the way. Her course is finally clear, and when she wakes, she immediately sends for him, asks him to meet her in the forest of Quartz to talk about their friendship. She settles into the trees and waits.

When he comes along down the path, looking so young and carefree she could kiss him or rip his face off with her bare hands, she snaps his lying, cheating neck with a flare of psionics, and feels the barrier of their future finally release even as the stupid child that was her boyfriend folds up and collapses into the pine needles. The future opens up to possibilities beyond the piles of stinking bodies, and it feels so good.

She leaves him to whatever rescue awaits. It's not her problem. She knows he'll be fine, but his part in this is done, and she'll never know why she had to do it. She doesn't even care that she'll be blamed. It doesn't matter, she could tell them. It was the right time. But no. They wouldn't understand. Even though she learned their language, they'll never be able to speak Time.

She goes back out to to search for their way out. Because she still cares, even if she has to make more sacrifices. The green voice in her dreams whispers that in the end, what matters is getting them out. Anything she has to do is in the name of saving their session.

Damara knows the others have talked about culling her. She knows they can't take the risk of putting their time player out of commission. They intend to get Serket to heal her mind. Meenah has a sneer in her voice as she asks why Damara is always shaking these days. Why she's losing her hair in visible patches. Is she feeling a little guilty about a certain accident in a certain forest? She draws out the word "accident".

Damara eavesdrops for a while before she shifts into a beta timeline where everyone has been annihilated by a bloodwrack. She prefers the company of the dead. She doesn't know how long she stays. A while, until the strange coldness goes away.

They take her back, albeit at arm's length. She pleads ignorance, submits to a scan by Aranea and imagines acid green fog filling the inside of her skull, crowding out all the angry thoughts. Aranea frowns and says she supposes Damara must be better. Rufioh avoids her, and Horuss has to leave the room when she comes in. She wonders if her shabby appearance and filthy hair offend his highblood sensibilities.

Kurloz and Meulin drop in on her a few times, and she notices something troubling. If she stares at them long enough, their faces start to look like how they look after a week of being dead. Leijon's got a certain putrefying under rainy skies look, soggy and moldering. Kurloz has eyes like black alien starfields full of dim, unfamiliar constellations. Their bloated tongues poke out from swollen lips, mushing their faces into comical teasing expressions. Then she blinks, and it's gone. It's strange, how faces move when you are alive. She's become so used to the other kind that it's unsettling to be with their living counterparts. A little eerie, even.

She used to dig them graves, at the start of the Game. She used to have that kind of grief in her, she used to not know what the dead faces of her friends looked like. Now she doesn't care if she looks or not, they just get in the way of creating the little stable paradoxes that keep their game going, long after the actual players begin to stall out. But it's less and less important, because… well, because nothing. Just do your job, she thinks, and calls

The ninth sweep here, the third sweep there, whatever, it's all pointless anyway. This is where Damara starts having to force herself to go back to the end of the timeline where she belongs. Belonged. Whatever. This is the sweep she tries to mend things. She wants to tell everyone the truth, that she's lost, that she can't find the way out. But before she can, Meenah strolls into the meeting place, a clearing in her own land, already boiling over with rage. They'd be out of this hellhole by now, the Empress says, if Damara would spend a little more time on the "ecto thing" and less time fucking around playing with herself and crippling people. Before Damara can stop herself, she's on Meenah, clawing, punching. Biting. Biting. Chewing.

Fuchsia blood cascades down her chin and the front of her too-small blouse, on her hands. The ruins of Meenah Peixes snuffle agonal gasps through a broken nose, her gill slits seeping a froth of pink bubbles. Damara stares down at this stupid child, still writhing as if she thinks she can ever rise up again. Damara swallows, licks her lips, likes the taste. She admires the crescents of gray skin gathered beneath her claws. Meenah's blood is the first thing she's eaten since the Future of Corpses, and it's so green--

--no, not green, that is not the word she wants, she means to think the word vibrant. Alive.

This is the first timeline where Damara has been the one to snap. It was bound to happen to her in due time, really. But she has a feeling they'll kill her for this. Her view of the future is curiously blocked past this point. She's been hoping...

She hears footsteps in the doorway and a gasp. Captor and Pyrope come stumbling into the clearing. He screams, she covers her mouth with her hands. They both turn and flee, and she lets them go.

She's going to fix this, she has to take it back. She closes her eyes and readies her melody prisms to spin back and undo what she's just done, and--

She sees green.

The insides of her eyes are glowing as bright as a sun, but green. The same color as the construct glitches. The same green as the dream.

A voice from nowhere, guttural and snarling, tells her she is finally worthy. It tells her what she needs to do, and that she needs to hurry.

She leaves the limp body of Meenah Peixes in the quest cocoon, making sure she won't roll off in her dying spasms, and returns to her Planet. She feels something that is not exactly joy. This is it. This is the timeline where she finally, finally does the right thing.

The next morning, under a canopy of gem trees, she finds the quest cocoon with her symbol on it, right where the green light told her to look for it. She sits on the lip of the cocoon and looks up through the emerald leaves as they chime in a faint breeze. The chimes sound like a green voice, hissing her name.

Another Damara steps out, naked and smiling, from behind the emerald tree. She traces one hand along its stone bark and smiles. Her skin is spattered in rainbows, dripping blood, and her smile is cruel. Her eyes flash green, blank green, the color of acid slime. Glitch-eyes.

"You're the first adult me I've been able to find that wasn't in a dream," Damara says. "Where have you been? What future are you from? Why didn't you come sooner?"

"Damara," the Glitch-Damara says, and its voice is pure electronic distortion, a squelching feedback tone that has nothing to do with a living person, "there is no future, Damara. Your game is broken, and you are damned. I have come to help you quit, that you might prepare the way for the Eater."

The true Damara begins to giggle, because of course she's known all along, ever since the first time her dead lusus spoke to her in this same voice, hasn't she? But oh, it's just so fucking funny that she's only admitting it now, after all she's done. After all she's become.

This is the last day of her tenth sweep, and this is the moment Damara Megido finally admits that it's hopeless. Something inside lets go and her chest goes light and free and she feels nothing but relief. No doubt, no shame, nothing. Even regret is too much work. The Glitch-Damara slips a skeletal hand up under Damara's chin, cups her cheek. "Lie down, you poor tired thing," she says, "And I will show you emptiness and silence."

Her teeth are the sharp white of a bone shard, too big for anything's mouth, anything that can't distort and stretch, a beast's leering grin. It hurts, but the bite brings the ecstacy of surrender. At last, Damara understands what it's all worth.

This is the first day of her eleventh sweep. The Game session has stalled at nearly three sweeps. When Damara Megido floats gently down to the ground to meet the eleven other players, arranged around her in a semi-circle, she comes among them as a hidden God. She knows what has been, and what will be, what may be, and what must be--and she gives not a single fuck for any of it.

The other players take in the sight of her in her new, clean blouse, her long and sharply pleated skirt, her shoes polished to a high shine, her dainty white socks. Her hair has been brushed for the first time in sweeps and it is glossy and full and she is beautiful. She remembers looking at all of these people once with the same wary amazement, admiring their strength and their wits and their bravery. She remembers loving them enough to fight. She can't understand how she could ever have wasted her time on these creatures.

They all look wrong. Zahhak and Captor and Leijon and Ampora, Makara, Maryam, Serket and Pyrope and Vantas and Peixes (so clean and pretty in her fresh godhood and her pixie wings). Even Nitram with his joke of a horse body is little more than a shambling, wet-mouthed horror. Damara would be afraid of them, if He hadn't revealed unto her the truth about futility. Her contempt wars with utter, skin-crawling horror at the wrongness of them, and the contempt wins. She speaks.

"こんばんは、みんな。

私はあなたが存在のこのジョークを終了し、火災や痛みで一緒に死ぬことをあなたのすべてを非難する手助けすることを選択しました。私はあなたの肉は全く消滅の聖なる光であなたの骨から分離ですることは非常に楽しいものになるはず。おもしろいですね?"

She is sickened by all those warm bodies moving around, their awful jerking movements as their muscles pull and stretch to carry their flesh and its precious slop of throbbing, gurgling organs through space. They totter on bone pedestals, resisting gravity. The Nitram-thing makes a noise. "Um, Damara? Are you… okay?" Its fleshy lips purse in a mockery of concern. Half of the other creatures are muttering, moist tongues flapping and licking indecently at the backs of their white teeth. Their lips stretch and squirm and make vile little popping sounds, a bestial imitation of words. "Megido, what the frick? Have you gone nuts?"

"I NO UNDERSTAND," she sneers, and flips off the thing in the teal body-suit. Its face looks terribly lifelike, but she is not convinced. "SO SORRY."

Eleven pairs of frightened eyes widen as, for the first time in Damara Megido's long, long session, the corpses stare back.

And it is disgusting.