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What Dreams May Come


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With her placement test finished, if not the way she would have liked, and her body and mind exhausted, coming back to the dorm was a welcome relief for Erin. The test had taken longer than she thought, into the dinner hour, and Alex was nowhere to be seen. Erin figured she'd probably gone off to eat, but the idea of heading out to the cafeteria was overwhelming. She crawled under the bed and pulled out the box of pilfered granola bars and fruit cups she'd been collecting. It was supposed to be for an emergency, but she would replenish it later. Erin ate two granola bars, then crawled into her bunk and pulled the covers over her head. Despite her exhaustion, sleep was a long time in coming, but eventually her busy mind shut down and she fell deeply asleep.

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Alex showed up to her rooms, later than usual as she'd stopped to help Mike in the common room with one of his assignments but she was quiet as she opened the door. Although Erin rarely slept, Alex was always careful to assume that her roommate might be sleeping any given night. For once, she was glad for the forethought, as Erin was already unconcious as she walked in the room. Alex went through the motions, throwing the bolt on their bedroom as she always did when she managed to be the last one home, kicked off her sneakers and settled in for about five minutes of meditation to center herself before she finished undressing and slipped into her own bunk.

Usually, she spent more time centering her thoughts before bed, but the day had been a long one and she was tired enough that she went through only the bare minimum of her nightly routine before she crawled under her day-glo bed spread and snuggled down for the night.

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Alex's dreams started out as the usual melange of a mind settling into sleep. Replaying fragments of the day, walking down familiar corridors, half-heard snatches of conversation as her busy brain began to process all the information she'd gathered during her waking hours.After that, though, instead of taking the familiar route into the world of her imaginative dreams, her mind wandered further afield. Something was pulling at her, some strong emotion from close by, attracting her interest the way a bright light could distract a moth from the moon. Distress, anger, despair, a confusing tangle of feelings that seemed to demand closer investigation. As Alex meandered down the path that led outside the hallways of her own psyche, she could sense things around her beginning to change.

The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was overwhelming and horrendous, more acrid than a fridge full of rotting food, fouler than any garbage dump a human mind had dreamed. Even as she wondered what it was, the answer insinuated itself into her consciousness. It was death, hundreds of millions of dead human bodies, rotting in the open air, along with all the food that had once sustained them, the corpses of animals they'd loved, and most of the possessions they'd held dear. This world was full of death, and the air itself was choking on it.

As though that knowledge was a key clicking in a lock, suddenly Alex found herself immersed in this world. It was evening, nearly dusk, and the acrid wind was in her face as she bounced along in the back of a moving jeep. She recognized Erin in the front seat, a younger Erin than the one she knew, smaller in stature and softer in the face, maybe fourteen years old. She was driving with both hands on the wheel and her eyes trained on the empty interstate ahead of them. In the front passenger seat was a large lump covered with a dirty My Little Pony blanket. Erin didn't seem to realize she had company.

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Alex glanced around, disoriented and confused, even as she tried to figure out where she was. It took her a few moments to realize that she'd sank herself into Erin's conciousness and internally Alex winced. She hadn't wandered into someone else's thoughts in years. She pushed the guilt aside and eased over to the seat to peer out the window, one hand pressed to the grimy surface. She took a moment to focus and change her pjs into something more world-appropriate. Alex had the strength of mind that she could have ripped herself out of the nightmare but not only would that have shattered this dream, it could have hurt Erin's vulnerable brain. Experience told Alex that the safest thing to do was to go along for the ride and appologize profusely in the morning.

"Uhm, where are we going?" Alex asked after she'd gotten her bearings.

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Erin spared her a glance, but didn't seem surprised to have her along. That was often the case in dreams, the dreamer's mind merely smoothed out the wrinkles in any strange elements that appeared. "Albuquerque," she replied shortly, adjusting her hands on the wheel. "It's the closest big city, there are hospitals there. Maybe medicine... something." She took her eyes off the road for a moment to focus on the blanket-wrapped bundle in the front seat. It was silent for a moment, then something under it twitched and made a moan that sounded human. Erin pursed her lips and drove faster. "It's always too late." Around them, the scenery was blurry, red-brown desert. Only the road ahead was sharp, almost hyperfocused, looking like a photograph that had been manipulated by an amateur.

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Alex pursed her lips and gave the moaning bundle a consternated look. She had a feeling none of this was going to end well, let alone pleasantly. She hoped that Erin would wake up quickly but this wasn't really a dream fragment and her presence only seemed to solidify the dream's existance.

"Oh, well, that makes sense." Alex replied, fiddling with the edge of her frayed shirt. "Well, if time's of the essence, we could try stopping along the way at like a clinic, maybe? Most people don't know that a lot of urgent care places have a small medical locker. They might not have been raided 'cause of that. I mean, just if we see one first."

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"It's not worth it," Erin said shortly. "Most of them are empty from the flu anyway, and what's left isn't worth fighting for. It has to be a hospital, a big one. I keep telling myself that maybe there are going to be people at this next one, that someone has to be alive somewhere, but there NEVER IS! There's no one! How can it have happened this way?" The steering wheel flexed under her hands and made a dangerous-sounding noise before Erin got control of herself. "I don't know what to do," she said more softly. "Just hang on, bunny, we're almost there."

Buildings were suddenly popping up around them, sprouting like plants from the landscape and filling the windows, even as the blanked-wrapped bundle moaned again. The streets were littered with piles of trash, Alex thought at first, but as they got closer, she saw they were corpses. Most of them had been dead a long time, skeletonized in the heat, eaten at by animals, bones torn and scattered. Here and there were piles of bodies, often at the front of churches or police stations. Feral animals wandered the street. As they drove on, she began to catch glimpses of movement up ahead, big things, bipedal things, like living people, walking around.

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Alex began to doubt that even a big hospital would be able to cope with a catastrophe of this order and she suspected that Erin knew it as well so she didn't say anything. Her telepathic abilities were practically useless except for whole-sale manipulation of the dream itself. As this was all within Erin's head, short of changing the dream, she was limited to Erin's memory of her perceptions of the event. However, Alex still had her own personal knowledge. As she glanced around at the break down of society, she began to categorize her understanding of the world. Erin had mentioned a flu, which had clearly been both highly contagious and relatively lethal. The dead infront of the churches didn't surprise Alex, people often sought comfort from religion when science began to fail. The gathering at police stations, however, meant that there had been a physical threat as well. Bio-terrorism?

The dead had been reduced to skeletons, but the animal activity made that data less useful. Alex's rough timeline based on the states of decomposition of the bodies, and the build up which meant an entire breakdown of the society in a very short period of time. Two to three weeks, maybe? Which placed the lethality of the virus at above ninety percent.

Alex thanked Mike's love of horror movies that scared her stupid when she glanced at the wandering people. No sane person would be strolling about, not when so many clearly sought shelter, so... "...zombies?"

The word came out in a squeak.

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"Always around the hospitals," Erin agreed. "Some just didn't leave after they got changed. Some just figured out that it's where the bodies are. Oh god, how will we ever get through?" They were suddenly in front of a tall hospital building, in the middle of a scene of wreckage and desolation. An ambulance had crashed into the emergency bay and was still wedged there, its back doors lolling open and ruined supplied spilling out. A short way away was a ruined gurney that looked like it had been torn out of the vehicle for its contents. A skeletonized hand was still strapped to the side, and the white mattress was soaked an old, rusty red, but there was no other sign of the former occupant. In fact, behind the hand, a bird's nest hand been built, with the bone fingers holding it in place.

Erin must have noticed all these things sometime, if she wasn't making them up from whole cloth as she went, but she wasn't paying any attention just now. Instead, she threw the jeep into park and unbuckled her seatbelt, then leaned over, moving the blanket for the first time. There was a little girl under it, Alex saw, with dark hair like Erin's and a strong similarity to the man in Erin's dresser photo. She was Megan, the understanding filtered in as Alex watched. Megan was Erin's little sister, and they were all that was left. Something was obviously horribly wrong with Megan, and it didn't seem like any flu. Her head was bandaged, and her arm, and her midriff under her torn shirt, all with bandages that were already stained with blood. Her eyes, half-open, didn't seem able to focus. "Erin," she moaned, trying to lift her head and unable to do that, either. "Hurts so much. Why did you let me fall?"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Erin murmured again and again, trying futilely to fix the bandages as new blood welled and seeped underneath them. "I'm going to get you medicine," she promised. "It'll make you feel better." She covered Megan with the blanket again, then slid out of the car. There was a lot of movement from within the hospital, shadowy forms behind the broken frosted glass. Erin looked at Alex, her face set. "Are you coming?"

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"Yeah, of course," Alex said quietly, looking up from Megan back to Erin with sad eyes. One didn't need to be psychic to see the end of the story and while there was no way to change the past, Alex might be able to soften the brunt of the dream at least.

She unbuckled her seat-belt and slid from the jeep, landing on the toes of her sneakers. She glanced around the hospital entrance and stuffed her hands in the grimy pockets of her jeans with a grimace at the sensation of the fabric. Yay, tactile memories. Clearly, they couldn't make to much of a diversion as it might draw attention to Megan in the jeep. Alex didn't put a lot of hope that Megan would survive while they tried to find something to help inside. "What are we looking for? Morphine?"

Alex picked up a discarded two-by-four that had come out of the wreckage of the hospital and hefted it tenatively.

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The question drew a visible wince from Erin. "I don't know how to help her," she muttered. "But maybe there's still a doctor, or a nurse, or a paramedic. There's got to be someone, somewhere! We can't be the only ones. I can't be the only one left!" Erin suddenly had a long knife in her hand, one she obviously knew how to use. Leading with one elbow, she crashed through the glass that hadn't been broken already, not flinching or blinking at the shards falling onto her. The smell inside the building was even worse than the stench outside, far more concentrated thanks to the limited space. The corpses inside hadn't been skeletonized by sun and weather, and were instead decomposing in the heat. Most were bloated, writhing with flies and maggots. Some had obvious bites taken out of them. Erin pulled up her shirt collar to cover her nose and mouth and kept going, barely sparing the bodies a look.

They'd only gotten to the doors into the emergency ward when the first zombies were upon them. At first glance, they almost looked human. They weren't rotting like corpses, they weren't green, and they smelled like humans who hadn't bathed for weeks, not like dead bodies. But a second look revealed that there was nothing going on behind those eyes. Their heads lolled on their necks, and the groans and howls that came from their mouths were nothing human. Erin was on the first one before Alex had finished getting a look, jumping on it and slicing its head clean off, then splitting it open down the middle. Gore sprayed out, covering Erin and splattering Alex. The second zombie was obviously attracted to the blood, turning and extending its tongue, making obscene noises that sounded almost like "num, num, num." Erin dispatched it the same way she had the first. "This way," she said, "but stay behind me. They don't have any minds."

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Alex blinked a few times, causing her to take in the carnage like it was happening under a strobe. She made a disgusted face at the gore splatter but refrained from letting out a truly girly squeal. Ew, ew, ew, EW!. She paused to fish around for a bandana that she pulled up around her mouth and nose and focused for a second on dulling the sensation of the smell. Thankfully, she had the training that had fortified her resolve or she'd likely be doing more than making an occasional gagging noise.

"S'Okay. I actually did really well in biology class," Alex offered, her voice muffled from the cloth as she trailed along after Erin, hovering every now and again over the gore rather than step onto it to feel the squish under her tennis shoes. "You'll want an anesthetic of some kind. Like morphine, but I bet that's been raided. They use fentanyl as a painkiller in labor and delivery. I bet that we could find some stores of that. Doesn't have the same press cuz its not as addictive."

Alex paused in her recitation as she floated along in Erin's wake when her roommate engaged another pair of zombies. This time, Alex focused on avoiding the likely blood spatter, ducking behind one of the medical cases that was tipped on its side. Doing her best to ignore the precise noise of the bounce of another zombie head down the hallway - splorch, splorch, splorch - she fished around in the pilfered supplies and took the best of what was available. A roll of bandages, some gauze and an unbroken hypodermic needle. She peered out at Erin, stuffing her treasures in a pouch, and blurted out, "Myxopyronin. Or just good, ol' amoxycilan. Any broad spectrum antibiotic."

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Erin buried her knife in the chest of one zombie, sending it reeling, then used her bare hands to break another zombie's neck and rip its head clean off before she took the time to look over at Alex. "It's no use," she said, despair coloring the edges of the dream around them. "I tried so hard. But she was so little, and she didn't get..." She retrieved her knife and split the zombie from sternum to groin, which slowed it down long enough that she could reach in and snap its spine. "She didn't get the powers like I did. She wasn't going to get any better, and there were no doctors. All I could do was let her go to sleep."

The dream almost cracked then, the reality of the memory overcoming the illusion of immediacy, but then a fresh wave of zombies distracted her and the world firmed up again. Some of the zombies began to get past Erin, heading for the other living person in the room. To Alex's surprise, when she swung her two-by-four at a zombie that approached, she hit it square in the head, shattering its skull and sending it toppling to the ground. Over the moaning and yowling, they both suddenly heard a little girl's agonized scream. "Erin, help me!"

"Megan!" Erin shouted, redoubling her efforts. The press of zombies was now a crush, with bodies piling up against the door as fast as she could knock them down. "Megan, hold on, I'm coming!"

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Alex flinched reflexively at the spray of zombie brain. She reminded herself firmly that this wasn't really happening. That this was Erin's memories and sensations providing the backdrop. Unfortunately for Alex, the same mental conditioning that allowed her not to shriek and cry at the horror also recorded perfectly the sensation of something too viscus to be blood dripping down the side of her face.

Alex's eyes teared at Erin's distress and for a moment she was terribly tempted to pop the dream like a sopa bubble. The reprecussions that might have on her friend's psyche stayed her hand. Alex gritted her teeth as she struck a batter's stance. Clearly Erin's subcocious was providing the response to her attacks based off of Erin's skills, not her own. When she swung, Alex felt the recoil reverberate up her shoulders and the sweat on her palms. Alex flinched again at the spray of zombie bits that looked too human for anything like comfort.

She brought her makeshift bat in an overhead swing, grimacing at the wet cracking sound. Even with her help, Erin's mind was providing more enemies than they seemed to be defeating.

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They managed to clear a path from the dispensary back into the hallway, fighting what seemed to be an endless wave of zombies. Somewhere along the line, Alex noticed that Erin must've picked up a lot of height in her last growth spurt, since in this dream, she was only a little taller than Alex herself. There wasn't much time for observation, though, which was probably just as well, since they were both covered in things it was better not to think about. Erin lost her knife somewhere in the battle but it didn't slow her down. She continued attacking with fists and feet, even headbutting and biting when the situation called for it. She fought with a graceful savagery that was unpleasant to watch, but extremely effective in mowing down zombies one after another. Even with both of them fighting, though, they weren't making any progress. Each corridor was a blind alley, leading only to empty walls and more zombies. From far away, Megan's screams were growing fainter. "Erin, where are you? Don't leave me! Help!"

Erin yelled back while she fought, heedless to the hits she was taking as she nearly drowned in the onslaught. "Hold on, bunny, I'm coming! Just hold on!" The zombies abruptly cleared off, leaving Alex and Erin to stumble into a wide, cleared-out space. It didn't look much like a hospital anymore. This place looked more like an empty apartment building with a hole in the roof. Megan screamed again, but her voice was abruptly cut off by the sound of a loud crash. Erin braced. "Oh no. Oh shit." Reaching out, she grabbed hold of Alex's arm and pulled the other girl behind her.

A moment later, something crashed through the wall opposite them, bathing them both in an agonizing wash of electricity. "Back for more?" came a laughing voice from the center of the ball of light. When Alex's vision cleared, she could see a zombie, some kind of super zombie, standing in the center of the room. "You'll only die screaming, just like your family. You finally met what you can't beat, right Wander?" the zombie sneered.

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Alex peered around Erin's shoulder curiously and somewhat relieved. She'd personally prefer the dream end with a boss fight than reliving Megan's death.

"The zombie's talking..." Alex pointed out with some trepidation. "Tho' I bet that means it has a brain."

She added that for Erin's benefit even as she locked down her own flight or fight response ruthlessly. The last thing she needed was to accidentally fire of a mental blast from inside Erin's unshielded mind. Instead, she readied the more delicate powers of the mental manipulation that might be more useful. Physically, her dream form swung the bat up on her shoulder once again.

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"It's not a zombie," Erin told Alex, clenching her fists and dropping to a near-crouch. "I can't beat it. You have to run! Get to the window, get out!" With those words of advice, she coiled and leapt, further and faster than an Olympic athlete, launching herself at the new monster. It laughed and disappeared, reappearing a moment later to send Erin smashing into the wall with a careless fist. Erin picked herself up and charged again, then again, but the result was always the same. No matter how often she picked herself up, nothing she did seemed able to affect the superpowered creature. Alex could feel Erin start to panic as yet another lightning bolt hit her, even as the walls of the building began to tremble. From far below them, suddenly the little-girl crying started again. "Go!" Erin yelled again to Alex.

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It was time to stop running. Alex felt the panic and knew Erin's heart was racing in time back in the real world.

Alex planted her feet firmly and extended her conciousness more solidly into the dream as she began to project her centered calm to Erin, "You couldn't beat him before. You can now. You just have to take control. You're older, you're stronger and you're not alone. You have to remember, Erin."

The edges of Alex's presence blurred for a moment before reforming, clean and in the pajamas she'd been wearing before bed, looking out of place in the dreamscape's carnage.

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The building stopped shuddering as Alex began taking control of the dream, the walls firming up as light began to trickle in from the windows. Erin was startled enough by the change to break off combat for a moment. "What's going on?" The moment she did, the whole scene faded, and they were standing in an empty room of black and gray tiles, one that thrummed softly with electricity. "That wasn't real," she suddenly remembered, and then that faded too, and they were standing outside, back in the dead world.

This time they were in what had once been a garden, before a lack of irrigation and the unforgiving sun had baked the grass and flowers to a crisp. Instead of a two-by-four, Alex was now holding a shovel, its head encrusted with hard red clay. A little ways away, Erin was kneeling by the hole the shovel had dug, carefully laying small clothes and toys down inside it. She had the music box next to her sitting open, the tinkling fairy-tale music loud in the stillness of what had been a large city. "This is, though," Erin continued, pulling a stuffed bunny out of the open suitcase beside her and giving it a hug before putting it into the ground. "Even if no one remembers it but me. What are you even doing here, Alex?" she asked suddenly. "You aren't supposed to be here." The scene was starting to fray at the edges, as Erin started focusing on the wrong note in the memory.

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"I'm here because your thoughts reached out in terror and mine reached back. I'm here 'cause we're both lonely. Any number of reasons. Mostly, I'm here to help." Alex swung the shovel point down and buried the head in the earth, resting her folded arms on the wooden end easily. There was a faint sheen of sweat on her face and her clothes blurred once more to something suited to the setting, faded denim that had seen better days but still patched with what had been once colorful patches.

"Reality is the sum of our perceptions. To paraphrase, things are real because we believe in 'em." Alex's smile dimpled one cheek quickly before fading as fast as it came. "So, I'm here because on some level, you want someone here. If you don't want company, you have the power to make me leave. The choice here is always yours... Wanna talk 'bout her?"

Alex said it gently, her palm up and gesturing to the grave. She was sensative enough to say 'her' where most might have shied away from the mention of the little girl, but here Erin's pain was so keen, Alex couldn't help but feel it and her expressive face reflected the emotion back at Erin.

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Erin shook her head, her face twisting with grief as she stared into the hole. Now Alex could see into the hole as well, where the My Little Pony blanket had become a makeshift shroud, with clothes and toys carefully arranged around it, as though to protect it from the encroachment of the rocky red soil. "I couldn't save her," she said again, choking on the words. "I couldn't save anyone. All this power, all this strength, and I couldn't save anyone but myself. I should have died too, but I couldn't even do that." Dirt began trickling into the hole of its own accord, even as the edges of the dream began to collapse in on themselves as well. In a moment, it winked out, pulling both of them back to consciousness.

In the lower bunk, Erin woke to a wet pillow, scrubbing her face as the dream swirled around in her head. She'd expected bad dreams tonight, but this one had been stranger than most. Parts of it had seemed so real, like she was actually talking. She pushed herself to a sitting position, drawing her blanket up around her shoulders. Although she was still tired from the fight earlier, she didn't really think she'd sleep again for awhile.

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Above Erin, Alex came awake with a soft sigh of her breath. She blinked a few times and wiped the tears from her hot, sticky cheeks. Alex levered herself to a sitting position before she slipped off of her bunk and floated to the ground easily.

Her bare feet landed on the carpet with a soft thump and she bent down to look at Erin worridly.

"I'm sorry, are you okay? "

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Erin looked up and studied Alex's face, pulling the blanket a little closer around her shoulders, almost like a shield. Though the campus lights outside cast a soft blue light into the room, the space between top and bottom bunk was still cloaked in deep shadow. "Was that real?" she asked, her voice soft and slightly hoarse. "I thought I saw you, in my dreams, where you couldn't have been. Were you really there, or did I just dream all of it?"

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Alex gave her an appologetic smile and stood for a moment. She retrieved a glass of water from her desk and brought it back to Erin, "It was a dream and I was really there. I'm so sorry, I haven't wandered into someone else's dreams in a few years. If I just jerk free, I might have hurt you without meaning to."

She held out the glass of water for Erin as she slipped down to sit on the floor. Alex chattered on, her voice soft and shy as she tried to give Erin time to shake off the bad dream, "I've been telepathic since I was born. I used to get sucked in whenever I slept to the strongest emotions around me. It was more learning how to stay inside my own head rather than how to reach out.."

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Erin sat quietly for a few minutes, sipping the water because it was there. "I'm sorry," she said finally, sounding very sincere. "If I'd known that might happen, I would have asked for a different room assignment. You shouldn't have had to see any of that. I can find someplace else to go when I need a few hours' sleep, so it doesn't happen again. You don't deserve to be stuck with all the crap that's hiding in the back of my brain."

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