One Or The Other

Quick Disclaimer: I do not own these characters or the world they inhabit. They were created by the fabulous people at Zombie Orpheus for their equally fabulous RPG, Masters of the Metaverse!  Be sure to tune in to Twitch.TV/zombieorpheus every Monday at 6PM PST to see more!

Maddox stared down at the swampy remains of the expelled golems. She felt Skinwalker’s body returning to its former shape and density. Somehow she felt even smaller now, like she would break apart and float away on the breeze.

Maddox blinked hard, surprised by the tears that had sprung to Skinwalker’s eyes. She knew that they were hers and not the avatar’s. Skinwalker wouldn’t even have a digestive tract if it wasn’t for her. But that seemed par for the course really. Trying to add things to avatars, to fill gaps that weren’t even theirs. She had only been trying to help…and look at what had happened.

Skinwalker was the first avatar she had ever connected to. This creature not quite sure of its origin, let alone its real name, felt more like home to her than Maddox would have liked to admit. The constantly shifting body, the features that molded themselves into something more pleasing, the skills and powers that were just an elaborate feat of mimicry. It had taken her all this time to finally understand why she had been sent to this avatar over and over again. Why it was Skinwalker who whispered in the back of her mind, even when they weren’t in the pods. Why Maddox felt more like herself when stretched into the gormless impressions of other people than she ever had in her old life.

For as long as she could remember, Maddox had been trying to do the right thing. Every moment of every day was centered on that primary intention. She wanted to be correct, to be okay, to be what everyone else needed her to be. The problem was, how could she even begin to attempt to do that when she wasn’t sure who she was.

Bombshell shifted into the form of a train and they all climbed aboard. Balthazar sat down, going into a meditative trance, while Lady Veil watched the scenery racing by. Skinwalker stood quietly in the corner and Maddox could feel the guilt and shame radiating from them. They had attacked their friends, hurt them…damaged them. They had become a monster, just like everyone had always feared they would.

She had done it again. She had failed. Nothing she ever did was good enough. Everything she tried fell short. She had spent so long trying not to injure anyone in any Metaverse. But she had ended up hurting the one being that trusted her almost as much as Mac did.

Maddox was aware of the duality of their nature. Skinwalker existed in this space as much as she did. Before she had tried to either hold total control or none, one or the other. It was her time with Lizzie that had changed all of that. There was a fluidity to their interaction that Maddox had never experienced before, a trust that didn’t need words. Seeing her at the end, watching her smile and fade away, had changed Maddox’s view of the Metaverse forever. And then she had found the ghost.

The train ground to a halt and the group disembarked. A swath of earth opened up before them, a canyon being dug out by a dozen twisted machines. They had arrived. Maddox desperately wished for more strength, more mass, more…anything. She was standing at the precipice of destruction and she was unprepared.

Max Malone had felt more alive to her than any other avatar she had encountered. There were times when Maddox released and allowed herself to be taken along for the ride. This woman lacked nothing, save a little self control, and more than once Maddox found herself wishing that she was her instead. But even that had ended. Even that connection had lead to nothing but death.

Every avatar she was placed in seemed designed to fail, an endless loop of falling face first in the mud. Maddox tried to improve the ones she could, tried to help them be better than she was, but it never made a difference. It was time to be honest with herself. There was a single common denominator in all of this, a thread that ran through each failure and connected them. Her. Maybe the truth was that it wasn’t the avatars that were lacking at all. Maybe it was her.

But she had known that already. She had just been hoping that it wasn’t so.

Maddox shifted into a copy of a golem machine and began back hoeing dirt into the massive hole. It was a perfect metaphor for her life. A tiny copy, a clone with no substance or power of her own, fighting against an overwhelming tide. Picking up the same rock over and over, throwing it back into the pit only to have it scooped back out again. Even in the Metaverse she was ineffective.

She had spent so long trying to be one thing or the other. To be strong or to have a heart. To care too much or not at all. To save everyone or just one person. But in the end she wasn’t enough of anything. So she was nothing instead.

No

A voice floated up in the back of her mind.

Maddox felt Skinwalker rise and saw their essence floating just out of the corner of her eye. At once the connection between herself and the avatar strengthened a thousand percent, and Maddox almost cried out from the intensity of it.

This being was thousands of years old. Ages passed before them in the blink of an eye, cities rose and fell, generations lived and died. They had spent so many nights hiding in the shadows, slinking away from people lest anyone discover who they truly were and what they could never be. Hundreds of faces taken and shed, countless forms falling to nothing as they passed into the next. Decades spent alone, never knowing a true name or a true friend. Years of hiding, believing themselves to be the worst of everything simply because no one had ever shown them differently. But that was before.

Through her avatar’s eyes, Maddox saw herself. She saw what she had brought to Skinwalker, what their connection had done. At last, Skinwalker was not alone. For the first time, someone knew them and did not run away. For the first time it seemed possible to be something more than what they had always known. For the first time it made sense to have a heart that beat.

Maybe that was it. Maybe that was the point of all of this.

Maddox had always been someone else’s something. Mac’s sister, Aquamarine’s bodyguard, Project: Metaverse’s test subject. Maybe it was time that she was finally her own.

“If I eat them, they should be mine.”

Taking in the golems had been an attempt to fill the emptiness she felt in the pit of her stomach every single day. The gnawing fear that she was not measuring up, that she was letting everyone down, that she was going to be the reason it all ended. But they were not hers to eat. The added height and weight had not been hers, it hadn’t even been Skinwalker’s. What she had mistaken for strength had really been dead weight just waiting to pull them down.

It was enough.

She was flying now, sailing to the bottom of the pit. From the depths, great hands sliced their way out of the dirt. A creature unlike anything either she or Skinwalker had ever seen began clawing its way to the surface. Returning to her friends at the top, Maddox stared down into the darkness and finally understood.

It wasn’t control. It wasn’t release. It was allegiance.

She took a deep breath and Skinwalker flooded her senses. They were ready.

Their form liquified and spread, swallowing up the broken machines and absorbing them. But they were stronger now, they knew better than to take them as their own. Each body vanished into the ever growing form of Skinwalker, a wave of liquid cement that ran over the edge of the chasm and into the nothing below.

Maddox knew the odds, she always did. Only this time, she didn’t mind that they were stacked against her. Skinwalker wrapped themselves around her, cocooning her soul in theirs. It was time to go over the edge.

What doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger.

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