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 and then we cracked the sky [18+], men, monsters & the worst road trip ever
bird
 Posted: Jun 26 2011, 06:43 PM
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It's part of the job doesn't bury Hanoi; still too raw, too new, too fresh to be forgotten. For a moment he loses himself, looking away, dropping his eyes to the linoleum, but for both their sakes he does his best to swallow it down. Bad job, he thinks, but doesn't say it. The irony doesn't escape him: truly Max, of all people, would be the last person to pass judgment on questionable choices in career.

Still, he finds himself wondering what pushed Solberg here. In the army there are soldiers and there are soldiers; the born and the manufactured, the men who learn to kill and the men who just needed the opportunity. But Max stopped worrying about exactly which he was a long time ago, when he learned, by trial and error, the great truth of the army: that, soon enough, everyone marched in lockstep in the end. Thank god for it, too -- as likely as not, it's what kept him living; Maksim Zhaitsev the conscript would never have survived Hanoi. But none of those answers seem quite so simple now. Was the niche already there to begin with, there to be exploited by some lottery of alleles and personal tragedy, or did they hammer out the pieces first to forge something bent and twisted, broken just enough to fold into the cracks where nothing else would fit? He wonders what fate he wishes Solberg would have been spared.

Max's arms untangle themselves, slowly, though he doesn't fight the hands around them. The flat of his palm catches against against a shoulder, and he grips it there, for a moment before he lets go. As far as Praxis is concerned, anyway." Certainly, they must know that they made it, at least, to Nanning. Briefly his thoughts lurch to the doctor's office in Chiba, the plane tickets that got them to the United States. As big of a country as it is, he can't quite reassure himself that it'll be big enough.

So, he says, leaning his hips into the kitchen countertop, watching Solberg's eyes. What do we do with it? It's the all-important question, the crux of their relation to one another, and it needs to be decided quickly. Between Praxis, the blockades, and the things that crawl the earth, there are less and less places for them to run.

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Erik
 Posted: Jun 26 2011, 10:53 PM
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don't let the brohug end

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bird
 Posted: Jun 26 2011, 11:18 PM
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but alice, the bro hug never ends
it just keeps on giving
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XANDER
 Posted: Jun 27 2011, 06:12 AM
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Solberg has buried it. 'Buried' does not guarantee 'dead'.

Max is skirting too close to dark truths, to sad truths, to what Solberg is, which even he declines to ruminate upon. Perhaps in some other life he would have only been competitive, an overachiever, a hard worker in his chosen field. Perfectionism is tied to neuroticism and a looming cloud of self-loathing. Failure is not an event, to Solberg: it is a personality trait, an internal predisposition -- one that he despises. He has been crafted to believe he is an inherent winner; his life has revolved around living up to that title. But what of it? What is there do with it now? Will any amount of navel-gazing or psychoanalysis rewrite history?

Solberg's hands drop when Max's do. He automatically hides them in his pockets. Before the eggs, he refused to answer this question. He reconsiders it now.

"Give it to someone who can do something good with it." It's the correct answer, if they were in a book or a movie. Do the right thing. But it's vague, and it's only a shot in the dark. The laptop is Solberg's billion dollar baby, maybe the last job he ever needed to do, and now he is supposed to find someone who can shoulder its weight better than he. "A research institute, maybe." His mouth twists into a sardonic smirk. "The government?" But his tone drips with too much sarcasm to be sincere. "Anyone who could make sense of it, if there is sense to be made." After a moment of pregnant silence, he corrects, "Everyone who can make sense of it." Once the factor of money is removed, there is no reason not to spread the information around. The thread of a lawsuit, or the disintegration of his reputation, would have been enough to stop old Solberg. Now, those ideas are hard to reconcile with the shotgun in the living room.

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bird
 Posted: Jul 8 2011, 02:52 AM
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The closest someone who can do something good with it is at least six and a half hours south just taking the freeways, deep in a privately sponsored nuclear research laboratory run in conjunction with UCLA, and there in the tiny kitchen they make their plans to leave for it by the morning.

Max spends most of the rest of the day packing the car. He's not sure how long they'll spend on the road, and Solberg's web of contacts, spreading away from the coast of California and all the way deep into the flyover states, doesn't include a final destination. He thinks to ask -- he has it at the tip of his tongue; what then? -- but he knows Solberg, too, has no answers, and that to ask this is to admit how very likely it is that they will die. So he keeps quiet instead, and slowly the car fills up with the usual provisions. He does not ask any more questions. The bottle of vodka goes with them.

Neither of them think much of Vitaly Tymoschuk. To Solberg he is no one. To Max, merely a small-time crook from Kiev with a few mutual inconveniences, and so he doesn't think much of his warnings or the mouth they came from. Still, before he sleeps, he uncurls from the dark cramped quarters of the couch in some small hour of the morning and cracks the laptop open over his knees. The connection from the adjacent apartment is patchy but tenable, and he rubs the sleep from his eyes as he goes once more through the usual litany of disasters.

But the worst thing, by far, to happen to Los Angeles is a steady onslaught of end-of-days rioters and screaming anarchists, rioting the downtown core into lockdown. An exodus of celebrities and politicians isn't the sort of thing Max can bring himself to give a shit about, so he lets it die and tries to curl against some less oppressively cramped configuration of couch.

He's unlucky enough that he really does fall asleep like that, staring at the oily yellow gleam of streetlights against the ceiling, and when he dreams he dreams of the taste of iron, the smell of kerosene; the hungry, savage baying of the dogs.

*

Seven and a half hours pass driving through the burnt brown rolling foothills of the Western Cordillera. Max drives east and south, away from the coast, where the freeway clutters with frantic traffic and more frantic military, and soon enough the early afternoon finds them in the suburban outskirts of some desert town. The shotgun haunts the back seat.

It doesn't seem strange at first. Between the lush green lawns and the ornamental trees, large, pristine bungalows slouch away from one another. There are still cars parked in the driveways, silvery sedans and sleek black hybrids nestled peacefully against the curbs. But the windows are empty-black, gaping like missing teeth, and the air is still and heavy. A few streets pass before the quiet becomes uncanny, and then strange, and finally eerie, and when they come upon traffic parked dead in the street and doors blown open, windows broken, Max slows the car to get a better look.

He drives for some time like this, questions buzzing in his mouth as thickly as flies, but there's only block after block of silence, a hush over the streets like after freshly fallen snow. The afternoon sky is blue and cloudless, and a faint breeze ruffles the canopies of the trees. With his knuckles white around the stock of the shotgun, Max cracks the door open and walks out into the empty street.

But nothing stirs in the treetops or lurks in the yards of the houses around him, nothing but a flock of sparrows dipping down to perch on the lampposts overhead. Nothing but the buzz of powerlines and the guttural hum of the car engine, caught between the soft rhythm of his own breath. He walks back to the car. "We need gas," Max says, at long last, and it's true: the gauge reads uncomfortably close to empty. He kills the engine and leans into the cabin to pop the trunk, and, after a moment's pause, leans the shotgun against the car hood. "Fifteen minutes," he says.
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XANDER
 Posted: Jul 11 2011, 04:45 PM
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He doesn't sleep well the night before they leave. Alone in Max's room, he carefully unwraps the bandage on his arm and examines the wound. It is scabbing nicely. He cleans and redresses it, and then stares into the mirror, pressing his palms against the glass. There is a sense of ease that descends upon him, now that they have decided what they are going to do -- now that Solberg has a new job, a new mission. There is something to work towards; there are methods; there are goals. He is less afraid of dying when it is a variable to manage, rather than the end of the equation. He must accept it, in order to work with it.

The sounds of the news station filter in from the living room, and once they are silenced, he takes a last look at Max on the couch. He doesn't look for long. Too much feeling starts to bubble up.

*

The pavement is warm in the sun. The gas station is pungent with the smell of baking asphalt and gasoline. The silence that sits like invisible vultures over the city does not bother Solberg until he gets out of the car; he is like a game piece taken off his board, without any people to con or charm, without background noise, without direction. The emptiness again highlights his uncomfortable loneliness: internally isolated, externally dependent on a single person.

He shifts his weight to one side of his body when he steps out of the car, setting his hands on his hips and nudging his suit jacket back to reveal the semi-automatic pistol strapped beneath it. He looks to the horizons, and the emptiness that stretches out there, and when he looks back at Max he is bitten by wanderlust. Rationally, Solberg understands that he should not leave Max's sight for even a moment. But beneath the logic and cool reason that he thought ruled him, he is unused to this much company. He has scarcely been alone in almost two weeks, never further away than a wall or two. He says, "I'm going to go look around."

Solberg lifts his feet completely off the ground when he walks. Doing otherwise would scuff his shoes, and so the sounds he makes are small and disconnected -- a huffed breath, the click of a cuff link against his belt buckle as he drops his hand, a nervous swallow. There are some cars parked outside trendy boutiques. In one window, the 'OPEN' sign is still hanging.

Where are the corpses? The air is more than hot -- it is stale; there is no rot. He walks for a few minutes, flaring his nostrils, searching. He sees nothing, and hears nothing. He stays in the middle of the street, where he can see everything.

The heat makes rolling mirages on the sidewalk, and this Solberg accepts. However, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a window move, and this causes him to pause. He turns, slowly, and stares. It is easy to think he is losing his mind, and he nearly begins to walk on, until it happens again, the great glass window of a five-story corporate complex shifting several inches to the left. In fact, every window on the building moves, and then settles back into place. Fear coils in Solberg's stomach, and impulsively, he draws his gun and fires at the window.

In the moment that the bullet should be shattering the glass, the window instead bends inward, and then a great rainbow expands from the point of contact. The windows disappear; color ripples across the building. It flows down the sides of the building and then up the sides of the next, up and over and down and up and over and over everything, shimmering, oozing, the gooey edges determined when color halts. He sees that it is covering everything, that it lines the boulevard, and as the color fades he sees the windows sliding off the building. He fires at the sidewalk. The slime glows and creeps.

His screaming precedes him. It is a horrible, anxious howling, interrupted only by breathlessness, and when Solberg reappears he is tearing around a corner and struggling not to trip in his nice shoes. He almost skids to a stop at the passenger door, where he is wrenching the handle open and then pausing, baring his teeth in misery and terror. His face is contorted with the struggle to communicate clearly and calmly, but when he opens his mouth it is another screech.

"WE NEED TO LEAVE NOW."
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bird
 Posted: Jul 31 2014, 10:56 PM
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WE NEED TO LEAVE NOW

Solberg is screaming. Max gets on his feet and runs; grabs the shotgun in one hand and Solberg’s shoulder in another, pushes him roughly into the car on the passenger side.

Outside, the air is hot and dead. Dread rolls around in his stomach like a sickness but he still manages to breathe in, breathe out, and pace up the empty road. Max isn’t sure what he’s looking for, or what he’s more afraid of seeing: Solberg’s monster, or no monster at all. The birds are quiet. The wind rustles through the palms.

After some time, he gives up. (Max has seen men lose their minds before). He gets back in the car. (Were there signs? Had he missed them?) He doesn’t look at Solberg. He puts the shotgun in the backseat and the keys in the ignition and drives out of the eerie, dead suburb, keeping his eyes on the road.

(He is standing in the store in Vietnam and his ears are ringing. The bullet goes through the glass.)


*

The monsters of Max’s dreams turned toothless after he came to North America. He doesn’t know why, but he is thankful that the terror is formless and vague, and that he can sleep through most nights. Maybe it’s the years, or the distance, or that he doesn’t sleep much these days. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they'll come back.

This time, it starts in the way it usually does: a bombed-out village in the mountains where they are told to hold position, destroy any military encampments, and wait for the tanks to arrive. Every evening, he huddles behind sandbags and watches for lights on the empty road with a rifle on his shoulder. Every night there are none. A festering wound in his ribs paints each night in feverish, faded colours. As the hot days pass the men grow first bored, and then drunk, and then dangerous: they drink heavily, on duty and off of it, and turn their attentions first to the women, then to the men and the children. The soil is too thin and rocky, in most places, to dig graves, and this is what he remembers: the stench, the empty road, and the screams in the small hours of the night.

In the real world, after a few weeks of this, after they drag in the young women who tend cattle on the mountain banks by the hair to the military camp, after he is on the detail that buries them, after they beat and summarily execute the men that object, Max makes a blind and reckless run for the border. It is almost eighty kilometers in mountainous, forested country and he runs blindly through the pines, not out of any conscious plan or because he knows what he’s doing, but because the only thing worse than being caught will be going back. The war ends eight days later. He survives, however improbably, despite himself.

But that is not this dream. In this one he smells diesel, powdered concrete, the iron tang of blood. The dead city is on fire, and the bodies have become fetid in the late August heat. He stumbles, bloody, through the dark pines. Artillery fire crackles around him in the night.

Solberg is in this dream, for some reason. He sits neatly on the metal cot in the little house in Vietnam, and it rains outside. He smiles faintly, even with half his skull missing, and there is nowhere to run any more. The thing is there with him, not quite a man, not quite a hound, and it considers Max eyelessly. It is somehow, at once, some alien creature and the praporschik and the deds in the barracks. It stands at least eight feet high, and in the kerosene light he can see that it has long, triple-jointed hands, that it shines with a kind of pale, organic slickness, that it is close enough to touch him now. Slowly, its face unhinges as he empties his last three rounds into it and he is alive just long enough to see the black teeth descend on him, to hear the crack and tear of bone.

It's the scream that wakes him. It takes Max a moment to realize it’s his.

*

He comes to gasping, like a drowning man, his throat raw, his eyes red and damp. The thin sheets knot around his ankles. After some time, he sits up and buries his head in his hands, a fine sheen of sweat gleaming sickly over his skin.

They share a grim-looking motel room somewhere outside of Bakersfield. Solberg is separated from him by a thin partition of drywall, and the clock dial informs him that it’s three forty-eight in the morning. Max is still shaking when he walks to their shared kitchen, when he leans over the sink with both hands and runs the tap. But the water is cool, and when he cups it in his hands and splashes it over his face, the knotting pain in his chest becomes a little easier. Maybe, some more dispassionate part of him thinks, it's his heart that'll kill him.

From the motel parking lot, a fluorescent lamp lights the narrow kitchen and shines out into the moonless dark.
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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 2 2014, 12:26 AM
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Doesn't he see it? Doesn't Max see it? It's moving, it's coming towards them, it's phasing matter into itself and eating up all the road, the cars, a small flock of sparrows flying west. It will devour the whole world, inch by inch, as it inches forwards.

"Why aren't you starting the car?!"

Max isn't going anywhere. He's just -- looking around, seeing nothing. Solberg blinks rapidly, leans out the window. There's the shimmer of heat in the air again, but the world is still. Max goes still. And Solberg is afraid again, but livid in his fear. He is embarrassed, at the end of the world.

And when Max gets in the car and drives, he says nothing. Not even when, sometimes, they are slowing to make turns, he sees the skyline shifting in their wake.

*

He grows quieter, as if he was not quiet enough already. In the passenger's seat, in the reflection of the bathroom mirror, in silhouette as he stands on the edge of a cheap motel balcony -- Solberg is quiet. The oversized 'VACANCY' sign illuminates him in red. During the day, he hides his eyes behind large, thick sunglasses. It disguises some of his rapid eye movement, flickering across the horizon and to the facade of every gas station and grocery store. Sometimes crumpled up evacuation notices blow through the empty streets, and he makes a point of stopping them underneath his heel, to look down at the warnings that were lost on him. Solberg, golden in the California light, suitcase in hand.

His suits stay ironed, if they stay anywhere that has an iron. Solberg in profile, wearing one pair of dress pants, tidying up the other.

*

Is it the first time he's been woken by Max's nightmares?

When he comes into the kitchen, his face is carefully blank. Solberg's eyes have been slowly sinking into his skull, the way he is sinking in on himself. In Solberg's dreams, he keeps trying to escape the thing, the dark viscous thing with its teeth and eyes and double-jaws, crawling through the shadows on centipede claws, tasting the air, his trail. Perhaps it is a creature of his imagination, a patchwork of terrors indicating that his brain is failing to cope. But it seems very alive, very real, very interested in him. When he thinks of talking about it, he remembers the building moving on the empty street, and the silence as Max got back into the car, and his throat closes up.

Success was his. Order from chaos. He must survive, but can't some small part of his pride survive too?

"We need to sleep." He comes up out of the dark, in shirt and shorts, and goes to the fridge. Water bottles stand shoulder to shoulder, diligent soldiers. Vodka mans the freezer alone. "I'm sure there's a pharmacy around here." There are no rules now, are there? Why worry about stealing and being arrested, or possession of controlled substances? Their problems are military barricades and nameless horrors, not first degree felonies.
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bird
 Posted: Aug 2 2014, 03:14 PM
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“I’ll be fine,” Max says. He doesn’t turn when Solberg comes in. He doesn’t have the energy to save face, to be embarrassed, to feel much of anything at all. His voice sounds hoarse, to his ears, tight like a wearing rope. “It passes.”

This was every night, once, when he was a young man, and years later there had been a few in the three months spent in Solberg's employ, but at that point he had slept alone and learned how to cope.

But this, he thinks, dully, this thing, this is new to him. There are many gaps in Max's memory that the nightmares fill, but they are always the same, and they horrify him not by their shadows but by the consistency and plausibility of their retellings. His monsters do not have claws. They have addresses and names.

He shuts the water off, then, turning away to dry his face and hands with a clean dishtowel. Outside, the VACANCY sign sputters, and the light from the fridge is yellow and unkind. In it, Max looks hollow, his eyelids puffy, his shirt stuck to his skin. The sutured wound on his arm is swollen and ugly, crusted over with drying blood.

Soon the only thing that shakes are his hands, and he curls and uncurls them experimentally. It’s easier, with someone else in the room with him, even if it is Solberg.

“Can you stay?” Max says, softly, before he can think not to or hate himself for this small weakness. He doesn’t meet Solberg’s eyes. “For a while.”
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 Posted: Aug 3 2014, 01:35 PM
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They are not men who were made to live apart from other men. Both depend on their own vices, and the vices of others, for their employ. In the absence of vices and men, they are left to fill the spaces between, when emptiness has been their specialty.

"I have nowhere to be." He tries not to say things like this, but when he does speak, such phrases and his ilk escape his lips. It's not like we're going to be late. We'll be right on time no matter when we arrive. Solberg has since dumped his cell phone, after its incessant and menacing ringing led to the death of its battery. He couldn't bring himself to resurrect it. There's already a monster that follows him in his dreams, and he'd rather not make it easy for his daylight assassins to find him.

His original plan had been a simple bottle of water, but when Max asks him to stay, he retrieves the vodka as well. He claims empty counter space and vaults backwards onto it, the vodka unopened, and leans his head back against the wall. He doesn't bother turning on a light, as the conversation is revealing enough without the finer details of their haggard faces. "I mean it," he repeats. "Zolpidem or zaleplon?" There have been times when Solberg needed them, but again, pride: he was too good to need anyone or anything. He needed his wits and his determination and his brilliant intellect, and everything else was just a temporary additive. What will they be now?
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bird
 Posted: Aug 3 2014, 04:12 PM
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“I need to drive tomorrow.” Max shakes his head, reaching to the countertop beside him. “This is fine.” He can work through a hangover. Twisting the cap from the bottle’s neck, with Solberg at his shoulder a reedy shadow, he is loath to bring up Praxis again.

He has never been a drunk. Here in America, on the bad nights, he had instead taken to working through as much of a pack of Marlboro Reds as he could stomach until the morning. But Max still drinks like a soldier: efficiently, abundantly, without tasting. The vodka is liquid mercury, smooth and cool down his throat.

He offers the bottle to Solberg, then, the fogging glass sweating against his hands in the humid night. “Here,” Max says, and there’s a little humour in his voice when he adds, “Drunks drink alone.”
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 Posted: Aug 3 2014, 07:34 PM
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This kind of drinking is typically done amongst friends. Solberg thinks of people he considers his friends, and comes up with only friendly acquaintances and clever allies, and the occasional pleasant coworker. Spy work is work done in isolation, indefinitely. He would wonder about if they are friends, but Solberg does not believe he has anything to offer. Friendship is an elaborate form of bargaining and exchange, with emotional overtones to comfort those with weaker stomachs.

He takes the bottle and echoes, "Is that the rule?" He has to drink in smaller sips, but he is better at it now. Refined taste dissolves with opportunity for discretion. When he's drunk, he doesn't dream. And of course, it does make him a little more talkative, as liquor throws a shoddily-crafted rope bridge over the chasm between careless thought and careless words. "Got any plans? After we dump the laptop." Because their responsibility ends there, right?

Out there in the dark, Praxis wants to find him as badly as the monsters do. The world could be held hostage with what's contained on that computer, if it isn't already.

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bird
 Posted: Aug 4 2014, 06:12 PM
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After?

Does Solberg really believe what he’s saying? Does he really think that everything is going to be better once the project files are in the hands of the scientists? Has he forgotten already about the empty, bombed out cities and the tanks on the road? What happens if the hole in the world can’t be fixed? What happens if Praxis finds them? What happens if the things in the dark catch up?

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet." With the vodka warming his mouth, even Solberg’s idyllic future becomes palatable. He pushes himself up onto the countertop, mulling it over for a while. "Call home, I guess. Start looking for work." Max shrugs. "The boring things." He can’t bring himself to conjure up more ludicrous dreams; he doubts Praxis will take the billion-dollar loss the laptop represents without showing a few teeth. In Max's mind, they will always be hunted men.

“What about you? I’m sure you have better ideas.”
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 Posted: Aug 4 2014, 10:37 PM
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He has to believe it. Solberg can't believe that everything about his life is over, that nothing will ever come back to him. He remembers the high-rise apartments and the thick walls of transparent glass, the sunrise coming up over the harbor and reflecting off the chrome countertops. He remembers too-perfect gỏi cuốn, rolled as tightly as cocoons; he recalls the texture of the rice paper with the sound of the rain pattering on the restaurant's roof, and knowing full well that it wasn't the kind of place where the straw was thatched poorly or the wood was rotten; he has looked out over jungles, concrete and verdant, and been safe. He has known luxury hand-in-hand with loneliness. This comparable squalor and forced companionship insults him. Can Max expect Solberg to accept?

"I'd plan on retiring." He has enough saved to take -- a long break. Maybe not forever, but for long enough to separate himself from the whole mess. Long enough to change his name, change his face, change his habits, change his past. He'd bury Vincenzo Solberg somewhere cold and dark, and emerge into a new dawn as a new self. "Can't say I have much of a resume now."

If the world ends -- if they can't close the hole in space, and time, and sanity -- of course none of it will matter. But if he considers that, he will never get out of bed, ever again.
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 Posted: Aug 4 2014, 11:49 PM
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"Retirement," Max echoes. In profile against the bright window, his mouth curves around the word like it's something new. It sounds nice. He could even be smiling. "I never thought I'd live long enough for that."

There's no sadness or bitterness in his voice, just wonder. He's too tall to sit like this, hunched over on the counter, with his palms curled over the edge and his feet raking the linoleum, but he doesn't seem to mind. Slowly he rolls the tension from one shoulder and then the other, turning his eyes to the long trail of light left by the kitchen window. It dawns on him then, and it's hilarious. "Shit," Max says, looking wildly at Solberg, because it is so obscenely funny to him that he starts to laugh before it catches against the fear and hurt in his chest. He will be thirty-two, seven weeks from now, and he marvels at it:

"I'm an old man."
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