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cryogenia

Forward The Machine

chapter 3.

Even though he knew it was a dream, the light was starting to make him doubt his own sanity.

Alfons had come to realize he was asleep some time ago, but all that had gained him was the knowledge that he was trapped in a nightmare. He was lost in a vast emptiness lit from everywhere at once, no sky or earth to ground him, just endless amounts of nothing at all. The only hue in this place was horrible. Yellow had never been his favorite color, in the waking world or otherwise. It reminded him of ill health, of sickness and jaundice. He tried to close his eyes against it, but to no avail...the light permeated his senses like he was being steeped in it, its hue seeping in beneath his eyelids, ears, nostrils. It filtered into his lungs with every quivering breath. It was like the whole world was an aging, sickly bruise.

There was only one thing to distract him from the livid horror around him and his eyes fixed on it as soon as it appeared. The interloper, that odd little boy he'd seen in his dreams the other night was coming into focus in front of him and he clung to the image like a visual lifeline, grateful for anyone, anything besides his own company in the aether.

The more he came to see of the other boy though, the more he wondered if being alone was preferable. The kid could have been no older than thirteen or fourteen, a boy just on the cusp of adolescence, but his features were eerie. The boy's sweet, round little face could have been his own in the mirror four years ago before his jaw deepened, his shoulders held the same hint of coming strength. It was as if someone had taken his younger self and dipped him in honey, lent touches of gold to his hair and eyes and come up with this mockery.

Maybe the light in this place. It was actually starting to terrify him.

If this is really a dream, why can't I wake up!?

The interloper stirred in front of him, twitched. They were only a few decameters apart, and this close, Alfons could see the very pores on the child's face flex and stretch as he moved.

Hazel eyes swiveled to Alfons and fixed him with a dubious glare.

"Who are you?" the Interloper asked, in a voice that reminded Alfons even more eerily of his youthful self.

Alfons reflexively attempted to take a step back, startled, but he found himself unable to move from the place where he was hanging/floating in space. It was as though they were suspended in an invisible viscous substance—or perhaps light itself was thick here, syrupy. His arms and legs felt like they were moving through molasses and no matter how hard he pedaled he found himself going nowhere.

"I'm Alfons Heiderich. Who the hell are you?" Alfons snapped back, irritated at being unable to move. Irritated at the whole situation, really. He had never been the type to concern himself with dream interpretation, but at the moment, he was deeply regretting it.

"No, wait, let me guess. My younger self is here to tell me what a failure I am. Is that what this is all about? Well, I'm sorry, I'm not much for the mind sciences, all this is wasted on me. I'll go find a book about it in the morning...can I please wake up now? Please?"

The interloper's fine eyebrows scrunched together on his bronzy forehead. If anything he looked even more confused. Apparently Alfons stumped even his own unconscious.

"Younger self...but I'm Alphonse Elric," the boy said, stressing the surname.

Alfons's eyes went wide.

"Elric!?" Edward's strange surname, he'd recognize it anywhere. He had never heard anyone else—not even Edward's professor father, come to think of it—call themselves by that name. "You know Edward!?"

A little ghostly image of Edward appeared in the short space between them, a strange, distorted picture coalescing right between their bodies. Alfons stared at it incredulously. Even the knowledge that this was a dream (had to be a dream, how else could things like this be happening!?) did little to downplay the oddity that was a miniature, transparent vision of his friend floating in mid-air.

"Ed!"

"Edward?!"

They both spoke at the same time and then started in unison too, blinking distrustfully at one another through the apparition.

"...how do you know him?" 'Alphonse' asked. He cocked his head to the side and squinted, a bit of a frown on his face.

"He is my friend from university. I live with him," Alfons replied. His eyes flicked to the Edward-vision which was spinning slowly between them. It was funny, as odd and unsettling as this whole nightmare was, the only thing he could think at the moment was that the real Edward would be horribly offended at the size of his representation. It was about the size of a large doll, just big enough to fit between the two of them without touching either.

"And I could ask you the same question, how do you know Edward?" And how is it you get to call him by a nickname... Something inside him twisted at that. For all they had been friends for nearly two years now, Edward resisted all forms of nickname. The one time Alfons had tried to call him 'Ed', Edward had glared at him so severely he had never dared try again.

The other boy did not seem to be listening to him though. He was staring intently at the vision of Edward and his eyes held a new intensity, fervent, almost rabid.

"You know my brother...like this..."

Alphonse sucked in a breath with an ease that Alfons envied. The little Edward flickered and shrunk even further, transforming into a small, apeish boy with Edward's golden eyes.

"The last time I really remember seeing him, he was eleven," Alphonse said. His voice was ripe with unbridled excitement. "I've seen pictures from up until he was sixteen. The Ed that you know...how old is he?"

Alfons almost missed the question, so fascinated was he by the tiny Edward-ghost. It was clear now that whatever geas had summoned Edward's likeness must not have gifted it with the ability to speak, because he'd expect an actual Edward to be shouting by now. As Alphonse talked, the vision kept winking in and out of existence, changing more each time it resolved. Alfons watched as short, stocky child grew into slightly taller, wiry adolescent; straight, shaggy hair grew down and then twined into a braid. Every now and again there was a step backward in the progression, where it seemed Edward's height or hair was a smidge shorter, his chest less defined, but then there would be a leap forward again as the overall trend was that Edward was growing up and out. It was like watching someone flick through a physical photograph album...a portrait of Edward in fits and starts, projected in three-dimensions.

"How old is the Ed you know?" Alphonse insisted again. His arms and legs jerked slowly, vaguely in Alfons's direction, as if he were fighting to move through same invisible force Alfons had been unable to conquer earlier. It looked as though he were trying to pounce.

"Eighteen, I think..." Alfons said. "We celebrated his birthday not long ago."

The vision between them blinked one last time and finally became the Edward he remembered—a touch longer in the torso, a touch broader at the shoulders, his hair pulled back into a high ponytail. Holding a pint of beer and smiling, the way he had looked at the pub on his eighteenth birthday, before the fall had set in and that sad, resigned scowl had taken up permanent residence on his face.

Alphonse across from him struggled all the harder against his unseen bonds, a wondrous expression on his face. His fingers splayed out, grasped through the aether toward the vision, every fiber of the boy's being visibly yearning toward the image of Edward.

"I knew it!" Alphonse breathed. "He's alive, I told them so! Where are you? What city? What country? Latitude, longitude? Any close-by landmarks?" And right into a series of desperate questions, each more grasping at loose straws than the last. Alphonse didn't even wait for the answers before launching into the next one.

Again, Alfons got the eerie feeling that once again he was no longer entirely there to the other boy, that his questions, concerns, wishes...everything in the world took a backseat to the topic of Edward, and what Alphonse wanted to know about him. It reminded him of talking to Edward himself about family. The fervent, half-mad dedication in the boy's eyes was unfortunately all too familiar.

"Are you really his brother?" he found himself asking in spite of himself.

Alphonse looked at him as if that question was preposterous.

"Of course I am, hasn't he mentioned me?" The other boy's expression dimmed. "Unless...he hasn't forgotten me, has he? Is that why he hasn't come home? Why do you ask that?!"

Tempting topic, Edward's whereabouts, but Alfons was sure to steer clear. If he was going to get to the bottom of this, he had to attack the problem rationally, head-on.

"Because this is a dream...the Isar doesn't flow with sand." He tasted the words and found them agreeable. They felt heavy on his tongue, gave him power against this strange doppelganger. Fact and reason, those were perennially his weapons; in the glare of this alien yellow light he clung to them like a lifeline. All else failed him but he had his intellect, and if all he could move was his tongue then, so be it. He locked eyes with the stranger and leveled shots one by one, darts of logic aiming for the heart of the nightmare.

"The Isar doesn't flow with sand. Nor does our boarding house have a landing, or a foyer. Miss Gracia is not an old woman. And Noah...t-the gypsy has been gone for some time now," Alfons said sharply, trying not to falter at that memory. "Almost two weeks now."

The image of Edward blurred and then winked out altogether. In its stead rose a familiar specter: a gorgeous girl with thick, dark hair like a waterfall of melted chocolate, soft curves that tested the contours of her demure dress. Her slight smile seemed to be mocking him, those full, round lips set to devour.

"What are you talking about?! Who is that?" 'Alphonse' asked, all wide-eyed innocence and wonder. Pah. This dream was starting to change from 'slightly frustrating' to 'downright annoying'.

"That's Edward's girl," he replied simply. Alfons balled his hands into fists. "But I'm not arguing with myself, this is absurd. Can I wake up now? Or do I have to listen to myself preach at me too?"

His younger self was looking more and more alarmed by the minute. The expression on his face quite clearly said he thought Alfons was mad. Alfons skewered him with a glare but it did nothing for the sick feeling at the pit of his stomach.

Noah's ghostly eyes were glimmering at him too. If anything her smile deepened.

"This is a dream," Alfons said, a little desperately. "A nightmare. Isn't it?"

Finally, the other boy seemed to catch on. His strange hazel eyes widened and he sucked down on his lower lip, a tic which Alfons didn't recall he'd ever had. When he was hard at thought he tapped his left foot, or if he was sitting, bounced his whole leg beneath the table. Edward did that too. Sometimes the resulting vibration was enough to send pencils scattering off their workbench.

"I think so. It was hard to tell at first," Alphonse said eventually. "I was trying to take a nap...heh, and here I thought I couldn't get to sleep. I must have been dreaming that I was waking up every fifteen minutes."

He offered a quick, nervous little grin with just the corners of his mouth; his teeth were busy chewing at the edge of his lower lip.

"I've been dreaming about you for a while now. About you and my brother both, for the last three or four months. I could see what you were doing...what he was up to. It was the only thing that was giving me hope," Alphonse said softly.

It was Alfons's turn to gape and wonder if the other party had taken leave of his senses...which wasn't good because this other person was a figment of his own imagination, right? If his dream-self was going insane and believing their dreams were real, did that mean he himself was also crazy?

"You're not real," he said again, as if through sheer repetition he could convince this nightmare to finish. Again, fear trickled in around the edges of his thoughts. Like the light, he couldn't get away from it—it simply was. He hyperventilated and sucked in only yellow, had the crazy mental image of his insides painting themselves marigold. It was the dream-self, he thought, eying the boy with fury. He couldn't shake this feeling of Other that he had when he looked at him.

His younger self looked oddly hurt.

"I know I can't prove it to you, but—"

"Prove what? You're a figment of my imagination!" Alfons accused.

Please, let this be a figment of my imagination.

If this is a dream, then why can't I wake up?

"You don't exist," he insisted, a plaintive note to his voice. "The real Alphonse Elric died in the war."

The vision of Noah dissipated much like the one of Edward had, only this time nothing immediately popped up to replace it. Alfons was starting to get the creeping fear that the ghosts were things taken straight out of his own thoughts, and he was trying very hard not to think of the many horrible ways in which a child could have died in that war to end all wars. Edward's body alone bore testament to horrors Alfons was grateful that he had never seen. Edward's sheared-off right arm, his sad little stump of a leg...but for the grace of his genius father's prosthetics, the man would be a cripple for life.

There was a pang in his gut all over again and then suddenly the brightness around him took physical shape, yellow intensified and twisted into a bright heat he could scarcely stand to look at. A plane of pure molten color spilled out beneath his feet, a stairway grew up out of it to nowhere, and as the surge of brightness subsided he realized to his horror there was a familiar floor beneath his feet. The oppressive force surrounding his limbs released him all at once and he reeled forward like a puppet with its strings cut across the dull gray tile of Miss Gracia's foyer, nearly slammed into her end table. There was a ceiling above him now, ground below, and directly before him...'Alphonse' was still there, standing in front of the stairs to the second story, his mouth a round 'O' of surprise, and Alfons realized in horror that he was looking at his dream-self staring up at his actual self.

Alfons was not a religious man, but he crossed himself just in case.

A ghostly vision of himself, not doll-sized but full-size was storming down the steps toward them and Alfons took a step back reflexively. Where 'Alphonse' could be his youthful self but for the strangeness of his eyes and hair, this vision aped his features exactly, right down to the brown jacket it was wearing, the briefcase it was holding, everything. This, this was his true doppelganger, so realistic it very well could walk out the door and take over his life like in his grandmother's superstitious ghost stories.

The only thing more terrifying than its furious, frustrated gaze was the vision behind it, a familiar whirlwind of rumpled coat and golden hair. Edward was charging down the steps after the ghost-version of himself, and suddenly Alfons had the sick feeling he knew just what he was about to see.

"Brother!" Alphonse cried out beside him. He sounded so ecstatic. Edward on the stairs had accelerated; his lips were moving frantically although no sound was coming out. Alfons didn't need a soundtrack to know what he was saying though, this part he remembered by heart.

They're planning a war, using the world I came from. I'm sure the rocket is part of it—Alfons-

"Brother? Can you hear me?! Hey!"

"Don't—" Alfons managed, just as the younger boy charged forward into the tableau, right into the middle of the vision of himself. Alphonse stopped short, jerked back as his fingers went through the middle of the illusionary Alfons's chest—just in time to see the false-Alfons's arm whip back and smash into the side of Edward's pretty little face.

He could not hear the sick thud that Edward's body made as he fell backward onto the stair, but somehow that made it all the worse to revisit. Edward's left leg was crooked at an unnatural angle, a nasty little detail that Alfons had not remembered—was it real? Or was it the dream playing tricks on him, making everything worse because he regretted it?

Everything froze, and to Alfons it seemed his next breath came on a whistle.

Alphonse was gaping at the scene in disbelief, the expression on his face one of abject disbelief. He looked back and forth between Alfons and the tableau in front of them the way Alfons had seen Edward staring frantically at thermodynamics equations, at those thrice-damned circular glyphs he doodled all over their lab notebooks.

"H-he's ill," Alfons found himself stammering, retreating step by step until he was flush up against the wall. He wanted to become one with it, he wanted to melt right into the fucking plaster and disappear. "He's not right in the head, he goes on and on about alchemy and other dimensions and you should have heard the crazy rant he was coming out with—damn him, I get so angry—"

The excuse sounded sickening even to his own ears. He choked on it, squeezed his eyes shut.

I hit a sick, crippled man, maybe even broke his false leg—how is that defendable?

"He's gone, okay? Is that what you wanted to hear?" he pleaded with Alphonse and his ghost-self alike, the world, God, everything. "I was an ass to my friend and now he's gone for good, that's all I have to give you. I've learned my lesson, I promise, just please leave me alone."

Yellow light was starting to increase at the edges of his vision, sneaking in beneath his eyelids again. He opened them and Alphonse was staring at him with something akin to pity.

"Alfons?"

Alfons averted his eyes, not sure he could handle the other boy's gaze.

"If you really are his brother," he said quietly, in a hollow voice, "then you'd better find him fast. If you're just a ghost, something that I dreamed...maybe it's better for him if you just stayed dead. I've watched him chase too many phantoms already."

Alphonse's eyes widened and he shook his head violently, curled his lips back to shout something. Alfons tried to read the boy's lips, but he could not hear what it was Alphonse was saying. Light was streaming up through the lines between the floor tiles, yellow was pouring in through the cracks in the walls, and it speared him through the eyes and ears and nose and mouth, until the world itself had burned away and his mind was burning with it, and his body was nothing but one long scream.