Chapter 1:

(Prelude) (Act 2)


"Oh nonononononon—" Jackie turned toward smudge that was once a mother of two, the children's cries droning into a fever-pitch. "Not now, not my babies, PLEASE NOT NOW--!"

"Fuck!" what was the bus driver shouted out genuinely, as he scrambled for the intercom, finding it via his training in this scenario happening versus his own wit. He grabbed whatever it once looked like and spoke; "Everyone remain calm as I ready the Shift Grounding Agent, it is—"

He choked on his mistake, steadily gulping as he forces his heart back down his throat. But it was too late, "It will be on standby, I repeat, IT WILL BE ON STAND--!"

Nobody could hear him anymore. They became apart of the discourse, an unwitting choir setting the screaming, shouting, and stuttering soundtrack to their uncertain doom.

But Jackie held firm; she had to. Even if she couldn't see anything anymore beyond shifting mass and matter, she had to be a hero to these people. She had to, or else the Shift wins, and even more people will lose it—SHE HAD TO! She had to. She had to. She had to. She had to…

But it was all just too much.

It wasn't a flash; it wasn't as luminous, straying, or graceful as light. But what was once reality started to erupt into a white, growing wispy state. Everything that once was, beginning to ignite into this miasma as the humans that never belonged strained themselves screaming.

Jackie wavered, then faltered, then started to cry, finally shutting her still-quivering eyes in a brief moment of futile, hallow acceptance.

The effect quickly dissipated as the bus reformed, only to go dark.

Via the metal platelets slamming themselves down and shut, the bus was armored, then anchored onto wherever it was. Jittering into place with precision and clung into place with a final slam into the concrete outside.

The creaking, caused by the shutters coming in so fast that the metal itself wasn't ready to deploy yet, was the only audible thing aboard.

The emergency lights came on as the bus driver was inanimate, practically in a self-appointed coma as he only looked forward, arms swinging limp and drenched with sweat. The mother of two kissed her babies--toddler and infant--as their faces were red, coated with tears and stretching as they continued to holler. The bratty teens were shellshocked where they sat, and the off-duty workers looked about where they stood and posed, only realizing that they were ready to pry the door open if it had to come down to it.

Something Jackie, shaking in her seat with eyes in her eyes, noted.

She covered her mouth, fighting her body not to throw up all over the floor, as she rabbit-kicked her foot onto said floor repeatedly as she made a scene.

"Jackie, honey--!" the old woman, who dropped her cane and struggling to get up to pat the girl's back, "There's no need to fight, we were all scared--!"

Jackie croaked out a no and forced it all back down. She jumped a bit before realizing that her vision was wavering because of her heartbeat. She smudged her hands against her face to wipe the tears and sweat, "I'm not giving it the damn satisfaction--!"

"There's nothing to prove, dear--!"

Jackie had her brow furrowed, eyes wild as she snarled at the helpless lady trying to help her, "THERE NEEDS TO BE, OR ELSE EVERYTHING WON'T HAVE A POINT ANYMORE!"

She realized before that came out and shrunk back into her seat. She saw everyone looking at her. They all saw what she has become.

She felt an apology was out of the question, and only if the elder wants something like that from the person she was becoming. She silently shifted back into her seat, looking downward as she tried to ignore the whispers she heard anyways.

"Are you okay with pretty long and pretty sad stories, kid?" the old woman asked, sat down again.

Jackie nodded. Well, it was only proper to, anyway. It's better to weather the elderly's seemingly endless stories versus acting like an "upstart," thus plunging them into a somehow less coherent rant. While her mind will focus on the falling apart present, she's going to give this old lady her ear. Who knows, it could be the ear she needed, making Jackie's decision more justified.

"As you can tell, I'm pretty damn old. My time was when we didn't really know about this crazy stuff and it happened at random. I cannot tell you how scary all of it was, watching all of that tear down every single thing that we learned in class, what our parents told us and kept telling us over and over because we didn't listen… 'This is reality, this is life'. Kinda hard to reconcile when it was changing like it did."

Jackie tried evading the rebrewing feelings by responding, making it to the point so the woman could get to hers, "Must've been terrible."

"Oh Jackie…" those words conveying age more than any of her looks, temperament, or sound. "I didn't know what 'terrible' even meant back then."

The bus driver came back to live as a augmented screen appeared before him. He looked at it, looked at what it displayed, a 360, rotating cam around the vehicle, as he turned it to scan the now-normal. He sighed with a whimper, before grabbing the intercom.

"Shift Falsestart confirmed. Will be moving momentarily."

He retracted the shielding when he really didn't want to, the latches coated in black, crushed dust that covered the windows, making the orange shine dirt brown. He resumed the route as if none of that never happened.

The bus went down a turbulent road, Jackie attempting to keep still by forcing her hands into her lap, gripping her blue track pants. She looked at the woman, still not returning her hidden gaze, and she wasn't really looking at anything in particular, by impressions.

"It wasn't even anything related to that. Some storm that ended up becoming a tropical one, some high category… It was a disaster. I lost my town. I lost some of my friends, teachers, neighborhoods—even the strays weren't spared. Standing water that would've drowned me and I was 17 then. My house had a caved in hole that took the entire front of it and we had to use the wreck as some makeshift raft-harbor. The relief efforts were poor, reconstruction always ended with things breaking further and overall for the first few years, we made the mess that we were in incurable. There was nothing saving it."

A ping a guilt tore through the stagnant anger building in her chest. How could she claim to be suffering this when she didn't even know it like this strong woman had? Wrong. Completely and utterly wrong of her to think that. This shit has completely clouded her head and she somehow hated it more. Whatever "it" was.

"Hey, I said it was sad, but it has a happy ending. Sad stories can have happy endings, y'know!" that stare made her pick up her head, as it "met" the woman's eyes again. Jackie didn't know that she was too busy looking at her lap and balled fists.

"How…? I-I'm glad, but all means, but…" Jackie sputtered out.

"This is what I mean, what I was saying. We made a new 'town', we banded together old and young, figured out how to survive day to day, struggled and cursed when we had to live those days, and cried when the day rescue came; the day that we lived for… I met the man of dreams I didn't even know I had, and we've been at it for 65 years and would've been 68 had he not been a huge knucklehead. I even made friends along the way, right down to the cliché…Just came back from the funeral for one of them. She was my bestest friend."

Jackie blinked rapidly at that; she felt her eyes burn a bit. "My condolences."

"When you went through a life like we did, there's… Something about it that made it lengthy, a lifetime filled with details even if it was seventy-six and only fifty mattered… But listen to me, dear. I could be completely wrong. Maybe you guys are too stacked against this, too outgunned by whatever all this is, maybe the human race more or less ends during your time and there's nothing that you could've done… But I'm sure you all will survive that, this, somehow. I don't believe misery is all you need to build character, but believe that even when something like this happens, there's the terrible and the good, and they're both extreme. And you're in the middle of that, and you can learn from both. Grow from them. Become better from them."

The bus settled down, as the road smoothed out and the woman's words could be heard loud and clear to Jackie. She put a hand on hers.

"If this ditzy, daydreaming girl got to live to become an old woman, I'm sure someone like you can double my record," as she smiled as she said the next bit, that being clear from the shroud. "So stop getting those wrinkles when you don't need 'em! Life will give them plenty, along with scars, along with pain. No need to add anymore."

Jackie could only exhale at that, whatever words she could've said didn't matter. She took her words in, they didn't settle into where she needed them, but she let it sit close to her all the same. "I didn't…," Jackie found the words that she can say, "Get your name, ma'am."

"Edith", she answered.

"Thank you, Edith ma'am. Your story is amazing and I'm so, so honored to have met you. You gave me something to think about," Jackie warmly smiled, truly did.

Edith's now revealed smile of her own beamed, under the ancientness of her face. Her mouth moved, "I just wanted to help you, dearie. You seemed so… Angry. Sad. Worried?"

Jackie looked back at her phone, she sighed as her emotions came flooding back, her face finding itself back into his new shape.

"No… I guess I'm just like everyone else. Lost."

The bus stopped and the destination alert caught Jackie's attention as she looked down at the phone again. This was the place. She waved at Edith as she walked out of it, stepping back out into the darkness.

Jackie walked down the street, with the impressive lights surrounding her, burying her face into a light of her own.
The sun was waning, dark enough for the city deem it to be a night. It would've been 7 PM. Her head rose from her phone to admire the sun drowning within the orange, cloudy haze, lacing throughout with brown. That was normal. That eased her.

That eased her a bit before returning to what she's going to do. Knowing that "tomorrow" can easily cloud this view gave her the resolve to cross this line.

The messages screen bothered her again. It felt like it shanked her blue eyes, and they were as far as she's concerned. She closed them again, to gain some semblance of relief, and sighed. Sweerishh was the sound that ripped from her sleeve racing against her sweat-suits shirt.

The phone, what didn't weight more than what she could lift daily, dragged her arm down to her side instantly for the millionth time. She just couldn't do it. This was against everything that Jackie stands for.

But as she opened her eyes, scanning across the empty, gleaming streets, the unease returned. The orange-brown haze cloaked the areas the lights barely reached, giving off stagnation.

Cars parked with no signs of owners on her left, stores that are open on a technically on her right, with a lone bus-stop pole that comes with the guaranteed, hour-long wait if not at all tonight, she looked at it all. It was motivation enough. She knew she had to go there, and she has to do this.

Jackie felt silly, stopping at the bus-stop while still looking at it. She made it her physical-metaphorical line, her crossroad. She looked at her phone again, biting her lip cringing, knowing that she can't cross it without crossing the line that doesn't have the benefit of being so well drawn. Tangible.

She pressed on her father's direct message channel and began typing. "Gonna run for a bit longer. Today kinda…left me in a funk. Totally fine if you reject given what's going to happen, but I"

The text stopped when she froze. Thumb twitching held back to stop. The text ceased to exist when she slammed against the backspace key repeatedly.

"Went for a run longer than usual. Today was pretty bad. I'm steering clear of anliarliarliarliarliarliar"

She couldn't help it. It was lying to him. Lying to the face of the man who taught her that lying could be the easiest thing to accomplish…but the most harrowing to maintain.

She couldn't help to look at the stupid one from the other day, about how he forgot that there was still milk in the house despite buying another jug — the simplicity of it. It was just too much.

Then she heard it. She couldn't help to listen to it.

Even when she was away from it as possible, it was still in the air. The sounds of celebration, people's voices intermingling, the video presentations that droned said voices into chittering mumbling while advertising why they're there in the first place.

They were sounds that personified the chill in the astrosphere, representing the unease of what kind of time she and others live in now. She was gripping at her sports bag's strip across her chest so hard; her fingers pale white.

She couldn't help but hate it.

She cleared the failed attempt and succeeded this time because she had to.

"Run was longer than usual because…today was horrible. I still feel horrible. Gonna stay out a little later because…I feel like doing that will get this out of me. If you want me to come home regardless, I will in a heartbeat. I promise I won't get caught up in what's happening tonight."

Nothing but truth poured out in that text she sent. "Caught up" meant that she'd be a victim, another poor victim in this horrible time.

She's diving headfirst into it.