Crossroads collects mediums of art where and when they meet at the start of the collaboration process. Visual Artists, Writers, Filmmakers, Cartoonists and more are asked to connect with each other Through their work. The process is through call and response. One artist will either create something new or provide what they already have, and then the following creator will grab that copy of their work, reflect, and respond with their own creation to illustrate the piece.
Last Run Before Sunrise
by Richard O’Brien
Illustrations by Dolan Bailey
I didn’t always have a name, but I used to know someone who called me Sunshine, and this is what I’m thinking about as I outrace the end of the universe.
Running until even the darkness of space fell away and all around me was pure absence. Far removed from all living things and deeper than the hells that the dead inhabit. I sought to barter with the Elder God-Kings for the very soul of my world. This was a reality of living concepts, ideas that grew and evolved independent of any physical presence. These ideas had been banished long ago for the crime of cannibalizing other ideas, devouring their brothers and sisters and children to supplement their own growth. The oldest forces, the forces of the primordial oneness, sent their corrupted offspring here and it was here that I would make my stand, a hero of Earth against cannibal thought-forms from before the dawn of life
My blood is like acid and my legs are on fire. Have to keep running, keep running, almost there. I wish I could whisper a final goodbye, but I’ve gone past the speed of words. I’m a loosed arrow, fired with certainty at a bullseye, a pinhole portal between universes. Oh my god, why does it hurt so much. My eyes are on fire. Stray tears lost in time to become raindrops or oceans or the Flood, a great flood to swallow up the whole world. God. I can’t tell if I’m cursing or praying. I’ve outrun my own heartbeat, waiting to hear that next beat like a gong the size of a galaxy. Keep running. If I keep running, I can warn them. I can see her one last time, my skin gone and my muscles charred.
“Even your advanced physiology can’t cope with mythic-level speed,” Doc Infinity told me in complete solemnity, endless equations floating around him like mystic sigils, the final signifiers of a coherent universe, the last thing he thought on with the hyper-cognition he had possessed since that fateful day. He looked old then, in that final meeting. I had never thought much about Doc’s age. It seemed like he’d been around forever. Like he’d always be around. But in those last hours, I saw it at last. I saw age, as if they’d been drawn into his face with an artist’s pen, the last mask he’d wear. As if a secret identity could save any of us from the End of the World.
“If you do this, you won’t survive. It’s a one way trip, Kid.”
I just smiled and laughed. I think that was my last real smile. I thought we’d beat it. That this wasn’t really the end. It couldn’t be. We’d bartered with gods and done battle with the Devil himself. We could beat this. I knew we could. But here, beyond moments, beyond time, all our adventures laid out before me like panels on a page. I saw the annual team-ups between the Legend Lodge and their successors, the World Justice Vanguard. I saw the first war with the Clan of Cain, when the Marked Son scarred the moon itself in rage, only to awaken the Selenite King from his ages-long slumber. I saw my first kiss, with Alice Archer, all those years before our tearful reunion at the grave of her father, the Black Bowman.
All those memories, all of my memories…where was everything else?
My bones were burning with radiation, set alight by the fallout of a thousand dead universes, the playground of the Horror Gods and their mutant offspring. Every step felt like the inception point of an earthquake, shaking reality itself. I saw stories get reordered and relatives come and go. Who was that uncle I’d never met who had raised me from boyhood? Why was my costume a different color in three sequential seconds? What was happening?
“You may notice shifts in reality,” explained Doc Infinity, regal in his bone-white armor he’d won off the Emperor of Bones in a gladiatorial battle on the far side of yesterday, “Ignore them. They are ultimately inconsequential, even moreso once you reach the speeds you’ll need for unassisted multiversal transit. What’s important is the idea at the heart of it. Don’t remember me as I am, but as Doctor Infinity, the Pale Prince. Think of our past adventures as legends to be whispered in the ear of the universe, building blocks for something new.”
I tried to focus, tried to build ground to run on, a path for my final sprint to that last exit from this dying reality, a pathway of dreams forged from jumbled, mismatched stones. Time was a solid here, a series of panels, flooring for a place where the idea of motion was just another concept. I rebuilt the day that Vesuvius, the Molten Monarch, created an eighth continent from the core of a dead moon. I rebuilt the War of Wishes and the Final Charge and the Fall of the Empire of the Lost.
They seemed more like titles to old comic books than the names of real events. Even the blood I’d seen. It wasn’t like real blood. It was ink, red ink on a page, so bright, too bright to be real. I remembered that blood on my hands. Whose blood was it? Was she some C-list piece of cannon fodder, in the background for years, dying at the hands of some universe-ending threat? Why did she have to die?
“Watch out!” she had shouted. I could still see her words, frozen in the air, black font, bold on a white background. Maybe if I keep running…there. I reach out with my hand and I grab at the strings. Like a boy learning to play an instrument, I strum out a simple tune. I feel the old memory fade and crack. Suddenly, things occurred differently. She’s there and she’s bright and full and alive. She had a name. I felt the ghost of her kiss, hanging in the air where my lips used to be.
I start pulling at strings, frenzied and desperate to change the past, to rebuild the ark and drag my friends with me into the new world. If I focus long enough, I can revive my dead limbs, wrapping bone in sinew and skin as I begin to play melodies, freestyling whatever world makes sense at the moment. My head is pounding and each change feels like it might be the last. Either the world is fixed, or my brain explodes.
“Ones and zeroes,” like the old Doctor used to say.
A universe is like a symphony in the night, each atom vibrating in a magnificent concert…what’s going on, who’s putting these thoughts in my head? I’ve never played music in my life. I see what I’ve done now, a thousand possible backstories welling up to fill in the sketchy remains of what was once my past, my life. I can’t even get my middle name right. Was it Bruce or Robert? My god: it’s full of the dead come to life.
What happened to the days when we would shift a planet’s path to change the course of a single bullet, like we did on the day Count Kronus crossed the Crimson Crocodile and unleashed the eternal scorn of the red reptile? I keep misremembering it. Was it done in a day or six months? It feels huge, but the colors are all wrong and people are there who weren’t even heroes yet: Black Banshee and T-Count riding alongside Mystic in all his purple pomp and glory.
“I just want to go home,” I hear someone whisper, but I can’t tell where it came from. Was that me or you? Have you been listening this whole time? There’s a hole in the universe shaped like a square and it lets you see every moment from every angle. The gods of voyeurism judge us for our outfits and the way we speak. Can’t they see that we tried? We tried so hard to keep it all together, but sometimes things don’t fit. It’s coming back to me now: in this timeline, she left. I was plunged into a deep depression by the effects of Night Black Mindstone from a higher dimension and she just couldn’t take it anymore. Sometimes even amazing people aren’t worth the effort. I just want to hold her again and apologize for everything, all the craziness and the supervillains and my evil twins from Reality-Gemini, who besmirched my name for years after the few picto-seconds they were let loose on our world, before Gamma-Man banished them with his arcane magi-sciences.
No, no, focus, keep moving, I have to keep moving. Maybe I can still fix it. But who would want me now? They don’t know me. My life is a revision of a revision, the tale of another me from another time. I’m just a fake to them. But I’m real. I’m real…aren’t I? I push the thought to the back of my mind. I watch another wave of changes sweep over the panels beneath my feet. At these speeds, the panels run together and it’s like watching a movie of my life.
In this timeline, we all got our powers from a shared exposure to the meta-element Kirbium. I have…I have a sister? She looks just like my (our) mother, like looking at an old photo. We had adventures together. I always felt so alone growing up. Even the others couldn’t understand my nonsense. They didn’t know what it was like to have time bend around you, to be so free. But she did. She was my best friend and my closest ally.
Now I’m holding her charred remains in my arms and I’m weeping, heavy sobs for a sister I never knew, a life that isn’t mine. I can change this. I play a new tune, trying to bring her back. She won’t die. Not for me. I’m not worth it. Life, above all things, is precious. We defend it. Defend it to the end, like my grandpa used to say.
“Kid,” said Doc Infinity, smiling behind his blue holo-display, “You’re a wonder. My equations keep showing someone with your powers altering time from somewhere at the edge of knowable reality.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, not knowing then how wrong things would go. I thought superheroes could save the world in those days. Maybe I still believe it, deep down, in some quiet place where our childhood stories live on.
“It means you’re the only one who can save us. You have to run, keep making new stories, a bridge of events to lead us out of this dying universe and into a healthy one. Constructed out of memories, stories, rumors, theory, whatever you want. You have to be the author of a better world,” he stopped talking and looked at me, like a character on the cover of a comic book, “you have to write reality into life, or the universe dies at dawn!”
How do I birth a universe? Every attempt comes out jerky and inconsistent, Frankenstein timelines stitched together by nudges and suggestions of impossible events and tenuous continuity. It all falls apart and I begin again, I take the best parts of all these dead worlds and try to shock them into life. I am the fire of the gods on two legs and I can’t even keep a crummy universe together without far future civilizations of All-Beasts coming to devour human progress or Earth turning into an incubator for World-Devouring Ghost Gods from wherever. I don’t even care anymore. I just want them to be alive. I want to wake up in my bed and say, “And you were there. And you. And you where there too!” Just me, happy in my homunculus universe. That’s all I want.
I reach out and play a single note and a new memory pops into being. There’s me racing Lady Velocity across the seven globes of Anti-World, and there’s me dining with the Loa at the Six-Hundred Sixty-Sixth Night Banquet in honor of Siobhan Samedi’s name-day, and there’s me in a brand-new costume at my induction into the Vanguard. All of these memories, they’re mine, I created them moments ago, but somehow I lived them. I well up with emotion, fit to burst and release still more tears into outer time as I remember the fallen comrades and the lost mentors, even children taken before their time. This is the world that we live in, and if I can get it right, maybe I can keep death at bay. In the face of death, life is the only defense. You have to live to stop from dying.
But now the universe is falling apart, tearing apart at a subatomic level. Where is there to run when nothing exists anymore? I can’t run into the past. It always ends in sentence fragments and exclamations, the atomic grammar of a dead universe, shattered remnants like steppingstones into a void. At the end of it all, the final escape hatch is smaller than a quark. I’m an atomic superman trying to outrace death itself, a body made of memories that don’t make sense and some vague hope I can find what I lost and build it again. I am the Living Death and I am the First Seed of a new universe. Just keep running…
It’s funny how it’s all in moments. This event or that event, distinct from each other in my mind, but flowing before me now, none of it seems real. Like watching a movie of my life, but I can’t recognize any of the faces because I’m seeing them all at the wrong angle. I can’t even recall my mother’s face. It’s hazy like a photo of a UFO. Why can’t I remember her face? I feel sick. It must be all that radiation. Radiation in my bones, it’s like being set on fire from the inside, why does it hurt so much? I’m a radioactive mutant, the child of fallout from a dead sun on a waste of a world.
This is what I tell myself as I’m dying. I want to see her again. I wonder if she’d even recognize me as I am now. I’m gaunt as a skeleton, charred to ash, barely holding it together. My skin grows back for a moment and I play a few notes, just to write in a final meeting with her. Her face gives me comfort, the ghost of her closeness. My memory is foggy from the pain and the shifts of history, I feel as if I have a thousand undiscovered histories, all of them true, all of them false.
I play a tune and send a song into the void. I see her crying. She’s remembering a song we listened to once, before I left. Was I scared? No, that wasn’t it. I’m not afraid of anything. I’m a superhero. I outthought the Thought Meister in a game of charades with the Five Fine Fiends. I shook hands with Cuchulainn in the ancient past. I raced to the end of the universe. Now, I’m outrunning death. I don’t know for how long. Time doesn’t seem to mean anything in this place. I keep waiting for that great gong sound, trapped in the space between heartbeats.
This is what I’m thinking about as I outrace the end of all things.
“What happens when I get there?” I asked Doc Infinity, his face behind that blue screen of his, “What happens when I pass through to the other side.”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “Past that portal is an entire reality outside our own. Anything could happen. You may just cease to be.”
I looked at him. I wanted to ask why. Why bother if we don’t even know what’s past the portal? Why bother if there’s no one at the other end to receive my message. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. My skin is gone and my bones ache, but I just keep running. If I stop, death will catch me, and then it all ends.
I keep running, building a little world out of music and memory. I want to stay there, but my legs will give out and disintegrate eventually. I’ll turn to nothing, I’ll fade to dust like everyone else. I keep waiting.
It’s a sound like a great gong.
It’s a sound like the end of the world.
“Will I remember any of you?” I asked, a thousand lifetimes ago.
“In broad strokes. Just keep the memories that you can. They may be hazy, as if all the various strands are at war with each other, trying to will themselves into being real. Don’t fight it. Learn to hold them all in your mind. What’s missing from one might be illuminated in another. You just have to keep building it until it can support itself. Make it real, Kid.”
“It doesn’t matter what you play. It doesn’t matter if you play it well or if you play it badly. Hell, it doesn’t matter what you play it on. Doesn’t matter who you play it to, just as long as you play something and keep playing. Music exists beyond the bounds of your idea of it. It is shattering and cacophonous and immense. It dwarfs worlds. The whole of the universe is wrapped inside of a song. You play a song, any song, and you tap into the most essential aspect of existence. We are all frozen music, space dust dancing to the variations of the same tune that birthed the universe. That is who and what we are. We are the song of the void, and what a beautiful song it was, that celestial music of the spheres.”
I opened my eyes. The grass was wet, but I didn’t mind. It was sunny. So bright I could barely see. I felt the warmth my skin. My bones hurt. But it was so warm there, lying in the grass. I had a little tune in the back of my head.
I start to hum.