Challenge: doomsday scenario
Summary: Two friends are caught up in the end of the world as we know it.
Comments: I poured my heart into this one, folks. I actually recommend the audio version. Seriously! It's available on my LJ and the sheldon_penny LJ comm. It has sound effects and everything. =)
Joy Division – "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
The Church – "Under the Milky Way Tonight"
Donnie Darko OST / Michael Andrews – "Slipping Away"
Donnie Darko OST / Michael Andrews – "Waltz In the 4th Dimension"
Donnie Darko OST / Michael Andrews / Gary Jules 7– "Mad World"
The Break And Repair Method – "This City Is Bound (To Do Us In)"
Is my timing that flawed,
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there's still this appeal
That we've kept through our lives
Penny tapped her index finger on the 1 o'clock position of her steering wheel as Joy Division bounced through her vehicle's acoustic system. If she caught public radio at the exact afternoon time slot, she could listen to their classic pop hour instead of a dissertation on Korea. This mattered to the young listener because it was one of the few transmissions that came through completely static-free in the vicinity of three locations she frequently visited: the Cheesecake Factory, her improv club, and the comic book store. Penny didn't put much stock in talk radio as an education tool, so she figured that without the periodic music blocks the station would go out of business. Her passenger at the time would've happily informed her how baseless this assumption was, but she'd learned long ago not to be the one who talks first when trapped in a car with Sheldon Cooper.
Beside her, Sheldon rotated his head from the window to the wheel. "Astounding. Even your tapping is off-beat."
Penny was cool with ignoring this comment. Penny was in the zone. Traffic was light, and she didn't have to work again for three whole days. To top it off, she still had two hours worth of gas in her tank. If the next song was a good one she might even sing along. A couple more miles until the comic book store, then she could ditch her neighbor to get a latte and come back just in time to pick him up, thus avoiding Stewart and replenishing her caffeine levels at the same time.
"And it's something quite peculiar," she crooned as they approached an intersection. "Something shimmering and wise..."
"Penny," Sheldon interrupted in what she knew would be a thinly-veiled attempt to engage her as a distraction, if he bothered to veil it at all. "While your voice is quite agreeable for singing at work and in what future circumstances we'll next require a sea shanty, right now it just hurts us both." To make it worse, he then reached out and lowered the volume of the radio.
The young driver sighed, feeling the zone slip away from her and recede into the distant trees and buildings of downtown Pasadena. Goodbye, inner peace zen thing; Sheldon Cooper was too much for you. In the only response she could think of, Penny dropped her hand onto the turn signal and swung the car violently to the right. It was a flagrant display of that inclination in SoCal drivers to only use the turn signal after they'd already begun to move. Penny blended in splendidly with the natives when it came to stuff like that.
After careening through two lanes her little red car bounced over a speed bump and squealed to a stop in a gas station parking lot. She eyeballed man in the passenger seat. "Sweetie, let go of the safety grips. We're in park."
Sheldon Cooper only tightened his fingers around the hand-hold and shook his head in mute terror. Behind him, out the window, Penny could see a large group of people crowding the store interior of the gas stop; she figured it was something to do with the opening of the UCLA football game. Her eyes refocused on Sheldon's anxious expression.
"Look, you just brought this on yourself," said Penny. "You think my voice was hurting you? I thought I'd just show you how much worse it could be if you kept distracting me with your negativity."
"A motor vehicle is classified as a deadly weapon," Sheldon said.
"I'm glad we understand each other." Penny readjusted herself in her seat, brushed aside her bangs, and tugged the gear shift back into drive. As she was pulling out into the street again, she turned the stereo back up, but the music block had been usurped with a news report during their detour.
"—like it's hovering over the horizon. Some kind of massive cloud, but we can't really see from this distance. It's not white, or gray, it's—it's more hazy than that. You can see a lot of colors, and, and...uhh, I just don't know how to describe it. It's more vibrant than just a smoke haze, but it's not as solid as a cloud should look from this distance."
Penny fancied she could actually hear the moment Sheldon sat up straighter. "Penny," he said, letting it rise at the end in a question. She shushed him and turned the volume higher.
According to the report, the NPR correspondent was standing on Hermosa Beach with a camera and audio recording team, describing a strange weather phenomenon approximately five miles out to sea. She listened with half her attention, the rest on the road, but she knew from Sheldon's complete silence that he was in a mode of absorbing as much raw data as possible. Making an executive decision, Penny abandoned the comic book store and went straight for the 210 freeway. No comic could possibly interest her friend when it came in the wake of a new mystery, and as she listened, she decided she'd rather have that coffee at home.
"Signs indicate that the gas cloud is moving closer to shore. We've been advised to vacate the beach if necessary. A few police have joined us, and they're already hustling beach-goers back to their cars. I don't know how, Caroline, but I can say this is the single most amazing thing I've ever seen." There was an onset of louder voices, and then the reporter was back, her voice sturdy but curt, "Okay, the cops are asking us to return to the van now. We'll check back in from one of the rooftops."
The host, Caroline, came on in an instant. "That was Joan Nguyen at Hermosa Beach, outside of Long Beach, California. We've still no concrete word from the federal weather stations as to the nature of the cloud, but callers are dialing us constantly with reports from the coastal towns. People describe it as a cloud or a wave of multiple colors—"
A man's gruff voice, popping with static, was briefly heard: "It's like a slow motion explosion, you know? It's f**beeep**ing weird." Then Caroline's voice was back: in-control and beautifully rational.
"So far, our callers have similar comments to report: there is something large, bright, and multi-colored moving toward shore. Local television stations are showing the first images. This is not a hoax. The L.A. and Long Beach Police Departments and the Orange County Sheriff's Department are asking people to remain in their homes and watch the news to stay informed. We expect a comment from the Governor any time now."
Penny turned the volume down to a mumbling buzz. Sheldon ripped his eyes away from car stereo and looked out the window, which he'd ignored for the last ten minutes. He stared at the next oncoming freeway sign, then back at Penny, with his mouth hanging empty.
"You missed our exit a long time ago. We're almost to Glendora."
Penny didn't take her eyes off the road. There were a few more cars than before, but the increase was gradual, barely noticeable. Late-afternoon sun reflected with intense whiteness from the outlines and lettering of the freeway signs.
A whoosh, a shadow overhead from the traffic sign, and they passed the first exit for Glendora. If Penny listened to him now, she wouldn't be able to think clearly. He persisted, because he was Sheldon and he could never let things drop.
"Penny, we need to go home right now. I have procedures set up for this and we can't follow the wisest course of action without gathering at a central place to assess the situation."
She ached to hear it, because he sounded so clear and so confident. With a decade and a half of higher education, and all those hypothetical scenarios feeding his belief, it was nearly the hardest thing she'd ever done to swallow, and say, "No, Sheldon."
"Penny!" Sheldon's voice lost some of its composure. She knew what was coming. "Penny, we have to go back. Our emergency kits are the in apartment, and all of the supplies we might need. And we'll need to collect Leonard before he wanders off into some mysterious rainbow cloud."
Her eyelids slipped closed for the briefest moment, then popped wide again, and she flexed her fingers against the steering wheel. She'd been wrong, before; what she had to say next would be ten times more difficult. It was probably the worst thing she'd said aloud in her entire life.
"I'm not going back, Sheldon." Penny took an enormous breath in the hope that this might abate the pressure building in her chest. "I'm putting us on the 15 before it becomes impossible. I have enough gas to get us to Barstow."
"You want to go to Vegas?" Sheldon almost shouted. His chest strained against the shoulder strap of his seatbelt, and his hands clutched at the car door as if they could find no trustworthy purchase.
"No, Flagstaff. The highway goes straight east from there. If you wanna help, take out your phone and call Leonard to tell him where we're headed."
He scrambled to dig out his cell phone, objecting the whole time. "Penny, we can't leave California! It's just a weather distortion, we have no idea if there's any threat to us, whatsoever. We can't make rash decisions without being fully informed. We've got nothing but credit cards; we don't even have any bottled water."
"Under the seat," she said tersely. "Sorry, it's been there since last Wednesday. Cheesecake staff party."
This pithy comment only made his protests raise a full set of decibels. "Penny, turn the car around! You're overreacting and being completely irrational from fear of the unknown."
"NO!" screamed Penny, slamming her palm flat against the dashboard. Her whole body shook, but she managed to keep the wheel steady and her pedal foot poised. "You're the one who's being illogical, Sheldon. You're the one who can't see the forest for the trees. You heard the woman on radio. Maybe it's already hit the shore. Why do you think they didn't hear anything from their weather stations in the Pacific? I've been watching the people in the streets as we passed, and the traffic now, and it's about to turn into a nightmare. We have a chance to leave, and I'm not going back. I'm not going to let you go back either."
"But…our stuff, the university," Sheldon whispered. He held up his iPhone, now blinking with a message that all systems were busy. "Leonard's not picking up."
Penny wiped a smear of wetness from both sides of her cheeks and choked out, "Leonard's a really smart guy. He'll get out. I know he will. He'll probably have Raj and Howard crammed into his trunk and get to Arizona before we do."
Subdued, Sheldon wrung his hands on his seat strap as if twisting wet rag. The skepticism of his voice was undercut by nervousness when he asked, "Do you really believe that? The odds are decreasing at a rate of—"
"I have to," she interrupted. More tears had sprung from the corners of her eyes, and one lone drip hung from her jaw, waiting to fall. If she spared a thought for her coworkers and friends who wouldn't even have that much of a chance, she'd break down, and then they wouldn't get anywhere. "My family's in Kearney, Nebraska. Your Mom's in Texas, right? We can go there, first."
They measured the next hour in shrubs, rocks, and stretches of dry earth. The landscape kept Penny sane; if she focused enough on her driving it could almost seem like this was just a road trip, just a place they needed to go to do a thing they needed to do. They'd made it onto the highway easily enough, but after the 215 merger, traffic noticeably increased. Even with people going east on both halves of the road, it was a slow push toward Victorville, and the mood in the car had shifted from vocal panic to wounded silence.
After Penny flatly refused to turn them around, their next argument was about the news. She didn't want to hear it, but Sheldon needed to hear it. Since his cell was competing with every caller in the southwest, he was unable to get streaming internet news or contact their friends. When he promised to leave her alone if she allowed the radio, Penny conceded.
The news reports were a mess of information bursts and terror, but the most horrible thing was the moment, halfway to Victorville, when the channel went completely flat. White noise crackled from the dashboard before Sheldon—his hand bizarrely steady—let his thumb rest against the knob, and turned it until the buzz ended with one hollow, terminal, click. After that they drove in silence, watching the press of vehicles get thicker and more sluggish with every mile.
It was nearly half an hour after the radio stations went off air that Penny realized they were close to the next town. She forced her way over to the second-most right hand lane in anticipation, and at the same moment the driver behind them honked when she came close to clipping his front fender. The noise pulled Sheldon out of his stupor.
"Why are we moving over? Are you trying to exit? Oh lord, you are, aren't you?"
Penny squinted in her various mirrors. The afternoon was already late when they began this macabre road trip, and she thought sundown might be less than an hour away, give or take. "We have to get gas, Sheldon. Victorville isn't very large, but if we don't get gas we'll be stranded."
Sheldon shook his head vehemently, and when he spoke, there was a surety in his manner that she hadn't heard since they left the L.A. basin. "Penny, we cannot stop. Based on our rate of travel we will make it to Barstow, or nearly. Possibly close enough to walk or hitch a ride. Those things are questionable, uncertain. But several worse things will almost assuredly happen if we get off the highway."
"Like what?" she snapped, because her patience was a thin reed she'd chucked out the window fifteen miles ago, when Sheldon finally got a call through to his roommate, only to have Leonard's end divert to voicemail, without a single ring tone.
"Oh, I don't know, only every horrible thing your proletariat mind could imagine? Haven't you watched The Stand? Have you even thought this through? One: once we leave we aren't able to get back on the highway, at all. Two: any ground we've gained in the last two hours is lost in the wait to get us back on the highway. Three: there is no more gas, because it's a small town and people are already escaping. Four: there is gas, but in the hysteria it can only be obtained by violence, theft, or murder on our parts. Five: we become victims of violence, theft, or—"
"Stop it!" Penny cried. She hadn't thought there were tears remaining in her body, or that she still had the capacity to release them, yet they flowed from her eyes and clouded her vision. Sheldon jerked back when he saw her reaction, his mouth folding in and his eyes dropping.
"You don't have to cry," he offered. He was thoroughly cowed, which terrified Penny on a whole new level. "I apologize for yelling at you. You're doing an excellent job of driving us."
"God," Penny sniffled, "That's almost nice of you." She let a tepid smile twist up her lips and cheeks. "Thanks."
"I mean it sincerely."
"We can't stop, Penny. Just drive as far as you can."
So they drove. As the speed of the horde decreased, Penny saw more than one truck or sedan veer off into the desert. Their drivers chose to risk flat tires, rock, and flash flood ravines in an effort to get free of the crush. Penny threw her lot in with the people on the road, and Sheldon's lack of commentary was as good as agreement. Despite the bizarre, mutual awareness of their kinship as refugees, she tried not to look too closely at the people in the other vehicles as they drove. It would only be a reflection, and the last thing she wanted to see were her own fears laid across someone else's face.
After a time, when they were chugging along at a measly 15 miles an hour, Sheldon stuffed his parcel bag into the window corner and curled up in his seat to sleep. Penny let him go, wondering as she watched if she would ever sleep again. Would she have time? Would they live long enough for her to once more have that moment of dream shifting to reality? She hadn't savored that moment nearly enough, always taken it for granted that tonight she would sleep, and tomorrow she would awaken.
Penny leaned her chin against the steering wheel, and sighed. She wished her CD player hadn't broken the week before, or that she'd taken up Howard on his offer to fix it. She hadn't even stopped to consider how generous the offer was; she popped out a reflexive dismissal, assuming that he was trying to monopolize her attention. Penny would appreciate that CD changer now, as it still contained a double disc of Smashing Pumpkins and a Beyoncé album. She would have welcomed a leering text message from the engineer, too.
Heavy with that last thought, she took out her own phone and dialed her mother's cell. No one picked up, so she gave her heart to message machine, and tried to remember everything worth saying.
After enough time had passed that she could've listened to at least half of Twilight to Starlight, and to reduce the fuel gage to negligible yellow, Penny looked into her rear view mirror and saw a shimmering, golden-blue haze where setting sun should be. Without stopping, without even breathing deeply, she let one hand fall to the shoulder of her friend. He started awake, blurted a quote about a prisoner's dilemma, and raised his head to find her eyes. Penny slid her hand up to cup his cheek.
"We're stopping, Sheldon." When he made to glance over his shoulder, into the west, Penny's hand prevented him. Her palm, where it touched his cheek, felt hot and a bit moist from sweat. "Unbuckle your seatbelt," she said, and rolled the car to a stop on the far left arm of the highway.
"Come on, Sheldon," she urged. Now that they'd stopped moving forward, it was as if all the hopes and illusions that held them confined in the box of metal and oil were, finally, out of reach. The curtain had been pulled back from the stage, and Penny and Sheldon scrambled to set their feet on the ground for last call. Together they stood beside the open doors and looked at a hazy, splendid eternity eclipsing the horizon.
"What is it?"
"A quantum event. Oh Jesus…a singularity? Or another universe?" It was clear to Penny that the prize researcher of Cal Tech was lost, swimming in a desert of his ignorance. "A fold in time, maybe. I don't know yet."
"Like a tesseract?" She was unable to move her eyes from the oncoming horizontal sky, but this reply yanked Sheldon's attention like a fishhook, and he stared at her over the four feet of dusty red roof.
"No," he said, his voice touched with wonder even so. "That was a metaphor from a children's novel. A tesseract is the four-dimensional analog of the cube, consisting of eight convex cubical cells."
With visible effort Penny dragged her gaze from the phenomenon to meet Sheldon's blue eyes. "I read it in seventh grade. It was about folding space, even if it was a metaphor." She licked her lips, smiled wanly at him, and pushed the door closed. With more grace than she usually displayed in front of her neighbors, Penny skittered up the hood of the car to the roof, knelt near his edge, and said, "Get up here, so we can do this properly."
"There's no precedent for what's proper in this situation."
She kissed him on the cheek, then got to her feet. With her hands on her hips, Penny stood above him like Wonder Woman in the rainbow-hued twilight. "Come on, Dr. Cooper. You've been waiting your whole life for this."
With the awkward symmetry of moving pairs—for his knees were too far from his waist, his arms were too expansive, his sternum had no balance—Sheldon joined Penny on the small island, and together they witnessed a river of humans and vehicles. It stretched to the farthest that a person's vision could encompass, with women, men, and children standing on the ground or on the hoods, no more amazing than ants making a bridge of pebbles. Penny watched this drama in his features, then she looked back, always back, to the west. The wall of gleaming color—now a soupy cloud of rainbows steeped in gold—moved closer and closer to them. Already it stretched above the atmosphere, and below the desert earth.
She inhaled with deliberate awareness; it was hot out here, but clean. No L.A. smog, no cigarettes, and no ocean…just rock and sky. As the waitress-actress watched the future swallow up the road behind them, a soft and inarguably masculine hand slid into hers. She could tell from his fingertips that he'd never worked on a house, or served meal trays in his life, but he squeezed her hand and in that moment, they were the same.
Penny corded Sheldon's fingers between her fingers, and said, "Tell me about the big bang."
"Well," the physicist said, "The big bang theory of cosmology begins with a moment. Prior to that moment there was nothing; during and after that moment there was something: our universe. Most people incorrectly believe this was an explosion. In fact, it was an expansion…