It wasn't a lot. Most of it was on the ground in a small area along one wall, smeared about as if several pairs of feet had milled around uncertainly. A trail of drops, perhaps a foot apart, led away down one of the corridors. I knelt and touched a gloved finger to one of the drops, and it came away sticky.
My heart by now racing wildly, I forced myself to remember my PET training. Find out what caused the injury, I told myself, and almost immediately located a stone projection some two feet before the start of the bloodstains, about four feet from the floor, with a sharp edge where a fragment had broken off long ago. There was a shred of blue cloth clinging to the projection, and a slight dark smear which I assumed was blood.
I remembered Haley's blue shirt with the Groucho quote. She must have fallen or been pushed against the projection. At least she was still alive when it happened, I realized to my relief, and so I set out along the pathway I'd been so unexpectedly given.
At one point the trail began to vanish, the telltale dark circles growing further and further apart. Then suddenly there was a small puddle, now congealed, and the drops once again became frequent and closely spaced. She must have reopened the wound somehow, I thought.
I found myself traversing a vast maze of corridors and junctions. As I moved deeper into the complex I began to see more and more recognizable traces of furnishings and equipment in various stages of disintegration. The atmosphere felt still and rather stale, and I surmised that with little or no air movement the contents had been subjected to less and less of the corrosive effects of time.
I saw bits of what might have been metal, now just crumbling shells of oxide. There were occasional odd shapes of some kind of durable material that had withstood the ages, intermingled with the powdered remains of equipment long gone. I would have long since become hopelessly lost if it weren't for the trail continually leading me onward.
At one point I stepped through a doorway into what seemed to be a large room, for the walls on either side receded into the darkness and I could hear my footsteps echoing back hollowly from all directions. I froze, listening for any other sounds, and heard only silence, so I held my torch above my head and moved the control slider to the full illumination position, flooding the room with light.
I was in a vast chamber possibly seven or eight hundred feet in diameter, the ceiling at least two hundred feet above me. It could have been an immense meeting hall, with tiered ledges rising from the central well to the outer walls on all sides. Of the thousands of seats it must have once held there was only jumbled rubble.
Picking my way across the floor, following the trail to one of the many openings on the other side of the room, I tried to imagine what the Virrin mind I was tracking must be going through. The last thing he (or was it she?) would have remembered would have been the experience of having his mind uploaded into the Virrin mind machine, and I shuddered, remembering my own experience.
He would have next awoken in a strange body unwilling to obey his commands, unable to communicate, surrounded by what should have been his captives, who were now apparently in control. He would have seen none of his fellows anywhere, and slowly the realization would have sunk in that he was now imprisoned in one of his captors' bodies. Mingled with this would have been the confusing set of memories and knowledge, apparently belonging to the body's former owner, telling him of things that could only have filled him with horror and despair, of the frantic flight of his peers to their home world, and of the utter destruction of their civilization.
He would have remembered this remote base, and in desperation had worked out a plan to return, perhaps in the forlorn hope that he would still find some of his fellow Virrin here, or at least some familiar surroundings. And he would have found this, a hollow shell of what once must have been a thriving, perhaps even cheerful home away from home, its contents long crumbled into dust and scrap. I switched off my torch and just stood there in the pitch dark, utterly overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. It took a powerful effort to shake off the mood and refocus on what I'd come for.
Switching my torch back on, once again using its dimmest setting, I resumed my pursuit of the trail Haley had left. I'd gone a good three thousand feet or more along the maze of corridors, hoping nothing would somehow erase the trail behind me, when I heard a peculiar sound far ahead. I can only describe it as a kind of braying. For some reason the sound sent chills down my spine, but in spite of its being in the direction I was headed I quickened my pace.
I'd advanced only a hundred feet further when I emerged into a small nook where several corridors converged. A human figure was huddled miserably in one corner, and the head jerked upright as I stepped in.
"Haley," I exclaimed in relief. Her face was deathly white, and what was left of her T-shirt was tied around her left arm. Even against the dark fabric I could see the bloodstains. At first she shrank away from me in fright, and I remembered the helmet and pulled it off as I reset my torch again to fully illuminate the room. She stared at me in utter disbelief for several seconds.
"Senaria?" she said weakly. "It's really you?"
"The one and only," I reassured her, reaching down to help her to her feet. "Come on. We've got to get you out of here." Off in the distance, but closer this time, I heard the braying again.
To my surprise Haley shook free of me. "Please get out of here," she said frantically. "You're in terrible danger. He'll kill you. He's horrible." I could see her shivering uncontrollably.
Thinking she was hysterical, I tried to take her arm again, only to see her shrink away. "You can't help me," she said, clutching at something around her neck. "He put this thing on me, and if I try to go more than a few feet it chokes me. Please, Senaria, never mind me, just get out of here while you still can."
To my horror I realized that she wore a restraint collar. I wondered how Rokun had managed to acquire one, then remembered that he'd been part of the project analyzing the technology found in Tenako's secret compound.
"It's okay, Hal," I reassured her, tapping the master combination into the keypad on my right leg. The collar shrank into an open half-circle and fell to the floor. "Now let me look at that arm," I demanded.
For a moment she looked stunned, hardly daring to believe she was actually free. I could imagine her terror, feeling the collar constrict around her neck every time she tried to slip away from the alcove where she'd been left. "Never mind my arm," she said shakily, and I could hear real panic in her voice. "We've got to go. He'll kill us," she repeated. I heard the bray again, closer now, and felt her shudder.
"I'm not going to have you lose an arm to an overly tight bandage," I snapped, untying the shirt from around her arm. The gash I uncovered was ragged and long, but not particularly deep, and was no longer bleeding much. To my relief I saw no signs of impaired circulation. I quickly retied the shirt around the wound. I heard another bray, much closer now.
I wasted no further time in discussion, and taking her uninjured arm led her as quickly as I could back along the trail I'd followed, my helmet tucked under my other arm. I watched her carefully; she'd lost a significant amount of blood and I couldn't afford to have her unexpectedly pass out at a critical moment. "So how did that happen?" I asked as we threaded our way along the maze. "Did you trip, or did he push you?" She mustered a weak grin.
"I saw that broken piece of rock and sort of threw myself against it," she said rather sheepishly. "I had to leave some kind of trail, and I couldn't think of anything else to do. It worked better than I expected, and I had to tie my shirt around the cut. After a while, though, it stopped bleeding and I had to pretend to trip and use that as an opportunity to reopen it."
"You mean you did that on purpose?" I said incredulously. My estimate of this diminutive Earth girl suddenly increased about ten-fold. I didn't want to think about how much that must have hurt.
"I want to see Rann again," she said resolutely. "I'll do anything it takes."
In spite of her arm, we managed to make good time for a while. As we crossed the vast auditorium, I heard her say, "It must be terrible for him."
"Huh?" I said, neither of us slowing our pace.
"To see what's happened here. This must seem like a horrible nightmare." I wondered if Virrin had nightmares. "He'd have been so much better off never to have been awakened." She stumbled and nearly fell. I turned my back to her and told her to put her arms around my neck.
"I'm going to carry you," I said, and in spite of her protests she rode the rest of the way on my back, her legs locked around my waist. "Let me know if you start feeling light-headed," I said.
For a few minutes we continued on in near silence, the only sound being the crunching of my boots in the debris. I decided I'd better make some conversation so she didn't pass out on me. "Is there anything you can tell me about this Rokun that might be useful?" I asked.
"Rokun's gone," she said flatly. "He said so."
"He?" I echoed, not understanding.
"The Virrin or whatever he is now," she said. Her voice was unsteady, and I realized she was on the verge of crying. "He told me, 'No Rokun. Rokun gone.' " Her voice broke. "He was such a nice man."
"You said he knew me?"
"He told me one afternoon about working with you when the palace was being rebuilt. He even had your picture in his office." She hesitated. "I think he was in love with you." It was a good thing she was hanging on by herself, because otherwise I probably would have dropped her in surprise.
"He what?" I stammered.
"I wouldn't have told you about it if this hadn't happened. He was pretty embarrassed when he realized how much he'd said. But I thought maybe you should know."
"He certainly never said anything like that to me," I protested.
"You don't know how shy he was," she said. "Well, it doesn't matter now, I guess."
By this time we'd reached the Futaba. "Where are we going?" Haley exclaimed in dismay as I carried her right past it and out onto the ledge.
"The Futaba won't answer my voice commands," I explained. "You're getting out on my ship. The Noriko's just around that projection." A moment later we rounded the corner, and I felt a huge surge of relief to see that it was indeed still there.
"Noriko: portal," I shouted, and then I was lugging Haley up the ramp and into the ship. "Strap yourself in fast," I commanded, unloading her into a seat and turning to leave. "It's going to be a tough takeoff." She stared at me, bewildered, seeing me standing there in the doorway. "Do it!" I snapped, and a moment later she was secured.
"The ship is on autopilot," I said as I backed out of the portal. "It'll take you to Qozernon where you'll be safe." I paused for a moment as she stared uncomprehendingly at me. "If I leave now he'll follow in the Futaba, and this whole mess will just start over again. Kiri and the others will be along in about ten hours, and I've got to stop him once and for all before then. If I don't make it back, there are some messages in the telecom to send. Good luck, Hal," I added, a little more gently. "Noriko: close portal." Only as the doorway began to shrink did she finally seem to realize what was happening.
As I leaped off the now retracting ramp, I heard her anguished cry through the disappearing opening. "Senaria! Please, no!" I reached down and touched a button on the keypad fastened to my leg, and the little craft rose horizontally, turned its nose skyward and shot upwards. I had one last glimpse of Haley's horrified face, mouth open in a silent scream. "I screwed you over once, Rann," I murmured as the ship faded into the cloudless sky. "I'm not going to do it again. I'm sorry, Hal."
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|