That was the easy part, I thought ruefully as the Noriko disappeared from sight. Out of habit I put my helmet back on while I debated what to do next.
But not for long. I heard Rokun's howl again, this time just inside the cavern, and realized he was probably already at the Futaba. Looking around wildly, my first thought was to run along the ledge, which extended for several miles in either direction. However, sooner or later I'd run out of ledge, and there was no guarantee that any doorway I entered wouldn't be a dead end.
I glanced over the edge of the ledge, and saw the next one some sixty feet below. The wall sloped down to it, but it was very steep, almost vertical, and even a slight misjudgment could send me rolling right off the ledges and into the abyss. Then I noticed a series of holes at regular intervals, and saw that at one time there had probably been rungs or a ladder of some kind set into the wall. The holes were about two inches in diameter, enough for me to climb down with, though rather precarious for my large boots.
I'd just reached the bottom when I glanced up to see Rokun directly above me, looking down. I didn't wait for a bolt to be launched in my direction, but dove for the nearest doorway a dozen feet away and ran as fast as I could along the passageway. There was no longer any need for stealth so I set my torch at full strength, which was fortunate; otherwise I'd probably have broken my neck when I unexpectedly encountered a steep ramp leading downwards.
To my dismay I found no branching corridors as the sounds of Rokun's pursuit grew nearer. I'd hoped to slip into a side corridor and activate the mind wiper once he was within range, but instead I found myself the quarry, and at a real disadvantage. The tunnel wound downward, apparently in a spiral, and I must have descended several hundred feet before it finally leveled off. Almost without warning I found myself emerging onto one of the lower terraces, this one much narrower than the ones above. I saw another doorway about two hundred feet further along the ledge.
There was a noise behind me and I saw Rokun emerge from the opening I'd just come through. I turned to run.
Not even I expected him to act so quickly. Almost before I'd broken into a stride I felt a tremendous electrical shock, as though I'd grasped a live power line, and an instant later was lying helpless on the ground, muscles shuddering uncontrollably as I tried unsuccessfully to draw a breath, a single breath. I was on the point of blacking out when I finally managed to regain enough control of my diaphragm to suck in some life-giving air in ragged, convulsive gasps.
For a moment I wondered why I hadn't been blown apart like the other victims. Then I realized that the suit, conductive on the exterior and insulated inside, had protected me from what was after all an electrical charge. But even the heavy-duty insulation, capable of protecting the wearer against contact with a high tension power line, hadn't been able to entirely block out the shock. I could feel my heart erratically skipping beats, and knew a second jolt like that could kill me.
I became aware of Rokun again, standing motionless in the doorway. I desperately tried to slither away and felt my still quivering leg slide out over empty air. I turned my head to find myself lying on the very lip of the ledge, a dizzying drop beyond, and realized I was starting to slide over the edge. As he again raised a finger I fumbled for the box on my leg, knowing even as I did that he was too far away to be affected by the mind wiper.
The second bolt didn't hit me directly. Instead it struck the ground a few feet in front of me, the resulting shock wave blasting me violently backwards out into nothingness, my body twisting wildly as I grabbed unsuccessfully for the ledge. For one horrible moment time seemed to stop as I plummeted helplessly into the abyss. And then, only seconds later, far sooner than I expected, I had a glimpse of the ground rushing up at me like a brick wall and an instant later hit with a frightful ghastly crunch. I think I must have bounced once or twice before I came to a stop.
For I while I felt nothing further at all and just lay there stunned. I gradually became aware that I'd somehow landed on the last narrow ledge below, the very bottom one. I was lying partly on my left side, staring insensately at the border between sky and ground like a dropped video camera. Then the pain began, horrible intense waves of pain like nothing I'd ever experienced, washing over me and overwhelming any conscious thought.
I must have passed out; I don't know for how long. It might have been seconds, or hours. As I slowly became cognizant of my surroundings again, the pain returned, but this time dulled somewhat. I suppose my brain had begun blocking it out, or maybe I was just too battered to feel it much any more.
Or at least until I tried to move my head; that triggered a whole fresh set of fierce stabbing pains, mostly in my left arm and side. The arm was doubled up beneath me; my left leg was visibly bent at a horrid angle but I could feel nothing at all from it. The realization finally began to sink in that I was in very deep trouble. Then I heard Rokun's braying.
I found that if I took great care not to move my torso I could turn my head enough to look in the direction of my feet, up at the wall. There, on the ledge where I'd been, I saw his silhouette observing me with interest. Soon he'd be climbing down.
A wave of red suddenly obscured my vision, and for a moment I thought I was done for; without sight I had no hope of surviving. Trying to blink it away, I discovered it was only in my left eye, and that if I closed it I could still see. Blood from a scalp wound, I guessed. Then I saw Rokun at the base of the wall. At his feet were two strange hemispherical objects, which I recognized after a moment's puzzlement as the shattered halves of my helmet.
The pain no longer mattered. It was it or my life now, I knew. My right arm lay behind me, and as slowly as I could I raised my right hand to my leg, towards the small keypad on my protective suit, trying to ignore the waves of agony triggered by every slight motion. I had to literally drag my arm along with my fingers, as any attempt to lift it was unendurable, threatening to black me out again.
Rokun slowly advanced in my direction, staring strangely at me. Fighting the blurring that kept threatening to overwhelm my vision, I forced myself to keep my eyes on him as I fumbled for the box on my leg. Then my fingers felt its hard edges and I frantically sought the proper button. It was triangularly shaped, and normally I could have found it in my sleep, but now it was as if all the buttons had suddenly become indistinguishable beneath my numbed fingers.
Rokun was only a few feet away when he bent over and peered into my face. The nearly unrecognizable features reshaped themselves into an almost human expression, and I heard him make a noise completely unlike the unintelligible braying I'd heard until now. At first I couldn't make it out. Then, through the pain and the roaring in my ears, I understood.
"Se--na--ri--a," he was saying. "Se--na--ri--a."
"Yes," I mumbled. "I'm Senaria."
"Hurt Senaria," he said. I saw a tear roll down one misshapen cheek.
"Yes." I had to speak very slowly to make the words intelligible. "You hurt me. But it wasn't your fault." I finally located what under my nearly useless fingers felt like the correct key, but for a long moment I hesitated. "I'm sorry," I said finally, and then I pressed it, the exertion sending another paroxysm of pain through my torso. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again I saw a crumpled figure lying a few feet away from me. Your journey is over, I thought. And so is mine.
After that there was nothing left to do. I just lay there, slowly feeling the pain easing, being gradually replaced by a sensation of softly floating in midair. I no longer felt connected to my body at all, and couldn't have moved if I'd wanted to. Live in the present, Kizuko had said, and I guessed now was as good a time to do so as any.
I must have closed my eyes, because I remember seeing a series of scenes following one after another. At one point I was fighting Kiri in the back yard of my mother's house on Qozernon with practice blades, and an accompanying sensation of deep happiness flooded through me. Then I was helping clean rubbish out of the abandoned royal palace at Deshti, holding one end of a large heavy piece of steel as Rann maneuvered the other end. A moment later I was giving Alan his first lesson in Deshtiran and marveling at how such a brilliant man could be so bad at languages.
One after another the scenes kept coming, but always growing more distant, somehow, as if I were watching them on a screen gradually going dark. Finding Kiri's blood-covered body in the tunnels under Tar Deshta. Sitting in a restaurant arguing with Alan. Hugging my mother the morning after being rescued from Jack Lucie. Somehow one face kept returning again and again. At last I understood.
It seemed as if I heard his voice calling to me from far away, and his face floated directly before my eyes. "I love you, Alan," I whispered, and then everything faded away completely.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|