HOURS LATER, PULLING HIMSELF along backwards with his arms, night coming on, his hands numb and bloody, he found himself thinking about that moment, that decision. He had been watching Qatik’s face as he depressed the plunger, saw almost instantly his already glazed eyes go loose in the sockets, all the tiny little movements of his face falling still. Not more than a few seconds had passed before he was certain that Qatik was dead.
After only a minute or two, the body had already begun to change, becoming a corpse. The skin of the face had grown noticeably paler and the blood had begun to pool, the now bloodless skin draping strangely on the face so that the nose and even the sockets of the eyes became increasingly prominent. He was surprised to find that the limbs weren’t stiff at all, not yet, that the muscles instead were completely relaxed.
He had brushed the eyelids closed, then covered the face with the hood, turning the faceplate around until it served as a support for the back of the head. And then he set about cutting through the seam sealant over the chest and belly. He opened the Velcro, undid the zipper beneath until he could reach his hand in and feel around the dead man’s sodden waist and slowly extract the Very pistol and the cartridge belt it was buckled onto. Six one-inch firing flares, plus the three fusees left in the backpack: not much.
He rolled the belt up and put it, the flares, and the Very pistol into the backpack. He undid the backpack’s shoulder straps and used them to bind the backpack to his foot, so he could drag it along.
He reached a tear in the road, a disruption that he couldn’t drag himself over and had to concentrate on getting around it.
Here he was, alone, in the middle of nowhere, engaged in a task for people who, assuming he did once know them, he did not remember now. And why? Because he wanted to know something about who he was, gain some knowledge that he suspected they might have. Was he committed to some sort of cause? No. Was he opposed to Rasmus and his community? No, not really. Did he side with them? No. He was lukewarm, neither one thing or the other. He didn’t feel like he belonged in Granite Mountain any more than he felt he belonged in Rasmus’s hive.
But where, then, did he belong?
He stopped and wiped the sweat off his face, was sorry he did so when it made his hands sting. He gently patted his hands dry against his shirt, feeling the glove still tucked within it. He took a moment to look around, back at where he had come from. For a long time he had been able to see Qatik’s corpse, growing steadily smaller, slowly reduced to a black dot, but now even that had been lost. He looked all around, saw on all sides of him no living thing, not even a cockroach, nothing but wrack and ruin, the ruined monuments of the dead, destruction, marks of calamity, terror, distress. Nothing but him and the Kollaps.
And with that, wincing, he stretched his hands behind him and began dragging himself along again.
* * *
* * *
WHEN HE CAME CONSCIOUS AGAIN, it was completely dark. He wasn’t certain where he was, why he was sitting up rather than lying down, why he was outside. And then his body took over, continuing the motions it had been making before he lost awareness of himself, his arms throwing themselves out behind him and taking anchor, then dragging his body along. He felt it happening, like he was watching it from somewhere else rather than controlling the body that was doing it, and then, slowly, he felt consciousness bleed away again until he was unsure where he was or what was happening, and whether his body was moving or not, whether he was outside or instead inside, whether he was living and breathing or frozen, in storage, waiting impatiently to come back to life.
* * *
WHEN HE CAME CONSCIOUS AGAIN, it was still dark. Was it the same night or another? Was there any way to tell? This time he was lying down, his face pressed against a chunk of rock.
He tried to sit up, found himself too weak and dizzy to manage it. He put his head back down and lay there, gathering his breath, feeling the world slowly starting to spin underneath him, threatening to throw him off its edge.
He clenched his teeth, felt the world briefly stabilize again. Very slowly, he managed to roll over onto his side. He pulled himself around with his arms until he could reach his leg, then pulled it flopping toward him.
Head spinning again, he felt along the leg for the straps of the backpack. Where were they? They weren’t there, he was sure of it. Had he lost it? But then suddenly, yes, there they were, his hands had been moving over them the whole time; how had he not noticed?
It took him a long time to figure out how to free the straps, even longer to pull the backpack toward him until it was close enough to open it. He passed out with his hand thrust down the backpack’s throat, came conscious again wondering how much time had passed. Why wasn’t it daylight yet? Unless he had passed through daylight already and it simply was another night.
He pulled it out, felt out the hammer, the trigger. The barrel was short and thicker than he expected, the opening big enough that he could slip his finger into it.
And then it came flooding back.
He tugged on the gun’s barrel, feeling all around it until he found the breech lock. He levered it open. He tried to force the flare in, but it wouldn’t go, and momentarily he thought Qatik had brought the wrong ammunition. But then he turned it over in his fingers and it slid in perfectly.
He closed the breech. The world was starting to feel like it was shifting again, dissolving underneath him. He tried to raise his arm, but found his elbow remained planted against the ground, unwilling to leave it. The gun felt heavy in his hand.
He managed to take a deep breath. Elbow still planted, he straightened his wrist until he thought it must be pointing straight up. Or straight enough anyway. Raising his head slightly, he pulled the trigger.
The recoil, small though it was, was enough to tear the pistol from his hand, the flash enough to blind him. The flash ran in a slow pattern across his vision, gradually fading as he blinked, and then he saw it, the red glow of the flare far above him, climbing, climbing, and then falling, suddenly going out.
He let his head fall back. He stared up into the blankness. At least momentarily it was less blank, strange flashes of light and blurs of motion started to cross and burst in his vision. The afterimage of the flare, but more than that, too: his mind trying to see in the near total darkness.
He closed his eyes but all three were still there. He groped for the flare gun, but couldn’t find it. The backpack was there and he searched through it until he found a fusee and pulled it out. He cracked it open, burning two of his fingers down almost to bone, and tried to throw it. It landed not far from his face, close enough that he could feel the heat off it, could smell his clothing burning, unless it was the burnt flesh of his fingers he was smelling, or the burning faces of the dead.
He lay there half-blinded by the light, somewhere between life and death.
And then, for all intents and purposes, he died.