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It’s hot. It’s burning, blistering heat, heat that scalds your skin and bakes it so deep that you can’t even sweat it all out. There’s a low throb, almost impossible to hear beneath the sounds of the sand, the marching dunes of sand crystals that roll and crash against the rocks like the restless waves of a dead ocean. He’s standing on an outcrop of stone, red sandstone that is crumbling with aching slowness beneath his metal boots. His armor is so much heavier then he could ever remember, all back in one piece now, even as he flexes his gauntlets, fingers gripping the stock of the rifle, ancient dog tags slick against his skin. There are others here too. He can see them out of the corner of his eye. He can hear their mumbled voices, as empty and distant as an old radio, and then he turns and there is nobody there at all. But he can still hear the sound of their conversation over the thunder of the sand breaking against the rocks, and below it the deep throbbing pulse of what must be his heart. He swallows, and he can’t breath. He’s suffocating inside his helmet, and he reaches up to release the face plate, but the rifle is getting in the way. He tries to drop it, frowning, but it won’t leave his fingers, no matter how desperately he shakes it, and his mouth is working like a beached fish-
His eyes snap open and he inhales, feeling the wonderful air flooding into his lungs and then he looks around. He’s not in the desert; he hasn’t been in the desert for years, but he can’t remember how many years ago it was and then there is a pressure inside and the air is exploding out of his mouth before he can stop it and there’s a pounding in his ears, the pounding of-
-explosions, massive geysers of sand throwing bloody shrapnel and rock far into the sky. Whistling from overhead as the support craft strafe the undulating dunes, and in the distance the metal sheets of the wall are rising slowly from the sand, rusted and buckling, the sole unmoving object in a dancing landscape. And there are explosions as he runs through the sand, the rifle in his hand chattering as it spits out a stream of spit ball pellets. He wonders for a moment at this, but now the booms are coming from everywhere and he’s stumbling over empty armor.
And he’s down and looking up at the wall, and he can see an indistinct form staring down at him, aiming a heavy gun, and his eyes open wide, because he knows what’s coming. He hunches down, to make himself smaller, and then the pain explodes outwards and his eyes open, as he struggles for a breath. Little lights are dancing in front of his eyes, there’s a hollow ringing in his ears, and as he breaths in his mouth opens-
-And the sand pours in, a choking torrent of dry crystals, filling him up and sinking him down, trickling out through the bullet holes in his armor, and the dunes are draining into his mouth, taking with it the bodies and shrapnel and rubble, all of it. He wants to spit, choke, but his mouth is full of dirt and the dirt is pouring into every part of him, leaving only the cold metal deck beneath his feet, red stained sand dribbling out of his wounds. A long needle crosses his vision, and there’s a short stab of pain. The sand begins to gush out of him, pooling in rippling puddles on the deck and shrinking, devouring itself slowly. He retches, feeling his gorge rising but there is nothing, nothing but the quiet itch of infinitesimally small things creeping through him, through every part of him. Tearing him apart in tiny, infinitesimal pieces, atom by screaming atom. And then, worse, they slowly begin to put him back together.
Serok wakes up. He blinks, and blinks, and then he braces himself and rolls onto his good side, his muscles screaming in agony. One of his hands scrabbles around in the dirt, closes on a fistful of ferns, yanks them out of the earth and jams them into his side. He almost screams from the pain.
He sucks in air, fighting against the gnawing emptiness inside him. Every breath is a torment, and he imagines he can hear the air whistling out of the hole in his lung.
Breathe in, and the world sharpens, gains substance and form.
Breathe out, and that form fades, washes out, become dreamlike and insubstantial.
His eyes sink closed, open, closed again, and then his vision is hazing over, disintegrating into particles and blowing away like dust, leaving behind nothing at all. He breaths out-
There’s a man standing in front of him, or at least it could be a man. His face is unclear, the harsh overhead light blotting it out. He coughs politely and smiles.
“I’m glad you’re awake. It’s time for your medicine.”
“No. No medicine.” Serok says, shaking his head.
The man shakes his head understandingly. “You have to take your medicine, Serok. You need it.”
Serok shakes his head again, harder. “Don’t want it.”
“Serok, this is to make you feel better. To make the pain go away.”
Another voice now. “What’s the problem?”
“Doesn’t want the medicine.”
“He is now. He’s been raving for the last few hours.”
“Who is this guy?”
“Serok ben Rashid.”
“Oh. The nutcase. Well, just give him the shot.” The other voice yawns. “There are other patients who need attention. You can’t waste time on the crazy ones, Doctor.”
“I suppose. All right, Serok. This might sting a little...”
Serok growls a warning, but the man is coming forward anyway and the growl changes to a whimper as he feels the needle pierce his skin. He waits for the pain to go away, but it doesn’t. It just grows, spreading all over his body, like fire under his skin. He tries to get up, but a strong pair of hands pushes him down. He begins to struggle, and hears a distant babble of voices. Then comes the voice, bored.
“Tranquilizer. He’s slipping again.”
Another pain and his muscles begin to liquefy. The room around him is shifting, beginning to melt and fuse and crack. The soft cloth of the bed under him is swallowing him up in darkness; he’s being smothered by it, by the sheets that are forming themselves into horrific figures, clutching at his throat. He can’t breath, and he strains for air-
-and the air comes back. He’s lying on the forest floor, blood pooling out around him from a torn side, holding in his own guts and waiting for the flesh and muscle to re-knit itself over the wound like it always has.
All around him the dark shapes of the tree trunks blend into the murk, and for a moment he sees little glimmering sparks dancing around his eyes. And there is a voice.
“It’s not real, Serok.” Comes the man’s voice, empty and hollow in the night air. “None of it is real. It never has been.”
Serok tries to block the voice out, but there’s pain in his side and his skin is burning with fever and all he can do is listen. In a few more minutes he’ll heal and the voice will fade away entirely. This is not the first time this has happened.
“If you can hear me, wherever you are, just know that...well, some of us are trying. We’ll get you better, Serok. We’ll make it all go away.”
The world around him is blurred, and his eyes flit back and forth under their lids, taking in everything but unable to focus on anything at all. Pain throbs in hard waves from his waist, and he chokes back a groan of agony. The wound is obscured by the blood caked around his hands, and it’s pumping out sluggishly now, the supply beginning to run low. He may have only a few minutes left, and those moments are either going to save him or damn him. It’s a race, now. A race between two forces, one that races to repair a wound cell by cell, the other already leagues ahead in ensuring that it won’t matter.
He can feel his conscious mind beginning to subside in a haze, and takes a deep, deep breath.
In, and out.
In, and out.
He reaches toward his side, probes the wound with clumsy fingers. It’s healing fast, but maybe not fast enough. He feels lightheaded; so much blood’s been lost.
“How is he?”
“He’s getting better, Mrs. Rashid. This newest dose might be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.”
The voices are back, and one of them sounds so much like Patricia that it makes him shudder.
“Look at that. His heart rates going up.”
“He recognizes me?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out, Mrs. Rashid.”
How long does he have left? Maybe down to seconds. He inhales, but her voice comes back, echoing soundlessly through the dark jungle.
“Come back, Serok. We’re waiting for you.”
He clenches his eyes closed, waiting. He’s being dragged down slowly, the jungle shattering around him, shards of white light and blurred forms shining through. In that instant, he sees her staring at his face, her eyes so full of love and hope. He sees the man standing back behind her, smiling.
Come on. Come on. He thinks. Just one second more, then-
And then the world of the hospital dissolves around him, and in that instant he can see
-The spiraling descent of a flaming spacecraft, tearing itself apart in the upper atmosphere-
-An infinity of faces staring down at him, seeing everything that he is and does, not part of his world but above it, and in the back the ever present clicks of typing keys-
-The disappointment in her eyes, the horror, as the beeping intensifies and the man’s smile slips, and he runs forward shouting “He’s slipping back...”-
And then the flesh has closed and his lung has healed. The night is empty of voices, the trees stay solid in the dark, and, finally, he can breathe.