Methven - Day Thirty
This is not happening. I am not going to die, goddamnit!
Fucking Bruno. If only he'd showed me how to open his damned suitcase when I asked him to, maybe we'd still be in this mess, but at least we'd have a fighting chance to save Tong. As it stands, I don't think he'll make it to sundown--and we don't dare move him. That'd kill him for sure.
The mission is over--that much is clear. Now, it's just a question of whether those of us who are still alive can manage to stay that way.
From where I sit, it doesn't look good. As it stands, a well-armed troop of Girl Scouts could take us out without much effort. And, if the guys who ambushed us have friends, we're done for.
We're probably done for, anyway. We have no maps, no supplies, no weapons worth talking about--and nobody left to lead us.
Goddamnit, I DON'T want to die here on this Godforsaken planet! This is supposed to be a journal, not an epitaph!
. . .
Tong is delirious -- and he's getting worse. He keeps thrashing around and screaming, "Look out, Blandy! LOOK OUT!" And that big, nasty burn across his chest is oozing a lot of serum.
I gave him some water. That seemed to help a bit, but we don't have very much left in our canteens. When it runs out, we'll have to go foraging for more..and, since there's nobody left to unset the Wards, that means we'll have to drag the wounded out of the protective perimeter around our camp. Once we're outside, we won't be able to get back in--and we'll have lost the Wards' protection against bandits and rats.
God DAMN Bruno, anyway!
. . .
I've never had to bury anyone before.
I don't mean "attend a funeral"--I've been to way too many of them. I mean "dig a grave and put a body in it"..although, with just tent stakes and Bruno's skillet for tools, we weren't able to dig very deep holes. In this stony soil, it us took hours just to scratch out a couple of two-by-six-foot trenches.
It's anyone's guess how long the Wards will stay up--and no one who knows is in any condition to tell us. So, after we put the bodies in the ground and covered them with the dirt we so painstakingly excavated, we piled rocks on top of them to make it harder for rats--or anything else--to dig them up.
We don't have much choice in the matter--that's the best we can do.
. . .
Once we laid our companions to rest, it was Pith, of all people, who wound up saying what needed to be said:
"God, if y'listen t'doggies like us, we jus' want yuh t'know that these folks were good guys. They were our friends, 'n' we'll miss 'em. Now it's up t'you t'take care of 'em f'r us. We hope you'll do th'right thing by 'em."
. . .
All right, I'll admit it. I'm scared shitless.
I've never been a praying man, but I'm praying now.
I promise--if He lets me survive this, I will never, ever doubt the existence of God again. I swear it. I'll volunteer at the old folks' home, join Big Brothers, start attending church regularly--anything He wants.
Just, please God, don't let me die here.
Please, please, please, please, please, please..
. . .
I was so wrapped up in writing, I didn't hear Bill approach. When he cleared his throat to get my attention, my journal literally flew out of my hands.
He retrieved it--luckily it landed cover-side up--and handed it back to me.
"My apologies, Drew. It was not my intention to startle you."
"Not a problem, Bill. I..uh..I was just a little..distracted. That's all. So..what's up?"
His brows knitted.
"I am becoming increasingly concerned about the rapid depletion of our resource base."
"Yeah, I know. We're running out of water pretty fast."
"That is correct. Additionally, with the loss of our access to Bruno's extra-dimensional storage device, we have little left in the way of rations."
I felt my cheeks bloom with embarrassment at the memory of Bruno's magic suitcase swiftly dwindling away to a point beneath my hands.
"Look, I'm sorry about that, but, I honestly had no idea the damned thing was booby-trapped. I didn't think there was anything to lose..and, if I'd gotten it open, we might have saved Tong."
Bill frowned and shook his head.
"I am not yet resigned to counting Tong among our fatalities, Drew. He is..or was..as fundamentally healthy as any of us--and he has, in the recent past, demonstrated tremendous strength of will."
"Let's face facts, shall we? Tong's a goner. And so are the rest of us. If we had any sense, we'd just lie down and wait for the rats to come finish us off."
I made a rude noise.
"Just spare me the cheerleading, okay? I'm not in the mood."
There was a long moment of silence before Bill replied.
"Drew, may I rely on you to keep what I am about to reveal to you in confidence?"
"I..sure..I guess. I mean, I know how to keep a secret, if that's what you mean."
"Then, yes. If that's what you want, it'll stay between us."
"Very well. I know you believe our situation to be hopeless. I am convinced that it is not.."
"Tell me something I didn't know."
"Very well: I am gay."
I suppose it should have been more of a shock, but, actually, now that I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. In the whole time we'd spent at Khasim Clanhome, I'd never seen Bill at the Pools of Pleasure, or seen him in the company of a woman--socially, I mean.
"I am also sero-positive for HIV."
I couldn't help myself. I flinched.
"You have AIDS?"
He shook his head.
"I am sero-positive, but asymptomatic. And I would appreciate it if you would lower your voice."
"Sorry. So, you're telling me that you have..that you're infected, but you haven't developed full-blown AIDS, yet?"
"I..I'm sorry to hear that, Bill. I really am. But I don't understand what it has to do with the mess we're in."
"Admittedly, there is no direct relationship between the two. However, metaphorically, they have a great deal in common."
"Under the circumstances, I don't think metaphors do us a lot of good.."
"Respectfully, I disagree. May I explicate my reasoning?"
"It's not like I can stop you."
He looked off toward where Mantami was keeping watch from atop a cottage-sized boulder.
"When I first received my diagnosis, two years ago, I was devastated. I took for granted that my life was effectively over--that a diagnosis of infection was the equivalent of a sentence of imminent death."
He turned to look directly at me.
"That turned out not to be the case. Instead, my overall health has remained good, I have yet to experience any opportunistic infections and I now have every expectation of living to collect Social Security--assuming, of course, that we first survive this contretemps."
"You know something I don't know?"
"Perhaps I do. I know from experience that prospects are rarely as bleak as despair makes them seem. I know that a positive mental attitude and determination can enable one to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And I am convinced that, if we are able to complete our assignment to our employers' satisfaction, their medical technology will be capable of successfully treating my infection."
"Well..you're probably right about Centran medicine being able to cure you. The problem is, I doubt we'll survive long enough for you to to find out."
"Perhaps not. My point is that, had I succumbed to hopelessness when I first was diagnosed, I would not have taken your climbing class, would not subsequently have been recruited for this mission and would thus have no prospect of a cure for my infection."
"Well, that's all very inspiring, Bill, but it still leaves us stuck out in the ass end of nowhere with no supplies, no maps and no fucking clue about where to go for help. We've got nothing to work with here. Zippo."
"Again, I disagree. At a minimum, our assets include three disciples of the Vomisa Scout discipline--albeit two of them novice practitioners of the art--one of whom is also a trained and highly experienced military man and another of whom possesses advanced wilderness survival skills. My own expertise as a trekker is also likely to prove valuable. In addition, we can add to that tally both a good bit of camping gear and an array of weaponry."
"On the contrary, both our small arms and fletched weapons have recently proved themselves quite effective against both powerful energy weapons and what I would categorize as high-level sorcery."
"Wait a second--you're actually admitting that what he hit us with was magic?"
"Bill, I have to tell you, you're such a regular Joe Science that I never thought I'd hear you use that word."
"Having personally witnessed a man appear to conjur lightning from his fingertips--and in the absence of a suitable technological explanation for the phenomenon--for want of a more precise term, what we faced can, for the moment, only be classed as magic. And extremely powerful magic, at that."
"Okay..so? I mean, granted, we finally nailed him and his little zap-gun-wielding buddies. Look what it cost us."
"Admittedly, our opponents inflicted heavy casualties upon us--but they did so only at the cost of their entire force."
"That we know of."
"Correct. Nonetheless, I maintain that it is wildly inaccurate to claim that our weaponry was ineffective when, despite our opponents' superior armament, it enabled us to achieve a decisive victory."
"Yeah, right. All we need is another victory like that one and none of us will ever have to worry about Social Security again."
"True enough. However, it is worth noting that, once we are forced to abandon the safety of the Wards, we will acquire possession of our late enemies' energy weapons--and, upon inspection of their remains, may discover other useful artifacts, as well."
"And we'll still be stuck with three people who're too badly wounded to travel--although Tong probably won't even make it to nightfall."
"No obstacle is entirely insurmountable. We could, for instance, scavenge our tent poles in order to construct sleds or travois upon which to transport them."
It was a small, mean and bitter one, but I still had to laugh.
"Look around you, Bill. Hauling a sled, we couldn't travel at more than a crawl in country like this--much less dragging three of them. I'm telling you, we're royally fucked--and we might as well just face it."
Bill's voice was quiet, but firm.
"We must nonetheless try, Drew. We may be forced to send Mantami for help, while we three remain behind to tend our wounded. We may have to evolve some other suboptimal strategy--but, whatever we do, I am absolutely convinced that we must not surrender to despair. Our survival depends on it."
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)