The trip from the cave took longer than Ian had expected. The effort of struggling through the woods with his load and the effects of the radiation sickness had tired him out. At the water's edge, he filled his water containers one by one with fresh water. After he secured the plastic jugs in the packsack, he carefully placed the doctor's revolver on top of them. Then, using his pack as a cushion for his back, he sat against a huge boulder, breathing deeply to ward off the nausea that threatened to overcome him at any moment.
Muted sunlight filtered through the trees into a small glade on the other side of the stream, and dust particles caught in the soft sunbeams sparkled as they floated downward. The secret fairy dance of the floating dust erased the pain and the nausea of the radiation sickness. Ian was at peace with the world for the moment and his eyelids fluttered as sleep slowly drifted over him.
Suddenly the echo of cracking branches cut through him like a rifle shot. He sat up, instantly awake and alert.
Something was moving out there!
His ears strained to catch the slightest sound, but all he could hear was the faint rustle of the wind in the trees. He decided that perhaps a tree had fallen or a branch had broken under the weight of the dust-clay. Sometimes the dust fell from a branch it had weighted down and the limb would spring back to its original position causing a sound like an animal moving suddenly in the foliage. He relaxed.
Then he heard it again.
Something was definitely moving through the forest. Ian looked around, searching for a place to hide. Off to his left two large rocks stood under an overhanging boulder, and the gap between the rocks offered him some measure of concealment. With a quick glance across the stream, he scuttled for the protection of the rocks.
Safely hidden with the overhang of the boulder guarding his back, he slipped the packsack from his shoulders and settled in to wait for whatever was making its way toward him through the woods. It sounded large and clumsy; the noise came intermittently, as if the intruder was becoming caught up in the underbrush, and having difficulty freeing itself.
Finally he saw it!
A deer stumbled from the woods, obviously hurt. The animal fell and unsteadily struggled to its feet twice after it had entered the clearing. It stood panting, legs askew, its muzzle flecked with blood. The deer's mouth opened as if it was choking, and with a final cough, it toppled forwards and lay still.
Keeping his eyes on the open glade, he carefully unfastened the packsack and slipped out the revolver. He listened for any other sounds as he checked the magazine to make sure the revolver was loaded.
He slid his fingers to the pouch on the side of the packsack and removed several loose bullets, slipping them into the pocket of the oilskin he was wearing.
Leaving the pack in the niche in the rocks, Ian cautiously climbed from his hiding place and waded across the stream. The bubbling of the rushing water covered the sound of his crossing. The rocks on the streambed were loose and rolled out from under his feet, hampering his progress. He stumbled several times before he reached the opposite bank. Completely soaked, he clambered up the bank and crouched down out of breath and dizzy, beside a large tree.
Damn this Sickness, he thought, I can't let it take a hold of me now... His mouth filled with the taste of bile. Ian panted, trying to fight off the rising nausea. Thankfully, the dizziness passed. It's now or never, he thought and hoisted himself to a standing position. With a deep breath, he stepped out from behind the tree and walked cautiously into the clearing with the revolver raised, ready to shoot. He knelt down as he reached the deer and scanned the woods around him.
Satisfied he was alone, Ian looked down at the deer.
It was dead.
A broken arrow protruded from its chest. He pulled at the shaft and scraped against bone as the arrowhead caught on the deer's ribcage. He twisted as he pulled, and the arrow slipped free of the sticky wound. He turned the arrow slowly in his fingers, hypnotized by the incredible power of life and death held by such a small piece of machined steel. The care and precision that had gone into such an efficient killing machine fascinated him.
He looked down at the deer's head. It's tongue lolled grotesquely from its mouth and its half-open eyes were obscenely flat and lifeless. Such a beautiful animal, Ian thought sadly. The first animal he had seen in the valley and already it had died. He shook his head sadly. There had been enough blood shed in his world to last him an eternity.
So many wasted lives!
His mind slipped out of gear for a moment at the sheer immensity of the number of dead he had seen, but then snapped back into focus as he suddenly became acutely aware of his own vulnerability. There was a good chance whoever shot the deer might be lurking amongst the trees. Ian peered intently into the darkness of the woods. The forest closed around him like a living, menacing presence.
He thought he'd better leave before he became a second target for the hunter who had fatally crippled the deer. He briefly considered cutting some of the meat off the carcass, but he didn't have the stomach for it. If the hunter was watching him from the woods, he might feel threatened by Ian butchering the animal. Unsheathing his knife to cut off some meat, Ian would be risking an arrow in the back.
He pushed the arrow back into the wound in the animal's side. It looked as if it had never been removed. If the hunter were still tracking the deer somewhere back in the woods, he would never know that Ian had found the deer, and Ian would have the advantage over the hunter. He knew about the hunter, but the hunter wouldn't know about him. He left the deer untouched; it was safer that way.
With a last quick look around, Ian ran for the stream. His legs were weak, and as he reached the bank, they collapsed underneath him, and he slid into the water.
Damn! The gun went under!
Ian pulled it quickly out of the water, and kneeling in the stream, shook the revolver vigorously. Sliding it beneath his oilskin, Ian wiped it on his jacket. Just what I needed, Ian grumbled to himself, a waterlogged gun!
Ian clambered over the rocks and retrieved the cached packsack. He was breathing heavily and wanted to crawl behind the two rocks so that he could rest, but he was afraid that the water had damaged the gun enough to render it unusable. He didn't want to face a skilled marksman not knowing if the gun would fire or not.
He pulled the pack from its hiding place, and decided to return to the cave and strip the gun down there, and clean it as best he could. He still had a rifle and Sam's shotgun at the cave to add to his arsenal in case the revolver was damaged. Ian made his way back to the cave in a huge zigzag circle, doubling back every now and then to confuse his trail.
The pack full of water-filled containers was heavier than Ian had expected, and he stopped to rest more often than prudence dictated. To make matters worse, the sickness overtook him, and he threw up several times. He became confused and lost his bearings, and wandered for hours trying to reorient himself.
Finally, just before sunset, and on the verge of tears, Ian stumbled out onto the path that he used to go down to the truck left with only half the water he had taken from the stream. He didn't reach the cave until well after dark. He was deathly tired, but stayed awake most of the night moving the boxes and his sleeping place further back into the cave so that if the hunter had tracked him to the cave, Ian would be lying in the shadows with his guns ready. He rigged an alarm system with string and empty cans across the entrance to the cave so that any intruder would cause the cans to jangle against each other as they pushed through the camouflage screen.
With his back to the wall and his loaded weapons beside him, Ian sat staring into the inky darkness. Swirling patterns floated on the surface of his eyes and threatened to solidify into disfigured faces in the air around him. Ian nervously fumbled for a candle and lit it. The small flame illuminated the space around him, and the light chased the hallucinations back into the shadows. He picked up his journal and opened it, glancing nervously at the cave entrance as the wind shifted the plastic barrier slightly.
Even with the tins set up, Ian was still worried. What if the noise wasn't enough to break him free of the Dream? Suppose the grip of the Dream was strong enough to filter out any noise that would wake him up. Or suppose he heard the noise, but was unable to break away from the Dream. The Dream People wanted him dead. What better way to accomplish it than by holding him helpless until the hunter found him and shot him as he lay helpless on the cave floor.
It would be the final ironic twist in his life...
I've been desperately hoping for someone to help me fight the Dream, someone who could shake me awake and free me from its grasp, an ally in my war with the Dream People, but instead I'm facing the possibility that he may be the instrument of victory for the Dream People. Instead of making my life easier, the appearance of the stranger has only served to increase my paranoia.
One more path to my Death...
I'm in no condition to fight. If he arrived now, I wouldn't have the energy to defend myself. The Sickness is taking its toll on me. At times, it's all I can do to roll over and throw up. I keep fading in and out of consciousness. I'm pretty sure that it's two days since I wrote in this book, but I have no way of telling how long I've been sleeping.
Sometimes I've been asleep for only an hour, but at other times it seems like days...
Day or night - that's all I have to mark the passage of time. I was using the fire for a kind of clock before the stranger arrived. If it had burned out but was still warm when I woke up, I knew that I had been asleep for only a few hours. Or if it was still burning, I knew that I'd been sleeping for less than a couple of hours, but now, I'm afraid to light the fire in case the smoke drifting from the cave gives my position away.
I have no way of telling how many times I slip in and out during the day or of telling how long I've slept or managed to stay awake. My memories are no longer divided by the Otherlife timelines anymore: all of the measures of my life have been stripped away from me by the War. What's the use of measuring seconds, hours, or days, when nothing changes anymore?
It's such a strange feeling. I can take all day to open a can of beans, and have time to eat them one by one. I sleep when I can no longer keep my eyes open. I eat if I'm hungry. There's no structure to my life anymore. Even the routines I set for myself to keep busy when I first arrived have collapsed.
I have no little mental boxes to keep things in.
I have all the time in the world, and nothing to do as the time passes.
Nothing I learned in the Otherlife bears any relationship to the Earth as it now exists. The rules that I learned to live by have become obsolete, and the skills I learned to survive the Otherlife have no application in this new world.
What's the use of knowing how to operate a forklift when I live in a world without warehouses? And why would I want a clock? I don't have to be anywhere except in the cave. Time no longer travels in a straight line. It's a circle, a wheel which changes slowly from dark to twilight. The cycle seems to take forever...
Not trusting his senses as long as the darkness lasted, whether he was awake or dreaming, he sat as he sat now, with his back to the wall waiting fearfully for the Dream People to appear.
Suddenly, the sickness swooped down upon him with the terrible swiftness of an eagle diving on a rabbit. The pain stabbed into his sides as the sickness clutched him in its talons and carried him away. He cried out in agony and vomited. The pain obscured his vision and the cave and the War and all that had happened to him was burned away by the intense hot whiteness that filled his brain.
Ian had no awareness of the passage of time, but slowly, inexorably a heavy darkness began pressing down upon him, and he was trapped between two colors, white below and the black above. The pain was more than he could bear as the darkness pushed against the light and the light pushed against the dark in a vicious struggle between two opposite omnipotent forces. He was being squashed flat as if he were held between the merciless jaws of a vast cosmic vice. His life force was being squeezed out through his pores by the incredible pressure and he was powerless against it...
Suddenly his mind and body snapped...
And he was awake!
He was back in the cave surrounded by the boxes and hard rock walls, sitting naked, his body saturated by sweat. Ian was momentarily thankful for the peaceful darkness and the calm of the summer night, but the gratitude dissolved in a prickle of fear as he realized he was sitting in his own bed. Ian stared down in disbelief at the clean sheets, the blankets, and the quilted bed cover.
And he wasn't alone!
Linda was with him, and the fear was pushed into the back of his mind by the happiness of seeing her.
“Linda,” he whispered softly. Ian leaned over, lovingly touching her shoulder and nuzzling his face into the nape of her neck. She moaned as he bit gently into her shoulder and arched her back, pushing the warm softness of her buttocks into his groin. His hand slid to her hips and he squeezed the flesh, the smoothness of her skin filling the ache in the pit of his palm.
She rolled over and wrapped her arms around him baring her neck to him. His mouth caressed her skin, sliding from her neck to her shoulders, nibbling, kissing, licking wherever it touched her, and as his passion grew a pleasant electric rush filled his groin and flowed upwards through his body and filled his mind.
The sensation of bare skin against bare skin, flesh against flesh, flooded his awareness, and his body undulated in an ecstatic embrace, his hands, his mouth, every part of his body interacting in a beautiful ballet of sexual abandon. His mouth and hand converging upon her breasts, moving swiftly from nipple to nipple as his mind traveled over the sensuous landscape of her body.
She pushed against him, her body writhing as she rose in response to his caresses. Her hands flowed over him, her fingernails scraping gently against the skin of his back, his buttocks, and his thighs. She moaned softly and gasped in pleasure at every touch, and he moved over her, hanging in mid-air for a brief moment, reveling in the power that he held and plunged downward.
Their lips met and Ian's tongue pushed into the moist softness of her mouth. Her tongue pushed against his and their tongues moved together with a life and a love all their own. Her tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth and expanded, filling his mouth and pushing deeper...
Her tongue darted viciously into his throat and he panicked, fighting to push Linda away. Linda, I can't breathe! Stop-
Ian whimpered, but he was powerless against her. He struggled frantically, but she held him firmly in her embrace, her legs wrapped around his, and her arms trapping his against his sides. She took on a hypnotizing evil beauty that overwhelmed him with a terrible mixture of fear and desire. She had become a human leech, her tongue probing his insides in search of his soul and he wanted to surrender himself to her, to give up his life to satisfy her hunger, but the terror that gripped him made Ian push against her until finally-
Finally, he broke free!
Ian rolled away from her, gasping for breath. Her hand slid over his shoulder and he cried out in fear.
“What's the matter?”
The concern and gentleness in her voice made him turn to look at her. He was back in the apartment and he blinked. How did I get here? he wondered, only a minute ago I was-
He couldn't remember where he had been, but in the darkness beyond the outer fringes of his consciousness he could detect a vague impression of a seething morass of pain and suffering.
“Sweetheart, what's wrong?” The uneasiness in her voice seemed out of place somehow, and he smiled at her.
“Nothing. Why?” he asked pleasantly.
“Why did you stop?” she asked, her eyes showing a sorrow he didn't understand.
The lovemaking... He remembered the suffocation, and before that...
“I... I have to go to the bathroom,” Ian said quickly. He had to have time to think. Something was moving around in the back of his mind, just out of reach. He had to be alone. He had to find out what was bothering him.
Linda was worried. Ian could tell by the way she looked at him. There was something wrong, something missing, something that had to do with the thing lurking in the back of his mind. He had a suspicion that Linda knew what it was, but couldn't bring himself to ask her.
Ian gave her a quick kiss.
“Don't look so worried,” he said affectionately, “I'll be right back.”
He climbed out of bed and padded in bare feet to the bathroom. He didn't look back but knew she was watching him. He couldn't understand why she looked so worried.
He locked the bathroom door after he closed it behind him. I don't usually do that, he thought and shook his head. As he walked to the toilet, he glanced casually in the mirror and froze in shock.
His reflection filled him with horror. He saw himself incredibly emaciated, covered in filth, his cheeks drawn and his own eyes looked back at him from hollow sockets colored with despair, pleading for help. Behind the image, he could see the cave, and the back of his mind imploded as the memory of the War and the Dream burst through the barrier between his subconscious and his conscious and exploded inside his head. I'm dreaming, he thought and as if to confirm his realization, the Dream People materialized behind his image in the mirror.
And he knew the image staring back at him was his own body, and that he had to get back to it before the Dream People snatched it away while he was trapped in the Dream.
“Watch out!” he screamed at himself in the mirror, but his reflection only imitated his actions, unaware of the inhuman hands that reached for him. He lunged at the mirror to pull his image away from the Dream People but the moment that his fingertips touched the glass, Ian was sucked through the mirror, into the cave, and both of his selves fused into one a fraction of a second before the first touch of the decayed hands reached him...