It only briefly occurred to me that I was supposed to be finding help for my companions. This key beckoned me, it called me in a way that I do not begin to understand and shall not try to understand. I did, however, consider going back for them and then taking them to the mountain, but at far as I could guess that would entail adding an extra 5km or so on to my journey. I didn't want to spend that much time out in the noonday sun. I had plenty of water, but I could feel my hide being burnt by the sun's rays. A fair amount of my water sling had been shredded by the sandstorm - I dread to think what I would have been like if my hide had been exposed to the grinding, abrasive sand.
I walked. I walked what felt like a long way, yet the mountain was still well in front of me. It was hot and I had no shelter better than a ragged piece of life raft material. I was tiring rapidly and dehydrating despite drinking quantities of water. I walked and walked and walked, hardly knowing why I walked, just having to walk to reach my destination.
I was beyond caring by this stage. I let the water sling fall at some point, dropped the navcomp and the walkie talkie G'Quan knows where. It was hot, so very hot and I could focus only on one thing.
At last I dropped down into a valley. I knew somehow that this valley would lead me to the mountain, to the door that I sought. I fell down half the slope and lay there for a while, then picked myself up and staggered on.
The last thing I remember is a fence, a great, high wire fence in my way. I tried climbing it, but could not, I tried sheer brute force against it and it would not budge. I remember screaming at it, hammering at it, staggering along it, trying it find a way through it. I found a locked gate with a security pad by it, but could not break the code.
It was hopeless, everything was hopeless. I was so very hot and tired and in so many forms of pain. I needed the Human to get through the gate, but he was a long walk away and I was so tired. Maybe I would just have a little rest for a while.
I don't remember much of what came after that. I do recall something rough under my head and voices and water being dribbled into my mouth. Water! I hungered for it, slurped and sucked at what I was offered and craved more. Water!
After a while, I tried to follow the water, tried to crawl after it, but I couldn't even get to my hands and knees. I was lifted to my feet and supported either side.
All I could do was smell things and feel things - sight was a blur of light and dark, sound was a collection of noises that were vaguely familiar. What I remember most clearly are smells. The beings around me stunk. Each had its own stench, but I could not identify any of them. The water smelt like the most beautiful thing I had ever known and was nectar on my tongue.
I was dragged, half-walking, what felt like a very long way. Then one of my supports dropped me, making strange sounds and much noise. Then the other support left me as well, and I fell. There was water in the thing it had dropped, so I buried my face in it and drank and drank and drank.
A smell wafted over me. A pleasant smell. It called me to it. I pushed myself to hands and knees and followed the smell into a place that was cooler and smelt old and musty, but also good because there was food inside.
Food! I found some thing warm and maybe even living, and tried chewing on it. There was a funny noise and it jumped away. Something appeared in front of me. It was food. I stuffed it into my mouth with hands and lips and tongue.
FOOD!!!! GOOD food! It was gone very quickly, and I licked clean the place where it had been of every last trace. I wanted more. I butted at the thing that had jumped and grabbed at it. Suddenly there was something in my hand. It had something shiny it it, but around the shiny thing was FOOD! I pulled the shiny thing out and stuck my hand in - FOOD! I ate more food.
There had to be more food in the thing I held - I could see it but I couldn't reach it and my hand got stuck. If I hit the thing against the ground, it made a thunking noise that pleased me. Thunk....thunk.....thunk. Food was so good. Even better than water! Even things that go thunk are good!
I awoke in what appeared to be a cook's room. Scattered all around me were tins. The Pak'ma'ra was stirring next to me, and I heard Nar'Bon snoring. Where was I, and how had my companions come to be here with me? I must have been dreaming the whole nasty episode of the walk through the sandstorm. Why was there green muck all over my gloves?
I postponed philosophical thoughts as my stomach reminded me that I had hardly eaten anything in days.
The Pak'ma'ra sat up and turned around to me. "Ah, Captain, you are awake. How do you feel?"
The Pak'ma'ra's eyes widened in what I was learning was his form of expression of amusement.
The sound of tins being opened awoke the others quickly.
I was alive and had food. We were all alive and had food. It was good to be alive and to have food. All we needed was more water and that surely was just a matter of finding the power that would run the pump and give us water.
After the first rush of eating was over, my companions filled me in on what had happened over the last day? Two days? None of us knew how long we had been in this place - we could have slept for more than one day.
They had sat out the sandstorm and discovered that their walkie talkie was also non-functional - shorted out by static discharges in the storm or something, Russell surmised. He had fixed the talkie, but they had not been able to contact me, which was not surprising (to me at least) since mine also had been damaged. In tuning to different bands, trying to locate me, they had come across a signal that the Pak'ma'ra thought indicated that there was a restricted area just to the north of where they were. A restricted area meant that there might be military people there, which would mean food and water and shelter.
They debated for some time what to do - they should wait for me to return with a vehicle, presuming that I had survived the sandstorm. I think the Pak'ma'ra believed it quite possible that I hadn't. But I had given quite clear instructions on what they were to do if they did move - leave a trail of cairns behind them. Eventually, they sat and waited half the night for me, then set out northwards, up a branch of the valley.
It had taken some persuasion to keep Russell moving, apparently. Then they had seen the fence in front of them, and something that looked humanoid against it. When they got closer, they realised that it was me. They were very surprised to see me - I was a long way off the course that I should have been on. I had none of the equipment I had started out with and was severely dehydrated. They had thought that I was dead or so close to dead that I could not survive.
But I did, and am here now to tell this tale.
The sun was rising when they found me. One of my hands was still locked into a grip on the fence. My spots were almost white and my hide blackened by sun. The Pak'ma'ra had dribbled water into my mouth, the water that had brought me back to semi-consciousness enough to be dragged along. I guess I owe him for keeping me alive.
Nar'Bon and the Pak'ma'ra had pretty much carried me inside the compound after the Human had opened the gate lock. The place was deserted, but ahead were buildings. One was labelled "mess", which is when the Pak'ma'ra went berserk and broke in through a window. He found the stores area and hammered open a can by brute force. Apparently he had been slurping up some green muck from a bench with his tentacles, and had whacked the Human with one when Russell tried to steal some of the food.
I had apparently crawled in, attracted by the smell of food, after the Pak'ma'ra opened the door to let Nar'Bon and I in. More amusing was that the thing I decided was food was actually the Pak'ma'ra's leg! He distracted me by dumping the contents of a tin down on the floor in front of me and I had eaten it off the floor to the last morsel. Then I had been given a tin with a spoon in it, but disdained the spoon and ate with my gloved hands until my hand was trapped. I hit the can on the floor lots and made unhappy mewling sounds, so I am told. After I fell asleep, the Pak'ma'ra unwedged the tin off my hand and put it aside. I cannot verify or deny all these events as I am told they occurred - all that I remember is that which I have already related.
They asked me how I had come to be at the fence. I told them that I had been drawn here. I didn't understand it. They didn't understand either, so we were square.
It was daylight when we all awoke and ate and related our stories. By examining the date on the cans, the Pak'ma'ra surmised that it was about five years since the compound had been abandoned. The Pak'ma'ra and I decided that we had to find the power source first. Then that would probably get us water. We had to reconnoitre the compound. The Human and Nar'Bon were still very fatigued and stayed behind to rest.
Outside was very bright. Outside had a very large hill, the mountain from my dreams. The Pak'ma'ra found a water tank, and we wasted some of the water by drinking and washing in it. As I drank and washed, my eyes never left the mountain.
On the flank of the great hill closest to us were signs. The Pak'ma'ra translated the Markab as best he could. "It's some form of research facility and we will be prosecuted if we go inside. It says it is dangerous."
There was a great door that opened into the mountain's side. It drew me to it.
"Captain! What are you doing?" The Pak'ma'ra actually sounded worried.
"I have to go there! Inside. Haven't you seen her? Hasn't she talked to you?"
The Pak'ma'ra's expression told me that he didn't know what I was talking about. "You have to go inside?"
"You haven't seen - oh, it was only a dream. It's nothing. I don't understand it, and oh, just forget about it. It's ridiculous."
But I did not follow the Pak'ma'ra. I stopped and stayed where I was, staring at the door.
The Pak'ma'ra shrugged. He looked at me with a strange expression - not as if I were mad, but certainly touched by something. "Captain, don't go inside without the rest of us, OK?"
I nodded and went back to examining the door. I outlined it with my hands and imagined pushing it open. It would not be locked against me. I sat down in the sand before it and looked at it closely. I pushed my hands against it, but it did not open.
There was a keypad recessed into the side wall. How hadn't I seen it before? I didn't know the access code, but I had a feeling that knowing would not be a problem. I stood and reached out a hand to it, keying in a number.
The door opened and fetid, musty old air rushed out at me.
The Pak'ma'ra yelled behind me as I stepped nearly through the door. "Captain! Captain Na'Tiel!" He sounded afraid, but there was nothing to be afraid of.
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