Author’s note: I’ve just started an internship at a tech company, so these updates may be a bit slower for the next few posts.
Continued from Chapter 46, here.
The next morning, I headed off, once again into the unknown – alone.
Sara had to stay behind, back on that hill overlooking the town. Several times, I considered taking a blade to that horrible cord that bound her to the monstrosity, the Unity, that reared up over the horizon behind her. I knew, however, that doing so would likely hurt her more than it would help, and could even kill her.
It broke my heart. Sara looked, acted, felt exactly the same as before. But it wasn’t quite her, just like how the vision of my wife, inside that dream, hadn’t exactly been my wife. It had spoken like Alexis, looked like Alexis, moved like Alexis – but in the end, it turned out to just be a projection, a wax figurine.
And when I forced myself to cast aside the veil of emotion, I had to acknowledge that Sara wasn’t quite her normal self. Not any longer.
It was the little things, the things that my brain tried at first to keep me from noticing. I should have caught it earlier on, last night, but I kept it out of my forethoughts for too long before it was too much to ignore.
She didn’t feel the cold. That was the first indication that Sara was different. Sure, when I built up a fire, she moved in close and held out her hands to take in its warmth – but when I returned from gathering more wood, the fire had burned down to little more than coals and a few scattered embers, and she stood there with her arms bare, not even showing any hints of goosebumps.
She claimed to not be hungry. I scavenged some extra canned food for her, but she let it sit untouched. I wonder if she even needed to eat at all, any more, or if everything came to her through that cord.
Later, she made me promise that I would stay awake and watch over her until she fell asleep. But although I waited, and although she closed her eyes, she never actually slowed her breathing, never drifted fully into unconsciousness. Eventually, I accepted her pretense that she was sleeping and let my own consciousness slip away.
She still looked, spoke, acted just like Sara – but it wasn’t quite her.
And she couldn’t go beyond the hill. I told her that I’d be heading out to try and reach the ship that she saw off the coast, but she never even suggested trying to come along. She acted as though she knew it was beyond her reach, that she couldn’t get herself free to go join me in escaping.
“Promise me that you’ll come back,” she said, sitting down amid the long, gently waving blades of grass at the top of the hill.
I nodded, sank to one knee so I could reach out to take her hands. This was still Sara, still a girl who hadn’t even reached puberty, I kept thinking to myself. Despite being connected to a monster, that didn’t change who she was.
It was still Sara, in there somewhere.
Did that mean that, somewhere deep inside that dream, my wife had truly been there? Had there been a shade of her spirit, looking out at me and watching as I screamed back at her, did my best to destroy her? Had she been begging me to stop, or urging me on, telling me to get out while I still could?
I couldn’t let myself get lost in thoughts like that. I held Sara’s small hand, looked her in the eyes. “I’ll come back for you,” I told her, meaning every word. “I promise.”
She blinked a couple of times, looking almost like she was about to cry, but swallowed the tears. “Okay. Good.”
And so, fighting wetness in my own eyes, I headed down the hill towards the small town on the side of the ocean.
It wasn’t hard to locate a boat in the marina. I found the keys to a small cruiser that should have no trouble navigating the light chop on the way out to sea, but I needed to break the lock off a supply depot to siphon some gasoline out of the inside tank. Once I was fairly certain that the boat’s motor wouldn’t run out and strand me out at sea, I fired it up and headed off the shore.
The ship saw me first. Heading towards what was little more than a hazy spot on the horizon, I heard a buzzing sound come from above me. Looking up, I spotted a drone as it dipped down from the clouds, hanging above me. I knew that, inside the black sphere at its front end, cameras were swinging around to zoom in on my face. I wondered if they had recognition software up and running, or if I was going to be met at the ship by stony-faced men armed with automatic weapons.
As if there was any other way. I cut the engine as I neared the large, gunmetal-gray military vessel, standing up and waving with both hands to the unsmiling men looking over the railing to show them that I wasn’t armed.
“Permission to come aboard!” I called out, reaching back to give the throttle one last burst, just to keep the side-wash from the destroyer from pushing me away.
No answer came back – but after a minute, someone threw down a rope ladder over the side.
I hesitated for a second before reaching out to grab the ladder. If I climbed aboard, I’d be losing the boat. That would leave me on the ship, without a way to reach the mainland. On one hand, the mainland didn’t hold anything for me, currently… but it also was where all my squad mates were, in some way, and I’d promised Sara that I would come back.
Seeking to compromise, I turned off the boat’s engine and, with a spare bit of rope, lashed it to the bottom of the ladder. I couldn’t leave it like that for long, or the boat would be smashed to pieces from being repeatedly knocked against the armored hull of the destroyer. But it would hold for the moment.
Then, taking a deep breath, I seized the ladder in both hands and climbed aboard.
Just as I’d suspected, I was met at the top of the ladder by three unsmiling faces. Two of those faces were connected to bodies holding automatic rifles, aimed not quite in my direction. The stance of their holders, however, along with their hard eyes and set jaws, told me that the direction of those rifles could change in an instant, should I make any attempt to start trouble.
I gave those two men a single nod, then turned my attention to the third newcomer, standing in between the bodyguards.
She looked… tired, I found myself thinking. I guessed that she was in her early to middle forties, but heavy lines of exhaustion added a decade to her appearance. Short-cropped blonde hair with a hint of red, clearly maintained by a razor rather than a stylist’s shears. Somehow, she made the bulky fatigues look like they belonged on her, like it was impossible to imagine her wearing anything else.
She stood there for a long minute, just looking at me. I had to keep my spine straight under her exacting gaze and hope that I measured up. Finally, just as I started to wonder if she would simply wordlessly throw me off the boat, she opened her mouth.
“And who,” she asked softly, suspicion coloring her tone, “are you?”
To be continued…
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