The glaring heat-thing has gone somewhere below the horizon again and he shudders in the dank chill that follows.
Cross-legged he stares unblinking into the fire, nostrils filled with meaty smell of the small animal he's just killed, salivating even as his gorge rises.
His hands blister and redden from shredding the carcass and he gives them a glance when did they get so dirty before cramming fistfuls into his mouth, masses of flesh he can barely taste let alone swallow. This protein fuel won't kill him. He told Logan once about the menu choices he'd have if he lived in Cathedral, as in, he'd have no choices and Logan in turn had looked properly nauseated.
He swallows hard, eyes closing. Logan tried to kill him but he in turn had fired to miss, to stop his friend from running.
He glances down, shocked to realize he's consumed most of the animal already, more so to realize that the fatty taste was becoming pleasurable to him.
He picks at a strand caught in his teeth. In the ice cave he found confirmation that Logan had survived the flood he'd triggered, a machine life form covered with flamer scars. His second confirmation is that she survived with him: an ice sculpture with the two of them in close embrace.
The artist has an expressive hand or, in this case, carving tool. Logan has a look of peace, of rapture, the kind of look not achieved without drugs.
He broods over it. The Green did this to him, made him helpless, weak as a Runner, but this is only temporary. In the end, as partners again, they'll return to the ice cave and celebrate their victory by destroying the sculpture of Logan and the Green. In his mind, this last objective has already been accomplished.
But the first objective is to recover Logan. And Logan has been here at the lagoon. With her. The dual set of footprints means he hasn't terminated her yet, hasn't been able to free himself from her influence.
A twig snaps and he jerks his head about, hand raising the Gun. Through a haze of smoke, movement ripples away through the bushes. He lets the Gun hand sag.
He curls up within his crude bed of leaves and grass, allowing the fire to burn and burn. Sleep brings fitful dreams.
The heat-thing scorches him directly overhead, about to fall but it never moves from up there. As it had the day before and the day before that, it follows him across a parched landscape of stabgrass, bramble bush and thorn. He stumbles forward on blistered feet.
He thinks he's seen them in the shimmery distance. They've found some water in a weed canal. His face cracks in a rictus grin. He brings up the Gun, points it. They're waving at him. They're floating away.
He blinks. They're gone. So is the water. So is the Gun. He's pointing a finger.
He slogs back the kilom or two to retrieve the weapon and seizes the grip. The pain sears his palm, makes him gasp, but he doesn't let go.
He fumbles the Gun into the V-holster at his side and returns to face the ball of heat-pain, now shifting to cover a new area of torment. Head lowered, he uses the pain to push himself forward and the brief clearing of his head to rally himself.
Logan needs me. She's taking him to be killed by the Runners. I have to get there before that happens. I will get there first.
He weaves. The heat-thing pitches about in the sky. It's an eye that never blinks. He's used to surveillance but not like this. He hasn't seen any Runners but he's sure they see him just fine, looking down from above. Why didn't they move on him when he lost the Gun? Maybe they were playing games with him.
The eye dips toward the horizon turning nearly as red as the skin on his peeling knuckles. It would return the next day he knew, strong as before. . . renewed. The Runners could turn up its power to full and incinerate him. Instead, they played games.
He staggers into a valley webbed from shrubbery. Tree husks reach blackened fingers for him. He finds shelter in the remains of one split down the middle. The skeletal limbs reflect his spirit.
A stream whispers nearby and he cautiously sips from it, remembering the mouthful of mud he'd received when he last gulped from one.
He wants to follow it. They would camp beside a stream such as this. They would be close, and he could take them as they slept. Yet he curbs this impulse, dismayed suddenly that she and Logan had become. . . they. He quivers inside, ordering his mind back to business. His basic needs must be met first. If he couldn't keep himself functional, he wouldn't be much good to Logan.
He sets a fire to offset the chill he feels, drinks more water and sleeve sponges his face.
The fire doesn't warm. Maybe he's hungry. He looks around. Within the clearing is some vegetation he identifies as being round-caps from the City, edible but growing wild out here.
The first bite is mealy and bitter, and he spits it out. He rinses the rest of the cluster in the stream and eats most of them, even the stems, but the taste is wretched and getting worse with every swallow.
He slumps away from the fire. For some reason he's sweating again and his head is pounding. He crawls to the base of his shelter in the tree trunk and grips it until the bark crumbles to bits. A shudder racks through his body.
The convulsion becomes too much and he heaves. His face slams the bark with the force of it. Sparkles brim in his vision. He barely hears himself mouthing a name.
Minutes pass before he can return to the water getting there by elbow inching forward. He rinses his mouth and drinks as much water as he can to dilute the poison that remains inside.
He bathes his face again especially around the cut. He's glad he can't see his reflection. Too dark anyway.
Avoiding the soiled spot he settles back against his tree, watches the fire pulsate to the throb in his head. He's dozing when he hears another voice close by.
He takes a breath, heart racing.
He sees his friend, alive, unharmed and most important of all . . . solo. "You did it." His eyes fill. "It's done. Now we can go back." His voice is rusty from lack of use, choked from emotion and his words slur. "I can hardly believe it."
Logan stares at him in a way he hopes never to see again. "I'm not going back."
He focuses on the other Sandman. A gust of wind leaves Logan's hair unruffled. This is a fake, a kind of hologram, a new Runner's trick, but it won't work on him.
Logan continues, "You have to go back. You still have your life ahead of you."
For long seconds Francis can't speak at all, he can't even breath, then the words spill out of him. "What about your life? You're unprotected. I'm your only back-up. Don't you know what Runners do to Sandmen?"
"I know what Sandmen do to Runners."
Francis goes cold. "Which are you?"
Logan stares through him. "Perhaps this was a mistake."
"Then we'll undo your mistake." Keep him talking, keep him interested. . .don't let him run away as before.
Still far-seeing Logan says, "I love her."
The word lingers in his mind, magnifying pain already there. "You don't love her, you don't know what you're talking about." His voice climbs, desperate. "Terminate her."
"She's a runner."
"She is a human being. So are you." Logan speaks in impatient clipped tones. "Those labels don't matter anymore."
"Those labels told me exactly what to do with your runner friend in Cathedral."
Logan's lips were thin, pinched with disapproval . . . and sadness. "You killed her."
"Is that what the Green calls it? I call it terminating a runner. You once called it that too."
"We were killers, Francis. I know that now. The City filled us with lies, but now we're Outside. Look around." Logan moves his hand in an arc though his eyes never left Francis' face. "Sandmen and runners don't exist out here, only people . . . people living as long as they want to. You can be free."
Not a chance. "I'm a Sandman. She's a runner. I'm not sure about you. But you are coming back with me. I don't care how." He sees a muscle ripple in Logan's jaw, the clenched fists, the rigid posture. He's almost convinced this is the genuine article.
"Don't do this, Francis. Don't end it like this."
"I didn't end it. You turned your back on me. You were my partner."
"We aren't partners anymore."
The flat denial sears a worse anguish into him than anything he'd ever felt before. "I'll burn that Green." From the flinch he knows his words hit target. "She made you a runner. I'll make you alone."
He doesn't want Logan's hate but he'll take it if it means saving his life. What choice does he have?
"Don't threaten me." The black-clad man stands swaying, shoulders slumped. "You should go back to the City. There's nothing for you here."
Francis takes in the other's haggard appearance, observing Logan no longer wore his belt and the Gun wasn't visible. Returning without the Gun would be a problem, but he'd think of something before then. "Come back with me, Logan," he whispers, staring into the other's glittering eyes. Certainly Logan was as sick of Outside as he was. "It isn't too late. I covered for you, your killing the Sandman, your letting a runner go. I even recovered the blind capsule you left with her. You're completely safe. No one will ever know."
"I appreciate that." Logan's tone is detached, expression empty of warmth. "But I'm not going back. Goodbye, Francis."
He has one final appeal. "If I return without you, they'll Surrogate me, find out everything." His voice fills with an abject pleading he can scarcely believe is coming from him. "They'll terminate me in disgrace. I won't Renew. My life is in your hands."
Logan takes a step forward, shakes his head. "They'll Surrogate you only if they have suspicion. Tell them that you terminated me Outside. They'll believe you. I know how convincing you can be."
"I didn't convince you."
Logan has no reply. His back is stiff. Even the night insects make no sound.
Francis closes his eyes. This conversation never happened. The runners are still playing games with him. Not content with merely stealing his friend, they're using his image as a means to torture him. We'll still return to the City in triumph, there are still good times to be had . . .
Logan's voice is so quiet it is barely there. "Have you ever loved anyone?"
Francis turns his face away.
"You won't leave someone if you love them."
The pain is suddenly too terrible to endure. He unholsters, raises the Gun, but fury and fatigue make him less coordinated than usual. By the time he fires, Logan is gone. The blast of light destroys his night vision, making his eyes tear.
Perhaps a bit more than necessary.
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