Toliver awoke suddenly to the sound of the lock disengaging. He’d been sleeping lightly, his hat over his face, and realized immediately what he’d heard. He got up and approached the door hesitantly. He knew he hadn’t been lying there long. When nothing else happened, he grabbed the door handle. From the first contact, an electrical charge surged through him. He fell to the floor twitching.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When he again became aware of himself and his surroundings, he was standing rigidly and moving backwards at the same time. He closed his eyes to diminish a wave of nausea that came over him, and to take stock. He could move nothing but his head. He cautiously opened his eyes. He could see nothing but a blank flatness in any direction, though he detected the unmistakable glint of a bot in his peripheral vision. He stretched his neck up as far as he could and tried to look down at himself. He couldn’t see much, but what he could see told him what he already had guessed. He stood on an oversized bot’s transport platform, securely wrapped in graphene straps. He yelled at the bot to stop, asked it where they were going and tried to engage it in conversation. The bot remained silent, except for the hum of its antigrav and propulsion units.
Toliver started out paying attention, hoping to see anything or anyone that might help him escape. He had slept poorly, if at all, he’d been shocked, his hat was gone, and now brutal sunlight and heat battered his senses. He closed his eyes and the bot’s hum lulled him back to sleep.
Then, Toliver was flying through the air. He skidded to a stop, scraping his palms and tearing a hole in the right knee of his pants. He lay there several moments, breathing hard, trying to figure out where he was, what had happened and how badly he’d been hurt. Surface damage, he decided, and struggled to his feet as rapidly as he could manage. His whole body felt as if it had gone to sleep. He missed his hat, any hat. It looked to be mid-afternoon and felt well over one hundred degrees. Waves of heat wavered from horizon to horizon, shimmering lines in Toliver’s vision. The heat and the hurt were taking their toll on him; his mind leaped from thought to thought. Something wanted to break through, something he needed to remember. When he tried consciously to recall whatever it was, he would come to himself, staring into the distance. Finally, he put it in the back of his mind to consider later. If there was a later. He knew he needed to get moving before it became too late, hoping against hope that was not already the case. He had no idea what had made the bot crash, but this was no time to question providence. Judging by the direction of the bot’s fall, Toliver set off toward the west, and into the setting sun.
Toliver eventually lost sight of the bot when he turned to check behind. He would love to know what had happened, but suspected he never would. He hoped he had chosen the right direction. He kept the graphene road on his right, far enough away he could just barely see it. He put his head down, trying to create a rhythm, something that would keep him going.
Toliver felt like he’d been walking for hours, for days. He wasn’t sure how much father he could go. His eyes burned from squinting into the merciless light of the setting sun. It seemed to taunt him, this magnesium fire brightly shining before him. His skin felt as if he were on fire, flames licking up and down his body. He knew that only the time he’d spent working outside at Sawyers and the tough, black burn which came with it gave him any chance now. Yet, he’d spent almost a month working inside, and that had begun to fade. He could work up no saliva. Exhausted, weak and dehydrated he thought he might collapse at any moment. He wasn’t sure why he just didn’t give up. He’d probably die before they found him. He pushed on, one step and then one step more.
To distract himself, Toliver tried to imagine why the bot had not already found him. He knew there would be satellite tracking. He could imagine no reasonable answers, but, whatever had happened, it stank. He shuffled weakly on. His thoughts grew muddy and incoherent and he didn’t know if what he saw in the landscape was real. Between one step and the next he collapsed, crashing to his knees, his battered hands catching him before he sprawled on his face. The pain in his hands screamed, a focus for his awareness. He walked his upper body backwards, using his hands as gingerly as possible, until he achieved a kneeling position. His right hand looked worse than the left. Gashes had cut through his skin, which were bleeding freely again. Both hands had small stones and dirt embedded into or stuck to the wounds, but the right had two strips of flesh that dangled from his palm. One was shorter and one longer, but both clung to the merest connection. He looked around. He imagined a dark smudge on the horizon, sure it couldn’t be real.
He couldn’t see the road from his knees, which he hoped meant they couldn’t see him either. Rather a foolish hope, he would realize later. They certainly had better ways to keep tabs on him than line of sight. He had no idea who they were, if he hadn’t simply imagined everything. Perhaps he’d been heavily sedated and dosed and lay strapped to a gurney in an orbiting grospital. His mind immediately pushed this thought away. Everything seemed too convenient. So if he had truly escaped, it was because someone wanted him free, that someone had helped him. Thinkink this, he closed his eyes against the sun and fell asleep. When he next opened his eyes, it felt blessedly cool. As he lay there, he realized two things. First, the world around him was as dark as he could ever remember seeing it. Second, he rested on his side, with no memory of how he’d gotten there.