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Chapter Fifty-Two

The uncharted Martian wastes, 1880

Crawford sat atop his dov looking around him as calmly as if his head were not pounding unmercifully. He caught Schuldig's eye and smiled faintly. "I am very sorry," said Schuldig's voice in his mind, "but I cannot help you with the pain. If I could, I believe I would attend to my own headache first!" Crawford made no attempt to answer, simply pulling the brim of his hat further down to shade his eyes, and slipping off his spectacles and putting them safely away in their lacquer case. He should not, he thought ruefully, have let Schuldig be so persuasive in his views on the proper way in which to celebrate their leaving of the city. It was difficult to deny Schuldig's whims at the best of times, and as the mind reader's misery had seemed to lift at the prospect of being indulged, Crawford had willingly acceded to the request that they have a party once all the preparations for departure had been fulfilled. They had dragged together as much of the thorn bushes as they could, and Micah had had them ablaze in a cheerful fire in a matter of mere moments, the wood being very dry indeed. They had then made their dinner as palatable as possible and eaten the small luxuries that Crawford felt he could scarce deny his friends, they having been laid aside against this very day. Nagi had fallen upon his share of the preserves and sweets with a fervour that suggested he felt he had never eaten before that meal, and had stolen sips of his older friends' wine until Crawford felt moved to take official notice lest he become ill. Crawford himself and the other young men had both drunk their share of the wine and toasted each other in schnapps until the bottle that they had brought of that Teutonic liqueur was quite empty. It was only when Schuldig had drunkenly suggested that their medicinal brandy should also be consumed that Crawford demurred and had pulled Schuldig down into his lap where the young mind reader had immediately fallen asleep in a manner that made Farfarello regret their lack of photographic equipment. Now they were all more solemn in their demeanour, Schuldig appearing grave and sensible in all his slow movements, Farfarello and Micah silent and with their eyes fixed upon the horizon, Nagi looking about him with a hollow and weary gaze. Feeling it a proper lesson in the hazards of being ruled by strong drink, Crawford said nothing more about it to the lad, and gave him an encouraging smile as he drew level on his dov.

"When can we stop?" asked Nagi in a little voice.

"Not for some time," said Crawford. "You surely cannot want lunch already!" As the lad's face whitened and he looked ill, Crawford relented, saying, "Do you want to ride with me?"

"No," said Nagi through clenched teeth. "I am quite all right, Crawford."

"Good boy," said Crawford quietly, approving Nagi's attempt at fortitude. "You will manage quite well, I am sure of it."

Nagi smiled slightly, and bowed his head over his mount's neck, his hat for once firmly and voluntarily in place. Crawford, assured that all was as well with his friends as it could be, went back to grimly concentrating on his dov, glad that the great beasts were trained well enough so that their time of indolence and rest had not made them intractable and more difficult to control.

By the time they had to stop to shelter from the worst of the sun, all of them were feeling a little better. They erected their awning and crept beneath it to doze the afternoon away. As the sun's heat lessened, Crawford awoke to find he had become the pillow of both Schuldig and Nagi, both of whom lay curled atop of him. With a groan, Crawford pushed at them till they reluctantly moved.

"Oh," he muttered. "You have made me so stiff!" He staggered upright and squinted out at the sands, wishing for nothing more than to continue sleeping. Instead, he shook his friends, crying, "Up! No more sloth, we can travel for at least another two hours before we must stop for the night!"

"Water," groaned Nagi piteously, and Crawford handed out the rations of that precious liquid, now restricted only to the vital purpose of drinking, they having left the well so far behind. In a short space of time they had refreshed themselves and taken down the awning, ready to travel onwards. The rest of the day, while wearisome, contained no difficulties and by the time they had stopped to make camp for the night the young men felt themselves once more.

"Make yourself comfortable, Crawford," said Farfarello with an innocent smile. "Lest Schuldig be overcome once more and need to nap like a baby!"

"I cannot help being more delicate in myself," said Schuldig. "Unlike you, my race does not predispose me to frequenting the use of alcohol, and my constitution is altogether more refined."

"I believe I am by far the more abstemious of us," said Farfarello gently. "And probably the only one without a sore head today!"

"You looked as green as poor little Nagi," grinned Schuldig.

"I was quite well!" cried Nagi as Farfarello laughed, saying,

"I will admit to a little seasickness."

"I am glad you are all so much recovered, but as my head still aches I'd be obliged if you did not raise your voices," said Micah sadly, picking up small pieces of thorn bush and watching them burn.

"Still?" said Crawford in some worry.

"It's the heat, that's all," said Micah. "The cool of the night shall cure me, I have no doubt."

"Well," said Crawford, "if you are sure that you're simply suffering the effects of the heat, Micah --"

"I'm not like Schuldig, to be able to seem so well so quickly," sighed Micah.

"He is always like that," said Crawford, feeling obscurely proud of such an achievement by his friend. "If he is hurt he heals more quickly than would you or I, too. Farfarello also shares that good luck."

"Good luck, indeed," said Micah enviously. "You don't consider it, then, to be an effect that will cause his body to degenerate at a faster rate than it should?"

Crawford looked at him in silence for a moment, finally saying, "What? What do you know you haven't told me, Micah?"

"Nothing," said Micah, looking down as if horrified by the implications of what he had said. "I am not a medical man."

"Micah!" said Crawford fervently.

"Let's speak in private," said Micah, nodding away from the camp.

"Very well," said Crawford grimly, rising to his feet and following the other. "Where are you going?" said Schuldig in his mind. "He wishes to tell me something of his time as a child," thought Crawford. "I'd appreciate some privacy." "Keep your secrets," thought Schuldig gaily. "I'll worm them from you later!" Crawford erected the walls about his mind that his training had taught him to construct, imagining them as strong and secure, for although he was sure Schuldig would mean to keep his word he knew his friend was as curious as most mind readers about the secrets of others.

When they were some distance from the camp Micah turned to him and seized his hand in a state of agitation. "I by no means wished to cause you alarm!" he said. "I presumed you had seen the various reports drawn up by those whose business it is to investigate our physical concerns."

"Explain," said Crawford curtly.

Micah sighed. "I know you do not like me to speak of that time," he said, "but when I was an instructor in the Schloß I took advantage of my admission to the library, and read as widely as I was permitted. It was such a pleasure to read things not directly concerned with my work over the previous years! One of the papers I read concerned a young man - not a mind reader, one who could move things with his mind - who exhibited many of the characteristics I have observed in Schuldig. He could run at great speeds, jump further and higher than other men, and healed at a far faster rate than might have been expected. When he was twenty-one he died, his heart being simply unable to carry on the strain of his accelerated physical state. I'm sorry, Bradley, I thought that perhaps you had read this yourself."

"No," said Crawford. "Schuldig is twenty-two, so I was told. He must be almost twenty-three, in fact."

"I do not think his physical abilities as extreme as the unfortunate young man of whom I read," said Micah. "He has a good appetite, can work as well as any of us and truly, he seems healthy enough, don't you think?"

"Yes," said Crawford, distracted with care. Was this, he wondered, why he saw himself alone? The thought of Schuldig dying suddenly and without warning overcame him, and he turned aside, as if studying the moons that stood high and bright in the sky. "I should be careful not to put him in situations that might strain his heart," he murmured.

"I'm sure he'll still be able to fight for you," said Micah. "He's hardly a bruised and wilting flower!"

Crawford smiled gamely at this attempt to cheer him, his mind full of the empty desert. Surely this was it, he thought. Worn out with exertion and heat, Schuldig would simply die. Although he felt none of the certainty with which his visions usually came to him, he could not shake the thought from his mind. Why would he himself die, he wondered. An attack from the natives? The soldiers taking him unaware? If that happened, he thought, at least Farfarello was likely to fight with such fury that he would not be taken alive and would be spared the hangman's noose. No doubt he and Micah would die in like manner. It was Nagi he had to think of, he mused. He must somehow find a way to ensure that the boy would not be involved in such a combat, not to mention a way that would safeguard him thereafter. He would do it, he thought, Nagi at least would survive. He looked up, suddenly aware he was being spoken to.

"Bradley?" said Micah in concern. "Are you all right? Did you see something?"

"No," said Crawford. "No, I was simply thinking. I'm sure you're right, Micah, and that Schuldig is quite well. Thank you for telling me of that research -- now I know that such a thing is possible, I can take measures to preserve his health." He smiled, continuing with forced cheer, "He is much too stubborn simply to drop down dead! I am sure he will live to give me many grey hairs."

"Yes," said Micah with a smile. He squeezed Crawford's hand in a companionable manner, going on to say, "I am sure your plan to spoil him and give him every luxury will come to pass. Don't think on this any more, brother. As I said, I have no medical learning and I no doubt have interpreted what I read incorrectly. I hope you have many years to satisfy his every desire."

"Yes," said Crawford. "That pleasant wish is one I wholeheartedly will endeavour to see come to fruition. Let us go back to the others, they'll think the dov have eaten us."

Although it was stupid and childish, he could not suppress a moment of pleasure at the flicker of unguarded alarm on Micah's face at such a thought. It was, he mused as they walked quickly back, poor enough recompense for the greater alarm that now suffused his whole being.

* * *

The uncharted Martian wastes, two weeks later

Schuldig swept his hair back from his face, replacing his hat again and longing above all things to possess enough water with which to wash himself from head to toe. "Oh, how we all stink!" he thought in disgust. "I might almost wish myself a girl, if only I could be done with this beard!" He brushed his fingers across the offending feature, feeling sand and dust on his fingers and quite detesting the thought that his young face should be disfigured, as he thought, by this mark of maturity. He glared at Nagi in envy, wishing himself but a boy again, as the lad scratched at his smooth and childish cheek. Schuldig sighed, admitting to himself that such thoughts were no more than an attempt to distract himself from the overwhelming worries that lay in wait at the corners of his mind to attack him whenever he had but a moment to contemplate them. His mind was quite consumed with plans and contingencies to protect Crawford in as many circumstances as he might imagine, and he found it difficult to allow his friend out of his sight for the briefest of moments, a fact that both pleased Crawford as a sign of fidelity and annoyed him as being too cloying in nature. Schuldig paced about the camp, demanding that only the most basic and necessary of their equipment be removed from the cart, so that they might travel on again as quickly as possible the next morning. While he was most pleased to stop for the night, being tired and hot, he felt also the urge to keep moving, to attempt to get as close to civilisation as possible before whatever fate would befall them might occur.

"The wind will change and your face will be stuck that way," laughed Farfarello, flicking at Schuldig's hat so that it flew from his head. "Crawford will make you wear a bag over your head."

"Let me be," snarled Schuldig, snatching up his fallen hat from the sand. "Were you born so stupid or did they train you to be so in the Schloß?"

Farfarello paused, the wickedness of his expression letting any man who knew him easily see that he considered Schuldig to be ripe for the teasing. "I've always considered your moodiness to wax and wane with the moon," he said in his mildest of voices. "Do you find the presence of two such heavenly bodies here to be a trial to you? I'm sure Crawford could find you some pleasant medicine to help you through these troublesome times!"

"Only if he has a pill against idiots!" said Schuldig. "Go away, Farfarello, I am in no mood to indulge your little games."

"Oh, that is because you are off your food -- are you in a delicate condition, kleines Mädchen?" said Farfarello with deep solicitousness.

"Will you be silent?" said Schuldig in sudden anger, seeing Micah look his way and quickly hide a smile of amusement. "Let me be, I say! I've had much on my mind of late and I don't want you adding to the annoyances of my life."

"I have barely begin to annoy you," murmured Farfarello, then he stopped, looking more closely at Schuldig's face, grown thinner since they had left the city. "Schuldig?" he said. "Is there something wrong?"

"No," said Schuldig with a false little smile, one that turned to a yelp of surprise as Farfarello pulled him aside and behind an outcropping of rock. "Ah!" he ejaculated, "I have things to do!"

"For a start, you must talk to me," agreed Farfarello. "What is it? Do not hide information from me if I need to know it."

"You must not become over agitated," said Schuldig. "Oh, do not look at me like that, we both know how you are when you become too excited!"

"Very well," said Farfarello, crossing his arms. "I am calm and if not sane, at least sensible. Now, speak!"

Schuldig leaned in close, as if to whisper but at that point decided that even the quietest of voices was too much of a risk and so continued in thought alone. "Crawford has seen his own death," he thought, feeling a traitor as he did so, as if giving mental utterance to the words was what would make the sad event come to pass.

"What?" answered Farfarello in like manner, his countenance made strange and suddenly monstrous to Schuldig in the shock that suffused it, though the mind reader at most times scarce noticed the terrible scars that traversed his companion's face, so used had they become to each other. "What do you mean? When? When and how shall this happen and how may we avert it?"

"I do not know that we can," thought Schuldig in grim answer, "Though I have sworn to him that I shall. It is usual for him to say that his visions concerning a more distant future are not set in stone, that there yet is enough time to change one's actions and so channel the course of events to a path more to one's liking and desires - yet for some time he has seen himself alone, deserted somehow by all of us, out here in these desolate lands. And now he has seen that he shall die - and that I am not there. Farfarello," he thought in agitation, seizing his friend's hand in both his own, "do not let me act like a silly boy, do not let me become offended and leave him! I could not bear it." The thought that he was in truth the cause of Crawford's approaching demise pricked at his eyes and he had to turn away lest he shed tears and so be mocked.

"Don't act like this," thought Farfarello in some alarm, steadying himself against the rock as if the ground had shifted beneath his feet. "How can you say that you might abandon him? Surely nothing any of us could do or say would separate you from one another?" Seeing that Schuldig was quite serious, however, he nodded firmly, going on in the queer manner of communication to which they had all become so accustomed, "Do not fear, I won't let you run off and do something you should later regret." With a sigh as if he were a child forced to relinquish his very favourite toy he continued, "Why I shall even stop teasing you myself. I know you are too gentle and maidenly-minded to withstand such raillery for long!"

"Pah!" ejaculated Schuldig loudly. "As if I gave a fig for your feeble wits and jokes!" He tightened his grasp upon the young Irishman's hand, adding, "Thank you. Do not think I do not appreciate your aid and good sense, Farfarello."

"Well," said Farfarello in mock surprise, "And they say the age of miracles is past!" With a grin made horrible by his disfigurement, he led the way back to the others, and for the rest of the evening was almost as good as his word, making jests about Schuldig only when he could not withstand the lure of some opening the mind reader left him, and looking so comically alarmed at his failure thereafter that Schuldig could in no way take offence. That this was a stratagem designed to allow Farfarello to both, as the saying relates, have his cake and eat it, crossed Schuldig's mind but he forbore to investigate in his relief that he had shared his burden and that now Crawford had two strong protectors rather than simply one.
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