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Chapter Fifty-Six

The desert, north-east of New London, 1880

Micah rode out ahead of the others, scanning the horizon for signs that the natives of the area might seek to hunt the little party of young men. Taking this position by Crawford's request some days previously, he had never since relinquished it, even when offered the chance to fall back and converse with the others. Schuldig proclaimed this to be stand-offishness when he and Crawford were alone, but Crawford felt it was rather a devotion to duty, regrettably as he felt, mixed with a disinclination to allow another Micah felt too light-minded to assume the rôle. Some five nights since they had carried out a raid on one of the rare and heavily guarded wells. Wishing to remain as inconspicuous as possible the guards had not been slain, but rendered unconscious while the precious liquid was lifted in container after container from the deep well by Nagi. Schuldig, although he complained that he could hardly be expected to perform to the best of his capacity on the strange and inhuman minds of the natives, had implanted within the guards' minds the suggestion that they had fallen foul of bad food as an explanation for their dereliction of duty. Then with all haste the friends had fled into the desert once more, their casks of water replenished with, as they most fervently hoped, enough of that liquor most needful for all life to enable them to reach the cultivatable land once more. No signs of riders on dov could be discerned in the hot and shimmering landscape that gleamed at the horizons as if vast oceans were perpetually just out of sight. Nor did any ayit soar overhead bearing riders to carry tales of the friends' presence. It was as if they and their beasts were the only living things in the whole vast and still world.

When they broke at the hottest part of the day, sheltering from the fury of the sun under a quickly erected canvas, Crawford looked about him with what satisfaction he could muster. He had led his friends so far, he thought. While they had not followed without questions this did not alarm him in the slightest. Only the most foolish of men, he thought, followed blindly. Rational men sought to verify what they were told, or if they accepted statements on faith it was because those who spoke had shown their good sense and intelligence consistently heretofore. He would lead them further, he vowed, and if he himself were not to live to see their success he would do all within his power to ensure that they would live free after him. Schuldig looked at him sorrowfully, but said nothing, for which Crawford was very glad. He did not think it in any way useful to make dramatic statements about the miseries of one friend surviving another, still less the idiocy that had caused him to laugh aloud on first seeing the Bard of Avon's great tragedy, that of willingly following one's friend into death, as if a broken heart could not be endured. He was very glad that Schuldig was not so silly. Schuldig gave him a smile quite unconvincing in its gaiety, his voice murmuring within his friend's mind, "Don't worry! I shouldn't be so wet! If you were to die - which you shall not, for I shall not allow it - my time will be taken up with the destruction of those who kill you and all they hold dear, not with weeping and doing away with myself." Having thus reassured Crawford, Schuldig finished the small meal that was all any of them could force themselves to consume in such heat and, pillowing his head on his friend's thigh, fell fast asleep.

"Are we really only a week from New London?" asked Micah. "It seems so barren still."

"We have possibly a week and a half still to travel," said Crawford. "Our water will hold out, and once we reach the canals we may make ourselves more presentable, so as not to excite suspicion from the people."

Micah nodded, making no reply. When the time came for them to journey on he took the foremost position once more, scanning the horizon uneasily.

"Have you seen trouble for us?" said Farfarello with a little frown as Crawford drew back to check that all was well with the cart.

"No," said Crawford. "Though it is possible that we might attract the attention of an army patrol," he continued, thinking it was a poor thing for Farfarello to consider that Micah was unduly nervous. "We must remain alert, Farfarello."

"Yes, indeed," said Farfarello mildly. "I'm very much of the opinion that the army is to be avoided!" He said nothing more on the subject, though Crawford could see that he felt Micah was subject to silly imaginings of the sort that should not trouble a man trained in the rational carrying out of tasks. Crawford forbore to say that he no longer saw any future whatsoever, for any of them, for he felt that such a burden - if it were to be shared with anyone at all - was best shared amongst the smallest number of confidants. If he could have kept this lamentable state of affairs from Schuldig he would have, but the mind reader's powers did not allow such secrecy and he knew, moreover, that Schuldig would be very hurt to think he was being coddled as if he were a baby who needed such protection from hard truths.

The next day passed in much the same manner, the band of friends travelling in weary and watchful silence, glad to break at last at evening in a small valley for rest and food, lying in attitudes of repose about their little camp fire to eat a meal that consisted now in great part of gruel made from the tasteless Martian grain. Nagi curled up on his side the moment he had finished his share, falling asleep almost at once, while the others stared dully into the flames.

"This has been a good journey," said Micah suddenly, his eyes still on the fire started with his powers. "Though there have been hardships we have all worked together and won through. That's how things should be." He sighed, lifting his eyes briefly to survey the landscape. "What a desolate world," he said. "I'm glad to have had you to travel back with. The journey out was so lonely."

"Yes," said Schuldig in surprising compassion. "For my part I can scarce comprehend how lonely it often must be for you who are not mind readers, locked inside your own heads. For one of you to cross the deserts alone must have been more lonely yet. It was bravely done, Micah."

"Thank you, Schuldig," said Micah, looking up in seeming startlement. The other shrugged, as if to say his kindness meant nothing and should be disregarded. Crawford kept the smile from both his face and his thoughts, though he thought that there might perhaps be true peace between them at last, if he could only keep them from jealous arguments.

"It's still so hot," complained Schuldig, seeming a little embarrassed by his remarks. "I think I shall climb a little way up that incline, and perhaps I shall catch a breeze." So saying, he clambered to his feet and strolled off. Thinking this was no doubt to preserve the peace between Micah and himself, Crawford said only, "It'll be dark soon, watch your step among the rocks." Schuldig waved cheerfully in reply.

"It's a good idea," said Micah. "A breeze would be most pleasant. Look, Bradley, might not a wind blow down the natural corridor formed by these tall rocks? I shall go for a walk - will you come with me?"

"Yes, why not?" said Crawford, straightway rising to his feet. "I'll grow stiff if I sit here in this slovenly way much longer."

"I'll just guard the camp, then, shall I?" called Farfarello after them in some irritation before settling back and throwing small pieces of thorn bush into the fire one by one.

"The wind has carved these rocks into such phantastical shapes," said Micah, looking about him with interest. "I am surprised our Irish friend has not formed the opinion that we journey through Hell."

"Oh, do not give him ideas!" said Crawford with a laugh. "It's best not to discuss matters of religion with him, it is unkind to allow him to become too wrapped up in his obsessions." He laid a hand upon a smooth, rounded boulder. "Look at this. This is the action of waters, surely?"

"Long gone waters," murmured Micah. "Bradley," he said, turning to Crawford, his voice earnest and pleading, "you are sure you can break free of our masters? They have very supernatural advantage we have and more besides, and are skilled in planning and foresight. We might yet live productive and wealthy lives under their overlordship. Would you not prefer to see Schuldig and Nagi alive and in service, rather than free and dead?"

"I promised them," said Crawford. "I promised Schuldig he should be free, and I will not let Nagi ever enter the Schloß save to tear it stone from stone. Farfarello too - they all want to know they are free. I want --" he paused, and then went on, "I want to know I have won. I want them to see that if I ever bowed my head to them it was in the foolishness of youthful despair. They taught me to lead, they taught me to see that those such as us should be utterly free from the constraints and conventions of society, that we should rule -- and they expect me to kneel. Well, I am done with that, Micah. I have stood up and I shall not sink back down onto my knees for any man." He nodded fiercely as he said this, saying, "They shall not have me, and they shall not have anyone of mine. Not Schuldig, not Farfarello, not Nagi and not you."

Micah turned away, laying his hand upon the rock beside him. His voice was rough as if with hastily suppressed tears as he said, "That is all I needed to hear, Bradley. I do not doubt your intent, nor do I doubt your ability, believe me. If anyone could do this thing, it is you. All I heard of you in the Schloß, all that I have seen of you on this world, everything tells me you have neither false modesty nor a puffed-up sense of your own worth."

"We'll have a fine life," said Crawford. "Wait and see."

Micah nodded, then his brow creased in surprise and he leaned closer to the rock. "That's queer," he said. "Look, Bradley, is this not one of the flowers that grow in the cultivated areas? What is it doing out here?"

Crawford leaned in, seeing the small plant clinging to the crack in the rock, its leaves dry and dusty, its petals of darkest red wilting sadly. "It must have been blown here by the wind," he said, touching it with utmost gentleness, "and seeded itself in this crack. Whatever good it found has been all but exhausted, it would seem."

"Poor little thing," said Micah quietly. "To be so far from where it should be, to die in this desolate place." As he spoke Crawford felt, as it were, a shock run up his arm from the place where his fingers touched the plant and he gasped as the now horribly familiar sense of loneliness and abandonment swept over him stronger than ever before. "Bradley?" said Micah, holding him up. "What is it?"

Crawford felt most horribly weak and wanted nothing more than to turn about and find Schuldig standing by him. That he could not be consoled by his friend seemed at that moment most unfair to him. He looked into Micah's worried face, and thought of all the times that he had, as a boy, taken care of him in like circumstances, when neither of them had known what they were, nor anything outside the simple demands of boyish camaraderie. "Micah," he said. "Micah, I'm going to die here."

"What?" cried Micah. "How? When? For Heaven's sake, Bradley! What have you seen?"

"Very little," admitted Crawford. "Only the desert and the fact that I am alone, and that I shall die in that state. It was so strong just now, Micah! It must be soon."

"You saw nothing else? What of Schuldig? You did not see him coming to your aid? And the others? They too were absent from your vision? What of me?" asked Micah in agitation.

"Nothing," said Crawford. "I see nothing of any of you. Perhaps you are all dead too. I'm sorry to tell you such things, brother, when I have just been saying we'll be free." He looked down at the red sands in misery.

"No, it is hopeful," said Micah. "If you do not see our future actions, then perhaps - no, certainly! - we have a freedom to act in ways not constrained by your oracular visions and so to surprise you! Do you think that we, your friends, should abandon you? Why, Nagi would walk through fire for you, would he not? Don't worry, this shall not come to pass." He smiled in a kind manner, continuing, "Embrace me, brother. There, that is better. I promise you, you shall not be alone. Even if the worst come to the worst, I'll be there. You won't die all alone. No, don't even think of weeping! Are you not my big brother? The time for sadness is past, Bradley, I promise. No more unhappiness, do you hear?" He set Crawford back, smiling as he dashed at his eyes in embarrassed silence. "It's all right. Shall I fetch Schuldig to you?"

"That's good of you," said Crawford, greatly moved that Micah would offer such a thing. "But I should go to him, and not ask you to act as a messenger --"

"You calm yourself," said Micah firmly. "I shudder to think how he might act if he sees you in such a state." He laughed impishly, adding, "Why, he might become quite hysterical! You see, Bradley, I shall be forced to tease both you and him if you do not behave!"

"Thank you," said Crawford. "Thank you, Micah."

Micah nodded. "I was so very glad to find you after so many years," he said. "Don't worry, brother. I won't keep you waiting long." Without another word he turned and walked off quickly, leaving Crawford to lean back against the rock, glad he had not disgraced himself before anyone other than a friend.

* * *

Perched on a rock that offered him both a view of the desert over which they had travelled and a chance to catch the evening breeze, Schuldig allowed his mind to drift, feeling he was, as it were, a leaf upon a vast and empty ocean. He caught the vaguest snatches of thought from his friends, Nagi being too far gone in sleep to allow more than misty and wistful nonsensical half thoughts to escape, and Farfarello seeming quite mesmerised where he sat staring into nothing at the camp site. Crawford was difficult to hear, no doubt, thought Schuldig, due to his habit of keep the walls about his mind firm and high. He sighed. It was a discipline that was good to maintain, for the habits of thought that allowed such defences could become lax and liable to fail unless one practiced regularly and frequently. It was unsettling thought, to be without even the few minds to which he had become accustomed over the course of their sojourn in the wilderness. "Is this," he wondered, "how it feels to be unable to read minds at all? How boring it is! No wonder so many men act stupidly, they must find some way of keeping themselves diverted." He concentrated on trying to reach out and read the minds of the dov, but decided he was too far from them and that their brutish and Martian minds were not worth the effort. While he could indeed discern the most fiercely held and imminent intent of beasts on Earth, it was the minds of men that held the most fascination and ease of access for him. He had scorned those in the Schloß who had been able to, as it seemed, commune with dumb beasts, and had never wished to better his own abilities in that field.

"Schuldig," came a voice from near by.

"Micah," said Schuldig, turning about and wiping the quick frown from his face. "What is it?"

"There is a fine breeze up here!" said Micah cheerfully. "You have the better of it than we left down below!" He looked about him, adding, "A nice, deserted place for meditation! I merely came up to see if you needed anything, for Farfarello is talking about making more coffee."

"Oh, how could I consider missing that?" said Schuldig dryly. "I thank you, but I think I shall stay here a little longer."

"Well, there is something else," said Micah. "I must speak to you very seriously, Schuldig, about Bradley. He seems quite queer in his mood this evening. He fears he shall die out here, did you know?"

"He said that to you?" said Schuldig rudely.

"We are brothers," replied Micah. "It is not so unexpected, surely? We need to plan this out, Schuldig, for we both want him safe, do we not?"

Unwillingly, Schuldig settled down on his rock once more, having been ready to spring down to go in search of Crawford. "He sees himself alone," he said grudgingly. "I don't understand that, he sees that I'm somehow gone."

"That is queer," said Micah. "I'd have thought you would be a better friend, and stick by him."

"Why you --" said Schuldig in outrage.

"Now, Schuldig," said Micah, "don't be so touchy. I did not mean that as accusingly as it seemed - after all, where am I in such a scenario?"

"He doesn't know," muttered Schuldig, his feathers still ruffled. "He cannot see anything to do with you, you know."

"Nothing at all," said Micah. "It no doubt is a useful effect of what they did to me in Germany. Do you blame yourself," he went on, "for the thought he shall die because of some lax behaviour on your part?"

"He won't die," said Schuldig, refusing to admit to Micah that he had, since Crawford had first revealed this unhappy fate to him, tormented himself with exactly that self-blame. "I won't let it happen."

"I'm glad," said Micah. "But what of Nagi? The lad is devoted to Bradley, anyone can see that. Where can he be in all of this sad future?" He looked abashed, as if he would speak on but restrained himself.

"What?" said Schuldig in growing annoyance. "Speak your mind, it's not like you've ever held back before."

"You'll be angry," said Micah.

"I believe I am growing so already," snapped Schuldig.

"It's probably to distract yourself from feelings of blame," said Micah, going on before Schuldig could do more than utter a squawk of anger, "I wonder if you have somehow driven him away."

"What the devil do you mean by that?" snarled Schuldig. "You are the most infuriating -"

"There were those in the Schloß who had, no doubt, been treated very harshly when they were students there," said Micah. "Yet they showed no compassion to the children under their care, treating them as badly as they themselves had been used. One said he felt quite compelled in his abominable treatment of those smaller than him. It seemed quite common, Schuldig -- perhaps Nagi will simply grow tired of your attentions."

"What did you just say to me?" gasped Schuldig, feeling the blood drain from his face.

"Only what you said to me," said Micah, malicious pleasure in his eyes. "It's past time I returned the compliment. I merely suggest the boy would be well to stay out of your company. You should see your face," he added in satisfaction. "You look so guilty. What foresight was used to name you, I wonder? Did they see you would betray every friendship you ever so much as touched?"

"By all means, keep talking," said Schuldig, feeling his heart beat faster in fury. He slid from his perch to stand eye to eye with Micah. "I'll be glad to kill you where you stand."

"Of course, for you cannot obey either an order or a plea from my brother, whom you profess to love," said Micah. "But this is not the point, is it? The point is that you shall abandon him and he shall die and it will be your fault. And you shall have done something to Nagi so that he is off alone in the desert and shall no doubt die, and that will be your fault. And Bradley sees nothing of Farfarello, who no doubt perishes too, which will be your fault. And now you want to kill me, his brother, the only one of you all with ties of blood to him. Do you think he will thank you, or do you think he'll turn away in disgust, seeing yet another friend dead at your fault? You should hear what they say of you in the Schloß, Schuldig, how they recount all the friends you betrayed and failed and killed. The tally is impressive, Herr Dorfmann said --"

"Shut up," said Schuldig uncouthly, feeling his heart skip beats in time with the queer cadence of Micah's speech and a feeling of illness wash over him at the mention of Dorfmann's name. "Just shut up." He took a deep breath, thinking, "Oh, it is not my fault! I've been thinking of all the things I could do to save him! And Nagi -- what rot!"

"I can see you don't want to hear a catalogue of your sins," said Micah contemptuously. "As if that stops others from knowing exactly what you have done! Do you think Bradley doesn't know about the friends you have destroyed? Do you think he doesn't know that is how he himself will end? He read your dossier over very carefully, Schuldig, he knows what a weak, vicious creature you are. He has guarded against you every step of the way, all through these years. Everyone knows what you are, you vain, useless, treacherous thing."

Schuldig pulled out his knife and took a step forward. His hand was shaking only from pure rage, he thought.

"You disagree?" said Micah quickly. "How like you to try to evade the blame! Do you think Paul recognised your cowardly viciousness as he died?"

Schuldig stopped, feeling a vast and queer wave of nausea crash over him. "I don't know anyone by that name," he said thickly.

"Liar," said Micah genially, seeing how he swayed and looked very pale. "You pushed him under the train yourself! Or -- no," he said wonderingly. "Perhaps he leapt! What did you do to him, Schuldig, that a small boy should seek to destroy himself rather than be with you a moment longer? What sort of monster are you?"

"Stop," said Schuldig, feeling his heartbeat thunder erratically and tears beginning to rise. "Please stop, it's not my fault."

"It is," said Micah. "Everything is your fault. Your family willingly sent you to the Schloß because you are so evil; Paul died because you are so evil; you have corrupted Nagi because you are so evil and Bradley will die because you are so evil. You are to blame for all this." He laughed as Schuldig staggered, saying, "Did you so stupidly think you were beyond the discipline of our masters? Don't you remember how you laughed and clung to Herr Dorfmann as Paul died? Why are you crying? Do you think anyone could forgive you?"

"No," whimpered Schuldig, weeping and wrapping his arms about himself. "Stop! I'm sorry!"

"You destroy everything you touch," said Micah implacably. "Do you think Paul cried out your name, begging for mercy?"

"Please," said Schuldig, overwhelming panic suffusing him as it seemed to him that he could hear a train approaching. "Don't --"

"He trusted you and you killed him as he called out to you," Micah said viciously. "Am I not right --" He said a name that Schuldig could not hear, and the mind reader fell upon his side, curled up tight and sobbing. "You pathetic fool," said Micah in contempt. "As if you could have ever harmed me. Has not Bradley already seen you would be nowhere around when he needed you? You see, you have failed him. Let us hope you learn to be more loyal hereafter, though I see little hope you can be salvaged. And now I must take my leave of you. I promised my brother I should not be long, you see. I should not like to keep him waiting."

With a savage kick that drove the breath from Schuldig's weeping form as a farewell, Micah turned and walked easily away.
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