He became aware of consciousness returning.
Instinctively his mind recoiled, as if by some effort of will he could arrest the relentless flow of seconds that separated nonawareness from awareness, and return again to the timeless oblivion in which the agony of total exhaustion was unknown and unknowable.
The hammer that had threatened to burst from his chest was now quiet. The rivers of sweat that had drained with his strength from every hollow of his body were now turned cold. His limbs had turned to lead. The gasping of his lungs had returned once more to a slow and even rhythm. It sounded loud in the close confines of his helmet.
He tried to remember how many had died. There release was final; for him there was no release. How much longer could he go on? What was the point? Would there be anyone left alive at Gorda anyway?
Gorda . . . ? Gorda . . . ?
His mental defenses could shield him from reality no longer.
Must get to Gorda!
He opened his eyes. A billion unblinking stars stared back without interest. When he tried to move, his body refused to respond, as if trying to prolong to the utmost its last precious moments of rest. He took a deep breath and, clenching his teeth at the pain that instantly racked through every fiber of his body, forced himself away from the rock and into a sitting position. A wave of nausea swept over him. His head sagged forward and struck the inside of his visor. The nausea passed.
He groaned aloud.
"Feeling better, then, soldier?" The voice came clearly through the speaker inside his helmet. "Sun's getting low. We gotta be moving."
He lifted his head and slowly scanned the nightmare wilderness of scorched rock and ash-gray dust that confronted him. "Whe-" The sound choked in his throat. He tried again. "Where are you?"
"To your right, up on the rise just past that small cliff that juts out-the one with the big boulders underneath."
He turned his head, and after some seconds detected a bright blue patch against the ink-black sky. It seemed blurred and far away. He blinked and strained his eyes again, forcing his brain to coordinate with his vision. The blue patch resolved itself into the figure of the tireless Koriel, clad in a heavy-duty combat suit.
"I see you." After a pause, "Anything?"
"It's fairly flat on the other side of the rise-should be easier going for a while. Gets rockier farther on.. Come have a look."
He inched his arms upward to find purchase on the rock behind, then braced them to thrust his weight forward over his legs. His knees trembled. His face contorted as he fought to concentrate his remaining strength into his protesting thighs. Already his heart was pumping again, his lungs heaving. The effort evaporated, and he fell back against the rock. His labored breathing rasped over Koriel's radio. "Finished. Can't move."
The blue figure on the skyline turned. "Aw, what kinda talk's that? This is the last stretch. We're there, buddy-we're there."
"No- no good. Had it."
Koriel waited a few seconds. "I'm coming back down."
"No-you go on. Someone's got to make it." No response. "Koriel? . . ."
He looked back at where the figure had stood, but already it had disappeared below the intervening rocks and was out of the line of transmission. A minute or two later the figure emerged from behind nearby boulders, covering the ground in long, effortless bounds. The bounds broke into a walk as Koriel approached the bunched form clad in red. "C'mon, soldier, on your feet now. There's people back there depending on us."
He felt himself gripped below his arm and raised irresistibly, as if some of Koriel's limitless reserves of strength were pouring into him. For a while his head swam and he leaned with the top of his visor resting on the giant's shoulder insignia. "Okay," he managed at last. "Let's go."
Hour after hour, the thin snake of footprints, two pinpoints of color at its head, wound its way westward across the wilderness and steadily lengthening shadows. He marched as if in a trance, beyond feeling pain, beyond feeling exhaustion-beyond feeling anything. The skyline never seemed to change; soon he could no longer look at it. Instead, he began picking out the next prominent boulder or crag and counting off the paces until they reached it. Two hundred thirteen less to go. And then he repeated it over again . . . and again . . . and again. The rocks marched by in slow, endless, indifferent procession. Every step became a separate triumph of will-a deliberate, conscious effort to drive one foot yet one more pace beyond the last. When he faltered, Koriel was there to catch his arm; when he fell, Koriel was always there to haul him up. Koriel never tired.
At last they stopped. They were standing in a gorge perhaps a quarter mile wide, below one of the lines of low, broken cliffs flanking it on either side. He collapsed on the nearest boulder. Koriel stood a few paces ahead surveying the landscape. The line of crags immediately above them was interrupted by a notch, which marked the point where a steep and narrow cleft tumbled down to break into the wall of the main gorge. From the bottom of the cleft, a mound of accumulated rubble and rock debris led down about fifty feet to blend with the floor of the gorge not far from where they stood. Koriel stretched out an arm to point beyond the cleft.
"Gorda will be roughly that way," he said without turning. "Our best way would be up and onto that ridge. If we stay on the flat and go around the long way, it'll be too far. What d'you say?"
The other stared up in mute despair. The rock fall, funneling up toward the mouth of the cleft, looked like a mountain. In the distance beyond towered the ridge, jagged and white in the sun. It was impossible.
Koriel allowed his doubts no time to take root. Somehow-slipping, sliding, stumbling, and falling-they reached the entrance to the cleft. Beyond it, the walls narrowed and curved around to the left, cutting off the view of the gorge below from where they had come. They climbed higher. Around them, sheets of raw reflected sunlight and bottomless pits of shadow met in knife-edges across rocks shattered at a thousand crazy angles. His brain ceases extracting the concepts of shape and form from the insane geometry of white and black that kaleidoscoped across his retina. The patterns grew and shrank and merged and whirled in a frenzy of visual cacophony. . . .
His face crashed against his visor as his helmet thudded into the dust. Koriel hoisted him to his feet.
"You can do it! We'll see Gorda from the ridge. It'll be all downhill from there."
But the figure in red sank slowly to its knees and folded over. The head inside the helmet shook weakly from side to side. As Koriel watched, the conscious part of his mind at last accepted the inescapable logic that parts beneath consciousness already knew. He looked about him.
Not far below, they had passed a hole, about five feet across, cut into the base of one of the rock walls. It looked like the remnant of some forgotten excavation-maybe a preliminary digging left by a mining survey. The giant stopped, and grasping the harness securing the backpack of the now insensible figure at his feet, dragged the body back down the slope to the hole. It was about ten feet deep inside. Working quickly, Koriel arranged a lamp to reflect a low light off the walls and roof. Then he removed the rations from his companion's pack, laid the figure back against the rear wall as comfortably as he could, and placed the food containers within easy reach. Just has he was finishing, the eyes behind the visor flickered open.
"You'll be fine here for a while." The usual gruffness was gone from Koriel's voice. "I"ll have the rescue guys back from Gorda before you know it."
The figure in red raised a feeble arm. Just a whisper came through. "You-you tried. . . . Nobody could have . . ."
Koriel clasped the gauntlet with both hands. "Mustn't give up. That's no good. You just have to hang on a while." Inside his helmet, the granite cheeks were wet. He backed to the entrance and made a final salute. "So long, soldier." And then he was gone.
Outside, Koriel built a small cairn of stones to mark the position of the hole. He would mark the trail to Gorda with such Cairns. At last he straightened up and turned defiantly to face the desolation surrounding him. The rocks seemed to scream down in soundless, laughing mockery. The stars above remained unmoved. Koriel glowered up at the cleft, rising up toward the tiers of crags and terraces guarding the ridge, still soaring in the distance. His lips curled back to show his teeth.
"So-it's just you and me now, is it?" he snarled at the Universe. "Okay, you bastard-let's see you take this round!"
Then, with legs driving like slow pistons, Koriel attacked the ever-steepening slope.