Holden rolled onto his good side, taking care not to make too much noise. For this to work, he had to make sure Dougie wouldn’t hear him. Otherwise, he might try to stop him, beg and plead, and make him change his mind.
He was onto one knee and had one, then both hands, planted firmly on the ground. He took several short breaths to still the pain and work up the strength to push himself up. He had had enough of crawling, and despite the pain and the way his head was swimming, he would be need to be standing for this.
“…what… help… please…”
Holden felt his feet press firmly on the ground. His body seemed to be lean one way, then the next, the act of standing not agreeing with his equilibrium. He had become accustomed to being horizontal for the past few minutes, apparently. He lifted his left foot, push it forward.
“Why have you… I can’t hear…”
He planted it forward. He moved the right one too. This produced some pain from his side, but he made the step without too much difficulty. He pushed and planted the left again. He moved forward without trouble. Up on the left, the dead hulk of a car sat and looked like the perfect source of support.
“Where… are… you?”
He heard the words coming from behind him, low and quiet in the night. This told him all he needed to know right now. He would be able to hear him for awhile yet. He had to stay strong, keep moving and not allow himself to be swayed.
Hand over hand, he touched the surface of the car. With something to lay his weight on, he made his way forward faster now. Keeping to the left of the road, he had an almost endless supply of cars for the foreseeable distance.
“Mister… mister? Where are you?”
The voice was louder. It was accompanied by some sputter. The man was coughing up blood trying to find him.
Great, he thought. The poor bastard was hastening his own death trying to find out what had happened to the only company he had left. That would sure make slipping away easier… But he had made his decision. The bromine lights, the city center. Nothing owed to anyone, no purpose but to find his way home, to his family. Nothing and no one else mattered!
“Mister! Sir! Where –” a loud cough interrupted his words. Holden could hear the wreched coughing as the thick sickly liquid of the man’s blood caught in his throat. He quickened his pace, step after step, hand over hand. Up ahead, he saw a gap between two vehicles which gave him pause. He would lose his footing if he wasn’t careful between those two. He had to proceed cautiously, not allow himself to fall. The pain would be blinding, the shock even worse. He might not be able to get up again…
Holden reached the rear hood of the car. The gap now lay in front of him like an awning chasm. He quickened his step, noise be damned, and pulled his hands up. His next few steps fell to the ground, no support or assistance at all. He didn’t move so much as fall forward, keeping pace to make sure he stayed upright.
“I can hear you! Where’d (ugh!) you go!”
Holden’s feet sailed across the asphalt. His left hand was extended, reaching for the front hood of the car ahead like a stretch of landing. He was almost there. Just a step more and…
“Don’t leave me…”
His right foot caught his left leg. He stumbled forward, his mind racing and his broken side tightening from the anticipated blow. He felt the terrible tug of gravity pull him steeply forward, and landed hand first on the hood. His knees almost buckled, but he pushed hard and kept them planted. Pushing off with his hands, he removed his face from the vehicle and looked ahead.
“Hey! (Ahhh!) Where are you going?!”
He sighed happily. Despite the pain, despite the expenditure, he was still standing. But alas, the relief came too soon. The loud clang against the metal hood alerted the poor bastard behind him. His cries became more desperate, more pleading. Holden sucked in a deep breath and tried to still the shivers he felt inside.
“Please! Don’t leave me! I’ll die here! I’ll – ” sputtering and coughing. He could barely get out a few words before choking again. What was worse, he was losing what strength he had left trying to convince him to turn back.
Holden pressed on. What more could he do? It was unthinkable to turn back now. The man was dying, would surely die sooner or later. He couldn’t change that now. The best he could do was waste precious minutes watching him die. What would be the point?
“Help me! (ack!) You bastard! (ugh!) You can’t leave me!”
Don’t listen! he said to himself. He tried to kill you. You owe him nothing. You owe that man nothing. You’re hurt, and you’ve got to find your family dammit. What’s he to you? Nothing! NOTHING!
He was reaching the end of the street. The voice was growing softer and more distant. Was it because he was growing weaker or more distant, he wondered. What did it matter? He could stop telling himself to ignore him soon enough, set his eyes on the road and keep pressing forward…
The ache in his side was growing dull, but he could feel a terrible chill coming upon him. The dark alcove where he stood wasn’t helping either. Though he was concealed and not out in the open, he could feel the cold walls leaching precious heat from him. A sickly feeling was gripping him too. His mind could only register two possibilities. Either he was suffering from the initial stages of septic shock, or the voice in his head was effecting his stomach as well.
Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Turn back! You can’t leave me! I’ll die here!
He had to move on. If he remained in the alcove, he would die. He had checked his wounds as soon as he found the quiet corner to huddle in. The blood was advancing, moving beyond his shirt into his pants. The warm sensation had been his first clue. He had no choice but to move, but in so doing, he was hastening the possibility of his death.
On the clock. Gotta move. Gotta find help.
Up the few steps that led back into the street. A cold evening wind struck him and blew his lapels sideways. He felt his voice rise within him, the cold cutting through him and making him spasm again. The wind died but his voice still carried. For the second time that night, he was screaming in pain and didn’t seem to know it until he was screamed out.
He was also hunched now, one knee planted firmly on the fermacrete and his arms clutching his middle. He felt too sore to go on, to sluggish and weak. It was finally hitting him, blood loss and hypothermia shutting his muscles down. He knew what would come next…
He would lose consciousness slowly. He would feel warm as he faded, but it would be an illusion. And then, barring a miracle, he would fall into a sleep he wouldn’t wake from. And how stupid it would be!
He eyed his midriff. On any other day, his wounds would have stopped bleeding by now, his nanoware would have sealed the wounds from within moments after the assault. EMT’s would have been on hand to help him too. Hell, on any other day, he wouldn’t have been stabbed in the street! He wouldn’t have been forced to crawl his way through the street like a sick dog.
How the hell had it come to this? Who was responsible? And why the hell had they done it? What was their purpose, their agenda? Did they not even care who they hurt? What had Holden done to them?
He breathed hard and looked up at the city. His elevated position allowed him a relatively open view of the city. His heart sank even further. It was so wide, so vast. The lights coming from the interior seemed impossibly far. He had barely made it a few blocks and that had sapped what little strength he had left. How was he to make it any further?
You can’t. He told himself.
You’ll never see Marta or the kids again.
The man had been right. It had all gone to hell. Everything. What point was there in trying to find his way to safety, to help? There was none. He was going to die, and that roving gang of thugs and those like them would probably go on living for quite some time. How strange that he know thought they had the right idea…
Warm tears began to flow from his eyes. He tilted his head down, watched as two fell from his face and broke against the fermacrete. At first he tried to catch them, his instincts telling him he couldn’t afford to shed more body heat. He quickly gave up on it.
Had his instincts not heard? He had given up already. What sense was there in trying to prolong things when the end was so clear?
“Fuck it… it’s inevitable. All gone…”
He whispered the words to nothing and no one. The city would not witness his death. It had gone deaf, dumb and blind. The only signs of life were too far to hear him. No lights except those on the horizon, and some small pinpricks below…
Wait! he thought. He hadn’t seen those before! Was he just imagining them now? He squinted and tried to pull a long focus. Though his nanoware and other implants were no longer functional, there was nothing networked or electrical about his eyes. The expensive laser surgery he had had done to correct for visual impairments still worked just fine.
Yes, there they were. Tiny points of light spread out beneath him. Back and forth across the city floor, there were small fires. Were they man-made, or the result of the carnage? He tried focusing on one of the closer ones and watched carefully.
Yes, there, in front of the tiny fire were shadows. They passed back and forth, and he could see some silhouettes flickering around the centers of light. He felt his breath catching in his throat. A new warmth grew inside him, spreading outwards and giving him new strength. There, not nearly as far as he thought, could be help… and warmth. Possibly bandages and food. Whatever strength he had left would have to do! He had to get there immediately.
He was to his feet when he another thought struck him and stopped him before he could take his first step. What if those flames held things other than potential helpers? What if they were just like those men who had tried to kill him? Would they also take what they could from him, and then finish what the others had started?
He would have wasted the last of his strength, only to die at their hands. But if he stayed here any longer, he would surely die anyway. He moaned as his side delivered a belated ache from the effort of standing up. His strength would fade in time. A decision had to be made…