“Stay with me!” I shout, more to myself than to him. I know full well he may be too far gone to hear me.
As we careen through the night, the Rider’s last working headlight catches the streaks of rain, obscuring visibility more than illuminating our path. I shut it off. The storm swept up so quickly that I had cursed myself for being unprepared, especially after all these years traversing the Hinterlands and knowing well the dramatic shifts in weather. The steady flashes of lightning will have to do to show the way. And, I can’t risk being seen.
My mask is soaked now and I can hardly breathe, so I rip it off my face and bear it to the wind. His head is heavy on my left shoulder as he leans into me from behind, and I reach around to free his mouth as well. I’ve been aware these many hours of his weakening grip around my body. If he can just hold on a little longer…
“Stay with me, Dante!” I say again, turning my head to him and giving him a kiss on his brow. The whir of the Rider covers my words, and my face is numb from the sting of so much rain. He groans and I’m thankful for this sound—this small sign that he’s still here—amidst all that’s gone wrong.
The navigation system’s down, but it doesn’t matter. He has so little time left. Our only chance is if we keep heading west.
A crack of lightning strikes the ground somewhere to our right, spitting dirt and bits of rock in all directions and knocking us to the left. I lose control of the Rider and, for a few breathless moments, we spin through the air before the control system takes over and rights itself. He squeezes me about the waist, trembling even after we come to rest, the Rider still hovering in place.
“Damn, that was close,” I say, shaking. I reach around past him to check if the rear compartment is still holding fast, reassuring myself that my pack hasn’t tumbled out.
“Are you alright?” he asks, his voice crackling in his throat. Suddenly, he clutches his chest with one hand as a violent cough racks his body. In the intermittent flashes of light, I can see that his chin is covered in blood. The hemorrhage is moving faster than I feared.
I look back to the land, but am disoriented. I have nothing to hold to but darkness, rain, and what seems like infinite miles of open grass.
“It will not end like this,” I say to myself.
I take a breath and relax my eyes, willing a Flood to wash over me. I know it’s begun when the sound of the pelting rain dissipates, leaving only the echoes of noise. The long steady line of the horizon comes into focus, glowing with that familiar green light that assures me I’ve been here before. My body quiets itself, no longer trembling. “Ready, now,” I say. I place both palms on the handlebars and, once again, we’re moving forward.
The grass parts as we pass. I steer us towards the path that glows the brightest. But then I see what I wish I could forget:
They shine in the phosfluorescent glow of my memory. The way is strewn with them, and as we fly over, the air currents from the thrusters toss them about. I desperately swerve to avoid them, but there are too many.
“Steady, my love,” he says gently into my ear, but I can tell he is deeply in pain. I focus again on why we are here, and we continue, in silence, on our straight course.
Only a few minutes pass before I whip my head around to see the sun breaking through the clouds just over the horizon. Our shadow is long and straight in front of us—an arrow pointing to our destination. Soon, the Great River bends towards us, rushing along to our right. I don’t need the River or the rising sun to see it; I already know it’s there. It looms in the distance, its dome massive and black with an incandescent, ghostly gleam, dwarfing the Great Wall behind it.
When the petals fall away, it is the seed that remains, Mareah taught me. In the end, everything Returns to the beginning.
And what of my beginning? And what of records, and crooked histories, and love grown from the shadowed roots of deception?
“Can you face it?” he asks, his voice thin as a whisper. The light has reached the dome now, reflecting off its surface and causing it to shine in the True World where he can see it.
“I must,” I reply.
I take a deep breath and force myself to exhale. Now is the time to return. I must see what I can find.
Painting by Adam David.