Ananda's Journal, Entry 32
August 6th, 2260 – Pre-dawn
I found myself in the mountainous desert, where Central America runs into North America proper. The sky was brilliant with stars, too steady to be natural. Close and sharp, they painted the landscape with a thousand hues of night. There was no time to watch them. I knew beyond doubt that I was being hunted.
The hillside grew rockier as I climbed. A basalt ridge, the core of a mountain untold millions of years ago, now lay exposed – the skeleton of an enormous beast rising out of the landscape. It was careful going. These bones of the earth were surrounded by a mass of scree and a landslide would be deadly. Lightly, lightly, my footfalls silent in their maddening slowness. It was some consolation that my pursuer would have to be as cautious as I.
Earthshine highlighted the disk of the new moon which was well over the horizon by the time I neared the basalt face. As I had thought below, the shadow I worked towards marked a crevice. With any luck, I’d be able to chimney-climb up the inside.
Entering I found strangeness, not luck. The crevice had been smoothed and widened by human hands, chisel marks extended nearly as high as I could reach. I followed the channel into the rock face. Starlight dwindled to a pale line above and behind me. The channel didn’t narrow as I’d hoped, but the floor slanted upwards. A short time later the path parted from the natural crack in the stone, leaving even the hands’-breadth of starlight in favor of a closed tunnel. I paused at the turn, touched the ceiling, and my fingertips came away black with soot.
That way, then. One hand above my head to find any troublesome projections from the roof, the other at the wall to my right. I started in and promptly stumbled on the first stair up, producing a cringe-worthy echo in the tunnel. If there was anyone to hear, they heard me. No time to waste.
Softly, not too slowly, but careful not to trip again. Switchback stairs, none overtop the last. Little flakes of creosote rained down from my disturbance of the ceiling, filling the air with the scent of old fires. This place had been well-used, once. With the desert air, it was hard to say how long ago.
Starlight lay ahead. I emerged into a squared-off hollow in the basalt, the center of which had been lined with smooth granite in the angle-walled I shape of an ulama court. The back of my neck prickled. It was a child’s game these days, but once was a life and death struggle. People had died here, in this space they believed hung suspended between the worlds of the living and the dead. A splash of brightness caught my eye – spray paint on the gray stone. Some wit had graffiti’d “BEING” in foot-tall letters over the goal line on this side. I squinted. The far side read “BECOMING”.
Furious at the defacement, I moved out of the shadows, heedless of the lack of cover. The word faded as its stone substrate crumbled from the application of will, then was gone in a brush of my hand. A black smear of soot remained, which I didn’t bother to smudge out. My footsteps echoed as I crossed the stone channel to the far goal. I’d thought it would be as simple as the last, but this word fought me. Crystals are not supposed to fuse tidily back together once broken. Paint should not re-order itself moments after it has been scoured away. I knelt by the graffiti as though my hands’ proximity would have an effect on what I was determined to accomplish. Centimeter by centimeter, the offending word yielded.
I was nearly half done when instinct warned me to look over my shoulder, but the feline shadow was already descending. I tried to move out of the way, my pursuer and I both calm, in slow motion. Too slow. Time resumed its normal rate with the impact of paws on my back. I fell and landed heavily on my left elbow, setting off a small explosion in my head. It was unimportant, though the loss of response from my fingers was not. Warm breath against my neck – I gouged at its eyes with my good hand, fast as thought, but found only fur. Something ground and crunched back there, and a sharp tingle started to spread across my shoulders. I kicked and tried to roll myself in futile attempts to dislodge the weight of animal from my back. Grey closed in around the edges of my vision. I noticed that my movements were becoming erratic and uncoordinated, but it seemed very distant…
I woke covered in cold sweat.