Hunters Run



Ramon Espejo awoke floating in a sea of darkness. For a moment, he was relaxed and mindless, drifting peacefully, and then his identity returned to him lazily, like an unwanted afterthought.

After the deep, warm nothingness, there was no pleasure in recalling who he was. Without coming fully awake, he nonetheless felt the weight of his own being settling on his heart. Despair and anger and the constant gnawing worry sounded in his mind like a man in the next room clearing his throat. For some blissful time, he had been no one, and now he was himself again. His first truly conscious thought was to deny the disappointment he felt at being.

He was Ramon Espejo. He was working a prospecting contract out of Nuevo Janeiro. He was ... he was ... Ramon Espejo.

Where he had expected the details of his life to rush in - what he had done last night, what he was to do today, what grudges he was nursing, what resentments had pricked him recently - the next thought simply failed him. He knew he was Ramon Espejo - but he did not know where he was. Or how he had got there.

Disturbed, he tried to open his eyes, and found that they were open already. Wherever he was, it was a totally lightless place, darker than the jungle night, darker than the deep caves in the sandstone cliffs near Swan's Neck.

Or perhaps he was blind.

That thought started a tiny spring of panic within him. There were stories of men who'd got drunk on cheap synthetic muscat or Sweet Mary and woke up blind. Had he done that? Had he lost that much control of himself? A tiny rivulet of fear traced a cold channel down his spine. But his head didn't hurt, and his belly didn't burn. He closed his eyes, blinking them hard several times, irrationally hoping to jar his vision back into existence; the only result was an explosion of bright pastel blobs across his retinas, scurrying colors that were somehow more disturbing than the darkness.

His initial sense of drowsy lethargy slid away from him, and he tried to call out. He felt his mouth moving slowly, but he heard nothing. Was he deaf, too? He tried to roll over and sit up, but could not. He lay back against nothing, floating again, not fighting, but his mind racing. He was fully awake now, but he still couldn't remember where he was, or how he had got there. Perhaps he was in danger: his immobility was both suggestive and ominous. Had he been in a mine cave-in? Perhaps a rockfall had pinned him down. He tried to concentrate on the feel of his body, sharpening his sensitivity to it, and finally decided that he could feel no weight or pressure, nothing actually pinioning him. You might not feel anything if your spinal cord has been cut, he thought with a flash of cold horror. But a moment's further consideration convinced him that it could not be so: he could move his body a little, although when he tried to sit up, something stopped him, pulled his spine straight, pulled his arms and shoulders back down from where he'd raised them. It was like moving through syrup, only the syrup pushed back, holding him gently, firmly, implacably in place.

He could feel no moisture against his skin, no air, no breeze, no heat or cold. Nor did he seem to be resting on anything solid. Apparently, his first impression had been correct. He was floating, trapped in darkness, held in place. He imagined himself like an insect in amber, caught fast in the gooey syrup that surrounded him, in which he seemed to be totally submerged. But how was he breathing?

He wasn't, he realized. He wasn't breathing.

Panic shattered him like glass. All vestiges of thought blinked out, and he fought like an animal for his life. He clawed the enfolding nothingness, trying to pull his way up toward some imagined air. He tried to scream. Time stopped meaning anything, the struggle consuming him entirely, so that he couldn't say how long it was before he fell back, exhausted. The syrup around him gently, firmly pulled him back precisely as he had been - back into place. He felt as if he should have been panting, expected to hear his blood pounding in his ears, feel his heart hammering at his chest - but there was nothing. No breath, and no heartbeat. No burning for air.

He was