James Nexis - Betrayal: Part Nine
“You’re crazy. Completely, one-hundred percent nuts. Certifiable. One sheep short of a paddock. Mentally deranged. Psychotic, even. You’ll stand less chance then a butterfly in a cyclone out there.”
James continued to walk forward, ignoring Lee’s whispered pleas. “I don’t have any alternatives.”
“But this is deadly! Do you realize what you’re doing? You’re planning to take a two-day trek with barely enough water to last you twenty-four hours. Not to mention you don’t have a guide, your maps are outdated, and you lack anything that even resembles common sense.”
“I’ll just have to take less than two days, then.”
Behind them, in the interrogation tent, the lone guard sat tied to the chair. Lee wore the guard’s cloak, which covered his face enough that he wouldn’t be recognised. James and he had briefly made a plan; Lee was confident he could hide in the camp for a few days, stealing food and water as he needed it, until James got back. Or, rather, if he got back.
Lee’s face was agonized. “Don’t do this, Mr Nexis. You’re a decent guy. You deserve better than dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert.”
James glanced behind him, where the medical tent which held Deirdre stood. “I have to go. Keep an eye on her while I’m gone. If I’m not back in three days, feel free to get yourself out of here however you can- just, please, take her with you. Goodbye, Lee.”
The Kougra sighed resignedly and waved a cloth-covered paw in farewell as James set out into the desert, eyes to the thick spattering of stars above them.
James ran his tongue over the inside of his mouth. It tasted worse than the cake he’d attempted to make the week before. James stumbled down a hill, squinting against the furious blaze of the sun, which stood directly over him. Well, no need to worry about his lack of tan now.
It was mid-morning on the day after he’d left the Shunan camp. His thoughts fluttered back to Deirdre and Lee, and he hoped fervently that they were holding up alright. Burning thirst soon broke him out of his reverie, and he pulled his flask of water out of his backpack. There was hardly any left, and he downed it in one swallow. Lee had expected it to last him until evening; it was noonday, and he’d drunk the last of it. Sighing, James threw the empty flask behind him and continued on.
It was unbearably hot. James wished uselessly for air conditioning.
He was unbearably thirsty. Well, nothing he could do about that, either.
The sand was unbearably annoying. Deirdre had been right to despise it.
James realized belatedly that he had stopped walking. Groaning, he urged himself on, to take another step, and then another, and then one more. His eyes were blurry now. Somehow the sun had sunk lower in the sky. How much time had passed? And hour? Three hours? Would it be dark soon? He hoped so, even though he knew the sand would continue to bake him for hours after the sun went down.
There was nothing as far as his eyes could see. Just sand, sky and sun. He longed for the overcast, rainy Shenkuu days.
There didn’t seem to be any reason to continue. He’d lost. He wasn’t even sure if he was travelling in the right direction. There was no way he could make it to any kind of shelter before he collapsed from heat exhaustion.
He stopped walking.
The image of Deirdre lying alone in the medical tent flashed across his mind.
He started walking again.
The burning desire for any kind of liquid was excruciating. His mind, talking on a vile twist, showed him an image of chilled coffee. James grimaced and told his mind that he only liked coffee hot. His mind told him he was stupid. He reminded his mind it was a bad sign to talk to oneself, and his mind started to sulk.
His head was foggy. His limbs were made of lead. A slow, vague whirring was beating away in the back of his head, irritating him. His legs gave out involuntarily, and he collapsed onto the sand.
It was shifting under him. Flecks hit his face, stinging him, and filled his mouth when he opened it. He swat them out weakly, revolted. The whirring increased in volume, and it occurred to James that the sound was familiar. His head swam, and he collapsed to one side.
Calling a name.
Calling his name.
Paws pulling at him, trying to drag him up. He waved them off, irritated, just wanting to be left alone to sleep.
Someone pulled him up roughly, threw him over a shoulder, and then they were moving, running, and the whirring was everywhere, filling his head, blowing burning sand across his skin.
And then it was over. He was dropped on to a hard, cool surface, and the whirring faded into background noise again. Cool liquid was dribbled across his face, and he opened his mouth. A voice said something, and water poured into his mouth. James, spluttering and choking, had never tasted anything quite so delicious.
He swallowed more water, until he felt sick. Then he pushed the cup away and let his head sink back, basking in the beautiful cool air.
The voice was familiar. Very, very familiar.
“Sir, can you hear me? Please, sir, wake up.”
“Deirdre,” James croaked, and then grinned. “You’re alright.”
James opened his eyes and stared at the small Xweetok kneeling over him. Her blue eyes were reflecting concern. He pulled himself up onto his elbows to look at her. “Good to see you’re awake.”
Deirdre patted him, looked concerned. “Are you alright?”
“Oh, good.” Her face morphed from gentle concern into fury. “You idiot! You complete and utter moron! What in the name of all that’s good were you thinking?” She broke off into incoherent splutters, waving her hands furiously.
James pulled himself into a sitting position and yawned. Now that the thirst and heat had abated, he felt tired. “Relax, Deirdre. I knew what I was doing.”
Deirdre gritted her teeth, looking livid. “Oh, really? And dying of dehydration was part of your brilliant plan?”
James ignored her and glanced around. He was sitting in the hull of the Hover, which was standing motionless on the sand near where he’d collapsed. Sitting on one of the benches which ran around the edge of the hull was Lee, a map in one paw and a smirk on his face.
Deirdre was still rambling on. “...would have lost my job if you’d died! Did you think of that? No, I bet my unemployment wasn’t part of your great plan, now was it? You useless, brainless, spineless little-! Are you even listening to me? I-”
James tuned her out, and addressed Lee. “What happened?”
The Kougra shrugged, looking pleased with himself. “After you left, I hid for an hour or so, just in case. Everyone was asleep, so I went to stay with Deirdre, like you asked. I waited until a bit after dawn, and was about to leave to hide in an empty tent when your secretary woke up, blurting something about being late for work.”
“I was having a nightmare,” Deirdre grumbled, looking annoyed.
“I got her some water, and then explained what you’d done. She, well, kinda went off her head. Like a worse version of what you just endured. Something about working very hard to get this job, and not wanting to lose it.”
James shot a grin at Deirdre, who scowled back.
“It was right about that time that the Shunans discovered my impromptu replacement in the interrogation tent. We hid behind the medicine cabinet while they searched the camp for us, and argued about what to do. Deirdre was the one who finally settled the matter by saying we couldn’t do anything without access to the Hover.”
James glanced at the Virtupets design craft they were sitting in. “You got it.”
“Sure did. Once again, Deirdre. She ran out to the Hover and told the guards that she’d seen me over the other side of the camp. They’d been told to watch out for me, but hadn’t been given any instructions about her. Like we’d hoped, they went immediately to where she’d directed them, and we snuck around the back of the Hover. By the time they got back we were in the air and away.”
James chuckled. “Oh, I wish I’d been there for that.” A thought occurred to him, and he added, “How’d you find me, anyway?”
Deirdre gave him a flat glare. “We went in the opposite direction of Sakhmet.”
“Ha, ha. Funny.”
“No, actually.” Lee grinned. “I knew which direction you’d gone to start with. We could still see your tracks in the sand; we just followed them. It took a while, with a lot of backtracking and guessing, but eventually we found you.”
“For which I’m glad,” James muttered. “Hey, I’m still thirsty. Got anything else to drink?”
Deirdre’s face softened, and she began to rummage through a rucksack. “Water okay?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any...”
“Coffee,” the Xweetok said, holding a canister out for him.
“You’re brilliant. Really and truly, you are,” James said, taking it gratefully.
Lee stood up. “Well, we’ve found you. What now? Do we just get to Sakhmet?”
“No,” James said. “We’re not leaving the Shunans without sorting out this whole mess. I thought this through while I was wandering in the desert, and I think I’ve come up with an idea which just might work. Fly us back to the Shunan camp.”
Lee shrugged and walked into the cabin. “Sure. I can fly this thing. You should rest a bit, Mr Nexis.”
James snorted scornfully, but sat down when the Hover whirred into life. Deirdre plopped down next to him, still looking irked. James smiled at her tentatively.
“You were right, you know.”
Deirdre glanced up at him. “About what?”
“The sand. It’s crazily annoying.”
She smiled softly and uncrossed her arms. “I’m glad you’re okay, sir.”
“Heh, me too.”
They were silent as the Hover lifted off the sand and turned around, heading for the Shunan camp. Deirdre, smiling contentedly, leaned against James’s shoulder. “You didn’t need to sound so surprised, sir. You should know by now, I’m always right.”
To be continued...