Osulo stood up first after what seemed like a day sitting next to Takoog. “We will have to walk.”
“Will you make it? Its a long way and you’re injured.” I said without looking up.
“I doesn’t matter. There will be more of them to recover the Fighting Ship.”
I stood up with some effort. Disillusionment had set in. A legend dead. The girl that I had been falling for was a monster. My team, my mentor were now dead. What was the point of continuing on? I was one person with absolutely nothing. I had no purpose, no cause other than to be alive but for what. Somehow the thought of waiting for the Chezbah to come and kill me still seemed distasteful.
“What direction?” I asked. Osulo pointed. We started walking in unison. We walked slowly, Osulo could not keep up with my gait so I walked behind her. For hours I watched her walk through her pain, tears streaming down her face until she was too dehydrated to cry. We made no effort to talk, there wasn’t anything to say. This was Bahnanie’s glorious victory.
Even though we were moving slowly, after many hours passed I realized that we should have gotten to the underground entrance already. Something was wrong.
“We aren’t going to meet up with the others, are we?” I asked.
“No.” She said quietly.
“Where are we going?”
“Into the dessert.”
“Do you remember the Priest’s finger?”
The image of the black needle leapt into my head. “The needle? I thought it was what was electrocuting me.”
She smiled an laughed softly. “No, it was so you could not win.”
“I don’t understand.”
She didn’t speak. “What was the needle? Some kind of poison?” I demanded.
“Yes, a terrible poison.”
“Then I’m going to die of poison wandering around the dessert? Why aren’t we meeting up with the others?”
“Your body will not die but your mind will. The poison is called ‘Scourge’. It does different things to different men but it always kills the mind. Then you and everything you know will belong to Loc.”
“How long do I have?”
“You have time and I have heard that some plants slow the poison but they only grow on the surface.”
“So we’re looking for these plants? What do they look like?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one.”
Osulo’s knowledge of the surface was amazing, in a barren wasteland she found enough plants to squeeze moisture from. She gave most of the edible plants to me even though I protested. She had lived a life of fasting for a week at a time without food and this was little different for her. My body was not conditioned for this and I felt like I would die at any moment.
This continued for a week and we caught some kind of flightless bird. Osulo said it was a small one but it was the size of a turkey and provided quite a feast. My stomach could not hold down the food however and to my great displeasure I lost most of my meal.
We spoke very little. This was the Scimrahn way. Making sound was dangerous, so Osulo mostly communicated by gesturing to me. I didn’t speak because I had nothing to say, how could she understand what I was thinking? Despite Osulo saying the poison would kill my brain and the slow starvation, I found myself thinking more clearly than I expected. If it wasn’t for a constant hum in my ears I would almost say I felt good. I found myself going over all the things Crowley had said to me, how he had dealt with the men, inspired and directed them. I thought about Gammons and his calculating manner, his logic. The surprising thing is that I could recreate the moments in my head down to even the feeling of touch.
Over the next week Osulo was experimenting on me with plants. She would feed be bits of plant and ask what it tasted like. It seemed to me that she knew what the plant she was looking for should taste like and that it was likely that a person with the poison in them might have a different sense of taste since it acted on the nervous system. I would suddenly remember my high school chemistry and would try to figure out what chemicals made up each taste.
I was even learning how to look for and identify the plants that Osulo had been gathering. Most of her bruises were fading now and she seemed content in an odd way. The monster had been replaced with a nurturing mother but occasionally I would hear the sound of those plasma guns executing the unarmed men. My mind would not let me settle on her current actions. At times I would try to be understanding and sympathize with her and the difficulties she had faced but for some reason I could not think for very long on the subject and later I could not even remember what I had come up with. Even so, I would occasionally flash back to her killing Gearn. It seemed unreasonable that I could remember some things so clearly, yet with others it seemed like a fog was in my head.
Another two weeks of roaming the desert passed. The humming in my ears turned into a pulsing sensation and the feeling of the presence of another person nearby. This constant feeling became very disturbing to me as the days wore on.
“She’s doing this to me. She’s trying to kill me with these plants.” I thought. “I’ll have to kill her before she kills me. It’ll be easy just wait until she’s sleeping.”
After thinking that, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. It repeated over and over again.
“It’s started already you know.” She said to me.
I felt anger swell up in me. “What’s started?”
“The poison is making you think differently. It’s killing off the part of your mind that is you.” She answered in a matter of fact way.
“I think you just want to keep me out here in this God forsaken dessert.” I snapped. I didn’t realize at the time that “God forsaken” would be an odd phrase in the Scimrahn language but I had translated the thought instinctively without even having to work at it. I would not have been able to do that a short while ago.
“No.” She said calmly and drew a crude mirror from her tunic and handed it to me. “What do you see?”
I was reluctant to take the mirror but could think of nothing that she could do by giving it to me that could do any harm. I finally took it and looked at myself for the first time since we started wandering in this horrible place. At first I didn’t notice anything, then I realized that the roots of my hair were growing white! What had she done to me! It must have been the plants she was feeding me.
“What does this prove?” I snapped.
“It doesn’t prove anything. It tells me that the poison has started to work on you and that your thoughts are no longer your own.”
“I think it is the plants you have been feeding me!” I shouted.
She thought about this and then answered. “Then anything you eat I will eat in equal measure from now on. Will that prove that I am not poisoning you?”
She could have already built up a resistance to whatever plant combination she was using. I called up into memory all the plants that she had fed me but I could not develop any pattern that made sense to me. I thought about the plants that we had been using for food and calculated the amount of food related to our body mass and determined that I had only been eating twelve percent more calories than she had.
Then I realized that I would not have been able to do the calculations I had just done in my head a short while ago. Something had changed. I thought some more on the subject but then my thinking got fuzzy again and I could not concentrate at all on what that meant.
Distraction, distraction, distraction. Distract myself from the pain that I feel. He’s coming around again. He hasn’t tried to get to me in a while. I wonder if he feels the pain like I do? It’s ironic that just as I was about to relate how I learned to make mental programs he would come around to try and test my firewall. It hurts when he does it. I have to distract myself from the pain so that I don’t give in. Recording this has been a good distraction from the boredom so I’ll have to just concentrate on the memories harder.
Programming my brain, that’s a hard thing to explain. Maybe it’s just how I learned to explain it to myself so that I could work with the idea in an intelligible way. In the early attempts I imagined myself mapping subroutines for my subconscious. That’s just gibberish to me now but it helped make sense of things at the time. I started by accident. At some point I started repeating a thought over and over again. I was imagining the actions of my leg muscles in sequence while walking. After all there isn’t much to do in the dessert while we wandered looking for Osulo’s little plants.
My legs started to move on their own after repeating the motions in my head over and over again. Like a gossamer web the slightest thought about stopping canceled the program. This was interesting enough but after a short while, thinking about the motions again started my legs moving. I wasn’t sure if this was just my mind slowly failing. I was lightheaded from eating such a weak ration. As time went on I tried more kinds of programs, moving my hands in complex ways made the effort that this saved my mind more apparent. I could tell the movements were being repeated automatically instead of consciously.
This again, was something new. This time I could tell that there was something trying to block my recognition that something was wrong. Although the thought was still there, thinking about it became difficult. The implications that something was wrong kept disappearing from my mind but the information that lead to the idea stayed which would lead me back to coming to the conclusion that something was wrong. I knew that something kept going missing. Then came the thought “I should stop thinking about this or I could hurt myself.” but for some reason I didn’t stop. I had a different thought that disappeared but made me keep thinking about it. I realized that I or rather my mind was in danger. This time the thought didn’t go away for some reason. I wondered if it had something to do with the fear I was feeling.
Now I knew that anything I thought or even felt may not be my thoughts and feelings. I would have to be very careful about trusting my own thoughts. I would also have to figure out how to hold onto ideas that would disappear. I had nothing to write with and nothing to record my voice. Again I came to some realization but it disappeared.
“Try this.” Osulo appeared in front of me. I almost had forgotten her existence. She took a bite of a small leafy plant to show she wasn’t trying to poison me.
I suddenly thought “There’s no way I’m eating that! Who knows what’s in it or could have been on it.” but even though I felt like that was the right thing to do, I looked at Osulo’s face and knew that she was not trying to hurt me. I could feel the thought slipping away as soon as I had formulated it in my mind so I snatched the plant out of her hand and ate it whole. It tasted Awful! My face contorted and my stomach tried to heave.
“We’ve found it.” Osulo smiled.
“How do you know?” I asked trying not to vomit.
“The plant has a bland taste to me but to you it is very bitter. Only those with the poison in them taste the bitter.”
“Why do I want to eat it then?” I asked.
She answered, “Because it may give you more time. Some men can survive the Scourge if given more time. I only wish we could have found it earlier, the poison has already been in you a long time.”
It was a struggle to eat the plant each time Osulo found it. I would have to act without thinking about it much, which was hard because of the awful taste that would make me violently ill. If I thought about it too long I would have to struggle harder to eat it because my mind would be flooded with the fear of the taste. Each time I ate it, the thought “I will never do this again! I’m going to die from eating this stuff!” would flash through my head. The thing was, I could just barely tell that it wasn’t me thinking these thoughts. Before, when I would realize a thought was not my own, that realization would disappear, now I could just barely hang onto it.
We kept wandering for weeks. The time blended together, we slept, we woke, we looked for the plant. At times I figured it wouldn’t matter since we were slowly starving. My ribs showed through my skin and we grew thinner and thinner. I wondered if this was something that Osulo was prepared for, if it was a normal thing for a Scimrahn to do.
Then there were the dark thoughts, feelings of hate, fear, and anger. Now I could tell they were not my own thoughts, but they still felt reasonable, real, valid. At times I would find my hand slip over to a rock as I lie on the ground trying to sleep and the thought “This would all be over if I just crushed her skull”. Truthfully the argument that kept me from doing it was that it was too much work and I was too tired.
At times I wanted to be thankful to Osulo for what she was doing but my mind would be bombarded by horrible feelings that made it impossible for me to say it. There was also the humming in my head. At times I thought I heard a word in the humming. Like someone muttered something barely audible. I tried to make sense of it but gave up after a while.
I was learning, faster than I’d ever learned before. I studied everything. I knew the shape of the leaves of all the edible plants. Then I deduced what conditions they grew in. I studied the structure of the ground and knew, more or less where to find our next meal. I began to lead Osulo to food and water. There was something else happening to me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“The Scourge isn’t just a poison.” I said to her.
She looked up confused but said nothing.
“It’s rebuilding my brain. It is a thousand different chemicals that are like machines. They are rebuilding my mind.” I continued.
She thought about this and nodded that she understood but she didn’t fully.
“The chemicals are being controlled. They’ve built structures in my brain that talk to someone far away. You know who they talk to?” I asked rhetorically.
She looked down at the ground and laid there motionless for a while. There was no revelation in what I was telling her. She knew this story all too well. I was playing catch up but I was catching up quickly. Bits of information were coalescing in my mind.
“I’m becoming what he was aren’t I?” I prodded.
“How long do I have?” I pushed more forcefully.
She responded calmly “It’s different for every man but usually not more than four months*. They say it is the worst at the end of a year** and then it ends.”
*Translated from the Scimrahn time “Cycle” which is slightly longer than a month.
**Translated from 11 Cycles, there is no word for year.
I pondered this for a moment. The thought of trying to fight this for a whole year was overwhelming. “But some survive?” my voice faltered.
“Very few.” She responded.
“Then why even try?” I whispered.
“We only give up once we have lost. Our whole lives are this way, there is no sure hope that any of us will live but we keep fighting until we cannot fight anymore. It is the only kind of life we know.” She said in a scolding voice, quiet but firm.
Her point was well taken. I thought that this idea would disappear but for some reason it didn’t. I could keep it clearly in mind at all times. Strangely it became one of my most frequently pondered thoughts. What did this mean about the one who was controlling the Scourge?
I had to find a way to hold onto who I was. The more forcefully I tried to assert my own thoughts the more quickly those thoughts would disappear, wiped out by the Scourge. Perhaps not resisting but being passive would preserve me. It would seem that since every brain is unique, the Scourge must have to watch my brain for what neurons were firing and then disrupt them from firing that way. If I keep them from firing then they cannot be found and therefore not blocked. This seemed too simple. The Chezbah were masters at strategy. Such a simple approach would have to be anticipated. Then I realized that some thoughts were being amplified over others, the thoughts I couldn’t get out of my head. The more the brain uses a neural connection, the more it becomes knitted into the fabric of the mind. This was a potent combination. Not only does it accomplish it’s goal if it is not resisted, the act of resisting exposes the neural pathways that resist to being disrupted.
Still, others had survived, so there must be a way. Would finding someone who survived give me insight into how to keep my mind my own? If it could, why wouldn’t it be told to everyone so that all could survive?
I thought about defeating the Cruiser. It could only be done by doing what no one else had done. If the same strategy was tried again it would quickly fail. The same is likely true of the Scourge. It would be adapted each time to defeat each successful strategy. I would have to find an approach that no one else had taken. How would I know if I wasn’t just recreating a method that had come long before me? Maybe constantly changing my approach would make it less likely to fail.