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Hunter's Run

By:George R.R. Martin

Hunter's Run
George R.R. Martin



Ramón 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 Ramón Espejo. He was working a prospecting contract out of Nuevo Janeiro. He was  …  he was  …  Ramón 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 Ramón 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 dead.

He was dead and floating on a vast dry sea that stretched away to eternity in all directions. Even blind and deaf, he could sense the immensity of it, of that measureless midnight ocean.

He was dead and in Limbo, that Limbo that the Pope at San Esteban kept repudiating, waiting in darkness for the Day of Judgment.

He almost laughed at the thought-it was better than what the Catholic priest in the tiny adobe church in his little village in the mountains of northern Mexico had promised him; Father Ortega had often assured him that he'd go right to the flames and torments of Hell as soon as he died unshriven-but he could not push the thought away. He had died, and this emptiness-infinite darkness, infinite stillness, trapped alone with only his own mind-was what had always waited for him all his life, in spite of the blessings and benedictions of the Church, in spite of his sins and occasional semisincere repentance. None of it had made any difference. Numberless years stretched before him with nothing but his own sins and failures to dwell upon. He had died, and his punishment was to be always and forever himself under the implacable, unseen eye of God.

But how had it happened? How had he died? His memory seemed sluggish, unresponsive as a tractor's engine on a cold winter morning-hard to start and hard to keep in motion without sputtering and stalling.

He began by picturing what was most familiar. Elena's room in Diegotown with the small window over the bed, the thick pounded-earth walls. The faucets in the sink, already rusting and ancient though humanity had hardly been on the planet for more than forty years. The tiny scarlet skitterlings that scurried across the ceiling, multiple rows of legs flailing like oars. The sharp smells of iceroot and ganja, spilled tequila and roasting peppers. The sounds of the transports flying overhead, grinding their way up through the air and into orbit.

Slowly, the recent events of his life took shape, still as fuzzy as a badly aligned projection. He had been in Diegotown for the Blessing of the Fleet. There had been a parade. He had eaten roasted fish and saffron rice bought from a street vendor, and watched the fireworks. The smoke had smelled like a strip mine, and the spent fireworks had hissed like serpents as they plunged into the sea. A giant wreathed in flames, waving its arms in agony. Was that real? The smell of lemon and sugar. Old Manuel Griego had been talking about all his plans for when the Enye ships finally emerged from the jump to the colony planet S?o Paulo. He flushed with the sudden, powerful recollection of the scent of Elena's body. But that was before  …

There had been a fight. He'd fought with Elena, yes. The sound of her voice-high and accusing and mean as a pit bull. He'd hit her. He remembered that. She'd screamed and clawed at his eyes and tried to kick him in the balls. And they'd made up afterward like they always did. Later, she had run her fingers along the machete scars on his arm as he fell into a sated sleep. Or was that another night? So many of their nights together ended like that  …

There had been another fight, earlier still, with someone else  …  But his thoughts shied away from that like a mule might shy away from a snake on a path.

He'd left her before first light, sneaking out of her room heavy with the smell of sweat and sex while she was still asleep so he wouldn't have to talk to her, feeling the morning breeze cool against his skin. Flatfurs had scurried away from him as he walked down the muddy street, their alarm cries sounding like panicked oboes. He'd flown his van to the outfitter's station, because he was going  …  before they caught him  …

His mind balked again. It was not the nauseating forgetfulness that seemed to have consumed his world, but something else. There was something his mind didn't want to recall. Slowly, gritting his teeth, he forced his memory to bend to his will.

He'd spent the day realigning two lift tubes in the van. Someone had been there with him. Griego, bitching about parts. And then he had flown off into the wastelands, the outback, terreno cimarrón  …

But his van had exploded! Hadn't it? He suddenly remembered the van exploding, but he remembered seeing it from a distance. He hadn't been caught in the blast; nonetheless, the memory was thick with despair. The van's destruction was part of it, then, whatever it was. He tried to bring his focus to that moment-the brightness of the flame; the hot, sudden wind of the concussion  …

Had his heart been beating, it would have stopped then in terror as memory returned.

He remembered now. And maybe dying and being in Hell would have been better.

       Chapter 1

Ramón Espejo lifted his chin, daring his opponent to strike. The crowd that filled the alleyway behind the ramshackle bar called the El Rey formed a ring, bodies pressing against each other in the tension between coming close enough to see and retreating to a safe distance. Their voices were a mixture of shouts urging the two men to fight and weak, insincere exhortations to make peace. The big man bobbing and weaving across the narrow circle from him was a pale European, his cheeks flushed red from liquor, his wide, soft hands balled into fists. He was taller than Ramón, with a greater reach. Ramón could see the man's eyes shifting, as wary of the crowd as of Ramón.