Despite being hunted, he decided to take some rest before they eventually caught up with him.
There wasn't much use in continuing further, they were fast and he didn't have much time. His heart thumped, bones clicked, muscles were tight and painful to move, and his sight was rendered a blur by the throbbing in his temple. Taking off his backpack, purple bruises across his shoulders revealed the toll the weight of his burden inflicted on his body. It hurt even to sit, let alone think about gathering kindle for a fire to burn. Fine... the only fire tonight will be one last cigarette.
He was certain it was only a matter of time before they finally caught up, and he was certain that his death would be long and drawn-out if he was to die by their hands. It wasn't his smoking that was going to kill him.
The air was cold and the dew on the grass had started to freeze, but that didn't stop it from seeping into his jeans as he sat.
God, I've never been this tired.
The dark was illuminated briefly by the flash of his lighter. The glowing orange dot of the burning end of his cigarette would surely give him away, but he was kind of past caring by now. He'd chosen a spot high up on a rocky outcrop, looking down over a sheer drop over the pine forest that stretched down into a valley before him. Jagged mountains beyond clawed at the sky, the small, pale blue moon flickering in and out of sight as heavy cloud raced across it.
Funny, I could swear I was still on Earth.
Their obsession with his home was as amusing as it was now frightening. He'd been stupid.
It hurt to take in the cigarette, his lungs still burning from the last twelve-or-so mile run, but the kick from the nicotine and the familiar taste made him feel just a little better.
The warmth of the smoke made him acutely aware of how cold he actually was, and he gave a shiver. His vest clung to his body as sweat seeped through. Much as the rest was needed, it certainly wasn't going to do him any good to catch a cold, so he leant over his backpack to grab his hoodie. As he unclicked the plastic clips and threw it over, his eyes cast over the plastic-wrapped package that had got him into all this trouble. He lay a hand on it. Still slightly warm. But no movement.
The hoodie was at least some comfort and he gave himself an internal pat-on-the-back for being well-prepared. He pulled the zip up to his neck, picked up his cigarette and lay against a rock to wait.
It's funny, I figured when I knew my death was coming I'd reminisce more. Make mental notes on where I went wrong, what I could've changed. Something. Instead, here I am thinking about how sodding hungry I am.
Is it possible to be too tired for regrets?
He wasn't sure how long he'd been lying there before they finally arrived. He couldn't even recall what he'd been thinking about for that time. He felt mentally prepared, however, and as far as he could see, that was pretty much all that mattered at this juncture.
A snapping noise in the undergrowth behind caught his attention, and as he turned his pursuers revealed themselves. Small, yet lithe bodies with figure-hugging black catsuits. Those strange, moulded helmets with the luminous wires. The dangling threads where a mouth should be. Their gentle movements reminded them of cats, all grace and tightly-wound tension.
He made a start to get up, and the lead put up a hand for the others to stop.
"I'm suprised you didn't catch up with me hours ago."
He stood and gave a stretch. The cigarette was basically a stub now and had gone out a while ago, but he kept it in his mouth. A funny thought about how impure it must seem to them crossed his mind, how it must seem like some kind of insult. The lead spoke. Or rather, it hissed. The helmet spoke for it.
"We are suprised at how fast you could move, considering..."
"... considering I'm a human? C'mon, give me more credit than that."
He gave a little dismissive wave and turned his back to them. Maybe his nonchalence unnerved them. He half-expected to be lept at there and then, but he figured he knew he was cornered and maybe ready to do something desperate. If that's what they were thinking, they were at least half-right. Truth was he wasn't even sure what he was going to do. In the mad rush to steal the package from right under them, the instant decision to do so, forward-planning hadn't figured into it.
"Why did you do it, Hartman?"
He tensed visibly and half-turned back to them.
"I'm pretty sure you know why."
"Do you feel that your kind have to know?"
Hartman put a hand to a shoulder and rotated it, grimacing as it clicked. In the corner of his eye he noticed that despite the order to stop, the other two had moved slowly to either side of him, trapping him on the edge of the drop.
He spat the stub out and reached into his pocket for another cigarette. The leader gestured.
"I will never understand your need for those things."
"What doesn't kill you... you know, that old human adage."
"Is it giving you strength now, Hartman?"
"It's certainly helping me forget a few things, that's for sure."
He reached down for the backpack. Behind him, his pursuer tensed and looked to the others.
"Have you... done anything to it, Hartman?"
He hefted the backpack up onto one shoulder. Christ, it hurt to do so. The two beings to either side of him affected a crouched stance. Not long now before they make their move. He smiled and patted his charge.
"Don't worry, I'm taking good care of your baby."
Hartman took another drag, and eyed the lead. Those damn helmets. You couldn't tell what they were thinking, ever. For us, everything was there. You could lie, but they always knew. They'd studied us intensely for centuries. But their understanding of emotion was somewhat... autistic, in a sense. They didn't really know, all they were doing was reading. They would react to, say, a joke, but the laughter was always hollow.
"Good to see this little run's kept you sharp, Rith."
He backed up to the edge.
"We are going to kill you, Hartman. It's not going to be pleasant."
"Hm. No shit."
He let go of a long breath of smoke into the cold air. He was lucky that they weren't carrying any weapons. He couldn't take them, though. Short as they were, they were powerful. One? Maybe. Three? Suicide.
"The only way your people will learn by your mistake, is by making an example of you. I hope you won't take it personally."
He sensed the figure to his left tense up.
"Well, you'll have to catch me first, Rith."
And with that, he fell back, over the drop and into uncertainty. He felt a glancing blow as his vision rolled up towards the heavens as the one on his left lept for him, but he knew it had missed. As his eyes rolled back down, he saw the screaming figure flailing beside him, the rocky incline filling his vision as it raced up into the sky as they both fell. The black-clad creature smashed against a rock, its body breaking, arms crooked and contorted. Its head thudded with a dull crack and the screaming stopped, the mask ripped off its face. He could just about see its orange eyes and ridged face before the world went black.
In his dream, he continued to fall. Invisible shapes rushed by in the darkness. He could hear nothing but the roar of the wind.
Cold and wet.
He blinked. Still dark. Then spluttered. The agony racked at him as he lurched onto his side and vomited water from his lungs. His fingers scrabbled at his face, wiping away sand and grit. His vision cleared and through the pain he could see he was next to a river. The backpack lay a few meters away.
He twisted himself onto his back again then fumbled for his pocket.
Shit. My cigarettes.
He let out a mad, uncontrolled burst of laughter at the absurdity of it all, then rolled back onto his side and pulled himself up. If it was painful before, it was nearly impossible now. His arms were lashed and he was bleeding. It looked bad but it seemed superficial. His ankle hurt with a mild sprain. He gave it a test, found it could bear weight, then hobbled over to the backpack, falling to his knees before it. Without opening it, he reached in.
Warmth. Then, movement. Almost imperceptible. Good... it wasn't dead. Not yet, anyway. But it wasn't going to live long on sheer luck. And neither was he. He was still being tracked, had no idea how long he was out, nor knew where he was.
He reached into the backpack and pulled out a smushed, but still edible, chocolate bar, stuck it between his teeth and hauled the backpack up. A sickening jolt of pain shot up from his bad ankle, but it was just about managable. He was pretty sure his body was starting to get used to the abuse.
He glanced up and about at the pine tree's lining the silted shore, picked a direction which, as far as he could figure, would lead as far the hell away from the facility as possible, and slowly, painfully, began to walk.