He clung confidently to the sheer side of the cliff, his hands and toes firmly gripping the minute crevices. The cool breeze felt comforting against his sweaty cheek, and with it came pure exhilaration. It was no longer that far to the top.
He shifted his head slightly to the left. She was there just a few feet beside him, somewhat lower than he was on the rock face, but still within reaching distance. He smiled, and she smiled back.
Once again fully concentrated on the difficult ascent, he slowly began working his way upwards. He knew that the antigrav belt would hold him steady should he slip, but his cautious movements belied that knowledge. He had long since grown used to ignoring the reassuring presence of the antigrav on climbs such as this; and with that expelled from his mind it was all too easy to remember that no safety lines secured him should he lose his grip. That was the thrill.
It was six hundred feet straight down to the boulders lining the valley floor below.
They progressed steadily higher, and periodic glances showed that she was easily keeping pace with him. They were only sixty feet from the summit, and once there they could watch the sun setting beyond the canyons, a sight he knew to be one of the most beautiful he had ever witnessed. She would be seeing it for the first time; she had never scaled this particular wall with him before.
The rumble from above caught them both unawares. As the first small stones began to rain down, his reflexes took over and he squeezed himself against the rock face, almost hugging the cliff with his body. It took but an instant for his eyes to locate her form to his left, but already he knew something was wrong.
Not quite as experienced at this as he, it had taken her slightly longer to register the danger and react. She was pressed as firmly against the rock now as he was, but the abnormal whine of her antigrav could mean only one thing. She clung fast to the cliff, her head turned towards him, her left cheek touching the cold stone. In her eyes, normally so serene, he could read the first traces of alarm.
"Don't move, Caroline," he said softly. A jagged stone as large as his fist plummeted down between them as he spoke, missing his head by mere inches, but his mind registered the fact with a kind of disjointed interest. Her antigrav had malfunctioned, and to his expert eye her grip seemed more than precarious. If he did not act quickly, she would fall.
"It was a rock," she managed to say now, her tone one of forced calm, as he searched rapidly for hand and footholds to his left. He had to stay pressed against the cliff; he could not hover to her side in the hail of stones. If his antigrav too were struck, they wouldn't have a chance.
"Will we make it?" she quietly asked, the fear she could no longer conceal wrenching at his heart as he heard her words. He had managed to move several inches to the left; two more feet and he could grip her right arm and hold fast. He had allowed her to drift slightly to the left in the last few minutes, he now realized with dismay, and that had been a mistake. He should have kept her within reach at all times; he was the one responsible for her safety.
"Yes," he whispered through quick breaths as his left hand found an indentation and grasped it, his attention shifting to his left foot, still searching for a toehold. "Of course we will."
He was almost there, and she was still hanging on. Only a few inches more. His grip secure, he stretched out his left hand towards her. She carefully let go of the small outcropping she had been holding onto with her right hand and reached out to meet his grasp. Their eyes met, and her look of relief renewed his determination.
That was when the small boulder, among the last stones in the now thinning rockslide, struck her left shoulder as it dropped and tore her off the wall of the cliff. For an instant he saw the sudden terror in her clear green eyes, saw her right arm flailing wildly as she fell, felt her fingers brush his, almost tenderly. Then his hand closed on emptiness, and he felt his will to live desert him.
His wife did not scream as she fell, but her gaze was locked onto his. As he hung in the air six hundred feet above the ground with gravel striking his head and shoulders, knowing it was too late to catch her even with the antigrav's turbokick, he saw the blame written across her features, directed at him. He felt it could not be natural, it could not be her; he knew it was the final bit of cruelty supplied by the implacable Control Computer over the psychoemotional interface. But he could not be sure. He could never be sure.
He closed his eyes as the dull thump echoed from below, unable to stop the tears of anguish and impotent rage. And in the last few moments before the blackness descended, in the short eternity meant to prolong his torment before the loop closed and it all began again, he found himself drowning in memories of the real world, of a life which seemed too distant to have ever truly existed.
####They sat facing each other in silence across the kitchen table. The holoscreen on the far wall had only just gone blank, General Miranda's grave features no longer visible upon it. The General had been brief and to the point, making no effort to conceal the cruel undertone in his otherwise dispassionate voice as he spoke. The security drones would be arriving to take them into custody in a matter of minutes.
She reached across the table to take his hand in hers, her shoulders refusing to sag with resignation though her smile was a wistful one. Her blue-black hair shimmered beautifully in the late afternoon light streaming in through the large kitchen windows, and her lovely eyes shone as from an inner fire.
"Just three more weeks," she whispered sadly. "Just three short weeks and we would have made it."
He gently squeezed her delicate fingers, nodding. Just three more weeks and they would have been in Paris, his wife accompanying him on his appointment as chief military attaché to the United States embassy. Just three more weeks and they would have been able to defect to the European Union.
"I'm sorry, Richard," she told him now, meaning it. "I'm so sorry. It was my fault."
"No," he whispered vehemently, knowing she could have done nothing to prevent it, nothing more than she already had. Her task had been much more difficult than his. He had worked hard and inconspicuously towards the foreign assignment. Her high clearance at the Institute for Advanced Military Research made her subject to far greater scrutiny, and they had both known how great a risk she had been running trying to procure the Temporal Project files unnoticed. But those files were to be their passport to Europe, guaranteeing that the other side would welcome them with open arms. There had been too many attempts at defection in the past few years, and the Europeans had grown selective.
"It was not your fault. They were bound to catch up with us sooner or later. Don't be sorry, Caroline."
"I only wish," she said sadly, remembering all the dreams they had shared, "that it had been later."
He squeezed her hand once more and nodded silently, thinking of a way out, knowing, as he knew she did, that there was none.
She stood up now, walking around the hovering table to embrace him, her lips meeting his in a long, lingering kiss. Then she dislodged herself from his arms and stood back. Her calm eyes ran over his immaculate black uniform to rest briefly on his sidearm before she looked up at him again. He knew what was coming before he heard the words; he knew that the moment he had dreaded for a very long time was here at last.
"Don't allow them to hurt me, Richard."
Far too often in the past few months he had considered how he would reply should it ever come to this, how he could make her understand that he was incapable of doing what she was now asking him to do. But all the responses he had decided would be fitting were forgotten now as he gazed into the eyes of the woman he loved and realized with a sinking feeling that he could under no circumstances let her down.
A faint chiming from down the hall announced the presence of the first drone outside the door to their quarters. Neither of them turned towards the sound, though they both knew the drone would not wait long before forcing entry.
"No," he told her gently, surprised that his voice did not waver. "Never."
She smiled at him then, her graceful features becoming radiant even as a single tear ran slowly down her cheek. "I love you, Richard," she whispered. "Never forget that."
Still the doubt gnawed at his very being, the maddening uncertainty that there still might be an alternative, any alternative. Then he heard the slight hiss as the security drone's powerful twin plasma projectors melted down the door twenty yards down the corridor, and he made the most painful decision of his life.
Their eyes remained locked until the last instant before his disruptor reduced her to a quivering red mass on the kitchen floor. He knew she had felt nothing, but that could be no consolation. He steeled himself as he leveled the weapon towards his own head, closing his eyes, content with the knowledge that he would be with her again, very soon.
The drone's sonic shockwave paralyzed him a quarter of a second before his finger could close the contact, and he sank helplessly to the floor. He tried to scream then, but of course he couldn't.
####"Will we make it?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly despite her obvious effort at control.
"Yes, Caroline," he replied, preparing to propel his body off the rock face toward her as stones and gravel rained down around them. "Don't worry, I'm coming. Just hold tight."
He flung himself toward her with all his might, disregarding the pain as sharp rocks struck his shoulders and grazed his cheeks. His antigrav was a Weston Z9, state-of-the-art military technology. It could easily support them both against the relentless pull of gravity, if only he could reach her. She stretched out her right hand, her eyes aglow with hope.
The pain as the stone struck him squarely on his right temple momentarily threatened to engulf him; but he remained conscious long enough to observe, as if he were watching from outside himself, how he shot past her outstretched arm as the boulder dislodged her from the cliff wall. It had fallen earlier this time; but then it always came crashing down at exactly the right moment.
Before blacking out from the pain, before yet another closing of the loop, he briefly caught sight of the terrible reproach in her eyes as she sped down to her death in the valley below.
####The six members of the tribunal looked down at him without feeling from their elevated rostrum. Miranda smiled as he sat in the center, leading the proceedings; but that smile was not warm.
"You are aware of the charges raised against you, Colonel Palmer," General Miranda said icily. "And of the fact that we can demonstrate your guilt on both counts, without the shred of a doubt." Miranda's tone shifted subtly as he went on. "But before you voice your final plea, consider this..."
He looked up at the General from where he stood ringed with guards before the judges, his wrists tingling in magnetic cuffs. He had waived his right to counsel; it would not have made any difference. The statue of the blind goddess holding her scales mocked him from the high niche in the wall directly behind Miranda and his colleagues. Justice might have stood a chance of asserting herself had there been a jury present. But even if this had not been a courtmartial, he knew, the days when men could be tried by a jury of their peers were long gone.
"The penalty for first-degree murder is death," the General intoned. "The penalty for treason is worse; but of course you know that. This tribunal has come to the conclusion, however, that due to certain mitigating circumstances, your immaculate record among them, leniency might be granted in your case even though you have already pleaded guilty to the treason charge..." Miranda paused briefly for full effect, obviously enjoying himself. "If, and only if, you agree to plead guilty to the charge of first-degree murder. This is our condition, and should you choose to meet it, the only punishment you have to fear is execution. If not - then God help you, Colonel."
He felt Miranda's gaze boring into his own, saw the rage simmering under the surface, beneath the cruel amusement. Miranda had been his mentor in Military Intelligence, but it was not the mere personal affront of his protégé's treachery that was now driving the General.
Convincing the Europeans of his authenticity had not been easy. During the course of his covert dealings with the other side, he had betrayed three of his country's most valuable deep-cover agents. All three were now serving life sentences in London. One of those agents was Miranda's son.
That was why the General was now playing with him. That, and the fact that he had shown the insolence of placing his wife out of their reach.
It is not enough that they forced me to take her life, he thought bitterly. Now they want me to betray her memory, as well. He would not give them that pleasure. He would not be broken. He held the General's eyes as steadily as he could, the set of his jaw defiant.
"Well?" Miranda demanded, undisturbed by his prisoner's display of courage. "How do you plead?"
"Guilty to treason," he replied calmly. "Not guilty to first-degree murder."
Admiral Atkinson started visibly at his response. He shifted in his seat to Miranda's right and leaned forward. "Are you still capable of denying that you killed your wife?" he asked incredulously, gesturing with a wave of his arm toward the far corner of the courtroom, where Exhibit Number One stood accusingly on the glistening table.
His eyes briefly flicked towards the exhibit, the military-issue disruptor he had used to take Caroline's life, the disruptor which would respond to his palmprint alone. Incredibly, he smiled. Atkinson, somewhat senile, was obviously not fully aware of what was truly going on.
"I did not say I didn't kill her," he now told the tribunal. "I said I didn't murder her."
Miranda's features were expressionless, but the cold gleam in his eye told a different story. The General had known what his response would be, of course. He had hoped for it.
"Your refusal to cooperate with the tribunal leaves us no other choice," Miranda declared quietly. His colleagues nodded, Admiral Atkinson plainly wondering how any man in his right mind could be so foolish. "Therefore, Colonel Palmer, you shall be taken to the statis chamber as soon as the Control Computer has been briefed and the interface is ready. You may be sure that the psychoemotional probes have supplied enough material for the construction of a very... fitting neuroreality."
Miranda looked down at him with unconcealed contempt as he continued. "I would not have thought you, of all people, senseless enough to refuse our generous offer. You suffer from a delusion, Colonel: the delusion that justice can be circumvented. That, in fact, was exactly what you were trying to do when you murdered your wife. But you shall find that justice can never be circumvented... The first step along that path lies in your realizing that you are in fact guilty - that you have committed a crime. Then the justice you so brazenly wished to avoid shall deal with you as is proper."
"Justice," he replied wearily, "left this courtroom long ago."
Miranda grunted with amusement. Then he went on as if he had never been interrupted. "You shall be allowed one single appeal, thirty years from now," he said. "We shall see if your defiance allows you to remain sane for even half that time."
I will break you eventually, the General's grim blue eyes spoke for him alone. You may be sure of that.
He said nothing as Miranda's final words registered, words that continued echoing in his mind during the long hours of waiting before the statis chamber was ready to receive him.
"Be assured, Colonel, that there really is a Hell; and it is a place of eternal torment; and you are going there."
####He had unbuckled his own antigrav and carefully held it out towards her with his left hand. It had to be done here, on the rock wall; the loop began with both of them halfway up the cliff.
"But why, Richard?" she asked for the second time. "You could fall, don't you know that?"
"I know!" he hissed fiercely, pangs of sorrow coursing through him as she recoiled with a barely detectable motion. "Just do what I told you! I heard a rumbling from up there, and there might be a rockslide any minute. You'll be safer with both antigravs."
"But what about you?" Her voice was pleading, worried. She feared for his safety. Inwardly he laughed bitterly at the irony.
"Please, Caroline. Please. Do as I say."
She reached out for the belt after another moment's hesitation, and he allowed himself a glimmer of hope.
Then, before her fingers could close over his antigrav belt, the boulder fell without warning and struck her own unit precisely in the center, flinging her back from the rock face with its momentum.
The reproach was there, as always, shining from her eyes as she fell without a sound.
####He floated just below her, supporting her body as she climbed. He had ignored her incredulous questions. Let her think he had gone mad; it did not matter. Only one thing mattered.
Forget the Control Computer, he was telling himself, as he had done countless times before. Forget the psychoemotional interface. This was still his mind, and eventually he would regain control. Eventually he would succeed in shaping the neuroreality to his will.
He was still capable of lying to himself, of actually believing he could prevail.
The boulder struck her forehead this time, shattering her skull and spraying his face with her blood. For a long time he bellowed in despair at the cold blue sky, her limp form sagging in his arms.
####"Will we make it?"
"Yes! Yes, Caroline, just don't let go!"
He was ready as the boulder struck her shoulder and dislodged her. The Weston Z9's pulsed turbokick was on and he dived down after her falling form, the sheer wall of the precipice rushing past him as he gained speed.
For some moments he was actually certain he could catch her, before a familiar whining noise announced that his antigrav's field generator had broken down under the strain.
He felt almost glad as he crashed into the rocks ten feet away from her corpse.
####Often, when the will to struggle left him, he deactivated his antigrav and threw himself down into the valley just as the loop began. Sometimes he tried to find other ways of saving her, experimented with possibilities that seemed inexhaustible. But always she died, and almost always she died by falling. And after a time he found he could no longer bring himself to watch her plunging form, no longer bear the blame in her eyes, the blame that was never absent.
Mostly, though, it took all of his effort simply to keep madness at bay. There were times when he felt he did not succeed.
####Only one judge was familiar in the tribunal he faced when they took him out of the statis chamber after thirty years.
He wondered, somewhat incoherently, how General Miranda - surely long since retired by now - had managed to get appointed to his appeal hearing. But, from what he knew of the man, that could not have been difficult. The decades had not been kind on Miranda. He looked far older than the eighty he must now be; but in his eyes the inhuman gleam was still there, as if the thought of seeing his prisoner finally plead for mercy, of relishing the sight of his former protégé's breaking at last, had kept him going all those years.
As he stared into those cold blue eyes, outwardly calm, he fought desperately for control. The statis chamber had kept him in remarkable health; that was its purpose. He knew he could not have visibly aged and he had never felt so physically fit in his entire life. But his mental health was another matter entirely.
The sudden disruption of his neuroreality the day before had almost accomplished what thirty years in hell had been unable to do. Abruptly opening his eyes onto the external world, confronted with life as it was meant to be after eternity in the pits of his own mind where time could not be measured, he had very nearly gone mad.
It had gotten better after the passage of an entire real day, but only slightly. He still had difficulty thinking rationally, forming coherent trains of thought. But very deep down a part of him knew that he could not afford weakness, not now. Not with so much at stake.
For a time the judges merely gazed down at the man who had survived thirty years of the ultimate penalty with his mind still mostly intact, a few barely able to conceal their wonder. But he knew that admiration formed no part of that sentiment, not with them - only curiosity. He had not been expecting anything else.
Then Miranda addressed him. The General's voice, though worn with age, still reminded him of a venomous reptile, perhaps even more so than before.
"Well, Palmer," Miranda hissed, unable to conceal his satisfaction - or maybe not even attempting to. "Have you perhaps changed your mind and decided no longer to impair the sacred cause of justice?"
He had hoped for many things during each brief interval before the closing of the loop, after memories of the past had been worn out by repetition and the future was all that remained to dwell on. He had hoped that the regime had somehow, miraculously, been toppled. He had hoped the other side had destroyed his country. He had hoped someone with the authority to make such decisions had finally grown tired of devoting money and valuable resources to the cause of his torment. He had hoped they would simply shut down the psychoemotional interface and kill him.
But above all he had hoped for one thing, knowing that, as with all his other hopes, it too would be in vain.
His voice was harsh and abrasive for lack of use, perhaps the only thing which the statis chamber could not maintain fully functional. For several minutes he tried to shape the necessary sounds with his vocal chords, but no coherent sentence emerged. He did not give up, however, and finally, looking Miranda in the eye, he rasped: "I was hoping you'd be dead."
The General stiffened, the response obviously not the one he had expected. Then, his voice laden with hatred, he said: "The statis chamber awaits, Palmer. Do you truly wish to go back?"
"No," he said immediately, forcing the sound out against the resistance in his throat. "No, I do not wish to go back." There was not a member of the tribunal who could mistake the heartfelt sincerity of his words.
General Miranda leaned back, smiling his icy smile. There was contentment on his aged features, and a wild triumph in his eyes.
"Then," he said, almost gently, "you have decided to plead guilty to murder." It was not a question.
Don't allow them to hurt me, Richard. As the tears welled up in his eyes, he knew what he had to do. He had always known. And he had been afraid that, when the moment came, he would nevertheless be weak enough to succumb to temptation. To the promise of a quick execution.
He was not going to.
"Never." The horror, the wrath, the agony of thirty years of inconceivable torture all flowed out of him with that single word, and a wave of shock swept through the tribunal. Miranda sat bolt upright in his hoverchair, an unbelieving expression in his eyes.
"I will never allow them to hurt you. "
His eyes were alive now, more alive than they had been for three decades, as his gaze caught and held Miranda's. You will not break me. You cannot break me. I will not let her death be in vain.
For a moment, a very short moment, he thought the General would drop his eyes. But Miranda's initial surprise had passed, and his expression was now that of a man who knows he can never be defeated. The slight smile was back on his features, the smile of pitiless mirth.
"Very well. The choice was yours to make, and you have made it... The statis chamber can keep you alive almost indefinitely. So remember what I once told you about justice, Palmer. Remember that on the day you realize your choice was wrong, and then - and then remember it forever."
His eyes never left Miranda's as the guards took their positions around him, ready to lead him back to the statis chamber. In some of their faces he saw furtive hints of sympathy, but he remained unmoved. He did not need their understanding.
"You," he finally replied, very softly, to General Miranda as they were turning him towards the door, "won't live to see that day."
Then he walked out of the courtroom with steady steps; and though he was a prisoner and bound as an animal is bound, there was a light in his eyes and his head was held high.
####The cool breeze felt refreshing against his cheek, and as he looked up into the dark blue sky visible above the edge of the cliff, tinged with the pale light of the setting sun, he no longer felt afraid.
He hugged the rock face as the first small stones began raining down, turning to look at his beautiful wife clinging to the precipice a few feet away. He found that, if he wanted to, he could almost ignore the pulsing whine of her damaged antigrav.
They could change her character, mar her responses, heighten the sense of reproach; and they would do all of that, eventually. But they would never alter the basic framework of the neuroreality, for that would mean conceeding his victory. And that they could never allow, would never allow.
"Will we make it?" The fear was there. It would always be there.
He paused for a moment while searching for a toehold which would bring him closer to her, and his eyes locked onto hers through the hail of rocks.
"No," he said simply. Her eyes widened for an instant, not least because his tone had not been one of resignation or despair. Then hurt and sorrow, mingled with panic, began to replace the confusion in her expression. But that no longer mattered.
He could think of worse fates than being at her side for eternity.
"No, Caroline, we will not make it," he repeated as he resolutely inched closer to the slender hand he knew he would never be able to grasp. "But we shall try."
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