By Alekto

Chapter 7


He'd done it again, put himself in harm's way to protect us as he had so very many times before. The familiarity of it didn't make his decision any easier for me to bear.

I'd been leaning heavily on Challenger for support trusting that Roxton's own strength and determination would carry him to the relative safety of the tree line. I'd seen him collapse, seen his pallor and the tension in his face as he fought the pain and tried to follow us.

To be honest, I should have seen it coming. His offer to take Challenger's rifle and stay behind to give us a better chance of escape had been so like him it made my heart ache to see. The John Roxton that I lo--, that I'd missed, was back. Now he seemed to want to throw his life away to save us. Again.

There was only one slight problem: I had no intention of letting him do it. I'd threatened to stay behind with him, and he'd realised, correctly, that I was stubborn enough to have done it. For some reason it annoyed him that I had refused to stand by and just watch him die.

However, once I'd explained the situation to him, he'd appeared to have changed his mind about staying, taken the rifle as a crutch rather than a weapon, and tried to follow Challenger and me to safety. I've been called manipulative in the past, admittedly with good cause for the most part, but I knew Roxton well enough to have known how to convince him to at least try to escape. I knew the guilt he carried around with him, the driving sense of responsibility, and I played on it.

It worked, but whatever joy I'd felt when I'd seen him haul himself to his feet and stagger after us had been tempered with regret at seeing in his eyes the never quite exorcised shadow of other deaths that, rightly or wrongly, he held himself responsible for.

Finally, after what had seemed an eternity of putting one foot in front of another, Challenger and I made it to the tree line. I glanced at Challenger to see he was nearly as winded as I. It wasn't too surprising: on the last few yards he'd been virtually carrying me. Once released of his support, I slumped down against a tree trunk, wincing at the flare of pain from my side that the movement caused. Almost involuntarily my hand went to the wadded bandage, and came away red. I looked at it uncomprehendingly for a moment, my brain numbed by what had to have been stress or blood loss or shock.

Veronica's startled yelp dragged my concentration back into the present. I saw her holding her arm as if in pain. The T-Rex towered between her slight form and the edge of the cliff. I prayed for it to go over as surely Veronica had been intending: a fall from a great height was still one of the best ways of getting rid of a T-Rex that we'd come across, but it was not to be. I looked on, the breath caught in my throat, as I waited for the T-Rex to strike.

The harsh sound of a sudden gunshot made me jump, and I automatically looked in the direction it had come from.

Roxton. He was stood there, the rifle held somewhat awkwardly, but nonetheless pointed at the T-Rex which had turned in annoyance at what, to it, must have been an annoying gnat sting to its flank. I distantly noticed that Veronica had been quick-witted enough to advantage of the opportunity offered to race for cover even before Roxton had yelled, "Veronica. Run!"

He'd continued shouting: wordless noise intended only to divert the creature's attention from Veronica's retreat and towards him. I saw it waver as if undecided, then as its head swung back in Roxton's direction I saw him fire again. I couldn't see where the bullet had hit, if it had hit. I waited for him to fire again before my exhaustion dulled mind noted that Roxton was carrying Challenger's double-ejector rather than his own bolt-action and he hadn't any cartridges with which to reload it.

I watched as the dinosaur roared again then lowered its head to charge down the tiny figure who had the temerity to so defy it. I saw Roxton standing there, no more than ten or twelve yards away from Challenger or I, swaying a little but making no effort to dodge. 'Damn him! Why didn't he do something?' I raged inwardly despite being able to see that it was as much as he could do to remain standing. The ground itself groaned under the relentless pounding of the dinosaur's feet, the tremors created by every step carried to where Challenger and I were hiding.

"Roxton!" I cried, anguish making my voice crack. He half turned towards me at the sound of my voice before returning his gaze to the charging T- Rex, determined it seemed to meet his impending death with the same courage he had shown in life. "No, no, no, no, no..." I sobbed under my breath, helplessly trying to deny what was happening in front of me. Was I supposed to just wait there and watch as it killed him? What could I do?

I racked my brain for an idea, any idea that might help. Nothing. I turned with scant hope to Challenger who was watching what was happening, as transfixed as was I. "George?" I beseeched quietly, desperately, in the hope that he could bring off yet another miracle.

He didn't look at me, didn't say anything, perhaps angry that he, for all his learning and inventions could do nothing to save his friend's life. Behind his scientific detachment, I sometimes forgot that Challenger, too, was human.

"Roxton!" I screamed again, wanting to turn away but somehow unable to.

The T-Rex was no more than ten yards from him when Challenger turned to me and hissed urgently, "listen!"

For an instant I had no idea what he meant. Then I heard it: a grumbling from under the ground, so low as to be almost inaudible. I remembered the instability at the cliff edge that had so nearly sent me tumbling into the abyss. That had been caused by the vibration from the dinosaur's approach. If the whole area near the cliff edge was that unstable...

The dinosaur forgot about its attack on Roxton, reeling as if drunk. It would have been comical if I hadn't been so scared. Roxton, too, staggered.

"Landslide!" bawled Challenger over the ever louder rumbling from the ground.

"Run! Dammit, John, hurry!" I called, dragging myself to my feet with the aid of the tree for support. The pain in my side was nothing more than a distraction, an irrelevance, to be ignored for a while at least.

I started towards him but Challenger grabbed my arm. "Wait here," he ordered peremptorily. "You're in no condition and I can't carry both of you." I started to protest but a sudden wave of nausea convinced me of Challenger's reasoning.

Cracks were racing across the ground, parallel to the cliff edge. The whole ground was shaking and I clung to a tree branch, praying that it wouldn't fall away too. Challenger staggered and stumbled out towards Roxton who had finally lost his battle to remain standing. He hauled him to his feet and they began to make their way back, supporting each other like two old men on their way home from a night's drinking.

Behind them I could see the T-Rex, its own strength and power helpless in the end to save it from its slow slide into the abyss. I saw it fling its head back, bellow a last defiant roar, then it fell from view. The cracks widened and whole slabs of ground sheared away and vanished into the depths of the chasm.

Challenger and Roxton were no more than ten feet from the support of the dense trees when the ground they were on began to slide away. I could see the realisation of what was happening in their eyes as they continued forwards, struggling against the apparently inevitable. Then they made a last, convulsive leap, grabbing for anything to hold on to as the ground they had been standing on fell away.

The rumbling slowly subsided. I unlocked my hands from the death grip they had maintained around the tree branch. Not far from where I was, Challenger and Roxton lay on the ground only feet from the new cliff edge.

Challenger glanced left and right, noting the presence of both Roxton and me. "Good God, we made it. We're alive!" he laughed with surprised delight. It was so infectious that I could not help but join in. From beyond Challenger I could hear Roxton's unmistakable deep chuckle. That was how we were when Veronica found us a couple of minutes later.

We relocated far enough from the cliff's edge for comfort and settled down for a much needed rest. Little was said. Bandages were changed, wounds cleaned and redressed, and what few supplies were left, were passed around.

As the light began to fade I woke up from a doze to find Roxton staring at me intently. For long seconds he looked as though he was going to speak, but didn't. I watched his struggle for the right words to say something for which I knew there was no such things as 'the right words'.

I took the struggle away from him. "You shot me, John," I said quietly, reasonably. "You tried to kill me."

He said nothing. His eyes, blank and impenetrable, bored into mine. I was normally so good at reading his expression, it was disconcerting to see that degree of opacity. For a horrible instant I thought whatever memory he'd retrieved on the cliff edge had vanished once more.

"What do you want from me?" I asked. "Exoneration? Forgiveness? Understanding? You shot me. What else is there for me to understand?" A small insistent voice at the back of my mind berated me for what I was doing to him, asking him such questions. I ignored it. I'd always been one to push, to pry, and this was one thing I wouldn't let slide. I was tired and hurt and he'd *shot* me, and I damn well wanted to know the reason why.

"I didn't think it was you," he finally muttered as if ashamed to say more.

"Oh?" I said, demanding more. Challenger had managed to guess that much.

"I took a knock to the head," he said tersely. "I looked at you and saw someone else, alright?"

The defensiveness in his voice was impossible to miss. It wasn't a subject he wanted to talk about. Under most circumstances I'd have let it go, but not now, not after seeing the hatred in his eyes when he'd looked at me and saw her. Whoever 'she' was, at some time she'd done something to him, something terrible: Roxton wasn't a man who hated easily. "Who was she?" I asked.

He stared at me as if considering whether or not to answer, then murmured, "her name was Dona Maria Lopez. I first met her in Peru after the War where I found out she'd been involved in the death of an old friend of mine. She ended up being responsible for the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands and caused untold misery for thousands more. I thought I'd killed her. I'm not so certain now."

His voice faded into silence and I looked into his face as he became lost in memory. "You'll have to tell me about it sometime," I suggested.

"Perhaps," he replied non-committally.

I knew a 'no' when I heard one. I could understand him wanting to keep some things secret. After all, there were a lot of things in my past that I had every intention of keeping secret.

But perhaps one day he'd tell me.

And perhaps one day I'd tell him.

But not today.