Zac took as deep a breath as the cold would allow, then poured the draught down the back of his throat. He gagged, and thought his stomach would revolt. Then the nausea faded, replaced by spreading warmth.
"You must hurry," Ariadne urged. "The drug’s protection won’t last long."
He moved toward the hole in the ice, but she seized a handful of his collar and jerked him to a halt.
"Take off your clothes," she commanded.
He blinked at her as a gust of icy wind tore through him. The thought of leaving his skin bare to the lash of the wind froze his heart.
"How do you expect to swim with thirty pounds of water-soaked clothes dragging at you with every stroke?"
Still he hesitated.
"The coat and clothing will offer no protection from the water anyway!"
Zac gritted his teeth and hurriedly began to strip. The warmth of the drug was already receding.
"Swim as hard as you can, to the north, Hamlet," Ariadne said. She pointed to indicate the direction. "Use all of your energy. When you feel your breath running out, don’t let yourself panic. You must keep swimming until the last moment, when you cannot help but breathe the water. If you don’t get far enough, you’ll never breathe air again. Do you understand?"
"I understand!" he yelled, his body shaking with the cold. He discarded the last of his clothing. Then, his stomach cramped with fear, he pinched his nose and stepped off the edge of the ice.
Nothing could have prepared him for the shock that sliced through him. He almost sucked a lungful of water in the first instant, so strong was his need to gasp. The water seeped into his eyes, into his ears. Every second, fingers of ice seemed to penetrate more deeply: now digging into the thin layer of fat under his skin; now piercing the fat, and plucking at the muscle beneath, now burrowing through to his bones, to his heart, to his brain. Cold fire scalded his lungs. His head banged against the ice above him, and his hands flailed, desperately seeking the hole through which he had come. But the hole was sealed.
Hopelessly disoriented, he tried to move his arms and legs, tried to kick and stroke, but there was no feeling. His heart thudded violently in his chest, and the burning in his lungs escalated as his body used the last dregs of oxygen from his bloodstream. He had to get out of here. Had to!
He ran his hands along the ice above him, banging on it, looking for a weakness. The banging restored some feeling to his arms—a feeling as if one more blow would shatter them into shards. Then, once again, he felt nothing, and could only guess whether he was hitting the ice, or whether his body was sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss. Spots of brilliant color flared in his eyes, but he knew they were illusion, knew there was nothing, knew he was alone here in the darkness.
Of course, he had always been alone. Even with the one he loved, he hadn’t been able to share the secrets of his soul, and when he had tried, she had turned from him, frightened and appalled. She had loved the Zac she thought she knew, but the true man had been foreign to her, a creature so bizarre it had to be held at bay. Was that why she hadn’t been able to enjoy physical intimacy with him? Was she recoiling from the truth of him, from the threat his alien soul posed to her peace of mind?
How fitting now, in the moment of his death, that he should be so utterly alone; so alone that the aloneness became a part of his being, became his reason for being. And then became his reason for not being. What was the point of fighting, if all he could win was the chance to be alone again? He would never change; he would never be one of "them," one of the normal people, who lived normal lives, had normal fantasies, fantasies about the girl next door; about what they would say to their boss if only they had the nerve. How did you relate to people like that, when your own fantasies ruled your life—and were capable of causing your death? No, the connections that tied him to the real world were tenuous at best, tied to other people’s ideas of who he was. The world would suffer no great loss if he ceased to exist.
Zac welcomed the water into his lungs.