She did not stop to look back, not even once. The view would have been beautiful if she had. The mountains fell away into a vast expanse of broken land, strewn with boulders many times larger than houses, presided over by wind-carved pillars and arches of red stone. In the moonlight, it resembled a weird and wonderful city built by some ancient race of giants.
Visitors to this place were few, since there was nothing much here except a collection of villages scraping out their tenuous existence by the rare oases -- but those hardy souls who did travel through the land of wind-carved stone came away with glowing descriptions of the place's raw natural beauty. On maps, it appeared by any of several poetic names: the Lost City, Painted Land, Paradise, New Tibet, Pillars of the Sky.
The locals called it God's Butthole, when they called it anything at all.
The locals were a sturdy, plain-spoken people. Salt of the earth; which is to say, stubborn as mules, unimaginative as mules, and just as tolerant of outsiders as rednecks anywhere.
Sand rubbed at the bruises on her face. She, like the locals, saw little beauty in this place. But at least they had their solidarity and sense of belonging to the group (a group of ignorant hillbillies in Sand's opinion, but she wasn't in a mood to be charitable).
Sand had nothing.
Even as she climbed deeper into the hills, she knew it wasn't true. She had Annie and Martha. Unlike most of the residents of the Painted Land, the two old women had lived elsewhere in their youth. They had gone to school; they'd seen other places, other lands, other ways of doing things. They could read, for heaven's sake. They had books.
Sand knew that if not for Annie and Martha, and their library, she would not have survived in this place.
The voice. The voice was back.
Sand squeezed her eyes shut, willing the voice to go away. Sometimes it did, when she forced it. She stumbled on the sharp rocks and sat down suddenly on a boulder, staring up at the cliffsides of the ravine.
I'm your friend, Sand. Your only friend. I want to help you.
No you don't. You say cruel, hurtful things.
I have never been cruel to you, have I, Sand?
No, but you say mean things about Annie and Martha. They're my friends, too.
I only want to help you. It hurts me to see how completely they've fooled you. Don't you know, they only want to use you and throw you--
"Go away!" Sand cried aloud.
Her voice echoed off the canyon walls and died slowly in the ravine: go away... away... away...
Don't be like that, the Voice said.
Shut up. If you were really my friend, you'd leave me alone when I tell you to.
Sand, sometimes friends have to be a little forceful when someone they care about is doing self-destructive things. These people are very, very dangerous to you.
Go away! They care about me! They're my friends!
Was it friends who left those bruises on your cheek?
Sand's hand raised involuntarily to the sore spot.
It wasn't Martha and Annie's fault, she thought angrily at the Voice. They've always tried to protect me from the cruel people who hurt me.
Where were they today, then?
At home! They're old! They don't get out much! Stop it!
You were at the gate. They were in the house. Surely they could hear the raised voices. Surely they could come out if they'd wanted to help you.
All right. Maybe they were in the back room and didn't hear anything. Martha doesn't hear so well anymore, and Annie always takes a nap at that time of day. Or... or even if they heard and didn't come because they were afraid... that's not their fault! They're not very strong! I can stand up to the villagers much more easily than they can.
You seem so sure, but I can feel that little bit of doubt nibbling away at you...
Shut up! You're a liar!
Ah, Sand, you forget that I'm in your head. I know you better than you know yourself.
In my head? Who are you, anyway? I know you're not me. I'd never think such hateful things.
Is that right? Maybe you just can't acknowledge your own feelings to yourself. Maybe you created me, an objective voice--
You're not objective!
--all right, maybe I'm not, but a concerned voice, one who can see things more clearly than you yourself. Maybe you need me to tell you the things you're afraid to admit to yourself.
I don't believe that you're part of me. You're real, all right. I just don't know why you want to mess up my life.
Mess up your life? Sand, it's already messed up, more horribly than you even seem to be aware. How can you continue to take their abuse like a doormat?
I am not a doormat!
What did you do when they beat and hurt you? Hurt them back?
No. Martha and Annie say it's wrong to hurt people.
Martha and Annie say so, do they? Maybe they just want to keep you weak, so they can control you.
That's not true!
They're afraid of you.
Liar! Mean liar!
Is that a lie? Have you looked into their eyes lately? They are afraid of you, Sand.
You know I'm right.
...maybe a little bit.
Why are they afraid of you, Sand?
Because... because I'm...
The hateful words rose up in her mind, and tears choked her. She hung her head in the moonlight, unable to stop the words from filling her head... the cruel words the men had shouted as they beat and kicked her...
Freak. Demon. Monster.
Because you're different? the Voice supplied gently.
Sand nodded, unable to speak. Tears dripped off her nose.
What did you do, that made them call you a freak?
"I don't... I don't know..."
But you do know...
"I grew up too fast," Sand whispered. "I... I'm only five, but everyone says... five-year-old human children don't look grown up like I do. And... and I only have to read a book once, and I remember every word. And I'm faster than any of the other kids, and stronger..."
Does that sound bad to you? Worthy of hate?
"Well... everyone says..."
I don't care what everyone says. I care what you think. Do you think they're right? That you're a freak?
"No... no, I -- I don't..."
Who named you Sand?
"They... they did...the people in town..."
She choked out, "Because... it's worthless... like me..."
But that's not true at all, Sand. That's what they believe about you, because you are not like them. But it's not true, is it? You don't feel that way about yourself, do you?
"I... I don't know..."
They have taught you to hate yourself. Listen to me, Sand. You are not a freak. You are not worthless. They are the worthless ones, those insects, those parasites on the land.
"But..." she managed, through her sobs. "Martha and Annie raised me..."
So you could slave for them! Who does all their labor?
"They're old... they can't manage the heavy work..."
Leaving you to sweat all day under the suns. Haul water. Chop wood. How fair is that?
Sand sobbed quietly to herself.
Those old biddies know they have a good thing going with you, Sand. They've been using you, all this time. They protect you from the villagers only as much as they have to, in order to keep getting work out of you. Every once in a while they let the men beat you up to remind you how worthless they think you are... so you'll never come to your senses, never leave...
"No," Sand whimpered. "No..."
They have no idea how special you really are, Sand.
They can't see the light that burns inside you.
You see it every night in your dreams.
"Yes, I do..."
Show them the light, Sand. You don't have to be alone anymore. What one of us sees, we all see. What one of us feels, we all feel. What one of us knows, we all know. None of us is ever alone.
Show them what happens to people who hurt one of us. No one may hurt and abuse you. Stop taking that treatment! You don't have to! You're strong, Sand! Strong!
Sand didn't remember standing up, but she was on her feet, staring up at the moons. The crater on the fifth moon seemed to beckon her. She raised her arms over her head.
And it... happened.
She was staring into the moon's face, so hard her eyes hurt... and then she realized that the light wasn't coming from the moon, but from her... As she raised her arms above her head, entwining the fingers, they began to merge, becoming one great pillar of light towering over her... She felt the warmth sweep through her body, a feeling of wonder, of power, unlike anything she'd ever known. In that moment, she knew that she was strong. She knew she didn't have to bow to anyone. No one would ever hurt her again! She'd make them all pay!
Adrenaline flooded her body... like the orgasms she'd discovered, experimenting in secret... but it went on... and on... and ON until she didn't think she could stand it anymore...
...and there was a great light...
...and her head hurt so bad...
Sand woke up slowly. She hurt all over. Every bone and muscle fiber ached. Even her face hurt.
She had to pry her eyes open with her fingers; they were gummed shut with dried tears, mucus and blood. After a couple of tries, she managed to sit up and look around her.
The first thing she noticed was that the suns had risen, and sunlight flooded the rocks around her. Then she became aware that things didn't look quite right anymore.
The canyon... what happened to the canyon?
It wasn't here. It simply wasn't here.
She was sitting in the middle of a giant crater.
"What the hell..." Sand whispered. Martha and Annie always scolded her for cursing, but she supposed that if cursing was ever appropriate, this had to be the time.
"Martha..." she said aloud. "Annie..." The words rasped in her dry throat.
Suddenly she was more afraid than she'd every been in her life.
"Martha... Annie..." Fear propelled her to her feet. It carried her two steps before she collapsed.
Her body felt like one giant bruise. Somehow, she managed to get upright again, and started climbing out of the crater. It seemed to take forever, while the suns beat down on her head, and her heart screamed in terror for the people she loved.
How far did the devastation extend?
When Sand finally made it to the top of the crater, she saw that it was worse than she'd ever dreamed. From up here in the mountains, she had a perfect view.
A giant furrow ran from where she crouched, petrified with terror... down the mountain... and out into the badlands, as straight as a string, as far as she could see. The edges were churned up into a ridge on either side, and the rocks were scorched black. Some of them had actually split open.
The furrow ran straight through the place where the town had stood.
Nothing was left. Nothing at all.
Sand couldn't breathe. She knelt on the crater rim, gasping for air. Finally she got a breath and screamed, "Martha! Annie!"
She screamed their names over and over. The echoes died in the rocks around her, swallowed by the great emptiness of the noon sky.
She only stopped screaming when her throat was too hoarse to manage more than a faint, breathy whisper. Then she crouched in misery, and listened.
No engine sounds. No voices.
She... had killed them all...
"I'm not what they said I was," Sand whispered. "I'm worse. So much worse."
She collapsed in the rubble on the edge of the crater, curling into a ball with her arms wrapped around her knees.
Nothing. No response.
Sand! Wasn't that fine? See how strong you are? Would you like to do it again, Sand?
But for once, Sand didn't hear the Voice. She was far beyond anyplace it could reach her.