Due to circumstances beyond his control, Ianno Starling sold his remaining possessions, purchased the finest boots, rations, and camping gear he could buy, and set off west; a train to the Western March, a bus to the border fort, and a dirt trail into the Unknown Zone.
His spirits were high as the fields known to man fell beneath the horizon, and he found a clear brook to soak his feet in when he made camp in the early evening. The next day he walked even longer, and he felt as if he had discovered a secret to happiness, that he was blessed above the country that had exiled him, that they toiled in their cities untouched by nature's calm. His freeze-dried meal could have been prepared by a master chef, his sleeping bag could have been a deep feather bed.
On the third day he grew bored. On the fifteenth day he prayed for a heart attack.
It is not good for a man to be long alone with his thoughts, and Starling had rehearsed all the wrong ones. He wanted to turn back, to walk down a street, to sit in a theater, just for a day, and maybe a lifetime in those soft-walled prisons would be superior to another hour on this unchanging trail - but every step forward was another two steps to return, even more investment wasted, and he stubbornly put one foot in front of the other foot and weeks passed.
He scratched a few dietary calculations on a rock and decided that he could march just as well on quarter rations, and as the forest opened up into plains he grew lean; though his head was protected by a broad, waterproof hat, he grew tan.
On the fortieth day he lost his hat, or maybe the thirty-ninth. On the sixty-fifth day he walked out of camp and forgot his ragged tent, and sat up all night, barely sleeping. Deep in his heart he wondered if he had intended to die all along. In his mind's eye he had seen himself walking off into the sunset, filled with positive spirit, but he had never imagined himself actually finding a fortune anywhere, and as he tried now to picture it he found he could not come up with anything.
And on he walked.
The plains turned to desert, and he filled his empty ration packets with water and walked on. His mind was filled with the sight of his own feet, the ground inching beneath them, and when he did care to think of something else he cursed the Unknown Zone, for being so... knowable. "There is nothing to fear," he gasped. "There's just... nothing."
And on he walked.
His water, his rations, his feet stubbornly refused to fail. He had no idea if his supplies would last if he turned back. The sun rose and set. The wind rose and fell. Mountains appeared, bumps on the horizon, larger every day, and his heart rose, as if he were getting somewhere, though he hardly believed he could.
On an uncountable day he realized his leg hurt, and taking stock of his latest memories he also realized that it had been hurting for days. He pulled up a pant leg to see a black, festering wound, and struggled to remember when it had happened. His first aid kit was with his tent.
He scraped off what he could with a rock, but the pain grew, until it was as steady a companion as the sun on his face and the dust in his mouth, more steady, because the sun was hazy and his mouth was dry as a grave and he swayed, staggered, heard voices, saw signs, vivid dreams crossed his waking vision, his creditors stood shoulder to shoulder on the horizon, grim of visage, clad as angels, the sun and moon danced across the sky, a children's chorus sang variations on the judge's sentence, and a woman's voice guided him slowly, gently, to a cavity in a rock, and he slipped and fell slowly, slowly, and a million gentle fingers wafted him into the dark.