You know how it is when you've worked something out, and it all clicks into place, and you lie there wondering how you didn't spot it before, and then you run through it once more in your head, but there's just one little detail you don't quite get, and then, all of a sudden, the whole thing starts to unravel. You know how that is?
Well, whether you do or not, that's how it was with me. I was lying on the couch, just idly dreaming, thinking about my Mum and whether I'd ever see her again, and then it struck me. Why did they need to question me about all that stuff, when they were the ones who told me most of it in the first place? Not the bits about the first explorers, admittedly, which had made it seem reasonable at the time that those were the bits they focussed on ...
And why did they have to dress up to fool me, when I didn't have any particular reason not to tell them all of it anyway. And why was it necessary to fake a flying saucer -- and mock up a Barsoomian landscape complete with canals and pyramids and eight-legged beasts? How was that supposed to persuade me to talk?
And where did John Carter fit in, anyway? Were they just humouring me, stringing me along in some fantasy I'd already concocted? But why that fantasy? I hadn't even read those Burroughs books, just seem a few images and names on the net. Why not Heidi fantasies, or pony clubs, for God's sake?
It'd seemed so reasonable that they should actually be my friends in disguise (or my co-conspirators, if you find the term "friend" too weighted under the circumstances). But how did that make sense? What did any of it mean? Where was I really?
That's when I started to think about the gas tanks and all the stories I'd heard: the interplanetary urban legends.
Here's the kick, though. I'd heard of people constructing whole fantasy worlds inside their head, and acting as if they were true. In which case I might still be safe at home; but then again I might be suffocating in some tunnel - or else in the hands of the people who captured Pat and Mum. There just didn't seem to be any way of knowing.
I ran my hands over my body. It all seemed to be present and accounted for. I pinched myself - ouch! - with satisfactory results. I couldn't see much in the dark, so there wasn't any real way of telling whether I was in an alien spaceship, a tunnel under the surface, or just a deserted building in the dome.
How could I find out? There just wasn't a way. They weren't going to tell me, were they?Whoever they were. Nor was I sure there was really anyone there at all. You see how bad that is? Were Dejah Thoris and her counsellor - or the little weaselly hangman, for that matter - any more (or less) real than John Carter and friend? Than Pat and the P.I., in fact. How real were they?
I was sure of one thing. Mum. She was real. I'd bet everything I had on that. She might be a bit gullible at times, but she was as real as they come. If I just concentrated on her, surely things couldn't go that far wrong.
When they came at last to get me, things had changed. The men looked rougher and even more bloodthirsty than before. What seemed to be going on around us: girls spitted on long spikes and dangling from gallows didn't look that much more real than the Barsoomian legions with banners flying in the great Martian emptiness, but the first stroke of a lash on my butt persuaded me that it was, at the very least, a lot more painful.
And when I saw him again, he was trussed up like a turkey, with blood dripping down his face. His eyes met mine, and -- you know, it was like a flash -- I just knew that he was saying goodbye.
And that's all that I know, all I can see. Those people frozen as if in a tableau or a diorama: naked men - whips and knives - a seething sea of faces - the blade poised at my throat - and then the flash.
I guess that's the last thing I'll ever see, in fact, from what you tell me. I don't know how he triggered it, but that big explosion ...