Eclectic Ramblings From a Bike Riding, Sports Loving, Novel Writing Nerd.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Traveler

His shoulders screamed out in protest, energy stores long since depleted.  Lactic acid had built up in his muscle tissue, the result of hours spent hacking away at the dense foliage.  He knew the jungle should thin out sooner or later, but then again, he’d been thinking that for the last hour.  He had to remind himself, rather begrudgingly, that this jungle was completely alien to him.  He knew next to nothing about it, aside from the fact the brush was dense and it made his muscles cry out in protest.
His pack was loaded with freshly hunted meat so, as far as he was concerned, this little hike was a success.  The animals in this new jungle were strange yet familiar.  It always amazed him how evolution revealed its similarities, no matter the location.  Certain traits always seemed to their way to the forefront, traits that produced survivors no matter the location.  Insects, lizards, warm blooded hunters, flighted animals; they were found everywhere he had been in one form or another.  More importantly, they always proved to be quite tasty when cooked over open flame.  Protein for musculature, calcium and other nutrients for skeletal structure, fat for warmth, all evolutionary traits that showed up everywhere and provided him the sustenance he needed to keep going.
He pushed on, arms and shoulders burning, knowing he would emerge from the jungle soon enough. He’d set out from camp three days prior, intent on finding food and clearing trails for future excursions.  The first day was spent traversing the rocky terrain between base camp and the jungle, the last two clearing brush and stalking prey.  Now he was headed back to camp, to shelter, a bed and a change of clothes.
The machete sliced through the tangle of vines in front of him and he stumbled into a modest clearing.  A small stream gurgled up from a wellspring in the rocks.  The silver snaking stream was set against a small field of grey speckled rocks.  The rocks in turn stood out against the dense green of the jungle.  He immediately felt at peace amidst the accidental oasis; easily the most picturesque scene he’d yet come across.
He took out the test kit and collected a small sample from the spring.  He knew there was little danger of problems in the water here but just as certainly understood that one sip from the wrong stream could mean a painful death, alone in the jungle. Two drops of solvent, a quick shake and yes, as expected the liquid glowed green. He shrugged the pack from his shoulders, removed the bladder, plunged it beneath the surface.  The water felt cool and refreshing across his hands, a welcome respite from the oppressive humidity of the jungle.  
Once the bladder was filled he plunged forearm deep into the stream, brought his cupped hands to his lips and drank thirstily of the cold, crisp liquid.  He splashed his face and soaked his hair.  The cool water dripped down his neck and onto his shoulders providing him just the slightest sense of relief from the heat.
His aching body relaxed ever so slightly as he sat back against one of the rocks that lined the stream.  He reached into his pack and pulled out a small bag of jerky along with his map.  This was the first stream he had come across so he made note of its location.  He ate a few pieces of the jerky; glad for the slight energy boost he knew would accompany it.  What he really needed was a day of rest to let his arms and shoulders recover.  He was no stranger to the kind of labor this jungle required, but the atrophy associated with the lengthy transit had rendered some muscles weaker than others.  After all, swinging a machete was not something one did often on a ship.
He returned the meat and map to his pack, took one last drink of the cool spring water, stood up and re-shouldered his pack.  His shoulders groaned at the renewed burden. He rolled his head and shoulders a bit to work out a couple of kinks then resumed his trek.  Machete in hand he headed east, across the stream’s clearing.  He wiped the sweat from his brow, too late to prevent the salty sting in his eyes.  The jungle beckoned for him to return.  
      The the three foot blade rose above his head then fell again against the thick foliage.  He turned his head for one last, longing look at the silver stream, his temporary oasis, before disappearing into the jungle yet again.
“Congratulations Lieutenant, and welcome aboard”.  The director’s smile was genuine, his handshake firm.
“Thank you sir, I’m honored to be part of the team.  I will give you my best”.
“We expect nothing less Lieutenant.  Captain Jackson is waiting for you in the next room with the rest of the crew.  You’ll be brought up to speed on the rest of the mission details and then you have five days leave.  Get your affairs in order and report back here for training on Monday”.
“Yes Sir”!  He snapped a quick salute and turned for the door.  His mind was racing.  Sure he was confident in his performance these past weeks.  He’d never been subjected to the number or range of tests but he knew his performance had been top not.  Yet he was easily the most junior applicant.  No one was ever selected their first time out; until now.
His mind was swimming throughout the two hour briefing.  He found it increasingly hard to focus as the minutes ticked by.  Luckily everything was recorded so he could review everything after he calmed down, whenever that was.
He was twenty five years old; an honor graduate from Annapolis at twenty one, a decorated fighter pilot with combat commendations by twenty four. He was a rising star and he knew it.  Even so, he was also grounded enough to know nothing came without hard work.   Everyone had to put their time in.  So his selection over several well-seasoned veterans was a shock.  He could imagine those same veterans, their shock at being passed over by a mere rookie.  The thought continued to rattle around his thoughts, never settling enough for him to grasp it.
“Any questions Lieutenant?”
Captain Jackson was at the front of the briefing room and his gaze had clearly fallen directly on his newest team member.
“No sir, all set for today.  I’ll be sure to study everything in depth while on leave.  I’ll be ship shape and raring to go by Monday.”
The corners of Captain Jackson’s face turned up into a knowing smile.  He knew the kid was lying, wondered how much information had actually been retained.  Jackson had been in similar shoes himself twenty or so years ago: excited, head too full of possibilities to really process anything.  He also knew the kid would do as he said, and likely more; one of several reasons the kid was part of the team.
“Good to know Lieutenant.  Now get outta here.  Go spend some time with that lady of yours.  It’s going to be quite some time before you see her again.  We’ll see you Monday.”
One more salute, a quick spin on his heels and the lieutenant was on his way through the door.  He was headed home, the home he would be leaving for a very long time, the home where Sarah waited for him.
     “Sarah” the Lieutenant thought to himself.  “How am I going to tell Sarah?”
The jungle slowly began to thin. His shoulders were beginning to give out so he welcomed the opportunity to holster his blade.  He wasn’t clear of the tree line yet but the foliage no longer required clearing.  He could see a rocky plane just at the edge of his vision.  The edge of the jungle meant the overbearing humidity was almost at an end.
His thoughts returned to camp, some distance to the east, just across the rocky plane.  Camp was small and accomodations were spartan  at best, but it was home. 
Captain Jackson and Commander Lewis awaited is return, as did a hot shower, shelter and a bed.  Sure it was only a small bunk, designed to just barely lift him off the ground, but barely was better than not at all.  After three nights sleeping on the jungle floor he was ready for any relief he could find.  He also needed to get to work preserving the meat in his pack.  The animal flesh would start to spoil soon and he didn’t want to waste even an ounce.  He’d taken the first necessary steps in field prepping the meat but that would only last so long.
He finally stepped through tree line onto the rocky plane.  He stopped long enough to get a bearing with his compass and then set out in as direct a line to camp as he could figure.  The jungle was behind him now but the terrain was no less treacherous.  Dense foliage was replaced with boulders and loose rocks.  In another mile or so he would arrive at the canyon and his trek to camp would continue downhill. 
Captain Jackson would be happy with his haul.  There had to be close to forty pounds of useable meat, bone and hide in his pack, quite a take considering the last three days had been as much about scouting and trailblazing as about hunting.  The meat would last many weeks.  It would fill the small cooler and provide several pounds of jerky once cured and dried.  He also had several miles of trail marked along with one very important water source and two caves that would need to be explored at a later date.
The sun was slowly lowering towards the horizon in front of him, marking the end of yet another day.  If his navigation was accurate he would arrive back at camp shortly before the sun set, just in time to enjoy the slight cooling of temperatures that accompanied it.  The thought brought a slight smile to the edge of his mouth and his pace quickened ever so slightly.
Were Commander Lewis with him he would have made a sarcastic quip about the young lieutenant’s vigor.  The two senior members of the team love to drone on and on with the salty dog stories that came from many years of service.  They also never tired of poking fun at his exuberance and drive.  He would have been surprised to learn it stemmed from both pride and jealousy.  Pride in the reflections of themselves the lieutenant provided, jealousy in the knowledge they no longer had the energy, strength and stamina of their junior crew member.
His pace had quickened as he dwelled fondly on the conversations, jokes and storied the trio had shared during the ship’s voyage.  He made a conscious decision to stop for a moment, forcing himself out of the carelessly fast pace for fear of losing his footing on the rocks.   The canyon’s edge was now visible, the last thing he needed was to cause an injury this close to camp.
The sun stared him in his face, beckoning him toward the camp that lay ahead, somewhere on the canyon floor.  He wiped the sweat from his brow, took a long swig from his water tube and resumed his slow trek, answering the sun’s call onward.

The look on her face was tearing at the flesh around his heart.   She hadn’t stopped crying in the forty-five minutes since he’d broken the news.  It seemed every time she started to calm down, reality came roaring back.  The sorrow in her face would deepen and the wail would begin again.
     “Three years!”  She cried.  “What am I going to without you for three years?”
     “The time hasn’t changed.  Three years was always the mission length”.  He knew the words were of little comfort. 
     “But you weren’t supposed to get selected!  It was your first time through.  Even dad said there was no chance.”  Her father had been through the program thirty years ago and was one of the legendary first wave of explorers.
     “I don’t know what to say.  We knew I had to apply when they asked and I can’t say no now.  If I do it’ll be the end of my career.”
     “But the wedding!  We just got engaged!”
     “Sweetheart, I know.  I didn’t plan for this.  I don’t know why they picked me, but they did.  We always knew it was a possibility.”
     “You know damn well why they picked you.” Her voice was a shattered whisper now.  “It’s the same reason I fell for your all those years ago. There’s something special about you.  There always has been.  It’s why I don’t know how I’m going to live without you.”
     His words left him.  He did the only thing he could, pulled her close, wrapped her sobbing body in his arms.  The last shard of control dissolved and grief overcame her.   The warmth of her tears soaked through his shirt and ran down his shoulder.  He pulled her closer and they cried together.
     “We’ll work it out.  Three years and I’ll be home.  Then we’ll have all the time in the world.”
He still wasn't used to the heat.  The unrelenting sun stared him straight in the face. Sweat poured into his eyes and soaked his shirt.  This place always seemed to feel hottest to him right before the large yellow sun set in the east.
Just ahead of him was a rise that would be the last before camp.  Just a thousand meters or so and he would crest the last hill, finally able to lay eyes on his destination.  His return couldn't come soon enough.  The pack weighed heavily on his shoulders and the straps has worn his skin raw.  He looked forward to some rest and recovery.
The closer he got to this home the more he thought of the real one; the home where Sarah waited patiently.  He could see her face whenever he closed his eyes; her soft brown hair cascading against the alabaster skin of her shoulders.  He could smell the strawberries from the lotion she used every day.  He could hear her rhythmic breathing as she slept next to him.
They had been friends since grade school.  They'd never dated during their youth but had remained friends throughout his years at the Academy.  He was a junior lieutenant when he'd run into her while visiting his parents.  He knew the minute he saw her he couldn't let her get away again.  They'd started writing each other every day.  He started taking all of his leave back home.  She used her vacation to visit wherever he was stationed.
He'd always been honest about his ambitions and she'd always shared them.  Whenever they were together they would stay awake to all hours of the night, staring and the stars and charting his career.  She had more faith in him than anyone, including himself.  
Leaving her almost destroyed him.  It was all a part of the plan, but like most plans it didn't follow their carefully plotted course.  His selection for the program during his first application had shocked them both.  He hadn't been prepared for her reaction and it weighed on him heavily even now.
She was everything to him, more important to him even than his career.  He'd realized this fact almost as soon as the ship had set off.  Within the first month he’d decided to do everything he could to never leave her again.  Just three years and he'd be back home, ready to make it all up to her and then some.
The rocks under foot started to shift again, his reverie broken when he had to put a hand out to keep from tumbling down the slope.  The sun continued its relentless fall toward the horizon.  He continued to creep ever closer to the summit, ever closer to the home that beckoned for his return.

"Latest estimates have us at just over three weeks out sir. Just under 22 days."
     "Thanks Commander." The Captain, along with the rest of the small crew was getting antsy after so many months in the small ship.
     "So what do you think of your first trip kid?"  This was about the fourth time the commander had asked him the same question in the last week.
     "I feel like a damned sardine Commander. Same as yesterday." He couldn't hide the smartass smile while he answered.
     "Good, then everything is moving according to plan."
"Don't worry" the Captain chimed in. "Three more weeks in this can then we've got 18 months on land, plenty of times to stretch the legs."
     "Yeah, just enough time to get used to it before we're cooped up again" Commander Jackson retorted.
     "Hey, the sooner we're on our way home the happier I'll be."
     "Damn kid" the captain sneered "This is your first trip, you're supposed to start thinking about home for at least another year."
     He smiled weakly at the commander's jibe. He knew he should tell them both of his decision to leave the program when he got home but he didn't want them questioning his commitment so early in the mission.
     "Ah, you know me Captain, just the whiny punk kid right?"  The Captain smiled then turned back to his work.
     He had come to respect both of the commanding officers on this trip, more than any he'd worked with before. He would do anything they asked, anything to make them proud. Anything that is, except continuing with the program after they returned. Sarah was the only thing in his life worth pursuing anymore. He was resolved to give up a promising career for a desk job.  He would never leave her again, career be damned.
     18 months on land then 9 more to get home 27 months of his very best for these two men, then everything he had would be hers.
     He finally crested the ridge leading to camp. The sun was just beginning to fall behind the two story structure. It cast a long shadow in his direction, calling out for his return. As he arrived at the bottom of the hill the loose rocks gave way to firm ground. His pace quickened as he no longer had to worry about unsure footing.
     As he got closer to the aluminum and titanium housing structure his thoughts returned to Sarah. He knew he would dream of her tonight. He looked forward to the restful night in an actual bed, alone with his memories of her. He entered the structure and removed the pack from his shoulders. He carefully placed the hunted meat in the cooler, glad to have it in storage before it began to spoil. He would spend a good portion of tomorrow preserving the meat and hide in order to stretch its usefulness as far as possible.
     After finishing with the meat he turned to head back outside. He turned immediately north, directly towards Captain Jackson and Commander Lewis. His heart turned heavy as he approached. The earth was still loose around them, the rocks still neatly stacked, the mounds spaced about four feet apart. He'd done the job properly; none of the local animals had disturbed the sites while he was gone. He knelt next to Captain Jackson.
     "Well Cap, I've got enough meat for at least the next two or three weeks plus enough for several weeks of jerky. The agricultural units seem to be working so hopefully I'll have some veggies before too long."  
     The sun had almost set now. He turned towards the commander’s mound. "You would have liked this place Commander, great hunting and the place if friggin gorgeous too".
     He patted the commander’s rock pile, stood up and turned to head inside. As he neared the door he couldn't help but look to his left. The shattered engines lay in pieces next to the command module. The ship listed heavily towards the east, just as it had since the crash.
     He entered the command module and passed through to the living quarters. The ship's computer did not greet him as programmed; the lights did not adjust to his arrival. The spacecraft was dead, its power cells destroyed, its computers lifeless. The crashed had destroyed everything on board.
The ship was dead. The Captain was dead. The Commander was dead. Everything was dead, everything except him.
     He entered the living quarters just as the large sunset in the east. At almost the same instant another smaller, cold sun began its rise in the west, preventing night from ever falling on this alien world. Yet inside the living quarters, nestled between the titanium walls and without windows, the world was dark. He lit a candle next to his bunk and lay down. The soft light flickered against the wall, illuminating her face. He stared at it for several long minutes. She was his entire world. He had never loved anything so completely. Now all he had of her were the two small pictures that hung on the wall of a stranded spacecraft.
"Good night Sarah."
     He turned away, blew out the candle, let the darkness embrace him, and slept.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Storytelling - Leaves the Reader wanting to Know More and in Short Form with the use of a flashback technique - well done Sir