Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wretched Excess

Scott Caplan was a hero who was light years ahead of the space program. His new ship could theoretically reach solar systems in months while the pilots of the Inner Colonies would take decades. A one-in-a million accident strands him on an unknown moon with no food, water or air. Thirty one years later he is mysteriously found alive.

Wretched Excess

Upside down and in a world of pain.
      The dark curtains parted briefly and he could barely see through his visor with blurred eyes. He was lying on his back, head down at a steep angle, and he could see through the fog that his feet were above his head. Slowly he tried to look to the side but stopped as jolts of pain raced through his neck. Lay still.
     Scott Caplan looked up (down?) through blurred eyes and saw red letters streaming across the top of his vision. They meant something. What was it? The streaming numbers and letters meant something important but he couldn’t remember. The incessant beeping noise was giving him an urgent command, but his mind was clouded and he couldn’t interpret it. He thought the letters were telling him he had sixteen. Sixteen what? The beep…beep…beep continued non-stop.
     His head hurt worse than it had after the gliderbike wreck that had given him a concussion when he was a kid. Back then, his friends had used that as an excuse to tell him he had a loose screw. Somewhere in the background, a thought was hanging there; it’s not good if the blood rushes to your head, you should get up. But getting up was not in the picture. Lifting a finger was not in the picture.
     Just the thought of not moving brought a slight relief from the pain. Stay still. Sleep (no, that’s bad, they always say don’t sleep if you hit your head). Sleep. He couldn’t help it. That urgent beeping noise was piercing and annoying, but it slowly faded out as the dark curtains once again closed.
     He floated in darkness unaware of time or pain. All the while he drifted, the beeping noise continued far away.
Then the noise began pulling him back from the void. Slowly. Now he was coming back to the streaming red letters and the beeping filled his mind. He opened his eyes.
     Now he had three. And he knew what it meant. Three minutes of oxygen. He moved his head slowly and looked around at the inside of his helmet. He saw that he was already on his reserve. He must have instinctively switched over some time ago. Now he was at the end. In less than three minutes, he would suffocate. He rolled over on his side and looked around.
     He was lying on the outside wall of a crater and he saw the tail end of his ship pointing up at the stars from the center of the crater. He had hit hard. How he was still alive and how he had been tossed clear of the wreckage he couldn’t imagine.
     The distant sun provided just enough light to create a perpetual twilight. All around him was a flat featureless gray landscape. His ship and the crater it had made were the only features for as far as he could see to the horizon in every direction. He thought that he was on a moon. He tried to remember. He’d seen a moon orbiting his target but it was far, far from his flight path.  Then something hit his ship. Not just hit, but pierced. He couldn’t believe it. One in a billion chances that something could cross his path on the exact angle that his craft couldn’t deflect. Whatever it had been had probably been traveling on it’s trajectory for millions of years only to hit him at the precise time he was passing through. What are the odds of that?
      Well here he was with sixty seconds of oxygen left. There were plenty of spare tanks in the cargo hold that may have survived. Possibly one of the biopods may have survived. He would never make it back up the outer wall of the crater to the destroyed ship to find out. He could barely move.
     Wincing with pain he began to crawl down the side of the small hill that his ship had carved out of the surface of the moon. Maybe it wasn’t a moon he thought. Maybe it was the planet he was headed for. Didn’t matter now. He was going to die here in about twenty seconds. That’s too quick. Another few minutes and maybe he could think of something. Maybe not.
     He reached the bottom of the crater wall and crawled away from it. He wanted to turn around and see for one last time the glory of his creation. The vessel of his design which had far surpassed anything his fellow humans had developed back in the Inner Colonies. He crawled ten metres across the surface and collapsed. The beeping turned into a solid signal signifying the end of his oxygen. Hail Mary mother of God, this was the end of his life.
      A morbid thought crossed his mind. Maybe the sudden rush of a vacuum would kill him quicker. He felt the air in his suit (the ten-second on- off suit of his own design) get heavier. Every exhale started to saturate his dwindling life breath with expended gasses. Pinpoints of light began to swirl at the periphery of his vision.
     He reached for the clamps that held the seals shut around the base of his helmet. His thick gloves were cumbersome. Push! He lifted the helmet from his suit and gasped his last breath. He fell onto his side and felt the cool gray mud on his cheek. He knew what a fish out of water knew now as he lay gasping. He was going to die. As his world went black, his life flashed before him.
     He floated in the blackness for what seemed to be only a moment and then he was back, lying on his side. He opened his eyes and looked out at a vertical horizon. His bare cheek was pressed against a cold moist surface that felt like clay.
     “This is unexpected,” he thought. And then he realized that he wasn’t breathing. His chest was moving, but there was no sense of any oxygen in the air. “Yet I’m still alive. Strange”. There must be some oxygen, he thought. Probably only a trace. Just enough to keep me alive. Just great, he thought. Now I can starve to death or die of thirst.
     The sky was black and cold and filled with clouds of brilliant stars. The cold of the ground was making his cheek numb. He moved his arm to brace himself into a sitting position. And suddenly he stopped. His head was swimming and his body went limp. He waited a few minutes and tried again and again his senses left him and he felt like he was passing out. Be still. Regroup and try to sort this out.
     He tried to slowly move his hand and felt a brief sensation of light-headedness, but when he slowed his hand to a gradual movement he felt okay. Movement or exertion will deplete the tiny traces of oxygen in his blood. He moved his hand excruciatingly slow and after some time he had his palm flat against the ground. Now what? He tried pressing down to try to lift himself up. The more he tried the more he realized the limits of his endurance. After what seemed like hours he had only managed to roll over onto his back. That was at least something, he thought. He was staring at the beautiful bejeweled sky. So cold and so deadly.
     He slept for an indeterminate amount of time and then found himself staring up at the sky again. He tried to slowly lift himself up into a sitting position and after what seemed to be hours, he made it to middle ground, still lying, but propped up on one elbow. He gradually found the pace he needed to move at so as not to cause a shutdown. He was moving like he was slowed down to less than a crawl. It took him hours, but he managed to move into a sitting position, his muscles cramped and his throat raw from wheezing. He had to sleep. He hoped he wouldn’t fall back over if he lost conscientiousness.
     His eyes opened after a dark, dreamless sleep. His mouth was dry, his tongue felt like thick dry leather. He had managed to remain sitting. He moved his eyes to look around. His back was to the crater so the extent of his view was the featureless gray landscape that stretched to the horizon and formed a razor sharp dividing line with the black starry sky. “I will now experience the sensations of dying of thirst,” he said to himself. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t kill himself if he had wanted to.
     Slowly, so very slowly, he moved his hand to the moist hard clay-like ground. There was moisture there, he could tell. How to extract it seemed to be an impossible task. He didn’t know what the moisture was. It could be a toxic soup for all he knew.
     His hand finally reached the ground next to his leg and he pressed with his finger. The ground gave slightly. He moved his finger in an effort to dislodge a bit of the clay. The surface parted with a little effort and he saw a small indentation. He pulled his finger back more. Slow slow slow.
     The gray clay glistened in the starlight. His stomach was long empty and his body was telling him that he was at the end of the line. His obsession focused on digging the tiny trench in the ground and he tried to put his dire circumstances into the background.
     Suddenly his eyes went wide. He thought his mind was playing tricks. There in the tiny dig was a slowly moving shape. It was some kind of worm, tiny, gray and segmented. He could see it clearly. He wasn’t hallucinating.
     He had to have it. He had to eat it. He’d done extensive survival training in his younger days and he knew he was looking at a source of nourishment, however small. If it was deadly poisonous, even better. Catching it was no problem as it didn’t try to escape. No natural predators he reasoned.
     He began the long arduous task of raising the worm to his mouth. His eyes fixed on it as it slowly grew closer to his mouth. It was twisting slowly on his gloved finger. It was thin and almost translucent, no trace of a head or eyes. He prayed that it wouldn’t roll off. It would take too long to retrieve and he didn’t think he could last much longer.
     Finally the prize touched his lips. His hand was shaking with the effort of moving so slow. As soon as it was in his mouth he felt the tiniest bit of relief. His raging thirst was quieted for a brief second. He could almost feel his body absorbing a miniscule morsel of nutrition. The worm was chewed very slowly and then swallowed. It slid down the back of his throat and was in his stomach in a second. He had to have more. He began his quest to unearth more worms.
     Finding them didn’t seem to be a problem, as he easily found one in his next dig. The problem was that it took so long to bring up another. Hours passed, maybe a day, he couldn’t tell in the perpetual twilight. He had made a meal of three more worms. He slept and when he awoke he was consumed with his mission. He needed to somehow get ahead and gather enough to give him some surplus energy. The crater wall was only a dozen steps away and his ship was behind that, but it may as well have been a million miles away.
     As time passed his routine consisted of nothing but trying to sustain his body with the micronutrients in the worms. Each contained a tiny amount of moisture and a tiny amount of food. That along with the bare amount of oxygen in the atmosphere could keep him going, barely alive, but alive. He soon realized that he would never get ahead. He would never have a surplus. It was impossible.
     Many sleep/ wake cycles passed and in his quest for nourishment, he had managed to move himself a few feet and now he was facing the crater. He was close so he couldn’t see most of his ship, only the tip of the tailfin, its silver surface standing out starkly against the black sky. His thoughts had slowed along with his motion and he entered a trance-like state. The worms were plentiful, always in the scratches his finger made in the ground.
     As time passed he continued his torturously tedious migration, almost in a frozen state, barely sustaining on the minimum amount of fuel and oxygen. Years passed and his suit slowly eroded and eventually became a tattered shroud that barely covered his body.

     A tiny spark glowed in the sky and became brighter. An object moved in the sky to a position above the crater and grew larger. The shuttle set down several hundred feet from the crater. Two survival-suited figures departed from the ship and walked toward the wrecked vessel. They approached a figure on the ground. At first it seemed to be an outcropping of the gray clay surface, but as they looked closely they could see that it was indeed a man coated with layers of the clay. He appeared to be dead and mummified.
     The first man activated his communicator and began to send an audio-video report back to the ship in orbit overhead. He passed his hand if front of the figures long-closed eyes. Nothing.
     “Tell the captain he was right. It is the wreck of the Transcend and the remains of its pilot, Scott Caplan are on the ground close to the wreckage. This is an amazing and historical find. The first man to achieve intergalactic travel on his own personal budget has been found. I don’t know what to say. It’s . . . wait! I saw movement. His hand is moving. Are you seeing this?”
     “Negative,” came the reply. “Wait, now I see something. Are you sure that’s not some kind of natural movement, maybe decomposition?”
     “No it seems to be purposeful. Only the hand is moving. This person may be alive.”
     The captain was on the line now. “Thirty one years sitting there and still alive? How is that possible?”
     The two officers set up video cameras to record every angle. They returned to their shuttle and monitored the sitting figure from the control console. Aboard the orbiting ship, the crew was huddling around every available monitor. It was a once in a lifetime brush with a legend and they were fortunate enough to witness it. The astronomical odds that an advance scout ship had stumbled across the lost pilot were astounding. The fact that Scott Caplan may still be alive was unbelievable. Another shuttle departed to the surface piloted by the captain with the chief medic and the chief science officer as passengers.
     “What do you make of it?” Captain Scarborough asked the other two. Science officer Campbell was watching the monitor on the console and replied, “In six hours his hand has moved from his lap to the ground beside his leg. It looks like his finger is trying to dig at the surface.”
     Chief Medic Thomas said, “He appears to be alive but in an almost catatonic state. I think we should change the status of the flight to rescue.”
     Captain Scarborough pondered the comment. “Let’s see what your scans show when we get there. He may be too fragile to move right away. How has he survived more than three decades? There are only traces of oxygen in the atmosphere and no visible signs of food or water. Any rations that survived the wreck would be long gone.”
     “He’s moving almost slower than the eye can see,” Thomas said, “but he’s moving like he has a purpose. There are scratch marks in the soil that lead in a trail around the crater. He’s not only moving his hand, he’s moving his body slowly around the wreckage. It must take years to circle it-”
     Campbell broke in. “Captain, it looks like he’s unearthed something. I’m zooming in . . . it appears to be a bit of organic material. It’s moving a little like a . . . like a worm. It is a worm. I think he’s going to eat it. Could he have survived on-?”
     “”Prepare for landing.” Captain Scarborough said.
     The second shuttle set down near the first and the three occupants disembarked. They walked across the flat featureless ground until they stood in front of the sitting figure. The man’s features were smoothed out by the layers of clay, but Captain Scarborough could recognize the familiar face. The man was a childhood hero of his. Scott Caplan had been light years ahead his peers in the field of space flight. His home-built ship could travel in months what other ships of the day could only travel in years. In his effort to be the first to reach the next solar system to be added to the Outer Colonies, he had launched his controversial new ship at the same time Scarborough’s colonization starship had launched. It would take over thirty years for the starship to reach their target solar system. Scott Caplan’s ship could theoretically reach it in thirteen months.
     The three men stood and gazed at the sitting man.
     “Do you think we can communicate with him?” Scarborough asked. Thomas crouched down trying to get a closer look at the man’s face. The eyes were long sealed shut and the lips were parted slightly. The medic passed a scanner across the man’s chest.
     “He’s barely alive. His vitals are almost nonexistent, but steady. It appears that he’s taking in only the minimum needed so sustain life. His body is using every speck and it doesn’t seem to be excreting anything. If he keeps raising his hand, he’ll have it to his mouth in a couple of hours. That’s obviously the source of the nutrients that are keeping him going.”
     Captain Scarborough walked around the man and looked at him from all angles. Despite the importance of the event, time was short. They were on an unauthorized departure from their schedule.     “Let’s get a team of medics down here. We need to move him as gently as possible. Maybe we can slide something under him and lift him onto a stretcher. Make sure they do it carefully and slowly. Mr. Caplan appears to be very fragile.”
     Chief Medic Thomas called the ship and issued instructions. Soon after, a spark in the sky grew larger and a third shuttle settled next to the first two. Three medics and three assistants departed and formed a triage around the sitting figure. The captain monitored the rescue effort and the chief medic hovered closely, giving orders in an urgent yet quiet manner.

     Seventy two hours later the captain held a meeting in his conference room. In attendance were his chief officers, the members of the rescue mission and representatives of each division of the new colony.
     Captain Scarborough called the meeting to order and had Chief Medic Thomas speak first.
     “During the transportation to our medlab, Mr. Caplan was enclosed in a chamber designed to mimic the conditions on the moon S-2. Usually the capsule is used to resuscitate mining accident victims or those exposed to low oxygen environments. In this case we reversed it and provided the minimum environment for the special needs of Mr. Caplan. During transport Mr. Caplan was in distress from the moment we first lifted him from the surface of S-2. He actually went into cardiac arrest fourteen times and had to be gently revived with low voltage heart massages. Any attempt to inject any type of nutrients into his system proved futile as he rejected all of them and suffered seizures in the process. In short, any attempt to bring him up to any standards of “living” that we are familiar with have been met with failure. In my opinion this man has simply become a product of his environment. Rehabilitation would be long and tenuous and I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance that it will kill him.”
     Captain Scarborough wanted to hear from others on the medical team but he knew Thomas had the most insight.
     “Can anyone talk to him or communicate in any way?”
     “Not at this time, sir. We’ve mostly just been trying to keep him alive. It seems the less we do the better off he is.”
     The captain thought for a moment and then said, “I want to talk to him. Can I get into the chamber?”
     “There’s plenty of room for you in the chamber; you have to wear a respirator of course. He’s still in a sitting position and he doesn’t take up much room.”

     Scarborough ducked and entered the air-lock chamber. The pressure equalized and after a moment of ear-popping dizziness he stepped into the minimized atmosphere of the sitting man. The chamber was dark with a soft dim light emanating from the floor. The atmosphere seemed peaceful. Scarborough squatted in front of him and stared at the man’s face. He saw the glazed over eyes and the slightly parted lips of Caplan’s mouth. Caplan’s face was tilted back slightly. His expression seemed ghastly and forlorn. The captain spoke to the sitting man in a gentle voice, trying to speak slowly and deliberately as he would to any trauma victim.
     “Mr. Caplan I am the captain of the starship Antares. We were on course to the same planet you set off for over thirty years ago. I know who you are and to be honest, you are the main reason I’m here. When I was a kid you were, still are, a legend. A probe from an advance scout ship noticed the distinct profile of your ship as it passed the second moon of our new colony planet, Tibus. You almost made it. You would have been there to greet us. The environment there is very hospitable, tropical even. There’s an abundance of fruits, vegetables and minerals that are wholly compatible with human subsistence.”
     Scarborough crouched quietly in front of Caplan for a while, just watching him and taking in the absolute lack of any signs of life. If one didn’t know better this would be a lifeless corpse, stiffed into a sitting position by rigor mortis.
     “Mr. Caplan,” the captain said, “We can take you with us to Tibus. We can probably rehabilitate you. It would take a long time, but it could be done.” Scarborough paused, unsure of how to continue. “We can make you comfortable. Any medical procedures that you need can be provided. What I need to know is, do you want to go with us?”
     Scarborough sat on the floor of the chamber and looked at Caplan, who sat motionless. The captain needed to know. He was torn by the urge to take Caplan on with him and parade him like a trophy on Tibus or to just leave him be.
     After several hours the captain had his answer. Caplan’s head had turned a few centimeters to one side and then back. A single tear squeezed from a smoothed-over eye and rolled down the cheek of the sitting man.

     Captain Scarborough stood in front of Scott Caplan, looking down at him. He looked like a man saying a prayer at the funeral of a friend. He looked around at the bleak surface of the moon. The crater and its historical treasure would remain as a silent monument, off limits to sightseers. After a while he nodded and walked back toward his shuttle.
    The shuttle lifted off and turned into a spark that quickly disappeared into the starry black sky.
     On the surface of the second moon, the sitting man gazed with unseeing eyes at the stark horizon. Slowly, his right hand began its arduous journey to the ground, to the life sustaining worms.

    copyright © 2011, R Patrick Widner
                    all rights reserved