Adrift

The rookie quietly stepped into Lieutenant Grantas’s quarters. Light from the hallway cut through the dark but did not hint at what existed beyond where its rays landed.

“Sir?” the rookie whispered. He waited a few seconds then tried again, a little louder, “Sir?”

A sharp intake of breath was followed by a sigh. “What is it?” a deep voice asked from within the dark room.

The rookie straightened and replied, “Sir, Commander Brun has requested your presence on the bridge.”

“Answer my question first. What’s the bump?”

“It’s…we’ve come across a vessel.”

“An enemy?”

“No sir. It appears to be empty. Our scanners have not picked up any life on board, but the hull is possibly thick enough to prevent an accurate reading. Commander Brun has requested your-”

“Yeah. I heard you. Go tell him I’ll be there in three minutes.”

The rookie hesitated.

“Leave the door open,” Grantas encouraged him.

The young man left and Grantas sat up. The room was not much bigger than the doorway. Only a bed and a small table. Grantas was a minimalist. Not out of necessity, but out of fairness. He limited himself to less than what his soldiers received. The only luxury he couldn’t pass up because of his position were his own, private quarters.

He stood and soaked in the brightness as if it were sunlight. His tired eyes did not shy away. His frame was larger than the doorway, and he had to make himself smaller as he exited. He wore a simple t-shirt, standard issue pants, and black boots which clattered on the steel floor as he made his way to the bridge.

“You asked for me Commander?”

“Lieutenant. Sorry to wake you.” Brun turned toward Grantas as he entered. “You should move your quarters closer to the command center.”

“I’m fine where I am, sir. What’s the situation?”

“Straight to the point. We have an unregistered, seemingly abandoned vessel eight hundred meters starboard. Scans don’t indicate a threat or any heat signature of any kind.” Brun pulled up a hologram of the ship. Grantas leaned on the table to get a better look at it.

“If it were an enemy ship,” Brun continued, “I’d simply blow it to pieces and move on. However, there are no marking to indicate it as friend or foe as well as no signal coming from it to aid in that determination. It’s structure is also bothersome. I’ve never seen a model like this from any shipyard.”

“The cylindrical architecture reminds me of a pre-contact exploration vessel.”

“One of my initial thoughts as well, but the size is beyond the technology of the time.”

Grantas nodded in agreement. Something about the ship made him uneasy. “Have you tried communicating?”

“No response.”

“A warning shot?”

“Also no reaction.”

“I suggest a wrecker crew sir. Have them haul it to the nearest deconstruction base and use it for parts. Looks like it has plenty.”

“A fine assessment, but protocol dictates, if this is a ship from the pre-contact era, that we search it for any atomic weaponry and seize said weapons as both asset denial and procurement. Your first instinct made my decision. I want you to search the vessel and report. If it’s clean. We’ll call the wrecker and be on our way.”

“Understood sir.”

“Take as many men as you need.”


 

Grantas finished pulling his undersuit on and helped Mathis into his exosuit. Mathis returned the favor and they prepared to jump.

“I’d prefer to have more than two men for this mission,” Brun’s voice came over the comms.

“Two is plenty, sir. I assure you.”

“I don’t doubt your track record Lieutenant.”

Mathis smiled at Grantas before pulling his helmet on.

“Distance?” Grantas asked.

“Just reaching 600 meters now.”

Grantas raised his eyebrows to Mathis who responded with a thumbs up. They crouched low and prepared for expulsion. 600 meters was a lot to cover. In the vacuum, they would cover it quickly, but it still be would be dangerous. Grantas held his hand over the hatch release then punched the button.

They shot out of the hull directly toward the cold barrel of the empty ship’s engines. There was little debris around the ship.

“Applying jets now,” Grantas said calmly.

“Applying jets,” Mathis repeated.

Their suits began pulsing air to slow their approach and adjust their trajectory. Another thirty seconds passed and they landed within the domed engine pads. Two large holes lay ahead of them. One was the designed propulsion release. The other was obvious damage to the ship.

Grantas opened his comms. “Damage within the engine walls. Possible critical failure to propulsion.”

“Take it slow,” Brun’s voice called into their ears, “We don’t know what could be aboard.”

They entered the damaged area. The engines were cold.

“There’s no way this thing is moving again,” Mathis said.

“Engines dead. Damage irreparable. I’d get that wrecker crew on standby sir.”

“Confirmed. I’ll make the call once you give the all clear.”

Grantas and Mathis moved through the hull and into the innards of the ship. They cleared each floor of the living quarters and found no one.

“No atmosphere in the living quarters.” Grantas checked-in.

“Confirmed.”

“Make your way to the bridge and find a blueprint of this vessel. I’d like a designation if possible,” Brun said.

“Yes sir.”

They moved to the bridge. They found no atmosphere there either. Mathis tried a screen but there was no power. He popped a panel and looked inside.

“No go,” he told Grantas.

“Please confirm.”

“No power,” Grantas said. He pulled a small unit from his suit and hooked it up to what he guessed was the main display. “I’m using a portable to see if we can pull some data.”

“Proceed.” Brun said over the comms as Grantas finished connecting the unit and powered on the display.

“All escape pods have jettisoned. Distress signal was…disabled.”

“Confirm. You said disabled?”

“Correct sir.”

“I don’t like it,” Brun said, “Let’s wrap this up. Is there a weapons bay?”

“Yes. Centrally located. Looks like we passed it on our way here.”

“Confirm any atomic designations and get back to the ship.”

“Yes sir.”

They descended into the belly of the ship. They entered the armory. Grantas’s heart sank as the chamber extended beyond the lights of his suit in all directions.

“I don’t like this.” Mathis said over the local comm channel.

“Neither do I. Lets check the perimeter and don’t lose visuals. Make sure you set way-points so we can get an accurate reading. Then we can make ensure we search the entire area.”

They walked for thirty minutes before they came across their first munition box. It was six feet in length, three feet wide, and three tall. They unlatched and lifted the lid. Grantas hadn’t thought his luck could turn worse. Inside was a designation two atomic missile.

“Atomic weapon confirmed,” he commed, then signaled for Mathis to continue their search.

“Atomics confirmed. How many Lieutenant?”

“Sir” Mathis called out. Even over the comms Grantas could tell it was hushed. He made his way over to where Mathis was standing in front of another munitions box. Another was a few feet further. They followed the growing trail toward the center of the room where they discovered mountain.

“Oh my god.”

“Confirm Lieutenant. How many Atomics?”

“Commander. If I tell you to leave us behind, I want you to warp to the nearest weapons facility.”

“What going on in there?”

“It’s a World Eater.”

“Dear God.” Brun’s words were so quiet Grantas nearly didn’t hear them. “Get out of there immediately.”

Atop the mountain consisting of hundreds of atomic missiles was resting the head of a creature. It’s jaw extended into the darkness beyond the range of their suit lights. Grantas and Mathis slowly backed away from the creature as if their silent footsteps would wake it from its hibernation.

“If we detonated those missiles-,” Mathis began as they finally made it back to the door, but Grantas cut him off.

“Those things are drawn to radiation. They thrive off of it. If we detonated even one of those, let alone hundreds, it would only make it stronger. Our best option is to return with enough firepower, draw it out of this husk of a ship away from those things, and kill it.”

They moved as fast as Grantas deemed safe. They made it to the engine pads and jumped, blasting their propulsion gear to its max speed. They were halfway to their ship when Grantas saw another ship appear at the edge of his vision. It’s deep orange color and geometrical design immediately designated it as an enemy ship. Three more appeared, each twice the size of their own ship.

“Sir,” Grantas called.

“We see them Lieutenant. Notify me when you’re on board. We can’t win this fight.”

Mathis reached the hull first and opened the hatch. He entered and waited for Grantas.

“Maybe we don’t even have to fight this one,” Grantas said. He reached the hatch and closed it.

“On board,” Mathis relayed.

“What’re you suggesting?” Brun asked.

“Fire at the World Eater.”

“Are you insane Lieutenant?”

“Fire at the World Eater. Once we see movement from it, we warp to the nearest facility and prepare to return. Let them fight that thing while we make ready. With any luck, they take each other out.”

“But if they somehow do manage to kill it. They will have…what did you say? Hundreds of atomic missiles?”

“It’s our only chance sir.”

Grantas looked through the small window of the hatch as the enemy ships approached. They would all be dead once they got in range. He almost sighed in relief when he saw a projectile fire from the bridge. It headed straight for the abandoned ship, impacting near the engines. A few seconds later, the World Eater burst forth. Grantas barely caught a glimpse of it before his view turned black as his ship entered warp speed.

 

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is a two-for-one. Old School and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

First is Old School. This book is one of two full-length books of fiction by Mr. Wolff (the first being The Barracks Thief), and is an expansion of his short story “Smorgasbord”, which was adapted and used as a chapter in the book. I greatly enjoyed this book for the same reason I enjoy all of Mr. Wolff’s work. He captures human moments and makes us think about our own actions and the way we interact with others.

This book is written as a fictional memoir of a man who recounts his senior year at a preparatory school that is highly influenced by the writing competitions it holds because of the famous authors who come in to judge the stories, which include Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

It’s an interesting story that spirals out of control near the end but, as many of Mr. Wolff’s stories go, the ending packs an unusual punch that makes you think about the importance of things and why we act the way we do.

I also thought this book was even better after having read Tobias Wolff’s actual memoir (and the second part of this recommendation), This Boy’s Life, which details his youthful years growing up. He has another memoir that recounts his time in Vietnam which I also enjoyed. It is called In Pharaoh’s Army. This Boy’s Life is not only compelling, but also shows how Mr. Wolff became the prominent person he is today (he is currently teaching at Stanford University). I also recently discovered (a few minutes ago in fact) that a movie was made from This Boy’s Life in 1993 starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I don’t want to say too much because saying almost anything about a memoir, outside of general information, could be considered a spoiler. So all I’ll say is that I think Tobias Wolff is one of the best short story authors America has ever had. He writes primarily short stories and the books mentioned in this recommendation are the full length works he has produced. The two memoirs and the two books. He is well-known for his memoirs and I think that is what makes Old School successful (having been written as a fictional memoir). His work is naturally highly influenced by his own life. I won’t give you an order to read any of his work. I’m just suggesting you read anything he’s written. If you like it, as I have, you’ll want to read more.

 

Happy Reading.

Arithmetic

Luke laid down on the couch with a sigh. He waited a few seconds then began.

“It all feels like a constant countdown, you know? Like I’m constantly calculating how much time I have before I have to be at work next, or how much time before I should go to sleep so I can get a decent amount of sleep before I have to work. I even calculate the hours I have free or try to guess how long an obligation is going to take. I’m constantly figuring my life into blocks of time. I know it sounds stupid and doesn’t make much sense, but I feel like I do it in an attempt to get the most out of the time I have for myself. In the end though, I feel like it does the opposite. That I set up an expectation about what time I have and try to figure out if I can fit what I want into that time block. If I can’t, I often give up on that task altogether. Even if that task was something dumb like watching a show. If it’s an hour-long show and I only have an hour, sometimes I don’t watch it because I know I’ll have to go do something else before it ends.

I feel anxious all the time about stupid stuff. When I realize I don’t have the time to do what I want to do, even if it’s just sit down and read, I get sad because I feel like I’m not in control of my life. I feel like everything is constantly tugging at me and I can’t shake it off. Between work, helping my parents, my relationship, yard work, hanging out with friends, even talking to you sometimes feels like too much, which is absurd. I talk to you because I do feel better afterwards and things don’t seem so glib, but I’m always trying to figure out what is happening next. What should I be doing besides what I’m doing right now? I’m doing it right now. I’m thinking I should not be laying on this couch talking to you, and that instead I should be cutting the grass or catching up with someone I haven’t hung out with in a while. This all seems crazy. Right?”

He heard a few clicks behind him and waited. A second passed and he felt the need to fill the silence so he continued.

“I mean. That isn’t normal is it? At the same time, I feel like it is. Everyone is constantly trying to fit more in their schedule. They are always connected. Looking at their phones. Checking all the notifications. That’s another thing too. Sometimes I feel like I have to check my social media so I don’t miss anything. I’ll always answer texts as quickly as I can. But that’s another thing. I feel like I don’t hang out with my friends that much anymore. Yeah, we talk sometimes on the phone and text a lot, but we don’t meet up like we used too. I understand the few that have babies now and that takes up a lot of time, but it should be easier, right? I mean, there is only so much you can do with a baby. It just sits there. Why can’t it sit there while we hang out?”

He paused. This time there were three clicks, but still no answer. He sighed again.

“Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old,” he said, “Maybe I feel like I should have accomplished more by now. I know what you’ll say. That I shouldn’t compare my accomplishments to others, but I can’t help it. I have dreams, but I can’t find the time to work on them. Maybe it’s because I don’t really want to. Or that I’m afraid to fail. Or even because it’s simpler to have the dream and think about than to actually do it. And what happens once you achieve that dream? Then you have to come up with another one. Doesn’t that seem weird? Wouldn’t it be easier to just not have one? To just live life with no aspirations and enjoy where you are and in the moment? But that would just be existing, and I can’t just sit there and do nothing. Yeah, TV and video games can help pass the time, but you don’t get any real feeling of accomplishment from those. I’m not going to wake up one day and think ‘Man, I was really good at that one game. I totally nailed that match that I won online against a stranger,’ you know? That stranger could have been a little kid. I’d never know, but I’d think it and then get sad because then I’d believe that I beat a little kid at a video game. Who would feel proud of that?

Sorry. I got a bit off topic there. What were we talking about? I guess it doesn’t really matter,” he sighed, “I just get so stressed out. I know it’s about dumb, small things too, which makes me stress about stressing out. I appreciate you letting me vent. It does make me feel better just to get this stuff off my chest.”

He looked over and into the eyes of a beagle. The dog placed one paw on Luke’s shoulder as he laid on the couch and shuffled, clicking its nails against the hardwood floor. Luke smiled. “Thanks buddy. You want to go for a walk?” The beagle’s tail started wagging. Luke got up and grabbed the leash.

They went outside and walked for an hour. The entire time they were out, he never once thought about anything he’d said on the couch. He simply enjoyed the sun setting on the horizon and the fresh air. He was able to forget about time altogether. He enjoyed the calm and quiet of the twilight hours. He let himself forget about everything, despite knowing it would all be there again tomorrow.

 

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett. This is the first (and so far only) book I’ve read by Terry Pratchett. He is best known for his Discworld series and has fans from all over the world. If you are a fan of (or looking for) comedic fantasy, Terry will not disappoint you. I have many of his books on my “to be read” list and will eventually get around to them.

A Slip of the Keyboard is a collection of nonfiction, in which he covers many subjects and tells several stories. One of which details Neil Gaiman and himself misjudging a distance to a radio station they were scheduled to interview with, and their decision to walk resulted in them being hours late and effectively banned from that station.

He also covers several other topics. Some serious, some hilarious, but all of them genuine and endearing. He discusses in depth the illness that would eventually take his life, and the state of the medical field in England. He voices his opinions and I was glad to have listened. The world is oftentimes a chaotic mess and I wish Terry was still in the it to add his unique, fun chaos to the mix. It saddens me that I only discovered his writing (and him as a person) after he was gone, but he has left behind many “notes” for us to continue gleaning wisdom and humor from him.

Terry mentions in this collection that he was most proud of his book Nation, so of course that will be the next book I read by him. The Discworld series includes (I believe) over forty books. Not all of them are sequential or follow the same characters, but they all take place in the same universe and there is plenty of material should you wish to embark on such a journey.

I recommend you give any of Terry’s books a try. I still have many to look forward to myself. You can start with A Slip of the Keyboard like I did, or you can start with a work of fiction. As always, you have a choice.

Happy Reading.

A New Life

Humans often speculated the meaning of their existence. They knew life on the planet had begun in the form of plants and fish and smaller mammals. Life itself was pondered by many humans because it seemed near unfathomable that they were the result of extreme chance; of being on a planet that held an atmosphere and was the perfect distance from a star whose orbit did not deviate enough to prevent conditions that encouraged life. This chance, however great, created a rift between many, causing humanity to segregate itself into different sects of ideology. However, all of them were correct in a way that neither could comprehend. They were allowed to grow and populate the planet because the planet itself allowed it. The human population grew and grew until it reached ten billion inhabitants. It was around this time when the tremors began.

Earthquakes became consistent. After the first year, when the earthquakes grew in frequency, many governments dedicated teams to study the cause of them and provide insight into the changes the planet was undergoing. Arthur Denali was recruited by the Chilean government to study the earthquakes and provide insight as to how they might alter the nations landscape. The main concern centered on how the quakes would impact the mining industry.

Arthur took the job for several reasons. He had been studying earthquakes for over ten years and knew his field, he needed the money to support his two young boys who were both starting their teenage years, and he was genuinely interested in what was causing the quakes themselves. He was certain there was a cause, and he wanted to find it first.

Leon and Christian were on the couch watching the game when Arthur walked in. They were sharing a bag of chips and never tore their eyes away from the screen.

“Did either of you make dinner?” he asked. Leon shook his head without looking away from the game. Arthur sighed, put his bag in a chair, and turned on the stove. He grabbed a pot and a pan and made a simple pasta with meat sauce. When he was done, he divvied the meal onto three plates and took two of them to the boys.

“The last one to finish does the dishes,” he said before returning and grabbing his own plate. They tore into the food, occasionally eyeing each other’s plates as they raced to finish. Arthur watched the game while he slowly picked at his own plate.

“Done!” Leon yelled and slammed the plate down on the coffee table.

“There are still noodles on your plate,” Christian objected.

Arthur pretended to look over their shoulders before saying, “Sorry Christian. He finished first.”

“But…” The younger boy began and turned toward Arthur with sad eyes that were growing too old to draw much empathy.

“You can wait until after the match,” Arthur said. Christian smiled and turned back to the game.

Arthur finished his plate then grabbed his computer before sitting down in the chair next to his boys. He opened the laptop and logged into an international database established to share information regarding the earthquakes and speculate the cause of their increasing frequency. Arthur primarily logged in as an observer. He rarely posted more than the day’s readings at his location. He scanned the readings from other parts of the world hoping something would come together from the information. After gathering what he could, he set up his seismometer and settled in to watch the final twenty minutes of the match with his boys.


 

The rumbling woke him. He sat up and looked around for Leon and Christian. The later opened the door of their room letting Arthur breathe before turning his attention to the seismometer. This quake had been greater than any previous ones. It stopped after nearly three minutes. He scanned the readout. It had maxed at 6.0. As he began his calculations to predict the next cycle, he was surprised by another quake. This one was softer, measuring in at 5.4, but also lasted nearly three minutes.

“What’s happening dad?” Leon asked, more curious than scared.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. The quakes had never been back-to-back before. They were consistent but spread out over several hours. If his new calculations using the previous time-frame and the new data was correct, the next one would come in roughly four hours. He packed his equipment and loaded the car. He returned and gave the boys his usual speech. Go to school, do your homework, clean up the kitchen, and try to make dinner that was more than simply chips. When he left, another quake occurred. He kept his eye on his watch as he waited until it was over. It lasted three minutes and had happened only forty-five minutes after the previous two. A second quake followed, just like earlier, and his phone rang as the trembles subsided.

“Yeah,” Arthur answered. “I know, I know….Yeah….It may be too soon to tell….Tell you what,” he pulled out his notes from the morning quakes and looked them over, “If we get another round….Yeah, two in a row….Yeah….If we get two more in the next hour, let’s call it….Okay?….Okay.” He hung up.

“Everything all right dad?” Christian called from the doorway.

“We will see,” he saw the concern in Christian’s face, “Go pack a bag and tell your brother to do the same. You two can come with me today.”

“What about school?” Christian said, trying to act genuinely concerned about missing his education and failing miserably.

“You can skip today.”

Before Arthur finished his sentence, Christian had bolted back inside the house. Arthur packed extra provisions for a worst-case scenario that he couldn’t shake out of his head.

The boys had loaded into the car and Arthur was driving toward the office when the quakes began again. Again, there were two, lasting three minutes each with a five-minute pause between them. Arthur’s phone rang.

“Yeah…Yeah…Okay.” He spun the car around and headed toward the ocean. After an hour, they were safe from any areas at risk of landslides. His phone rang again and he answered it. “Denali……what do you mean underground?………..Okay, okay, send me the coordinates and I’ll meet you there.” He dropped the phone in the cup holder and adjusted his course yet again.

“Dad…” Leon started from the backseat.

“Everything’s okay,” Arthur cut him off. He was too panicked to worry about lying and he didn’t want either of them to know how worried he really was.

They drove for hours. The rumbling of the quakes stayed consistent but increased in magnitude. Arthur had Leon pull out the seismometer and place it in the empty seat. Taking readings in a moving car skewed the results, but it provided Arthur with the information he needed. The quakes were increasing gradually. The last one had been a 6.8 give or take a few decimals for the road conditions.

The steady frequency of the quakes gave people an expectation and allowed their fears to subside a little. Many had gathered out in open areas. Only a few had packed up and gotten on the road. Arthur weaved through them on his way to a place he’d never been. The sky was growing dim when they pulled up to the gates. It was still midday, but dark clouds filled the sky. Two guards approached Arthur and asked for identification. He provided his badge the government had issued him and they let them through. He drove into a hangar and they were all then escorted into a small transit car that took them below into a bunker.

Arthur was greeted by his boss who walked him down a hall. They passed a series of glass windows and Arthur saw the president sitting with a group of men in heated discussion.

“Was that-”

“The president? Yeah. They brought him here this morning after the second set. I need you to give me updated after each grouping. They have been consistent so far. Your boys can stay with you. In fact, they won’t be allowed outside the room.” Arthur was led into a room full of equipment. “Use this phone,” his boss showed him an old landline receiver, ” to contact me.” Then he left.

Arthur surveyed the room and rolled up his sleeves. “Leon. Look after Christian. Don’t leave this room.” He bent down and placed a hand on each boy’s shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He pulled them in for a hug.

He ran from machine to machine for the next several hours, calling his boss after every set of quakes. The quakes were growing stronger. The last set registered at 7.6. They were also beginning to grow in frequency. Arthur predicted the next wave would come in seventeen minutes. His boss came in twenty-three minutes later when the next wave subsided.

“Arthur,” he said, “It’s over.”

“What’s over?”

“Everything. The president called a national emergency four hours ago urging everyone to get below ground. The first volcano erupted two hours ago, since then-”

“Volcano?”

“Yeah. There have been hundreds, maybe even thousands, erupting all over the globe. Spewing ash and gas into the atmosphere. No one can survive outside. The earth is cracking to pieces and-”

“Hold on,” Arthur stopped him. He grabbed papers from all around him, scanning the information, processing the meaning within it. He was on the edge of understanding what it all meant. Then it clicked. “Oh my god,” he whispered. He looked at his boys.

“Arthur! What is it?” his boss nearly yelled as the next set of quakes began.

“They’re not earthquakes,” Arthur said, “They’re heartbeats.”