by Mark Gordon
with Colin Barton
Illustrated by David Gordon
1. The Alien
I’m a contrarian. Everyone wants to be “in.” I want out. But being fashionable parades as truth these days. It’s just a never-ending cycle of jealousy and manufactured opinion. I don’t get it.
My attitude has it costs. I’ve been called “weird,” “cocky,” and a lot worse. I been dismissed with the usual: “He’s just going through a defiant phase.” Maybe they’re right, but I’ll take my chances. In my two decades of existence, I’ve been learning to trust my gut. This way I can’t blame anyone else when I get stuck. I’ve been lucky too. I am quick on my feet and have a strong will. Hopefully I will become as skilled as this escape artist named Houdini who deliberately put himself in harm's way. I remember something he said: "My brain is the key that sets me free."
But I am not there yet. Not close. I am lost in the middle of a storm, climbing a mountain on an unknown planet in search of an observatory. For what purpose? I wish I knew.
2. Nature Rules
This is my fourth day with little, or no, rest. I’ve been told that I’m in a race against time. If I don’t find this observatory before the sun rises, I will have failed.
Even if I do succeed, I do not know what I will find there, or who I am to see. What’s worse is my failure may trigger a destructive chain of events that I don't begin to understand.
An intense surge of wind and rain rocks me back and forth. I’m starting to feel like a pinball in an arcade game.
The gusts are vicious. They’re snapping, even uprooting, some of the trees. All that is alive, and is able to move, has taken shelter long ago.
I do not have that luxury.
After another round of being pounded, the wind calms. But a quick drop in temperature brings another challenge. I am drenched and muddied. My body starts to shiver. Buttoning up my poncho and shedding the excess water from my hat doesn’t help.
Yet, this isn’t my main concern. With the weather clearing, my thoughts turn to Zard. He will soon be able to track me again. I push on. I must pick up the pace. I swear he will not catch me.
3. X’s and O’s
I reach the edge of the Pass. I’ve been warned of the dangers to cross even in good conditions. Trolls control this territory demanding tribute or worse. But luck is with me. The Pass appears deserted.
A flimsy rope bridge connects the forest lowlands to the mountains. It's obvious that the observatory must be around here. I just hope that I’ve chosen the right range. I feel the weight of time running out.
As I cross the “bridge,” I realize I could never have made it during the storm. It’s swaying dangerously back and forth even now. Once I make it across, a steep, narrow trail is waiting. I am very much aware of the near vertical drop on my left . The slick, loose rocks make the footing slippery at best. My progress slows.
The wind returns.
“Can’t catch a break!”
I scold myself knowing that complaining will not help.
“Just focus on the next step. That’s all you need to do.”
That thought works for a few minutes. I struggle with images of hurtling into the abyss never to deliver the “package” I'm carrying. For the umpteenth time, my hand reflexively checks my inner jacket pocket to see if the book is still there.
“Why did I have to be the one stuck with this thing? I didn’t ask to deliver this book.”
My moment of self-pity turns costly.
I lose focus where my foot needs to placed next. With my hand still inside my pocket, I slip and lose my balance. I need both hands to break the momentum, but can’t recover quickly enough. I start sliding off the trail. Descending into a free fall is my fate. I futilely attempt to grab onto anything solid. I force myself not to look down, but it doesn’t much matter now. Maybe I can twist my body and grab onto something. Anything.
My foot bangs into an outcropping of sharp, wet rocks, but I’m going too fast and slip off the slick surface. I continue downwards again.
My shoulder is feeling the brunt of the collision. The initial shock spreads to my neck and arm, producing a jolt of pain unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But I’ve got a much bigger problem to handle.
4. Is This It ?
I start to bounce off overhanging tree roots, branches and limbs. As I am getting whacked, I desperately try to hook onto a branch that will support me. No go – I’m moving too fast, and everything is feels like glass. The trees on the edge of the mountain have massively long roots dangling in the air. I grab at some, but they tear from its moorings.
I desperately try again. This time grabbing onto enough to jerk myself to a stop.
It takes a couple minutes before I can settle down. I am feeling relieved and thankful. Yet my life is dangling by a few threads or, more accurately, roots. Slowly, carefully, I start pulling myself upward to safety. The pain in my shoulder slows my progress. Exhausted, I finally make finally it to a horizontal. I remain on all fours with head and body sagging. I whisper to myself how lucky I am to have beaten back certain death.
I never imagined that being drenched, exhausted, and in throbbing pain could feel this good. But, as my adrenaline decreases, the agony in my shoulder increases. I cannot stop to celebrate. I’ve got to get back on track. I grit my teeth and continue.
After barely managing a treacherous bend, I spot a cave entrance. The possibility to dry out and rest, even for an hour, has been only a dream. I quickly head there.
Yet, I proceed with caution. An animal of any significant size – and appetite--may be inside the cave.
I enter slowly with my flashlight on. I scan the walls, floor, and ceiling. No one, or nothing, here. A little clammy but dry enough.
I lay out my bedding and then build a small fire with some kindling and half-burnt logs left by a previous visitor. I take off my soggy clothes, so they can dry out. Finally, I relax.
5. The Book
I check to see if the book is still dry. It is. For the first time since I started over four days ago, I have the chance to inspect it more closely.
“What’s this book about anyways? If I’m risking my life for it, don’t I have the right to at least see what’s in it?”
It’s true that I was never given permission to do so. Then again, I rationalize, that I was never told not to open it either.
“If I can discover a clue to make this mission easier, wouldn’t it make sense to be as knowledgeable possible?
I unwrap it carefully.
I start to open it to a random page. After reading just one sentence, I stop cold.
TT ( ) Did you ever shoot a rubber band out a window to land it on a desired object?
“This is what I’ve been risking my life for? Is someone playing a big, cosmic joke on me?”
Then I burst into uncontrollable laughter that’s so intense that tears begin to run down my cheeks.
How ironic! Shooting rubber bands out my bedroom window was something that I did as a kid. I was often sent to my room for violating some silly rule.
Once in high school, I was ordered upstairs because someone ratted me out to my Mom. My friend and I were at an overpriced supermarket when he jumped into a grocery cart. Without hesitation, I started to steer him through the aisles at a “Watch out!” pace.
My friend, who’s a big guy, barely fit into the cart. Silly as that was, the best part was his beaming smile at everyone we passed. Any adventurous eight-year old would have been proud. The only problem was that he was twice that age and three times the size. But no one dared look back at him.
We were violating an adult rule: “Be predictably boring and do not invade my privacy when I am in the sacred act of choosing something to eat.”
Only one human, a woman who stocked the hot food bar, dared to look us in the eye. She gave us a big, wide-eyed smile of encouragement mixed with a bit of admiration.
Later that day my Mom was told by a friend who witnessed the escapade. I was sent to my room. I started shooting rubber bands out the window.
I turn to another page.
^x ( ) What surprise would you like to repeat in your life?
>« ( ) You are the one to tell the world that extraterrestrials have made contact, but you’re not sure yet whether they’re friendly or not. What would you say?
\∆ ( ) What song can lighten your mood when you are starting to feel grouchy?
∆/ ( ) This image was photographed. Can you guess how it was created? See below.
It is one string vibrating with a multiple colored, rotating light shining on it.
I start to fade…
6. A Break
I awaken with the book laying open on my chest.
“Better get moving. Dawn is the deadline.”
I pack up everything and head out. The nap has helped. I feel a bit stronger.It is still raining but not as intensely. I estimate that I have about six hours remaining. As I get up, I stumble and nearly fall again. The unexpected movement jerks my body irritating the nerves of my shoulder. Another intense shot of pain. And a reminder of how close I was to losing my life.
I need to change this energy. I start grunting repetitively with every other step. Each grunt is louder than the last. But the pain from my stumble keeps triggering a sense of being out of control. My thoughts refuse to settle. Instead they are acting like a pack of starving, wild dogs.
“I did not ask for this! I do not accept this destiny! I will take revenge on those who put me here!”
My rant shocks me. I sound like my former mentor whenever he lost his cool—which was often. It’s why I left him.
I remind myself: “I am still here. I can accomplish this mission. But time is ticking. Focus!”
As I start to move again, I spontaneously start singing a childhood song:
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
I feel better. I would have never guessed that this simple song would have been the answer to the music question that I read in the book last night. I continue to repeat it until I am a rock’s throw from the mountain peak.
Although the rain has decreased, lightning bolts are repeatedly hitting the summit. I am in awe of nature’s raw power. Deafening booms of thunder only add to this ultimate light show. I’m being allowed to witness nature at a most magical and dangerous moment. Somehow I feel no fear. In fact, I experience a surge of great hope.
After the storm moves on, I move to the top. A feeling of euphoria overpowers me. There, it is. YES!
I’m filled with a childlike joy. How many times have I experienced this kind of happiness as a kid?
I whisper to myself with conviction, “Game On!
But my joy is short lived as I detect the faint sound of
an engine somewhere in the distance. Zard is coming. I need to push on.