It's been one of the hardest things I've had to deal with in life yet, my wife and two daughters, our mortgage all dependent on my ability to be successful in education. I feel like I've been on a daily hormone drip of stress for the past two months (years, if I take the long view of dealing with narrow-minded and misguided administrations).
So how am I dealing with it? In part, by escaping into science fiction. What this apparently means for this blog, is that you'll now be treated to (probably) regular installments of my own fictional narrative: Planet Max. Well, for lack of a better title. In many ways, the character mirrors myself, his crash landing and feelings of doom and alienation a reasonable analogy for my own current circumstances. Max doesn't however, have a wife and two daughters he loves and adores. Nor does he have a roof over his head, and a cup of coffee in the morning. But, then again, he doesn't have to work at a continuation school, with a boss who has fired him him, and for whom he must serve out 2 more undignified months.
What a galaxy.
PLANET MAX, P.1
Max took off his helmet and looked around. The land here was lush and muggy. A subtle din of water and life mingled in the night air. He unlocked his gear and took one last look at the ship. The distress beacon was operating dutifully, alternating green to red. A rescue party would see it if they came. But Max knew the likelihood of that.
His pack was digging in to his lower back and if he didn’t stop soon it would blister. How long had it been since he’d worn one? He thought of Sarah, Tom and Alejandro – the old gang. They’d gotten lost once and ended up huddled together in a cave for two days straight, waiting out a hurricane on a training moon. Tom kept trying to convince them to go with him and explore the cave deeper. He was always like that. Max remembered Tom in grade school, hurriedly finishing his lunch so he could go show off in the gymnasium. He was always jealous of that part of Tom, how he was always up for anything, how others would admire him and give him such devoted attention. Max was never like that. He was cautious and thoughtful. Too much “in his head”, Sarah would say. He cursed this tendency in himself. But there was a quiet pride in it, one that he grew to appreciate. He came to understand that the respect and admiration of others would have to be based on something stronger, if it were to be counted on in times of adversity. It no doubt saved them in that cave. They never did go exploring with Tom. And when the storm cleared, they made it back to camp safely, cold, tired and hungry, but alive.
The sun was going to rise soon. Max would be able to get a better picture of the landscape. He had spotted a suitably elevated rock formation earlier that looked accessible, if he could just make his way around this marsh. In the morning light he could make out more of the life around him, although the mist was still heavy. He knew nothing about this planet. It wasn’t on any of his charts - just one of thousands of suggested emergency planets listed in the survival index for this galaxy. So far it was quite habitable. The air was oxygen rich, the temperature moderate and tropical at this latitude. Before the crash he had re-routed all power to stabilization and had no way to test abiotic conditions below. But so far the index was spot-on. His primary goal was going to be to find intelligent life, access a communications relay and send word home. But for now he just had to survive.
He made his way through a field of large, leafy ferns. The ground beneath him was a soft and spongy layer of thick peat moss, and he had to be careful not to step into the occasional weak spot and find himself knee-deep in muck. In the distant sky a purple moon was receding. He wondered how many moons this planet had. People long ago used to question whether there was life beyond earth. How small the universe must have seemed, limited as they were to their tiny orbit around the sun. Their telescopes brought them only the dimmest portraits of other galaxies and star systems.
Max paused and took a swig of water. His back was really killing him now. The skin was surely broken and he’d have to repair it soon. He was nearing the edge of the marsh and he would be climbing the hillside shortly. Still no signs of life apart from swamp bugs and vegetation. He reminded himself to use one of the immune booster packs in his kit. Who knew what kind of parasites and micro-organisms were swarming around him? All in all, though, he felt rather pleasant. Things could have been a lot worse.
The air up here was drier and his clothes were becoming less damp. An hour or so and he would be at the summit. He was following what seemed suspiciously like a trail. He had first noticed it at the edge of the marsh, what appeared to be a path up and out of the thick fern foliage towards the rocky cliffs. If it was a trail, it hadn’t been used in a while. But it seemed to lead confidently enough around the sheer rock walls, slowly winding higher and higher up the hillside. The morning sun was bright in the Eastern sky now and Max was glad to be hugging so close to the cliffs to still be in its shadow. A trail would have to have been made by a larger animal, possibly intelligent. Although he still hadn’t seen any evidence of it. The trail was too rocky to make out tracks, and unless the droppings were fresh, the rain would have washed any away.
Max felt a misty breeze wash over him and heard its echo. He noticed then another sound, a deep roar, like that of rushing water. He checked his footing and carefully maneuvered around a large boulder. Before him stood a majestic waterfall, pouring forth from an opposing cliff face. At least one hundred feet tall, its source meandered down into a cove carved into the mountainside as if in secret, before plunging down into a dark pool below. Max sat back on a rock and took a breath.
Alone again, like always. This time he just happened to be sitting across from a waterfall on a strange planet. But he could have been anywhere. Sitting in a café, quietly reading the news as a group of friends shared a laugh. Taking the long way home on his grav-cycle after work. Wandering a mall, riding escalators to and from boutiques filled with things he didn’t care about. Catching the double-feature in a darkened theater. Speeding through the galaxy, surrounded by stars.
Drops of water fell slowly. The sunlight bent in the mist, radiating rainbows. Maybe this would be a fitting final chapter to his life. The lonely man, alone at last on an empty planet. He wasn’t really alone, though, was he? He had his thoughts. He always had his thoughts. They would engulf him like an ocean, filling his mind with weeds and creatures. So much water, of which he was king. Poseidon must have been lonely too.
The bio-ointment penetrated his epidermis and began at once to stimulate new cell growth. A few more minutes and the repair would be complete. He couldn’t see everything from up here but he could see a bit. And there were no signs of intelligent life. Nothing but marshland and canopy for as far as he could see. When he reached the summit he would be able to see the other side of the hill. Maybe there would be something there.
The path had become much more delicate, and Max struggled to keep his footing. In places the trail had eroded completely, leaving nothing but sparse granite juts on which to step. But he managed to keep his balance and avoid a fatal slip over the edge. He had circled around to the waterfall now and was mere feet from its source. Large trees extended their branches out high above, their roots winding down over the edge of the cliff, probing into what wet, rocky soil they could find. He grabbed hold of one and hoisted himself up, hand over hand to the top.
He was standing at the edge of a thick forest. The waterfall had been pouring from a small stream that seemed to disappear into the undergrowth. Max had hoped to find a view of the other side of the hill, but he hadn’t expected such an extensive plateau. Looking back across the waterfall he saw the mouth of the cove, how the path he had taken wound around and back into the cliff-side, the marsh beyond that, his ship somewhere out there. His eyes searched for the beacon but the morning mist had yet to burn away. He would have to press on. His best bet was to follow the stream up into the forest, hopefully reaching higher ground and getting a look at what lay to the East, on other side of this plateau. He had enough food and liquids to last a week if he needed to. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. He had been alone before, but never this alone.