Divided Planet

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two- Separation

 

The next morning, an ominous silence woke John and he listened a minute for the wind which had been their almost constant companion for the past three days.  Moving carefully, so as to not disturb Maureen, he pulled on his parka and slipped out the entrance of the shelter.  High clouds scudded across the steely sky like greyhounds, but only a slight breeze greeted him as he walked a short distance from the shelter.

About a quarter of a kilometer away he saw Will and Smith.  It appeared that Will was doing some kind of experiment and irritation flared inside him at the blatant disregard for his son's safety that Smith was exhibiting.  Quickly squelching his anger, John realized that Smith almost always disregarded the safety of anyone other than himself.  That was simply his nature.  Most of the time, he didn’t even see the danger to himself until almost too late and then someone else had to risk himself to save him.   "Will, Smith, come back here immediately!" he called.  "It's too dangerous to be that far away from the camp."

"John, what's going on?  I expected the winds to get stronger as the star came closer," Don said, coming up behind him.  

"I really don't have an explanation, but I do know that we need to get Will and Dr. Smith back here.  We need to stay together," John said anxiously.   As if to corroborate his fears, the ground began to shake, bringing the two men to their knees.  Fear for his son spurred John to his feet and he ran toward Will as fast as the tremors would allow him.  Don was on his heels.  

A previously unseen crevasse came into his view and to the professor's horror, Will and his equipment began sliding toward the edge. The boy's eyes were bright with fear, but he was not panicking.  He was attempting to use a piece of equipment to anchor himself.  Smith had clawed his way from the edge.  Getting to his feet, he ran toward the shelter, screaming in fear.   As usual, the older man had not even turned to see if his companion was in need of help.  "Stay here and be ready to help me, Don," John shouted over his shoulder to the younger man as the rumbling continued. 

Seeing Will slide inexorably toward the cliff gave John a speed he was unaware that he had.  The boy was only five meters from the edge and his shoes were giving him no traction.  John, thankfully, was in all-terrain boots and so far he was having no problem with the icy surface.  That soon changed, however.  Just as he reached his son, another aftershock hit, and feeling his own feet begin to slip, he shoved Will as hard as he could toward Don.  In doing so, he lost any balance he had left, and the reaction to the shove that saved Will carried him over the edge of the precipice.  

As he tried to right himself to make the best landing he could, he heard the anguished cry of his son following him down the crevasse.  At first it was a sloping drop, but it quickly became more perpendicular, and he descended with what seemed to be terrifying speed.   John tried to grab at anything he could to slow his fall, but with the recent earthquakes and aftershocks, loose rocks lined the entire route.  After what seemed an interminable amount of time, John slid over a protruding incline and then hit a ledge, feet first.  A brief, intensely excruciating flare of pain running up his back was cut off abruptly, although the sound of breaking, grinding bones was not.  He fell another ten meters or so to another ledge where this time the pain was not brief.  He bit off the scream that had begun on the ledge above as he tried to gain some measure of control over the horrific messages his body was sending him.

His journey into the depths of this personal hell ended against a boulder, where he lay face down, one arm protecting his head.  A lancing of agonizing pain down his right side told him that he had probably broken his right arm in several places and a few ribs as well.  Gasping for air, John used his left arm to push himself over on his back.  That was better, easier to draw the bitterly cold air into his lungs.  Then a racking cough sent him into semi-consciousness, and John realized that he could only breath shallowly to avoid the intense pain and coughing spasms. 

There was no feeling in his legs, but he was still dangerously close to the edge of the ledge on which he had landed.  Grabbing onto a protruding rock with his good hand, John slowly dragged himself closer to the wall of the crevasse.   Even though the distance was no more than a meter, it was an excruciatingly long journey punctuated by frequent rests to gather enough air into his lungs to continue.  As he pulled himself into a sitting position, however, his back against the rocky wall, John found it easier to breath.    

Something began buzzing incessantly like an angry hornet and he mentally cursed this addition to his misery.  He sat quietly for a few minutes, trying to ignore the sounds of the bitterly cold, softly moaning wind above him, the annoying buzzing sound and the light pattering of gravel shifting and cascading down the slope around him.  Pain precluded any serious thought, but as he tried to consider his options, he still came up with only one conclusion.  The simple fact was that he was dying, and he would prefer that it happen here on this remote ledge instead of in front of his wife and children.  

Finally, John recognized the buzzing as the communications remote and fumbled in the pocket of his parka, eventually managing to get it out.  Wheezing softly, he paused to gather his strength before answering.  He knew he couldn't wait too long, or else Don would try to get down to him, and there was no reason for Don to risk his life trying to climb down an unstable slope on a useless mission.

"Don," he whispered.  "I hear you."  

"John!  Are you all right?"  Don was shouting in his anxiety.  

John wondered what to say, how to say it and finally decided on the simple truth.  “No,” he said, his explanation cut short when a spasm of pain speared through his chest, causing him to cry out in agony.   Oh, God, he pleaded silently, Please help me endure this.  He panted shallowly, trying to take control of the pain, trying to get air, trying to stay conscious.   

There was an intense and very long pause before Don said anything else.   "How bad is it?"  

"Bad.  Broken ribs, broken legs," he paused to catch his breath.  "Broken arm; everything seems broken.   Can't feel it all, thank God," he murmured fervently.   Another pause.   John felt his consciousness slipping in and out, and he struggled to stay awake to finish this conversation.  He was afraid, so afraid that he wouldn't be able to say everything he wanted to say, put everything that he felt into words.   He felt the cold of the rock cliff seeping through his parka and onto his back, causing him to shiver, adding to his misery.  

“When I finish talking with you… I want to talk to Maureen,” he said after a pause to slowly gather air into his tortured lungs.   

"What do you mean, 'can't feel everything'?" Don asked, still dazed at the quickness of the events.   He was standing as close to the edge of the cliff as he dared, Maureen at his side, trying vainly to hold back the tears that coursed down her face, half freezing on her cheeks.  She could feel the distant eyes of her children on her back as they gazed through the windows of the chariot where she had sent them after the accident.  She looked at the rock-strewn ledge and wished she could be down there with him, to hold his hand, hold him close to her, try to ease his suffering.  Her longing to be with him this one last time was an ache enlarging in her chest, threatening to choke her with its desire.  It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.  

"John, can you hear me?"  Don asked frantically.  Although he had been trained to lead, he had always thought of John as the stabilizing force of this expedition and felt that a part of his soul was being ripped out of his body.  He knew what John was telling him, but there still had to be something he could do.  

"I hear you," came John's weak voice.  "Listen to me, Don."  

"No, John, I'll be down in a few minutes and we'll get you up.  Just hang on." Don started back to the Chariot for supplies when John's next words made him pause.  

"Don, stop.  Listen.  I’m still leader....” The connection temporarily cut off and Don waited unmoving.  Maureen's hands held onto his arm with a steel-hard grip.  Another trembling of the earth caused them both to stumble, and they retreated a few more meters back from the edge.  

"You felt that?  Too dangerous!  Fell at least seventy meters.  Take too long. Do no good."   There was a very long pause.  There was no argument that Don could give.  Another slight aftershock punctuated John's comments.  

"I want you… get my family… to safety," John continued.  "Get them home.  Please… take care of them." There was a long pause and Maureen and Don could hear John trying to gather enough air to say more.   His wheezing sounded loud and painful through the communicator and Don felt a personal agony at his own helplessness.  "You’ve been like a brother, Don….   I turn command of the expedition… over to you now."  There was another pause.  "Marry Judy.  It's… it’s what you both want," John said softly, with great emotion.  There was another, much longer pause.   "Get Maureen...."  

Maureen caught a sob in her throat.  The implications of the past ten long minutes were sinking deep into her heart.  She didn't want to face the future alone, the thought terrified her.  A brief moan escaped her before she could stop it.  

"Maureen?  Are you there?”  

"Yes, John, I’m here.   I wish I was down there with you, though." Maureen said as evenly as she could, realizing that she had to be strong enough to make her husband, her lover of the past twenty plus years feel less anguished at their separation.  Also, if she became too emotional, she wouldn't be able to convey the inner thoughts of her heart.  

"No, you don’t, Mo," he said, using the nickname she had carried with her through college.  "I love you."  There was a very long pause.  Just as she was about to call him, he began again.  "Tell the children… how proud I am of them.   I love them.   Tell Will not to carry this… with him.  Tell him to remember… everything we did together, not this....  Tell Judy to… marry Don.  They love each other.  I only wish… I could… have married them… myself."  John paused.  Maureen could hear him coughing, gasping and wheezing. "Penny reminds me of you… in so many ways.  Tell her she… is strong enough… to endure….   Can't talk anymore.   Too hard."

"Oh, John, I love you, too.  Don't talk; just listen.  Can you do that?"  Maureen pleaded.  As she heard him struggling for breath, Don motioned for her to cut the communications.  Irritation flared, but she could sense his urgency and she complied.  “What?” she hissed.  

“I think your children should have a moment to say good-bye to their father.   It is their right,” he said simply.   Her thoughts churned, not wanting to put them through this, but she knew he was right.  Maureen nodded and Don turned to the chariot.   Soon Judy, Penny and Will were huddled around the communicator with her.   It was brief, and very, very difficult.  The girls turned away quickly afterward, holding each other as they returned to the vehicle.  Will stood silent, listening to his father’s labored breathing, along with his reassurances.  Finally the boy whispered a quick ‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ and ran back to the chariot.  

The anguish in his children’s voices stabbed at him every bit as much as the physical torment he was feeling.  John concentrated on their voices and on his own struggle to stay conscious. It was becoming harder and harder to concentrate.   It was getting more difficult to get air into his lungs.  He felt as though he was drowning.  A wave of dizziness washed over him, and that combined with the pain was making him sick to his stomach.  Finally there was a brief silence after Will finished and left.   

“Mo… please make Will understand… this was an accident.   Just an accident.”  

"I will, dear.”  She paused for a brief moment and then continued.  “John, do you have your ring on?" he heard her ask.  He felt it snug and secure on his finger.   During most of the voyage he hadn’t worn it, since it sometimes caught on machinery, but for some reason, he had slipped it on when they left the Jupiter II this time.  

"Yes."  

"Do you remember the inscription that Ben Mitchell and his wife had engraved in their rings?  I loved it so much that you had it inscribed on our rings before the launch," she reminisced.    

She lied, he thought, smiling; she didn't want him to just listen.  But that was okay with him, too.  "Yes, Maureen," he wheezed.  Gratefully, he felt the pain beginning to fade.   The clouds were lowering overhead; they were bunching and darkening.  Another storm?   The wind that had been mostly coming to his ears through the communicator, now made it’s way down the crevasse to his location, pulling capriciously at the hood of his parka.   More evidence of the neutron star’s proximity to this planet, John thought remotely as he struggled to listen to his wife’s voice.  

" 'Together forever,' " Maureen said lovingly.  "John, always remember that we will be together forever.  I want that to be the last thing you think about."  He could hear her voice break up.   

"Forever," he murmured fervently.  Another rumbling of the earth caused a small cascade of pebbles to shower down.  "Please, get... to… safety,” he whispered.   “I . . . love . . . you….  He was falling again, but this time into the welcoming darkness of pain-free oblivion.   And his last conscious thought was of Maureen.

 

End chapter two

 

Chapter Three
Chapter One
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