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.
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
Smith, come back here immediately!" he called.
"It's too dangerous to be that far away from the camp."
what's going on? I expected
the winds to get stronger as the star came closer," Don said,
coming up behind him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
he whispered. "I hear
Are you all right?" Don
was shouting in his anxiety.
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.
an intense and very long pause before Don said anything else.
"How bad is it?"
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.
finish talking with you… I want to talk to Maureen,” he said after a
pause to slowly gather air into his tortured lungs.
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.
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
hear you," came John's weak voice.
"Listen to me, Don."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
please make Will understand… this was an accident.
Just an accident.”
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.
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,"
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.
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
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