(This story is 4,430 words long. Reading time is approximately 10 minutes)
Out to Sea
The Old Man came awake at first light. He groaned and dropped his legs over the side of his bed. His back and neck were still stiff, but he felt better than he had the day before. He tested his legs, they too felt a little lighter.
He was low on food, and today he would have to take the boat out to sea. The past two days he had allowed himself to slow down, to rest, and to recover. But now the sun was up, the world was awake, and it was time for the Old Man to get to work.
Slowly he made his way to the opposite side of the room. From a shelf he selected his long sleeve tshirt, his full-length trousers, and his wide-brimmed fishing hat. What he needed today was not warmth and insulation, but protection from the glare of the sun. If last night’s cloudless sky was any indication – and it almost always was – then today was likely to be a hot and windless affair.
The Old Man stepped outside of the cabin and into the coastal forest. It was barely light out, early enough that even the birds were still asleep. He made his way down a well-worn path through the trees. And as he walked, his spirits began to lift. He smiled to think that another winter had come and gone. Not that the winter was very threatening, here in sunny Southern California. But still, he had survived. Another year of fishing and gardening and splitting wood had come to pass. How many years had it been now, he wondered – fourteen, or maybe fifteen? His body had held up surprisingly well throughout the daily labors of self-preservation, and for that the Old Man was thankful.
The fact that he was alive, the fact that he was still surviving, it must mean something right? He must be here for a reason. This hope he had not abandoned, not even on the darkest and coldest of nights.
The trees began to thin and soon the Old Man could see the familiar view of the Pacific Ocean stretching off into the horizon.
Here at the end of the tree-line sat his trusty, fiberglass raft, secured fast to a tree trunk, exactly the way he had left it three days ago. He pulled away the protective tarp and tucked it away behind a tree. The contents of the boat were just as he had left them after his last trip to sea: two deep-sea fishing rods, a gaffe, a wire net, a single plastic oar, a life vest, a bottle of sunscreen, one neoprene bag full of first aid supplies, and another full of baits and lures. A myriad display of bungees and plastic chords lay strewn about the floorboard of the craft.
The Old Man untied the craft’s anchoring line and wrapped the coil of rope in a backpack formation around his shoulders and midsection. Slower now, he continued on down the path, dragging his raft behind him. He struggled visibly under the added weight, but it wasn’t far until his next stop. Soon he broke out of the forest and into an open field. Five seperate garden plots lay interspersed about the field.
The Old Man dropped his rope his raft. He went to the nearest garden and drew back the protective mesh covering. Inside, he was pleased to find a couple of healthy-sized broccoli heads. He broke these off and threw them into his pouch. At the second plot he found a handful of freshly pulled carrots, which he also added to his pouch. The next two plots had nothing edible to offer – it was still quire early in the year – but from the fifth and final plot he grabbed three fistfuls of spinach.
These fresh vegetables were more proof for the Old Man that fate was turning in his favor. And with any luck, by the evening he’d be able to cook some of these vegetables along with a fresh bass or halibut or even a tuna.
He picked up the anchor line and continued dragging his raft towards the sea. Once he reached the dry and fluffy sand, the going became a bit easier. The cool sand crystals felt good underneath his feet. There was a slight breeze coming across the shore. The dry sand eventually gave way to a wet, mud like consistency.
The Old Man came to a halt at the edge of the crashing waves. He knelt to his knees in the sand, and began searching meticulously over the contents of the craft: he re-arrranged items here and there, tied down loose bits, sorted items into dry-bags, coiled bags of rope, inspected the lines on the fishing rods – testing the weight and integrity of each one. Over everything he lashed a complicated network of bungee chords.
When everything was ready, the Old Man fished a carrot out of the food bag. He walked into the surf, letting the waves roll over his shins and ankles. He rinsed the carrot in the salt water and then dried it on his sleeve. There was no telling how long he might be out today. Some days he could fill his nets before noon; some days he could return empty-handed. It seemed to him that these days, more of the latter seemed to be happening. Was he really getting that much slower and older – or did he just feel older? He stood staring out to sea, chewing on his carrot and flexing his toes in the sand.
And that’s when he saw it – faint and distant at first, but slowly and surely growing larger.
His first thought was maybe it’s an airplane – but that was impossible. Next he thought maybe it was a meteor. It was not flying, or floating; no, it was falling.
The Old Man lost his grip on his carrot; it fell to the shallow water with a plunk. He stood staring at the sky in a daze of dumb wonder.
It wasn’t a rock, was it? It was too… perfectly shaped. He squinted his eyes; the object was silver and shaped like a triangle or a teardrop. Could it really be some sort of ship, or some sort of space craft? It was impossible. Yet there it was, arcing it’s way across the otherwise blue and empty sky.
Suddenly a long tail came streaming out from behind the object. At the end of the long tail were three colored bulbs. The colored bulbs spread, or rather, they opened, and the hurtling object immediately shifted it’s direction and momentum. Soon, the colored cones were fully opened and the silver object hung underneath them, at the focal point of the three long…parachutes.
“Dear God,” said the Old Man.
He ran back to the raft and began searching through his gear. Bags and bungees went flying out behind him. Finally he produced a pair of binoculars from the mix. He tried hard to slow his labored breathing and focus the binoculars on the mysterious silver object in the sky.
First the colored parachutes came into view. One of the three parachutes had the letters “NASA” written boldly across it’s edge. And underneath them hung the silver metal teardrop. It was a capsule, all right, and it was coming in his direction.
The Old Man dropped his binoculars and took of running. He went back toward the cabin, in the direction that he had just come.
His raft and gear sat resting at the edge of the surf. For now, it seemed, his fishing trip was going to have to wait.
The Old Man had been hiking at running at intervals for over three hours. He was headed south down the coast, in the direction he best guessed that the ship had gone. There was no telling how close to the shore it would fall. For all he knew, the ship could land miles out to sea. If there were people inside expecting a rescue, then those people were going to be sorely disappointed.
When the sun was high overhead, the Old Man came around the corner of a long bend in the coast line. He dropped his pack to the sand and wiped his sweaty face with his shirt. He brought the binoculars to his eyes and peered down the coast line.
Far out to sea he spotted the capsule. Some sort of airbag had been deployed around the perimeter of the capsule, and it was now bobbing and floating in the sea just as regular as you like, just as if it had always belonged there.
But what the Old Man saw next is what really took his breath away. Two hundred yards out from the capsule, and still a good kilometer away from land, was a lifeboat. There were three people on the lifeboat, and they were paddling toward the shore.
Along with shock and excitement, a little bit of fear began to creep into the Old Man’s heart. After 15 years of surviving alone, the Old Man knew what to expect from his gardens, from the weather and from the patterns of the sea. But when it came to other people, he felt wholly out of touch and unprepared.
He still had a long way to go down the coast. But just to be safe, he left the shore and made his way inland to the forest, so that now he moved beneath the cover of the trees.
Allison Beck stepped out of the raft and into the shallow water. “Never thought I’d live to do this again,” she said . Her long blonde hair billowed out behind her. She was wearing a tshirt, tights, and a red life vest.
“Wohoo!” yelled John Jameson. He was dressed just like Allison, but he was a tall, wiry man and his lifevest looked child-sized on his frame. He leaped out of the boat and landed in the surf, “Permission to come aboard sir, haha, oh God I can’t believe it. We made it!”
The third member of the lifeboat was one Commander Stone. He came ashore last and dragged the lifeboat behind him. From the lifeboat he pulled two black duffel bags. He appeared to be in good health as well, the same as the other two, although he did not seem to share their enthusiasm for the moment. On his face was the look of a man who had a decision to make, one where neither option seemed promising.
John was busy running around and kneeling in the sand to kiss the ground. Allison wandered around with her head on a swivel, marveling at her new view of the planet she called home.
“I don’t get it,” she said finally, “I don’t get it, Commander, where is everybody? And where the hell are we?”
Commander Stone sighed and said, “I’m not sure Allison. Once our navigation went out, upon re-entry, I lost all sense of our position. We could be anywhere.”
John came over to join them. For the first time he noticed the troubled look on his Commander’s face, he asked, “What is it, Sir?”
Commander Stone looked from Allison, to John, and back to Allison again. “You might want to sit down for this one,” he said.
Neither of them sat down. Instead, they stood eagerly awaiting information from their Commander. Allison removed her red life vest and dropped it to the sand. John did the same.
“There was a disaster,”said the Commander slowly, “While we were gone, there was a disaster here on earth.”
“What?” said Allison.
“What? Um, what kind of disaster are we talking about here?” said John. “An earthquake? A war?”
“Worse, I’m afraid,” said the Commander, “I don’t know all the details. God, I wish I knew more, but…” He sighed and looked down at the sand again.
“But what?” Allison asked.
“When we lost communications with base, a few years ago… It wasn’t because the equipment had malfunctioned..”
“What are you talking about, Commander? You told us the signal was lost.” John and Allison were thoroughly confused now.
“Like I said, I wish I knew more, but, I know that the equipment on our end was working fine. Everything was as it should be.”
Allison and John stared at their commander in disbelief, their minds racing to catch up with the new reality that confronted them.
The Commander continued, “The problem was just that, back here, on earth, well – no one was responding to us. Nobody was available to respond.”
“You mean…” Allison put her hand to her forehead, the implications slowly washing over her.
“You mean there was no-one here to talk to us!” said John, “you mean everybody was missing, or everyone was dead? What the hell are we talking about here Commander?”
Captain Stone remained calm. He had dreaded this moment for a long time, and now here it was, weighing down on all of them.
“Like I said, John, I’m not exactly sure. I wish I knew more about what happened here while we were gone. But the truth is that I’ve never had any answers. I only had assumptions. Assumptions that were passed on to me by the other three Commanders before they died. In the end, after everything happened, my primary objective became getting the three of home safe. That’s all I could focus on. Everything else was out of our control completely.”
“So why the hell didn’t you tell us earlier?” John yelled.
“You have to understand,” said Captain Stone, “you have to put yourself in my position John. I didn’t know anything. All I knew is that something was terribly wrong here on earth. And I knew, most importantly, that without our communication line to base, there was a very slim chance that we’d survive re-entry.”
Allison sat down in the sand, rubbing her temples with her fists. John stayed standing. He clenched his fists and looked out to sea.
The Commander continued, “And you both did a hell of a job. I mean, we did it, by god! We landed the capsule. We’re alive for god sakes! And that’s thanks to you both. I couldn’t have done it with anyone else. That much I’m sure of… Look, I didn’t know what we’d find once we got here. But I knew that we needed to focus. I knew that I needed you both at 100%. I knew that if we were worried, if we were distracted, or depressed, or afraid, or worse… I knew that all of our mental energy had to focus on getting home. I’m truly sorry, Pilot Beck, CMP Jameson, I am. I made the best call that I could in the moment, and I still stand by my decision. I decided that I would get us home safely. That much we have accomplished. From here on out our new mission begins. We’ll take stock and decide the how to proceed-“
“How to proceed?” John said, taking a step forward, “Our lives are over, Commander. Everything we thought we were coming home to was a lie. Everything we knew, everyone we ever loved, it’s all gone!”
“I know it’s a lot to swallow, John, but our lives are not over. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we need to stick together as a team if we’re going to have any chance going forward.”
“How can you say that?” John yelled, “How can you stand there so calmly, like nothing happened, like it’s just another ‘mission’. What else have you not told us about, by the way, are there any other bits of information that you’d like to pass on – things that we might want to know about?”
“John, please,” Allison started to say.
“No, no Allison, this is nuts – this – this is insane!” Said John. “We spent the last 8 years taking orders from you, and for what, what have we got to show for it now?”
“John, I understand you’re upset. But you need-”
John suddenly lunged forward and grabbed the two black duffle bags. He ran a few yards away, ripping both bags open and frantically searching their contents.
Allison jumped to her feet, “John, what are doing, stoppit for christ sakes!”
John found what he was looking for. He pulled a handgun from the bag and pointed the gun at it’s owner. “Listen here, Stone,” he said, ” you’re gonna tell me everything I want to know. You’re gonna answer all of my questions right now, you hear me? And no more lies OK, NO MORE FUCKING SECRETS!”
The Commander slowly raised his hands in the air. Allison backed away from the aim of the handgun, leaving the Commander alone in it’s sights.
“John,” he said, “we can talk about this. I want to talk about this, but you need to put the gun down.”
“You know, it’s funny,” said John, “I always thought it was a little suspicious – the way you tried to get me transferred to Craft 7. That would have been right around the time that you learned about the communications… silence… and the trouble here on earth. You would have known by then, right?”
Commander Stone did not answer.
“Was that your nifty little plan all along” John continued, “to get rid of me so that you and Captain Beck here would be all alone in Paradise together? Your little romantic vision of the future was only big enough for two – is that right Stone?”
The Commander took a deep breath. He said, “John, you’re not thinking straight. This is crazy. Please, put the gun down and we can-“
“So what was your plan B, Captain?” John took a step forward, brandishing the gun, “after your request for reassignment got turned down by the Admiral, what was your plan B? Use me to help land the capsule, then get rid of me after that?”
At this remark, Captain Stone’s demeanor hardened.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t appreciate, John,” he Stone, “I don’t appreciate one of my crew-members pointing a gun in my direction. This is completely and utterly-“
“Enough!” yelled John, waving the gun dangerously.
“John!” Allison screamed, “Please John, I’m upset too. We’re all confused. But please, don’t do this. We can figure it out…”
“Don’t you see what’s going on here Allison?” John looked at her and yelled, “Don’t you see how this lunatic has been – OOOMPH.”
The Commander had taken a running lunge and launched himself into John’s midsection. John had only turned his attention to Allison for a second, but a second was all the Commander needed. Allison screamed as she realized what was happening. The pistol flew out of John’s hand and into the air and the two men went crashing to the sand. Commander Stone landed on top, but John quickly rolled him to his back and took the top position. The Commander lunged and tossed John aside, and again they went rolling and tumbling.
Allison ran to grab the fallen handgun. She picked it up and held it awkwardly, as if she was afraid it might fire at any second. John was now gaining the upper hand on the Commander. He had mounted Stone and was sending down a flurry of punches from above. Stone tried in vain to protect his head with his forearms, but the blows kept on coming from all sides.
Finally John stopped. The Commander lay bloody and unmoving. in the sand. John stood up, grabbed his adversary by the collar, and began dragging him toward the water.
“Stop, John, for God’s sakes!” Allison screamed. She raised the gun and pointed it in his direction. “Stop right now, or I’ll shoot!”
John didn’t hear her, or he pretended not to. When he got knee deep in waves, he pulled the Commander to his feet. Stone’s knees buckled and he wobbled, fighting just to stay upright. John took a step back and looked at his Commander. “You knew it, you bastard,” John said, “you knew that there was only one way this could end. You knew it was either going to be me or you.”
If Allison was going to shoot, then this was her chance.
She either couldn’t or she didn’t, and John cocked his arm back to land the final blow. But at the last second, Stone ducked away from the swing. John went staggering off balance, and the Commander lunged forward. The two men went crashing into the surf.
Allison did not follow them into the water. She kept the gun pointed at the men, her hand shaking noticeably. The men were getting further out to sea. Now they were shoulder deep in the water. The Commander landed a punch that sent John sprawling backwards. As soon as John resurfaced the Commander was on top of him again.
Allison fell to her knees in the dry sand. She watched despairingly from the shore. It was getting harder and harder see who was winning or what was happening.
The sun shone brightly in the sky. There was a peaceful silence up and down the coast.
Finally a body floated to the surface to the surface of the water. Allison jumped to her feet. She grabbed two of the discarded life vests and took off running toward the water. She ran till she was waist-deep and then she dove in. First she reached the body of Commander Stone. She grabbed him by the shoulders and managed to get his head above water. She fought to get the life vest secure around each of his arms and buckled at the chest. Finally, very slowly, she begin kicking and paddling toward the shore. The Commander was not a large man, but his dead weight seemed impossible for Allison. She grabbed him by the wrists and heaved him, one lunge at a time, into shallower water.
There was no sign of John that she could see. So she dropped to her knees and began chest compressions on the Commander.
The Old Man had arrived just as the astronauts had come ashore. As excited as he had been, he had played it safe by watching from a distance.. He had heard the yelling and the arguing, had grimaced when the gun was brandished, had watched as the two men dragged each other out to sea. Silently he had noted the sad heroic efforts of the woman. He had watched as she pulled her friends from the water. He had heard the ribs breaking, the woman panting, the desperate cries, and eventually the sobbing.
Many times he had nearly come out from his hiding place. And many times he had considered simply leaving.
Now Allison sat motionless in the sand, looking out to sea, her arms crossed and wrapped around her knees. Her long blonde hair had been pulled to one side and tucked into the neck of her shirt. She heard the old man approaching from behind before she saw him. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed the handgun from where it lay in the sand.
“Hello,” said the Old Man. His voice sounded alien, even to himself.
“Who are you?” said Allison.
“My name is Bill,” he answered. When she did not reply, he added, “I’m sorry about your friends.”
“You… saw?” She asked.
“Yes. I saw your ship in the sky this morning. When I got here, the men were fighting, and I thought it best to hide.”
She considered this for a minute. ”You mean, you live here?” she asked.
“Are there… others?”
“No,” he said, “At least, I didn’t think there were.”
“My God,” said Allison. The Old Man stood still, allowing her to process yet another improbable turn of events.
“How have you survived?” she asked.
“Well,” the Old Man considered the question, “I fish. Also I have a few gardens. Most importantly, I have a cabin just a few miles north of here. I can take you there if you’d like. You could rest. And eat.”
Allison looked down at the gun in her hand, and then back to the Old Man. “And… why exactly are you helping me?” she said.
The Old Man replied, ”For the past 15 years, I’ve survived here, alone. This world is different than the one that you once knew. I have learned, in this new world, that the why questions don’t seem to matter like they once did.”
“OK…” she said slowly, “Is there a better question I should be asking?”
“Well, for starters,” said the Old Man, “you could ask yourself if you’re likely to get a better offer than the one I just gave you. You could ask yourself what your body really needs, after all you’ve been through today. And you could ask yourself, if you’re really thinking about the most pressing issues, what exactly are you going to eat tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that?”
Allison gave a weak smile. The Old Man reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t quite remember who it was.
“It’s up to you whether you want to go this alone,” he said, “but if we leave soon, we can make it back to the cabin before dark.”
Allison looked out to sea. The afternoon was deepening, the sun was glowing orange on the horizon. Far off in the distance, the silver space capsule was still floating on the waves.
“OK,” said Allison. “I’ll take you up on your offer.”
“OK then,” said the Old Man.
He turned and slowly began walking north along the shore. Allison ran to catch up.
“I have so many questions…” she began to say.
“I understand,” he said.
“How have you done it, really, how have you survived for so long?”
“You’ll see,” he said, “you’ll see and then you’ll learn and then you’ll know.”
She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. She tried to still her racing mind and save her questions for later.
A breeze came off of the water and chilled the left side of her body. A blanket of low hanging clouds passed overhead on the wind.
The Old Man plodded steadily along. He adjusted his pack on his shoulders and took a few deep breaths through his nose. His legs were sore and his lungs were aching, but he kept a brisk pace.
“If you feel alright in the morning,” he said, “then I’d like to take you fishing.”
“Yes, fishing,” he said.