Tracks of Destiny by Emmet Mathieu
It has been two years since my crew and I stepped from our landing pod and embarked on a brand new mission. And I mean brand new in the rawest form possible. This was something mankind had never before attempted. For two years we were successful. Mars was officially colonized! If anyone from home is reading this, do me a favor. Forget about the glamour of colonizing another planet and see things instead how I see them now. It has been nearly three years since my feet have touched the soil of the earth which gave me life. Two months alone since the explosive decompression of our mess hall where all crew, save my unlucky ass, were, at the time. I say unlucky because they had it easy. They never knew what happened. They never had to see their only friends frozen and sprawled over the surface of a lifeless and unforgiving planet. They didn’t have to fight for survival alone with their wretched thoughts. They didn’t have to say what I am about to. My food is gone, has been for a week. My daily water ration of three teaspoons has run out this morning. I will die. Soon I will join my friends as another decoration in this gruesome landscape. May no person ever have to feel the desperation and terror I do now. With much sadness that I will never get to see my home again, or hold close those people who I love, I sign off for the final time.
Francis set the tattered note pad over the controls of the landing pod. The cramped quarters had been his living space for the past months. Before this mission, his life had been governed by a drive for ultimate freedom. He had always felt confined, held down, his nightmares were that of being a prisoner, locked away to rot in a cell. So he broke free of every boundary, flew beyond earth in a rocket ship, and colonized another planet. Now here he was, locked up, alone. The six by eight of a federal prison cell was suddenly a dream worth dreaming. At least there were the sounds of human voices, food, water, a toilet. Those things he once took for granted in his quest for freedom were now a tantalizing luxury he would never see again.
He donned his bulky space suit, said his final goodbye to everything he had ever known, and stepped into the airlock. Certain death had peeked its ugly head over the horizon. In its inevitability Francis decided it would be better to go where there was a clear view. Once more he would take his shot at freedom. Stepping off the ramp, his feet left perfect imprints in the red dirt. A few hundred steps later he stopped. He fiddled with the electronic cuff of his left sleeve, enacting a homing beacon just in case. It was meaningless, he knew that, but he was human. It was in his nature to never give up, even when the odds were vastly against him. His oxygen tank was at fifty percent. Only four hours left if he was lucky. By reducing the amount the tank allowed him to breath he could stretch it another two hours. He would need to stay calm and controlled his breathing. He dialed back the airflow, leaned his head against a rock and stared off into the endless universe. He focused on each star he could see, tried counting them to pass the time and stay focused on something other than death.
The stars began to dance, swirling and colliding, then all at once flew towards him with a blinding brilliance and all went dark.
***** The summer nights of Kansas were every boy’s dream. Friday nights in particular, when hordes of rowdy teens would meet up somewhere under the starry sky. Engines revved, from quads and dirt bikes, to Toyota pickups with Baja packages. It didn’t matter, as long as it kicked up dust on the way to a huge bonfire with plenty of smuggled booze.
That was the dream anyway. For Francis, it manifested itself as a nightmare. Mom and dad were sure to be fighting again. Dad gambled too much, Mom spent too much on things Dad didn’t like, and they both let each other know in raised voices and bouts of uncontrolled rage. Francis just wished they’d think about him enough to shut up for his sake. Maybe then they’d care enough to get him a rusty old pedal bike. At least he could get to a party, even if he made it five minutes before the fire was out and everyone went home.
Frances buried himself deeper in the corner of his closet, draped in the tattered blanket that served as his only bed piece. He cried. A door slammed hard and he heard his mother scream in pain and fear. She shouted a stuttered profanity, glass shattered, followed by his dad’s gruff voice, “How dare you woman!”
Another crash followed with more sobs from his mother. There was nothing Francis could do. Nothing but cry like he had every night for as long as his memory could recall. He didn’t fit into their lives. He didn’t fit into their pathetic and selfish wants. He was an unwanted accident and the reason they had stayed together in the first place. He had blamed himself before, but as he got older he began to understand there was no excuse but their own evil that resided within them.
He’d thought about it for years. But where would he go? What would he do? Tonight, for the first time, the answer was clear. Wherever, whatever, it was better than here. His parents didn’t care for him. They couldn’t see his goals and dreams. They would be content if he died in this closet. Only he could make his life a better reality. Yes Francis! What are you waiting for? Don’t let fear stop you anymore! It was crazy! But he felt courage, something he’d never felt before. He crawled from the closet, twisted his blanket into a bag of sorts and packed his few treasures which would have been trash to anyone else.
He could hear his mother's sobs, interrupted only by crashing glass and furniture and the dull thuds of dad’s fists on her battered body. She would beg him to stop until they both tired and ended up asleep together. Tonight he was hearing it for the final time. Francis lifted the window, praying the screech wouldn’t alert his rabid father, and as his feet touched the ground the far off whistle of a train gave him an idea. He turned and ran. Stalks of immature corn bent and snapped beneath his feet. A thin trail of dust lifted peacefully into the night sky behind him. The train sounded closer now. Steel tracks groaned under stress. The Diesel engine chugged steadily highlighted by the scream of the horn. Finally the spotlight broke over the horizon, sending brilliant blades of light racing through rows of corn. He pushed his young legs harder than he knew he could, desperate to reach the tracks before the lumbering train. He broke out of the field, his speed so great he didn’t have time to notice the rise of the gravel bed which held the tracks. He tripped hard, falling up the slight grade, his body sprawling over the cold steel tracks. They rumbled furiously. He sprang to his feet, froze momentarily as the spotlight blinded him, then dove to the side as four thousand tons of steel rolled over the area of track he had been lying on only seconds before. He lay trembling in the corn.
This was a bad idea. I’m not ready for this. I can’t take care of myself. Thousands of thoughts rolled through his mind, doubts, fears, each one telling him to turn back and go home. But he had set out on a journey, he had taken the first step. Though he had come close to disaster already, he was still alive. Fear wouldn’t hold him back any longer. If he died now, at least he’d die free! His confidence returned. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he got steadily to his feet. He began to run alongside the train building up as much speed as he could. The train was still moving much quicker, but he willed himself on. Looking over his shoulder, he picked a car, and as it rolled past, he reached out, grabbing the handrails. The momentum of the train pulled him off his feet, dragging him carelessly behind it. He clawed frantically with his free hand, pulling with all the strength in his feeble arms until he held a firm grip on the rails with both hands. Slowly he dragged himself up placing one foot at a time on whatever foothold he could find. Finally he flopped weakly over the rail and collapsed on the thin catwalk. His heart pounded, his breath was short and labored. He felt suffocated. His vision was blurred and he blinked hard a few times until the stars in the sky above came into clear focus. Staring intently into the expanse his mind eased with each moment that passed. His breathing steadied. He was free, for now at least. Looking at those stars, he understood is destiny. He knew he would never be completely free to fulfill his life purpose until he himself lived amongst the stars. He lay there for the remainder of the night watching the stars slowly drift across the night sky. They disappeared one by one as the sun came up and finally the deep tones of blue grew brighter until even the morning star succumbed to dawn's light.
When the train came to a stop he was hundreds of miles from his old life. He felt refreshed and new and as if nothing could stop him. He leapt from the train car then slipped into a nearby ally before anyone noticed his presence. Finding a bench in a small park he seated himself. He placed his meager belongings to his right, his head slumped, and he was drifting off to sleep.
“Boy! Wake up boy!”
He awoke to a hand shaking him roughly and the voice of an elderly lady. Squinting through foggy eyes, he made out the face of the woman. She was in her late sixties he guessed, her face looked kind, even though the voice she spoke in was one of judgment and frustration. He sat up quickly and pulled his belongings close to him.
“Yes ma’am.” He spoke fearfully.
She bent slightly to look him in the eyes. “What are you doing sleeping here?”
Francis recounted the pressing details of his story and as he spoke, compassion welled in her eyes.
“Come with me,” she said softly.
She led him up the street aways to a small diner. She bought him a warm breakfast accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate. He eagerly downed the meal while the woman made her way to the counter. She exchanged some whispered words with the man behind the counter which Francis was sure were about him.
A half hour passed while he was treated to a second helping of eggs and bacon and a healthy stack of maple syrup soaked pancakes. When he could eat no more, he leaned back in his seat. where would he go next? He had no money, no place to live. He had been well cared for by a complete stranger but he knew he couldn’t bet on that for survival. He’d have to find a job, a place to live. Maybe he had some long lost family somewhere. Or maybe he’d make his way to the mountains and rough it in the wilderness.
His plannings were interrupted by the lights of a police car pulling up in front of the diner. The officer stepped from his vehicle and walked purposefully through the front door. Making his way directly to the table where Francis was seated he took a knee.
“Are you Francis Darien?” He sounded very serious.
“Yes,” Francis said nervously.
The officer looked down as if he had been hoping the answer was no. He began to speak again. “I’m afraid your parents are dead Francis. I’m so sorry.”
Francis just stared at the officer. He wasn’t sure what to feel. He had expected this would happen at some point, to at least one of them. He had run away from them, for good. But they were still his parents. Whether it was genuine or just biological, he was shocked and sad.
“Oh.” It was all he could say. He stared blankly for a few more seconds. “How did it happen?” He didn’t want to know, but he had to, it was instinctual.
The officer looked up. “I need you to come with me.
“No!” Francis shouted, “Tell me how it happened! I’m old enough to know! They were my parents!”
“Ok, calm down,” the officer said. He paused for a moment contemplating his next words. “It appears that your mother shot your father and then took her own life. When we couldn’t find you in the house we figured you were dead too.”
You were dead too, you were dead too, YOU WERE DEAD TOO! Those words lingered in his head playing over and over. He looked into the officers eyes but as he did so the scene darkened. The officers skin began to change color until it was a sickly green. His face twisted into a bony mask draped in green skin. His fingers grew long and pointy and Francis could only count three of them on each hand. The officer was no longer kneeling, he was standing on two stubby but muscular legs, however his now grotesque head was still at Francis’s eye level. Francis no longer sat in the diner chair but rather on red dirt amidst a dark and dead landscape.
He shook his head and widened his eyes, forcing himself back to full consciousness. It all came back. He remembered everything that had happened in the last thirty years which led him to this moment. He was on Mars, dying. He looked back at the creature that stood in front of him. It lifted a long green finger in his direction and in an emotionless voice said, “Hello.”
Francis laughed. Severe oxygen deprivation left him grasping in futility at the line which divided reality from fantasy. Death was moments away. The creature moved towards him and grabbed his leg. Francis collapsed from exhaustion, aware only in his mind. He couldn’t feel his body being dragged over the rocky surface by the creature. He could see it, at first from the perspective of his eyes. Now he saw himself from above, eyes closed, body limp, being pulled towards something he hadn’t noticed before. What appeared to be a ship rested on the surface a few hundred yards away. He hovered over his body as the creature dragged it to the ship. A ramp extended from the bottom and the creature marched up. Francis followed. Lifting the body onto a table, the creature hooked a series of tubes and wires into Francis’s head and spine. Lights flashed on a screen overhead and the body seized. Francis was suddenly being pulled by an unseen force, back into the body he had left minutes before.
He opened his eyes and breathed deeply. Realizing for the first time that he hadn’t felt himself breathe since he left his body, he sat up startled.
The creature’s bony face lifted into a sort of smile. It raised one hand, pointing at Francis. “Hello.”
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