Ash Covered MemoriesbySiteScanOH©
The fire spat at the darkness, disrupting the comfortable silence. Like insects of the night, embers flew on fiery wing toward the glowing stars overhead. He stared into the flames. Fingers of heat plasma clung to the fuel and blindly, mindlessly, converted the available matter into carbon, radiant heat, and smoke. It was a sight that never failed to mesmerize, yet he dreaded it. For there, amid the ceaseless motion of heat and light danced memories of a life past and gone. Eyes focused on nothing, his mind held onto flames buried deep inside.
Glowing brightly against the contrast of night, wall beams and rafters lay exposed like the ribs of a desiccated cadaver. Flames threw a searing heat painfully against his face, sucking the moisture from his eyes, yet he could not look away. He could not move. Even as the walls toppled upon themselves and his life crumbled into sparks and smoke--still his eyes refused to turn away. He was alone now; left to dine on ash covered memories.
Wade's sight rippled, clouded. A dense draft of smoke wafted toward him and his companion. Thorne, lying close to the fire's heat, coughed out the smoke and yelped with pain.
Wade looked up, "Are you alright?" Yanked away from memory, forced into the present, his wrinkled brow furrowed even deeper.
"I'm OK. I guess the pain is coming back." Thorne, trying to sound brave, forced his body to relax. His youthful blue eyes, briefly covered by an aging mask of pain, closed.
Wade studied his young friend for a moment but kept his concerns to himself. He dare not give him another injection. There was a limited supply of the multi-purpose emergency medication and he wanted to ration it, needed to make it last as long as possible. He desperately needed Thorne to survive, to live as long as he was destined. Wade moved his gaze skyward and mouthed a silent prayer, asking for divine assistance.
Situated closer to the galactic core yet in the same spiral arm as was Earth; some of the stars visible in the night sky of this new planet were familiar and brighter. Some had grown dim; others were gone completely from view. The Milky Way painted a broad swath from horizon to horizon lending an air of familiarity to an otherwise alien place.
"Dear God" Wade prayed, "please allow this young boy to live." He hoped this time his prayer would be answered. Thorne's eyes remained closed in sleep.
Returning his gaze to the flames, Wade once again opened his mind to memory. Screams of agony assaulted him from within. A single tear traveled a tortured path down his face.
Unconsciously, Wade removed a picture from his breast pocket and stared at it. Light from the fire danced across the image, alternately throwing shadows and highlights across one face, then another, giving a semblance of life where there was none. The photograph was his constant companion. The old style two-dimensional color snapshot was worn, wrinkled, and charred. The image showed a younger man, one from 28 years past; A Wade Ashton whose family was still intact. The father he used to be, proud, strong, secure, and happy. The ghost of a grin illuminated the pictured face, softening the dark gray eyes, threatening to erupt into a full-blown smile at the slightest provocation.
Bethany, his wife, looking graceful and serene; confident in their life together. She had been Wade's anchor, the single constant and stable point in his life. Their son Chris, not quite three with a head covered in curls and a smile born in yesterday that lived until tomorrow. Youthful enthusiasm for all that life offered danced in his eyes. His innocent face, smiling up from the picture, had yet to know anything but joy. Chris was their hope, their promise for the future. But the Ashton family had run out of tomorrows.
With the loss of his family, Wade lost his anchor to life. Now he drifted, pushed by fate and pulled by an ever-present desire to leave the pain of his past behind.
Damn the flames! They gave warmth, light, and in return consumed all in their heated grasp. How he hated the flames and the painful memories of loss they resurrected. More, he hated that try as he might he couldn't outrun them. No matter where he ran, Wade couldn't lose the memories, or the empty ache of loneliness that was his constant companion.
He returned the picture to his pocket, its dark resting-place, and with it hid some of his sorrow.
- - - - -
Colony Tractor Four lay scattered at the bottom of the hill. A product of modern engineering, the six-wheeled enclosed tractor was lightweight--yet sturdy enough to operate reliably in the harsh environment the colonists were attempting to tame. The workhorses of the colony, the five vehicles were rarely idle. Tractor Four was silent, broken. No lights illuminated its control panels. No motors hummed. It was a dead thing, lifeless, useless. Neither were there signs of activity from the GaNerfs--the only dangerous life form indigenous to the colony planet. But dead GaNerfs littered the area. With large round bodies, six multi-jointed spindly legs, deadly forward pinchers, and small inset eyes, the dead GaNerfs looked like demonic beach balls; hellspawn birthed from the dark depths of nightmare.
Soon after their discovery a small girl watched mesmerized as one of the creatures skittered behind a group of older boys playing with a worn, soft foam ball. She yelled out a warning, christening the animals. Though the name she gave the creatures was not technically accurate, its descriptive nature and popularity with the children caused it to stick.
Bright star-clusters and twin moons softly washed the torn and battered landscape around the small campfire.
"I'm getting colder Wade," Thorne said, breaking the silence. "How do you stand it?"
"When you have lived as long as I have, you develop a thick skin. I don't feel much any more." Since the fire that destroyed his family, feeling had brought pain. He hoped never to feel the like again.
Hard bodied and worn, Wade exuded the strength of his years, yet he was afraid. He was afraid that Thorne wasn't strong enough to survive. But he had to live, for Wade felt a connection to this young man. Somehow, he knew, their lives were intertwined. Wade needed to ensure that this time, no one died. Not one more person was going to have their life burned out because of his inaction. He carried too many deaths inside already. Without removing it from its dark resting-place, he quietly touched the picture of his family.
- - - - -
The two men were of different generations, both of time and place. Wade told stories to Thorne and the other children on the voyage from Earth of the green, dew damp mornings he had known back home. Thorne's generation was the first to be raised in the new colony. Born in space, Thorne and his young friends found it hard to believe the colorful stories. They had yet to see a bright orange sun slowly rising over a distant horizon, or enjoy the many-colored splendor of a seasoned sunset.
Wade and Thorne were a team, part of the colony's regular weekly surveillance operation that noted movement patterns and current nesting locations of the deadly native animal. While this activity removed some of the colonies labor force from the tasks of food production and other needed functions, it was a necessary evil. When the colony had first been established, the battle to tame the planet had almost been lost. While the spider-crab like creatures fed only off the smaller animals they could catch singly (rodents, chickens, small dogs), they preferred to lay their eggs in the warm bodies of larger mammals (cattle, horses, other native herbivores, and sometimes--humans). Because of the inherent need to lay eggs, the GaNerfs hunted in small swarms during the nesting season. The toll the colonists paid in learning this behavior was staggering.
This morning found the two men in a remote location to the North of the colony. It was the last day of what had become a routine, uneventful chore. Wade, finally relenting to Thorne's morning long plea to drive, took the unfamiliar passenger seat.
At dusk, as the tractor crested a hill, they stumbled upon an uncharted nest. Thorne, in a show of youthful exuberance, decided to plow right through the gathering of GaNerfs and increased the speed of the tractor. The surprised creatures attacked before Wade could react or shout a warning. Snapping their pinchers the animals loudly voiced their outrage in a deadly chorus. As the GaNerfs swarmed over the tractor a gully appeared. The left front wheel of the tractor fell into the trench destroying the nest hidden there. The steering wheel violently wrenched to the side, throwing Thorne's hand through the tinted window. With its front wheel caught, the rear wheels clawed at the air. Both men were ratcheted against their seat belts. The cabin and its contents twisted violently. Thorne screamed. Wade clung to the console. The tractor teetered for a moment then--accompanied by the loud report of metal snapping in two--turned over. Rolling down the hill the vehicle violently expended its momentum. The separated left front wheel followed after.
Wade escaped the accident without serious injury. Thorne was not so lucky. With his right leg fractured in two places, left hand lacerated, and shoulder dislocated; Thorne wasn't going anywhere without assistance.
Most of the GaNerfs died, crushed during the tractor's destructive roll down the hill. A few tried to attack through the broken windows. Wade had to shoot the animals, even the younger ones. Small pinchers could maim just as painfully as an adult one. The few creatures that survived skittered away to the safety of the coming darkness. Wade knew they would be relatively safe during the hours of darkness. The animals hunted in the early morning hours then returned to the nest to feed on the days catch and care for their young; safe from the heat of the day, and the infrequent predators that totally failed to manage the growing population.
Wade was filled with dread upon discovering that two shots remained in the only functional weapon.
After extricating an unconscious Thorne from his seat, Wade pulled the tractor's emergency medical kit from the wreckage and quickly ministered to Thorne's wounds. A few bandages and an inflatable leg brace later, Wade moved Thorne to the warmth of the fire he had built on top of the hill. - - - - -
"You know Wade," Thorne whispered into the flames, "I'm really sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen."
"I know my young friend. Don't waste your energy worrying about it."
Thorne looked at the wreckage strewn about, and at the smashed bodies of the GaNerfs. "I remember as kids we used to play games with dead GaNerfs. I've also seen the bodies of animals used to incubate their young. It was scary. But when you make a game of something, it loses its mystique. Even fear fades into the background and is drowned out by the excitement of a new childish game. We stopped thinking of them as harmful."
"Life is full of opportunities to learn. The earlier you recognize that, the better your chances for survival. Survival--that's the name of the game. It's why we traveled to this planet in the first place. You must learn and you must survive. Life doesn't mean diddley if you don't."
Wade stirred the fire, causing more sparks to fly, and then continued. "I never understood how you kids could play with those things. After a few days they started to stink something awful."
"That's true," Thorne chuckled, "but there were no toys left to play with. We had to make our own toys, invent our own games. You have to admit though, after we pulled out the legs, they bounced pretty good."
"Yes, I guess they did at that." Wade answered, but his mind was elsewhere, remembering the early days of the colony. He remembered … being outside working with his hands, sweat dripping in his eyes, and hearing in the distance the voices of children at play. He remembered smiling. Smiling because everything around him was alive, he was surrounded by life and a new beginning. For a moment at least he had left Death behind
"Wade?" Thorne spoke breaking Wade's reflections, "how long do you think it would take you to walk back to the colony?"
"What?" Wade asked, not sure he had heard the younger man correctly. "I'm not going to leave you! There is no way I can get back with help before the animals return. You would be prey to them, unable to defend yourself. I won't let that happen."
"I can't walk. I'm cold and hungry. We owe it to the colony to warn them about this nest. Don't be a stubborn old fool. Go!"
Wade stood up, feeling the weariness of age in his joints but anger lending him strength. He was angry not at the boy, but with the logic of his argument.
"I'm not going to leave you!" Tears of frustration welled in his eyes. "The fire will keep the animals away only so long. What if I don't make it back in time? No, I won't leave you. The other teams will come looking for us as soon as they realize we're overdue."
"But will it be soon enough?" Thorne stared down Wade's anger. "Damn it Wade, I'm getting weaker. I think I can hold out longer if I know you're getting help. Besides, what purpose will be served by both our deaths?"
Wade, gazing at the flames—-both present and past--was silent. What purpose indeed?
Thorne took a breath, held it, then spoke again, softer. "Leave me the gun and go. I'll hold on as long as I can." His eyes pleaded.
Wade eyes focused on Thorne's with a flash. A familiar tightness jumped to his throat. "The gun! Why do you want the gun?"
"Insurance, Wade," Thorne answered quietly. "In case you don't make it back in time, and I feel sleepy."
- - - - -
Wade could not remember a night so long. For seven long exhausting hours he trudged over the uneven landscape. Torn by his sense of duty and his need to take action, he felt pulled in two directions. Like a ship in flight between planets, near the halfway point of its voyage as the gravitational influences of each planet balance, for a moment only it is free. But freedom doesn't last, for soon the influence of one sphere dominates and the ship is pulled once again, this time towards its destination. And so Wade felt himself pulled towards the colony, towards needed salvation, towards hope.
Once again he released the tattered picture from its resting-place. While his rational mind knew the picture had not, could not change, still he saw a difference. The shadow of a fourth person standing in the background, hovering, waiting to join the assembled group. He knew instantly that the shadow would belong to Thorne. His pace quickened.
He mind was so focused that he was unaware of having reached his destination. He was brought back to reality by a guard's challenge. The tractor had not yet been reported overdue, so the guard was surprised to see him, much less on foot. Wade had no patience for questions. He had to get back. He had to save Thorne.
In thirty minutes he arranged another tractor and a driver. They begged him to stay, rest, draw a map--but he would have none of it. Didn't they understand? Thorne was his responsibility. Finally, seeing the determination in his eyes, they stepped aside and let him go.
Following Wade's directions the driver pulled away from the colony. The rising sun starting to warm the air outside, but it could not touch the cold Wade felt inside. He dozed, but did not dream. This nightmare was all too real.
- - - - -
His eyes flew open; he glanced at the time. "Faster, damn it!" Wade snapped at the driver of Colony Tractor Two for the second time in as many hours.
"Yes sir. I'm doing the best I can."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Wade looked out the window, hoping to find signs of Tractor Four. Hoping to find signs of Thorne--hoping against hope that they would find him alive. But the same empty view assaulted him from outside the window.
"I think I see something," the driver said excitedly.
Wade brought the tractor's spotting scope to his eyes, said a silent prayer. Looking ahead he saw a scarred hillside, rounded bodies, and a small weak wisp of smoke. His heart beat faster.
"That's it. Hurry!"
The driver didn't answer, but increased their speed and steered toward the approaching hill. The terrain was uneven and rutted, the tractor bounced and vibrated with each bump and bush it met. Wade tried to maintain his view through the scope, but the violent motions of the vehicle made it impossible. On the hill, something moved.
He scanned the area, increased the magnification to maximum. GaNerfs crawled, moved with purpose. In the fire the few remaining embers softly glowed a dull amber, their fuel almost exhausted. The rest of the fire was dead, gray ash cooling slowly. Undisturbed by the arrival of the tractor, GaNerfs continued their activity. Two females worked toward replenishing the nest. Hind legs pierced warm flesh and deposited eggs. In five days the hatchlings would emerge, hungry from accelerated growth.
Right arm outstretched, Thorne's hand held the gun. Wade's heart seemed to stop. He was too late--again.
The driver resumed the trip and slowly, carefully, moved as close as possible to the wreckage of the other tractor. Before opening the doors, they armed themselves.
As one they exited the tractor and quickly made their way to the top. Wade's task was to chase away or kill as many of the GaNerfs as possible. The driver, carrying an agricultural sprayer on his back filled with a jellied flammable, stayed back a few steps.
With a vengeance bordering on obsession, Wade loosed his anger on the creatures. He was indiscriminate in his choice of targets. Anything with more than two legs became the focus for his anger. The driver quietly watched understanding Wade's need. But soon, perhaps too soon, Wade slowed, his rage spent. To weak now to keep going, he stopped shooting. On the hilltop, nothing moved. The driver joined him and together they moved the bodies, the flack of Wade's anger, into the remains of the nest. When all was ready, Wade stood by Thorne and watched as the driver sprayed the nest and the bodies of the dead GaNerfs. Finished, the driver joined Wade by the fire, removed the sprayer from his back, knelt, and began one final gruesome task.
Wade watched in gut twisting silence as the driver dug, probed, rooted, and found his prey. Hands dripping red, he removed pink tinged eggs. Wade's stomach tightened at the sight of the eggs for here was life, a new beginning in the midst of death and yet another personal loss. With unaccustomed feeling, Wade grabbed the eggs and flung them into the nest. His revulsion of the eggs consumed by his desire to destroy them.
Together they carried Thorne's body to the tractor.
Returning to the top, Wade picked up the hand weapon and wiped the dulling ash from the once shiny surface. His mind cooled, numbed. Once again he touched the picture in his pocket, touched old familiar pain.
Mentally detached, his mind aswirl in a pool of disconnected images, Wade's limbs acted on their own. A hand tucked the pistol into a pocket, lit a flare, and tossed it into the nest. He turned away from the hilltop, turned his back on the enemy he envisioned there. Before he could take two steps, the nest erupted in flame and blessed, cleansing heat. Sickly popping sounds accompanied the rupturing of the eggs. With frightened shrieks, GaNerfs trapped deep in the nest, died. With each step towards the waiting tractor, Wade's remaining anger shrunk into its self and the emptiness he had carried with him all the way from Earth covered his heart in an icy blanket. Another piece of his soul died. Another voice joined the inner chorus of his dreams.
Wrapping Thorne's body in a tarp, they gently laid him in the tractor's rear storage compartment for the final ride home. Wade checked the area one more time, ensuring total destruction, then climbed into the cab. He signaled the driver. It was time to leave. The tractor pulled away and turned south, towards the colony. Neither spoke. Quiet thoughts their only companions.