Neil O'Donnell

Neil O'Donnell

About Me

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Buffalo, New York, United States
Anthropologist, author, certified career coach, and musician who mixes all four interests as much as possible! Senior EOP Counselor at/EOP graduate of Buffalo State College.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Return of the Sagan

I'm in the home stretch of THE RETURN OF THE SAGAN.  I'm working on the final chapters and should have the final draft in my publisher's hands by the end of November.  Until then, I hope you will enjoy the attached sneak-peak at the 1st 3 chapters of the novel.  Happy Halloween!

Best regards,
Neil



Return of the Sagan


Chapter 1

            “Saturn Alpha? Saturn Alpha, please respond,” the U.S.S. Drake’s copilot, Martin Kalowitz, called into his helmet microphone.  The activation of the shuttle’s maneuvering thrusters remained the only sound to resonate throughout Martin’s headset.  Hope was fading.  “Still no response, Captain,” Martin said, turning to his left where the pilot, Rebecca Sanford, sat.
            “Roger that,” Rebecca replied.  “Sagan Actual, please respond.”  Rebecca waited while the crackling of the radio reached out to their base ship over seventy kilometers behind.  Rebecca’s melodic voice belied her gruff nature in adverse conditions.  Her cool command presence had guided Rebecca’s teams through multiple emergencies during her five years in service to the American Navy, a demeanor and collectedness that earned Rebecca her captaincy and call sign: Frost.
            “Shuttle three, this is Sagan Actual. Report.”  The commander’s firm voice, even over the radio, evoked calm amongst the crew.  Rebecca, like every colonial, drew strength and courage from that voice, willingly executing any command that followed.
            “Still no response from the platform, commander; requesting permission to dock and explore,” Rebecca said, her cool tone masking her eagerness to explore the Earth’s most remote space station.  It was an eagerness shared by the whole crew; a colonial setting foot on the first structure of Earth-origin in nearly three hundred years.
            “Permission granted, shuttle three.  Make for the station’s lower hatch and deploy the Marines.  I want the flight crew to stay put.  Understood?”
            “Roger that, Actual.”  Rebecca cutoff her reply quickly, her disappointment shared by Martin and every crewmember back on the base ship, the U.S.S Carl Sagan.  Without another word, Rebecca guided her shuttle, the U.S.S. Drake, to the station’s main docking hatch, specifically designed for the class of ship Rebecca piloted.  The shuttle, a miniature version of the U.S.S. Sagan, served as a troop transport.  Like the base ship, the Drake was named for one of the pioneers who guided the first steps of S.E.T.I., the organization that helped design their ship and mission, or at least the mission of their predecessors.  After leaving Earth 293 years earlier, the Sagan carried S.E.T.I.’s initial crew of 20,200 to a distant planet deemed suitable for human occupation.  With the Earth’s population breaching ten billion, the distant planet, Maximus Prime, offered hope for a way to gain the space and resources Humanity desperately needed.  The journey took ninety-three years, three generations, and ended better than anticipated.  Maximus Prime, roughly the size of Earth, was the fourth planet in a system of ten, which circled a yellow star ten percent larger than the Sun.  With one large continent reminiscent of Pangea, Maximus Prime offered more land area than Earth and a water supply with twenty percent more readily accessible fresh water.  Humanity’s future was assured.
            After landing on the planet, the ever-growing crew, now at well over 40,000, settled along the equatorial zone of Maximus Prime and built a city while teams of scientists explored the planet.  Like Earth, Maximus Prime had temperate, tropical, and arctic zones as well as a plethora of new species for the scientists to study, species including mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, insects and flora.  The richness of opportunities Maximus Prime offered was tempered by the loss of contact with Earth.
            Incoming radio transmissions from Earth ceased eighteen months into the Sagan’s mission.  As per protocol, the mission was to continue unless ordered to return.  Years passed and no messages came, though the Sagan Crew continued to transmit reports to Houston Control.  After the fiftieth anniversary of the landing on Maximus Prime, the elected representatives of the colony commissioned a retrofit of the Sagan and organized a return flight.  Eighty-seven years after the Sagan set out from Maximus Prime, the ship was now within months of orbiting Earth.  Yet, this close to terrain space, communications sent to Houston Control remained answered.  Now, as the Sagan’s crew looked to dock with the Saturn Alpha space station, hope of answers grew.
            “Colonel Leary, we are a go,” Captain Sanford called into her helmet microphone.  Without another word, she skillfully guided the shuttle with maneuvering thrusters to the station’s lowest access hub.  All the while, Colonel Paul Leary and his platoon remained alert and cognizant of the coming mission, the first they would ever commence outside of drills.  The seconds counted down as the Marines listened to the shuttle’s bulkheads knocked into position aside the space station, which resembled a spark plug adrift in space just a few hundred kilometers further from the end of Saturn’s belt of debris.  Seconds passed as the shuttle docked, Colonel Leary’s eyes never diverting from the indicator light positioned above the shuttle’s main hatch; a light that suddenly glared with a startling amber hue.
            “Make ready!” the colonel commanded as he and his team unlocked their safety harnesses and maneuvered into formation, Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Fernel taking point.  Outfitted in pressurized, dark-gray suits akin in design to snowsuits, the platoon appeared unsuited to action in space.  The thin design of their outfits, however, belied the fact the construction included polyamide fibers and a Kevlar-micrometeoroid shell, which would resist possible abrasions from space debris.  Also armed with M4 carbines and a variety of pistols, these Marines were far from vulnerable.
            “Colonel, the station’s artificial grav units are offline,” Sanford called over the com system.  “Prepare for depressurization.”
            “Activate grav-locks and prepare to move!” Colonel Leary commanded.  In turn, each of the marines, the colonel included, pressed a button on their shoulder guard, which activated magnets embedded in the soles of their boots.  Then, after the hatch light flickered, the shuttle evacuated all pressure from the hold.  Seconds later, the hatch light turned green; following Sergeant Fernel, the Marines entered Saturn Alpha.

***

Separated into squads of five, Colonel Leary’s platoon marched into the entry room with weapons drawn and readied.  With no lights emanating from the space station, the Marines relied on the small lights fastened to their weapons for illumination.  The view was ominous.
            Odd pieces of furniture and a variety of smaller items including pens, clipboards, computer tablets, and clothes littered the room, every item floating about aimlessly in the zero-gravy.  All that was missing was the station’s crew.
            “Gunny, take your squad and check the aft control room,” Colonel Leary commanded.  Nodding his acknowledgement, Sergeant Fernel led his squad to the pre-determined location in hopes of firing up the station’s main generators.  Meanwhile, Colonel Leary tasked two squads to stand guard while he led the remaining platoon members to the upper decks via the central stairwell.
            The climb to the other decks took considerable effort as the grav-locks made for clumsy movements.  Meanwhile, floating office-like debris continually hampered the Marines’ progress.  Yet, meter by meter, Colonel Leary’s platoon progressed onward, but inspections of each deck revealed no sight of recent human occupation.
            “I thought this was supposed to become an active space port?” a private asked as she ducked under a floating desk.  “I doubt anyone’s been here in a hundred years.
            “Definitely could use a thorough cleaning, maybe a fresh coat of paint,” commented another private as he wiped a layer of dust from a monitor mounted to a wall.
            “Cut the chatter, Marines!” Colonel Leary scolded as they finished a sweep of the entry room of the station’s highest deck.  “Lieutenant, check the remaining rooms.”
            “Yes sir!” Lynn Suya replied.  With a curt wave of her left hand, her squad moved forward to inspect the rooms behind the only two doors remaining.
            “Gunny, report!” the colonel called into his headset.  For several long, anxious seconds, he waited for a response.
            “We’re all set here, colonel.  The power grid is beyond repair.  We’ve secured the hard drives from the main computer as well as a stash of flash drives.  Making our way back to the shuttle now.”
            “Roger that,” Colonel Leary replied, his disappointment evident.  Where was the crew?
            “Colonel!” Lieutenant Suya’s voice cried out over the com system.  “Starboard antechamber!”  The lieutenant’s call grabbed everyone’s attention instantly, and with a wave of the colonel’s left hand, all converged on the antechamber.
            “My God,” Colonel Leary whispered into his microphone as he entered into the room.  Floating about the room were the remains of seven astronauts, clad in the space suits familiar to the era of space travel that immediately followed the U.S.S. Endeavor’s final flight.  Bulky, white and capped with a dome-like helmet, the suits contained an eerie sight: skeletons whose visages reflected terror.

***
            “Roads go ever, ever on, …under cloud and under star,” Francis’s voice sang out the classic verse to an audience of fan-blown fruit trees, cornstalks and bean plants, the latter scaling the cornstalks upwards, ever reaching for the network of fluorescent grow lamps that fed the U.S.S Sagan’s plant population with the requisite ultra-violet radiation to fuel growth.  Here, hidden amidst the rows of plants, Francis read away his days free from the cold steel and technology that surrounded the crew of the Sagan.  Crippled by fears of contact with the ever-present people, germs and mercury-laced technology he shared space with, this was the only place where Francis felt alive, comfortable.  Even now, as every other human on the U.S.S. Sagan anxiously awaited news of the mission to Saturn Alpha, Francis dreamed bigger.  Holding tightly to his well-worn copy of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Francis dreamed of adventures through the forests of Earth in search of an existence freed from the stale air of space.
            At twenty-three, Francis’s blue eyes and raven-black hair hid a soul aged by anxiety.  Every day was a struggle to continue on and survive.  Now, with Earth only months away, Francis saw an opportunity to break free of the trap he grew up in.  Now, he would leave behind fears of the known for awe of the unknown. 
            “This is the governor,” a deep, baritone voice called out over the Sagan’s com system.  “We’ve recovered the search teams from Saturn Alpha.  While the base was unoccupied and we still have not made contact with Earth, we did recover logs, which should answer some questions we have.  Presently, we are continuing on towards Earth.  I will update everyone as soon as we have more details from Saturn Alpha’s records.  Governor, out.”
            “To Earth,” Francis said in response to the governor’s report.  His hope of adventure rekindled, Francis continued on singing the verses from Tolkien’s masterpiece, telling of a hobbit traveling over a larger world.
“Yet feet that wandering have gone, turn at last to home afar.”



Chapter 2


The U.S.S Carl Sagan’s hull was tired, a condition born of nearly three hundred years of interstellar travel.  The first and only generational ship ever constructed, the Sagan, propelled by three gargantuan fusion engines, took nearly a century to bridge the distance between Earth and Maximus Prime, the planet considered most suited to Humanity’s needs.  The journey took a heavy toll.
The ship’s design, reminiscent of America’s shuttles, included titanium-reinforced bulkheads built to repel most space debris, everything from comet fragments to small asteroids.  For larger obstacles, the Sagan’s crew relied on long-range sensors and an array of thrusters positioned to help avert collisions with surprises that came along.  Fortunately, none of the Sagan’s commanders ever needed to give the order to fire thrusters.  Yet pitting and charring resulting from smaller space debris left indelible reminders of the taxing nature of space flight.  The commander knew this was the Sagan’s last trip.
              Back on board, secured on the bridge behind the titanium-reinforced hull and windows made with layers of fused silica and aluminum silicate panes, Commander Taryn Southern sat in her command chair looking through the shuttle’s windows at Saturn Alpha.
            “He’s right,” Commander Southern murmured as she considered Colonel Leary’s earlier assessment.  “The station does look like a spark plug.”  The commander smiled as she continued to contemplate the vacant spaceport.  The commander’s attention then turned to the com station just three meters to her left.  Manned 24/7, the com officer’s responsibilities included a continued attempt to contact Earth.
            “This is the U.S.S. Sagan calling Houston Control.  Houston Control, please respond,” the current com officer called into his microphone.  “Houston Control, do you read.”  The tiring endeavor had long ago lost meaning to many on the bridge.  Yet, Commander Southern held out hope for her ship’s signal reaching some terrestrial outpost or community.  Staring back out the Sagan’s windows at Saturn Alpha, with Saturn’s outer rings just kilometers beyond the station, Commander Southern sat in awe at the footprint of Humanity against a backdrop of the Milky Way’s sixth planet.  From the bridge, immersed in a sea of computer indicator lights, Taryn marveled at the smallness of Humanity verses the enormity of the universe’s creations.
            “So far have we yet to go,” the commander whispered as the hum of the bridge’s main door motor drew her attention towards Colonel Leary.  The colonel stopped and saluted, waiting for the commander to respond.  “Let’s do this in my quarters, colonel,” Commander Southern replied as she stood and walked passed the colonel and on towards the hatchway.  “Captain Lorin, you have the con.”

***

The two officers, clad in the everyday dress of the military - tan trousers and tan short-sleeved oxfords, marched side by side along the metal-tiled hallway, the stomping of their well-polished shoes proclaiming their approach.  Aside from occasionally saluting a passerby, Commander Southern and Colonel Leary made no effort to communicate offering no hint of their respective moods; military commanders to the end.  Reaching the hatchway to her quarters, Commander Southern punched her entry code into the console beside the hatch.  After a series of beeps and mechanical knocks echoed through the ship’s hull, the hatch opened, closing abruptly after both officers entered.
              “Home sweet home,” Taryn said as she walked to a recliner not far from the entry hatch and sat, her limber movements belying her nearly thirty years of service.  “I take it the news is far from promising?” she asked the colonel who had marched over to the commander’s bar.  Pouring himself a glass of whiskey, Colonel Leary downed the curt beverage before answering.
             “We secured the hard drives from the base’s main computer,” Colonel Leary replied before pouring another glassful of whiskey.  “Hell, we pulled the hard drives from every computer we could find.”  Taking just a sip this time from his glass, the colonel turned and walk to a nearby leather sofa.  There he sat, sighing before staring into the depths of his glass.
            “What is it Paul?” Commander Southern asked, uncertain she actually wanted an answer.  After seconds passed, Paul Leary looked to his friend, ready to relay their initial discoveries.
            “Preliminary analysis of the main computer’s hard drives indicates the last added file dates to about two years after the Sagan departed for Maximus Prime.”
           “Six months after we lost contact,” Taryn said.  She then rubbed at her short crop of red hair as she contemplated the report.  “Could we actually be all that’s left… of Humanity?  Is that what you’re telling me?”
           “At this range, we should be able to pick up some type of transmission from Earth, Taryn.  Hell, we should be able to watch football games on Sunday, but we’re picking up nothing.  I think it’s time we reevaluate our strategy, sir.  This is no longer a contact mission.”  Colonel Leary’s words might as well have come from the commander herself.  As the colonel drank deeply from his glass, the commander stood, walked over to her desk, and picked up her phone’s receiver.
          “Com, this is the commander,” Taryn called into the receiver after which she awaited a response from the watch.
          “Go ahead commander,” a young voice called back hesitantly.
          “I want sensors adjusted to look for any nuclear signatures emanating from Earth, and tell Dr. Walken to meet me on the bridge in twenty minutes.”
          “Understood, sir.”
          “Commander out,” Taryn replied before hanging up the receiver.  “Better switch to coffee, Paul.  I think this is going to be a long day.”

***

            “Was Edmond Dantés justified in seeking vengeance?” Professor Francis Burns asked his students, his well-worn paperback copy of The Count of Monte Cristo resting gently within his young hands.  At 1.81 meters, Francis towered over most of his students, their ages ranging from seventeen to twenty-two.  In age, Francis was not their elder by much, but the shoots of white hair that traced through Francis’s short, black hair made the twenty-three year old seem ancient.  Then, there were Francis’s eyes.
            His blue irises themselves were youthful enough.  However, the well-defined crow’s feet emanating from the corners of his eyes only added to Francis’s aged appearance.  Francis’s worn exterior matched his exhausted heart, all consequences of the daily battle he fought with Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  That battle subsided only when he taught classes, a time when he seemed able to push aside the intrusive thoughts and focus on more creative, more positive concerns.
            “I think he should’ve taken the money and run,” David Thompson, one of the gathered students replied to Francis’s query.  A series of giggles raced through the two dozen students, all garbed in military attire; blue trousers and white shirts for naval cadets and brown trousers and tan shirts for Marines.
            “So, you think revenge wasn’t warranted?” Francis asked, energized by the continuing debate.  As always, Francis moved to within half a meter of the student to give undivided attention.  Participation from students was rare.
            “He had all the money he would ever need, certainly enough to take care of himself and his true friends,” David continued as he squirmed a bit under the stare of the anthropology and liberal arts professor.  The cadet could feel the sweat gathering under his arms and soaking into his white shirt.
            “So, you’re thrown in prison, locked away for years for a crime you didn’t commit, and you wouldn’t seek retribution?” Francis asked as he paced about in a circle, eager to have the debate spread throughout the class.  Eagerness then led to heartache.
            “Professor, how is this even relevant to our majors?” David asked, a question Francis often heard from students and parents alike.  A sharp tone cast over the intercom system, noting the end of the hour, prevented Francis from his defense of literature.
            “Remember to read and be prepared to discuss Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado for Wednesday,” Francis called out to his fleeing students, who noisily placed their tablets into an array of bags.  Then, after the last student exited through the automatic doors, Francis was left alone to consider David’s question, or rather the Truth Francis clung to dearly.  The arts are what make life worth living.

***

            The most taxing part of Francis’s day followed the brief respite that class offered.  After placing his books into his satchel, Francis looked to his 9” by 13” tablet computer.  The device offered wireless access to the Sagan’s stores of books, movies, journals and other information sources, which Francis relished.  Yet, touching the device always proved difficult if not impossible.  Francis dwelled on the traces of lead, mercury and cadmium found in most electronics.  He spent hours each day thinking about possible contamination, particularly from mercury, questioning whether he would in turn contaminate the Sagan’s entire population.  Francis washed his hands repeatedly to quell the obsession over contamination, which worked for only short amounts of time.  Then, as if he never bathed before, Francis washed again.
            Placing his tablet in its own separate case, Francis quickly made his way to the room’s doors, which opened at the professor’s approach.  There he stood and turned, gazing at the room’s central computer console.  He counted each of the lights, making note of their respective colors; green meant on and orange meant off.  He then left only to return seconds later to check once more.  Fearing that leaving a computer on would cause a fire and destroy the Sagan, Francis usually returned four to five times to check the console lights, actions that took upwards of twenty to thirty minutes each day.  Once satisfied the computer was off, Francis continued through the halls to his quarters, a cell of cold metal walls three meters by five meters in dimensions.  Equipped with a toilet, shower stall, cot and desk, Francis had little room to move about, especially since he built a bookcase from wood scraps he secured from the ship’s botanical department.  The wood brought a little peace and warmth to the otherwise Spartan enclosure, but that was of little importance since Francis spent little time there.
Once inside, he took a quick shower before donning a fresh, white oxford and khaki trousers.  Then, slipping on his hiking boots, Francis grabbed his paperback copy of McKiernan’s Iron Tower omnibus and headed to the ship’s arboretum, the only place onboard where Francis found true peace.


Chapter 3


With Saturn Alpha now in its wake, the venerable U.S.S. Sagan continued on towards Earth, her crew eager to distance themselves from the disappointment of the Saturn base.  For the first time, everyone, the commander included, seemed as tired as the ship.  Then, after two weeks of long-range sensor sweeps of Earth and its surrounding space, Commander Southern convened a meeting of senior officers and the governor, the latter of who remained ever hopeful of the Sagan’s mission and the crew’s return to their home world.  Crammed into the Commander’s ready room, hope for answers was dwindling.
             “Xenon isotope levels are within norms as are all other detectable particulate densities in the atmosphere for that matter,” Dr. Tom Campbell reported to the gathered leaders.  The leading astrophysicist onboard, Dr. Burns coordinated the effort to contact Earth.  The effort had so far failed.
            “What does that mean in English, doctor?” Governor Clarence Counts asked, his irritation evident.  The governor, though only thirty-five, was an accomplished leader and diplomat whose patience was legendary.  Yet, after days of little sleep, the governor’s patience was in short supply.
            “At this range, we should be able to pick up some radio transmission, governor.  We’ve been operating under the assumption that… a catastrophic event occurred that wiped out all communication networks.”
            “Nuclear war,” Governor Counts said to voice what many long suspected happened to cease communications between the Maximus Prime colony and Earth.
            “Or an asteroid collision,” Dr. Campbell continued.  “Both would cause a disruption of communications, but both would also have left telltale signs in the atmosphere.”
            “The xenon isotope levels,” Governor Counts interjected.  Dr. Campbell nodded.
            “Xenon isotopes should be elevated, but our sensors indicated the levels are near where they were when the Sagan first left.”
           “And the impact of an asteroid?” Commander Southern asked.  All heads snapped towards the commander; when she spoke all listened.
           “An asteroid strike would have kicked up enough debris to choke the atmosphere with a mix of minerals that would be reflected in our scans,” Dr. Campbell replied.  “We’d also expect high levels of iridium, ash and…”
           “Bottom-line this for us, doctor,” Commander Southern interjected.
           “There’s no indication that Earth is inhabited by any human society.”  A murmur quickly spread amongst the assorted brass as the commander and governor, seated at opposite ends of the conference table, exchanged looks of alarm.  Then, with a word, the governor restored order.
          “Enough!” Governor Counts exclaimed.  “Dr. Campbell, are you saying Earth is no longer inhabitable?” he asked the science chief as all attention returned towards Dr. Campbell.
          “No, governor.  I’m saying… we’re saying that all indications are that Humanity has vanished from Earth.  We’re saying that when we arrive in Earth’s orbit, there likely won’t be anyone to greet us.”  Again, chatter enveloped the room as the governor and commander contemplated the doctor’s report.
         “Wait!” the commander exclaimed; silence reined once more.  “How can you be absolutely certain no human populations remain on the planet, doctor?”
         “We can’t, commander.”  The doctor leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table and folded his hands, his eyes ever focused on the commander.  “Yet, we’ve been gone for nearly three hundred years.  With communications having ceased not long after the Sagan’s initial departure, it seems logical that some kind of cataclysm occurred centuries ago.  Commander, I have to believe that if anyone survived, we’d be picking up some sort of transmissions by now.”
         “What if an environmental factor, a virus or contagion, wiped out Humanity?” Commander Southern asked.  “What if the Earth is uninhabitable?”
           “It’s possible commander, but we won’t know that for sure until we’ve put boots on the ground.” 
           “If it wasn’t nuclear warfare or an asteroid strike, we have to assume that a toxin or virus of some kind is responsible,” the governor added, drawing eyes to his end of the conference table.  “I can’t see a conventional war claiming all communities.”
           “I would agree,” the commander said as she focused her eyes on Dr. Campbell.  “But again, we won’t know anything until we land and run environmental tests on the air, water and soil.”
          “So, how do we proceed, doctor?” Colonel Leary asked, cutting through veil of queries.
          “I recommend we land a research team near the Great Lakes.  They’re the largest source of readily accessible fresh water, a good place to start.  Since the Sagan’s water reserves are in dire need of replenishing, that’s our first priority anyway.”
          “I take it you have a location in mind?” the governor asked.
          “I’m beginning to feel like a ping pong ball,” Doctor Campbell said as he turned to face Governor Counts.  “I think we should land along the Niagara Frontier in western New York State.  If there’s any contamination of the water supply, it would be most evident in the lower Great Lakes region.”
          “Then why not just land near the juncture between Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence?” the governor asked.
          “If there is any contamination, Lake Ontario is more likely to be a hot zone since all other lakes channel into it.  We are hoping that any water contaminates have been carried along to the Saint Lawrence seaway and that the elevation at Niagara Falls created a barrier, which allowed Lake Erie and the upper Great Lakes to filter out any remaining toxins.”
          “That’s a lot of guess work, Doctor Campbell,” Commander Southern said as she punched in a series of codes into a tablet resting in front of her.  The series of projection screens positioned on the wall to the commander’s left lit up, an isotopic map of the Niagara Frontier region replacing the dark screen.
      “It’s as good a place to start as any, commander,” Dr. Campbell replied as he stepped up to the central projection screen.  Then, after tapping the screen near the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, the map expanded to project details of the Buffalo and Niagara metropolitan areas.                  “We should arrive in September, barring any significant delays.  Even without human supervision, a variety of edible plant species and animals should be available for harvesting, unless they too were eradicated.  What’s more, the rapids of the Niagara River will serve as the perfect stage for placement of power generators.  Fresh water, food and energy, main staples we’ll need to start a new colony.”
“I sense there’s a catch?” the governor asked.  Doctor Campbell, his facade grim, nodded.
“The testing and engineering tasks will be easy enough, but our knowledge of the environment is considerably outdated.  We need to spend the next few months designing field equipment.  My team doesn’t have time to gather intel on the region’s resources and history.”
“Perhaps I can help with that task,” Colonel Leary said, his face now beaming with a sly smile.

***

           “You cannot escape!” the voice exclaimed as Francis ran through the unfamiliar woodlands.  Exhausted, Francis meandered around the endless blanket of trees and brush, the fading sunlight making it difficult to find any sense of a trail.  All the while, the calls of birds and crickets resonated through the woodlands, as did the call of wolves and coyotes.  Then, just when he felt he was gaining distance from his stalker, Francis’s trek ended at the edge of a ravine; all sounds vanished and midnight took hold.
           A horrid chuckle from the depths of the woods came from behind, and Francis turned to see if the beast would finally show itself.  Yet, instead of a monster or villain, all Francis Burns saw were multiple sets of red eyes staring back at him.  Set for the coming attack, Francis unsheathed the sword belted against his left hip.
           “The Foe Hammer will not stop me, boy,” the stalker said as a large, hairy form started to take shape within the darkness.  “You are mine!”  The dark form lunged at Francis before he could ready his sword”
           “No!” Francis exclaimed as he jumped up from his blanket, sweat covering his face and torso.
          “You’re all right, Francis,” a familiar voice said as a figure emerged from the shadows of a nearby spruce.  “You are safe.”
Comforted, having awakened from the ever-present nightmare, Francis wiped the sweat from his brow and stood to great Colonel Leary.
           “Same nightmare, I take it?” Colonel Leary asked as he embraced Francis, patting the young professor on the back to ease Francis’s fears.
           “I almost saw the beast this time, Uncle Paul.  Almost.”  Francis lowered himself back to his blanket as Colonel Leary picked up Francis’s copy of the Iron Tower trilogy.
           “Do you ever get sick of reading these?” he asked as he sat next to Francis.  The colonel then scanned the area where Francis spent most of his time.  This section of the arboretum was mixed with species of conifers and deciduous trees, mostly pines and maples.  Fan-generated winds coursed through the area, batting branches together, adding nature to an otherwise desolate existence of metal and machine, of mercury, iron, copper and lead.
           “The books help ease the attacks,” Francis replied before drinking from his water bottle.  “It’s hard to notice the anxiety when you’re running from Mordru or Sauron.”
           “It’s only a temporary fix though, Francis,” his Uncle Paul replied before handing back the book to his nephew.
          “Something up, Uncle Paul?”
          “I came to tell you that an operation is being planned for an initial landing on Earth when we arrive.  The plan is to land near Buffalo.”  Francis’s eyes lit up at the city’s name.
          “We’re going home?”
          “We’re going home, though the team is in need of someone with extensive knowledge of the region’s history and landforms.”
          “Nobody on the Sagan knows the region better than me, Uncle Paul.  I can help.”  It was a truth that the colonel did not question.
          “You’re the first one I thought of Francis, but this won’t be easy.  To prepare, you will have to leave the arboretum behind, train and bunk in the barracks with the other team members.  It’ll be nearly three months of immersion in everything you fight to avoid.  There will be no time for fantasy novels.  Are you ready for that?”
The plants of the arboretum kept his OCD at bay, allowing Francis to maintain some peace in the darkness and cold of space.  Earth offered the same soothing atmosphere only on a grander scale.  Once there, Francis knew he could dwell within woodlands for the rest of his days.  Yet, Francis questioned whether he could last during the three months of training, avoiding the only space on the Sagan that offered him sanctuary.
          “I’m in,” Francis finally said as visions of gigantic trees and a menagerie of myth-like animals pulled him through his moments of anxiety.  “I’m in.”





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