I was terrified. Every noise of the night seemed monstrous. I saw nothing in the dark; I collided with a hundred things in the first five minutes, and to this day I can only guess at what they were.
I blundered on. And as I blundered, I went through the first of what I would go to sleep with every night for the rest of my life. I conducted an enquiry: Why did the engines suddenly begin to fail? What did I do wrong in attempting to restore the balance? When had they actually begun to fail … was it, for instance, as soon as we started them up at home? Had they never actually been right, and I, fool, had not noticed? Had we in fact been lucky to reach this planet at all, before the trouble became too catastrophic? Could I, in short, have done anything differently; and if I had, would it have made a difference? I could not know … all my life I would continue to ask these questions.
And I tried to convince myself that in fact it had not happened – that I was sleeping aboard the ship, and would waken at any time now, and shake my head ruefully, and go on about my duties, safe and sound. But I was not safe and sound, and I knew it.
I blundered on. And on. It seemed to me that I would never get out of this trackless maze of sharp objects in the dark, of unknown voices crying who knew what, in response to what, with the object of what. And why did the engines fail? And Joro. Poor, luckless Joro.
It was dawn, gradually filtering through the trees, that brought a measure of a sort of calm. First of all, I could see the trees, at last, and pick my way among them, so that the innumerable bristlings of branchlets and twig stickers lessened to almost nothing. I was bleeding, lightly, from a hundredfold pervasions of my skin, and my coverall was punctured and stained with blood and sap, but all of me was functioning, and with dawn the quality of noises, too, went through a diminishment, so I found that I was clearly less nervous, and that, too, helped calm me. But what was I to do? Where was I to go?
Indeed, my options seemed so few. So very few. Here I was, stranded for life, with nothing beyond what I could carry, and who would give me shelter, who would give me a place of livement, when the situation would produce questions I could not answer? What was I to do? Where was I to go? And, asking myself these questions, I moved on, with neither plan nor direction, with no purpose beyond sheer survival, and what good, really, was that?
I confess it freely – if I had had a weapon, at certain points on that first morning, I would have, indeed, turned it on myself … if I could have thought of a way to do so and yet conceal the weapon after my death. It is good that doctrine does not allow us to salvage weapons, for surely a weak being might not, in the last extremity of despair and spiritual debility, take as much care for the last part as he should, and would leave a mysterious and rankling corpse, and beside it a weapon of great puissance and intrigue; it was good that the doctrine did not permit us to salvage weapons, I repeated to myself, and sobbed.
It became clear to me, too, that we had fallen into a very peculiar part of the planet. It was good for nothing. Fenced off on the seaward side by cranberry bogs, fenced off on the west by unguessable territory that eventually became America as most people knew it, ending to the north but where the trees were short and spindling, the soil was essentially sand; I could understand, I suppose, why it was the only stretch of the Eastern Seaboard for hundreds of miles in either direction that showed almost no lights at night – a blotch of darkness upon the lacy webworks that otherwise adorned the edge of this continent. We were come upon a wasteland … as was calculated, true, when emergency landing areas were designated, but in fact ‘emergency landing area’ was a sort of joke, wasn’t it, intended to somehow give the impression that things were somehow under control somehow even after a crash, but they were not under control, were they? No, they were not under control; nothing was under control.
I came to a field, in the midst of nowhere. I had been moving through scrub pine, precisely – tedious, unsatisfactory stuff, surely useless for any purpose but to break the hearts of people who tried to find some purpose in it. And suddenly, without warning, I came to a clearing.
Thunderstruck, I barely managed to keep myself back in the trees, and peered out at what this might be. And what this might be was an opening in the pines – not so much a field as an opening, unlinked to anything, really, at one margin of which was a small dwelling place that seemed to be cobbled together of whatever came to hand rather than planned, and a truck, very old and badly dented, and motionless forever, I suspected, for the tires were flat, and the windshield was opaque with fractures. It sat at the end of two ruts that disappeared among the trees; only that much road had sufficed to bring it here, to die.
I looked at this, not knowing what to do. I was afraid: to commit, finally, to having intercourse with these people; to having to speak their language; to masquerade as one of them. That was very hard to contemplate. Anything – almost anything at all – and I would delay the moment. And then a dog began to bark, and I retreated back into the woods, and went around the field, and went on; I went on I don’t know how long, and came to another place, somewhat like the first but even smaller, in a bare clearing, no truck, no dog, no road at all leading up to it that I could see, and I circled around it and drew closer, eventually: a hovel, without any sign of life – perhaps, I thought, abandoned; a place, I thought, where I might rest and plan my next move, and I pulled aside the rotting blanket that hung over the entrance and ducked quickly inside.
There was only the one room. In the little bit of light that came in the one window, I saw a camp stove, very old and battered, and a chair, and a rickety old chest of drawers, and a cot, bare except for a stained uncovered pillow and a blanket only marginally newer than the one which hung in the doorway. There was no one inside – perhaps had been no one in a long time, I thought, but I suddenly did not care. I think I realized, somehow, that if I were asleep it would not be my fault what happened from then on.
I laid myself down on the cot, and wrapped the blanket around me, and thought that it had been such a long time since I had slept, and so much had happened, so much had changed forever since the last time I had closed my eyes … and I slept.
I do not know how long it was before I heard a voice say: ‘Wake up. Wake up, now.’ I opened my eyes, hardly knowing where I was, or who, and peered across the tiny room in a growing heart-stopping panic, and saw an old man sitting calmly in the straight chair. He held across his lap a rifle – a single-shot .22, I later learned, with which he hunted small game – and despite this he did not look particularly menacing. He was very old, really, to my far younger eyes. He looked at me and said again, ‘Wake up, now.’ And then he laughed, and though technically I could not be sure, because laughter after all might be subtly different here, in fact I was positive, from the first moment I saw him, that he was hopelessly crazy; and I was right … the laughter was too free, too delighted by very small things; he was as … batty as a bedbug.
Which is not to say that most of the time he was not as sane as anyone. It was, however, to say that his bridges were down, and had been replaced by extravagant structures which were much more daring, if less well able to carry a load, than normal.
His name was Jack English, and he was of an indeterminate age but probably sixty-five or so. He had lived in this spot in the pine barrens for a very long time, as far as I could tell, and I believe at one time he had had a wife, but twenty or twenty-five years ago she had disappeared, and he did not expect to see her again. He laughed again.
He lived, as I said, in the pine barrens, and like most people who lived there he lived on land that was not his own, but did not seem to belong to anyone else, either, and he lived in a house that, basically, he could walk away from in ten minutes, move a mile in any direction, and duplicate in very short order. He had no power or running water, of course; the result was the only constraint on him – that he live near a creek. But he had not actually moved in over twenty-five years.
He told me this, and more, as the morning wore on. I sat on a box, and he sat in a chair.
We conversed. That is, he asked me who I was and what I did; what had brought me to the pine barrens – which was the first I knew of them – and what had brought me to his dwelling place in particular. But when I tried to tell him – that my name was Charlie Mortimer, that I was part of a special Army detachment, that I was lost – he would laugh and call me a liar. Maybe my name was Mortimer, though he doubted it, but that I was part of the U.S. Army he doubted very much, for I carried no military gear, and he doubted if I could be so lost as to be completely separated from the rest of my group; he doubted if I was lost at all. What did I want with him, specifically; why had I come to his dwelling place? And when I tried to tell him I had not come to his dwelling place except by accident, he just laughed and laughed. And finally he said, in his crazy way: ‘You know what I think, Mr Mortimer? I think you came down in a flying saucer, and you’re trying to fool me. That’s what I think. Either that, or you’re an escaped prisoner. That’s what I think. And you know what, Mr Mortimer? I don’t give a shit, really, as long as you don’t pull nothing stupid.’
So passed my first morning on Earth. And this is hard to explain, but after a while he showed me how to cook a meal out of a dead squirrel and some flour, and we ate it, from a plate and a cardboard thing like a plate, with a knife for him and a fork for me, and it tasted delicious. Of course, I had not eaten in a long time, but it tasted delicious. And we drank some wine from a glass jug he had, and in due course it was time to go to sleep, the sun going down. And he showed me a corner of the hut where I could bed down, apparently not being at all afraid of me.
And the next day was much the same, and in about a week he went off and came back with a fresh jug and a loaf of bread and some other necessities, though we continued to depend on squirrel and other small creatures for our main dishes, he being very good with the rifle, and the weeks became months and somehow we managed. Sometimes we went days without speaking, once the initial freshet of lies and half-truths was exhausted. I cooked, and did not ask for anything, and this seemed satisfactory to him. That and the occasional night I spent on the bed with him.
And in due course – in a year or two – he let me go to the general store several miles away, on the edge of the barrens, and trade various things, such as cranberries or various things we found in the woods – axes and saws and such, if we were careful, for their owners might notice – for the staples we needed. By then I was wearing a pair of bib overalls, of course. At least, I recall I was … there was a certain mistiness to the entire experience … and in a few more years, one morning he died. But by then I was acclimated pretty well to life as an Earthman, and in a few weeks I left, with the contents of a buried jar of cash – a hundred and twelve dollars it was, which he had finally shown me the day before he died.
I worked as a dishwasher in a diner for a while, coming out of the barrens, and then I was a day laborer for a while, and then I wrote away for my birth certificate, living in a town called May’s Landing. What you do is, you scan the back files of the newspaper until you find an infant that died about the time you want to be born, and you write away for a copy of the birth certificate, and from then on it’s you. On the outside.
I think that was the bravest single thing I did. Suppose somebody else had already written for that particular certificate? I got a post office box and everything, and let it lay in the box for a week, and snatched it at last, and left town immediately. Even so, I went clear across the country, by train to Oakland. There I got a job drafting, and living in a room, and thought I would spend the rest of my life in Oakland, which I liked as much as I liked anything. But Eikmo ran into me, or I ran into Eikmo, and I moved to Chicago … or, to be precise, Shoreview. And there I ran into Dwuord Arvan, and I knew it was no good, and then eventually I read the paper, and I couldn’t help but confront Dwuord, and that was the last straw; it really was.
You must understand that I turned my head and saw that my hand was going to make contact with the third rail, and I could have stopped myself – I thought about the postmortem, but I suddenly realized I would not care.
You understand? It had come down to that. To hell with the whole game. And I reached out my hand deliberately, and died in violet fire.
– Never revealed. A.B.