Fuzzy sensations weaving in and out of consciousness, Zay gasped as he felt the stinging pain in his leg. Cracking open one eye and trying desperately to remember what had happened, he saw brown and green coming into focus. Zay thrashed in the thick collection of leaves that engulfed his position. A musty smell of wet soil and rotting green made him sputter as he tried with all his might to regain some link to who he was. Reeling with the force of the effort, Zay fell back onto the soft mossy earth and stared upward unable to see the tops of the redwoods surrounding him.
Third planet in the Rallis system—the memory came flooding back. Recoiling as if stung by the thought, he searched his pockets anxiously. He had downloaded precious information about the planet—if he could find the disc! Pain shooting into his mind and causing stars in his vision, Zay reached down to examine his small form. Broken. His lower limb was twisted and now that he had felt the extent of the damage, it had begun to hurt way worse.
Calm down—Zay’s internal voice attempted to lower his heart rate. However, in the slight fog and waning light his senses began to blur. Thoughts drifting to his family back aboard the craft, he lay very still. Something pulled at his heart. I will never see them again—his mind tried to destroy what was left of him as tears began to well in the corners of his eyes and he fought back his emotion with a loud sniffle.
Knowing that if he allowed the growing sense of loneliness to capture him he might die, Zay tried to focus on the information disc. Somewhere…it had to be somewhere on his person. Desperately shuffling through his ejection suit, he winced at the increase in pressure on his damaged leg. When he had trained for travel between worlds, they had taught him breathing techniques and he tried his best to remember his instructor’s words. In, out, slow breaths—a modicum of relaxation returned to strained muscles. With one hand, he wiped away the collected tears and with the other he sifted through the remains of his rations that had been in one of his suit pouches. Clearly he had landed harder than anticipated.
Lifting his head slowly in an attempt to locate his pod, Zay saw nothing but trees and leaves. He had been thrown free of the escape craft before impact. The hatch mechanism had probably saved his life, but he was lying helpless in the deep woods. Realizing that he had not planned his landing well, Zay let out a little noise of disapproval. His instructor would have been dissatisfied with his performance. He was Zay –superior student, skilled explorer, efficient shape changer! This could not happen to him.
Yet…here he was.
The thought occurred to him that his father might find his actions lacking— skilless — and Zay stifled a sob that rose in his throat. This could not be happening, he assured himself. “I will wake up in my sleeper and this will all have been a bad dream,” the sound of his own tones almost startled him in the quiet of the forest.
Sliding a hand back inside his suit almost without thinking, Zay felt his fingers connect with something flat and obtrusive. Pulling out the disc slowly from its hiding place, he let a smile glide briefly over his taut lips. Maybe he was not so inept after all.
The charred and fused stone had seemed exceedingly heavy as Jane lugged it into the cloth bag she had carried to the impact site. Long a collector of interesting objects, she had just the spot in mind to display her new trophy.
Shielding her eyes against the brightness of the sky, she cast a quick glance upward and her mind drifted to thoughts of where the meteor may have originated. Far, far away in space someone was wondering what had become of a treasured doorstop. Jane laughed lightly in the morning air, the sound carrying like ripples through the deep green.
Cat nowhere in sight, the woman began the climb back up to the top of the rise only minimally plagued by clouds of gnats floating in the warming air. She brushed at the insects and stopped for a moment to stare over the horizon. Mind wondering to the first time she had ever gone chasing a falling star, she was instantly transported back to her college days.
It had been a warm summer night and she had been only a girl really. The professor of the astrophysics class she had signed into had scheduled an elective excursion into the hills near the coast. The truth was that Jane had not been as interested in the sky back then—not really. That worldly man of books had deep green eyes and lips that curved ever so gently upward at the corners. She sighed audibly, recalling his face. What was the man’s name— Jane struggled hard to remember, but it eluded her.
With a child-like quality she recalled the crush. His lecture on interstellar debris, his almost reverent regard of textbooks, the way he combed blond hair to the side—all of it came flooding back and she let herself be a young woman again if just for a minute.
Reality biting like the gnats into the softest of flesh, Jane felt the weight of the rock pulling at the strap of her bag. The truth was that Jane Withers was alone…had been alone…might always be alone. It was not that she was unhappy with herself. She had lived a productive and prosperous life. At sixty-two, Jane hardly counted herself as ‘old’ with all of its implications of musty, unused and dried. The problem in her mind was that she was still a young woman inside with so much to share, to give –way more to offer now than she had as a mere child.
Young love, with its uncountable mysteries, had side stepped that part of her life.
Jane would happily carry her found treasure back into her world of dusty objects and bright straw hats. She only wished that she was not forever remembered as the crazy old cat lady with the strange collections that went entirely unappreciated. At least Sheldon loved her—where was that cat?
Driving the white panel van up the steep redwood covered hills made Cyrus a little nervous. The trees were rushing past his side windows a bit too quickly and the fresh air was catching in his lungs. This was the first time he had been out of the observatory— excluding, of course, the short trip between work and home—for many months. When he tried to remember exactly when he had last arranged an outing of this sort, his mind hitched in little circles and then locked onto last week’s calendar of star sightings. Cyrus did not like admitting that he was wrong about anything especially his own decisions about personal wellbeing. If he had been at the telescope too long, someone else would have surely noticed and commented.
At a sharp turn past tall trees, Cyrus stopped himself from yielding to a rising sense of panic in his intestines. He had to reassure himself that it was very unlikely that anyone else had made a particular note of the morning meteor fall. Alone on the road, he would also no doubt find himself alone in the forest.
A normal man approaching seventy years slows down a little each time life presents a challenge, but Cyrus had never been one to give in to such luxuries. He considered himself to be ‘as sturdy as ever’ and on most days he could prove it. His mind remained sharp and his ideas fresh, making him the envy of most in his rather esoteric field, but not without challenge. Today he had deferred to authority. His superiors had requested…no demanded…that he show them the unusual rock that had so genuinely caught his interest that he had spent hours of time and their money, not to mention resources, in an attempt to classify it. Cyrus had a reputation to maintain and he was not about to roll over and retire.
The pressure was on.