It’s weird how, in the last few seconds of your life, everything becomes strangely, almost absurdly clear.
For me, that clarity brought with it the realization that all of this, everything that happened, came about because I ignored orders and went for a hike.
And that hike, in turn, happened because of my father.
Not that my father was a bad man, you understand. No, he was a normal, hardworking, blue-collar sort of guy. We didn’t have much money, which meant that we didn’t have much in the way of entertainment, and the rabbit-ears balanced on top of the television never seemed to pick up a good signal, no matter how much tinfoil my mother wrapped around them. So instead of plopping down with Junior and watching the Sunday football game, my father instead took me out on walks.
We might not have had much in the way of digital entertainment, but at least we had some good views. Not that I appreciated them at the time, being a snotty-nosed brat who felt enviously that my buddy Blake, whose dad sank all his bonus money into a fifty-inch flatscreen with digital HD hookups, had all his luck and most of mine as well. My dad would bring me up to the bluffs, brushing aside the leaves on the wide-branched trees to make it easier for me. He’d gesture out at the cliffs, the sky on fire from the setting sun, and he’d ask me what I thought.
Mainly, I thought that I’d much rather be watching football at home, feet propped up on our ratty old couch.
I never told the old man, though. Why ruin his idea that he was doing his son a solid by bringing him out into the wilderness? And besides, I picked up a few tricks: how to tell direction from the moss and by cutting chips into the tree trunks, how to move silently enough to sneak up on the gamey rabbits that hopped to and fro, how to follow the trails of animals, how to keep an eye on vegetation and figure out the best route to a nearby water source. Useful knowledge, not that I knew it at the time.
Although now that I’m thinking back on it, with that newfound clarity that I mentioned earlier, I might have been better off if I’d never learned a single damn thing about the outdoors.
My daddy and those nature walks might be the real cause of my current predicament, of this whole can of worms that I dug up, which turned out to actually be a big ol’ pit filled with hungry snakes – but they weren’t what really started me off. See, I may talk with a bit of a drawl, look like a country hayseed, but I’ve read a few books. Cheapest thing to do during my downtime, aside from walking out of bounds, out in the wilderness and getting myself in deeper shit than my boots can handle.
In books, there’s always an event at the beginning of the story. It’s called the inciting incident. Like the first rock that starts the avalanche, it’s a tiny, innocuous little thing, especially on its own – but it gets the whole plot moving, eventually bringing it all down on the hero like, well, an avalanche.
And for me, that inciting incident turned out to be the glint, a sparkle coming up from the edge of the water.
Damn, but if I’d just ignored it, assumed that it was light off a chunk of rock, nothing more – but if wishes were fishes, we wouldn’t be eating beans for dinner, as my dad used to say. Turns out that I got some of his country phrases, not just his outdoor skills and his golden-blonde hair. I also got his inflaggable sense of curiosity.
Carefully, I picked my way down the rough trail towards the water, heading towards where I saw that glinting from the shore’s edge. There really wasn’t much of a trail at all, basically just a path that some of the local wildlife had made through repeated use. No other people ventured out here, at least – as far as I could tell, I was the only one to move out more than a couple hundred feet away from the compound. The execs seemed to prefer to leave exploration up to the surveying robots.
I moved slowly, cautiously. The woods out here seemed peaceful, but I knew better than to believe that particular lie. Strange, considering how many other lies I swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, but those ones came from people. Guess I’m better at reading nature.
I also saw Ayers, probably the only other guy in the group to venture out into the woods. The bots hauled him straight off to the infirmary, but not before we all got a good look at his swollen hand. Guy was in too much pain to talk, but I recognized the signs of a pretty severe allergic reaction.
And I found the plant that did it, a week later. Thankfully, I’m not as much of an oaf as Ayers, so I only brushed a single finger against the creeper before the tingling warned me to pull back – but even that brief contact was enough to leave me wincing in pain for the rest of the day. I guess I ought to be grateful that I didn’t step on anything outright poisonous, but that’s small comfort when my finger feels like I shoved it into one of our mining drills.
So I took my time getting to the edge of the water. Took me a good twenty minutes, and I knew that I wouldn’t have long to poke around down there before I’d need to head back. During downtime, no one cared to monitor my tracker, figure out where I’d gone, but that only held as long as I showed up for my shift. If I missed the start of my shift, I’d get hell from the other guys – and the Company might start taking a bit more interest in my movements during off hours.
Still, despite the clock running inside my head, I stood for a few seconds at the edge of the shoreline, just gazing out across the vast expanse of water. One of the moons hung two hands above the horizon, the other just starting to peep its round head up from the edge. That sight reminded me that, as much as this felt like the forests back home, I needed to keep on my toes. We knew shit-all about this planet, despite the Company claiming to have conducted “extensive investigations” into its surface and the creatures upon it. Everyone recognized that particular lie, at least. No, the Company only cared about the rare minerals beneath the surface, and getting as much of those rare elements out of the ground, where they didn’t do anybody no good, and up into our hands, where we could use them to build more spaceships, oxygen purifiers, carbon scrubbers, nutrient reclaimers, landing thrusters, mining drills, and everything else that society demanded to feed its ever-present hunger.
Inspiring, ain’t it? Capitalism, still alive and well, despite what all the fancy talkin’ heads were saying on television last century. Still growing, still hungry, and still willing to pay bumpkins like me to carry out the dangerous, dirty work of getting the raw materials to feed its appetite.
Not that I’m likely to see any of that money, now. Not much use for money when I’m dead.
But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I got down to the water, admired the alien sunset for a bit, and then headed over towards where I last saw that glinting. I guessed that I’d find a rock, maybe a crystal of some sort. Could be some sort of metal deposit, revealed by the lapping waves. Or, maybe some bit of plastic junk had blown away from the compound, landed in the water. In that case, I’d be doing the planet a favor by picking up litter. One small act, to make up for plunging a drill deep into her bosom and chewing her mineral organs away.
I picked my way over the rocks of the beach. No sandy paradise here! I’d seen the glint just a little further over, just past the big rock that looked rather like a severed nose…
I climbed over that rock, looked down. Well, there it was. No trouble spotting the thing that was out of place amid the rocks and lapping waves.
Bile came rushing up, saliva flooding into my mouth, and I puked into the water beside me.
A hand, roughly severed, floated on the other side of that rock. The fingers were splayed out, and a large, rather gaudy looking metal ring on one of the fingers caught the light. That had been the source of the glint.
Shit. Vomit came again, but I forced it down, took deep breaths and looked straight ahead, back at the horizon. Breathe. Don’t freak out. Don’t lose your head and panic, Alan. Keep your damn self under control.
Maybe five minutes passed, as I fought to get myself under control. I stood out there, on the rocks, probably exposing myself to every damn predator in the area, but I couldn’t think about that. I’d found a hand, a human hand, and everything else seemed less pressing than figuring out what to do next.
I knew, of course. I didn’t want to do it, and I tried half a dozen ways of talking myself out of it, but I knew what I had to do.
I headed back to the shore, poked around a bit among the brush until I found a decent size stick, a good four feet long. Hefting it, I returned out and very gingerly pulled the hand up, pushing it onto the rocks.
Now came the really gross part.
Using the stick to push down against the wrist, I pinned the hand in place. Reaching down, I grimaced, holding my breath. My hands slipped over the wet metal of the ring, and I nearly lost the remaining contents of my stomach again as my fingers brushed against the cold, dead flesh, soft and puffy. I worked the ring back and forth, feeling it cling to the flesh beneath. It complained, fought back, but eventually, finally, loosened.
I held it up, looking at it in the light of the setting sun. Now, this was a real problem.
See, I recognized that ring. Gaudy piece of shitty jewelry like this? That kind of thing drew eyes. And the ring’s owner, Lyman, had even showed it around, as if rubbing its ugliness in our faces.
“My girl back home’s wearing one just like it,” he bragged, as if this somehow made things better. “Only got a couple months left on my contract, and then I’m out of here, rich as shit and ready to go kick back and relax for a couple decades!”
“Bull, Lyman,” some wag called out. “You know that you’ll spend it all in a couple months, be right back here next year to earn another chunk.”
Lyman shook his head. “No way. Shit, boys, you should see the zeroes on my bank account.”
“All at the front, are they?” That got a chuckle.
Lyman laughed with us, took the good-natured ribbing. But he slipped that gaudy monstrosity of a ring back onto his finger, wore it every day. Sometimes, I found him lying in his bunk, holding the ring in his fingers and turning it slowly as he gazed through it. He laughed at the jokes, but that ring was his string, tying him back to our homeland.
We all had our strings, I suppose. All of us had things that we worked for, reasons why we slaved away in the mines out here, why we took such a dangerous job for such a lucrative paycheck.
But Lyman would never have let that ring out of his possession, much less out of his sight. He’d worn it on his last day, a week ago, as we all cheered him onto the skyplane that would take him home.
So that meant that this hand, this severed bit of flesh that washed up on shore, belonged to…
The puke came again, and this time I let it all out, a stain on the beach. Only once my stomach was fully empty did I turn around. Slipping the ring into a pocket of my jumpsuit, I stumbled away, back up the cliffs, back towards the compound.
Inciting incident, right there. Might have been all of it, if I’d kept my damn mouth shut.
But like a fool, I did just the opposite, landing myself on a path that carried me directly past the frying pan and straight into the fire.