Thursday, January 14, 2010

Surface

*Follows Gateway

Matt feels like he's swimming, though he knows that's impossible. He's unsure why it's impossible, but he knows it is. He almost drowned once, a long time ago, but never developed the fear of water that his parents thought he would. They even went around for a time telling friends that little Matt was afraid of water because of the incident, and though Matt knew he wasn't, he played along. He was a good little boy, after all. But he never stopped swimming.

Eventually, Matt confronted his mother about the absence of such a fear, but neither of them ever built up the courage to do the same with his father. The befuddled and embarrassed look on his father's face after "little Matt" won his first 50 meter freestyle remains one of Matt's fondest memories. Still, as his swimming career progressed through high school, culminating in a scholarship at Stanford, Matt's father never admitted that he'd made a mistake. Instead, his father told stories about how Matt, instilled by his parents with a sense of resiliency, overcame the fear through dedication and hard work.

Because his girlfriend was going to the University of Texas, Matt didn't want to go to Stanford. But his father, too interested in the prestige involved in having a child at Stanford, pressed the issue. Inadvertently, a comment from Matt's father a few weeks later ended the argument. Watching the news about a low-intensity conflict happening somewhere in an unfortunate corner of the world, he heard his father utter, "Stupid-ass soldiers. Gotta be an idiot to join the Army."

Within 48 hours, Matt enlisted.

That was a lifetime ago, and Matt knew that he wasn't anywhere near water, but he still feels like he's swimming.

***

"Move! Move!" Roarke screams at the top of her lungs, fairly certain that nobody can hear her over the gunfire and even more certain that the other soldiers are already running. Corridor by corridor, Roarke and the remnants of her squad fight their way toward the docking platform. Pausing in a somewhat defensible hallway, Roarke does a quick headcount, counting five others, including an unconscious McDaniels carried by Estevez.

Estevez sets McDaniels down and breaks out a medical kit, quickly dressing McDaniels' sucking chest wound with a flutter valve. Though not a formal medic, Estevez worked as an EMT prior to enlisting, and he knows he's McDaniels' only hope for survival.

In a normal situation - or as normal as these situations tend to get - Rourke would be assisting Estevez in caring for the downed soldier, but something else was bothering her.

"Did you see what I did?" Sipalia asks. Surprising herself, Roarke feels relief that Sipalia is among the survivors. Though she is "Icy Bitch," Roarke knows she's a mere jolt or two away from losing it completely. There is a tinge of guilt as she quietly gives thanks that Sipalia is still alive and that Campbell is dead. Or, at least, missing. Nobody actually saw Campbell go down.

Roarke shakes her thoughts loose and returns to Sipalia's inquiry. "I don't know for sure, but I think that was our SOS guy."

"Same here," acknowledges Sipalia. "He had an issue weapon."

"Greene's?"

Sipalia shrugs and nods. They both have the same thought: Greene's definitely dead. Even if he were still alive, there's no way he's staying that way much longer without his carbine. How the astronaut wound up with it is another story. Sipalia catches Roarke's eyes and shakes his head in silent recognition.

Before either of them have time to digest the fact they might be abandoning the very person they came to rescue, Estevez slides up to them.

"How is he?" Roarke asks, referring to McDaniels.

"Not good. Pulmonary aspiration and pneumothorax," Estevez starts. He continues before Roarke can ask for clarification. "Blood's filling up his lungs. The shit's oozing out of every hole he's got."

"Will he make it?" Sipalia asks.

"I fucking doubt it."

"Leave him, then," Sipalia orders, in a cold and calculating manner that only the desire to live can contrive.

"No," Roarke interrupts. "We're almost to the docking ring. No man behind." Her glare is adamant.

As with Campbell, Sipalia is technically Roarke's superior, but Roarke has been the de facto in charge since Greene's disappearance. And Sipalia doesn't want to waste time arguing.

"Fine," concedes Sipalia. "Grab McDaniels," he says to Estevez, "We're leaving." Sipalia runs over to Vasquez and Nduom, tapping them to signal that it's time to move. It's an unnecessary gesture, but Sipalia feels the need to try to establish command.

The six survivors, with McDaniels on Estevez' back in a fireman's carry, bolt through the next corridor, shooting judiciously at anything that moves or they think might be moving. Ammunition is precariously low, and any desire to spray an avenue of approach with lead is overcome by discipline.

***

They make it to the docking ring after what seems like hours, and Sipalia hops into the dropship to check it out. There's an overwhelming deflation of hope as Sipalia calls out that the flight crew is dead. The pilot ripped to shreds like Hashimoto and some of the others, and the crew chief missing.

Roarke inhales slowly, trying to remain calm. Estevez places McDaniels on the floor and whips out a respiratory bag to keep McDaniels breathing. As Estevez squeezes the bag with his hands, blood foams from McDaniels' nose, mouth, and the puncture wound in his torso. Estevez knows he's wasting his efforts, but he keeps at it anyway.

Nduom fires down the corridor at approaching Things while Vasquez slides the pressure door shut. "Are we fucked now?" Nduom asks sarcastically as the door closes and seals. The Things begin pounding on it as if to answer, "yes." It's clear from the impacts that the door won't hold long.

Sipalia reenters the airlock from the dropship and looks like he's about to agree with the sentiment when something catches his eye. He whistles at Roarke and points behind her.

Roarke turns, then turns back and smiles. "Pressure suits."

Sipalia nods and orders, "Count 'em."

Roarke runs to the suit locker and stops counting at six. There are over a dozen suits, but they don't need that many. She gives Sipalia a thumbs up.

"We can go outside to the surface, get far enough away from the jamming source and call the orbiter," Sipalia says, to no one in particular.

"What about McDaniels?" Estevez asks, wiping sweat from his brow.

"What about him?" retorts Roarke, almost offended at the tone of Estevez' question.

Estevez holds out his hands in a defeated gesture. "We have to manually breathe him or he's a goner. We can't do that in the suits. I don't even know if we'll be able to carry him."

Roarke frowns, upset at the prospect of losing another comrade. But she knows that there's no arguing this time; they have no choice but to leave McDaniels behind. Sipalia, sensing Roarke's mood, kneels beside her and places a hand on her shoulder. Fighting back tears that almost escape, Roarke nods rapidly, trying to get her reluctant agreement out of the way as quickly as possible.

"There's another problem," Sipalia starts, leery of adding pressure to the situation. "These aren't tactical suits. Our fingers won't fit in the trigger wells."

Roarke shakes her head. "Will the guns even fire out there?" There's a hint of desperation in her voice.

"Hope we won't need to find out."

It's too much. The ice finally melts. Without thinking, she grabs Sipalia and kisses him on the mouth - an inexplicable attempt at feeling something human for perhaps the last time. There is no passion, but numb from an extended battle with an enemy they know nothing about, she is willing to try. In that futile moment, she attempts to recall every sexual encounter she's ever had, beginning with the loss of her virginity the night before her high school prom and ending with the oral sex she exchanged with a potential boyfriend the morning before the unit left Earth.

There's no arousal. And the only emotion inspired is disgust at Sipalia's confused smile.

"Mount up," she orders the others, motioning to the pressure suits. As she dons her own suit, she can't bring herself to look at McDaniels.

***

Matt's still swimming, but in rough waters now. It seems as though the entire ocean is trying to drown him, as if he mistakenly insulted it somehow. He's aware he's dreaming, but the fear he experiences when he's unable to break the surface of the water is very real. His mind blocked out what it feels like to drown, but his body very much remembers. He can't breathe, and his lungs are filling with fluid.

The dream morphs into nightmare and there's a recollection of combat. Accentuating the memory, bullets begin to zip through the water. He smiles for a moment, knowing for certain that none of this is happening, for the belief that bullets can zip through open water is only perpetuated by the movies. In reality - he knows from experience - bullets only penetrate water a few inches before they cease to be any danger.

But then the bullets stop and Matt suddenly wakes. Eyes open, Matthew McDaniels spits out blood in another attempt to breathe, but can't. The last image he sees is one of the Things rearing back, preparing to tear him apart.

And the last thing he feels is a rush of air.

*Followed by Equation

20 comments:

  1. Jeff, I like the way you laid this out. Intriguing. The last line was a perfect finish.

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  2. dang man. what a sight to wake up to...love how you wrapped the story within that moment for him.

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  3. I notice your new header states that Thursday is given over to "creative writing". That was certainly creative - and it was writing of the first order. Compulsive stuff (and that is a lot harder than most people seem to think)

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  4. Really well done. Once again, I was hooked from the beginning.

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  5. Great, tense piece. Sequel to Gateway or another chapter in the same book?

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  6. Wow...intense!

    Hey...very nice, spontaneous acrostic on my blog today! I'm impressed! ;)

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  7. I'm in favor of happy endings but this was riveting. Great post

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  8. STELLAR! Great treatment of the story line, JeffScape.

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  9. I read it twice! You are really gifted:)

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  10. Very nice! I loved it.

    Thanks for coming by my place and saying hi :)

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  11. Wow, Jeff. You are an incredible writer. Your ability to keep the reader trapped within your words until the very end is amazing. Impressed!

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  12. I was spellbound by this Jeff. I wouldn't read a blog psot this long when so many to go through but this was so full of twists an dI just had to read what happened after Matt enlisted, the dream, then reality and so on. Very gripping adn good.

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  13. Great story. I almost drowned once and so I do not like to swim underwater, above water is fine. I doubt I will ever recover and am thankful I have never passed my fear to my children or grandchildren. They swim like little fish.

    I was in the Army also, during the Vietnam war. Thank goodness I never had to go there, I had to listen to so many horror stories from my fellow soldiers. I still cannot watch movies from the Vietnam war, but my hubby can. It does not bother him at all. I guess in some way that after listening to so many first hand accounts of what went on, I do not need any reminders. I was surprised that I really enjoyed this story. It must have been because it happened on another planet. It kept me wondering as to what would happen next. Now I am scared of The Things. Will probably have nightmares about unknown things now. Okay, just kidding or at least I hope so.

    God bless.

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  14. You really know how to hook a reading audience...This was amazing...I read The Things They Carried last year and had the same sense of excitement when reading this...Great post!

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  15. Awesome and written with experience in the background. Totally spellbinding Jeff and I don't give compliments easily. I just love your narrative, it's clever, uncomplicated and always poignant. Now should I send you a larger hat?

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  16. so good - I like the way you capture a moment in time, but one that captures all that history and experience

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