Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Story: Alone on the Range

Alone on the Range
I um..we counted...we counted it all wrong, completely wrong. We got close, but close is never close enough, now is it? There were twelve of us, rowdy young lads, all early 20s. We set off in search of new land and new opportunities. The word out was that this planet was a rich bounty of the precious metal Citrium along with great ol heaps of untainted land piss drunk on oil. That’s what they said, the gunslingers sittin around the saloon talking out their asses sipping cosmic whisky served by silver bartenders with loose bolts and rusty grins. That’s what they all said; only a few old timers with dusty wrinkles could second that. We each wanted to be one of the few, one of those old space cowboys. Our horse was the Range. She was quick, smooth and quiet as a night in the desert. We counted up the fuel, herded up the live stock and poured up the whisky.

            Well, it's been drunk for years. The food supply just about ate up. We didn’t have to worry much about that, one of the few things we know is how to keep food. The live stock flourished in the pasture bay of the Range.  Amazing how pasture bay functions. Seeds are planted on a mat under the floor, constantly wet with Citrium charged water. The precious metal leeches nutrients mixed in flowing water. Grass sucks up the rich water and feeds off of the bay’s 100 odd synth-bulbs, quite a piece of engineering. Then, of course, the herd eats the grass and drinks the water. Sure is slick.

 Once we got stuck, energy was conserved by diverting battery power to pasture bay exclusively. We had to sit and drink in the dark. We cooked steer by campfire just like the olden days. Pasture bay went out a year ago. I’ve been living off the remains of the herd, meat kept by salting.

We had the planet in sight, we were almost there. The Range hit planetary orbit, but we didn’t have the fuel to get out; now we're circling this lump like a tumble weed, drifting aimlessly with no strength of our own, have been for the past 60 years. Ain’t no one seen our smoke signals. We took some off the battery to charge the incinerator. A plume of smoke drifted out her back, a beautiful thing to watch, like pipe smoke circling around until it’s blown away. Out here there’s no wind to blow it away, but it drifts all the same. We prayed that someone would see the mass on radar, the airy sign of our distress. Hasn’t been a soul, we were starting to think the planet is uninhabited. We waited and got older. I sent the last one out a year ago. I picked up his withered body, still warm, tattered hat on his head and boots still on his feet. His gun was as clean as the day he got it, silver and shiny, he polished it constantly. He was still heavy for an old timer like me. I loaded him into the pine box, made from the cattle barn boards. I pushed him out the transport hatch. I watched as the wooden box drifted into the eternal night. I would bury him if I could, just like we did back home with old Chester. The only problem was this is the great frontier in the sky, there’s no dirt or sand. That is the ground out there; cold like six feet deep. Stars sparkled like sand reflecting sunlight. Now that the last one is gone, who will push me out? Maybe I should do it myself and drift off into the night, or maybe I should just wait.

He went to pasture bay and slowly walked up toward the wood pile that used to be the barn. He found some boards of the correct size. He started nailing the sides together and found a door for the top. His hands held a nail, trembling. His old twisted fingers managed to nail a handle to the top. He stood up and held his coffin by the handle. He slowly walked down the hill, dragging the coffin behind him, dry pine scraping dead grass along the way until he reached the main hallway to the ship. He rested, breathed deep and reached for the handle. He continued down the hall until he reached the large boarding room containing the transport hatch.

I suppose it’s time now. He picked up the switch for the hatch, the long cord stretching from the side of the door and brought it with him to his coffin. He dragged the serpentine cord like a dead rattle snake. Once he pushes the button, the hatch will swing open and anything within the bay will be sucked out into the abyss. He climbed into the box holding the dusty control switch, circling the button with his thumb. Once he pushes it, he’ll have a few seconds to throw the switch out and close the door before he flies out. The door to his coffin remained open, dangling on its rusty hinges. He drifted off to sleep.

He woke with a jerk, something hit the ship, a slight nudge, and then it happened. He drifted off again. The hatch began to open; he woke with a jerk as wind rushed past him. His wooden home crept forward toward the hatch, making a terrible grinding sound. It picked up speed until it was stopped.

A large figure dressed in a white padded space suit at the opening held his foot against the coffin and looked down at the dying old man. Another, smaller figure stood next to him. They made garbled sounds to each other as the old man drifted off again.

He awoke in the dark to the sound of the pine box dragging across the floor. An intense joy consumed him. He thought to himself: finally someone came! I won’t have to do this alone, someone will push me out; send me out like the others, like I did for them. He drifted off to sleep for the last time as he was dropped into the cold sky.

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