Rite of Exile: The Silent Tempest, Book 1

By E.J. Godwin

Fantasy

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697
8 mins

Falling Man

Caleb Stenger opened his eyes. Blackness. A black so complete he feared the long sleep through space had ruined his sight.
He listened. His breath rasped against the close walls of the hibernation capsule, and a slow heartbeat throbbed in his ears. He was alive.
Have we landed? Why is the monitoring system taking so long to revive us?
Caleb shifted his weight on the contoured pad. Something scratched him, distant yet unmistakable. He lifted an arm, groaning as he forced his muscles to obey. His hand struck a flat surface, one much closer than the curved lid of his capsule.
A sudden apprehension sharpened his senses. The stench of ozone and burning circuitry stung his nostrils; broken glass covered his chest and arms. The texture of the surface above came to his fingertips: metal, not glass.
Caleb slid his hand to the left, stopped at an array of recessed, circular control switches, and froze.
The only equipment that size belonged to the artificial hibernation system.
It lay across the short walls of the capsule, all its indicators dark, entombing the life it was programmed to revive. Air had seeped in through the cracks, slowly awakening him over a period of—how long?
Warren!
A vision of his nine-year-old boy gulping for air set his heart pounding. Blood raced through his body like fire. Twisting like a contortionist, he braced his hands and knees above him and pushed.
The monster scraped and snapped in protest. A seam of light crept in, but no more.
He let go, gasping from the effort. The terminal was caught on something. He shifted his position to gain more leverage, clenched his teeth, and heaved.
A heavy snap, and with a riot of grinding sparks and scrapes the entire machine slid off the container and crashed to the floor. The lighted ceiling overhead shone like a blessed revelation.
Caleb tumbled over the edge of the capsule. Intravenous catheters snapped away from his wrists and ankles; glass fell from his chest like icicles. He stood, his breath rasping in and out, his torn jumpsuit soaked with sweat.
A mass of warped and shattered equipment lay across the room; frayed cables like tentacles sparked against the floor. A red display flashed and buzzed over the entrance: EVAC ALERT — CRASH LANDING.
He stumbled over the debris to the next capsule. Warren lay utterly still, his young face a pallid blur beneath fogged glass.
Caleb yanked and pulled on the mechanical release until his arms ached. Jammed.
He glanced around for something to use as a club, and spotted Warren’s aluminum baseball bat sticking out from under the wreckage. Caleb wrenched it back and forth, cursing at his lingering weakness, stopping once to wipe the sweat from his eyes. At last he pulled the bat free and fell backwards, grazing his scalp on the side of Warren’s capsule.
He leaped up. A cautious blow left only a blemish on the curved glass. Time was running out. He planted his feet, raised the bat high, and swung.
Nothing.
“Come on, damn you!” A surge of strength fired Caleb’s limbs, and he brought the bat down with every ounce of fury he could muster.
The glass crystallized. He forced himself to slow down, clearing the fragments away until his son’s face appeared.
Warren’s lips were turning blue.
Caleb set his ear against Warren’s chest. The thump of the child’s heart grew fainter with every beat, slower and slower. Caleb pinched the button nose, terror engulfing him as he puffed gentle bursts of air into Warren’s lungs. One breath. Two. Three.
The small chest rose and fell; color returned to the skin. Eyes opened, bright and blue as usual, but they wandered aimlessly, as if witnessing a dream.
Caleb shook the limp form, but there was no response. “Answer me, Warren. Warren!”
Only one hope remained: the medical supply room. Caleb removed the catheters one by one, applying a few seconds of pressure to each wound. Then he lifted Warren out of the capsule and stumbled through the wreckage to the door, arms shaking from the strain.
He activated the switch with an elbow, then halted for a moment in the corridor beyond. It ran more than half the length of the ship along the starboard side, from the bridge far to his left to the cargo hold closer to his right; yet he saw no sign of fire or any other threat.
Another jab at the control silenced the alarm. He turned right and stopped at the next door, the words Medical Supplies stamped bold and blue across its gray, satin finish. Precious seconds ticked by as Caleb’s half-fogged brain struggled to recall the security code, Warren’s limp body draped across his arms.
His third attempt succeeded, but his hopes fell at the broken equipment scattered across the room. Then he spotted a portable medical scanner lying half buried beneath the rubble. He lowered his son to the floor and hurried over to inspect the device. Though there was no indication of damage, the screen refused to come to life no matter how much he tweaked the controls.
A green light caught his attention: a power terminal on the wall above Warren’s head. Caleb leaped over, clicked the scanner in place, and sighed with relief when alphanumeric characters flickered into view.
It took even longer to remember the complex password for Warren’s neural implants. Though Caleb had never been a fan of this technological invasion of the mind, they allowed devices like this one to perform a full physiological analysis, exactly what he needed. The scanner took a few minutes to study the current brain map, then compared it to the one stored in the ship’s medical database.
Caleb narrowed his eyes at the glowing screen. The words harbored no cruelty or compassion, only cold facts. Cerebral hypoxia. Lack of oxygen had damaged the frontal lobe, especially the areas that controlled speech and higher cognitive functions.
Warren’s mind had been reduced to that of a three-year-old.
Caleb stared at the results, searching for a way to dismiss them. Damned thing’s been through a crash, his condition might improve in a few hours. On and on the denials paraded.
A button with the word PROGNOSIS flashed below the results. It mocked him, pulsating like a heartbeat, daring him to face the truth.
He reached a trembling hand toward the screen.

PATIENT: Warren Amaruq Stenger
CURRENT AGE: 9.71 yrs.
LIFE EXPECTANCY: 9-10 more yrs.
RECOMMENDATION: Bionic research facility in Reykjavik.

Caleb clenched his jaw, desperate to hold back the storm. To release it was to accept it.
It tore out of him, echoing through the ship.
He flung the scanner across the room, smashing it against the wall. For a while he sat hunched over, waiting for the nightmare to end. Then he drew Warren into his arms and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, like a child himself, sinking into a black pit of loneliness deeper than he had ever known.
The lights flickered, and a loud bang down the corridor signaled the final throes of the hibernation room. There was no going back.
He forced himself into a semblance of control. Their survival depended on it. They had crashed. Though the gravity felt typical of Earth’s colonies, Caleb needed to know for sure.
Lifting Warren again he trudged back down the hallway, struggling through the debris until he reached the bridge. The door opened at a touch: the security code he had entered was for ship-wide access. He stepped through, and a quick scan told him the bridge had escaped the worst.
Caleb headed for the console, shuffling his feet through a layer of dust. He lowered his son into the first of three cushioned swivel chairs, and sat in the middle one to its left. Each panel looked like the next, a featureless blanket of gray. He used his shredded sleeve to wipe the dust away until a small red circle of light appeared. A jab of his finger turned it green; the console flickered for a few seconds, then surged to life.
An array of heads-up holographic screens popped into view. He studied them one by one. The ship was nowhere near Kepler-22b, their original destination. It had crashed on a planet even more similar to Earth: same length of day, oxygen within two percent tolerance, and a single yet smaller moon. But the star pattern the ship had recorded before the crash was so unfamiliar even the navigation system couldn’t make sense of it.
He tapped out the command to slide back the heat shield. A soft, rose-tinted light flooded the room. Large cracks ran across the window, refracting the sight before him: rolling plains of tall grass, scattered groves of woodland, and in the distance, a range of mountains like faint shadows against a rising sun. It reminded him of the computer-generated holograms of old Earth, before the explosion of technology had wiped out nearly every natural habitat. But there were no signs of civilization—no roads, no buildings, not even a fence.
Caleb turned his chair to inspect the bridge in more detail. Except for the cracked window and the layer of dust, it looked no different from when they began their journey. He ran a hand through his hair, felt locks dangling over his ears; a thick stubble of beard covered his chin. During artificial hibernation, all cellular growth slowed to the tiniest fraction of its usual rate.
His stomach tightened in apprehension. Several cabinets lined the hull to his right, including one near the back labeled EMERGENCY RATIONS. He shot from his chair, squatted in front, and touched a square blue light in the upper right corner of the panel. The cabinet vibrated a few times, groaned as if in protest, and slid open.
A foul, musty stench wafted up his face. He drew back, wrinkling his nose, then leaned forward to investigate. The protein wafers, the shrink-wrapped meals, the vitamin packets—everything had decomposed into an unrecognizable pile of debris. Even the plastic water bottles had dried up and decayed to faint yellow silhouettes.
Something’s wrong. No one’s survived that long in artificial hibernation.
He turned his gaze through the window again, tears blurring his vision as he realized their predicament. Other than the emergency food kits inside their capsules, all the organic matter in the ship had turned to dust. Only the machinery had survived, drawing on the ship’s cold fusion reactor, a power source that might still be alive a thousand years after he was gone.
Gone. Like Warren.
A faint hiss down the hall interrupted his thoughts. A vague misgiving crept over him, and he swiveled around to face the first chair.
Empty.
Caleb shot up and ran from the bridge, heart pounding, every sense on full alert. “Warren!”
A sudden breeze against his face brought him to a halt. The airlock doors stood open. Daylight struck the opposite wall, and the rich odor of plant life, at once both strange and familiar, filled his nostrils. He ran through the hatch, stumbled over a mound of soil churned up by the hull, and stopped to get his bearings.
To his left, the ship’s skin glared in the early sunlight. To his right, past the scorched and battered stern, a long scar marred the rolling grassland for half a mile at least. Far beyond, a solitary peak hovered like a dark cloud above the mist-cloaked horizon.
Warren knelt in the tall grass a short distance from the hatch, digging at something that had caught his attention. The joy of even a partial recovery brought a lump to Caleb’s throat.
Puzzled, Caleb glanced back through the open hatch, then walked over to his son. Warren’s nose was smeared with dirt where he had rubbed it. It triggered a flood of memories: a tiny hand gripping Caleb’s finger, the long hikes across the vanishing tundra, the boyish hug that always welcomed him home. But no spark of intelligence remained in those bright blue eyes, no recognition of the disasters they had survived—both here and on Earth.
Caleb’s brief hope drowned in a wave of bitterness. Some leftover fluke of his mind opened the hatch, nothing more. Get a grip on yourself.
Warren pointed to the ground by his knees. A silver gleam caught Caleb’s attention, and he bent close.
“Nothing wrong with your vision, that’s for sure,” he said, struggling to quell his voice. “Let’s see what you’ve found.” The grass was stiff and dry, and he forced his fingers down to extract the object out of a tangle of roots.
It was a large coin. At first Caleb smiled, and almost pocketed it without thinking. Then he stared and brought the disc closer.
One side was engraved with the outline of a man standing beneath a pine tree, his arms raised wide as if in invocation. He turned the coin over, but the opposite side was as plain and flat as unpolished steel.
Caleb lifted his gaze to the horizon, his hopes restored.
Civilization!
He looked down at his son. Warren sat motionless, his dirtied hands around his knees, the line of his sight barely above the waving stems of grass. There was an air of abandonment about his posture that tugged at Caleb’s heart.
He sat beside Warren and held out the coin. “All right if I keep this a while?”
Warren curled up in his lap and nodded.
Caleb held him, silent, his mind a battleground between gratitude and despair. Warren could still feel emotion, and even understand speech. Yet what could a father give him now before his inevitable decline robbed all joy from his life?
He patted his son on the back and helped him to his feet. “Looks like we might find a life here after all—if we can find whoever made that coin. But first we’ve got to find something to eat!”
Keeping Warren close at hand, Caleb reentered the ship and headed for the last room down the corridor, which served as a small staging area for the nearby cargo hold. He opened every closet and cabinet, making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Besides the synthetic, short-sleeved jumpsuits they had worn during hibernation, any clothing disintegrated at the slightest touch. Yet other, more mechanical necessities had survived: a knife, a flashlight, an antique compass inherited from his great-grandfather—and a laser pistol small enough to hide in his pocket, one of dozens stored both here and in the hold. Besides needing a weapon to hunt with, Caleb knew there was no guarantee they would meet friends on this planet.
A quick inspection of the cargo hold told him what he already knew: all the food supplies had disintegrated beyond recognition. Any other items he found were either too large or of no use to him, so he returned to the corridor, keeping a firm grip on Warren’s hand.
He crossed the threshold to the bulkhead door, and stopped. Something didn’t feel right—as if they were being watched.
Caleb looked back down the length of the hold, to where their footprints wound through the dust. Nothing unusual about that. Yet there seemed to be more of his own, as if he had somehow traversed the distance many more times than Warren.
He puzzled over this oddity for a while, then breathed a curse and punched the control to close the door. There was no time to solve mysteries, even if his active imagination wasn’t to blame. His hands were starting to shake, both from fatigue and the low blood sugar typical of extended artificial hibernation. They needed food, and soon.
They sat outside the hatch and ate what they could from the emergency kits, like a father and son sharing a picnic. The synthesized meal bars had turned stale and tasteless, but Caleb knew they wouldn’t get far without them. The wind-swept grass and multitude of wildflowers were remarkably similar to Earth’s, but he dared not make any assumptions. The demands on his strength and courage had just begun.
A high-pitched giggle diverted his thoughts. A butterfly had perched on Warren’s arm, its tiny yellow wings folding and unfolding as if in welcome. Caleb tried to echo Warren’s smile, but memories of happier days sabotaged it.
I won’t give up, Karla. If there’s a way to save him, I’ll find it.
He stood and faced the hatch. Closing it should have been the easiest thing to do. But they were stranded like no one on Earth had ever been.
Warren, having lost his little friend and ready for the next adventure, tugged at his father’s hand. After a last glance at the crashed vessel and the long trench it had gouged in the soil, Caleb set off toward the horizon, his son tramping alongside like a soldier following his captain.



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