Prosperity

It’s been one hundred and eighty three days since I last talked to another human being. The last words I will ever speak to another living soul. I know this because one hundred and eighty two days ago the engines failed midway through a routine course adjustment. I didn’t know that that would be what they were. I don’t remember what it was I said; probably something procedural. I don’t know exactly where I am now right now. The ship’s computer cheerily refers to this area as “Unchartered.” It’s dead silent here. Last I calculated I was roughly three parsecs off course. This means I’m well beyond the range of satellite communication, which also means that I’m well beyond the range of any rescue fleet. It’s so deadly, deadly silent in here. But that silence is broken for now. Somewhere behind me a warning siren is going off. It does this, routinely, every twenty minutes. It’s been doing this, routinely, for the past one hundred and eighty two days. And its’ only purpose is to routinely alert me to a fact that I am already acutely aware of: I’m fucked.

It’s tiring being up here alone. It was tiring when the mission was still active, and it’s even more tiring now that all I’m doing is waiting for the end. The waiting is the worst part; the not knowing. Being able to see the end coming, but not knowing when it will strike; when it will take me. It’s no longer a matter of if, it’s when. I know it’ll be soon. It’s got to be soon. It has to be. It’s an eerie feeling watching it gradually get nearer. That chilling, blinding white halo growing larger, spreading out from behind the ships’ enormous sun shield; slowly threatening to swallow it whole; dragging us towards it relentlessly. The maps say it’s a dwarf star, but right now it’s the one that’s dwarfing us. It’s a strange feeling knowing that the end is coming, staring down the barrel of the thing that will wipe you out of existence, but not knowing exactly when it will occur. And here I sit in the rear of this ship, staring out into vast, impenetrable nothingness, trying to simply ignore it as best I can for the time being.

 

I don’t know why I accepted this mission. I don’t really know what I was thinking. Part of me is beginning to suspect I was never meant to survive, but I doubt that those in the know would have intended for things to go so horrifically wrong. The ship they gave me, the Prosperitas II, is a clunky old galactic transporter. It’s a piece of shit. The idea was that I’d pilot a load of supplies and resources to the site of a prospective colony planet. There is more than enough equipment on board to get the colonising process underway; enough food to last until we could start growing our own; enough of everything for the first people there to survive on. And now all of that, the future of that entire colony, is hurtling out of control into the waiting jaws of a burning hot star, where it will be completely incinerated beyond trace, along with me. By now I’ve no doubt been declared legally dead back home. The search effort long since called off. Maybe it wasn’t even mounted in the first place. It’s too great a risk to send a team into unchartered space to recover just one single man, isn’t it? In their eyes, I am that so-called brave soul who will pay the ultimate price for a greater good. In their eyes, I am a martyr. In their eyes, I am a hero. But in my eyes, I am none of these things. In my eyes, I am fucking petrified, and I do not want to die. Not here. Not now. Not like this.

 

This isn’t fair. Why me of all people? Why? Have I not been a good man? A humble man? A penitent man? Did I not please God? Was I not kind, or caring, or charitable? I know I’ve committed my share of sins, but what human hasn’t? What crime is befitting of this punishment? This is inhumane. This is torture. This is cold, callous cruelty. It can’t end this way. It just can’t. I won’t allow it to. I can’t allow it to. Not when I’ve got so much more left to prove, and so much more left to accomplish. I’ve still got more left to explore. I’ve still got more left to create. I’ve still got growing up to do; growing old to do. Why does it have to be me who sacrifices so much for so little? Why does it have to be me who endures such a needless, prolonged demise? Why me? God damn it, why me? I am wrecked with fear and I am shaking and I am in a ball in the corner of this godforsaken room staring out into the nothingness that I will disintegrate into and I cannot take this anymore. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die like this. I don’t want to die this broken, frightened shell of a man. I don’t want my last thoughts to be of fear, or of regret, or of lament. I don’t want to let this cruel fate get the better of me, to mock me, to toy with me. I do not want to be the last dangling thread waiting patiently to be plucked whilst my maker laughs in my face. That is an insult. That is unbecoming. That is a fate worse than death, and I cannot allow it to happen. In here, right here and now, I only have control over one thing. I am to die in here, this I know. But I am the one who can, and will, dictate when. I can force its’ hand. I can stare death in the eye and urge it so gloriously to take me that it will have no choice but to do so. I won’t allow it to do with me what it sees fit. I won’t allow it that satisfaction, because that satisfaction is what it wants. It wants to take my mortal body, but more importantly it wants to take my pride. And now I am kicking myself for not having seen that earlier.

 

I am angry. No, fuck that. I am furious. I’m beyond any rage ever felt by any human man ever. I am fuming. I am ready to explode. And I am sprinting to the viewing deck where the halo glows out from behind the ships’ enormous sun shield. I am sprinting like my life depends on it. My life does depend on it. There is nothing more important to me than this very moment. There is nothing that will ever be this important. I am sprinting and I am in the room and I am face to face with my maker at long last. I am fucking ready this time. I am ready for it to take me, but yet it still refuses to do so. And then I am shouting.

“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?!” my words piercing this barren chamber, echoing relentlessly, “COME ON. I’M READY.” My maker does not reply. I am pacing back and forth and I am banging, pounding on the window. My maker does not reply. I am ripping at the earthly clothes that adorn me and I am showing it that I am mere flesh and blood and bone. My maker does not reply. And now I am screaming and I am ripping at my throat and my lungs and my vocal cords until I am blue in the face and spitting up blood. My maker does not reply. I am frantic. I refuse to let it dictate my terms anymore. I cannot allow it to. I will not allow it.

“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

My maker does not reply.

“WHAT ARE YOU FUCKING WAITING FOR?”
Again, my maker does not reply. I am pounding at the ship’s control panel, and I am lowering that piece of shit sun shield, and the ship is screaming at me to stop. It is screaming at me and I am screaming at it. I am ignoring it. I know exactly what I’m doing. I am forcing my maker’s hand. I am deciding my end, not it. The shield is down and the room is flooded with blinding, burning, intense light that rips the air from my lungs and strips layer upon layer of skin clean off me. It peels at me, rips at me, tears away the fabric of my body. But it does not end me. It lights every nerve ending in my being ablaze with the most magnificent, all-encompassing pain imaginable, but it does not end me. It strips away at the sterile sheen on the ship surrounding me, but it does not end me. It doesn’t even knock me off my feet. It leaves me standing. My maker leaves me standing and I am furious.

“COME ON! WHAT’S STOPPING YOU?”

My maker does not reply.

“I’M STANDING RIGHT HERE. END ME. FUCKING END ME.”

My maker does not reply.

“COME ON. JUST DO IT. END ME. FINISH ME OFF. FUCKING DO IT.

DO IT.

DO IT.”

Charlie

Charlie had always been an avid scuba diver. Throughout the years he’d explored wreck after wreck, reef after reef. Such was his love of diving that when he retired he used his superannuation to move to a humble shack on the remote east coast. Every morning he’d wake up, sit on his back porch and marvel at the sweeping seascape that greeted him. To the untrained eye it seemed a simplistic existence, but to Charlie this was paradise.

As the first rays of sun pierced the night sky on March 28th 2011, Charlie prepped his gear. On went the wet suit, the breathing apparatus, the mask, and into the blue abyss sped his trusty boat. On and on he went for hours, hugging the coastline to the north until he arrived at a lone island that shot out of the sea like a giant fist punching the sky. The anchor dropped and Charlie eagerly dove into the water. And what a sight it was to behold down there! Scores of fish swimming in perfect unison, phosphorescent algae curling in the most fantastic of patterns, and coral as far as the eye could see. Suddenly, Charlie came upon a most curious of scenes. At first, only one buzzed past him, and Charlie dismissed it as a mirage. But then another, and another, until a thick, spiraling stream of them were buzzing by. Charlie shook his head. How could this be? They appeared to be bees! Bees of the sea! The glowed bright gold and were all heading the same way. The buzz rippling through the water making Charlie’s head swim. Curious, he followed their path. On and on they lead him, until he reached a sheer rock face with a hole no bigger than a man right in its centre.

Charlie paused briefly and thought about turning back, but decided against it and pressed on down the hole. On and on it went through an endless blackness, the dim glow of the bees his only source of light. Further and further he went for what seemed like days, until the hole opened up into an enormous cavern. The bees path turned upward sharply and they accelerated at a tremendous rate. Charlie shed himself of his breathing tank and found, much to his surprise, that this water was different to the water back beyond the hole, for Charlie could breathe this water of his own accord. The bees flew up and Charlie swam with them at a speed he thought not possible. Slowly but surely the water begun to grow lighter and lighter, a brilliant rising white, until the depths of the sea became no more and Charlie and the bees burst through the surface. He took off his mask and scanned the scene. Much to his surprise, he was no more than twenty metres from the shore. Even more surprising was the sight of his house greeting him. And yet, it seemed different, brighter, and more permanent than it ever had before. The bees gathered around the lone tree nearby, dancing with each other, creating a hum more beautiful than had ever been heard before. As Charlie stepped ashore the back door of his house opened, and out stepped his beloved wife, whom he’d not laid eyes on in years. Charlie’s jaw dropped and tears flooded his eyes, and he embraced his love with his whole soul. And it was there, together, that they stayed for forever and a day, and waltzed into eternity as the most glorious of sunsets shone.

One

The first time Tommy Marks stared down the barrel of a gun was on a Monday.

About three weeks prior, Tommy had held up a poker game. He and three other boys had rolled in, cocked and loaded, and had taken off with about forty dollars in cash, some plastic chips, and a man’s pocket watch. They’d also put a bullet in Wesley Nigel Lee’s brain, killing him dead. So it goes. Tommy, as dumb as he is lucky, grabbed the first horse he saw and blew clean out of town. The other boys (as honourable as they were scared) handed themselves in to the Sheriff’s office almost immediately. The assumption being that their prompt admission of guilt would afford them the luxury of clemency. The next day they were strung up by their necks and hung ‘til they were dead and dangling. So it goes. The town’s attention then, naturally, turned to the whereabouts of the other boy, now long since fled. The cries were for blood, and that would’ve been the case. But Tommy, as lucky as he was dumb, happened to have emanated from the loins of the Mayor Chester Marks. This complicated matters to no end. On the one hand Chester Marks had his civil duty to appease the desires of his constituents. On the other he was struggling with the reality of condemning his own son to death. A closed door meeting was called to determine the fate of the absent boy. Assembled around a stately table were an oilman, an attorney, a publican, a respected private citizen, a trader, a banker, the Sheriff, the Sheriff’s deputy, and the Mayor himself. They convened in the morning at half past the hour of nine.

The debate, like the sun that beat through the open window, was hot. Fortunate it was then that all firearms had been sequestered at the door, as there were times where they would surely have been drawn in anger. Through three days and through most of three nights the arguments of both sides were laid out. It was agreed upon that the boy likely had no part in the slaying of Wesley Nigel Lee, and that he’d likely had no prior knowledge of any gun slinging that were to take place. He was generally of good character, but had fallen in with the wrong crowd. But it was also agreed that, for better or worse, the boy was a party to a murder, and that consequences should be suffered for such transgressions. On the afternoon of the fourth day, a vote was finally taken. By a margin of seven-to-two, the boy was to die. Mayor Chester Marks, being one of the two hands against the proposal, was distraught. The panel set about the task of employing a bounty hunter to seek out the boy and deliver his punishment. They found their man in the form of Terrence “Bootleg” Foster; a vile, vicious sort of man who’d spent the better part of his sorrowful life cutting down straying Mexicans with the Border Patrol in South Texas. He was the one that they’d enlist to seek out the boy and give him his swift comeuppance. However Mayor Chester Marks, being a father first and foremost, still had other ideas on the matter and issued a compromise to the board. He would acquiesce to the sentence of death imposed upon Tommy, and the hiring of Foster. But in return, and as a favour for all his years of loyal public service, the board would place the restriction upon Foster that would see him delivered one bullet and one bullet only for use on Tommy. Should that bullet leave the gun of Foster and strike Tommy down, then so be it. But should it leave the bullet and fly past Tommy, leaving him unharmed and still standing then, by the grace of God, Tommy would be allowed to keep running free from fear of retribution. The board, compelled by Mayor Chester Marks’ years of loyal public service, agreed to this stipulation.

Terrence “Bootleg” Foster left the town limits on a Wednesday, setting off to the North. The hushed word was that, hours after fleeing, Tommy Marks had sought refuge in a known and frequently-used hunters’ cabin nestled deep in the mountain range that flanked the horizon. Bootleg, who’d gotten the name from his well-known but never seen habit of bootleg moonshine to taverns across the county in times of waning supply, knew the area like he’d created it himself. He arrived at the cabin in under a day’s riding, and settled in for the night. The rumours appeared to be truthful. There were signs of recent life to be seen inside the cabin. The bed was unorganised. There were coals still in the fire. And the chamber pot, which hadn’t been emptied, had yet to smell the place out. The boy Tommy Marks might’ve been slippery, but he seemed to be sloppy. In the days that would follow, it would be that fact, and that fact alone, that would prove to be his undoing. Foster again checked the barrel of his gun; the sight of only one round greeting him yet again. He knew the boy couldn’t have gone too far. But for now, Foster laid his head down and rested. He’d set off again come morning.

A little ways down the road, about a day and a half’s ride to be exact, Tommy Marks was sitting huddled over a campfire. Above him a full moon shone. He was cold, tired, hungry, but most importantly alone. Tommy had never known loneliness like this before. It was dark and all consuming. The horse he’d stolen provided little comfort, as it’d yet to accept Tommy as its’ new owner and master, which made most forward progress painfully slow. Tommy had had no idea of the intentions of those other boys that night, and now feared the retribution that was surely brewing for him back at the town. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. He figured whatever it was he had coming to him, his running would’ve increased it tenfold, which made turning back an impossible option. All he had to guide him was a crude map he’d found at the hunter’s cabin, and an even cruder trail that had been stomped into the ground through years of hooves treading it. The trail wound through the mountain ranges to the North. Tommy hoped that at some point it’d steer him nearer to water; the ground here was cracking under the strain of the summer sun. It was arid and unforgiving. He had no idea how long he’d survive out here. He knew that he’d have to keep moving. He just knew it. If only he could summon the muster to press on. Too awake to sleep, Tommy roused his uncooperative ride and saddled forward, pressing on until morning, and again through the day with no regard for trail; both the one in front of him, and the one he was leaving behind.

Terrence ‘Bootleg’ Foster caught up to Tommy Marks on a Friday. Tommy had finally sought refuge from another night in a secluded log cabin by the river he’d long hoped to come across. Foster had forgone sleep and had ridden through the previous night from the site of Tommy’s previous open campfire, along the tracks to where the water flowed. There, without much trouble, Foster found Tommy sound asleep. On a small stool inside the cabin he sat and waited, but not before making sure the door was firmly shut and locked should Tommy try for another quick escape. Through the night hours, Foster’s eyes never once left Tommy Marks. Tommy awoke with a start at around daybreak; the sight of Foster at once flushing his face with fear.

“You must be the boy Tommy Marks,” Foster’s slow drawl was partially muffled by his lustrous moustache.

“I am,” was Tommy’s stammered reply.

“Name’s Foster. Mother named me Terrence. Most people call me Bootleg. You can call me what you want; it’s of no concern to me.”

Tommy’s face dropped. He recognised the name, and the reputation that preceded it.

“Are you gonna kill me?” Tommy’s voice was rife with the stench of fear.

“That’d be what I was sent here to do,” was Foster’s assured reply, “Though that said I ain’t decided for sure yet.” Foster struck a match off his boot and masterfully lit the small pipe he’d been tending to. “Truth is you were sentenced to death. Ain’t no arguing that. But you being of Mayoral blood and all seems to have afforded you a liberty.”

Tommy’s forehead beaded slick with sweat, as the mountainous Foster calmly puffed away.

“What liberty?” Tommy stammered, swallowing the grapefruit sized lump that had settled in the back of his throat.

“The instructions I got were that I was to track you down. Which I did. But the men who hired me gave me only one bullet for the task at hand. I figure that to mean I should make my own mind up as to how that bullet gets used.” Foster said, leaning back in his chair a little to let his face soak up the first of the morning sunlight that was beaming in through the cabin’s sole window. Puzzled, Tommy replied,

“How will you know?”

“Couple of days up here and the answer should present itself.”

“What do I do in the meantime?”
“Sweat it out, mostly. The time’ll help you find your peace. Seems wrong to send a Man to his grave without at least giving him the chance to repent. Should the coin not fall your way, that is.”

Tommy, perhaps out of bravery, perhaps out of stupidity, pried Foster further.

“Weren’t you in the Border Patrol?”
“That’s different, boy.”

“How exactly is that different?”
“The Mexicans are not real people, and therefore should not be treated as such.” Foster barked, arching forward, an accusing glare boring from his eyes through Tommy’s. Tommy sensed the fire rearing up in Foster’s mind, and tried to ease off.

“How many men have you killed?”
Foster, perhaps amused by this, humoured Tommy.

“About eighty, maybe eighty-five now I guess.”

“You don’t know exactly how many it is?” Tommy sat up, as frightened of this statement as he was in awe of it.

Foster enjoyed this reverence, and chose his next words with great care.
“It’s best you stop counting after two.”

“That seems ridiculous.”
Deliberately, Foster removed the gun from his holster and placed it on the table nearby, never once pointing the barrel at Tommy, but never once removing his hand from it. “There’s a lot about death that you don’t understand, son.”

Tommy Marks escaped from the cabin on Monday morning. For three days, Terrence ‘Bootleg’ Foster had held him captive, sitting hard up against the locked door, not once taking his eyes off of him, not even to sleep; completely still and unblinking. On Friday, Tommy was overcome with shock. He paced around the cabin endlessly. His mind fogged over, and his body shook with cold despite the heat. Unmoving, Foster just stared. On Saturday, Tommy’s emotions boiled over, and he railed against his situation. He yelled, and he pounded, and he hurled anything that wasn’t nailed down across the cabin. Unmoving, Foster just stared. On Sunday, Tommy huddled himself in a corner and wept through the day. He wept as the sun rose, and he wept as it moved across the sky until it finally settled beyond the horizon. Unmoving, Foster just stared. As the night settled in, and the moon cast its’ dull light across the land, Tommy slumped onto the floor, near the brink of resignation. The hours passed, but Tommy did not sleep. Silently he sat, his back against the wall, and he waited. Unmoving, Foster just stared. At around daybreak, however, things changed. Foster, as powerful a man as he was, quietly drifted off to sleep; his head drooping down, his hands falling by his side. Tommy watched this, and then he waited. He waited until Foster’s nostrils begin to flare and roar with din of sleep, and he waited until the spit began to cascade out of his mouth and pool on his chin. Then Tommy made his move. He stood up slowly, with the greatest of care, and began to push the only window in the cabin open as quietly as he could; one eye permanently trained on the snoring Foster. Without so much as a sound, Tommy slipped out through the window and into the night. Foster had hitched the horses away from the cabin, so Tommy fled on foot. He trod softly, weaving his way between trees. Then, suddenly, the sound of the cabin door pierced the trees as the new days’ sun began to do the same. Foster’s heavy steps boomed on the wooden planks of the cabin porch. Tommy heard this, and ran. He ran without direction, or care. He ran fast, and he ran hard. Behind him, Foster gave chase.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” Foster’s voice cannoned through the dense forest, “Running’s only gonna make it worse!”

Tommy tried to ignore it, his feet now flying, pounding the rough surface of the forest floor. His shoes, already well worn, weren’t standing up to the task. Branches, thickets and rocks were penetrating through the thinned leather sole with ease. Tommy’s feet were bloodied and crying out in agony, but Tommy still ran.

“You can’t run forever, boy!” again Foster called out from behind him.

But Tommy still ran. With panic now flooding his eyes, he ran. He crossed a shallow creek bed, and kept running, his head now forever looking behind him for signs of Foster’s whereabouts. His chest heaved, his heart pounded, his breath whined with fear.  His shoulders slammed against trees as he failed to round them properly, and his foot caught a stray root, sending him tumbling to the ground. As Tommy Marks rolled over and brushed the dirt from his eyes, the shadow of Terrence “Bootleg” Foster loomed large over him. Tommy crawled back, cowering. Foster unholstered his revolver and lowered it squarely at Tommy. His crooked thumb pulled the hammer back with a hellish click, and Tommy, now robbed of all dignity, soiled himself.

“P… please!” he stammered.

“What’d I tell you about running, boy?” Foster demanded, “You can’t outrun fate.”

Tommy’s eyes shut tight as his panicked mind spun images through his head at a rate of knots. Foster eyes narrowed, disgusted by the all-too familiar sight of a man reduced to nothing before his very eyes. He’d ended a man like this before, and doing so had made his own soul die a little too.

“Get up,” Foster seethed.

Unmoving, Tommy just wept.

“GET UP!” Foster roared this time and Tommy responded out of nothing but instinct. He shot upright, his legs threatening to give out from under him at any time; tears streaming down his face, and urine down his legs. Tommy’s eyes remained slammed shut, unable to look his fate in the eye. Foster again levelled the gun in Tommy’s direction; his finger poised on the trigger. Foster’s eye locked onto Tommy through the gun’s sight, and Tommy let out single whimper. Foster sighed; his calculating mind had only one end to this situation in mind.

“Say a prayer, son.” Foster sneered, and Tommy’s chest began heaving; sobbing uncontrollably, his lips quivering.

Foster exhaled slowly and pulled the trigger. With an earth-shattering bang the gun exploded, firing its sole round out through the barrel. It curled and spun as it pierced into the light of day, ripping its path through the fabric of the air that surrounded it. It clawed its’ way closer to the frozen Tommy, the tip red with horrific friction. And before the sound could even reach Tommy, the bullet flew past him, not one inch aside his left ear.

The echoes of the shot careened through the woods, and birds in the trees above scattered. Tommy still stood bolt upright, and one eye slowly began to open. There Foster stood, smoke curling from the barrel of his gun, eyes burning holes in Tommy. Tommy felt himself up and down, desperately trying to confirm his own living presence.

“I done a lot of bad things in my time,” Foster sighed, holstering the gun, “But I ain’t never, and will never, kill a Boy.” He leaned on the last word as if it were the worst insult a man could use towards another.

Tommy, confused, remained still. Foster shook his head and turned to leave.

“Get out of here,” Foster yelled, his words trailing off in the distance as his presence faded from sight.

On this Monday, the first time he’d stared down the barrel of a gun, Tommy Marks didn’t need to be told that twice.