A New Beginning (April 2021)
By James Rumpel
The moment Commander David Arno jolted into consciousness he knew everything was wrong. He had no idea where he was. He certainly was not on the sleek, modern starship to which he was assigned. Instead, he found himself in some sort of rustic cabin. The small hut was made of stacked logs. Dried mud had been used to fill in any holes or gaps between the timbers. The single room was furnished with poorly assembled furniture: a table, two chairs, and a bed that was little more than a cot. There was no solar or electric lighting. Sunlight forced its way through a glass window, illuminating the cabin and highlighting the floating dust particles.
David examined himself and found his appearance to be as peculiar as his surroundings. He was clothed in a dingy white cotton shirt and thick, scratchy pants. Next to the cot was a pair of heavy leather boots, worn and muddy. He found a small, cracked mirror on the wall, next to a porcelain basin. The image reflected was his but different. The man he saw looking back at him was dirty and unshaven, but beyond that, he appeared older than he should be. His face had been hardened by time; time David could not remember passing.
He searched his memories, looking for some sort of explanation. He easily recalled his time on The Fortitude. Captain Micholas had assigned him to lead a rescue team. The initial landing party was overdue and not responding. The planet the ship orbited was nearly unhabitable. Most of the surface was radioactive desert. The exception was a small area in the northern hemisphere. That region was covered with lush vegetation and could support intelligent life. The fifteen-member advance party had been dispatched to that region ten days prior. Their shuttle had not returned.
David remembered boarding a second shuttle with a dozen other crewmembers. He recalled the anxiety and sadness over the loss of his crewmates and friends. There had been a noticeable edge of desperation among the rescue party as they descended to the planet’s surface. They wanted nothing more than to find and rescue the advance party.
Any memories of landing on the planet were engulfed in a thickening fog. He tried to recall anything that happened on the surface, but it proved impossible. He could capture a fleeting image or emotion, but as soon as his mind tried to wrap around it, the memory would evaporate, leaving David confused and frustrated.
“Well, you’re not going to figure anything out by sitting here,” thought David. He sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed the boots. They slid on easily, his feet nestling into them as if they had done so a million times before. The cabin door creaked loudly as he pushed it open and emerged into the sun-drenched morning.
He found himself in the middle of a small farm. A couple of ramshackle buildings were encircled by crudely constructed, wooden fences. A handful of strange creatures, resembling Earth cattle, mulled around in one of the pens. These animals were taller and thinner than the cows David remembered from his home planet. These were all the same color, a pale shade of tan. They had oddly-shaped heads with gigantic black eyes and long toothy snouts.
The smell of manure and moldy grass led him to two large piles behind a barn-like structure. Searching the buildings provided no additional clues to David’s whereabouts. He found assorted pieces of equipment roughly equivalent to items that would be used on a nineteenth-century farm. The entire scene reminded him of a “living museum” he had visited during his childhood on Earth. He could only assume he was still on the planet The Fortitude was investigating, but why he was alone and in his current state remained a mystery.
A worn, dirt path twisted its way into a nearby grove of blue-leaved trees. The only option was to hope that the road would lead to answers. He set off to investigate. The odor of the farm was replaced with the scent of freshly blooming flowers. Oddly shaped trees with leaves ranging in color from navy blue to aquamarine lined the path. The trail he walked offered a much more complimentary picture of the planet than the farm, though David still found himself sloshing through puddles and mud.
After a fifteen-minute walk, the surroundings changed from woods to open fields of freshly sprouted grain and back to woods again. A cold wind whipped about him, making him wish he had taken the time to look for some sort of jacket. He still could not remember anything beyond leaving the ship. A myriad of questions circled his mind, randomly diving into the forefront of his thoughts. What happened to the original landing party? What happened to the rest of the rescue personnel? What happened to him?
The sound of a man shouting jarred David from his reverie. David sighted another farm ahead. This homestead appeared slightly larger than the one where David had awakened but appeared to be just as archaic.
A man noticed David’s arrival and reined the cow-like creature that was pulling a single-bladed plow. “Josian,” he shouted, “What brings you to our home on this beautiful day?” He turned toward the house and yelled, “Maret, we have a guest! Josiah has come to visit!” The words sounded strange, yet, somehow David understood everything that was said.
David did not immediately recognize the weathered face of his approaching host, but the voice registered. “Lieutenant McElroy,” called David, amazed that he could speak whatever strange language was being used. “What is going on here?” McElroy was a member of the initial landing party.
The man stopped his approach and gave David a sideways glance; his confusion was quite obvious. “Who is this McElroy you speak of? You know me, Josiah. It is I, Imriam.”
“No, you are Lieutenant Richard McElroy of the starship Fortitude. I am Commander Arno. What is going on?” David fought to control his agitation.
McElroy stood still and silent, staring at David. After a brief time, he turned back toward the farmhouse. A woman who David now recognized as another of his shipmates, Ensign Angela Brower, was carrying a small child in her arms as she strolled to join them. Brower looked different than David remembered. She looked older and thinner, but that wasn’t the main difference. Angela Brower had always been impeccable in appearance. She always wore perfectly applied cosmetics even during the most physical duties and assignments. The woman before David now wore no makeup. All the flaws and wrinkles in her face were exposed for anyone to see.
“Stop, Maret!” called McElroy. “Do not come any nearer. Josian seems to be confused. He may be ill.”
The woman froze in place, hugging the child tightly against her chest. “Do you think he has the madness?” she asked. “We have not heard of it happening in many years.”
“I don’t know,” replied McElroy. Turning his attention back toward David, he said, “Josian, you may be ill. Come with me. I will take you to Madam Mecad. She will be able to help you.”
“I am not ill. Something has taken control of you. Your memory has been erased. I am David Arno. We were stationed together on The Fortitude.” David gazed into McElroy’s eyes, searching for a hint of recognition. He found none.
“We have been neighbors for the last ten years. We have known each other since we were awakened.”
“What do you mean by awakened?” asked David.
“You know of what I speak. It is how we survived the Great War. Madam Mecad can help you.” After a brief pause, McElroy continued. “She can explain everything to you. Let me take you to her. She will help.”
David considered his options. He could stay and continue to try and bring McElroy out of whatever trance he was in. Even if he managed to get McElroy back would he know anything? He would likely be in the same ignorant state. If Madam Mecad was in control of all this, she would have answers.
David smiled. “Okay, Imriam, I will accompany you.”
David and McElroy talked little during the half-hour trek to Madam Mecad’s cabin. After a few attempts to get McElroy to recognize him proved unsuccessful, David refrained from further conversation. McElroy would occasionally share a small tidbit of local gossip or comment on the state of the crops. There was, apparently, a grouping of fifteen to twenty different small farms in the area. All the residents had been “awakened” about ten years ago. They were now doing the best they could to survive. McElroy was unwilling or unable to talk about the time before the awakening. He fell silent whenever David asked about life on the planet before that time. If David was going to learn anything about his bizarre situation it would be from Madam Mecad.
Eventually, the pair reached a tiny cabin located at the top of a steep hill. While this cabin looked just like the others David had seen, this one was not surrounded by farm buildings or fields. McElroy knocked on the wooden door and waited for a reply. “Come in,” called a faint voice from within.
The shack they entered was dimly lit and sparsely furnished. What lighting there was came from the sun shining through four small windows, one on each of the walls. A bed sat against the wall opposite the doorway, neatly covered with a multi-colored quilt. The table was perfectly clean and devoid of any decoration or eating utensils. The room smelled of antiseptic. It reminded David of a spaceship, unnaturally clean and dust-free. Madam Mecad was nowhere to be seen.
“Madam Mecad, this is Imriam,” shouted McElroy. “Josian is with me. He seems to be ill, confused.”
The voice of an elderly woman echoed from below. “I am in the basement. Please send him down.”
McElroy quickly located a door cut into the floor of the cabin. He pulled back the hinged section of the floor. The brilliant light emulating from the lower room made it difficult to see anything except for the first few steps of a descending stairway.
“You should go down,” said McElroy. “Madam Mecad will be able to help you.”
“Will you come with me?” asked David.
“I cannot,” was the reply. “Madam Mecad has not invited me down. I will see you back at the farm.” With that, David’s former crewmate walked quickly to the front door and left.
David could understand McElroy’s hasty retreat. The whole cabin was rather disconcerting and the mysterious basement was even more menacing. There was information to be found in the lower level of this cabin; information Imriam did not need or want to know. David was an explorer, an adventurer. He had survived multiple missions to deep space. He would not be intimidated by the basement of an empty hut. He climbed down the stairs. His eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness.
He was not at all surprised when the trap door closed behind him. He had expected some sort of trap, but he needed to confront Madam Mecad. When his eyes came into focus, David found himself in a large chamber. A concrete floor extended in every direction, stopping when it ran up against smooth metal walls.
Much of the chamber was empty. To his left, David spotted an extensive collection of equipment and clothing. He instantly recognized the uniforms of The Fortitude crew. The other, more imposing, item in the basement was a large computer that covered a good portion of one of the side walls. He was surprised that part of his mind was able to read the words engraved along the top of the mainframe. MENTAL ESSENCE COLLECTION AND DISTRIBUTION. David had found Madam Mecad.
“Welcome back, Commander Arno,” said a woman’s voice through a speaker on the computer. It did not sound as elderly as the voice he had heard from the basement earlier.
David started to say that he had never been here before but stopped. In the back recesses of his mind, he realized what the computer said was true. He was certain he could find his uniform in the pile of clothing.
“What have you done to me and the crew?” he demanded. His eyes darted about the chamber, looking for something he could use as a weapon against the machine.
“I told you once before, but you do not remember. You have been away for a very long time.” The computer paused before continuing. “I am doing what is necessary to guarantee the survival of my people.
“When it became obvious that the war was going to destroy our planet, I decided that it was my duty to save the most innocent of our people. The people of this land were victims of the greed and hate so many of us fell prey to. I tried to protect this region. Unfortunately, I could not protect the peaceful people who lived here from the radiation and deadly weaponry used in the war. I was able to create the machine you see before you now. It allowed me to take the minds, memories, and personalities of these simple folk and store them until the land could once again sustain them and suitable hosts could be found. I waited for a very long time for you to arrive.”
“That’s crazy! What gives you the right to take the bodies of our people?” Maybe he could use his hands to rip out wires and tear circuits apart. He inched closer to Madam Mecad.
“Your race will survive without a few of its individuals. These people need those bodies to survive and grow.”
The computer continued its explanation. “On rare occasions, the host has been able to take control. Their minds find a way to push the new personality deep enough into the recesses of the brain to allow them to regain dominance. It has not happened since the first months after awakening, but somehow you have managed to do so after all this time. You must have a very strong will. Josian is still within you. It will not be difficult to return him.”
“You can’t do this. My people will stop you. The Fortitude wouldn’t just leave us here.”
Madam Mecad chuckled. “That is true. I monitored your ship’s communications. The vessel was going to leave to find help in rescuing you. I could not allow that to happen. Once it was apparent that no more people were going to be sent to us, I destroyed your ship.”
“How dare you,” screamed David. He leaped toward the computer. He felt an agonizing shock as he grasped what looked like a control panel and tried to force it open. Fury drove him to fight through the pain.
Maret looked up from her sewing. Her child sat at her feet playing with scraps of material. “Imriam!” she called, “Josian has returned.”
Imriam, who had been sorting seed for planting, immediately stopped and went to meet the familiar figure walking toward their farm.
“Josian, are you feeling better?” he asked.
Josian stopped, “Yes, I feel much better. I am sorry for disturbing you. Madam Mecad told me that I was acting strangely. I don’t remember anything from the time I went to sleep last night until talking to Madam Mecad a few minutes ago.”
Imriam nodded. “I am just glad that you are back to your old self.”
“Yes,” said Josian, “We should get to work. Once we finish planting your fields, we will get to work on mine.”
Text copyright © 2021 by James Rumpel. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has enjoyed spending some of his additional free time trying to turn some of the strange ideas circling his brain into stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary.