I come to you today to offer a glimpse into my Science Fiction story, “Challenge Of The Velah”. I began this before I started writing what has now become the second part of “The Barbarian” (Titled at that time “Barbarian Tales”). When I got a reader who became interested in what came next, I wrote more. At this point, I only have about 17,000 words. If, after this reading, you wish to see more, comment below and leave me an email address so I can send it to you in its entirety. At least, what I have done so far.
Challenge of The Velah
By John T. M. Herres
One day, as I stumbled upon a clearing, I found, surprising as it may have been, a much-desired resting place for my weary bones. See, I had been wandering the dense forest for so long, sleeping in the underbrush for only moments at a time, occasionally climbing a tree and resting in the boughs; running in some places, walking in others, and even crawling through the thicker areas, trying to get away from something, everything, nothing. I had forgotten the exact reason I began my trek, knew only that I must keep going, keep moving, not stop for too long a time at all. However, in that clearing, I felt an ease in the urgency to soldier on, a veritable lifting of the imaginary weight on my shoulders, and found I may actually have just a little time to reflect upon what brought me to this point.
I remembered I had been happy once, satisfied with not only my station in the game of life, accustomed to it, but also with life itself. Things seemed to be going well, with money flowing in and out of my pockets as usual, girls drifting in and being pushed out to make way for the next one, no one getting hurt too much (I had my share of those in the past and wanted no more), because I stated at the start that there were no long term attachments available. I could only be a temporary deal as far as they were concerned. Most accepted it at face value, but as always, there were also those who didn’t want to give up so easily, wanted to stick around, asking if I cared, because they did. I have to say, I did care, always have- I truly do love females of many sorts; not all, I freely admit, but many. However, the idea of getting into another relationship just to have it turn sour and all the feelings reversed suggested more problems than I cared to subject not just myself, but also the other to. Then, she came along.
As usual, the instant attraction, the meeting of the eyes, the sly smirk lifting the corner of both our mouths, the frequent glances in one another’s direction to find the glance not only mutual, but also simultaneous. Then the meeting, introduction, acquainting. It seemed so right: nay, not that it seemed right, but that it had always been so; ordained by fate, as it were. I should have known right then, but I figured, “How hard could it be?” Famous last words, I know, but I had to spend more time with her, immerse myself in her presence, drown in her eyes, exist for her next spoken word. Damn! Still, I had no clue what it meant, nor of what would happen or already did. By all evidence, she had been infected to the same extent. Yes Infected, not Affected. I had gone and contracted the illness I had so cautiously avoided for so many years, had sworn not to conceive again, even evicted several females from my life for having developed. The dreaded and accursed “love bug” had not just bitten me, but had near instantly devoured me, and I could not even say when it happened.
Cripes! It had crept back upon me; the reason for my escape, the beginning point of my urgent need to flee, to get clear, trying to find a way to be free, and wanting so desperately to go back. But I could not go back, couldn’t possibly return, had to keep going. There, in that meadow, just as I had begun to feel “normal” again, the thoughts, feelings, even the memories were beginning to catch up and I had to get moving again before I became lost in the ocean of emotion I feared instead of the glen of Zen I desired. I had near escaped, almost evaded, but only temporarily forgotten. I felt tired, yes, exhausted, wiped out, but I had to move, and soon.
Standing, I surveyed my surroundings. With the forest making a barrier all around the edges, the glade itself was like its own little sanctuary. The ground had a slight roll to it, the grass, so lush and green, grown to eighteen inches high, with several varieties of yellow, pink and blue flowers in patches making a colorful floor. Several old oaks and elms stood scattered around and looked to be perfectly set apart to shade a domicile.
Such a peaceful, beautiful place, the kind of place she would have fit into perfectly. She actually fit naturally into any place, any situation, any climate that one could imagine as long as I remained there to complete her. She told me that, those same words, just days before I left, she and I both in tears as she said it. I felt the hot wetness on my face yet again, and the anger returned as well as the sorrow. That reminded me of the reason I fled; I knew once again what I had forgotten and didn’t want to remember. The anger, rage even, and the impotence of being able to do nothing to appease either. Except run.
Looking around, I imagined, unbidden, the log cabin we had discussed at length; the garden of roses and tulips she planned to keep; the separate building where I would do my writing. Yes, we had planned all that and more before all hopes and dreams had been ferociously torn from us.
Cursing the gods and dreams, I turned and dashed from the place I had originally seen as a refuge, only to find it as a reminder. Tears still wetting my face and stinging my eyes, I tore through the far side of the forest wall and began anew my recently failed escape.
Pushing through the limbs and underbrush I used as a physical semblance to forcing away the thoughts and feelings that were invading once again, much as I had at the very beginning of this footslog. I had thought I escaped to safety, had succeeded in putting all behind me that I had not wanted to be immersed in to begin with, had actually vowed to avoid at all costs. So much for that idea. I felt I had to keep moving for the moment, put my mind to the task of making my way through this forest: Push that limb aside, step over that vine, press through those bushes, climb over that fallen log, and soon the next step commanded all my attention.
Suddenly, I came face-to-face with a wall of rock. Quickly, I surveyed and judged the best path up that held what I saw as the optimum hand and foot holds. I knew I needed rest first, so sat and closed my eyes for only a moment. When I opened them, night had fallen, and I heard of the screams from my dreams echoing away. Covered with sweat, customary whenever I tried to sleep, I looked at the cliff and figured I could see well enough to continue, the moon being just past full and the clear skies showing a multitude of bright stars.
As I began my ascent, I knew I needed more rest, for my legs ached from near constant movement, my arms and face were slightly scraped from underbrush and stinging from the sweat that invaded the fresh marks, and my hands were sore from moving countless obstacles from my path. With fingers and toes, I moved slowly up, gauging carefully which direction to go and testing each hold to make sure it would bear my weight. Ten feet, twenty, up I move; look up to see a path, down to move my left foot to place, test, ok; up to place right hand, test, ok, pull; look at placing right foot, check, ok; place left hand on next, check, ok. Move by move I mentally tell myself what to do to keep my thoughts currently active and not to think about (LEA!) her. However, with the less active movement of climbing, try as I might, the thoughts still kept creeping in. Voicing my irritation, I made sure of three of my support holds and used my left hand to pull the neckline of my shirt up and wipe sweat from my face. As I did so, while I had my eyes closed for one second, 1 second, the image of Lea invaded and would not dissipate, even after I reopened them. Her long, blonde, wavy hair framing her perfect, oval face; the light tan that never faded or burned; her lips, perfectly kissable, with a smile that could bring happiness to anyone who saw it; the slightly upturned tip of her dainty nose and the way it wiggled ever so slightly when she spoke; her heavenly blue eyes, so clear even a hardened sailor would weep if drowning there, and to see tears of sorrow would break the heart of even the toughest Hell’s Angels biker. A one-second flash and I saw all this, and felt overwhelmed again to tears of fear and frustration. I grabbed fast to the rock and shook my head to clear my thoughts so I could begin climbing again, but to no avail. Her image remained, right behind my vision as I began scaling the cliff again. Halfway up, then most of the way, and finally over the top edge I rolled and lay on my back, huffing to catch my breath. I knew I had to move, to get busy and not linger lest the visions return; but exhaustion took hold and pushed me into unconsciousness.
The thoughts and images were chaotic, confusing, out of order. Flashes of both imaginations and memories blended, which served to not only disorient and bewilder, but also frighten me beyond comprehension. I could not discern which were false or which were fact, but it all seemed, as most dreams do, so real and convincing that all the stroboscopic effects flustered me to the point that I couldn’t even be sure where I was or why, when I awoke with a yell and once again covered in sweat. My skin felt sticky from all the secretions of the last few days and muscles were at once stiff, shaky and sore. Spasms attacked various spots on my arms and legs and I felt unsure of stability or balance when I attempted to rise. But I had to move, with intent to find some flow of water to rinse the stench acquired by the days of exhaustion endured.
As the sky began to brighten with predawn, I knew I would get no more rest, and so began deep, slow breathing to calm the thunder in my chest and the pounding pressure in my ears. As my pulse eased, I began concentrating, listening to the sounds of nature coming awake to join me, trying to filter out miscellaneous noises to fixate on a possible direction to follow. Through the crickets chirping and frogs croaking, the owls hooting and awakening birds beginning their songs, I detected, ever so faintly, the distant sound of water flowing over a bed of rocks, and tilted my head to hone in on the source. When I had what I believed to be my bearings, I began trudging towards what I hoped would be a cleansing. As the sound of water became clearer, the sun broke the horizon to my left, and I continued south. That seemed the correct direction, but I did not know exactly why. Then I saw, through the trees, the telltale sparkle of sun on liquid, and the trickle had turned to an audible rush marking the stream‘s location. I arrived at the shore and looked at the clear fluid flowing by in front of me. Removing my shirt and shucking my pants and shoes, I took a deep breath and fell into the icy water and found it, as I knew it would be, so cold that it felt like thousands of ice picks being driven into me at the same time. My breath, had I not been holding it, would have been denied me from the instant I touched the surface. Emerging, I could not help but shout, grunt and force myself to breathe, but got the stench & filth rubbed off well enough to feel refreshed, then grabbed my discarded clothing and scrubbed them as well. Satisfied I had done the best I could, I laid the garments on some rocks to dry, then myself on the bank in a patch of sunlight to warm up. Oblivion must have grabbed hold of me almost immediately, for next thing I knew, the sun looked to be about an hour from setting. I felt thankful, however, that the level of exhaustion I had reached allowed me to finally get some peaceful rest.
Standing, I picked up my clothes and began dressing. My muscles were still somewhat stiff and sore, but I no longer had the feeling of being on the edge of a precipice waiting to fall in. As I surveyed my surroundings and reacquired my bearings, I did a few stretches to try and stave off any more soreness than I knew would be inevitable. I also realized I would need, sometime very soon, to find something to eat. I could not remember when the last morsel had been consumed. Fortunately, the direction my subconscious told me I needed to follow actually ran upstream which kept me at least close to the water to avoid, if only temporarily, the chance of dehydration. I then bent and drank several palms full just to have something in my belly to ward off the rumblings of hunger, and resumed my peregrination, glancing at random intervals into the brush alongside and into the trees in hopes of finding sustenance. Just before the sun again became lost behind the horizon, I spotted what appeared to be a wild fig tree. Most of the fruit was slightly over ripe, but not so far gone as to be inedible.
Temporarily sated, my feet were ready to move again, the moon still being bright enough to navigate by and the rejuvenation from the day’s unconsciousness still full upon me. However, my treacherous and undependable memory switched into overdrive, and images both disturbing and horrifying began dancing on the movie screen behind my eyes. I saw Lea and myself walking in a park the day I had been forced to leave, discussing things that were, had been, could be; I saw the shadow so dense that even the park lights’ sensors reacted to it; I saw the red flashes of explosions, caused by some kind of unknown weapon, erupting all too close to where we were walking; I heard the sounds of pursuit when Lea and I began running all out in an attempt to escape; I saw the red explosion erupt too near and felt Lea become immobilized from being struck. I remembered picking her up in my arms and noticing she felt like she weighed nothing as I continued the escape that had abruptly gone terribly wrong.
On and on I fled, knowing neither where to go nor how long I would have to run. Eventually it appeared I had succeeded in evading them, for there were no more explosions, no sounds of pursuit. We were no longer in the park either; somehow, I had managed to get us into the suburbs of the town, and it dawned on me that we were about 5 miles from our starting point. I made my way to the edge of the forest before Lea finally became able to tell me to lay her down so I could rest.
At that point, I forcibly stopped myself from remembering. I did not want to continue this reminiscing, for any further delving into the subject could be disastrous. It had been, after all, the ignition to the hell I forced upon myself for too many days to recall. I had so completely blocked it out, and so successfully, that even this minute revelation had me shaking all over.
Suddenly, I heard some rustling ahead, and although the lunar light seemed satisfactory for navigation, I felt it lacking if the need arose to encounter or attempt to evade some unknown danger. Spotting a tree that looked as if it would offer refuge, I ascended into the thickness of the crown to wait out whatever made the sounds.
As the noises grew nearer, I noticed flashes of some kind of illumination, but knew they could not be flashlight beams for they were more a reddish than blue or white. I felt the blood rush from my head upon realizing what this meant, and immediately closed my eyes knowing my irises would reflect just enough to a wary hunter to betray my location. Sure enough, I heard the disturbances cease too near my hiding spot to be comfortable, and although I did not hear voices, I sensed some sort of communication ensuing below me. Through my eyelids, I saw the brightness of the lights aimed all around me, and knew that any moment I would be discovered. However, I guess I did well concealing myself, for moments later the noises moved off. Not being too much of a fool, I remained in my sanctuary with my eyes closed, knowing somehow in the back of my mind that vigilant trackers would have let one of their numbers linger behind temporarily, hoping to catch the prey off guard thinking the way was clear. True enough, not ten minutes later, I heard grumbles of disappointment, and footsteps marked two separate withdrawals. They were taking no chances, whoever they were, and it seemed obvious that I had to have been the focus of their search.
Climbing down as quietly as possible, knowing any excessive noise would cause my discovery, I proceeded to the stream to splash my face in attempt to regain composure. The icy water had the desired effect of warding off any reverie. Still on my hands and knees, I concentrated on recovering my wits, then stood and withdrew deeper back into the forest. Gradually, the sound of the water diminished enough to be able to concentrate on the disturbances from the group who hunted me, who were now advantageously in front of me. I just hoped they knew as little about the destination as I did, and hoped I recognized it before or instead of them.
No longer could I afford to blaze recklessly onward, heedless of the trail I left. Being unaware of any followers, my previous bumbling, while being forgivable, should not be resumed or replicated. From here on, I had to lead from the rear while following my pursuers. Picking my way carefully, I veered back toward what I now only hoped to be the proper direction, not having even a partial view of the sky to verify, knowing I would be destined to have an even longer journey now, detouring around things I had been forcing my way through previously.
Cautiously I advanced, making sure I made as little noise as possible, or at least less than the ones who were chasing me that I now followed. It’s not like they were being noisy; to the contrary, they were quite silent, with only the occasional rustle of leaves or the snap of a twig stepped on, but I dared to be even more stealthy. I couldn’t even be completely sure the noises I followed were coming from them; they could have been the rustlings of snakes, lizards, or even an errant rodent out searching for a late night snack, but since they were coming from the general direction I felt I needed to go, I did my best to make sure I did not hurry towards them, just in case. As I moved onward, my mind began to wander, and Lea’s image made a command reappearance that I had not requested. I shook my head again to dispel it when I realized I had not heard any kind of disturbance for a while, and stopped in my tracks. I sank onto my haunches to concentrate hearing again. None too soon, for all the sudden the reddish lights permeated the near darkness all around. I had made just enough noise at one point to alert them they weren’t alone. I crouched next to a fallen log, and as silently as I could, I laid myself prone and shimmied against and under to the best of my ability, pulling some nearby vines over me for camouflage, and squinted my eyes to look through my lashes, hoping this would dilute any reflections. The lights moved closer and scoured the area I had been standing not two seconds before, then roamed all areas nearby, including where I now lay hidden. When the beams neared me, I closed my lids the rest of the way, and did not reopen them again until I felt sure they had moved elsewhere. When I did look, I could barely make out three forms, more silhouettes than solid masses, in a circle making sort of hand/arm signals back and forth, and saw what looked like a glint of light off metal, so I surmised they must carry swords or knives of some sort. I still heard no noise, not even voices or breathing, I wondered just how they were able to discern the movements with any certainty in the shadowy confines all around. They obviously had little trouble, for as one, they all turned and left the area. I gave them several more minutes, figuring they would once again leave at least one behind as a precaution, and then moved slowly to disentangle myself from the refuge, brushing the dirt and any other foreign objects off before proceeding in the direction they went. I hadn’t gone far, when I again saw the red lights, but this time they were stationary. Squinting again, I chanced moving closer to get a better idea of who the trackers were, or at least how many. Hearing a of noise off to my left, I froze in my tracks and frantically looked for any place that offered cover. Finding a sunken area covered by wet leaves, I quickly eased myself in and under the debris. My whole body wanted to shake and quiver with the fear of near discovery, but by sheer willpower, I remained inert drawing my breath in slowly and releasing the same. By the sounds, which were extremely difficult to detect through the pounding heartbeat in my ears, there were two of them patrolling nearby, probably more all around the camp near enough to see each other. If one had suddenly disappeared, I felt sure some sort of alarm would have brought the entire horde to the location and a search would find the reason. I stayed put, not wanting to encounter them, and as my pulse returned to a more acceptable pace, I heard some kind of low hum, like electricity in massive measure running through a transformer, but only for a few moments, then silence once again reigned. I realized after about 5 minutes, I could not even detect the movements of the guards whose presence enticed me to seek this hideout, but decided, considering the proximity of the enemy, I would just stay put: Plus, enough of the night had passed, so morning and sunrise could not be far off.
Opening my eyes, I noticed the sun was near directly overhead, indicating mid-day, and realized consciousness must have escaped me once again. Images from what had to be the dreams that ran through my weary mind hazily remained, as a ghostly reminder of things past. Lea’s face, the blasts of the weapons which were fired at us, the blur of buildings I ran past with her in my arms seeming near weightless, the agonizing sight of laying her down and seeing her helpless form, and the things she told me just before ordering me to run, run and don’t look back; don’t even think back, just go. It had been the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, leaving her there, but she said I had to get away, demanded obedience in her weakened state. So, I kept going, forcing the memories and thoughts away every time they threatened to resurface. She told me not to think of those things, not to remember, and I tried so desperately to comply. I had succeeded, too, but ever since that clearing, which served so well as a reminder of the life we had planned together, the memories I thought I had torn asunder had begun to reknit themselves and mend, try as I might to shred them again.
Shaking my head, I again chastised myself for reminiscing, disobeying, possibly putting myself in more danger than I was already in. But how was I in danger? From whom, or what? And, most importantly, why? I had to find out what remained out there, so couldn’t dwell on that.
Ever so gently, I extricated myself from under the blanket of fallen, dead leaves, searching and listening as I did. I couldn’t hear any foreign sounds, just the noises of nature in its purest. Convinced the situation was safe, I began making my way toward the deserted campsite that had held so much activity the night before. I could detect no signs of disturbance. No branches or even twigs broken, no footprints, not even a crushed blade of grass. No burnt out area anywhere to evidence the fire I knew I had seen. No way could I have imagined the whole thing, not an entire day. Something just did not feel right, instead felt terribly wrong, and I had no clue how to find out what. Knowing there would be no explanation found by lingering I regained my bearings and proceeded on my original Southward course.
Upon exiting the campsite that I could not confirm had been there to start with, I again came up short: Leaning against a tree, I saw a backpack, and not just some little job a High School student would use, no; this appeared to be a fully stocked camping pack, complete with tent, sleeping bag, and shovel. I looked all around it, trying to find footprints to follow in the soft dirt that would take me to the owner of it, maybe try to get myself some kind of meal. Again, no prints, no disturbances anywhere to indicate someone else had been there to leave the duffel. But then, where did the pack come from, who put it there, and where were they now? Deciding, perhaps foolishly, to throw caution to the wind, at least temporarily, I called out, seeking verbal confirmation of a presence, or lack thereof. Twice, three times I hailed to no response, and turned my sights back to the object that should not have been there.
I began by approaching slowly, surveying the ground and trees for traps or saboteurs. Then I peered all about the rig to make sure there were no pressure related gimmicks and reached to pull it towards me, then opened it to inspect the contents. That’s when I saw the inveiglement, the piice de resistance: a metal plate riveted to the frame, and a name engraved there upon- my name. What was going on? I had never owned anything like it. There had to be a mistake, but what were the chances of being deep in a forest and just happening on a full hiking pack bearing a tag with one’s own name on it? The odds were, to say the least, astronomical. Which led to only one conclusion; the pack, deliberately left in that exact spot, with the knowledge that I would find it, was meant for me to take and put to use. The question I had to answer: Whether or not to succumb to the allure of convenience. With that kind of setup, I would no longer have to forage for berries and grasses, nor be forced to find insufficient shelter at night or if it rained. Further inspection of the contents revealed that, indeed, there were foodstuffs including dehydrated meals that only required hot water to prepare, packets of powdered drink mixes, trail mixes, even some various dried fruits. Also, there were clothes in a separate compartment; not just any clothes, but somehow these were my clothes, things I knew I had worn before. Pants not only in my size, but that I actually remembered; shirts with defects and marks I remembered making. What the…?
I stood and began backing away, staring at the objects as if at a bad hallucination. Then it dawned on me that it still might have been some kind of setup meant to distract me from what might have been going on around me. Well, it definitely had been that, all right. For about an hour I had been going through the contents; anything could have been happening around me and I would have been scarcely aware of it while inspecting the various packets of foodstuffs, and especially so when I opened the second containing area to find the garments. That’s when I had been completely distracted; absorbed to the nth degree, oblivious to anything, everything around me. Nervously, I began snapping my head around, knowing the trap had worked and I would be surrounded by possible assailants, all laughing at me for falling so completely for the ruse placed before me, sucked in so thoroughly and thus subject to their mercy, should they choose to extend any. No one there, just birds whistling their merry tunes, the bugs making clicking noises, frogs croaking and urping. I still seemed to be, by all visual confirmation, alone. My mind refused to cease going over the possible reasons for this situation, the ramifications of just taking the pack and being on my way. What if there were tracking devices? What if the food turned out to be tainted, poisoned, or drugged? Deciding I didn’t want to chance anything of that nature, I left the stuff where it lay and began running from it and anything to do with it. Heedless once again of the consequences of leaving a trail, I tore through any obstacles in my path, making haste to put as much distance between myself and the veritable luxury of the items offered by an unknown entity as quickly as possible. I kept running until the sun had finally set, casting a pall of near darkness once again in the depths of the forest around me. Only then did I cease the most recent attempt of evading the confusing events that seemed determined to tear asunder any pretense of my sense of reality. Exhausted, winded and sore, I slowed and finally collapsed to the earthen floor, giving myself to the all too familiar embrace of oblivion.