Past Light

The shadows from the forest lengthened across the field. He reluctantly decided to return to his ship, but knew he would not leave until he somehow established the validity of that improbable vision. The trailhead was hard to find. No broad opening in the plants indicated a passage; however, a large worn patch of grass near the edge of the pasture signified a high traffic area. The homing signal on the readout showed he was aimed in the right direction, so he just needed to follow the path back to his ship.

He pushed through the bushes there to find himself on the trail. The surveyor followed it into the forest, constantly looking to the sides, expecting to see the face in the forest depths. He steps from one shadow to the next, examining the darkest nooks carefully. A little boy doesn’t need much room. An unused back stair casts its protection against a distant street lamp. This will do. He places his bundle in the corner and takes a last look around. The shining eyes, glowing in the dark, startle him. A grin materializes and speaks.

“Hey you.”

He grabs his bundle and runs further from the light.

“Not now,” he said knocking the ball of his thumb against his temple to clear his head. “No time for that now.”

He needed to concentrate on his immediate situation. The murky image dissolved from his mind but left him shuddering for a moment.

He was still on the trail looking for his ship, but his progress soon ended in an impassable thorny thicket he had not encountered earlier. The pointed thorns stung painfully when he tried to push through and left red marks on his hands and arms. Somehow this wasn’t the right trail.

Shock paralyzed his breath when he checked the readout on the beacon receiver. It didn’t show anything. The surveyor turned the device off and on to see if it would reset. That didn’t work. Slapping it and then cursing at it didn’t work either. There must be some sort of dead spot here the signal couldn’t reach, though he didn’t know how that was possible.

“Focus, focus,” he told himself.

He had to forget that face. It was only a distraction now.

Because he was heading generally in the right direction, the space pilot decided to turn off the trail to make a detour. Hopefully the homing signal would soon reappear. The brush was harder to work through, forcing him to wind around tangles of thickets. After a while, he was no longer sure of his direction. Fortunately, the readout beeped. The signal was back. It showed he had strayed off course, so the surveyor readjusted his route and plowed forward as best he could.

After scrambling up an embankment, the signal disappeared again, but he kept going. The ship should not be too far away, and the surveyor expected to stumble across it at any moment. After a while he came to a trail. This probably wasn’t the same one he had just left behind, so could it be the path his ship was parked on? The pilot was very disoriented and not sure about anything. He followed the track. After a short distance it dissolved and never reformed, but the other direction eventually brought him back to the field with the giant tree. It lay silent and empty. The space pilot found himself wishing it could be repopulated, wishing he could see everything again, wishing he could make different decisions. Shadows had darkened; the sun no longer hit the ground but had started to climb the trees. The readout still showed no signal.

Feeling certain this was not the spot where he initially entered the meadow, the surveyor circled around looking for another high traffic area in the grass. One appeared, and he plunged into the forest onto another trail, but it wasn’t at all like that first clear path. This was a narrow winding track that didn’t seem to want to go anywhere. It soon faded out completely.

The sun had almost set when the pilot arrived back at the field. He was getting nervous, and didn’t want to be caught out on a strange planet at night. To make up for lost time he started to jog, looking for other worn patches and constantly checking his useless readout. Any sign of a trail drew his attention, and he began to try routes he knew were not correct with the hope they would lead to the broader path he had first taken. Each ended predictably, but he cursed anyway. Darkness filled the gaps between the trees. Panic leapt into his chest and vibrated through his arms and legs, making his vision jumpy.

“Okay. Keep your head,” he advised himself. “Calm down.”

His breath heaved, a result of the combined forces of persistent worry and unaccustomed exertion. He didn’t like the idea of sleeping out in the open, and he didn’t like the idea of sleeping in the forest.

“Shit,” he said for about the twentieth time. It was quickly becoming one of his favorite words; the slew of recent mental impasses needed some form of expression.

“Just keep it together until morning.”

Then he would have all day to look for his ship. For now, finding cover became his first priority. The chances of making a shelter seemed better in the forest; he had a vague idea of leaning sticks against something and covering that with something else. Whatever solution he decided on would need to be effected without tools.

Stepping out of the field and into the forest, the surveyor found a sapling which he attempted to snap, but it only bent. Frustrated, he found a stick lying on the ground and beat at the small tree in anger. This gave him no satisfaction; the sapling kept flexing and moving.

“Damn!” he yelled. “Damn, damn, damn, damn!” he screamed as he thrashed at it. This was becoming his other favorite word.

Exhausted, he sat down on the forest floor and looked around. He had to cover himself with something. The elliptical leaves from the tall trees were thick and large, some longer than his legs. The surveyor gathered a dozen of the fallen leaves to him and pulled them over his body. How cold would it get tonight? Hopefully his improvised bed would be enough to keep him warm.