Tuesday, December 09, 2008

This Spear Bears Witness

Most of the soldiers huddled close to the newly lit fire as twilight began to fall over the country side; most but not all, as Linus Fortunus Ophenis stood near the weeping women at the feet of the wooden crucifixes. Linus and his troop had come down from the north to help maintain control for the region’s high holy days and from all accounts their help was desperately needed. Not that Linus and his comrades from the 14th Maniple of the 9th Cohort would know since the local commander – the hated Aulus Duilius Vespillo who had risen to his vaunted rank through tenacity, ruthlessness, and murder – had assigned them to guard duty over the dead and dying.
Linus wasn’t sure if any of the rumors about Aulus Duilius were true, but if they ever met he planned to deal with him like he did every other power hungry officer – keep his head down, so he could make it back to his love in Philippi. Linus even now was thinking of his dear Lydia as one of the weeping women was a striking beauty like her, making his longing greater to return home. She and the rest were prostrate on the ground balling their eyes out in front of some criminal.
Linus didn’t care much what those men did; he just had to watch over them as they died. Most were near death, but the one who had brought the largest crowds had probably been dead for hours. The sun was close to setting and still these women and some men remained, which bothered Linus because it was at night that the men on guard duty often had their fun with their charges. Linus never partook in the festivities; he sat by the fire thinking of his wife and her family back in Greece.
The men at the fire rose and righted themselves as a man dressed in the finest robes and armor Linus had ever seen walked solemnly up to the fire. He spoke to them and the men of the 14th Maniple seemed to stumble over themselves to answer. One of them pointed in Linus’ direction. Linus’ back went as straight as an arrow and he lifted his head high. The officer walked slowly towards Linus with his eyes scanning the hillside of death – the dying men moaning and wailing on that quiet lonely hill.
“Are you Linus Fortunus Ophenis,” the officer asked without looking at Linus; his eyes were on the criminals on their crosses.
“I am.”
“I am Praefectus Castrorum Aulus Duilius Vespillo. Have you watched these men?”
“I have Praefectus.”
“And which of these men would you say has expired?” Now he looked at Linus with steely eyes. Linus took a moment to think and try to decipher what it was the Praefectus was truly asking.
“Three of the men are dead already, while the other three died during the night, Praefectus.” This answer made Aulus Duilius smile.
“Yes, I think they did, but we must be sure. Give me your spear.” Aulus Duilius held out his calloused hand and Linus passed his spear into it.
“These barbarians have a nasty trick of playing convincingly dead.” Aulus walked to the last crucifix, the one with the most people gathered around it, Linus followed. “You have to make sure they are down, like you would a wolf or bear. These people think they are wild animals Linus, it is citizens like you and I who will bring civilization to this land.”
Aulus stopped at the foot of the cross and then took the spear in both hands. Having once been a combat officer, seeing battle in Africa and in Gaul, Aulus’ form was perfect. His struck the spear deep into the man’s side. There was no noise from the man’s lips, only the sickening sound of the spear plunging into his side. The women and men mourning at the foot mourned all the louder – he was dead.
A mix of blood and water poured out his side and down the spear’s shaft. Aulus held it there until it covered his hands before he pulled it out with a violent tug. Internal organs came out with the spear head and dangled at the man’s side. Aulus seemed pleased.
“Then he is dead.” Aulus paused to look up at the man. “Make sure the others die tonight as well Linus Fotunus Ophenis.”
Aulus swept his gaze across the countryside and back towards the city. Saying out load, more to himself, “We will civilize this land, even if we have to kill every last one of them.”
With a practiced flourish he swung around, handed Linus back his spear, and then began the walk back to the city as solemnly as he came. Linus was slow to move at first, but the obedience beaten into him as a soldier quickly took over and quickened his pace. He went to the next crucifix, put down his spear, and picked up the mallet. He hefted the weighty item and then looked up at the man hanging above him. He was looking down and was trying to speak in his people’s tongue, but his eyes begged in a language all men could understand.
Linus swung the mallet in a wide arc, right into the man’s right knee cap. He swung again, this time into the left knee. Both were now broken and the man, despite being parched and choking on blood, cried out. Linus didn’t wait to watch the man as he struggled to hold himself up with broken legs and breathe his last as some of the other soldiers would do, instead he went to the next man. He was directly behind the first and had seen exactly what he had done to his fellow.
But this man was different; he didn’t try to beg with parched tongue or whimper like so many other men who were about to die. In fact he seemed to know Greek and was able to speak one word clearly, “Please.”
It struck Linus as not a request to end his suffering or to take him down from his place of judgment. No, Linus looked up at the man and saw a joy in his eyes. Linus swung and broke his legs as well. The criminal would struggle to pull himself up to breath; dying slowly and painfully throughout the night. But his eyes through the pain said thank you.
Linus turned to finish the rest, breaking the legs of the last survivor and spearing the other two men that had died already. Linus now went to the fire’s edge. The mourners were now taking down the bodies of the dead to lay them at rest. With no one to guard Linus settled into a long night of boredom. The men joked and sang to ease the passing of the night, but Linus was lost in thought. Why had that man been so eager to die? And why had Aulus Duilius Vespillo, Praefectus Castrorum of the Roman VI Legion, wanted to be sure all the men on that accursed hill were dead?
By mourning they were relieved and as they all filled into the temporary barracks to rest, Linus was pulled aside by the Optio, the second in command of Linus’ Century. He was a dourer faced man that rarely smiled, but this mourning his face was beaming.
“You are perhaps the luckiest man in all of this backward country!” He exclaimed and then slapped Linus on the back. “You have been given your papers.”
Linus looked at the Optio with a puzzled look.
“You’re going home to that wife of yours.” The Optio went behind his desk and bent to look for a paper. “I heard you talking about joining her family’s business. Purple cloth worthy of Caesar I once heard you boast. HA! You’re welcome to such a boring life if you wish, but if you ever want to come back know that you are always welcome here.”
“Sir, I’m not sure what’s going on.” Linus was hesitant to ruin the Optio’s mood.
“I imagine you don’t. You seem to have won the favor of a powerful ally, Linus Fortunus Ophenis, and he has seen to it that you have been released from your duty – with pay even! He has also given the 14th Maniple of the 9th Cohort, this unit, the honor of joining the regional governor’s guard in Caesarea. It’ll be good to be by the seas again. Good luck Linus Fortunus Ophenis, you have been truly blessed.”
The Optio held out a marked parchment, with the seal of the Praefectus Castrorum on it. Linus took it and with a salute left the Optio. “Your final orders are to eat, clean-up, and then meet with the Praefectus.”
The Optio sensed Linus’ hesitation so he came around the desk and put a hand on Linus’ elbow. “You’re going home, you should be glad… not too glad mind you, but glad. Whatever you did to make that man warm up to you is your business and a testament to your place before the gods. I doubt even Caesar could change your fortune.”
This seemed to put Linus at ease and so he ate his last meal with his comrades – who wished him well and cursed him under their breaths. He cleaned up and put on his best uniform, before the long walk to the center of the city.
He nervously introduced himself to the servant at the door and was lead into a small oasis of Rome in the desert of Barbarianism surrounding the home. Linus asked if he should leave his spear and sword at the door with the servant, but he shook his head. The Praefectus was seated and eating at a small table along one of the side rooms.
“Citizen Ophenis!” The Praefectus stood and took Linus by the hand. “This is a marked day my friend. This will be the day things change here in the desert. Civilization is coming at long last. All the more, I have you to thank for it.”
“I am unsure how I had any hand in bringing civilization to this land, sir.” Linus said.
“And so humble to! Please eat!” Aulus gestured for Linus to sit, but to do so would be a major breach of protocol, so Linus declined with a shake of his head. “Suit yourself.” Aulus sat down himself and started to eat. A servant and another man, a local man, came into the room.
“Ah, good Caliphus you’ve arrived. If I did not know any better I would say you were a Roman.”
The man, old and worn but dressed in fine robes and jewelry, seemed to take offense to this, but nodded his head in ascent regardless.
“This is the young man I told you about. Linus Fortunus Ophenis, one of Rome’s best soldiers and a man of great character. It is a shame we are losing his services, but I must begrudgingly send him away with my best wishes.”
The local man looked Linus up and down, but his eyes settled on the spear.
“Is that the spear.” He asked in perfect Greek.
“The very same.” Aulus sprung up from his seat, took the spear from Linus, and then held it gingerly before the wizen old man. The old man looked it over with keen eyes; he held out his hand as if to touch it but stopped a hairs breadth away.
“Rome and Jerusalem have much to thank you for young master.” The man’s voice was almost a whisper. “Much to thank you for…” He withdrew his hand and seemed to regain his composer.
“I hope you have properly taken care of this mighty man of Rome.”
“I most certainly have. My very own horse will carry him to Caesarea and from there he will find passage to his home.” Aulus was beaming. “He is dead my friend and this spear bears witness to it.”
“Would you allow my people to keep the spear?” The man asked. “It would stand as a reminder to progress and civilization.”
“Linus?” Aulus looked to Linus with a smile. He nodded his head in ascent and the spear was passed from Aulus to the man. The two then walked out into the center room and a servant entered quietly.
“You will come with me,” he said in a hushed tone. He took Linus to the stable at the rear of the house. True to his word, one of Aulus’ horses was made ready for him; that afternoon Linus Fortunus Ophenis was on his way home, confused, but on his way home

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ex Nehilo - The Great Black

The Great Black

In the Great Black of the Moon, that’s the shadow side for those who have only studied the moon and never experienced it, the known becomes a little less known, the real becomes a little less tangible, and the hope… Well, hope is nowhere to be found in the Great Black.

-Mark Waltrip,

First man to solo walk across the Great Black

Day One:

It was important to me to leave without any real fanfare. People like LeMonte and Jakovites had left Tranquility Base like heroes; but now they’re no more than footnotes. To circumnavigate the moon has been tried by many others and they’ve all failed. They’ve all left with bands playing, people cheering, and teams of experts waiting to guide them. They’re all dead now. They’re dead because they had something to go back to – loved ones, money, power, the system. Out in the Black you don’t live for anything but the next second.

I loaded the tanks, camping gear, and food packets into my suit – standard suit, no fancy bells or whistles. The sky cares nothing for our bells and whistles. The sky looks down on us as if we were naked, even in the bulkiest space suit. It sees our hearts and it divines our life or death. It probably weighed one hundred and fifty extra pounds with everything packed and my first step onto the lunar soil sunk deep in the loose dust. One small step for man.

The air in my suit somehow seems is cleaner outside under the stars than any air I could breathe inside Tranquility. I’m free.

Day Twenty-Seven:

Have reached the edge of dark and light, good and evil, hope and despair. The day is constant out on the sunward side, so the dark beckons to me. I have toiled, labored step after labored step, into and out of craters and depressions to reach this point. Should I be here?

Day Thirty:

The horizon is now out of sight, all is black and lost. I have only the small light affixed to my suit to light the way before me – a microcosm of man stumbling about through history. The soil is looser around these craters. Must watch step.

Day Thirty-Three:

Reached the location where I arranged for supplies to be left: I had to pay a lot for the Russian to make the drop and convince him I was part of a scientific research team. Most of it was there, but it was all tangled up in the cords he had used to secure it. Took over three hours to cut free and would have been another hour to repack. Decided to rest instead and do it in a few hours.

Day Thirty-Nine:

Some of the food didn’t taste right, even for congealed meals, so I checked the expiration date on them. The newest one is three years past! This wasn’t the stuff I bought and had the Russian store! He must have taken them and made a tidy profit. At least he didn’t skip on the air, but I can hardly breathe without wondering if he gave me substandard tanks or bad air.

I am starting to see lights out in the distance. The first time I saw one I was at the bottom of a crater. By the time I reached the crest the light was gone.

Day Forty-Three:

My stomach hurts, I haven’t been able to eat since the meal the night before; spent the whole night throwing up in my tent. I don’t think I can sleep in there again – it smells too bad. Followed a light around the side of a very deep crater for most of the day, but could never catch up to it. Having to sleep standing up. Didn’t get far today. Too tired.

Day Forty-Nine:

See more lights. They are all moving the same direction and disappearing in a crater not too far away. Too far to walk today though. Wonder where all the people went?

Day Fifty-Three:

Took longer to reach crater than thought. All the lights are there in the jungle at the base of the crater. I can see them dancing and can hear them singing. Will go down to the jungle tomorrow, for now sleep what little I can.

Day Fifty-Four:

Have made it to the edge of the jungle. The branches and vines are all in tangles and I cannot find a way in. I can hear the lights singing. IWANTIN!!

Day Fifty-Eight:

Have left behind the jungle and the lights. They would not share. Need air. Have thrown-up in my suit now too.

Day Sixty-One:

Arrived at second supply drop and now have good clean air. Food worse than the last drop. Filthy crook! Will rest here an extra day before moving on.

Day Sixty-Nine:

Rested three days instead of the one, but feel much better now. I think I’ve made some good progress to make up for my extended stay at the second drop and my slower pace. My stomach still is in knots and is causing problems with my reclamation system. The filters aren’t kept up as well and the smell is overpowering-the vomit smell in my suit. The sky laughs at me when I sleep. I hear it say I will never see light again. My world is a two foot circle of light moving inch by inch over nothing.

Day Seventy-Four:

I can see a sliver of light on the horizon, to excited to sleep, but my body refuses to move any more. Twelve days of air left and ten days worth off traveling todo. Got to make every movement matter. Appreciate movement now in a way I never did before. Movement is the exertion of your essence. To move requires all of my, all of our being, just to take a simple step. Tomorrow I will must move.

Day Seventy-Six:

I am behind, there is not enough air! Couldn’t find a way out of the crater, so I spent hours trying to get out. Took too long. The horizon is getting brighter but I am going to die right at the cusp!

Day Eighty-One:

I’ve reached the terminus between the sunward and shadow side. I took one last look back and saw the lights calling me back, but they don’t share. I stepped into the light.

Farewell (Day Eighty-Five):

Only a few hours of air left. My stomach is in constant pain and seems to have spread to other parts of my digestive system. My reclamation system is broken, so I have no water to drink, and now the suit is starting to fill up with crap. I’ve stripped off everything I could spare to help me move faster, but all the extra weight in my suit made that a waste of time. Time! Time! Time! Tick Tock on life.

Editor’s Epilogue:

Mark Waltrip’s life was almost certainly lost in those next few hours if he hadn’t been spotted by a mining survey team. They said he was walking slowly back to the Great Black and refused to turn back. Then suddenly he seemed to spring to life and embraced the closest person to him. They were able to get him back to Tranquility, where doctors began the long process of healing his frail body.

At the beginning of his trek he weighed 105kgs (230lbs) and at the end of his eighty-five days in the Great Black he weighed 50kgs (110lbs). He had severe dehydration, trench foot in both feet, and extremely low blood pressure. The fact he survived amazed the medical team at Tranquility, but to the few friends he had both at the base and on Earth there was little surprise. A stubborn fighter, is what they called him.

He had left Earth for the new frontier of the Moon only six months before his historic circumnavigation of the moon. He never spoke of it to anyone, but made casual inquires with some EVA and Lunar hiking experts. He approached one of the best, Kyle Rindle, who gave him the sagely advice to give up on crossing the Great Black.

“The kid didn’t look like he had it in him. Sure he had the tiger in his eyes, but it didn’t take long out in the black for that tiger to become a kitten. It’s what happened to LeMonte. He was all talk, but they found his body just days past the terminus. So I told him to give it up.” Rindle told me when I first started to research this story. Other experts tried to do the same, but Mark’s quiet resolution finally won over one expert.

“He just saw it as such a pure event that I was hard for me to not want to help him,” said Iwao Watanabe, one of Tranquility Base’s first permit residents and unspoken king of extreme EVA. “He spoke of being free of the ensnaring world. Breaking the tangles that hold us all together to see who he was alone without the competition, comparisons, and jockeying for position we see every day.”

After Mark recovered he went back to Earth, with as little fanfare as the day he left for his circumnavigation. Not that reporters didn’t try to celebrate him, but in what is now considered Mark’s trademark style he sidestepped the reporters by taking a bulk cargo tramp back dirtside. He has remained a figure of anonymity, but has inspired a glut of followers who have gone out to break the tangles. Most are stopped before they reach the terminus by security forces, while a handful have slipped through and perished in the Great Black.

To dissuade others from trying and losing their lives he wrote an extremely critical autobiography of his own passage through the darkness. It rose to the top of the world’s Best Seller lists, but Mark has donated the profits to the Families of Luna Fund – a fund to support families of the miners and researchers who have died on the moon.

To this day Mark Waltrip is still the only man to complete a solo circumnavigation of the Moon. Only he has broken the tangles.