This is chapter 27 of my novel, Foreign. I’ve taken about a month off while I traveled to Guatemala and Atlanta, had family visit, finished a doctoral paper, and got back into the swing of the school year. I’m hoping to get back to posting every week. If not, I’ll shoot for every two weeks. Either way, I cannot guarantee that I’ll be posting by noon on Fridays. It will be some time on Fridays. Thanks for your patience! The story still continues! If you’ve missed a chapter, you can check out the archives here. That page also includes a PDF and E-pub file of the whole book through chapter 26. If you like what you read, please spread the word, and make sure to sign up in the upper-right corner to get each new chapter emailed to you. Thanks and enjoy!
“They’ve escaped, sir.”
“Our resources will be more limited now.”
“I’m aware. See if you can procure some more help.”
-From the office of the Secadoma
“You shoulda listened to me, you turd!” Justin yelled out, catching his breath as he sat next to Mark on the ice.
Mark didn’t bother to respond, but continued to lay on his back, looking up at the stars, heaving from exhaustion.
“After all we’ve gone through, we coulda died because you didn’t want to get dirty?” Justin pressed further.
Mark still didn’t respond.
“And after all that, you still had to get in the water. By the way, you smell terrible, too!”
“Dude, don’t get all butt-hurt. I’m only kidding,” Justin chided. “You ok, man?” He finally looked over at Mark and found his body shaking.
“Shit! What happened?” He leapt toward Mark and grabbed ahold of him. “God! You’re freezing cold! We gotta get you moving, and find some shelter. Come on, buddy, get up.”
Justin propped Mark up so he was sitting. “Ok, let’s get your backpack on.” He hoisted Mark to his feet with surprising ease. “Now, get your arm around me. Let’s get going.” Justin scanned the scene in front of him. With the river flowing to their left, they stood on a featureless snow bank that glistened in the moonlight. The ground sloped down hill, away from them. About two hundred feet in front of them, it abruptly dropped off. Beyond the precipice was more featureless grey. Nothing hopeful.
“Maybe we can find something at the bottom of that hill?” Justin offered, trying to instill some hope.
We’re screwed out here. What were we thinking?
Every step was painful and deliberate. The two of them struggled to walk forward together, but eventually got into a rhythm, like they were in a three-legged race in a carnival.
“Stay close, man,” Justin said while they continued. “We’re almost there,” he lied. With each step, he remembered the line of a cheesy song from one of his favorite movies, Revenge of the Nerds.
“You’ve got to put one foot, in front of the other. Put the other foot down, down, down,” he sang.
“I can’t even feel my feet,” Mark managed to say.
Eventually, they got to the precipice. The river had become a roaring rapids, cascading down a steep wall of boulders. But they weren’t at the edge of a cliff, as Justin had feared. Although the decline in front of them was steep, it was traversable. For somebody who wasn’t on the verge of hypothermia, at least.
“If we can get to the bottom of this hill, I think we can make a shelter. Just a bit further, bro,” he reassured.
The only way down the slope was to climb down, backwards, almost like climbing down a ladder. The rocks never were big enough to create a drop the two of them couldn’t manage. Although, their rubber full-body suits and the lower gravity didn’t hurt their cause either.
Eventually, they arrived at the bottom, still arm in arm, maybe thirty feet below where they had started. The rapids on their right as they faced the rock slope, Justin searched for a suitable place for constructing a shelter.
“Dude, you gotta be joking! Look!” Justin pointed toward the river.
At the bottom of the sloping rocks, near the shore of the river was what first appeared to be a large pile of boulders. But in the moonlight, there was a dark spot visible in the middle of the pile.
“Come on. I hope it’s big enough,” Justin led Mark closer toward the river, where the cave was located. As they approached the cave, it was still hard to tell if it would be helpful. Finally right in front of the opening in the rocks, they estimated that the opening was a good four feet tall. Justin motioned for Mark to kneel so they could climb through.
“Wait,” Mark cautioned. “What’s inside?”
Justin countered, “How am I supposed to know? We gotta warm you up!”
“The gun. Shoot it inside. To be sure.” Mark directed.
“Crap no. Get in. We don’t have time.” He pushed Mark into the opening.
“We’ve gotta get some heat in here! Give me the gun,” Justin reached over in the darkness. “Ok. Close your eyes and cover your ears. This is gonna be brighter and louder than crap.”
He shot the spherogun into the side of their cave. The blast sounded like an F-16 was taking off inside the cave with them as he kept the laser going. With each passing second, the stones grew warmer. At around seven seconds, the stone began to glow red around the contact point with the laser. At ten seconds he shut it off.
“Holy crap, dude, give me a longer warning next time! I almost shat myself!” Mark yelled.
“Shut up and get close to that rock while find a way cover the opening with our materials. At least you’re still alive. You seem to be doing better already.”
A few minutes later, Justin came back from the mouth of the cave to where Mark was huddled next to the stone wall. “We’re in luck. I only needed to use one piece of fabric to cover the entrance. That means we get blankets. I think we need to get you out of your dry suit so your clothes can dry. I just hope they don’t freeze instead. I think it’s also been long enough that I can use the gun again to heat the stone more,” Justin explained.
“That material better be warm enough or it’ll be a long night with shooting that thing every five minutes,” Mark yelled, ears still ringing from the first shots. Under the cover of his makeshift blanket, he tried to conserve what little body heat he had. As he struggled to take off his dry suit, he discovered that it had, in fact, not kept him dry. All around this chest and shoulders, all three layers of his clothes were damp. He would be in serious trouble if that didn’t dry.
“Alright, I’m coming over with the rest of the fabric. I think we have enough to make like a little tent around this wall. We can still heat it with warm rocks. Hopefully with the covering, our own body heat, and the remaining material for our blankets, we’ll be ok. And,” Justin’s voice slowed, “Don’t get the wrong idea about this, but I think we’ll both be warmer if we lie down next to each other and use the same blankets.”
“I know you’re not into dudes. Trust me, you’ve made it clear time and again,” Mark replied. “Just lay down and hurry up. I’m still freezing.”
After a few minutes that felt like eternity for Mark, his body went from numb to really cold. He laid bundled up with the material, between the warm rocks and Justin, too cold to feel awkward.
I thought Hauzel said it would be daylight outside? But then again how would he know? He’s never been outside. I wonder what else he could have gotten wrong…
Eventually, he fell into a fitful sleep.
Mark awoke to a dim light, feeling sore from a bad night’s sleep, and cold down to the bone. But he was alive. He had survived his first night in the frozen Zearythian wilderness of Tiellandra.
Groaning as he sat up, he saw Justin asleep in a fetal position near him, and a sliver of light coming in their cave between a gap formed by their covering and the edge of the cave opening. As the sliver passed through their internal covering, it cast the inside of their tent in a grey hue. Pushing the covering aside, it crinkled and Justin began to stir. Mark crept out of the tent and into the cave proper; the light seeping in through the crack was bright enough that everything else in the cave was dark in comparison. It reminded him of when his cell first opened up back in the containment facility. He shuddered at the thought.
Still crawling, Mark approached the opening to their cave, his eyes gradually adjusting to the brightness of the outside light. The roar of the surging water outside poured into the cave as Mark pulled the covering to the side. In addition to the sound, biting cold air poured into the cave. The dawn light of the glacial valley blinded him while his pupils contracted to compensate. Struggling to see through the spots in his vision, he saw bright white light below the horizon with a deep blue sky while sunlight came directly from his left.
“Why’d you wake me up with that light, man? I only saved your life last night. Can’t I sleep in at least?” Justin whined as he crawled up toward the cave opening.
Mark ignored his comment, examining the foreign landscape as his eyes grew accustomed to the light. Their cave opened up to a large white expanse; they were likely in a glacier valley, enfolded by craggy mountains in all directions. However, directly in front, the mountains gave a less ominous vibe than those to their right or left. Also to the left, the Tielrina flowed past, rapidly cutting through the icy terrain. Beyond, just above the mountains, the first of Zearyth’s suns claimed its place in the sky.
“That way must be East, or whatever the equivalent is here,” Mark surmised aloud.
“Which would mean that straight ahead would be south, right?” Justin added.
“Yeah, but what does that mean?”
Justin reasoned, “It must mean that a warmer climate would be that way.”
“Unless we’re in the planet’s southern hemisphere. Then it will just take us closer to the pole.”
Mark hypothesized, “But, if the planet’s axis isn’t perpendicular to its orbit, the same way Earth’s isn’t, I suppose we could watch as the sun’s rise. If they don’t go directly overhead, whichever side of the sky they lean towards, would lead to the equator, wouldn’t it?”
“Shit, man. I guess? Yeah, I think that makes sense. So we just sit here for a day? We don’t have a ton of food. Is that wise?”
“You’re right about the food. And we gotta figure out what to do for water, too. But still, I’d like to be sure of where we’re going, in case we need to retrace our steps,” Mark said.
“Yeah, but we could always just follow the river, though. Isn’t that what Hauzel suggested?”
“Yes, but look out there. Do you see anything other than ice or rock?”
Justin offered, “Well, yeah, actually. Look right at the base of the mountains on the horizon straight ahead. It looks darker.”
“I think it might be a tree line at the base of those mountains, or maybe even closer,” Justin said.
“You think so? That would mean we could have fire, and maybe better shelter… But also probably animals, and on this planet, who knows what kind?” Mark still was unconvinced.
“Dude, what do you propose? We just sit here until you starve and I suffocate because you smell so bad?”
“No, man. I just think we need to wait a day. I mean, we don’t even know how long a day is out here. Hauzel was already wrong when he thought we’d come out of Tielmetra during the day. I’d just like to know what we’re working with and know which way we’re going before we set out to traverse a glacier. And besides, I’m starving. Let’s eat some food and figure out how to drink, or we won’t last long enough to find out what’s in those trees.” And with that Mark ended the discussion.
Eating their daily portion of nadelle was easy enough. Getting water from snow proved a little more complicated, but not insurmountable. Using their spherogun to heat ice didn’t work because the water sublimed, bypassing the liquid state. They would have to heat the snow indirectly. Fortunately, they had each packed a canteen. It took a while, but they were able to fill a water bottle full of snow.
Packed with snow, they used the spherogun to heat the entire canteen, which didn’t take long. Once melted, the bottle wasn’t close to full, so they had to add more snow and reheat the bottle repeatedly. It was a tedious, and loud process, but they eventually made progress with one bottle (and scored the outside from running so much current through it).
“We shoulda packed ear plugs. That gun is either gonna scare off every living creature within miles, or attract them all straight to us,” Justin complained right before they finished filling the canteen.
“Yeah. We’ll just need to cover our ears or we’ll go deaf. And let’s hope it’s the former, and not the latter that’s true about other animals. Ok one more shot, and we should have enough,” Mark said.
The familiar thunderclap cracked through the air as the laser sparked toward the canteen and illuminated the cave like an arc welder. Out of boredom more than anything else, Mark tried simply looking away from the bright light instead of closing his eyes like he had done every other time.
“Holy crap, dude, look!” Mark yelled.
“Go open the flap to cave, we need light in here. Now!”
“Are you crazy? All the cold air will get in!” Justin balked.
“Do it! I saw something on the wall back there.”
Justin detached one of the upper corners of the covering so it fell down, partially opening the gap in the cave, letting more light inside. He came back to Mark. “What did you find?”
“I don’t know. It looked like writing on the wall?” he said in disbelief, crawling toward the back of the cave. “Dude! It is writing! Look!… No way. It’s English letters!”
“And it looks like it was written with a Sharpie!” Justin added as he came up next to Mark to get a better view.
“Get out of the way man, you’re blocking the light. There. Damn, there’s a lot of text. Let’s see…”
It’s the eye of the tiger.
Follow the Old Miss, the Old Man.
Then to Grandmother’s house we go…
“What the hell?” Justin said. “The first thing written in English we see on this entire planet is the lyrics from a Survivor song?”
“Dude, that’s it!” Mark said. “They’ve survived! You’re a genius!”
“This has got to be some kind of code or something,” Mark explained. “Think about it. If the human survivors wanted to communicate about where they were, they wouldn’t want the Tiellandrans to find out. And the Tielsuits we had somehow even translated letters for us. I think the aliens could probably read English characters. So the humans must have used cultural references that only humans would know.”
“Yeah, but what if we were from like India, or something? Or what if we were from like a totally different century?” Justin asked.
“Good point. Maybe we just got lucky, and they’re English, from our time?” Mark offered.
“Bullshit. What are the odds?”
“I dunno. But how else do you explain it? And look! There’s more writing over here!”
Es el ojo del tigre.
Sigue la Vieja Senorita, el Viejo Hombre.
Asi a la casa de abuela nos vamos…
“See, man! I think it’s the same thing, written in Spanish! Doesn’t ‘tigre’ mean ‘tiger’ and ‘vamos’ mean ‘go?’” They’re trying to tell as many people as possible.” Mark went on.
“Fine, so what the crap are they trying to say? Is the old miss the grandmother or something? ” Justin asked.
“I doubt it. When did ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ come out?” Mark thought aloud.
Justin guessed, “Eh, like 1985 or something? I think it was in Rocky III.”
“Yeah. So we know that whoever wrote this was aware of pop-culture in the 80’s. I wonder if these other lines are from songs in the 80’s too?”
“The only song I can think of isn’t from the 80’s. It’s that kid’s song – ‘Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.’”
“Over the river… the tree line! Dude, you nailed it again! Over the river and through the woods! They want us to cross over the river and go through the trees we saw!”
Justin frowned, “You think so? Which river do we cross? Didn’t Hauzel mention another river splitting from this main one?”
“Yeah, but I don’t see it anywhere. So we cross the river outside and look for a forest?”
“I dunno, man. What about that second line still, about the Old Miss, the Old Man? I mean, I don’t wanna take a wrong turn and get lost.”
“Yeah,” Mark agreed, “Getting lost out here would fatal.”
“Seriously. We’d lose a lot more than our hubcaps out here.”
“Shit! Dude, you did it again!”
Justin was dumbfounded. “Did what?”
“You figured it out! Vacation! Remember what happens right before they get lost in St. Louis and lose their hubcaps?”
“Yeah. They cross the bridge over the river,” Justin still wasn’t getting it.
“They cross the bridge over the Mississippi River! The Old Miss the Old Man!”
“Whoa! And that movie’s from like the same time as the song!” Justin was finally putting it together.
Mark tired to summarize, “Ok. So let’s get this straight. They’re saying they survived in the first line. And then we are to follow the Mississippi? And then we go over the river and through the woods?”
“Maybe they’re talking about the Tielrina out here? Like, they didn’t want to use its name, so they mentioned a big river we’d know.” Justin suggested. “Anyway, Hauzel mentioned that waterfall to that south. Dude, it all makes sense. We’ve just gotta follow this river south, the other river will split off, we’ll cross it, get to a forest, go through it, and eventually we’ll find that waterfall.”
“Just,” Mark repeated.
Justin pressed, “It’s our only shot. Besides, if what Hauzel said was right, it’s only like 85 miles.”
“Have you seen what it’s like out there? I almost died just climbing down this hill and getting out of the river.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” Justin waited for an answer.
“Fine. You’re right. But we definitely aren’t leaving today,” Mark decided. “I want to see how much warmer the sunlight makes it, how long a day lasts, and how cold the night is when my clothes aren’t soaked. We can also explore around here for anything that might be helpful.”
Justin agreed, “Let’s get to it, then. And who do you think P.T. And L.S. are?”
Mark looked surprised, “How did you know they were initials?”