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Troy Sweeney felt the familiar burn in his leg muscles begin to build. Climbing more than two hundred meters nearly straight up the side of the lakeside mountain to the pass above was not exactly a small chore. This particular climb, sans the sixteen-kilogram backpack, should take no more than an hour, despite the barely discernible trail. But today, portions of the trail remained buried under lingering swaths of red algae stained snow, forcing him to seek an alternate route among patches of trees, boulders, and scree-covered soft earth.
A third of the way up, sweating and breathing hard, the effort prompted Troy to pause and shed his outer layer of clothing, strapping long sleeved pullover and zip-off pant legs to his camelback. He took a moment to gaze down toward the cold emerald lake, taking in the view from his mountainside vantage. He spotted his seaplane at the far end of the lake, the smoke from his campfire trailing lazy swirls up and away. Troy took a swig from his water bladder and resumed his climb.
Had the snow not still covered the trail, he may well have made the top by now. This late in the summer, the snow was a little too unpredictable to chance stomping through. One misstep and he would slide non-stop straight down into the ice-cold lake below. No matter, he thought. The trail on this particular route narrowly met the definition of the term so skirting it and picking his own way was no big deal. The only difference was that the marked trail was relatively clear of trees and rocks, and only a little easier to climb.
Troy took another short break to catch his breath and admire the view. He never tired of the magnificent vistas one enjoyed from hiking mountains. Here, deep in the Yukon, Troy saw the snowcapped peaks topping successive lines of ridges and valleys in a one hundred eighty degree arc piercing the distance. Each ridge boasted a different shade of blue-green and eventually blended with the early morning horizon. He looked up to let the sun warm his face. It was going to be another glorious day – clear blue skies with the occasional white puffy cloud drifting by.
Troy resumed his climb, the last third of his ascent in sight. So much easier without a heavy backpack in tow, he thought. This was just a little side trip to get a better view of the world around him. He had already decided that this lake and the surrounding basin would be a suitable destination for the adventurous clients who hired him and his partner for guided outings. That was why he was here in the first place – scouting new locales for the more capable and experienced backpackers. The climb up this mountainside offered a challenge but did not require ropes, cams, carabiners, and grippy shoes to reach the top.
The best part about a simple climb to a pass was the moment one scrabbles the last few meters to the ridgeline, huffing and puffing and sweating, the vast expanse on the other side coming into view the well-earned reward. The view from the top of the pass doubles to three-hundred and sixty degrees. The breeze cool and refreshing, the sight unsurpassed. Troy turned slowly in a circle, drinking in the Yukon as far as he could see. Even at twenty-five hundred meters elevation, he was still well under the tops of the distant snow-capped peaks. Checking his watch, Troy noted the climb actually had taken just under an hour.
Troy took another swig from his camelback and pulled out his old phone to record a short panoramic video of his surroundings. He could the images for marketing purposes on his web page. He also snapped a few still photos of various points of interest. He had hundreds of similar photos but he could never get enough of the spectacular vistas.
He sat down in the lee of a rock, slipped his camelback off his shoulders, and pulled out a power bar to eat. In addition to scouting new locales for Inside Guides, he was also experimenting with homemade power bars of peanut butter, cranberries, and other high energy ingredients. Troy was in no hurry. He had just relaxed back against the rock soaking up the morning sun and the unspoiled view when a distant boom shattered the silence.
Though unexpected, Troy’s only reaction was to look up toward the sky, seeking the source of the sonic boom. He took another bite of power bar, panning his vision the breadth of the horizon. He spotted what he thought was a chemical trail from a highflying jet but could not be certain. As Troy stood up, placing a hand above his eyes to shield against the glare, he caught sight of a brilliant flash of light followed by an arcing line of black smoke chasing a fast moving object. This instantly focused his full attention, power bar forgotten. Troy’s breath caught in his throat but then bottomed out into the pit of his stomach as he realized that whatever the object, it was out of control and blazing a beeline in his general direction. Still shielding his eyes, he wished he had his binoculars. Troy dropped his hand silently cursing himself as he remembered he had packed his binoculars in the camelback.
Troy bent down to pick up his camelback, keeping a wary eye on the object rapidly approaching while he dug out the binoculars. He watched it for the next few seconds, a feeling of dread migrating from stomach to conscience. Oh boy, Troy thought. No, this cannot be about to happen. Nothing like this ever happens to me, he thought. But it was happening, far too quickly for comfort. Troy was no geometry expert but the object’s trajectory, if Troy had to guess, was on course for his mountain top perch.
Troy knew he should get out of the way – any way out of the way. Going left or right, or perpendicular to the probable impact site was preferable. Instinct dictated running away from such an object. However, running away was easier said than done. One does not simply run down the steep side of a mountain covered with snow, loose dirt, and rock. Fall, slide, and roll down – no problem, but not run. Troy looked around for the best escape route if it came to that. His choices were limited; one steep slope or the other, or, along the rocky crest to either side. Common sense pointed out that running away merely reduced the probability of certain death yet fear often freezes the call to action. Troy reacted no differently initially. He stood staring, frozen in place, mesmerized by the sheer improbability of time and place – the odds must be out of this world, he thought – at least three thousand seven hundred something to one.
Troy instinctively dropped down into the ready position – feet spread, knees bent. Again, he looked left and right, indecision now hindering action. The object was still too far out for him to determine the exact point of impact, but he had a feeling he’d know soon enough. Running now could well result in a rather smashing rendezvous. Troy looked up at the approaching object, still coming at him. When he first spotted the falling object, it was kilometers away – now it was significantly closer and still on target for his position.
Troy stopped in his search for an escape route as a new element entered his consciousness – a high-pitched rasping whine, barely audible at first but getting louder – reached his already agitated state of mind. Snap! Troy thought. He wanted to run to safety but morbid curiosity now anchored him in place, eyes glued to the impending disaster screaming his way.
Troy recalled the early days of the African Wars and his training kicked in to take the reins of his emotions. He lowered the binoculars and relaxed his shoulders, took a deep breath. His best course of action was to wait until the object was close enough to determine its most likely impact point and then react accordingly.
If he ran down, he decided the best path was the side he had just climbed. Running to either side along the crest held the least chance of escape because it was rocky and slow. Running laterally just below the crest to either side was an option, again on the steep slope he had just climbed. Of course, Troy thought, the object might not hit the mountain pass at all but fly by and bury itself on the opposite side of the lake or even into the lake itself.
With no good place to run to and take cover, Troy stood ready, watching, and going over his options again. He heard it clearly now, no longer a distant high-pitched scratchy whine, rather a low-pitched roar, steady, like that of a fighter jet engine at take-off throttle. He waited for the inevitable, feeling the suddenly intense heat from the sun on his back and shoulders. It was almost close enough to make out details. Squinting, he could see that it was not exactly an airplane. Probably Yankee junk falling from orbit, Troy thought with slight disappointment. How pathetic to be killed by a falling satellite. Troy ground his teeth together. Really? Death by satellite? The earlier feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach disappeared with that realization. Totally uncool, he thought. He could see the headlines now – ‘Man Killed by Space Junk in the Middle of Nowhere!’ as the newsies compared the odds to lightning strikes and shark bites.
Troy watched the object like a hawk, close enough now to see it wobbling. It was no longer flaming but still trailed smoke, and it had slowed considerably. Troy relaxed his shoulders a bit as it looked as if it was going to overshoot his little mountain pass – if it held course, he amended. He straightened from his crouched ready position, resettling the pack on his shoulders. It was going to miss him, but by how much remained to be determined. Wait, it began losing altitude, entering a nosedive toward his position. Troy prepared himself for the impact, having delayed too long in his escape, but it never came. The high-pitched whine returned as the object wobbled again and inexplicably veered up at the last second, now aiming straight over his head. Whoa! He realized how stupid he had been, paralyzed out of morbid curiosity. Troy ducked and braced again as the object screamed past him, clearing the pass and himself by no more than a meter or two.
Troy had just enough time to lower his arms from his face and turn to follow the object when the turbulence caught him in its wake and sent him tumbling over the side, somersaulting through the air. He caught only a glimpse of the object as it again wobbled before losing power, the high-pitched whine gone, and vectored toward the lake. Troy landed head first on the snow covered trail, sliding and rolling further down the mountainside.
He managed to right himself after sliding a few meters but had little hope of stopping. Propelled by the backwash of the falling object, momentum and gravity took over, the wet snow offered no chance to arrest his plunge. Great, Troy thought. Where’s an icepick when I need one? No longer rolling but more or less sliding on his backside, Troy at least was facing the direction of travel– much quicker than climbing up, he noted.
Troy watched the object impact the lake’s surface. It skipped once and then dived in, causing a small tsunami before sinking. He lost sight of the object’s final resting spot because he had a more immediate concern – the same cold water that just swallowed the unidentified falling object threatened to swallow him.
Troy tried to stop his descent by digging his heels into the snow. Well, that stopped his heels easy enough but it had no effect on the rest of his body, which failed to get the message. The sudden stop of his heels resulted in knees bending up and his butt slamming into his heels, but it was not enough to overcome his seventy kilograms of momentum, which simply shifted, sending him head over heels, somersaulting forward. He rolled once and came back up to the upright position as he continued his slide.
Wiping snow from his face, Troy mentally checked the box next to ‘dig heels in’ as a no go and looked down again. He was almost at the bottom now, the lake rushing to greet him. He was not looking forward to a cold morning bath. It would not be the first time he’d plunged into cold water, though. His military survival training had included cold-water scenarios but those had been voluntary – and he’d had companions and proper gear. This situation was most definitely not voluntary – blown off a mountain followed by an uncontrolled slide two hundred meters-plus down a blanket of snow into a cold lake. This might hurt, he thought wryly. He gritted his teeth, preparing as best he could for the shock to come.
Troy noted the last couple of meters seemed to level out some at the lake’s shoreline. There was also a big bump at the edge of the snowline, no doubt hiding a rock or a log. Troy’s hopes lifted slightly, one last possibility he thought. Maybe he could catch himself, arrest his speed before taking the plunge. He prayed.
Troy briefly thought the shallower incline would help slow his slide, allowing him to catch himself and stop short of the water, but he enjoyed no such luck and he was out of time and at the end of the ride. The snow covered bump, whatever it was, served as a ramp. He hit it hard and fast, feeling a sharp pain in his left buttock as he sailed up and out over the water a good meter or two, belly flopping into the cold clear water.
The shock was worse than expected. The impact didn’t quite knock the air out of Troy, rather it momentarily froze all normal breathing functions as he struggled to surface, finally gasping for air, eyes and mouth wide open. Anyone watching would have described his expression as something far beyond surprise and shock.
Troy found the bottom and stood up waist high in the water in time for waves rippling out from the mid-lake crash site to wash him off his feet again. Down he went for another dip, falling backward this time. Troy finally regained his feet, searching for any sign of the crashed object, whatever it was. Dripping and shivering, He saw only that the expanding ripples were dying down, no trace of the object visible. He turned to head for shore when a new and ominous sound caused him to stop and look up. A series of loud cracks and rumbles reignited the dread feeling from moments earlier. Movement from above caught his attention – a large boulder had broken loose from its perch on the pass he’d just vacated. A dozen smaller boulders gained speed ahead of the big one as they rolled toward his place in the water, trumpeting the impending arrival of the house-sized boulder.
Troy rolled his eyes as he yelled out a series of rather colorful metaphors. He turned and dived, the cold water temporarily forgotten. He began swimming free style, arms stroking and legs kicking furiously. Swimming for his life, Troy fought the urge to look back though he continued to hear the crash and rumble of the boulders cascading down the mountain. Seconds later, having reached the center of the lake, Troy couldn’t help but risk a quick glance behind him. He was in time to catch the last roll of the large boulder as it crushed the snow bank and plowed into the water near where he’d been standing a few moments ago. He noted another round of waves heading his way, but this time he used them to his advantage, to propel him toward the opposite shore and his campsite.
Troy did not consider himself a strong swimmer but he was fairly certain he broke his own personal record for the one hundred meter freestyle. Of course, he thought, the menace of death by boulder on the heels of death by falling satellite provided a certain motivation. Troy was laughing to himself and shaking his head as he reached shallow water and dragged his exhausted body from the lake, shivering. Did he really just survive back-to-back near-death misses in less than five minutes? He stopped and turned to look at the lake and the mountain he’d just climbed, amazed he still breathed after his unorthodox escape. Amazing, he thought – he’d cheated death again today. Nobody is going to believe this story, and of course, he had no proof. Nevertheless, he had more immediate concerns – shedding soaked clothes and warming up before hypothermia set in.
* * *
Jemma Sean had but moments to witness her life flash across her mind’s eye. Flying into the side of a planet was not how she envisioned her life ending. The acceleration couch turned personal protection pod lamented its monotonous litany of emergency crash instructions in her ear. In her near panic state of mind, Jemma heard maybe one out of every four words but actually understood even fewer. She realized the uncontrolled speed of her descent was worrisome, but the sudden stop may shortly become a big problem.
Jemma tried to organize her thoughts in the chaotic thrill-ride gone to hell inside the saucer. She had no idea from where the stray thought of an abrupt stop came from. Maybe she did have a morbid sense of humor after all. Jemma was immobile inside the cage-like cocoon of the crash pod. It was dark inside the saucer except for flashes of sparks, which served to illuminate the smoke filling the cabin with strobing eeriness. At least the air inside the pod was breathable if not fresh. She vaguely remembered that the pod would curl her body into a relatively protective fetal position at the calculated last seconds prior to impact with whatever spot of dirt the pod was about to rearrange. Jemma hoped her contact was able to track her position and rescue her, or recover her body. The saucer lurched violently and her head connected with the sidewall, bringing unconsciousness.