Sole Survivor

By Brian Powers

Our first encounter was in the public library. I don’t know what made me notice him; perhaps his frail, undernourished appearance, or those haunted features dominated by sad, round eyes.

I became so intrigued that it was a few moments before I was aware that he was staring back at me with a curiosity to rival my own. He actually nodded as if we were already acquainted, but I quickly looked away.

The second meeting occurred when I was hurrying to beat an approaching rainstorm. The first heavy spots struck the pavement like bullets, and I veered into the nearest convenient shelter. The covered porch of the Seaman’s Mission already contained several other people of the same mind as myself, and it was a moment before I realised who one of them was. I don’t know whether he recognised me, but he gave me a cursory glance before resuming his examination of the leaden sky responsible for the cloudburst.

‘Not good weather for sailors,’ I said.

He responded in a shrill, almost childlike voice. ‘My ship went down in a storm.’

I looked at the emaciated little man with some curiosity. ‘Oh really! How terrible!’ was all I could think to say.

‘More terrible than you know — especially when you’re the sole survivor.’

Now I was genuinely intrigued and could even smell a story. As the downpour increased, more people were crowding the porch for shelter, and having already noticed a small cafeteria in the building, I took a gamble. ‘Fancy a coffee and donut . . . my shout?’

I was actually surprised when he gave a brief nod and preceded me through the revolving doors. The cafe was on the seedy side but I selected the cleanest table I could find and threw my briefcase on one of the chairs. ‘Sit here. I’ll get the drinks.’

Almost as if resigned to the inevitability of the situation, he sat down and said, ‘Black. One sugar.’

Five minutes later, we were both taking stock of each other as we sipped from styrafoam cups.

‘My name is John Latimer,’ I said. ‘I’m a journalist.’

‘Ratu Syn,’ he replied; leaving me uncertain if these were two words or one.

‘An unusual name,’ I remarked, cutting to the chase. ‘So your ship went down and you were the only survivor. Where did this happen, exactly?’

Liquid eyes in deep sockets studied me for several seconds. ‘It was in the Saren belt, near Favia.’

I was perplexed. ‘Favia?’

He was so matter of fact with his reply. ‘The planet you call Saturn.’

I picked up my donut and took a bite. This was entirely my own fault and came as no real surprise. I would simply humour him and then leave. Anyway, I told myself, just because he was a crank didn’t mean he couldn’t spin a good yarn, and so I decided to encourage him - at least until the rain stopped.

‘So let me get this straight. When you said, "ship", what you really meant was "starship". Am I right?’ I winked conspiratorially.

‘Yes. It was a Peyva Tarn vessel; almost obsolete, like everything on board. The end came so suddenly; we emerged from sub-space much too close to the Saren field.’

‘I see.’ Which was entirely untrue of course. ‘So how did you manage to survive?’ This was going to be good. I just knew it.

‘I happened to be in the Gan section away from the main level. It gave me a few precious seconds to activate my Receptacle . . .’ He searched for a better word. ‘ . . . preservation unit. I don’t know what happened to the others - but I doubt they had enough time.’

I caught myself glancing around the cafeteria in a distracted way, so looked back at Ratu and smiled ingratiatingly. ‘That’s really something, but it looks like the weather’s eased and I’ve got to rush.’

He seemed not to hear me. ‘The Receptacles are conversion units designed to locate the nearest tolerable environment and instantly transfer their occupant - with the necessary modifications, of course. They’re very outdated and not always a complete success; that’s why I’m dying - I can’t sustain this form any longer.’

I had to agree; he did look like the victim of a terminal disease.

‘I was brought here,’ he indicated our surroundings with a dismissive wave of his hand, ‘because I was ranting incoherently about my ship when they found me. Like you, they assumed I was a sailor.’

There was something about the man’s intensity that was compelling enough to make me hesitate from getting up.

‘At first it was unbearable; so much pain; it made me shake and tremble for days. I’m getting used to it now, but it’s killing me anyway. The worst part is finding someone who believes me; that’s why I’ve chosen you.’

For the first time, I became aware of a deep intelligence behind those watery, bloodshot eyes; there was something about Ratu Syn’s manner that was hard to dismiss.

‘I’m going to give you the impulse capsule before I die. Although the Receptacle is comparatively obsolete by my standards, there is nothing remotely like it here and that in itself should convince you - even if I can’t. Activate it by all means, but don’t ever consider using it - unless dying is your only alternative.’

Now I was feeling unaccountably embarrassed. ‘Look, Ratu, it’s been fascinating, but I’ve really got to go.’ As I stood up to leave, he grabbed my sleeve with one hand and proffered something small and white with the other.

‘Take it. Please, John Latimer,’ he pleaded.

In my desperation to escape, I snatched the object and thrust it into my raincoat pocket. I fully expected him to persue me, but when I dared to glance back from the revolving doors, he was sitting with his head in his hands as if nothing had transpired between us. I immediately put the whole episode behind me.

Until the following week . . .

It had been fine every single day since that bizarre encounter, until an overcast morning had me reaching for my raincoat on the way out. I discovered the forgotten item as soon as I slipped my hand in the pocket. I hadn’t as much as glanced at it since he’d forced it on me at the Seaman’s Mission, but renewed curiosity made me do so now. It had the size and appearance of a small pillbox - a circular, white plastic pillbox; an "impulse capsule", he’d called it. I shook it but it sounded empty, and was about to discard it when I noticed a small ridge on one side. I prized it open without even thinking, immediately puzzled by what I saw. It wasn’t hollow as such, but consisted of two solid halves - one with a shallow indentation in the centre. I examined it more closely but could find no satisfactory explanation for whatever it might be. I explored the smooth, white surface, inevitably sliding my thumb into the depression.

There was no blinding flash of light, no climatic crescendo of sound; only the silent, enigmatic presence of the "Receptacle". It was directly in front of me! An ovoid of pale, translucent light that reached to the hallway ceiling. I felt my hair stand on end and goosebumps ran the length of my spine. It was definitely an eerie moment.

I glanced from the pillbox to the phenomenon before me, and my thumb must have inadvertently grazed the hollow as I reviewed my previous actions. The translucent egg vanished, just as instantly and silently as it had appeared. Feeling genuinely frightened, I stood staring at the empty hallway as if I’d seen a ghost - trying to convince myself it was some kind of clever illusion. I even dared to slide my thumb into the depression again, taking an involuntary step backwards when Ratu Syn’s Receptacle re-appeared.

Whatever it was, it was very effective indeed, rather like a holographic projection . . . except that I couldn’t start to guess how it was produced. I closed the pillbox and slipped it into my pocket, but the ovoid remained unaffected. I experimentally swept my hand through it, but felt nothing. I paced thoughtfully around it several times, unable to draw any satisfactory conclusions. It certainly appeared harmless enough - especially after a few more tentative sweeps of my arm. On a whim, I took a deep breath and stepped into it.

My first revelation was that Ratu Syn had been telling a truth too incredible to contemplate! In the tenuous confines of the Receptacle, I knew many things. For example, I knew that it was taking as much as it was giving. I knew that Ratu Syn was an alien, mutated by this amazing unit into a sad replica of humanity, but unable to assimilate such a radical change and survive. Whatever his true nature, the human experience was so debilitating it was destroying him. Right then, I would have given anything to have my time with him over again.

Next came the realisation that he’d spoken literally when he’d said, "Don’t ever consider using it unless . . .!"

I knew the Receptacle had returned to the precise co-ordinates from where Ratu Syn had departed his doomed starship - which had since disappeared – and I deeply regretted not hearing him out regarding the capabilities of the enigmatic device.

Last but not least, I inexplicably knew that the unit was strained to its limit attempting to maintain my existence under such extreme circumstances - which I knew would cease within the next thirty seconds - a brief span that can seem like an eternity when you are about to die; especially when hovering like a celestial angel in the endless void of space, gazing awe-struck through the rings of Saturn towards the beatific splendour of the regal planet itself!

For all the intuitive knowledge that filled me, my rational mind was suspended from all reason by the spectacle confronting me; my soul was captivated and transformed in a manner I can only equate to a moment of pure Satori; euphoric peace; utter annihilation of ego. Even in the face of death, I was divinely unconcerned.

As the interminable period elapsed, I became aware of something insignificant intruding into my peripheral vision. I was so engrossed with the wonder before me that this small distraction was enough to break the spell. Emerging through the hazy rings, where several of the planet’s satellites were strung like pearls on a necklace, was a single pinpoint of golden brightness. The Receptacle knew immediatly what it was, and consequently, so did I. Ratu Syn’s ship had not perished, and even now was rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

Before my appointed time arrived, I was transferred to the refuge of the vessel in the blink of an eye!

It is impossible to describe the confused feeling of inhabiting a body that is at once comfortingly familiar but at the same time utterly repellent. The receptacle had ingeniously "adapted" me to this new environment. Just as Ratu Syn was granted the ability to think, speak and act in accordance with a Homo Sapien, I too now comprehended a world of alien thoughts and images that I found disturbing in the extreme. I now had an inkling of how Ratu Syn must have felt.

Gravity was virtually non-existent here. My ingeniously modified body was so flexible it swayed and undulated like some hideously deformed serpent balancing on its tail. Every surface of the ship’s interior was covered with a sheen of crystallised ice that created miniature rainbows from the halo surrounding me. This was the area Ratu Syn had referred to as the "Gan" section: a spherical chamber with spiral shafts radiating away at abstruse angles. Although instinctively aware that I was the only life on board, I chose to remain within the ethereal confines of the Receptacle. My former ecstasy had passed, and I most definitely did not want to be in this place; I wanted to go home.

I underestimated the sensitivity of the unit to respond to its occupant’s predominant thoughts. For some obscure reason best known to itself, it placed me on a stretch of deserted beach which I later discovered to be near Romney Sound - precisely where Ratu Syn had been discovered. One moment I was in the oppressive silence of the starship, the next instant I was startled out of my reverie by the thunder of surf crashing on loose pebbles. Without hesitation, I jumped clear of the receptacle, experiencing as I did so, an overwhelming sense of loss; a loss of alien knowledge perhaps, or a loss of blissful omnipotence . . . I wasn’t sure, because it was akin to waking from a dream in which vivid memories quickly fade. At least I was myself again, John Latimer in his own imperfect body – perfect in ever detail. I reached in my pocket and breathed a sigh of relief when my hand closed round the capsule – my only proof of all that had transpired. At the touch of my finger, the glimmering outline of the Receptacle dissolved as if it had never been. I must now find Ratu Syn with the news that he could yet survive his ordeal and return to his ship.

The receptionist at the Seaman’s Mission informed me that the person I was inquiring about had unfortunately died in his sleep three days before. Although Ratu Syn barely qualified as an acquaintance, I was deeply moved by this sad news.

Later that afternoon, I found myself standing before his freshly dug grave in an obscure little cemetery reserved for homeless seamen. The cheap headstone read: Here lies Ratu Syn. Sole survivor from an unknown ship.

It was true in part, but it made me feel like shouting from the rooftops that it wasn’t an unknown ship, it was a Peyva Tarn vessel, probably still circumnavigating the ringed giant called "Favia" by some. I would never think of Ratu Syn as the exotic, galactic creature whose likeness I had briefly assumed, but only as a lost, lonely, unassuming little man, I had met by chance. Had he kept the impulse capsule, he might have made that journey instead of me. I feel guilty that I had deprived him of his one chance for life; on the other hand, he gave me something that had changed me forever.

I knelt beside his grave and carefully buried the capsule in the freshly turned earth. It was too great a responsibility for me to bear and only fitting that it should return to its owner.

I realised the futility of telling my editor this incredible story - or anyone else for that matter. I now attempt to live life as I did before Ratu Syn, but it will never be the same of course. I am sometimes tempted to go to the cemetery and retrieve the mystic talisman, but mostly, I remain comfortable in the knowledge that it is always there beneath the headstone if I need it.

One day, perhaps when I am old and desperate enough, I might find the courage to use it again . . .

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Brian Powers

Brian Powers is a professional sculptor. He was born in London, England, and now lives on the south coast of Tasmania, Australia. Brian has been a drifting traveller, a free-lance journalist, an art teacher, an Aikido instructor, and built and sailed his own yacht on the Great Barrier Reef.



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