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First pages

1

Even half an hour after boarding the ship, I still struggled to figure out the mystery of my recurring thought: I’ve lost my home on Earth. It sounded crazy, but it frightened me. It was too powerful and thought provoking to be a joke. Was it divine intervention, warning me of something? I didn’t think so because I didn’t believe in God most of the time. Yet I heard my mother praying for me, which would not have been unusual for her, especially since I was away from home. But her voice troubled me. Something must have been happening at home for sure. I knew I needed to do something for her—for us—before it was too late. On my homebound ship, these jumbled thoughts and her anguished face haunted me.

No one, except for my ex-captor, knew about my secret return trip to Earth. By that point, no one—not even my mother—would expect my return. They believed I was dead, including my group of friends from my high school. But I’m going home from a world in a galaxy millions of trillions of miles away. Or maybe I was already in the galaxy. I wasn’t sure. They kept that kind of information from captives. I didn’t have the slightest idea of the whereabouts of the planet or other vital information to tell my fellow humans. I felt naked and stupid, but still I was excited to see Mom.

Secretly going home alone on the tiny ship put me into a dreamy state. Am I imagining this? I thought. No. You are truly going home, Marlon. Not with your father and brother and other fellow travelers, but all by yourself.

I stared around the tiny oval-shaped room in the ship. A single light on the ceiling illuminated the narrow bed and the toilet in the corner, which appeared and disappeared at the touch of a button. I moved to the inoperable window to peek outside. Space debris zoomed by in the dark, reminding me that I was on a fast-moving ship. How fast? I could not tell for sure. I only appreciated that it moved, heading to Earth.

I returned to my bed and sat on the edge; I stared at the cockpit wall, wondering what the pilot looked like, whether she or he was a human or an alien. Talking to the pilot was forbidden. Anyway, there was no way to access the cockpit. No door; just a gray metal wall between my room and the cockpit. The stifling silence in the room made me nervous and apprehensive. Listening to some music would help, but there was no music player. No television in the room. No personal electronic devices were allowed. Not even a souvenir to look at. Unbelievable.

How long will it take to get to Earth? The question vexed me. Dang Hermits! I began to think I might have been locked in a Makumban jail. The occasional tremor and low hum of the vessel assured me otherwise. I looked out the window again. Nothing came into my view, not even a star, just pitch darkness. My heart skipped a beat in fear.

I must be in jail on a ship with no destination! I thought again in fright. They’ve cheated me out of being sent home.

“Hey, pilot!” I shouted. “Are you there?”

“Of course,” he said in a calm voice.

I exhaled a long sigh of relief. “Are we there yet?”

No answer.

“How long does it take to get there?”

“You should not ask that, remember?”

“C’mon. It’s just you and me around here, right?”

“Not exactly. They’re watching. Remember that.”

Dang Hermits! But I knew I should be grateful for the leader’s generous decision to send me back to Earth, breaking with tradition. He loves me, all right. At least an hour had passed since my boarding. Be patient, Marlon J. Cummings. I pushed a button on the wall to get a cup of water. Gulping it, I relished the cool liquid filling inside me.

As I lay on my back on the bed, I thought the pilot might take a shortcut, another dimensional passage, to get to Earth. It has to be. Otherwise, it would take forever.

The dreadful thought struck me again: I must’ve been banished into outer space! The pilot and I would fly around space indefinitely. In fact, the pilot might not be a person but a robot. He has discarded me! Son of a bitch, how could he do that to me? I sprang up on my bed, calmed myself, and told myself to be rational. I pictured Robaru, the leader of Makumba, whom I’d known for two years. Despite his high intelligence and decency as a Makumban, I could not trust him. I suspected there was a part of him I didn’t know. I needed to talk.

“Hey, pilot, what’s your name?”

No answer.

“How old are you?”

Silence again. Absolute quiet. No sound from the ship, either. It seldom made a sound. Just the occasional hum of the engine. How long could I breathe? Will the oxygen, food, and water last for my lifetime? I doubted it. Nothing I could do to reverse it. I looked out of the tiny window again and saw the specks of distant stars and debris and ghostlike objects. Some flew right by my window, staring, winking, and provoking thought. At one point, I stiffened with this weird thought: The ghostlike objects might be the spirits of deceased humans. This is where our spirits gather after death, floating around in the space and watching our surviving families on Earth.

If I waited long enough, my father and brother might visit me. Or even Carl Sagan might peek in my window, muttering to me with a wink, “Billions and billions…” His books Cosmic Connection and Other Worlds had inspired me to become an astronomer myself someday. Silly as it might sound, these thoughts repelled my fear of dying, at least for a while.

I studied the many buttons on the wall and then pushed a button with an image of a little fork on it to get a meal. What the heck—I’d better enjoy being alive while I could, sightseeing while the ship floated around space. Eventually I would die. With no air, my body would be preserved naturally. The ship, with my dead body, would continue traveling around the infinite universe. Cutting off my thoughts, a food tray slid out of the wall. Meatloaf, something mashed potato–like, steamed veggies, and a cup of fruit juice. Anxious for the trip, I had been eating poorly. I began to devour the food. Afterward, I sprawled across the bed, picturing my mother and sister. If I was lucky, I would get to see them. It excited me to imagine their surprised faces at my sudden return.

I was two years older and taller. Not the sixteen-year-old boy they knew, but a grown-up man, changed by the hardship I had endured for the last couple of years. Would they recognize me? A tremble of joy ran through my body.

The anxiety that had been vexing me clouded my mind again. My mother’s worried face appeared in the back of my mind and then disappeared. The ship started vibrating. I bolted upright on the bed. “What’s happening, pilot?” The vibration lasted for several seconds and stopped with a jolt. No movement, no sounds. Absolute silence. “Pilot?” I called. No answer.

I hurried to the window and gawked at the trees outside. Lots of green trees! Am I on Earth already? I groped the wall to find an exit, and a door slid open. I jumped outside and studied my surroundings to make sure that I was indeed standing on Earth’s soil. The pine trees, boulders, and shrubs appeared real. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the sweet pine scent I had forgotten, the familiar scent of my childhood. Smells like home! How could I forget it?

“I am home, Mother!” I whirled around. “Hey, pilot, thanks for bring me home.”

The ship had disappeared! I rubbed my eyes, glancing around to make sure. So quickly, without so much as a goodbye, he left. For seconds, I thought I might’ve been on this mountain all these days, dreaming. Were the spaceship and my return from another planet just figments of my imagination? It’s an insult to my intelligence to think that, a voice inside me protested.

I moved to a nearby boulder that looked familiar and ran my hand over the gray-green lichen, rough but pleasant to the touch. A couple of yards away, a familiar dilapidated cabin loomed between the trees. I was certain that I had been here before. Graphite on the boulder caught my eyes: Marlon J. Cummings. My name! My writing! This confirmed that I used to come here in my childhood. I still vividly remembered leaning against the boulder, reading science fiction. My house sat just down the hill!

“Mother, I’m back!” I started bouncing down the slope like a child. Passing by the cabin, my feet moved toward it almost by themselves. I leaped onto the rickety porch, went through the open, crooked door, and stood inside. The torn couch, the open cupboard in the kitchen, and the faint odor of rotten wood hadn’t changed since my last visit, years before.

Heading down the mountain to my house, my heart raced in anticipation of our reunion. Imagining Mother’s startled look made me laugh. I wanted to enjoy this moment a bit longer, so I stopped at the observation point. The memory of my house and the town of Blue Valley flashed in my mind. I looked below the hill and gawked at the unexpected sight. My body turned into a statue with wide eyes.

Instead of my house, I saw only a sea of water extending from the foothills, as far as the eye could see. I must’ve come to the wrong place. I glanced back at the cabin and the large boulder. They were the same ones I had known from my childhood. I wasn’t mistaken. My name inscribed in the boulder proved that. I turned my eyes back to the water. So dang freaking unbelievable!

What happened? My house. My town. Are they under the water?

There had been a great flood! A deluge. It was all extremely unusual. I didn’t remember such a big disaster ever happening in the town of Blue Valley.

Where’re my mother and sister? Where’s everybody? Have they all drowned, or are they alive somewhere?

“Where are you—?” I screamed.

The sea was silent.

I planted myself on the hill, clenching my fists and glaring at the brown sea. It was so unbelievably vast and eerily silent, undulating under the overcast sky. It appeared as though it had been there for thousands of years. But I knew with all my sanity and memory that it had not. The sea seemed to ridicule me for my return. Sulfuric odor from the water wafted in the humid air.

2

When did it happen? Questions began rising one after another. Will the water recede eventually? How long will it take? I couldn’t wait to see my old house, even the mostly destroyed one. With the others, my mother and sister might’ve managed to escape the disaster, I thought hopefully. The images of my high school friends, especially of Iren, rushed into my mind. Are they OK? They had to be. They needed to listen to my story.

My stories: the tragic accident of our Voyager B-7, several lucky survivors (including me), and my solo return trip to Earth after more than two years of captivity on the planet called Makumba. Would they believe me?

What if they don’t? They might say sympathetically: “Aren’t you supposed to be in the…”

Cut it out, men. I know what I saw. I lived it.

“Where’s your proof?”

Proof. The space travel agency should have the record that my dad, my brother, and I were among the travelers who boarded Voyager B-7. The date was…May 2078. A significant day historically and emotionally. The spaceship was ready to launch that afternoon. It was sponsored by the Space Exploration Enterprise, which was mostly run by billionaires. That was the second attempt at space travel since the first mission’s failed return. I had just turned sixteen then. It was a birthday present for me.

I stiffened again at the observation that the entire town of Blue Valley appeared to have been submerged under water. The agency and its files might have been submerged as well! I wondered if they could have saved the computers in time? They ought to have been able to. Otherwise…there was no way I could prove my story.

They must believe me that I am one of the four survivors of the missing Voyager. That I am the only one who actually made it back after more than two years. It was important that they believed me. Not only to me but for our country and the rest of the world. They needed to know that there were planets like ours out there. And one could turn hostile. We needed to prepare.

Everyone had known about the historic space flight. We were to fly by Jupiter and return. The expensive effort demonstrated our resilient spirit. My dad had spent his entire savings on our spot on this flight. His retirement benefit would cover my family’s living expenses. “A once in a lifetime experience,” he said, grinning.

“For you, yes,” I said. “I will have another chance, Dad. Why not take Mom instead of me?”

“Don’t worry about me,” Mom said. “Enjoy the trip. Just stay safe.”

She didn’t mention it at the time, but I knew she wasn’t happy about our space travel plan because of what had happened to the previous space travelers of the missing Voyager. The decision was made after many arguments between my parents. I still remembered vividly her worried face on the day of our departure.

Her worry turned out to be justified. My dad and brother were among the others who perished when the ship crashed onto Makumba. We didn’t know what caused the ship to lose control. I saw a blinding light outside the vessel seconds before the captain’s announcement of the Voyager’s erratic course. The panic we felt was still fresh in my mind. We prayed as the mechanics tried to fix the problem, but to no avail.

What was that blinding light? Where did it come from? Why didn’t our ship’s advanced sensors warn us about the mysterious light or anything that might have immobilized the ship? I was plagued by questions.

Later, when I learned about the former Makumban leader’s political agenda, I began to believe that we might’ve been victims of Makumban space piracy. They could have easily overcome us with technology thousands of years more advanced than ours. Robaru, the new leader, didn’t like my assertion at all. His rage almost destroyed our friendship. He almost didn’t send me back to Earth, and I wouldn’t have known of this disaster that had ravaged my hometown and the area beyond it.

The new ocean, the monstrous deluge that had swallowed my village, groaned and pulsated. The bluish-gray sea that reflected the cloudy sky appeared to be an abscess of a bruised and swollen Earth. It seemed to me that the water would not recede for a long time, if at all. Not a single roof was in sight. A few waterfowls circled slowly over the water as if they detected corpses beneath the surface. The stench of the water floated in the stuffy air. I turned and started walking through the trees, staying on the mountain, moving toward where I might find some people.

I remembered the mountain village where CEOs, the heart surgeons, and their ilk used to live. They might be still there, unscathed. They had to be there.

As I trudged along the path, ominous thoughts struck me: The deluge might not be natural. Something else might’ve caused it, something sinister. The deluge was brought on with evil intent. The sea came to stay, engulfing towns, cities, and the rest of world! How long? What were the perpetrators going to do next?

The first suspects that came to mind were the Makumbans. After hijacking our ship, not once but twice, their ambition might’ve grown. They might be expecting to turn Earth into their second home. They would annihilate humans.

They had turned our oceans into their weapon, making clouds and bombarding humans with the downpours of rain. With their advanced technology and relentless ambition, they could accomplish that. They could’ve poisoned people by polluting the air with toxins. But they wouldn’t want to deal with corpses, so they would have drowned them, letting marine life take care of the problem. Am I crazy to think these thoughts?

3

I headed south, with the brown sea to my left and the mountain slope to my right, thinking about the mountain community. The village, as far as I could recall, was located about twenty miles from the hill that I was on. I had enough time to make it there before dark. No problem. I used to walk miles and miles tirelessly; however, the first thing that worried me was my thirst. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, but my intense anxiety soon made me forget about it.

The storm clouds slowly rolled in above me from over the treetops, moving in the same direction I was going. The sun was behind the clouds, but the heat was still unbearable. What month is this? June or July? The scent of pine wafted in the muggy air. Insects chirred in the grass, reminding me of my childhood. I often came to the forest with my dad to fish in the brook. Sometimes my girlfriend, Iren, would join us. Dad. Iren. The memories. I was no longer on a planet in a faraway galaxy. I still felt some joy at my homecoming, but I mostly felt sick to my stomach due to my current situation.

Mom, Laura, where are you? Trudging along the path, I wept for the first time since my arrival. First, the crash of our Voyager, and now this! I had already lost my dad and brother; I didn’t want to lose my mom and sister, too. They had to be alive somewhere, still clinging to the hope that I would come back someday. “See, Mother, I came back. Look, Mother, I’m here—” I cried. I felt some embarrassment, but no one was around. I shouted and pumped my fist in the air like a deranged old man until I got exhausted.

I came to a halt when I spotted a little structure looming in the trees. I ran toward it, hoping to find someone there. As I got closer, I recognized the weathered lean-to. There was a large hole in the grass-thatched roof, and a wooden door to the entrance lay on the ground, partially buried in the grass. I went inside and looked around, thinking about the former owner who was possibly from the town of Blue Valley. Finding nothing, not even a grimy pan, I left.

I continued my way through the woods and then went down the slope toward the water’s edge. I hoped to find debris from flooded homes or anything that had once belonged to the townspeople. Sure enough, there were a few objects at the shore: an empty plastic container, a can, and a kid’s shoe. I picked up the shoe, wishing I could telepathically communicate with the kid. I wanted him to tell me about the day when the flood had swallowed his house. I heard nothing.

Then I spotted a small, thick notebook that appeared to be someone’s journal. It was in poor condition, but I picked it up and began to leaf through it carefully. Blue ink writing was smudged and mostly illegible, and there were pages that were stuck together. Still, as I separated those stuck pages, I was able to read some words.

…swimming pool in my basement!…Mom…

And more bits and pieces.

I continued peeling away the pages, hoping to find some information about the flood.

Dad says…but Mom tells him…before…

The last page fell apart. That was it. No more. I stared at the ruined journal, hoping that the kid and his parents had made it to safety. Then I hurled it into the water and watched it drift away. My thirst was getting unbearable. Squatting at the edge of the water, I dipped my hand in it—not that I would drink the water.

Icy cold! How in the middle of summer does a sea created by rain become freezing cold? It couldn’t have been melting ice from the Arctic. The sea was too vast and deep for that. What could have possibly caused it?

I let my eyes wander over the undulating sea that used to be a prairie. There used to be a gas company on that land. Now it was underwater. The prairie dogs and antelope and other creatures that once roamed the field were gone. If I kept on going in the direction of the sea, I would have reached another town. But chances were high that the town was also drowned beneath the brown sea.

I resumed walking southbound toward the mountain village. Fifteen minutes had passed, and I hadn’t seen even one house. What if they had left the village also? In that case, I had no way of getting information about the disaster and what happened to my mother and sister. Someone might know what had befallen my hometown folks after the flood. Whether they had fled to safety or drowned.

As time passed, my hope for finding people or a town that could have survived the deluge was dwindling. I might be the only person in this region and possibly beyond. Dang. I wished that were not the case.

I noticed that, in addition to my relentless thirst, my empty stomach hurt. I looked for some berry shrubs or even mushrooms in the woods. I found none. Just grass and pine trees and mossy boulders. A squirrel scurried across my path and went up the tree. I could have caught the squirrel, but I didn’t have matches to make a fire for cooking.

Twilight lingered above the trees. Soon it would get dark. I walked faster. My legs hurt. Deciding to get some rest, I gathered some dry grasses and lay on them. Mental exhaustion, more than a physical one, rushed over me. I watched as a star peeked out of the clouds above the trees and then slowly disappeared again. Dang clouds. The ever-existing clouds that threatened more rain sickened me. Since my arrival, I hadn’t seen clear sky. The clouds were the main culprit of the deluge. I had never hated clouds more than at that moment. My eyelids became heavy, and before long I drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Later I woke to strange sounds. A stench floated in the cool night air. The sounds came closer.

I turned my head to see a large animal lumbering toward me.

A bear! I sprang up.

The beast approached me, grunting menacingly. I didn’t know what to do. The distance between the beast and me was short. Running would be a bad idea. Moving backward, I tripped over a fallen tree branch.

The bear was about to lunge at me. I bolted upright, picked up the tree branch, and whacked at it. “Get away! Get away!” Then I realized that presenting such a threat to the animal was a big mistake. But then, lying on the ground and playing dead wouldn’t do much good, either.

Growling ferociously, it lashed its paw at me. Tripping over something again, I fell back on my bottom, hitting my head against a rock. Stars danced before my eyes.

The bear began to sniff at me and nibble at my head and face. “Get away, you shit!” I grabbed the beast’s head and wrestled. As it was about to devour me alive, I cried for help, even though I knew no one would hear me. I rolled my head as the bear tried to rip off my face. It was obvious who would become the ultimate loser in this battle of life and death. But I was not about to give up my life. I fought in an effort to delay my death.

The beast ripped flesh from my arm. I knew it would be my last day on Earth. My mother’s and sister’s faces flashed in my mind. I’m so sorry. I will see you in heaven.

My return home was a big mistake after all, as was leaving Cecelia and my son! “Oh, I’m sorry!” I cried. So my life would end this way? Eaten alive by the animal?

God, help me! I am only eighteen, and I have a lot of things

“Stop biting me, you stinking animal!” My voice sounded like it came from a nightmarish dream. With all my strength, I pounded my fists on the beast.

Then the bear let out a ferocious cry and fell away from me. The wild carnage stopped. I could only hear its laborious breathing. Its breath poisoned the night air. What’s happened? I opened my eyes.

A human figure was standing near me in the dark.

“Are you OK?” a female said.

I struggled to sit. “I’m bitten.”

“I can see that. Can you stand up?”

I struggled to stand on my feet and fell back, feeling excruciating pain all over my body. My head spun, and I felt nauseous.

“Stay still,” she said. “In case your back is injured.”

“How did you kill it?” I asked as she leaned over me.

“I shot it.”

A bag with a bow and arrows was slung over her shoulder. I could tell she was a young woman. I managed to get on my feet this time. As I stood unsteadily, she slid her arm under mine.

“I’ll take you to my place. It’s close by.”

Glancing at the mass of the dead bear, I noticed two arrows stuck in the back of its neck. I shuddered, thinking how close I had come to being killed by the beast. She must be an angel sent by God in answer to my prayer.

“Thank you,” I said as we began to walk.

I glanced at her profile. She was a few inches shorter than me and slim, wearing tight pants and a long-sleeve shirt. Her hair was tied back.

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“I came out to check the rabbit trap and heard your voice. Bears around here are man-eaters. How come you are out at night without a weapon?”

“It’s a long story.” I winced in pain. The bear had bitten my face and arm, and the stench of its breath still lingered in my nose.

“Tell me later. We are almost there.” She pointed toward the thick woods several yards ahead where a soft light spilled out between the trees. Light from the heavens, I thought. The girl and the lit cabin were the twin angels of the night. I sobbed inwardly with a mighty gratitude.

When we arrived at the cabin, she pulled the door open and hollered, “Dad, we have a guest.”

I followed her inside. While she went toward the dark corridor in the back, I plopped down on the couch in the sitting room. There was a lamp on the kitchen table by the small window, flickering in the breeze. A faint smell of coffee floated in the warm air. A few minutes later, she returned with a plump man in pajamas.

“What do we have here?” the man said, adjusting his glasses and studying me. “Oh my, he got bitten pretty bad!” He turned to his daughter. “What happened?”

“He got attacked by a bear, Dad. Good thing I got there in time.”

“She saved my life, sir.”

I peered out of my swollen eyes to look at the man and sucked in my breath. “Dr. Donnelly? What a surprise to see you.” I turned my eyes to the girl. “And you are… Iren.” I studied them hard to make sure I was not mistaken. I had not recognized her earlier because she was much thinner than she used to be. Besides, my swollen eyes and the dimness were to blame.

They both stared at me. “How do you know us?” she asked.

“I’m Marlon. We went the same high school, remember?”

She shook her head slowly, confusing me. But I remembered them clearly as yesterday. She used to sit in front of me in biology class.

“Do you remember Mr. Boyles, the biology teacher?”

“No.” She looked at me sympathetically.

I turned to her father. “Dr. Donnelly, you remember me, don’t you? You delivered me into this world, remember, sir? You used to tell me, ‘Look at that boy; he sure has grown!’”

“Sorry, young man, I don’t recall that at all,” he said. “But, yes, I am a doctor. I mean, I used to make a living at it. I remember that much.”

Iren paused thoughtfully. “I believe you, Marlon. Sorry we don’t remember you. It’s our fault. Totally our…actually, it’s nobody’s fault. The freaking DD disease is to blame.” She stopped for seconds, looking sad and angry at the same time. “Oh well. Let’s clean your bear bite first, and then we’ll talk, OK?”

“No. Tell me first why you both lost your memory. What the heck is DD?”

“DD is short for dream death. It’s the epidemic disease the deluge brought. It robs a patient’s memory first, delirium comes next, and then finally death, after which DD is named. The lucky ones who survive the disease don’t recover their memories fully.”

“So when did the flood happen?” I asked.

“I don’t exactly recall,” she said. “It might’ve been over a year ago.”

A year ago? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Comprehension crept into my mind. A flood of this magnitude would bring disease and famine. No doubt about that.

“Look at your swollen face,” Dr. Donnelly interrupted. “You need to take care of that right away. Come along, boy.” He turned and scuffed off toward the back room.

Iren and I followed him, watching his arched back and limping foot. He used to be much taller and more handsome. He had cracked the joke about me having grown fast every time I visited his office. Two years and the disaster had done a bad job on him.

“My gout is flaring up again, and my medicine is running out,” he grumbled. “Our medicine supply is in a dire situation.”

From the chest of drawers, he took a little bottle out, opened it, and swallowed the pill. Then he pulled out an emergency medical case from another drawer. “Sit on that stool, young man.” With a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, he began to clean the torn flesh on my head and arm. I bit my lips as the excruciating stinging overwhelmed me.

“That’s an awful lot of bite you got there.” He tossed the dirty cotton ball into the trash can and took another clean one to continue cleaning. Afterward, he stitched the torn skin together. When done, he plopped down on the edge of his bed and studied my wound. “That should help prevent infection, I hope.”

“Thank you so much, Dr. Donnelly.”

“As always, boy. Good to know we are not strangers. Now get out of here, both of you. I need to get some rest. The old gout is killing me.” He crashed down on the bed.

“Good night, sir.”

Back in the living room, Iren and I studied each other for a moment, lost in our own thoughts. I was thinking how strange it was to have met her amid the disaster and how lucky I was to be saved before being devoured by the bear.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I've written six books for mostly middle grade and teen/young adult. I live in Wyoming with my husband.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I'm interested in teens and young adults, their views of world around them, and their problem solving abilities.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
When I was twelve, however, I started writing seriously much later.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I've always been curious about existence of another planet, aliens, and the possibilities of their manipulation on us. What if we faced a disaster caused by aliens, and all the reliable adults were perished, then what our youths would do to survive? These are interesting to explore.

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