Whatever kept drawing him back to the debris field attached itself to him like a parasitic shadow, like a whole new part of him. It had been six years since Ismene reluctantly donned his radiation suit and stepped within the sites boundaries for the first time. A part of him liked to think that if he knew what he knew now, he would never have agreed to be a part of the team to explore the twisted and burned remains of the alien craft. The other part of him, the weaker part, knew that was a lie.
He dressed alone, his well practiced hands mindlessly unkinking hoses and tightening valves connecting his suit to the life sustaining tanks mounted on his back. It didn’t seem like too long ago that his wife had to be the one to dress him for expeditions, his hands too shaky to yank up on the zipper. Now preparing for his last, her help was no longer necessary, but was deeply missed.
Amber made him promise that day to come back to her; he did come back, but only so he could go back into the debris field over and over and over again. It was all he could think about, slowly pushing her away until the day she stopped sending him off with a hug and welcoming him back with a kiss. That was his wake up call. In that moment of bitter loneliness he wrote himself a note, Don’t choose it over her; that was three years ago. The resolution had gone unfulfilled, but the note hadn’t left his pocket ever since like a tainted good luck charm. He tapped his pocket as if to make sure it was still there and marched his way to the front gate.
An aggressive fog hung low in the air, swallowing what little light managed to break through the atmosphere to reach the surface. At least a dozen other men and women funneled in front of the massive black bars as they waited impatiently for the alarm to signal its recession. These were once his coworkers, some even his friends, but now they were nothing. Just another face getting between him and the call of the nucleus beckoning him to save it from the rubble. The weight of its call had been too much for Ismene to bear. He was going to achieve relief one way or another, weather that be succeeding what he had failed to do for years, or adding his body to the numerous others who will be forever calling the debris field their final resting place.
The gate standing in his way burrowed deep into the ground, allowing the group of identical nameless suits to stampede forward like a herd of cattle. Headlamps led the way as they all spread out to take their own path, paths they had not yet tread themselves, but ones that he already had. Ismene watched them all rush towards disappointment as he had countless times. His own two feet and eyes had scoured every inch of this god forsaken mountain of rust. All except for one; the barren crater tucked beneath the ships surprisingly still intact main hull. He wasn’t the first to realize that it had to be there, he surely won’t be the last, but he could be the first to make it there and back alive.
The landscape morphed from the beautiful ridges of metal melted into the shapes of abstract sculptures that even Michelangelo couldn’t replicate into a steep decline of nothing but loose dirt after hours of hiking. The Geiger counter on his wrist had been maxed out for the past twenty to twenty five minutes. The oxygen tanks read seventy eight percent full, yet every breathe was ragged and shallow. His legs felt as though they had been drained of their blood and replaced with liquid lead. Now he understood why he saved this place for last, but he wished he would have had the guts to come here first.
Shapes crept up on him as he stumbled forward. The ever dimming headlight shone on scattered radiation suits, bent and misshapen as if the bodies inside had shriveled up like a twisted vine of grapes left out in the sun. A sudden surge of reasoning stopped his legs from trudging forward but the call of something otherworldly drove them back into motion. What happened to these poor bastards? Is this what my life has been leading up to?
In a matter of seconds, he felt a renewed source of energy. His breathe no longer ragged and his legs no longer numb. The needle of the Geiger counter swung to zero while the oxygen tanks sat motionless on empty, yet he could breathe? Stable hands unscrewed his helmet and pulled down his zipper to step out of the safe confines of the suit while a light rose from the distance.
Ismene continued forward, but not in the mindless state he had been stuck in. He could suddenly remember what it was like before the debris field, before his obsession, before he had lost Amber and their beautiful home they built together. Tears started to stream down his face, completely evaporating before falling to the ground. The now luscious ground? What happened to the lifeless dust that he had followed the entire way here? Not once had he ever seen a single living organism while in the site, now a dense forest grew before his eyes? It didn’t make sense.
Each step he took seemed to invite more and more flora to sprout from seemingly nothing. Tender grass cushioned each new step and sturdy trees forced him to move in a crooked line towards the faint pulse of magenta light. Finally, the object that had taunted him for so long rewarded him for his pain and suffering; A small pearl came into view as its shell full of dark pink crystals opened more and more as he approached, beckoning him closer. The energy radiating from the nucleus sent Ismene into a euphoric, almost hypnotic, state. His hand crept towards it as if caught in the gravitational pull of some sort of black hole.
Every mistake he had made, every wrong choice, was just seconds away from disappearing forever. All of the guilt from the lies and broken promises would surely just disappear the second his flesh met the pristine stone; right?
Ismene’s eyes broke free of their trance, their attention pulled to a small group of flowers gently waving at the base of the crystal lined shell. Beautiful, mutated pedals that shone the color of crystallized amber. Their shape was so familiar, yet like nothing he had seen before. They reminded him of her.
He dug his hand into his pocket, slick with sweat, until he felt the note he wrote all those years ago. Don’t choose it over her. The words filled his head with grief. He meant it at the time, did he still mean it now?
Ever so carefully, he pulled the radiation proof protective bag from his pack, the very same one he had carried on every expedition. The bag that he knew was meant to bring back something special. Without second thought, he clipped the flowers a couple inches from the root and gently flattened them out, slipping them into the bag. As a shadow in blinding pink light, he slowly zipped up his radiation suit with shaky hands and prepared himself for the long journey home.
Maybe it wasn’t too late.