Contest #134 shortlist ⭐️

Footprints on the Edge

Submitted into Contest #134 in response to: End your story with a character looking out on a new horizon.... view prompt

9 comments

Fiction Mystery Fantasy

The most rational of men, Josh Rowbotham founded an entirely new scientific field which he named “Astro-Biochemistry.” When Astronomy magazine, in a four-page puff piece complete with photos of Josh and his lab, asked him to describe Astro-Biochemistry, he poetically responded, “Seeking the footprints of life at the edge of the universe.”

Josh used telescope spectroscopy to identify the building blocks of life on exoplanets revolving distant stars. He observed light shifts occurring billions of years ago, signs of the joining of elements into chemicals, some of which had the potential to become the precursors of life. No hand of God was present in his spectral analyses, just the logical combinations of atoms into molecules, and molecules into larger and more complex molecules. Life was out there on billions of planets, skeptics be damned.

Josh, an unmarried man with little concern for his appearance, resided in a small house in Pasadena and he taught at Cal Tech. Adventure for Josh involved spending time at the viewfinders of telescopes in California, Hawaii, and Chile. Vacation, after thirty-four years at the university, was taking a few days off to relax following long nights on the telescopes before heading to a different observatory or back to his lab. So, there was surprise all around when he told the administration and his grad students he would be taking two weeks off to observe a solar eclipse from aboard a small cruise ship in the middle of the South Pacific.

Sky & Telescope magazine had chartered the MV Amundsen and sold tickets at over five-thousand dollars per passenger, telescopes included. Josh travelled free in exchange for a one-hour lecture on Astro-Biochemistry presented to his fellow passengers.

His public, non-scientific lectures always began “Look up into the night sky and see those billions of twinkling points of light.” A picture of galaxies spread across a field of inky blackness appeared on the projector screen. “Each tiny dot is a massive sphere of gas…” and here a pulsing, boiling ball of orange and yellow was seen, “… and has, on average, seven orbs circling at any point in time.” Globes of rock were shown in a variety of colors circling the gaseous sphere. “And on any of those orbiting balls of rock and gas, the chemicals for creating life may be present, whether within a primordial soup, evolved into fully sentient beings, or something in-between.” A bubbling cauldron of volcanic ooze would appear, then Professor Rowbotham was off and running on his favorite topic.

The cruise left Oahu in a south-westerly direction on October 17th, three days before the eclipse.

There were no observers when the block-long, ink-black submarine surfaced under the Amundsen on the moonless night of October 19th, breaking the cruise ship’s keel with a resounding scream of metal, sending it plummeting to the Pacific depths. Josh, one of a handful of people using the telescopes on deck just before midnight, was tossed into the sea, a survivable seventy degrees near the equator.

As the ship sank, detritus floated off the deck, and Josh grabbed two wooden deckchairs bearing the name of the vessel. He hung on, circling in the bubbling sea where the ship had floated moments before.

Using both chairs proved difficult to maneuver, and unnecessary. Josh pulled himself aboard a single chair, tied himself on with his belt, and floated with relative ease. He was still floating when the sun came up.

Being an observant master of the stars, he knew he was drifting in a south-southwesterly direction. He was certain there wasn’t much out there for over a thousand miles in this section of the Pacific. I’ll be long dead of thirst before I reach land.

However, Josh was in error as his deck chair washed him ashore in the dark, three days later. Exhausted, dehydrated, and badly cramping, he cast off the chair, crawled above the high-tide line of seaweed, and collapsed into the sand.

Awaking on the morning of the 24th by his watch, Josh realized he was in serious need of liquids and nourishment. Fortunately, the beach line teemed with coconut palms, and he was able to smash two of the pods together, get a cupful of liquid, then gnaw on hunks of moist meat. He felt refreshed and energized and, consequently, wondered where he had washed up. Certainly, it was an island somewhere between Hawaii and Australia. Whether it was inhabited or even habitable, he intended to find out.

Ever practical, Dr. Rowbotham accomplished several tasks in what he viewed as the required order. He first built a lean-to from palm fronds and several larger pieces of driftwood. He layered on the fronds to provide cover from both the sun and rain.

He stationed cracked sections of coconuts under the eaves to catch any rain run-off for later consumption. He gathered a few dozen coconuts, as well as some papayas and mangoes from the tree line, and placed his food supply inside his new home. He fashioned a club from a hefty chunk of driftwood, then set off to explore his island.

Josh worked in ever-increasing circles, first up and down his nearby beach, then into the jungle-like cover during the heat of the sun. He heard birds caw at him and smaller animals rushing about in the bush, but he never got close enough to strike at anything.

As Josh explored further afield, he found nothing of note until on November 2nd, several miles down the beach from his camp, where he observed a set of footprints emerging from the jungle and traversing along the beach away from his camp. He placed his foot inside the footprint; it was larger than his own. As the sun was beginning to set, he returned to his encampment with a plan to get started early the next day.

The next morning found him at the trail on the beach by ten o’clock. He retraced the parallel tracks he and the stranger had separately made, then went on, with just the stranger’s footprints to guide him.

Following the footprints in the sand, Josh could see the sky was darkening ahead and wondered if the island was due for a tropical storm. He rounded the point and came to an abrupt halt, just like the footprints beneath him.

Where the footprints ended, so did the island. The sky in front darkened and merged into the blackness of space. The sea also ended its horizontal position, tumbling over the edge into an empty abyss.

Josh had no idea how to proceed. He sat down on the warm sand, his feet dangling into the nothingness of deep space. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the flat disc of Earth as far as he could see. The breeze faded, leaving the only the sound of the sea thundering over the rim of the Earth.

Professor Josh Rowbotham, resting at the border of earth and space, contemplated issues regarding his survival in this new realm, as well as his choice of a career over forty years ago. If nothing else, he would definitely need to rework his presentation’s opening.

February 18, 2022 17:12

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9 comments

Amanda Lieser
22:59 Mar 11, 2022

Oh wow! Robert, this was such a brilliantly unique approach to the prompt. I really enjoyed the way you characterized Josh. He absolutely intrigued me and I instantly wondered when/if anyone would take action to find him. I appreciated that you made the science within the piece approachable; especially, for a science novice like myself. I loved reading the actions he took on the island and I am dying for a sequel. Bottom line: congratulations on the shortlisting! You deserved it. I just finished my latest story, “Coffee,” and I would love i...

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13:16 Feb 26, 2022

Curious if going to part of a longer piece?

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Tamal Das
07:23 Mar 21, 2022

you helped in my project thanks

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Tamal Das
07:22 Mar 21, 2022

i like it

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Tamal Das
07:22 Mar 21, 2022

very good mystry story

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Kevin Broccoli
17:02 Mar 09, 2022

There's such a timeless element to this story. It's both profound and very simple. Great work.

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Bob Ellis
20:29 Mar 09, 2022

Thanks

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Charlie Murphy
19:58 Feb 26, 2022

What an awesome imaginative story! Maybe add dialogue at the beach to convey Josh's thoughts?

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Poppy Jackson
14:30 Feb 26, 2022

Loved this! It moved so effortlessly from chaos to peace & I thought the witty ending was great. Your writing was scientific yet so engaging :)

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