Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 28: Forty-two Miles From Home

by Jeff Rand

Rob embraced life and had come to know the past few years as a period of a great security. He enjoyed the vigor of spring and summer followed by the contentment of fall and winter. He cherished the fragrant smells and the sounds of life about him. He even enjoyed his brief encounters engaged in sexual intercourse, however infrequent. Although he remained ignorant as to why his life had changed from one of constant strife to one of relaxed satisfaction, now it was about to come to an end. His rest had been disturbed by nearby human voices.

"It must be here!" shouted Doug, as he searched the woods. In the darkness he led John Howey and Mark Hunt into the forest at the former site of Agawam Boy Scout Camp.

John had termed it the hike from hell and was now quite ready to give up. He and Doug had spent most of the previous night trying to revive Mark, with only marginal success. By morning Mark still appeared as if he where in a drunken stupor. John had suggested that he wished had some piping hot coffee to bring Mark to sobriety, but he knew that Mark's situation was far worse than inebriation. It appeared that Mark's mind had not made the separation from Neural Virtual Reality, even with no physical connection. As it stood, Mark was a little more than a vegetable, who might never fully recover. To both John and Doug this brought the realization that they might have been too hasty in disconnecting Mark from the Net.

Neither Doug nor John had experienced much sleep in the cramped quarters of the box truck. They were very discouraged at both their inability to cope with life on the outside and the potential harm they may have caused in removing Mark Hunt from his captivity. Their decision to head north may not have seemed logical, but at least it was something. First, they searched the area for food and supplies. John opted to fill their water bottles with the least disgusting water he could find in a swamp behind the gas station. Doug had gone searching for food, but returned with only a partial jar of jam, which he assured John would still be edible because it was mostly sugar.

The task of how to move Mark daunted them until they found an old hand truck in a pile of junk nearby. Doug located some wire, boards, and rags. He used these to attach a milk crate to the cart in order to create a seat and backrest for Mark.

John and Doug transported Mark using the hand truck alternating turns about every 100 meters. On the flats the task was manageable, but the hills required their combined efforts either pulling the hand truck up or holding it from going out of control on the downhill stretches. In addition, they were constantly walking back and forth to get the bicycle. It took nearly eight hours to reach the site of the old K-mart on the south side of Lake Orion. To further enhance their torture, a cold rain commenced in early afternoon and continued for the rest of the hike. Throughout the day's journey they saw nothing but devastation. In a moment of exasperation, Doug suggested that they deviate west and head to Camp Agawam. They were near exhaustion, but it seamed the best choice at the time.

It was well into the darkness when they reached the ruins of the camp. Again their outlook was bleak, but Doug persevered with a memory long forgotten. It was more than 50 years ago while chasing "the chapter" duck that he and his comrades had explored this area. This time Doug searched in near total darkness. He must locate shelter; otherwise they would be spending the night outside in the rain, with death from exposure as their likely fate.

John leaned the hand truck holding Mark Hunt against a tree. He used whatever clothing and wraps they had found to cover Mark, who like John was totally soaked. John shivered as he sat on the opposite side of the tree. While he and Doug were moving, he maintained a marginal sense of warmth. Now that he had stopped he felt hypothermic. Quite concerned about his own survival, he dared not check on Mark. He and Doug had made a terrible mistake. If Mark were not yet dead, he would be soon.

Doug continued his search pawing blindly through the woods. An hour had passed, perhaps more, since he and John had arrived at the camp. "John, where are you?" he said, in what he hoped to be a shout, but was something less. No response.

Doug took a deep breath. "John!" he screamed.

John heard the scream and tried to respond. His uncontrollable shivering had continued during the agonizing hour in the cold rain. He was extremely fatigued and feeling numb. "Here!" he murmured, trying to get enough air through his larynx to make an audible sound. "Here! Here! Here!" he cried, still barely able to speak.

John was very frightened at his prospects. He was already well on his way to a hypothermic death. He had given up hope in saving Mark and now Doug was lost in the woods.

His current state of affairs reminded him of the character "Rose" in the 1997 hit movie "Titanic" as she shivered towards a cold death in the North Atlantic. He figured that he might just as well go peacefully, as did most of other passengers who found themselves in the icy water when the Titanic sunk. "Now Rose didn't die," he thought, "because she had a whistle. Maybe." John reached toward the pack containing their few possessions. Inside he found the survival kit that he had taken from the plane. He sifted through the contents.

Doug too was scared. He had lost John. It was utterly dark, bitterly cold, raining, and he had no shelter. Why had he and John embarked upon this foolish trip? For that matter, why the hell had John roused him from his virtual reality universe? He could spend his last years in the virtual paradise, even if reality existed elsewhere. Reality he now believed was a cold wretched death. To make matters worse, he would be responsible for Mark's death as well. John deserved to die. Had he not disrupted the Winter Camp of NVR none of this would have happened. Let him suffer a cold miserable death.

Doug looked skyward to feel the cold rain on his face. "John, where are you?" he shouted. "I'm gonna walk all night until I find your wretched corpse!"

Doug thought he heard something. He paused and listened. It was the sound of a whistle. John was alive. Instantly Doug's outlook changed and he made haste in the direction of the whistle. Minutes later he found John next to the tree.

"John, are you ok?"

"I'm alive, but I'm not feeling real good," responded John.

"I know there's a building around here. I have an idea. Actually we've used it during the blind hike at Winter Camp to keep from getting lost, that is when there weren't cheaters. John you continue to blow the whistle and I will probe the woods going in straight lines from this point. I'll go a distance of about 500 feet take a right turn and walk about 100 feet, then return. I'll keep doing this at different bearings to make a complete scan of the area. Every thirty seconds or so I will shout "ho." You will blow the whistle once if I'm on course. Blow it twice if I need to go left and three times if I should move right. This way you'll be able to keep me on course."

"What should I do if I don't hear you shout?" inquired John.

"You should blow the whistle once for several seconds and I'll head towards the sound."

Although both John and Doug were cold, wet, and exhausted the thought of a plan gave them new hope. Neither thought to check on Mark. Doug took his first bearing in the direction he thought offered the least resistance. Remarkably, he maintained a straight line with only one course correction. Several minutes later he had returned safely to John. For the second bearing he adjusted his course a few degrees clockwise and entered the thicket. This time John offered corrections on three occasions when he judged Doug to be off course. Doug's third trip was much more difficult and took more than 15 minutes. He returned on wobbly legs.

On Doug's fourth trip, John could not hear a "ho" as Doug journeyed into the distance. John gave the long warning signal. He repeated it several times, before Doug returned.

"I'm sorry I couldn't hear your shout," said John in a very weak voice.

"I'm afraid the cold rain is beginning to zap my strength," Doug responded hoarsely.

"Doug, I feel so weak. I don't know what to do."

"Get up! Let's do some jumping jacks."

"What?"

"Look, I don't know where else we can go. Our only chance is to find something here. We'll survive, if we can build up some body heat," said Doug, as he helped John to his feet.

John could barely stand, but together he and Doug made an attempt to exercise. Several minutes later they had succeeded in actually doing a few feeble jumping jacks and felt thankfully warmer. While it worked this time, both knew that they would not be able to keep it up indefinitely.

Doug continued his forays into the bush trying to walk more aggressively and maintain his body heat. He had long since used the energy from the few grams of jam that he had eaten earlier in the day. His stores were depleted and he would not be able to keep up a vigorous pace much longer. Following Doug's eighth trip, he suggested another round of jumping jacks. This time John was unwilling and unable to comply.

On his ninth trip Doug tripped several times and bashed his head against a tree. He returned after 20 minutes, barely able to walk. For his part, John could blow the whistle and little more. Immediately, Doug set upon a tenth trip having gone more than half way around the 500-foot radius circle, which circumscribed their location. This time he was not sure he could hear the whistle at all. Fortunately, the brush was a bit thinner and he tripped only twice. When he finally returned to John, he collapsed from exhaustion.

"John, I can't do it any more."

"You must try," whispered John.

"Let's just huddle together and wait for morning."

"Doug, I don't think I'll make it. Please try again. We can't die here."

Doug remained on the ground beside John and started to shiver. He had come to limits of his strength and in spite of his reassurance to John, like a wild animal that had totally exhausted itself, he realized that this would be his final resting-place. It was the best he could do. He could be of no more help to John or Mark, not that there had been much hope for Mark for quite some time. Doug guessed that he was probably dead and cold by now. "John," he thought, "would be the next to go." At some point Doug himself would drift into a sleep, which he hoped would be sooner rather than later. All three corpses would be dead and stiff by morning. Perhaps it would get cold enough to freeze and preserve his body a bit longer, although it really shouldn't matter. Yet he hoped to leave his mark on the earth as long as possible, even if it was just his frozen corpse in a deserted Boy Scout camp on a deserted planet.

Minutes passed and morbid thoughts continued within Doug's declining consciousness. He now realized that he would soon cross the line where his will to continue would be overcome for the desire to rest, a rest he knew would be his last. If only someone could rescue them. Yet this was hardly likely. As far as he knew there was no one else. Assuming Mark as dead, John and he remained as the only free souls outside NVR. And John was hardly free. Entropy was having its way with John through his heat death. Only Doug could reverse its flow, at least locally, and save him. Of the rest of humanity, no one would feel the warmth of the sun or breathe the spring air ever again. Of this significant thought, it was becoming increasing harder for Doug to care.

How thin the line between life and death. Doug knew that shelter must be near. A simple sleeping bag and tent would save his life and humanity. If only it weren't pitch black and raining. A few degrees colder it would be snowing and he would probably be able to see and find the shelter. He had survived several hours of darkness in the rain, and though even a few more remained until daybreak, he would not have the strength left to finish the night. "I guess this is it," he thought, "or maybe I can give it one more try." Doug had to roll on his side to get up, "God help me I'll do it somehow!"

On his eleventh search, Doug made it about hundred feet when he heard an echo as he uttered a weak "ho". There was a large object ahead. He had found the old workshop that had once served a thriving Scout Camp.

Hours later Doug sat among the tools and parts in the old workshop. Given his ordeal of the night before, he was remarkably alert and mobile. Sleeping soundly next to him, wrapped in rags and drop cloths, John too had made it through the night. "John, wake up," he said.

"What? Where are we?"

"We found the old workshop at Camp Agawam."

"My God, we made it," said John, as he attempted to sit up. "What about Mark?"

"He is still breathing. But he's very cold and if we don't get help soon, he will die. We must rescue Dr. Bob and get some food. Perhaps we can extract some of the IV solution from the NVR center that sustained us for the past few years."

John was now fully awake, "What's this crap on the floor I was sleeping upon?"

"Oh, I'm afraid your sleeping pad was a mound of raccoon excrement," replied Doug. "It looks like there was a Raccoon Occupying this Building prior to our arrival."

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