Zero Node: Chapter 7: "Beyond Hope of Return"
by Jeff Rand
The relatively short chapter offers hints that John Howey is actually experiencing something else rather than Winter Camp, as the story plot unfolds.
The title, Psalm 145, suggests that God has a sense of humor, at least in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The psalm, while it is a hymn of praise, is actually acrostic. In this case, each verse starts with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the centuries after the verses were written, the various translations were missing two the letters to complete the alphabet. In the ancient text discovered in the Dead Sea scrolls in 1946, the verses were complete with all letters present. Chapter 7, in the English translation of Another Ten Seconds, is also acrostic.
December 1, 2018
Need a refresher? Here's the Another Ten Seconds chapter
The river stretching before them appeared to be more than 500 tads across and had no signs of any human structure except for the ruins of some buildings at its edge. Approaching the river, the road had passed through some hills and dipped for the crossing, while the terrain on the opposite side appeared much flatter.
Having no enthusiasm to proceed, Steve expressed the most obvious conclusion, "I guess this is the end of our journey. We could fish, but I don't suppose you have any dynamite to blast a hole through several feet of ice. Unless you have a hidden stash, I believe we consumed the remainder of our food last night. I guess we can continue to melt snow and have water for awhile, but we will become too weak to move. Unfortunately we have reached a point where it is too far to make it back to Yakutsk, and there are months of travel ahead of us before we would reach the ocean. I guess we can stop here and set-up our death camp. If you are still conscious and able to move when I die, you have my permission to make the best use of my flesh."
Jeff, too, struggled with morbid thoughts of being so emaciated that he would offer little subsistence to Steve should the roles be reversed. Forcing himself to offer some hope, he responded, "I suggest that we make a climb to the top of the hill on our right to get a better look at the river and what lies beyond. As I searched the vaulted isles of memory, I recall that upstream the river should head in a direction towards the Pacific."
Although Jeff's statement may not have been intended to change Steve's outlook, it did just that. Steve knew that Jeff had actually quoted a phrase from an Order of the Arrow ceremony, and it flooded his mind with thoughts of Winter Camp and more importantly, the future of humanity. In their current situation, there was much more at stake than their own lives.
The weary travelers struggled to the top of the hill, as it started snowing. Although the depth of snow covered much of the vegetation including the bushes, they had decided to make the trek without snowshoes. This slowed their progress, and it took three quarters of an hour to reach an overlook with a view of the river. The typically cloudy skies and light snow hampered their vision, but they could see the path of the roadway on the other side of the river. As they looked in the direction they judged to be upstream, they noticed that road appeared to follow the river for some distance.
Although it was past noon and they knew that they had less than three hours of daylight remaining, they decided to use the river as a pathway, reasoning that it would not have any hills.
Though the frozen river surface was often windblown, an increasing amount of fresh snow slowed their progress. In spite of these conditions, their spirits were lifted as they continued to count their steps knowing that it was just 80 chains to the mile. They travelled 400 chains before darkness and exhaustion prevented further progress. They made camp right on the river itself and proceeded to melt some snow for water. Without any food, it took less fuel to prepare water than to cook a meal.
Steve and Jeff had now gone a full day without any food.
Without the means to prepare breakfast, the takedown of camp went quicker than had been the previous case. Hunger and fatigue slowed their progress, but they continued to follow the path of the river, now moving upstream on the far side. The pair did manage to travel eight grueling miles in spite of howling winds and periodic snowstorms. Upon completing each mile, Steve or Jeff would climb out of the river to assure that the actual road was still nearby.
It had been two days without food.
They progressed just five my miles on the third foodless day.
As the pair struggled to take down camp and haul the sled on the fourth day, they would stumble and often collapse. They managed to travel just 2 miles. They had no strength to set their tepee and just unrolled their sleeping cocoons to rest in the open. Although there was some fuel left, they had no interest in going through the trouble of lighting the stove to melt snow. As they became more delirious with reduced mental capacity, they ate snow in an attempt to stave off the hunger. While the snow did eventually melt and provide some moisture, it had the opposite effect in addressing their need for food, as one had to burn calories to change it from a solid to a liquid and to further warm it to body temperature. However, their actual body temperatures had dropped several degrees, as their bodies began to shut down all but the most essential functions. To add to the dilemma, the surrounding temperature dropped as the night fell.
On the frozen surface of a river, in the middle of Siberia, with a strong northern wind blowing the snow, in the coldest temperature either one had ever experienced, wrapped in modest coverings without shelter, and having not eaten in more than four days, Steve and Jeff now faced the end of their journey.
Extremely cold temperatures affect sleep and most particularly, sleep cycles. In normal situations, an individual may go through a full cycle in approximately two hours. Under such cold conditions this pattern can be reduced to just minutes between waking and sleeping, although the waking periods are not at all pleasant. Steve found himself going through repeated cycles while he suffered in the cold. As he became more depressed during those periods where he was technically awake, his dreams became more vivid when he was not. While his conscious mind was shutting down, the dreams during the periods of unconsciousness became the new reality.
Steve was with Chief Chingachgook and his son Uncas in the Valley of the Delaware Indians. Though he didn't speak the tongue of the Lenni Lenape, he clearly understood the words uttered by Chingachgook. This Steve remembered, "You must catch the higher vision!"
Steve woke to the pale daylight coming from the southeast. In his state of near starvation, he had managed to live through another night. Yet the words of his dream, stuck with him.
Jeff, too, had survived and was reaching out of his cocoon to light the stove to melt snow. While the wind and blowing snow were not present, Jeff was still extremely slow in completing the task. The warm water was a welcome relief to the night of bitter cold, though both friends were still weak from hunger.
"Maybe we can still set-up the tepee and build a big fire. I don't think I can go any further, but maybe we can melt a hole through the ice so we can fish," said Jeff, trying to be hopeful.
"Don't you think melted ice will extinguish the fire?" responded Steve.
"I was just thinking we can build a fire in the tepee to keep warm. We could set it on the river and use some metal from the sled to break through the ice from inside the tepee."
"It will take forever," said Steve.
"I'd rather die trying!"
While they were extremely weak, it took the entire morning to set the tepee. They set it near the bank close to some downed trees. It took another two hours to drag firewood to the tepee, which became a most arduous task. By mid afternoon they had a fire burning on top of a metal platform that had once formed the deck of the sled. Although he was slow and unsteady, Jeff extracted some more metal and began chipping the ice. After about three hours he had a modest size hole about 9 inches deep. At that point, he had nothing left to continue and collapsed. With much effort, Steve was able to prepare some water and put Jeff in his cocoon.
As the tepee made a much better shelter, and a fire burned in its center, they retired hoping to survive another night.
Again, Steve's fitful sleep was plagued by vivid dreams. "Let not sleep overtake you nor the fire burn out - lest opportunity go with it. Should voices be heard in depth of the night - give heed and answer. You are alone with your God," he heard Chingachgook say. Suddenly, he was awake and tended the fire, not sure if Jeff was still alive.
In the many hours of darkness, Steve struggled to stay awake. He knew that tending a fire would help, but in doing so he frequently found himself in a state of confusion. Although he believed he was awake, he heard another voice. "The spirit of the Order sends me through the darkness to you, my brother. It is not for us to meet now face to face," it said.
Struggling yet more hours, Steve kept the fire burning. It was then that the daylight had returned to illuminate the world, when he heard the voice again, "You must seek the higher vision."
Steve, who was totally exhausted and hadn't eaten in six days, summoned enough energy to emerge from his sleeping cocoon. He exited the tepee to see the sun just hitting the horizon. He struggled up the riverbank towards the road which he hoped was nearby. When he reached the top of the bank, he found no sign of human habitation and knew this must be the end of their journey. His dreams were nothing more than mind games that might extend his life just one more day.
He turned to descend towards the tepee, hoping to keep the fire going just a little longer. He looked across the river to the much higher bank, noticing that the river had narrowed considerably from where they had started. Then sun was just starting to illuminate the bank on the other side of the river. He turned to look upstream to towards a dip in the land beside river. The bank was covered with trees, save for the snow glistening in the sunlight. Then there was flash as the sun reflected from some unknown object.