A Choice of Miracles

by James A.Cox

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: You're down in the jungle with death staring you in the face. There is nothing left but prayer. So you ask for your life. But wait! Are you sure that's really what you want above all else?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Andy Larson was a hard-headed Swede. He had to be, to be still alive. He hadn’t been able to move anything but that hard head for what he estimated to be about three hours since he regained consciousness. And in that time he hadn’t heard anything that led him to believe anyone else had survived the crash.

[Illustration: Hurt and helpless, Larson waited for death.]

The only thing Andy Larson had heard was the water and the far-away whine of the patrol ship on its grid track search pattern. It had not reached his area yet, and he wasn’t at all excited about his chances of being spotted when it did get nearer. He could turn his head, and he could see the tangled interlacing of tree branches and vines above and around him. He remembered, at the first moment of impact, just before the ship began to break apart, a tremendous geyser of mud and water. The picture was indelibly imprinted on his mind. He couldn’t see the water now, but he could hear it. The litter he could see by twisting his head as far to the left as it would go told him they had crash-landed on the water--a river by the sound of it--and had skipped drunkenly, in something approximating flat stone fashion, into the forest lining the river’s bank. There had been no explosion and no fire, there was no wide swath cut through the trees--and therefore no reason why he should assume the patrol would spot him. There might be pieces of the ship lying where the patrol could see them. But he doubted that, for the river was deep and the vegetation was thick.

He strained his ears, not to hear if the patrol was approaching closer, but listening for the sound of life around him. This was his one hope--another survivor, and of necessity a mobile one. Someone to shout and wave, to climb a tree, to find an open space and build a fire, to light a flare, to do something--anything--that would attract the patrol’s attention. Andy Larson wasn’t afraid of dying. He felt no panic, no agonies of conscience, remorse or bitterness at the apparent inevitability of the prospect before him. But if he was not destined to die he needed a miracle or the assistance of that almost impossible--but only almost--survivor. And instead of praying for the miracle, he listened with all the hearing power at his command for the sound of human life. That would be miracle enough, and he didn’t intend to stop listening until he couldn’t any more.

Not that he didn’t pray at all; back home in New Jersey, while not considered a pillar of the church, Andy Larson was known as a good, practicing Lutheran. But it was doubtful if the Lutherans, or any other sect for that matter, had sent missionaries this high into the heavens yet; the misbegotten flight he had been on had been only the fourth to reach this strange little planet of Abernathy since its discovery by the good professor back in ‘92. So Andy was no longer a practicing Lutheran, if practicing meant going to church. But he had prayed more than once during the long outward journey. And he was praying now, while his ears strained for sounds and his eyes strained for movement; praying for himself, yes, but even more for his wife, and for someone he had never seen.

He couldn’t help being afraid for Elsie; he had been gone from home almost seven months, and she had been rocked with morning sickness for the last three weeks before he left, moaning over her saltines and begging him not to go even though she knew he couldn’t and would not back out. She was afraid of the unknown he was going into, and he was afraid of the unknown that awaited her--it was the first time for both unknowns for both of them.

In a little while he could stop straining his eyes. Greenish dusk was slipping into night. Soon his ears would have to do all the work. The thought of night-prowling creatures disturbed him somewhat; no-one knew for sure yet what, if anything, lived in these thick, isolated jungles. Paralyzed as he was, he was fair game--his choice of words in the thought brought a grimacing smile to his face. He tried once again--was it the thousandth time yet?--to move his arms, his legs, his hands, a finger, a toe. Earlier, he had thought he was moving the big toe on his left foot, but he couldn’t raise his head to see past the twisted bulk of metal that lay across him, the toe had nothing to rub upon to give it feeling, and there was absolutely no feeling between it and his head to give it any meaning anyhow. But it would have been a nice feeling just to know it was still there.

He gave up the attempt when sweat beaded out on his forehead and went back to listening and praying. He was tempted to pray for the miracle now, for blackness blotted out even the pitiful remains of the ship, and the whine of the patrol had muted to a singing hum in the distance.

The night turned cold and damp, but Andy Larson, in his sheathing of paralysis, didn’t feel it. The loneliness was on him, the awesome loneliness of having to wait for death alone, with no warm hand to hold on to until the parting. He still felt no great fear or bitterness. Only the loneliness, and sadness. He would never know his son, or daughter, would never know that it loved him, that he was the biggest thing in its life. And it--that was ugly; he would call it “he”; if he had a choice a son it would be--he, his son, would never know his father, or how much his father wanted to love him. And Elsie--how lonely it would be for her. Her time must be getting close now, and she would be frightened. The doctor hadn’t told her what he had told him--that she was too slight, definitely not built for child-bearing. But she knew. And she would be brave, but frightened and alone.

The hours of night trudged by. The few stars that peeped through the trees were no help in telling the time, and Andy had lost interest in it anyhow. It was night, it had been night for what seemed like years, the blackness around him proclaimed it would be night still for many more years. He dozed off and on, at times waking with a start, thinking he had heard something. For a few minutes he would listen intently, feverishly. But when nothing reached his ears but the little night sounds he had become accustomed to, he would sink back into the lethargy that weighed upon his eyelids.

He wondered if he could be dying. He thought he was getting weaker--but how could he tell for sure? He could feel nothing, there was no pain, no muscular failure, no falling weakly to the ground. There were no muscles left and he was on the ground already. It was a Herculean effort to keep his eyes open, to listen as he had vowed he would. But that might be only fatigue, the need for sleep. And shock! Of course. He had to be suffering from shock, and from exposure, too. So if he didn’t die of starvation, and if some beast didn’t devour him, and if whatever wounds and injuries he had didn’t do him in, he would probably die anyhow from pneumonia.

The thought was almost a comforting one. It took him off the hook, unburdened him of the need to worry about whether or not he lived. The thing was out of his hands, and no stubbornness on his part was going to do any good. He had prayed himself out before, prayed until the words of the prayers were nothing but imbecilic mutterings and mumblings, meaningless monosyllables swirling pointlessly and endlessly through his tired brain. The thing was out of his hands. He--Andy Larson--he gave up. He quit. He was nothing but a head that was hard and a body that was dead. What right did he have thinking he had any control over what happened to him? He was incapable of doing anything himself--he had to wait until something happened to him. And he knew what was going to happen. So that’s what he’d do. He’d just wait.

He closed his eyes and saw Elsie, and before he realized he was going to do it he was praying again, talking to God about Elsie, and then talking to Elsie about God, and then back to God again and to Elsie again, and he knew he was crying because he could taste the tears, and he knew he was going to die because there wasn’t anything else that could happen, and he knew suddenly that he was mortally afraid. He could not lay rigidly, tensely--there were no muscles to tighten. But the tension had to go somewhere. He felt a numbness creeping up the back of his neck, felt his eyes bulging as if they would burst, heard a roaring in his ears. He opened his mouth, gasping, trying to breathe deeply, the roaring in his ears reaching a crescendo and then breaking into a cold sighing wind that loudened and softened with the regularity of a pulse beat. He didn’t know if he was awake or sleeping, dozing or dreaming, dying or dead. But he heard Elsie.

She was calling him. Over the cold black nothingness that separated them she was calling his name, her voice riding on the mournful wind sighing in his ears. He could hear her--it was as simple as that. He still didn’t know if he was dreaming or dead. He didn’t care. She was calling to him and he could hear, and although it wasn’t the miracle he had wanted to pray for, still it was a miracle. He didn’t question it; the comfort of hearing her voice after the terrible loneliness was enough. He didn’t wonder how it could happen, didn’t doubt that she could hear him answering her, as he was doing now. At first, so overcome with joy and relief, so thankful for the miracle, he didn’t even recognize the tones of pain in her voice.

“Elsie, Elsie, Elsie,” he cried out with his mind, reaching for her, wanting to seize her and hold her and never let her slip away again. “I hear you, my darling. I hear you!”

“Thank God!” Her voice broke, and the sound of sobbing carried on the wind reached his ears. For a moment it puzzled him. He had been crying, but her sobs were something different. The night suddenly seemed to turn much colder. “What is it, Elsie?” he called in fright.

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