Their Days Are Numbered is a new year-long project authored by the collective Entropy community. It is a collaborative online novel written by the Entropy community on a weekly basis. A different author will write the next “chapter” each week, to be posted every Tuesday, following the previous post from the previous week, and following a very limited set of guidelines (that each author has one week to write the next piece after the previous week’s installment goes up, that installments should range between 150-1500 words, and that pieces should somehow incorporate a real-life occurrence, current event, news item, or other happening from that week).
Follow the entire “novel” here: Their Days Are Numbered.
The fifth installment is presented this week by Dennis James Sweeney.
Your miracle is rocket. Some miracle necessary in these days, one that shines or speaks at least of past shining. You make your way beside the parched riverbed. Glass stabs through the thinning soles of your boots but you know the way the prick feels when it’s just begun to penetrate: you withdraw your foot. Step around the shards. Turn eyes to the ground again, tirelessly, until you become tired.
The rocket seems to recede. Drifts further into a dreamscape, long thick arrow cartooned and softened by the haze as if it is running away from you instead of you toward it. At night, actual dreams. During the day, you forget which side you are on of them.
Until, in a ditch of feral brush, something else through the shoe: cold touch of—not glass now—but a hook. A simple fishing hook, barbed at the end to keep you. Pulling it out is a chore, and you have to hop one-legged clear of the nettles to free it. Of course, blood. Someone caught something once with it. Now you.
But you are coming closer. This much is certain. You are beginning to sense the chemical glow, not so much visual as aural. The cold of lost machines. Purposes hefty once and now walled up. Like the moon, which looks so huge when it nears the horizon, the rocket, in fact, yes—it grows.
On its side, symbols you once knew how to read. It has been that long. Now they are only signs of desperation, what kind it is hard to say.
Then, your attention wavering, your foot catches. You stop, crouch. A hard edge.
Plastic? A pipe, home to wiring or steam. You run your finger along it. The first straight line you’ve seen in ages. Weeds huddle underneath it, too, rise almost to obscure it, but the straight line. That’s something. That’s sure.
The face of the old-voiced man comes back to you, red and hot. Underground, they say, hundreds of scientists still work, bent over micrographs, screens splayed with the intestines of the rocket, tweaking last equations, dripping drops of fuel onto slides and watching it corrode, dying to burn. No one has told them of the loss. They don’t eat, and their skin sucks tight around their bones. Only after takeoff will they be free to return aboveground and see—
You hold onto these myths the way the rest do. More precious for being impossible.
You step over the pipe, careful not to catch it again. The dry takes up on the other side. Your gear is heavy on your back. You have steps left in your body today, you tell yourself, your feet are not yet broken.
But: this is something.
Yes—this is something, you decide. Instead of going on, you make camp, taking time so that the dark falls. You lay your boots out, sprinkle dust. Ring of spit. Then comb the sand for a fist-sized rock to take into your tent, crawl in, fold your cloak, let your head fall on it. The rocket approaches, surrounds you. A nearness is present. Your skin rings with it and falls away.
Then—dreams aside, a bowl and a screaming crowd—a living brightness shines through the canvas. You are up at once. Out of your sleep sack, out of the tent, on your knees, your hand twitching, the cold stone in it, wanting to pierce the air, hit home, touchdown, another win, dead. When nothing moves, your sweat gathers and pauses at the nape. You allow yourself to breathe. Then stand. Shielding your eyes from the electric light, you walk toward it.
Nothing. Some automatic guardpost, left on even after everything.
You smash the light with the rock and drop it in the sand. Return to the tent. Lay prone. Even the darkness, now, is too bright to sleep through.
Yours eyes, wide and alive, count the seconds. After five hundred, you rise and begin to pack up camp.