The Hermit, Prologue and Chapter One
I GREW UP HEARING STORIES ABOUT HIM. Freak, cannibal boy, creep, scrat, and a dozen other names, some creative and some less inspired. When I met him, billions of miles from where his story began, everyone was calling him one thing- the Hermit. Only a few knew him, truly, and I’d like to think by the end of his story I could be counted among those few individuals. At the end of it all, his name, the first words he spoke to another person, would never forgotten.
My prejudice towards him came into being like most do; I learned it from others. I knew all his peculiarities that, over time, had become inflated half truths and lies. Kids told ghost stories about him coming into your room at night to watch you sleep while eating bugs and rats. Kids would huddle around campfires or bedrooms during sleepovers, sharing these sorts of stories that expanded upon the myth of Scout. Our childhood games revolved around him. He was the monster who chased you in a game of tag or hide ’n’ seek. I played these and many others growing up on Isla Cielo, running on the beach pretending to be him, laughing in playful fright at the thought of him catching one of us. Scout’s pitiable origins never crossed our minds.We took him as an aberration, a boogeyman, someone deserving of our sympathy not our cruelty; a child, found alone and on the brink of death in the wasteland, fortunate to be alive.
Kids thought he was a monster. To parents, he was a constant reminder of their failures in the aftermath of the End. He stood out on an island of filled with intellectuals, academics, prodigies, and creatives. Even the strays,the “non-essential” people saved by the EHSE evacuation, were nothing like him. All of them, no matter their background and role in the program, from soldiers to physicists, saw him as an outsider. There was a time when he would have been a charitable cause to them. They’d put some dollars in his pocket, pat themselves on their backs, and say they saved a life. Instead, they viewed him with indifference, caution, and even slight disdain. He was an effigy for their fears and frustrations.
The adults knew it was wrong to treat him so. Not too long ago it would have been unacceptable, horrendous even, to make a child into a pariah. An orphan found in the wilderness, alive despite the odds, he would have been a star. Actors would have taken photos with him. There would’ve been book deals and talks about a movie adaptation. His face, contemplative and bookish, would have been plastered on billboards, televisions, and magazines. That’s what civilization would have done. And while EHSE was the last of civilization, the people there knew they had lost their decency to paranoia and fear, those ancient roots of our ill habits.
The fear that he was dangerous was more than just him potentially lashing out violently at his peers. No one would ever admit it, but what terrified everyone, children and adults, was the possibility that was was one of the unspeakablehorrors responsible for the End. How could a boy so young survive unless he was something unnatural and inhuman? Despite Scout’s behavior being in line with those who experience this level of trauma, his unusual quirks were scrutinized to the point that even more rational minds believed this was a plausible deduction considering everything that happened. Bringing him to the island they could have potentially risked everything they slaved away to create. All the work and risk undone by Scout, the monsters’ Trojan horse. So they often considered exiling him from the island, deliberating each time he didn’t fit into their box of normalcy. What was one person in the scope of all human life? Was he worth it? Was this child worth sacrificing EHSE?
The truth is he had his eccentricities. There’s no doubt he was cut from a wholly different cloth than the rest of us. He had a tendency to walk slow, regardless of his limp, and always towards something unseen, looking for the next sliver of shelter to sink into. You could find him in the corner of a room or tucked halfway behind a tree, watching everything intently with big inquisitive eyes. If you met his gaze he’d shift around uncomfortably, trying to mesh further into the scenery or escape altogether. He’d sleepwalk and end up scratching at people’s doors, whining like a dog to come in. Sometimes they’d find him tucked inside garbage cans asleep, a dead bird clutched in his teeth. It was much worse when he was young, so I’ve been told, but these things happened up until he left.
I was there, in the crowd, the day the Unyielding exploded over the Atlantic and the Indomitablewent silent after a series of catastrophic readings. In one day EHSE, the last shred of civilization, lost its two most promising pilots. In the midst of these cataclysmic losses the least likely person took a stand when everyone else balked. Scout had no dog in our fight. He had been an outcast, treated less than human at times, but despite it all he boarded the Defiant and became more than silly nicknames and the embodiment of our powerlessness. On that day he became a hero.
His actions weren’t done out of love for us. Scout didn’t care about humanity and what we’d lose should the mission fail and EHSE collapse. Scout did it for her, Brena Sahni, the woman he loved, and the handful of souls that cared for him. People like Doc Aaren, who died a month after the Fortuna’s launch, and his adoptive father, Lucca Serrano, who took him under his wing and gave him a loving home. The few that never gave up on him were there that day,to see him rise above the masses and take hold of the future when no one else would, forcing everyone on Isla Cielo to reevaluate their misconceptions of him. The pariah had become a hero. As he speared onward to his destination stories began to spread. The narrative changed. Even those with grounded sensibilities were not immune to being swept up in telling tall tales about him. It went on this way up to the launching of the Fortuna and afterwards. Scout became more than a legend. He became mythic.
That’s a lot of power to wield and some people realized this. EHSE’s scholars knew his life was significant to future generations in establishing humanity’s new history and should be carefully analyzed. Others worried what sort of society would manifest from it, this new iconic figure on a world far from the dead ones from Earth. These individuals could not reconcile their past prejudices from this new mythic version. To them, he was an uncertain figure to idolize.Yet in knowingthere was no escape fromhis influence across EHSE, his legacy would have to be monitored and filtered to protect it, even if that meant protecting it from Scout himself.
-My Time with the Hermit, The Memoir of Eisley Coda
SCOUT OPENED HIS EYES TO A SUN A BILLION MILES FROM THE ONE HE WAS BORN UNDER. His head throbbed while a viscous trickle of blood pooled around his cheeks. He took a breath and groaned. Dust puffed up from the hard sandstone. Across from him was a shallow pond and at its center the hunk of metal responsible for his journey here- a Russian-made quadruped drone.
He rolled over, rubbing his bearded chin staining his fingers with fresh blood. Above him was a short cliff of aroundfifteen feet. Scout squinted trying to recall what happened.
When the haze of his blackout adequately left him, Scout sat up. His back popped and stiffened for a moment. He was getting too old for this sort of thing. How much longer did have left in the tank? It was hard to tell. He wasn’t a young man anymore, but despite the familiar crook in his back and the other normal impairments of age, Scout was still robust. His mind, however, hadn’t fared nearly as well.
“Do you remember how?”
“Stop.” Scout said. He knew the game his mind wanted to play and decided he wasn’t participating. His head hurt and he wasn’t in the mood.He grunted and winced. It hadn’t even been a minute since returning to consciousness and already his chatty mind was toying with him. Time was making it increasingly difficult to keep that part of himself quiet.
He glanced again at the horseshoe shaped cliff edge. What could have taken his attention so he would have missed such an obvious terrain feature? Even a child could have descended it with little issue.
“You really don’t remember?”
The pond next to him was like the thousands of others scattered around the region, shallow fresh water, the remains of an ancient ocean that dried up with shifting of the planet’s geology, replenished by the healthy amount of rainfall the region recieved. Under its surface moved a solitary organism, a primordial native, ovoid and covered in a bony shell. Under its domed blue-grey body were feathery cilia used to sift in bits of algae. It was the last one left. The rest like it would be buried under the mud, hibernating, waiting for the rains to replenish the pond’s water supply and bring down nutrients for the algae to thrive on.
Scout pushed the question to the back and took out his first aid kit from his rucksack. He dragged himself over to the pond, cupped some water in his hands, then washed it over his head wound. After applying some ointment and wrapping his head with a bandage, Scout got to his knees and finally stood up.
The hunk of metal in the pond had been his Laikadrone, an exploratory robot he used for gathering materials and data about the planet. Two of its legs were shorn off and the third mangled. Sparks sputtered up from dents in its hull. It hummed and buzzed, trying to reorient its drives.
A meteor shower two nights before had damaged the Laika.Scout tracked down the crater where the meteorite nearly struck the drone and the scant bits of debris left. The force of the impact managed to throw the Laika one hundred and forty three meters away where it came down into the pond.
It would take a weeks worth of work but he’d get her running again. He’d have to come back with AT-PS and haul it back. In the meantime he’d pull the hard drive. The data stored within was far more valuable than the drone itself. He couldn’t risk leaving it behind, left to the elements. The planet was an adolescent and like one, apt to throw fits. Nothing Scout hadn’t been able to survive thus far, but this wilderness was no different than those back home. Complacency was fatal.
Scout ran his hand over the drone.
“It’ll be okay.”
“You care about her don’t you?”
“No. Her. You know that.”
The possibility of losing the Laika made him sick to his stomach. Not because of its usefulness, but because it gave him a strange sort of companionship, one more healthy than the relationship with his conscience; that other voice. Aside from his inner dialogue and drone, he had no one else. The Laika offered a considerable deal of relief for his loneliness. Together they were both alien invaders, one man and one machine, mapping and learning about their new conquered home. The fantasy of it, like something from the books he loved, distanced him from the reality.
The damage it sustained made removing the hard drive a chore, but not impossible. With some grit and resolve he pulled it from the wreck.
“Don’t worry girl, I’ll be back,” he said to the drone, running his hand over it.
“Don’t leave me,” the drone answered back in his head. Scout winced again. He remembered a house. A puddle outside and laying in it, like the Laika but under a different sun. Long ago. Scout wadded out of the pool. Stared up at the cliff. What had he seen there? What caused the fall? What treacherous memory had risen up to pester him once more?
“The house. The cream house. That what I saw, isn’t it?”
Scout looked at the water around his ankles and remembered the spectral sight of the house, that faraway prison his mother and father called home, and the puddle that saved him from dehydration.
“Do you remember now? You’re mind is getting slower old man. How much longer until it’s gone?”
“Not soon enough. I just hope you go before my memories do.”
“When I go, so do you.”
“I keep seeing the house. Why?”
“Someone is trying to tell you something.”
“Yourself. I imagine.”
“So why did I fall? Was it seeing the house? Come on, think man, think.”
“It wasn’t the house. You saw them. Didn’t you?”
“You’re lying. You saw them, in the window, waving. Two skeletons waving to their baby boy.”
“No that can’t be. I’ve never seen them. I never see their faces. Just smells. Shapes. Their voices saying my name.”
“You didn’t see their faces. They were gone. Rotted away. But you saw them, not their shadows, and then you fell.”
“It’s only a matter of time for you to lose your grip on everything. Reality.”
“I’ve lived a good chunk of my life not certain what the hell was real and what wasn’t. What’s the difference? And you’ve said this before, on the Defiant, and I’ve made it this far.”
“But next time what if the fall is ten feet higher? You might have been unsure about what’s real and what isn’t, but you could keep yourself alive. And now...well, you’re becoming clumsy.”
“Now nothing. I’m fine. Go away.”
“Enough,” Scout said, suppressing the other voice back down.
A surge of cold air washed over him. He shivered and looked to the horizon. A storm was descending from the continental mesa. Its mountainous charcoal clouds obscured the entire northwestern sky and flashed with blue lightning. In a couple of minutes it would be upon him, battering Scout with wind, hail, and sharp flecks of sediment from the mesa’s vast upper plains. He had to leave, quick. Scout went back to the drone and pulled out a length of solid steel piping.
“Sorry girl, I’m gonna need this.”
“Don’t leave me here.”
“You’ll be okay. The storm won’t hurt you,” he said reassuringly to the drone.
Of course the drone understood none of this. It didn’t care about Scout or the storm. It was a piece of machinery. Scout took a second to remind himself of this. He limped out of the nearly dried up riverbed and made a heading east, towards his camp with the storm fast on his heels.
The ground trembled as the tempest tumbled down the side of the colossal mesa. The cold wind became more aggressive, pushing Scout forward. It wouldn’t be enough. The storm, a common one he called a mesablast, was produced in the high elevations of the planet’s continent-sized mesa landforms. This mesa was mapped and measured to have the surface area half the size of Greenland. The icy air would eventually be pushed down by the powerful winds on the mesa’s peaks and dropped into the land and oceans below.
Scout pushed through his exhaustion and pain fleeing across the swooping sandstone landscape, passing natural rock arches, outcrops, stacks, buttes, and rivers. Despite its superficial desert appearance there was an abundance of water. The planet had a healthy lattice of rivers, ponds, and oceans. He traversed a shallow creek before looking back to the storm.
The mesablast would be on him in minutes, ten at the most. Scout stopped. He wasn’t going to make it. The camp was still too far, but Scout hadn’t survived this long without having a backup plan.
Scout nodded at the thought, turned around, and ran towards the storm. He didn’t have to go far, but the wind was so strong it made moving forward a grueling chore. It howled demonically, as if trying to scare him back on course. Scout took the goggles hanging from his neck and covered his eyes from the biting sand, but it was already becoming difficult to see a few yards ahead. Fortunately, he found what he was searching for before it was too late, a small crevasse in the crook of a thirty foot tall arch.
Somewhat shielded from the elements, Scout took the thermal poncho in his ruck. He tucked himself between the ruck and a boulder, covering himself with the poncho and keeping the hollow metal piping close to his chest. As predicted, the first brunt of the storm was on him in a matter of minutes. The atmosphere flashed with heat, followed by three consecutive lightning strikes. Another came down. Five more. Soon there were so many Scout couldn’t keep track. The poncho jerked around, threatening to fly off into the madness of the storm. Scout shut his eyes and waited.
A LAYER OF SAND AND DEBRIS COVERED THE LAND. Up from a mound of it piled around the base of the arch jutted a length of black metal piping, pulled from the Laika, siphoning air down into the soil. The sand shifted, cascading down from the poncho as Scout emerged, battered but alive. He brushed himself off and packed away his poncho and the piping.
It was night now. It lasted sixteen hours on this planet- EPD-333.565. Sixteen hours of night. Sixteen hours of daylight. The storm lasted about eight hours. His body was cramped, but at least he could take little solace in the cool evening air. Parched, he opened a canteen and drank its lukewarm contents. Around him were tubes of fulgurite, marking the spots where the lightning had impacted. There were hundreds of them. He gathered a few and put them into the ruck. When he was done, Scout continued his journey home.
A streak of golden light cut the sky like a cosmic rainbow while the twin moons of EPD-333.565 floated in orbit, one small and misshapen, the other a reddish sphere of oxidized iron sand and rock. Scout thought of Brena. Despite the planet’s many hazards, ones like the mesablasts, it could be a real home one day. She had been right in her choice. Scout knew it within the first year, and since he started transmitting his discoveries on EPD-333.565 the colonists on the Fortuna knew it as well. This was her victory. Those were her stars. It should have been her, but Scout was content caring for her legacy. Still, he wished she could have seen it. A stream sang its bubbling song as he walked by.
“She would have loved this.”
“You say that all the time.”
“Because it’s true.”
“You’ve almost died here several times.”
“It was no different on Earth. I doubt there’s any place out there that doesn’t want you dead. At least some places are agreeable. Like this one. She really would have loved it.”
“You’ll never know.”
“No. I know.”
The heavens were impossible to scale. The dome of the sky seemed to reach into the infinite, filled with all manner of new constellations thirsting to be named. Scout had already begun mapping them for navigation, identifying new stars or seeing old ones from a new angle. It was almost impossible to believe he had nearly given himself to its darkness, and instead she had taken herself as the surrogatesacrifice. She was out there, bones like his parents.
His time on the Defiant seemed a dream, one that had lasted nearly a century and was marked by points of nothingness during his time in stasis. It was another life, a distant recollection kept in his mind’s vaults, like Isla Cielo and the time before. Now the Defiant was an old machine, and this was the last stretch of his life. There would be nothing after this. He was fine with that. There were no predators trying to make a meal of him or people judging him, threatening to cast him out. Despite his loneliness, Scout had found some quiet peace in his solitude. Life was monastic, focused on various tasks like they were spiritual ritual. Always done for her. He would have stopped long ago otherwise. He was alone, but he was alive, and for him that was enough.
Scout crested the hills overlooking his camp. The Defiant was nowhere to be found. It was elsewhere and he visited rarely. Mostly to sleep the years away, but sometimes for personal reasons. The camp, however, had nearly everything he required to sustain himself. He passed rows of corn, beans, potatoes, and other plants, including those native to EPD-333.565, half kept in a greenhouse he had assembled and the other half outside. Normally the plants from Earth would have been killed by the storm, but after years of experimenting, he had managed to find a way to strengthen their resistance by hybridizing them with the native flora. Like the alien flora, his hybrid crops had endured the mesablast.
He pressed his hand onto a panel next to one of his habitat’s entryway. The door slid open. Inside were tables with scraps of electronics and parts. It stunk of chemicals and metal. Scout plugged in the Laika’s recovered hard drive and uploaded the information. Next to it was a monitor connected to his antenna array outside.
The data would be uploaded to the Defiant’s detached artificial gravity ring left in low orbit. Combined with the probe that led him to EPD-333.565 it served as a satellite and telescope, relaying his gathered information to the rest of EHSE aboard the Fortuna and sister pioneer vessels. He masked the signature of the signal to make it appear as if the sent data was coming from Brena and theIndomitable. He didn’t want them to know the truth. Whey they came, Scout preferred they seek out her ghost rather than him. After all this was her world, not his.
Scout sat down and made a list of the tools and parts he’d need to repair the Laika drone. He’d go hours before morning, making use of the extra hours of night to avoid the sun. The AT-PS, nicknamed the Beagle, would need to tow a trailer. He wrote that down. He wrote things down more than before, but this was something he didn’t notice.
The monitor beeped. Scout rolled his chair over and found a live message broadcast coming from the ring satellite. It meant one thing. His stomach twisted into a knot. His finger froze over the play button. After all this time, all the years of surviving in total isolation with just his mind, it was happening. Or was it another illusion? Was he falling apart again as he had in the Defiant?
“No. Not yet. Not now.”
“Time’s up Scout.”
“Shut up!” he screamed. He rubbed his furrowed brow.
“At least listen to it. To be sure.”
“We both know who it is. It was just a matter of when.”
“Play the feed.”
Scout offered a defeated sigh and pressed play.
“Indomitable, this is the Fortuna. Are you receiving? We are approaching EPD-333.565. Are you receiving us? Lieutenant Brena Sahni are you receiving us? This is the Fortuna. Are you alive? We have your suggested landing sites. Please respond and confirm the intel. Lieutenant Brena Sahni, this is the Fortuna. Are you receiving our signal?”
Scout turned to a trashcan nearby and vomited. The room swayed as he pressed his head into the palms of his hands.