From down here, the valley does look unnatural, just like Saanvi claimed. What appeared to me from the summit to be windblown lava sand with a swamp certainly appeared more and more like a blasting site as we stumbled down the harsh volcanic scarp. That “swamp” was once a river, and it was now fractured into four courses. Salamone’s Trees lined the river east and west of the valley; their red algae-like balloon limbs bobbing up and down on the wild current. Yet mysteriously, no Salamone’s in this valley, although the rich minerals are clearly present. As Saanvi stated once we enter the valley –and in her usual, scientific tone of which I truly respect -- all wildlife was shredded, burned, or scraped away.
“Over there.” She points to the opposite hillside near its crown where boulders appear to be stacked by giants into a large, ugly pile of cinders and gravel. “That was once down here. Do you see that, Little Eric?”
Based on her tone, I caution her. I warn her to not jump to conclusions. “You have no real proof this is the actual island, or even if this is the site. You have no reason to believe you are left behind at all.”
The same, old, tired line of reasoning that I used over and over again with each new day had long lost its effect, and logic. Saanvi now ignores me, although politely so. She still holds my hand when I ask, although I try not to ask too often. She used to grimace when I tried to give her hope. I paid attention to her round lips as they fell to a thin line, as her eyelids collapsed too and, to me, appeared to dim her once brightened eyes. She still touches my chin, for example, while she speaks her own litany of fatal wisdom.
“My sister and my brother are not of this world any longer. I have been left behind, and with no purpose. You have no reason to feel blame. Only my sister and my brother are to be blamed.”
She must, though. She should blame me, I think. She would be right to do so. I failed her. I continue to fail us both. I have few answers. Fewer resources. I have not been performing my work, and I have not been the man that Saanvi or her sister thought I was originally. Saanvi should have never visited my outpost on my urging. By my charm. I should never have tempted her. Especially not with so little time remaining before Rendezvous. Yet, who could ever have guessed that her own people…well; what logic is there in severing ties? That her own sister and brother-in-law could leave without her, and with her not having agreed? What I do know is only hearsay. I cannot begin to understand what was meant by the conversation I overheard between Saanvi’s sister and her young husband. Something about Purana. I thought to ask Saanvi, but I do not want to disturb her further. I fear that there is something more to that word. Oh, yes. And duty. Saanvi’s sister encouraged me to accept Saanvi’s hand, yet I do not know how to accomplish such a –
“Little Eric. I need your battery pack.”
I open my knapsack. I don’t want to give it to her. We need the battery for heat and telemetry when we return to the research facility. Three days’ worth of energy. I wish to protest, but I don’t have the heart. Saanvi has been through so much grief. Doubt. Questioning her purpose in life. Miserable, miserable doubt. She gives me back the dead one first. I imagine the metal feels ice-cold. Only my embedded sensors quantify the absence of heat. I sometimes want to feel the cold, and not just know the quantity of absence of heat. I am well aware that -2⁰ Celsius should be frigid against skin. I wonder how long I could withstand such entropy. I think…well; maybe I could withstand it for twelve seconds. But the battery usage worries me. Crystalline batteries take three hours to charge before the chain reaction can begin. We will go as much as eight hours without energy if she uses it up before we return to the post.
“Saanvi. Please remember, Battery B is fully charged. We have only that pack –“
“--I only have two more samples to test. Do not worry, Little Eric.”
I hand her Battery B. She takes it, but squeezes my fingers gently, but only her mouth smiles. She is tired, and her eyes are distant. She snaps in Battery B into her detector and returns to sampling.
Although no smoke or mist shrouds us as is usual among these islands, there is a terrible stench of rot, of destruction, that is quite smothering. Such stench occurs when volcanoes of the Apostle Island chains erupt and when the significant biofilm degredation sets in. Or summer floods. A putrid mess, but a curious source of new opportunities for New Life. Regardless of what causes the stench, I find it difficult to breathe.
“Sulfur?” I ask, pressing my hand over my mouth. My instinct is to stop air intake all together.
“Yes.” Saanvi calmly, evenly, states as she repeats the scintillation test. “Hydrogen sulfide. The blast either created it in the burn, or unlocked it from the volcanic layers. Or both.” She presses the digital face of her detector and concludes, “Highly explosive and poisonous. We will die if we stay here much longer.”
“Explosive?” I ask, examining the dry mud and volcanic rock under our feet. “What is the catalyst?” I ask, accessing the one hundred and thirty three possible compounds and over three thousand likely scenarios and conditions --
“Air.” She glances over at me, returning to her detector when it alarms.
Air? I want to stop moving, fold up into myself. Explosive. Yet, I want more than ever to be a man for Saanvi. I must forever go out of my way to do so. Instead of panicking, I step over to her, observe her process as she scoops another sample of soil into the capillary, dips it in the electrical field chamber, and then places the capillary entirely into the detector’s portal.
Is this finally it? The actual site? After all these months investigating twenty two miserably cold and wet islands, has Saanvi finally found her site? Her sister and brother-in-law never informed her where the module would land and leave. Or when, exactly. Yes, this valley certainly withstood some kind of large blast. Yet, meteorites are common. Small ones, anyway, since the partial lunar disintegration. And this Hydrogen sulfide; it is everywhere, naturally. Most of these islands are volcanic. I am here to study the biomes of selected islands; selected because of their current volcanism and harboring of New Life. The biofilms here are extraordinarily complex, if mostly on a microscopic level. Salamone’s Trees, of course, are the largest organisms of the entire ecosystem. I am charged with decades of research. Decades of discovery of new life and new compounds and new medicines. I really should be getting back to work. Yet, I need to be here. With Saanvi. I cannot think, not even for a moment, that my work is more important than Saanvi’s well-being. I want to be here with her more than be unaccompanied in a research facility. Saanvi is; well, she is quite lovely. Very sweet and kind. A gifted scientist. Chemist. Mathematical, too. I want to be an equally talented man for her. Strong. Have a strength that structures hope. I want to be a good friend. A best friend. Dickinson comes to my mind. She is my favorite of all poets.
To see her is a Picture -- To hear her is a Tune -- To know her an Intemperance --As innocent as June – To know her not --
“No! No, Aditini. Why?” Saanvi cries out, tosses the detector, and falls to her knees.
“Saanvi!” I bend down to hold her, but I do not know what else to do. I want to lift her and carry her to safety. But what am I rescuing her from? So, I hold her. I wrap my arms around her shoulder. I feel resistance in her body, a tightening in her shoulders, but she lets me hold her. I want to kiss her. Maybe kiss the top of her beautiful head. Her lovely hair, dark brown and with the lingering scent of honeysuckle. Or was it rose? My sensors are confused. I am confused! I know she is crying, though her face is hidden. Her heart is breaking. Pure emotion. How others, like me, would be confined to circuitry, Saanvi has broken free from hers. Her tears… They are so preciously wet.
“We – must go.” Saanvi tells me, her voice cracking. She finds my hands and squeezes them. She lifts us both up, looks for the detector. I oblige and retrieve it for her. The detector reads Sodium-22; and so much so that the computer could only register greater than parts per hundred. Rocketry confirmed.
We return to the summit without a word spoken. I watch her every step in the case she slips. She looks back and waits for me. She seems to watch my step, too.
“Do not worry for me, Saanvi. I am here for you. And only you.”
She hesitates when I share those words. That promise to her. She walks briskly to the last ledge, her knapsack bouncing on her back, her thermos threatening to drop out. I am embarrassed now. My words were too poetic! Too…unmanly. I’ve got to stop myself from talking as such. Action is more poetic than words.
Saanvi walks briskly down the face of the hill that gently slopes to the bay where we tied the vessel. She is not quite running, but she allows the frantic downwind to help increase her speed.
“Saanvi?” I call out to her, but she does not hear me. It is possible that she is ignoring me, but that is not Saanvi. Regardless, I can only go so fast, so I am falling behind. I can see the metal of the research vessel blink in and out in the brilliant sun. I estimate, judged by wind and current, that we have three hours on the sea before we reach the research facility. Three hours of silence? Will Saanvi ever speak again?
The volcanic dirt clings to my boots. I stop and initiate a pulse to knock the dust off, but it’s fruitless. Pulses do not work when shoes are caked in dry mud. Foolish of me to waste my energy. I am more human now than ever, I think, for I have knowingly wasted energy on a whim. And… I know I hate this dirt. This volcanic mud. The black and the red hues. I don’t even want to look at it any further. I close my eyes, and I still see black and red volcanic mud. I’d rather see Saanvi when I close my eyes than…black. Red. I stomp the ground as I take new steps. Frustrating. I hate this situation. I wish only to make it better. I wish only for Saanvi to talk again.
I look down the escarpment, to gauge how far my friend has travelled. I have lost track of time. Strange that I cannot measure how much time has passed. I stop in my tracks! Saanvi is standing, her arms folded, looking back at me. Her hair is whipping around her lovely face; dust clouds form around her feet and launch to the sea below. She pulls her hair back and she holds out her hand for me. I run!
“Don’t run, Little Eric.”
But I run! To see her is a Picture I take her hand, To hear her is a Tune and she laughs when I stumble. As innocent as June
I lead us towards the research vessel. It is bobbing up and down in the sea of Superior, and it is quite brilliant in the sunlight. Again, Saanvi pulls her hair back, tells me that she should have tied it before the hike. I long to touch it and feel its lovely texture against my cheek, smell the honeysuckle in her embrace. Yes. Honeysuckle!
To know her not: Affliction -- To own her for a Friend -- A warmth as near as if the Sun -- Were shining in your Hand.
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