The Sequels to Syrrah's Game SGSequels




CHAPTER 41

 

OCTOBER 8TH, 5:13 PM (4:13 PM MOUNTAIN TIME)

 

“What the…” Lang thrust out his arms and looked around his body. “Where’s the hull?” Without warning, he went from standing within the hull on Robert’s deck to sitting comfortably, without the hull, on the same bus seat he had sat on last. Evan, a wide smile beaming, sat across from Lang. “Evan! How did…what just happened?”

“I don’t know!” Evan tossed his hands up. “I just thought about us being on the bus, and in daylight, by the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. And, so, here we are!”

“Lang!” Kyleigh eagerly took hold of Lang’s hand. She was looking out the window to her left. “Look at this!” 

Lang got up and carefully maneuvered himself between Evan and Kyleigh’s knees until he stood near the windows. The view out the bus’s spacious side and front windows slammed ruthlessly into his weary eyes; off in the distance, a huge wall of thick, cloud-like material, of a mostly reddish-brown hue, moved by rapidly to the right, like the outer sidewall of a mammoth hurricane in motion. He ducked down and glanced as far as he could out the windows to his left and right. It appeared that this moving cloud wall went on forever in both directions, a straight, reddish swath of motion. Since the bus’s position was at a slightly higher elevation, he could see beyond the wall too. More moving walls, parallel to the main, massive wall, moved in the same direction, though their speed rates appeared a bit slower. Faint, orangey sunlight laid a beautiful, glowing haze across the mammoth, striated area of moving walls. “You’re telling me…there’s no end to that thing? No curve of the planet at all?”

“Like I said, Dad. It’s the Great Red Spot!” Evan scrambled across the seats and shoved up next to Lang’s right side. Eyes wide as headlamps, he stared out the window. “One to two Earths could fit inside it. Jupiter curves, we just can’t notice it here.”

Nahas stepped closer and took hold of the back of Evan’s usual seat. “What I’d like to know is how we got on the bus, that was on the Moon, and then arrived here within seconds. I believe Jupiter averages about four to five hundred million miles from Earth.”

Evan shrugged. “I don’t know. The hull did it.”

“Tell me about it,” Lang said. “I’m standing one second within the hull, then sitting without it in the next. Very bizarre.”

“That distance, between Earth and Jupiter, is about six hundred and forty million kilometers,” Robert said, drawing closer to Nahas. “Was rather quick. But, ha, what am I thinking. It’s all an illusion.”

“Who cares?” Alan clumsily shuffled around Nahas and Robert and headed to the bus’s windshield. “I’m checking this damn thing out. You blokes can debate it.”

“Yeah, be the child, go have your fun,” Robert told Alan. Alan only flipped his hand back at Robert and kept moving. “You have to keep in mind, we’re only being fed these visions from master manipulators of the environment, both in what we see and what we sense.”

Lang didn’t feel so sure. “Yeah, but standing, to sitting, so effortlessly?”

“You see how small the sun is?” Alan called out, before Robert could answer. “Only looks like a bright star! And it must be morning or evening here, since it’s right at the horizon.”

“Where?” Evan rushed over to the aisle before Lang even had a chance to open his mouth. “Let me see!”

It was only seconds longer that Lang, and everyone else, was gathered by the bus’s windshield. Evan knelt on Kyleigh’s driver’s seat, his palms resting on the dashboard and his face nearly glued to the window. Alan stood right up against the bus’s double-windowed entrance door. Kyleigh, her face aglow in wonderment, nuzzled herself between Lang and Evan, near Lang’s right side. The others were leaning carefully against the coin register and other parts of the lengthy, device-ridden dashboard. And soon numerous oohs and ahhs could be heard from everyone’s sheer shock and wonder at such a view.

“Absolutely, utterly, an amazing scene,” Nahas said. “And interesting how the hull surrounding the bus allows us such a clear view straight through.” He glanced around out the other windows. “Even though the hull is glowing a very minor orange. Less sunlight.”

“Okay, might as well give it a try again.” Robert dug his hand into his inside jacket pocket and lifted out his cell phone. He swiped and poked at the phone’s screen for a moment. “On the Moon, opportunity now lost. But this is too spectacular to ignore.” He aimed it out the windshield and snapped a few photos.

“I can take us back there,” Evan said.

“No, Evan,” Lang said. “Not right now. Besides, it’s doubtful the hull will allow a photo to be taken anyway.”

Robert stared at his phone’s screen. “Yeah, and looks like you’re right on that, Lang. Nothing again. Just a black photo.” He targeted his phone at Alan and snapped a few more. He looked at the photos. “Ha, Alan. Looks like you don’t exist too.”

“Yeah, up yours, Rob. Your phone just sucks.”

“Men, please,” Nahas said. “This is amazingly beautiful here. Don’t ruin it.”

Kyleigh held her phone near the windshield. “I’m going to try again  too.”

Concentrating on Kyleigh, Lang nevertheless could hear that Nahas, Alan, and Robert abruptly ended the short squabble. Everyone was just too caught up in the unbelievable view.

“Guess I will too.” Lang tried taking a photo with his phone’s camera. He looked at the image. “Same as Robert’s. Nothing, just black.”

 “Same with me, Lang,” Kyleigh said.

“So, I guess our eyes will have to do.” He leaned as close to the windshield as he could. Kyleigh did the same. Fortunately, the bus’s metal-sheeted front end was a straight drop down from the window, so he could see below, up, and to both sides with relative ease. He looked out across the enormous expanse of that rotating cloud conglomeration. Alan wasn’t joking; the sun was such a small, bright orb, only a little glowing dot against the extraordinarily flat, moving horizon, bordered above by a mostly blue sky, with some blotches of dark blue or black space. He also noticed several other things. “Hey, looks like we’re moving backwards from the Great Red Spot, and we’re slowly floating downward.” He eyed Evan. “How far away did you place us from that thing?”

“I don’t know. I wanted us near it, but not on it or inside it. But Jupiter rotates at about twenty-eight thousand miles per hour, much faster than Earth’s one thousand miles per hour, so if we’re not in something called a geosynchronous orbit, I think that’s what it’s called, we’ll see Jupiter move by pretty fast.”

“Oh, yes, young man, that’s what it is called.” Nahas left the others and leaned over to the windshield. “Appears we are about two to three miles up, at a ten degree angle with the horizon, in real life measurements, of course.” He looked straight down and pointed. “And I think we are near the Great Red Spot’s edge. I see a change in atmospheric levels and cloud composition, though the rotation rate is the same. And look at the height of the red spot’s moving cloud wall. I think it’s about five to six miles high from the lower cloud levels!”

Huh? Missed that! Lang looked outward and then down, way down, below. Nahas was right; the main moving wall was very high compared to the lower atmosphere levels. “Oh, wow. Just amazing how tall it is.”

 “Hey, Evan,” Robert practically yelled, obviously a bit agitated. “Your PSP take photos?”

Evan leaned back into the driver’s seat and looked at him. “No, unfortunately it doesn’t. But my dad promised to buy me the camera attachment once we’re back to normal.” He smiled at Lang. “And I left my phone on the desk in my bedroom. It would probably be worthless here now, though, like yours.”

“Ahh, cods wallop, what the hell.” Robert fumbled around with his phone and then slipped it back into his inner jacket pocket. “The hull’s just not gonna let any of our phones take pics.”

 “Maybe I could try having the hull bring my phone here?”

This didn’t sound good at all. “No, Evan. Absolutely not.”

Robert sniffed out dejectedly. “Your dad’s right, Evan. Doesn’t matter anyway. What, we think we’re going to be sharing these photos with friends and family soon? How?”

“Okay, now let’s not get depressing,” Nahas said. “Come on. Let us just enjoy this while we can.”

Thankfully Nahas’ uplifting words had everyone put their cell phones away and approach the windshield again.

“The Great Red Spot has been shrinking, but it’s still about ten thousand miles long, and about seven thousand miles wide.” Evan leaned out from the seat so he was closer to the windshield. “That’s why it looks like it goes on forever all around.”

Kyleigh looked at Evan. “You’ve been studying Jupiter in school too?”

“Nah, just on my own. I also know the Great Red Spot is an anti-cyclonic storm, because it’s a high pressure system. It has winds anywhere from two hundred and fifty to four hundred miles per hour, which I guess is like four hundred to six hundred fifty kilometers an hour?”

“I think so,” Kyleigh answered.

“It’s like a hurricane,” Nahas said. “Except its outer ridge rotates faster than its inner core, opposite hurricanes on Earth.”

A bright, white flash filled the bus.

“Whoa, no kidding!” Alan hollered. “No decrease event, mates. That was just a huge lightning strike way down below, near the edge of this thing!” He pointed straight down against the door’s glass surface. “Rob. Check it out.”

Robert, his agitation toward Alan obviously now reduced, hurried over. Lang and everyone else did too, edging up close against each other and the bus’s passenger window near Alan, for a good view. The lower atmospheric surface along the red spot’s edge zoomed around in motion like the red spot’s outer edge, but differed in color, with more tans, oranges, and olive-green grays. The composition of this moving area resembled not white, puffy clouds, but thick, liquid-like bulging lumps and other configurations that kept in motion no matter what, with nothing to stop them. Some were tall, reaching up and out from the rest, forming balls of atmosphere. “Maybe those are moving thunderheads.” A sudden, bright lightning line, dimmer than the last strike, shot out of the tall, moving wall into one of those balls of atmosphere. “Hey! I saw that!”

“Me too!” Evan said.

Some excited words came from the others too.

“So, there’s definitely no surface down there?” Kyleigh asked.

“No,” Evan replied. “It’s a gas giant, and made mostly of hydrogen gas, with some helium, ammonia compounds, and some other gases thrown in, like maybe sulfur. It goes gradually from a gas to a liquid, but nothing solid.”

“And the extreme pressure and heat are deadly within its lower atmosphere,” Nahas said. “Besides, Jupiter has a gigantic magnetosphere, that holds trapped radiation. Not that it could harm us, but this is not a friendly environment, only a picturesque one…that is, at least above the exosphere, where the faint sunlight keeps it visible.”

“Oh, I see.” A bit of regret mixed in Kyleigh’s tone. “Yeah, it does look rather dark down there, below those thick clouds.”

Akina turned and looked around. She stepped away from everyone else and walked over to the driver’s side window. Evan followed her. After kneeling on the driver’s seat, she looked up and out the window. “Oh wow! I see moons, with the sunlight shining on them! Jupiter has moons, correct?”

“Oh definitely,” Evan told her. “Quite a few, over sixty, though most are just large rocks. But four are big enough to be like small planets. They’re called the Galilean moons.”

“Yeah,” Alan said, “glad you mentioned it.” He left the glass door and headed down the aisle, toward a window on the driver’s side of the bus. Lang and the others spread out toward that same side of the bus as Alan. “We need to be on a solid surface, like our Moon. I want to get out and walk around.”

“I can get us to a moon,” Evan said excitedly. “A really good one I’d love to see is Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. It has mountains, lakes, and an atmosphere.”

“What’s wrong with any of Jupiter’s moons?” Robert slipped around Evan’s usual seat and positioned himself by a window. He gazed up. “Look at those two moons.”

 “Nothing,” Evan told Robert. “It’s just that Titan is more like Earth.”

“Kyleigh, we have to check this out.” Lang hurried over to the window where Kyleigh had sat earlier. She followed closely behind him. Leaning to his right, he allowed her to have the wider view. He stared up at Jupiter’s sky. “Look at that. I see them too. One larger. One smaller. Both lighted in crescent shapes, I guess because of their position with the sun.”

“And the sky is actually blue up there, a darker blue though,” she said. “I can’t believe this.”

Though the sight was amazing, Kyleigh’s pleasant, kind voice, and the joy accentuating her words, drew Lang’s gaze down to her. Nahas, Alan, Evan, and Robert began talking about the composition of Jupiter’s exosphere, and why Jupiter’s upper sky was often blue, but it was just too hard to pay attention; Lang became lost in Kyleigh’s beautiful blue eyes, the hull allowing Jupiter’s skylight to radiate into her gaze and color her eyes bluer than they had ever been. And the skylight emphasized her soft, beige skin, revealing fine, beautiful features. He couldn’t turn away.

She didn’t notice his stare until some seconds had past. She looked up at him, blinking, shocked at first, but then gave a fragile smile, her pale cheeks tinging slightly red.

Lord, what did I just do? Lang looked back out the window. “I’m sorry.” He made sure to speak quietly. “I was…I was just watching your reaction.”

“It’s okay, Lang.”

“Dad!” Evan practically yelled. Rudely alerted, Lang looked at him, standing tall and assured by the driver’s seat, his dark red Eagles jacket now back on. “Akina doesn’t like that we’re sinking down more, and I don’t too. Is it okay if we go to Titan? Everyone else thinks it’s all right.”

“Titan?” Lang gazed down at Kyleigh again. “You think that’s okay?”

Kyleigh’s face brightened. “Sure! Why not?”

“Okay, Evan. I guess, go ahead.”

“All right everyone. Get ready. I’m taking us to Titan.” Evan held on to one of the bus’s grip poles and closed his eyes.

Lang watched out the window, waiting for the scenery to change. Slowly it did, to a brown, rocky surface immersed within subdued, twilight-level lighting of a yellowish-orange glow, rendering it difficult to decipher the landscape easily.

But the way Evan had just spoken, with abrupt, loud words, muddled Lang’s concentration; was the hull’s power-infusing influence over Evan becoming more noticeable, or was Evan only expressing agitated feelings, as they all were at times?

“Don’t know why you held that bar,” Alan said, hurrying to the windshield. Evan opened his eyes and stared at Alan as he went by. “We land on each place like an air cushion.” Alan cupped his hands on the windshield and looked up. “Freaking awesome! Damn, Evan. Good call. I can see Saturn up there!”

 “What? Really?” Kyleigh smiled at Lang and took hold of his hand.  She tugged him to the aisle. “Come on, Lang.”

 “It’s a little difficult to see out there, however.” Nahas walked up behind Alan. “Not much sunlight here, though Titan’s atmosphere emits a glow.” Nahas glanced around the bus. “Look at that. Even the hull is glowing a bit orange, almost the same shade as Titan’s sky.”

It was true. Lang laughed a little. “Yeah, this moon is just too far from the sun, obviously.”

As expected, Alan was the first to open the bus’s doors, push on the hull, and get outside. Robert followed him. Nahas, concerned, went after Robert, and surprisingly, Akina didn’t hesitate to go right after Nahas.

“Dad, can I go outside now too?” Evan looked out the windows at the others. “They’re all okay out there.”

Lang saw that he was correct; they were all talking, looking around, an excited bunch of people enclosed in lightly glowing orange, human-shaped capsules. “Sure.”

Evan rushed out.

“Come on.” Kyleigh yet grasped Lang’s hand and she gently pulled him toward the door. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

 “I know. Me too.” He wanted to talk to her, to explain his behavior by the window, but she definitely didn’t seem interested in discussing anything else right now. He could only allow her to lead him.

But when they were finally outside, Lang instead led Kyleigh, toward Evan. Carefully he and Kyleigh walked across the dark, rocky surface, their steps producing crisp, crackling noises from the crush of some strange material beneath their hull-covered feet. The hull was obviously allowing their weight now, for some reason. Their path eventually covered about ten real world feet from the bus’s entrance, in a diagonal manner, more toward the bus’s tail end, until meeting up with Evan, who was poking around at things on the ground.

Lang gazed up in the same direction as the bus’s front end, into Titan’s sky. Kyleigh stood right near him, though with enough space between them to prevent the repulsion. To the right in his view, just above a row of jagged, rocky hills, a faint, enormous Saturn engulfed a large portion of Titan’s hazy sky. “Wow. Incredible. You see how huge it is compared to our Moon, or sun, on Earth?”

“In heaps, Lang. Probably about ten to twenty times as big. Absolutely amazing, and beautiful.”

Sunlight gently glowed along half of Saturn’s circumference, from Lang’s left, and softly graced around the planet’s ring that was positioned almost perfectly horizontal from their sightline. His gaze drifted left along the light rays until finding the sun’s small sphere, surrounded by billowy, yellow clouds. How remarkable. The sunlight’s diminished strength here gave the impression that the sun was more like a large, bright star than it had been on Jupiter. “Just look at the sun.”

“So incredibly small. But all of this probably looks even smaller, if we weren’t in the hull.”

“Yeah, true. I wonder if that’s why it’s so hard to see the sun and Saturn more clearly. What’s with that haze?” Lang scanned along the horizon more. “I even see puffs of it, like low clouds, around some hills over there.”

“If I remember right…” Evan leaned over and picked up a rock with both hull-covered hands. “It’s the breakup of methane by sunlight. It’s mostly nitrogen here, but there’s a lot of hydrocarbons too.” He walked over and held the rock by Lang and Kyleigh. “See? This is supposed to be made of water ice and hydrocarbons.”

 “Wow.” Lang noticed thin, shiny ridges within the smooth rock. “It does look cold. Is it extremely cold here?”

“Oh yeah, Dad. Like minus two hundred and ninety degrees Fahrenheit.” Evan smiled at Kyleigh. “Or about negative one hundred eighty Celsius.”

“Thank you, Evan. Celsius does make more sense to me.” She looked up and around. “Amazing. A frigidly, beautiful world. Do we weigh less here?”

“Yup,” Evan answered, “since the hull seems to be allowing it, even less than on the Moon…although, I’m not noticing any weightlessness again, since we’re heavier.”

Robert walked over. “You put us on an island, kid.”

“An island?” Lang glanced around the terrain near the bus. From this side of the bus, it did seem to be true; about fifteen feet of real world distance, of the dark, rocky surface, resided between the bus’s perimeter and a body of liquid, some sort of liquid lake. “Unbelievable. A lake on another world.” Farther out, bordering the liquid lake’s outer shores were plenty of those jagged, rocky hills.

“Umm, yeah, Dad. And Robert. I thought about an island on Titan, in daylight, though it’s really not so bright here. And so…here we are.”

“He’s right,” Alan said, walking along the lake’s edge. He stepped past Nahas and Akina, both of whom were bent down by the island’s shore, swishing the lake’s liquid back and forth with their hull-covered hands. “So Evan. What IS this stuff surrounding us?”

Evan shrugged. “Liquid methane, I think. Even though it’s so cold here, like negative one hundred eighty degrees Celsius, it doesn’t freeze.”

“Yeah. A lake of black antifreeze.” Alan leaned over and picked up a rock. “Watch this.” He gave the rock a big, arching toss, though the rock’s flight through the air was oddly sluggish, probably from the time difference. It landed right into the liquid methane and made a strange, thick, ker-plunk noise. The splash stream and droplets exploding upwards moved much slower than anything Lang had seen on Earth since being in the hull. Slowly droplets floated back to the dark lake’s surface, their soft hits producing odd, low noises.

“Wow, look at that!” Evan said excitedly. “How cool!”

“Ha, ha!” Robert called out. “Beauty, Alan. Not every day you see something like that.”

Everyone else couldn’t refrain from stating a few excited words too.

“It’s because of Titan’s lower gravity, and the cold air, probably,” Evan said. “And of course our time delays with the hull.”

Alan’s rock toss was very reminiscent of something Evan would do, nudging a thought to cross Lang’s mind. “Alan. Did your parents come with you to the United States?”

“What? No. My parents didn’t want me, as a kid. I was raised by my Aunt, but then she died a year ago. No brothers, no sisters. So no one really gives a crap about where I am right now.”

Lang stared at him in disbelief. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

Alan stared back. “No worries, Lang. It’s old news. It’s my life, I’m used to it.”

“And don’t tell me,” Robert said. “Though you’re Jewish, she was Christian, right?”

Scrunching his brow, Alan gave Robert a sideways glare. “Yeah, sort of, not really. So what?”

Robert shook his head slightly and turned away. “Never mind.”

“Hey,” Alan said, looking at Evan. “If the hull lets you take us to these planets and moons, maybe you should have them take us to their planet.”

Evan’s eyes drew narrow, and intense. “I’ve thought about this, but wouldn’t it be too frightening, or too risky?”

“Their planet, Evan, not that spaceship.”

“Evan, no,” Lang said quickly. This idea needed to end dead in its tracks right now. “You’re right for thinking it’s too risky. We have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

Robert approached closer. “Lang. Just think a moment. Where are we heading with these aliens anyway? They’re either meeting with us eventually, or putting us back, or something. But no matter how you look at it, we have to face that they’re involved.”

“Well, I don’t know about that.”

 “But then why haven’t they just showed up in front of our eyes from the start,” Nahas said, stepping closer, Akina tagging along right near him, “or at least recently? Why hide away?”

They all began discussing the terrible idea, even Akina. But Kyleigh instead locked her eyes on Lang. He ignored the orangey hull around her face, and the arguing words being tossed around, and only gazed into her pretty blue eyes. “What is it, Kyleigh?”

“That probably explains a few things,” she said quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“Alan, and his suicide attempts.” She sighed, and looked around the methane lake. “Not that I’m any stranger to it myself.”

His heart ached for her. “Kyleigh. It’s all right. We’re only human, and certainly not perfect. God understands that we make mistakes. But believe me, I’ve beaten myself up about it plenty of times.”

“Yeah, I know.” She stared toward the ground. “Me too.” After a moment, she looked up into his eyes again. “But Alan is so young, and seems to be suffering more.”

“Well, maybe. Possibly.” He sensed she didn’t want to talk about her own struggles with this. Lang instead tried to immerse himself in the surroundings. Apart from the others’ heated discussion, he noticed it was so quiet here, except for the low, faint sounds of the diminishing waves from Alan’s rock toss. He glanced at the methane lake. Those waves were nearly gone now. He looked in the direction beyond the bus’s tail end. There was a break in the jagged, rocky perimeter surrounding the methane lake, with only a few large rocks jutting up from the liquid methane. Beyond those rocks was another, larger methane lake. Farther still, just above the hazy horizon of this other lake were light gray, vertical lines, maybe storm columns, topped higher in the sky by dark, puffy clouds. “Don’t forget, Alan said it’s in the past now, probably buried so deep he wouldn’t see the connection now anyway, without therapy.” Lang took in a large inhale, hoping to detect anything in this environment with his nose, but it appeared the hull was not allowing any scents whatsoever to arise from methane-laden Titan. He gazed at Kyleigh. “Have you been able to smell anything here?”

“No, not at all. But it would probably smell too horrible, or be too dangerous.” She pointed toward those dark, puffy clouds. “You think those are storm clouds over there?”

“I’ve been noticing them too. Maybe. I’m not sure.”

Her face gradually filled with awe, and joy, a slight smile forming. “Just look at this place, Lang. I don’t know why the hull lets us see all of this, but you have to admit, it’s really special and beautiful.”

“Yes, I know. It truly is.” Abruptly, something sprung forth within Lang’s body that he hadn’t felt in a long time - tiredness. He yawned, with no warning. “What…the heck?” He could barely wiggle free his hand from the hull sleeve in time to cover his mouth.

“Lang.” It was Nahas, approaching from behind. Lang turned around. Nahas dragged his feet, barely able to walk. “Something…something is very wrong.”

Immediately Lang looked for Evan. He and Alan were picking up rocks on the ground, but were struggling to do so. “Evan. We still weigh less here, right?”

“Less Dad…but…we just noticed the rocks feel heavier. And we can’t…we can’t move like we were earlier.”

Heartbeats pounded faster in Lang’s chest and his breathing increased.

“We need…to get back…on the bus,” Nahas said, between labored breaths. He searched for Akina. Fortunately, she was already close to the bus’s door. “Akina! Get on the bus, now!” She lurched out, waited on the repulsion, and slowly hobbled inside. Nahas struggled to hurry after her.

“Lang.” Kyleigh’s voice sounded so weak. “I think…I think I feel it too.” Her face was pale, drained.

“Evan! Everyone else!” Lang felt it even more; a strange weakness was subtracting energy from every muscle in his body. “Get on the bus! Now!” 

Robert was trying to throw punches. But he could barely move his arms. “What the hell is this? I’m so tired…weak.”

“It’s my fault.” Alan staggered toward the bus. “My dumb idea…about going to the hull’s planet. The hull…is mad at us.”

“Come on, Kyleigh.” Lang motioned for her to walk in front of him.

Nahas had already made it up the bus’s stairs. With Kyleigh finally near the bus’s entrance, she and Lang waited while Evan and Alan went next, followed by Robert.

“Lang, you go on the bus,” Kyleigh said, her stance wobbly.

He was definitely not letting her stay out here alone. “No. You go. You’re weaker than me.”

“I can’t…I can’t let you stay…out here…alone.” Though she was weak, her eyes and voice held strong determination, probably the tough bus driver persona she had to take on from time to time.

But this wasn’t the time for it. Lang brought forth all the assertiveness and strength he could find. “Kyleigh, get on the bus, now! I won’t take no for an answer.” His words erupted loud, commanding.

She narrowed her eyes, stunned, and blinked a few times, seeming to search for a contrary response or to decipher his sudden altered behavior. But finally she only turned and faced the hull, waited for the repulsion to subside, and then went in. She began climbing the stairs.

Any regrets at his harsh demeanor vanished instantly; her safety was more important. Lang took one last look around, but noticed nothing different from earlier. He turned back to the bus.

Once the repulsion had eased and the bus’s hull engulfed him, he struggled to climb up the stairs, his feet weighing like lead bricks.

When he got to the aisle, Robert was white-knuckle grasping one of the poles and straining to hold himself up. “I wanted…I wanted to ask doctor Nahas…what’s happening, but he and Akina…are out, I think sleeping…can’t wake them.”

It was true. Nahas was slumped into one of the seats near a window, on the doorway side of the bus, with Akina in the seat next to him, but just barely; Nahas practically had Akina upon his lap, wrapped tightly within his arms, with her head nestled closely against his chest, his heart. “Are they breathing?”

“Yes. Breathing.” Robert suddenly dropped into the seat right behind him. “Can’t stand anymore.” He relaxed into the seat’s curved back and closed his eyes.

But where was Evan? “Evan!” Lang could barely force out his name. What is happening to us? “Evan!” Lord, please, help us!

And then he saw Kyleigh. She was near the back seat of the bus. Her left hand sealed around a pole holding up the rest of her drooping posture. With her other hand she periodically shook Evan, slumped into the back seat near Alan.

Using every seat and pole he could grab for support, Lang dragged his feet down along the aisle until arriving by her.

“Evan,” she whispered loudly, her voice frail, “please…please, get up. Get us out of here.”

Panic surged through Lang. “Is he breathing? Is he breathing?”

She slowly nodded. “Yes…I can’t…” She pulled herself up, her left arm trembling noticeably, and turned to face Lang. Her eyelids weighed heavily, barely revealing her beautiful blue eyes. She tried to speak, but nothing came forth. Her legs began shaking and she started to slip down into the seat right next to the pole. Lang grabbed her arms and tried easing her into the seat, but his own trembling arm muscles were of little help. Weakly she stared up at him, once sitting, her breathing heavy.

“It’s all right,” Lang told her. “I’m checking…Evan.” He seized the same pole, leaned down, and slipped his hand in between Evan’s jacket and his black tee shirt, near Evan’s rib cage. Promptly Lang felt that normal, gentle, expansion and contraction Evan always had while he slept. Thank you, Lord, thank you. “Evan.” Lang shook his shoulder. “Come on, son…wake up.” He glanced at Alan, slumped over against the window, one whole seat away to Evan’s right. Fortunately, Alan’s gray hoodie exhibited the same breathing movement. Lang shook Evan again. “Evan! Wake up!”

But Evan didn’t even make a sound or give one bit of indication he would be awakening.

Lang’s knees bent involuntarily, dropping him to the floor. Sleep, something told him, it has been so long since any of you had sleep.

“Lang,” Kyleigh whispered, “please…sit down…by me.”

Sealing both hands as tightly as he could around the pole, Lang gradually lifted himself up. Lord, why do I feel like I weigh a thousand pounds? He slowly hobbled around Kyleigh’s knees until he dropped into the seat next to her, his back immediately molding to the seat’s comfortable arch.

She gazed up at him with half-open eyes. “He’s all right…Lang. Sleeping.”

“I know. Sleep…we haven’t slept.” But in the back of his mind this felt all wrong. Maybe they were all dying, slowly. And time, time just didn’t make sense anymore. “Kyleigh…don’t be afraid. I…I need to tell you…something.” Though he scarcely had the strength, he gently caressed her face in his hand, and leaned nearer. “I love you…Kyleigh.” He drew even closer, feeling her warm breath’s velvet touch across his skin. He closed his eyes and pressed his mouth against her lips, for only a few seconds, the brief moment delivering entrancing, pleasant energy, minimizing some of his draining tiredness and fear, and then he slowly moved back a short distance. He opened his eyes, and waited, hoping for a response. But she was only breathing slightly faster; her eyes were yet so tired, and barely open.

And then she shut her eyes completely. Her head fell softly against his left shoulder, allowing a cascade of her blond hair strands to drape across his neck and upper arm.

Unable to fight the extreme tiredness any longer, Lang closed his eyes. But before allowing sleep to overtake him completely, he brought forth his last bit of strength and wrapped his right arm around Kyleigh’s thin frame, and drew her closely against his body.