6. The Ladder and the Hollow Oak

April 23rd, 2016 Comments Off on 6. The Ladder and the Hollow Oak

Chapter six of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.

Bransen didn’t realize it would be so difficult just to gain an audience with the man. His “simple hike” through the woods had elicited ripped jeans, the loss of his left shoe, and a tear in his shirt over his left breast. Still and all, when he finally reached the clearing and saw the homespun cabin of Dr. Carlos Resua (anachronistically wired with solar panels, a modern windmill, and three satellite dishes), his mood instantly lifted.

“Dr. Resua?” he called out, hoping to high hell he’d pronounced his name correctly. There was nothing like a bad first impression.

Hearing no reply, he walked up to the house—built into a hillside and half on stilts—and climbed the nine-rung ladder to the deck that surrounded it. The stilts, Bransen realized with a twinge of vertigo, were necessary to correct for quite a slope to the land. He stood in front of the door and looked up, the roof line of the cabin looking like the peaks of a crown from this angle, and took in a deep breath as the nausea passed.

“Dr. Resua?” he said again, in a normal voice, then knocked firmly on the door.

He glanced to his left and right in search of a doorbell and saw instead a piece of heavy paper nailed to the door jamb, flapping in the breeze. It was a handwritten note that said, in a tidy script, “Back in a second, Mr. Bransen. Please go in, if you want.”

Bransen looked all around at the woods but saw no signs of life. No one except Bransen’s assistant knew he was coming here—and Dr. Carlos Resua, apparently. The idea made Bransen grin gleefully: his research had been right on the mark. But rather than impose on Dr. Resua’s hospitality, Bransen decided to sit on one of the chairs on the deck and wait for him there, bathed in the dappled light of the sun.

“Let’s go to the oak,” a voice said, jarring Bransen back to wakefulness.

He opened his eyes and shielded them from the bright sunlight. The man standing over him moved so that he was shading him, and Bransen looked into the clean-shaven face and curiously wild eyes of Dr. Carlos Resua.

“Dr. Resua?” he asked rhetorically, jumping to his feet and extending his hand.

“Please call me Carlos, Mr. Bransen,” the doctor replied as they shook hands. “You made it here faster than most people. Glad I left a note.”

“Yeah,” Bransen said thoughtfully, glancing at the piece of paper. “About that…”

Carlos grinned knowingly and tapped his right temple with his index finger. “Isn’t that why you’re here, Mr. Bransen? To use remote viewing?”

“Please… Everyone just calls me Bransen.”

Bransen?” Carlos chuckled at a joke only he understood, then turned and indicated the woods indiscriminately. “We should go to the oak for a drink. You must be parched.”

“Okay…” Bransen agreed hesitantly, following him back down the ladder.

“That stream there?” Carlos explained, indicating a thin ribbon of water gurgling behind the house. “The spring is just up the slope, right at the base of an old, hollow oak. I thought it made the area a good place to settle down.”

“I’ll say,” Bransen gasped, puffing up the hill behind his host. “It’s beautiful.”

Carlos smiled but didn’t reply and the two walked in silence to the oak, which was obvious among the other deciduous trees for a girth that showed great age. There were still leaves, fresh and green, on almost every branch, but the inside was hollowed out with a gap in the bark just about big enough for a grown man to squeeze through. As they approached, Bransen saw a small flow of water, like a stream from a broken drinking fountain, that looked to be emerging right out of the tree. As they rounded on it, however, he saw that the spring was actually a few feet away from it.

“I imagine the oak’s roots released the water,” Carlos said as he sat on a mossy rock, indicating for Bransen to do the same. Bransen sat down across from him and smiled.

“Oaks have a way of divining. So what can I do for you, Bransen?” Carlos asked.

“How did you know I was coming?” Bransen replied, using the question as an excuse to catch his breath. He motioned to the water and Carlos assured him it was clean, so Bransen leaned over the stream and drank from his hands. The water was sweet and crisp.

“Every morning I meditate and remote view that little parking area I built. Luckily, I caught you getting out of your car and I recognized you. I assume you want me to remote view the Star Event? Tell you what it was?”

Bransen chuckled and sat back down on the rock, drawing himself up with sincerity.

“Close, Carlos. I need to go to Mars and I need your technical skills—your programming skills—for the trip. Your remote viewing strengths would also come in very handy.”

Carlos sat silently for a moment, then started to laugh.

“Now that I didn’t see coming. Which do you need more?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you want the computer programmer or the remote viewer more?”

“I honestly couldn’t say.”

Carlos narrowed his eyes with amused suspicion. “Hedging your bets, then?”

“Most likely,” Bransen nodded, indirectly admitting that this plan, like most of his plans, would grow in whatever direction was required to complete the mission. Bransen wasn’t known for his meticulous pre-planning. He had flashes of inspiration and collected experts to help him bring them to reality. In fact, one magazine that had written a feature on him described him as a man for whom coincidence and accident were his defining characteristics.

“There are a few people in the military who will have to be told,” Carlos said. “But other than that, I have no ties. Does it bother you that the military will know of this expedition?”

“I would seriously doubt the military’s ability to defend the country if they didn’t know, after the press I intend to drum up.”

Bransen chuckled, albeit suspiciously. He knew no more than Carlos as to how the press—or military—would react to a manned expedition to Mars, made up of the crew that was being assembled.

“Why do you want to go?” Carlos asked.

Bransen sighed, looking around at the fresh, green forest and wondering how different the surface of Mars would be. Not just a desert, he assumed, but somehow unidentifiably alien. He wanted to know what that felt like, to stand on a world and know, somehow, that you weren’t on Earth. He wanted to see if he could pinpoint the differences.

“I want to stand on the surface of Mars,” Bransen finally answered. “As a civilization, we’ve been dreaming of it for centuries. I like to make dreams come true.”

“And the Star Event? That was just a coincidence of timing?” Carlos checked.

“Well, I don’t see what it has to do with Mars,” Bransen admitted.

“So you agree that it happened? You don’t believe Dr. Moore? I heard there was no Star Event. All in our heads, I hear.”

“No, it happened,” Bransen said slowly. “Do you think it was connected to Mars?”

“Stay for dinner,” Carlos offered instead of answering. “Stay overnight, in fact. We need to have a good talk about this mission.”

He stood up and walked off into the woods, and Bransen followed him.

That night, Bransen had a dream. A deep, lucid dream—the first such dream he could ever recall having. A dream in which everything was ethereal, but entirely in his control. A dream in which he found himself in a woodland glen, sunlight sparkling through a light mist.

“What is it?” he asked a woman hunched over something at the edge of the glen.

“I’d say a mushroom,” she replied, turning to him as he approached. He recognized her face. “Except that we’re on Mars.”

Bransen awoke with a start, the dream as fresh as a memory, with only one thought in his head: Her face. Dr. Luci von Embers, microbiologist. He scrawled down the name on the pad of paper Carlos had left with him (“Just in case you dream”), then lay back down, wide-eyed, unable to sleep for a driving sense of urgency and wonder.

5. Threatening Questions | 7. Wooing Luci

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