Cali McKinnon's

Fae Chronicles

Warrior's Resolve

1. Houston We Have a Problem 

It had been over three months since he’d had a minute to himself, other than during his grueling training for the next triathlon.  Having five miles to swim in the early morning surf, twenty-five miles of biking, and then ten miles to run before breakfast certainly keeps the body occupied, but the brain begins to numb after a while to such a state that it can hardly be considered personal time.  That training combined with the intense training schedule that he’d just completed for his next spaceflight gave Caedmon Keir MacDugall the feeling that if it wasn’t his body he was stressing to its maximum, it was his mind. 

As he contemplated the insanity of his decision to enter the Ironman triathlon one more time, he concentrated on conserving his energy while increasing his speed as he cut through the little whitecaps that were breaking around him during his pre-dawn swim in the Gulf of Mexico.  Slipping effortlessly into a smooth rhythm, his thoughts wandered again.  He realized, in retrospect, that accepting the NASA mission was crazy enough; he should have never entered the triathlon that would be run during the free time that he should have used to relax between the grueling training sessions for the mission.  Oh well, I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.  Some people are just gluttons for punishment, he reminded himself once again as he tried to refocus on the task at hand, one that had become akin to breathing, smooth steady repetitions of breathe, stroke, stroke, and breathe in a seemingly endless dance of rhythm.

Cad, as all his friends called him, had graduated valedictorian from high school where he had been known as a math and science geek, despite his numerous successes as a long distance runner for the track team.  Then later at Annapolis, he’d found his true non-academic calling on the swim team.  When he wasn’t swimming or studying, he was down at the boat docks doing anything he could to get some sea time on any craft with sails, but it was the swimming and his desire to test himself and excel at all things that got him interested in the Navy SEALs where he had spent five years being one of the “best of the best” as the illustrious SEALs were known.  That was before NASA announced the manned Mars mission, to which he immediately applied.

As he continued the repetitive, strong strokes through the early morning surf he let his mind wander as he reminisced over the past few years.  It was four years ago, after recuperating from an injury received during one of his counterterrorist missions, that Cad had accepted a dare to finish his first triathlon and he was hooked.  It was grueling, but nothing beat the sense of accomplishment that went with crossing the finish line of that competition.  He scored a respectable third the first year, placed first the second year, and first again last year.  This year, he just hoped for a respectable finish given his focus on other activities, mainly the NASA mission.  Well, at least I’ll be fit for the start of the mission if nothing else, he thought as he quickly verified the time.

He could still barely believe that in a little more than seven months he and three others would be on their way to Mars, the first manned voyage to the red planet.  It would take several months to get there, over a year for the planned research, and then several months to return to earth--that is if it all went as planned.  Yes, you’re definitely a glutton for self-punishment, but what a rush to be one of the first humans to walk on a planet other than Earth, he mused to himself as he almost imperceptibly raised his eyes to check the remaining distance to the pier that marked the end of his pre-dawn swim. 

At first the bigwigs at NASA had said absolutely no to his entry in a triathlon so close to the mission date, but they’d finally worked past that and he didn’t even want to think about what a hassle it had been, so he’d go through with the triathlon now, fully prepared or not.  Many observations might be made about Cad MacDugall, but his steely resolve was one of the more frequently mentioned, and on more than one occasion it hadn’t been mentioned in a positive manner. 

 

When he got back to the townhouse after his workout, Cad saw that Jilly had already left for work.  He wondered how much longer she’d be around.  When she first found out he was going on the mission, it was a thrill for her to be dating someone with such an exciting life.  Then when she found out how much it controlled his life, preventing him from taking her out to her late night parties and socializing every night, her interests seemed to cool a bit.  That combined with the realization he’d be leaving shortly for at least three years probably meant that she’d be gone within the month. 

Actually, Cad hadn’t planned on any serious relationships, especially not with Jilly.  She was pretty and knew it, smart with absolutely no common sense, and a serious workaholic who was dedicated to socializing and having a good time when she wasn’t working.  Once he got back from the mission, his plan was to buy a big piece of property somewhere remote, like Montana, where he could settle down and raise horses, with someone more...  well, he wasn’t quite sure, he’d never met the right type of woman yet, at least not anyone he would consider his ideal, or soul mate if there was such a thing.

After a quick breakfast of plain old-fashioned oatmeal, sliced fruit, and a high protein shake that tasted like liquid vitamins, Cad showered, changed into his uniform, and left for work.  Actually, not so much work as someone with a nine-to-five job might see it, but more as intense training and preparation for the three year off-world mission. 

The morning was beautiful, so he decided to ride the Harley.  As a kid he had always wanted one of the powerful, but incredibly noisy bikes, so after his first successful mission with the SEALs he decided to indulge himself and buy one.  He’d never regretted it.  There was just something wild and free about riding a motorcycle flat out on a wide-open west Texas highway, something he did as often as he could since moving to Houston.  The ride to San Antonio was confining, but from San Antonio to Fort Stockton or Alpine the road was open and the scenery magnificent-–just wild, open country and a sense of absolute freedom.

 

The activity level was already increasing at a frantic pace at the center, so he found it a virtual beehive even at six o’clock in the morning.  John and Sam met Cad first thing and began telling him about the twins they had picked up at a club out on NASA One last night, and what a great time he had missed. 

By midmorning, Cad had heard the tale retold at least a half dozen times, and it never seemed to be quite the same, becoming more embellished with each telling.  Thomas, the youngest of the group, egged them on about it, suggesting they ask if the twins might have another sister, or pair of them, at home if the twins were so hot.  During all the teasing and horseplay, Cad kept wondering how his fellow crewmembers were going to survive three years without the active nightlife they seemed to thrive on.  Being the oldest in the group, at thirty, he’d “been there, done that” often enough that he was looking forward to a little solitude in his life, a little less female attention, and an opportunity for inner reflection. 

Because of his looks Cad had been a target for female attention ever since he could remember.  The only thing that kept any of them at a tolerable distance during high school had been his studious nature.  Once he started swimming and working out at the Academy even that changed.  His academic standing was just icing on the cake since most of the women he met knew he was an officer and his education, training, and the uniform of course, made him just that much more desirable.  Becoming a Navy SEAL had done nothing but heighten his popularity since there was literally a following of groupies who looked for men wearing the eagle and trident emblem of the elite warriors. 

Then he placed first in the triathlon two years ago and his picture was put on the cover of several sports magazines.  After that his instant popularity practically made him head to the mountains to become a recluse.  It was so bad that for a while he was even interrupted during his workouts on the beach in the morning. 

Now, since the mission’s publicity shots ended up on the covers of several magazines a few months ago, it all started again so that he found he had a difficult time even going to the supermarket without being ogled at and hit on.  He loved women, every warm delicious inch of the ones he chose to spend time with, but his current celebrity status seemed to make some of them think he was public property or something to be shown off like some brand-name accessory, and he resented it.  

“Come on team, let’s drop the bullshit and get serious now.”  Cad urged his team to start focusing more on the work at hand and less on trying to outdo one another with tales of womanizing feats as they suited up. 

He sincerely disliked the gravity simulation chamber, and spending a whole afternoon in it testing the refinements to the new spacesuit was a less than favorite task.  Today they would be testing in a zero gravity environment.  He much preferred the natural weightlessness of the space shuttle trips he’d made.  Something just seemed different when the gigantic super-magnets were used to simulate various levels of gravity.  It was physically tiring for one thing, whereas the true weightlessness of space travel seemed almost relaxing.  For another, it just seemed wrong to have that much electromagnetic force bombarding one’s body from so many different directions.  Needless to say, he was anxious to get finished and get out of the place.  He didn’t even like the building with its huge power supplies, thousands of cables, and constant high-pitched hum. 

About an hour and forty minutes into testing, Cad and his team heard an unusual change in the pitch of the humming that was constant in and around the huge chamber.  He was in the process of testing the maneuvering jets embedded in the suit and was floating about twenty feet above the floor in the center of the huge chamber when his suspicions were confirmed and the whole thing shook violently, the humming instantly became an unbearable screech that caused intense pain to shoot through his head. 

Through the sharp pain he vaguely heard the controller mutter, “What the hell?” just before he was violently slammed against what he knew was the top of the chamber due to its markings, then started to freefall for what seemed like an eternity in total blackness, and then nothing.

 

“Well, it’s done,” a familiar timbre voice echoed in Jaylor’s consciousness.  “Now what?”

“Now we wait to see how long your little lab rat will survive.  Humans are such a weak and useless species that I still contend mere weeks will be enough to snuff the fragile life from this one.  That you should even consider it might be several years, assures this a safe bet for me.”

“But, Jaylor, he is after all the cream of the crop, the ‘best of the best,’” Aristo taunted, knowing he had enticed the elder fae, Jaylor, to agree to an uncommonly sturdy specimen for their experiment this time.

“They die from a mere scratch in the time where he has gone.  In his time, he was sheltered and protected.  His weak human body has never been exposed to the unclean water, tainted foods, and barbaric ways of the past.  But no matter, the bet was death or insanity.  Just the realization of where he is and that he has no means to return will be enough to render him insane.”

“Does it not concern you that he was preparing for a journey into the unknown, to an environment more hostile than where we’ve sent him?”  Aristo continued the goading, revealing the other reason he had made the choice he had.

“Not the least.  That journey was to be an act of courage while this one will be one of desperation, of being trapped and not knowing why or how to return.  You know little of the species if you cannot perceive that the mere difference is enough to drive his sort insane.  It was one of the reasons I gave in so readily and allowed you to choose such a physically healthy specimen this time.”  Jaylor felt a moment of superiority, speaking as though to mentor the younger fae. 

“We will see,” Aristo countered with a sneer of self-confidence.  “Come then, let’s join the court for some festivities.  We can check on this experiment later.”

* * * * *