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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Action/Adventure · #2265411
5 reality show contestants are mankind's only hope when aliens trace the programs signal.

Chapter 1

The year was 2047. Exploration within the Andromeda Galaxy had been going on for over two years. Mankind was looking for new digs to colonize now that the hole in the ozone layer had grown large enough to fit all of Russia through. The United States Federal Government had created a committee in charge of rehabitation--an organization responsible for scouting out the perfect extra-terrestrial locale for a new colony. The Rehab Program, or the RP as it was called, had been digging through interstellar nooks in search a location that might aptly accommodate human life. Scientists had begun to explore the areas around Alpha Centauri. The promise of nearly habitable environments in this neck of the Milky Way led many to begin recognizing the need to go further. They'd located a handful of planets in the Goldilocks Zone. Space probes were soon dispatched to the most likely candidates. The unmanned missions quickly established, however, that even the ones containing water, or solutions close enough to H2O to be safe for human consumption, were still little more than balls of barren rock.

Nasir Deshpande, one of one of an elite group of rehab techs, scrolled through an electronic mission outline as he traveled along with his fellow RP team members on a warp drive ship. The spacecraft was bound for Caelestis, a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy named after the Roman goddess of the heavens, after probes had detected a number of promising ecological elements within its biosphere. He turned to Jim Orbach, the craft's pilot and the team leader. "How long does this usually take?"

"About two weeks total," Jim replied. A space voyager in his 40s, Mr. Orbach spent a good deal of time at the gym when he wasn't flying missions to solar systems light years away. He'd done some acting before. His solid head of hair afforded him a Hollywood-like quality even after he'd given up the silver screen. He'd almost received a five-pointed tribute on the Walk of Fame. His insignia was turned down in the final vote. It didn't bother him. The stars now in his sights would never be muddied by tourist traffic.

"We'll be passing through the wormhole in about 10 minutes," Jim then told Nasir. "That means we should be hitting the Andromeda in less than half an hour."

"Ever been out there?" Nasir asked.

"Twice," Jim responded. "It's a long ride, but it's nothing compared to what it would take without this little shortcut."

"What would that be?"

"About 10,000 years," Jim explained.

At the thought of such a duration, Nasir's chin dropped along with his eyes.

Three days later, the ship began its gradual descent towards Caelestis. As Jim cut the craft's thrusters and eased them down to the planet's surface, the crew found themselves floating in the middle of a mountainous lake. Initially the men and women aboard the ship were fooled by the dark green hue, a color created by the phosphorescent algae that coated the water, into believing that they were in fact landing on a bed of grass. The very fact that they found themselves floating in H2O, an entire body of it rather than the fits and starts of springs they'd researched on other planets, confirmed what the stats had indicated. Caelestis was different--very different, and this new world might very well offer what astronomers had been searching for since the beginning of the RP.

Jim and his colleagues spent a month conducting a series of tests. These diagnostics enabled them to chronicle in detail significant facets of the planet's animal and vegetative life. They performed a set of scans for any signatures indicating the possibility of hostile intelligent life. NASA itself soon sent up an additional pair of personnel to join the Rehab squad.

Jim's colleagues and the new arrivals continued to survey the new environment while Mr. Orbach himself took a singleton transport back through the wormhole to the big blue ball. After the fortnight voyage, he finally glided down onto the tarmac of a Washington D.C. Air Force base. His legs were slightly stiff from the 20,000,000,000 parsec journey. Upon landing, he unstrapped himself and moved towards his economically-sized ship's exit portal. As Jim's suited form emerged from the narrow door of the craft, the enormous crowd waiting on the base's runway erupted in applause. Two NASA personnel approached him. With one taking his left arm and the other his right, the pair of technicians began directing him towards a plane hangar. Moments later, a female reporter wearing a Kate Spade overcoat, her long, brown wind-blown hair shooting wildly in every direction, began walking alongside the astronaut.

"Mr. Orbach, what's it like traveling through a worm hole in a warp drive ship?"

"Bumpy," Jim responded, "but not quite vomit-comet level."

"Given the similarities between this planet and earth, how long do you think it will be before colonization efforts begin?"

"Sorry, I just find 'em. Shopping mall plans are above my pay grade."

Amidst all of the hullabaloo over Caelestis' discovery, Susan Milworth, an advertising executive at the Clarke Broadcasting Company, a corporation based in Glendale, CA, remained locked inside the interstices of her narrow entertainment sector. A midwestern gal in her late forties, Susan's beat was the reality television market. She'd worn long hair before entering this arena, but exotic insects settling down in her do when on location made extensive tresses a no-go. Her frequent sorties to the jungles of Costa Rica and Bora, Bora required she trim her locks down to a pixie cut.

Susan sat in a large office right next to her fifty-something, grey-haired colleague Peter Hubbard. That day he sported his customary blue blazer with a handkerchief emerging out of the collar of his button-down. Next to him was the company's CEO Jack Lewis. In his early fifties, Jack had a slightly receding hairline that he'd given up attempting to hide with Rogaine.

The three execs sat discussing the latest pilot that the station had recently featured on The Oxygen Channel.

While they spoke, Jack leafed through a treatment of the series' opening episode. "Sue, we've looked at this from every angle. I'm sorry... the show's passe'."

Susan lowered her coffee to the conference table in front of her, but her hand stayed wrapped around the mug--her caffeine addiction was only adding to her recent frustrations regarding opportunities in her broadcasting specialty. "What about if we include the alligator wrestling?"

"Call of the Wild did that 15 years ago."

"A live volcano angle?" Susan responded tilting her head.

"Jungle Survivor, twice," Jack announced emphasizing the final word of his reply with an exaggerated drop of his bottom lip.

Susan looked down in disappointment. Another strikeout. She'd spent the last three weeks combing through pitch after pitch looking for anything dangerous, captivating, and most of all, new. Every idea she'd seen, no matter how "outside-the-box," had, in one way or another, been tried before.

"Do you wanna' contact the writers or should I?" Jack finally asked his colleague.

"I'll do it," Susan responded. She picked up her briefcase and headed out of the meeting, exuding dejection like the Cartier perfume she wore. Peter followed her. They walked half the length of the hall together in a ponderous silence.

Midway through their trip down the corridor, Abigail Dwyer appeared from around the corner. Abigail was another exec at the firm. Her latest crime drama had just hit Hulu's top ten. She never bragged about her achievement. She didn't have to. Her body language, the way she shot her hips out when she walked, did her talking for her.

"Susan, so sorry to hear about your last project. After winning that award for Crawling Cuisine I was sure you were due for another hit any day."

"Thanks Abigail," Susan said.

"Just keep combing through those pitches. Someone's gonna' come up with another way to sell insect diets to our viewers."

Susan acknowledged Abigails' condescension with a closed-mouth smile.

"Ignore her, Sue," Peter said after they'd made their way out of earshot. "And look at the bright side," he continued, "the downturn has matched nicely with your retirement plans."

"Thanks, Pete," she said with two staccatic head bobs.

Peter could tell that wasn't the cognitive dissonance she needed at that moment. His colleague had recently speculated about hanging up her show biz gloves. He knew, however, that this was largely prompted by a professional decision her husband had made just three weeks prior. An entrepreneur by trade, Susan's partner had decided to call it quits early and sold his pharmaceutical company at the age of 53. That, however, wasn't Susan's MO. Given her own choice, she'd probably keep foisting Netflix series onto the air as long as she could still read 12 pt. courier. Moving to Florida--or traveling the world without chronicling it for TV viewers--was just not the way she rolled.

As they continued to walk, Susan suddenly froze mid-stride. "What time is it?"

Peter looked at his watch. "12:30."

Susan closed her eyes. "Oh my God... Bye, Pete!" she shouted back to her colleague as she began running down the hall to the lift. Arriving at the elevator, she hit the button--no little pink glow illuminated.

"Light's broken," Bob Harris, an employee from her office she only knew by appearance, explained while standing just behind her.

She turned briefly to acknowledge his comment with a nod before spinning back to look up at the set of non-existent floor numbers above the lift. After 15 more seconds went by, she stepped forward and pressed the button again.

Bursting out of the car the moment the elevator reached the lobby, she ran towards the exit. Once she'd darted through the revolving doors and out onto the sidewalk, she hailed a cab that'd nearly passed her. She threw the driver a $20 for an $11 ride and sprinted inside the restaurant where she'd arranged to have lunch with her former coworker Brenda Adams. She looked around until she spotted her patient friend. Her colleague from a previous existence, looking dapper in a charcoal grey business suit, was seated at two-person table amidst a set of other patrons. She didn't exhibit the slightest sign of annoyance at her business chum's MIA status as she scrolled through Twitter posts.

Susan didn't want to look at the clock on the wall as she made her way over to Brenda's table. Her friend did though, a gesture that immediately tightened Susan's cheek muscles.

"I'm so sorry," she said wincing as she sat down. "We had a meeting that ran over."

"No worries," Brenda replied. "I took the liberty of ordering you a martini."

"Since when do you know my taste in poison?" Susan asked.

"Oh, come on, we've been friends a long time."

"Truue," Susan replied holding out the mono-syllabic word. "But did you get me a single or a double?"


"Though maybe not as long as you think," Susan said laughing and taking out a Nicorette.

A waiter approached them. He gave the drink to Susan but just placed a glass of water in front of Brenda.

"So, what was the meeting about?"

"We're trying to find the next great survival reality show," Susan answered.

"And how's it going?" her friend inquired.

"Don't ask," she responded as she opened the menu.

"That bad, huh?"

Susan shook her head. "The market's saturated. Jungle Survivor and Call of the Wild. They're as old-hat as The Waltons."

"I see," Brenda responded pursing her lips.

"So, what's good here?" Susan continued in an attempt to change the subject.

"The kale salad. Only 250 calories."

"No grass for me today. My angry reptilian brain is craving carbicide."

"Okay, well the pasta primavera's not bad."

"Done!" Susan replied.

"And if that's not enough gluten for you, you could add the chocolate layered cake for dessert."

Susan tilted her head. "Then again, maybe you know me even better than I know myself."

Brenda laughed.

As Susan put down her menu, the opening theme song to Mornings with Evelyn, an a.m. talk show, sounded from the bar. Susan sometimes watched it when her daughter was younger and home sick from school. She used her child's illness as an excuse to indulge her guilty pleasures--game shows and programs that paraded hunkish male celebs in front of ogling female fans. The show's host was Evelyn Dazlind, a platinum blond, who'd begun to use hair dye now that grey streaks were peeking out amidst her golden mane. Looking at the effect of the coloring as Evelyn walked onto the stage, Susan was suddenly rendered aware of the impact the years had had on her own locks. Was it time for a parlor visit herself? she wondered.

"Hello, everyone," Evelyn said dipping her head slightly to make sure her initial greeting went straight into her body mic. "Starting off today's show we have a very special guest. We're going to meet one of the members of the Andromeda Galaxy mission. Could everyone join me in giving a warm welcome to Jim Orbach."

Jim walked onto the stage wearing a white shirt under a brown suede vest.

Evelyn crossed her legs as she sat down next to him. "So, tell us about the mission, starting with how the heck you got out there."

"Well Evelyn, there are a number of things that made this kind of voyage possible... for starters, the super warp ships."

"Since we have viewers at home who wouldn't be familiar with this kind of ride, can you tell us exactly how fast these things travel?"

"Approximately the speed of light."

Evelyn turned to the audience. "How's that for a one evening round trip to Paris?"

"But even that kind of pace wouldn't be enough to get us all the way to the Andromeda Galaxy. It's the wormhole that's really made this kind of interstellar exploration possible."

"Right through the core of the apple," Evelyn said whipping her head. "Now give us a few details about this rock up there."

"Well, after running some basic tests on the planet's soil, we established that Caelestis had many of the same properties as earth--and our research team logged a number of species nearly identical to plants and animals here on the big blue ball."

"What about the temperature? Are we talking summers like the Gobi?"

"The desert was pretty hot... with an occasional sandstorm, but the climates are extremely diverse. We found it all... deciduous forests and even Aruba-like jungles."

"Forget colonization... how long until people start scheduling vacations out there?" Evelyn continued turning again to her fans.

"Well, I wouldn't predict that any time soon. The first order of business is sustainability. Then people can start building Club Meds. What's perhaps most exciting is that finding a planet like this tells us that worlds containing intelligent life could be right next door."

"If only we had more of that here," Evelyn said eliciting another round of laughs from her audience. "We'll be right back. Jim Orbach everyone," she finished raising her palm towards her guest in adulation.

Susan's gaze remained transfixed on the television screen. As the show went to a commercial, she looked up at Brenda whose head was still buried in the menu. "I have to go!" she announced.

"What is it?"

"I'll tell you later. Get yourself something expensive and Venmo me the tab. I promise I'll make this up to you." She then stood up and hugged her friend.

Brenda looked at Susan in confusion as her lunchmate pulled out of their embrace, turned and rushed towards the restaurant door.

Chapter 2

When she got back to the office, Susan lacked the patience to even wait for the elevator. She ran up seven flights of stairs. Darting out of the well into her company's hallway, she headed straight towards Jack's office and threw open the door. "I've got it!" she exclaimed.

"Got what?" Jack asked his colleague.

"An idea for our next reality show... let's put a group of survivalists on Caelestis."

"You're joking right?"

"Not at all. Imagine it! Contestants having to negotiate unforgiving terrain on a planet in another solar system!"

"Do we know anything about that place beside the fact that it exists?" Susan's colleague then inquired.

"Haven't you read the articles... it's practically earth's identical twin!"

"Susan, for God sakes the teams up there haven't even finished exploring it yet. There could be toxic gasses or who knows what kind of three-headed jaguars?"

"They've scoped out the entire planet. Anything bigger than an aardvark would've showed up on the scan."

"You really don't want to retire, do you?"

"Nope," Susan said shaking her head deliberately back and forth.

Meanwhile, at a dojo where he taught martial arts, Caleb Rucker, a man in his thirties with longish brown hair, which on this particular day he wore in a man-bun, was sparring with a friend. Andrew Wilkins, 10 years Caleb's junior, attacked him with a wooden sword. His mentor dodged the blow before flipping Andrew and dropping the startled young man on his back.

"A piece of wood does not an advantage make," Caleb said to his protlying on the floor."

"Double or nothing?"

"Sorry friend, one ass kicking per day," Caleb said reaching out his hand to help Andrew off the mat.

The two men then sat down on a bench aside the dojo mat to rest.

"So, what are you doing these days besides schooling punks like me?" Andrew asked the martial arts instructor.

"Just got back from a Tough Mudder competition."

"D'ju win?"

"By about three minutes," Caleb responded trying to hide the hint of self-satisfaction in his response.

"What about free solos? You doing another one?"

"Unfortunately, no. Promised my mom no more Alex Honnold stunts."

"Ever thought of TV?"

"No, why?" asked Caleb.

"I heard about this new reality show called Survivor Andromeda. You should check it out."

"Survivor... Andromeda?"

"Yeah, they're looking for people who can stay alive in outer space."

"Don't you just need to know how to put on a spacesuit for that?" Caleb asked.

"No, it's on that new planet that was just discovered. They say the climate's nearly the same as down here."

Caleb raised an eyebrow.

Thinking about the idea on the way home, he pondered what his ex would think. The Kung Fu Bear Grylis had been operating on his own since he and his former partner had split up two years prior. Caleb's ex-girlfriend felt his overbearing need for oneness with nature left very little room for her in his life. After 24 months together, she simply decided she'd crossed as many glaciers and endured as many nights in a rain-soaked sleeping as she'd planned to. Over dinner, she told Caleb that the companion he really needed was a mountain goat, not a girlfriend.

Over in Tikrit, Iraq, an African-American Army Ranger named Matt Burton was leading one of the members of his platoon on a house to house search. Matt refused the customary buzz cut of his outfit. He insisted on keeping enough hair to maintain a fade. This flew in the face of regulations, but with a little convincing he was able to bring his commanding around--after all, America had enough restrictions on the way brothers wore their hair. Jordan Humphreys, the man in Matt's unit following him in and out of the white-washed dwellings that lined the local Iraqi village street, stayed close behind his captain. Both soldiers threw up their rifle at each doorway they walked through. The two Rangers finally approached what was rumored to be a hide-out of an ISIS operative. When an initial check revealed that the place was empty, Matt gave the soldier in his charge an all clear. He slung the rifle back over his shoulder and pulled out the mission order from his pocket. He started scanning the document, which included a blueprint of the residence--a map that identified another room hidden behind a hanging rug. No sooner had he indicated this to Jordan when the militant they'd been looking for jumped out from where he stood behind the Afghan, raising the semi-automatic rifle he held. A second later, he put a shot right into Jordan's leg. Matt rushed towards the soldier, grabbing the gun and forcing it out of his hand. With a kick from his standard issue boot, he sent the weapon all the way across the concrete floor. The two men continued to struggle until Matt was knocked to the ground. Once the Iraqi had managed to pin him down, he grabbed his neck in a strangle hold. Matt could feel himself growing faint, but after a few seconds, he managed to spin and throw off his attacker. Now sprawled out on the floor a few feet away from him, the Iraqi lunged towards the rifle lying in the corner of the room. He grabbed the gun and stood up in a single motion.

Just then another ISIS member rushed in from the street. Matt ducked and the first militant's shot hit the second Iraqi in the chest. He then dove for the gun that now lay next to the fallen operative. Matt raised the weapon and blasted the first assailant with three rounds before he could fire another shot. The Ranger then walked over to his fallen comrade, who lay gripping his bleeding leg. He pulled him up before offering him help hobbling out of the residence.

"Lucky shot," Jordan said smirking through the pain.

Matt drew his head back as he gave a laugh--a paternalistic chuckle--at Jordan's combination of bravery and humor.

Four days later at a US military base, Matt leaned back in a chair looking across the desk of a three-star sergeant.

"So, what's on the agenda before your next tour?" the officer asked him.

"Go to a few ball games. Maybe spend some time working on my car."

"Well, enjoy the rest," the sergeant responded. "You've earned it!"

Matt smiled. He saluted as he rose from the chair. He then turned and walked out of the suite and into the hall. As he made his way down the corridor, a poster on the wall caught his eye. The image was that of a man standing at the crest of a mountain looking into the distance. The advertisement read, "See the Worlds Beyond Your Own" at the top. Emblazoned across the bottom: "Survivor Andromeda."

A few weeks later, Susan sat with Peter and Jack at the Clarke Studio. They had a number of interviews to do. The applicant pool included a range of contestants, among them outdoors survival specialists, loads of military personnel, and even a back-woods hunter from Montana. While they'd been inundated with eager potential survivalists, they only invited contestants they were sure--or almost sure--they wanted aboard.

"So why do you want to be on this show?" Susan asked Caleb sitting in front of her and Jack at a conference table.

"Let's just say that nothing on terra firma has really gotten my adrenaline going lately," the martial arts expert responded.

"Now, there are a number of risks involved in participating in this scenario. If you didn't make it, who would you be leaving behind?"

Caleb shrugged his shoulders. "Just my dog."

Jack nodded and asked him about the pup's breed. Susan put a big check mark next to Caleb's name on his application.

Five minutes later, it was Matt whose palms began to sweat as he took the hotseat.

"So how do you think you'd feel about being on a planet in a galaxy far, far away?" Peter queried.

"It'd be cool--you know being the first brother on another planet."

"Well, there have been lots of black astronauts," Peter said insistently.

"Lots of 'em flying on the shuttles," Matt replied. He raised his hand into the air with his index finger pointed upwards. "Ain't never been a brother chilling out on Alpha Centauri or what not. ET Probably thinks everybody on this planet is white."

Right after Matt came a NAVY Seal named Bryan Gibson. The bottom of his grey Calvin Klein T-Shirt draped over the taught abdominal muscles he'd achieved from hours of weekly crunches. He had thick wavy hair and a set of deep blue eyes many nae young women had gotten lost in.

"So, Mr. Gibson, what makes you think you're the right person for this challenge?" Jack asked.

"'Cause I'm good."

"At what?"

"Everything," Bryan replied.

"We're not looking for a Renaissance man... we're looking for a survivalist."

"Saudi desert, Indonesian swamp... I've lived out in all of them and never lost more than a pound."

"A real Rambo, aren't you?"

"Minus the PTSD whining, yup."

"Well, no one would accuse him of timidity," Susan said to her colleague after Bryan had exited the screening chamber. "What d'ya think?"

"He might be fun to watch up there," Jack responded.

"Yeah, fun to watch fail," Susan replied. She was about to notch an X next to his name when she stopped, putting down a question mark instead.

The next man up was Louie Perez, a Hispanic Airline pilot in his late thirties with a shaved head and a goatee. He'd been turned on to survival training after a Cessna he was flying went down in a forest not far from his home in Phoenix, AZ. He was rescued in a matter of hours, but the incident demonstrated to him that he might not be so lucky the next time he lost an engine.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Perez. So, what do you hope to prove by being a contestant on this program?" Susan asked.

Louie motioned upward with his eyes. We've never claimed another territory like this for our own before. I want to be one of the first people on that planet... show that a Mexicano can actually squat up there, not just sneak across the time-space border."

Peter smiled subtly to his colleagues at this statement. In his mind, this kind of diversity would be almost as valuable a selling point as the show's gimmick itself.

The last person they'd slated to talk to was Army Corporal Gail Howard, a woman in her early thirties who wore short, mussy black hair and a Donna Karan blouse. She was one of the few female applicants they'd thus far invited in for an interview.

"What do you think would be the hardest part about taking on this challenge?" Jack queried the military officer.

"Leaving my kids."

The producer looked down at Gail's shoes. His eyes then moved up taking in the rest of her outfit.

"Not your wardrobe?" he asked immediately prompting a "Jack!" from his female colleague.

"Please excuse Mr. Chauvinist. He was skeptical about a woman being able to hack the obstacles of this challenge."

"Don't worry, I'm used to it. Been dealing with that kind of attitude for 15 years in my line of work."

Jack tapped a pen against his knee. "Alright, Mrs. Howard, why don't you tell us about the most dangerous combat situation you've ever faced."

"Syria. I got separated from my unit during an ambush. I used a handgun to take out a mujahideen and an Al Qaeda leader."

She lifted her blouse to reveal a scar on the left side of her stomach. "Got this."

"What'd the other guys look like?" Jack inquired.

"One of them was grabbing his balls."

"Which one?"

"The one who still had any," Gail responded, her reply fomenting a noticeable purse in Jack's lips.

Susan nodded her head. She immediately began chalking up their latest find's application.

A few days later, the Clarke producers talked over their decisions regarding their final selections. As they reviewed the information on their winning candidates, they felt confident that their intuitions hadn't failed them, even in the case of Bryan--though he was still a "maybe" in Susan as well as Peter's mind, the two show runners began to recognize he was likely to command attention from their female viewership--that is, they agreed, until he lost his bravado and bailed.

After sending out congratulatory emails, Jack and Susan called all of the survivalists in for a production meeting. As they sat in the Clarke conference room, each of the show's participants was handed a data sheet. The information the producers had provided for them chronicled the elements of their individual assignments once on Caelestis.

"Okay, all of you will be allowed two survival tools," Susan said. "They can be any one of these items," she continued referring to the list printed on the informational documents they were holding. We've chosen environments for each of you." She looked at Corporal Howard, then Mr. Perez. "Gail and Louie, you're going to be in the forest."

"What kind of forest?" Gail asked.

"Pacific Northwest. Think Douglass Firs, a few types of bear-like creatures, some," she looked back at the sheet she was reading, 'rabbit-gophers' it sounds like. You can check the data that the RP has logged for more details." She turned to Caleb and then Bryan. "You gentlemen, the swamp. That okay with both of you?"

"Sure," Caleb replied.

"Leaches'll be all the food I need," Bryan responded. "That's what I ate for a week when a croc took my kill in Samoa."

Gail rolled her eyes. When they got to Caelestis, she wanted to be as far away from this douche as possible.

"Matt, you're in the desert. It's gonna' be kind of like the Sahara with a little bit of Mojave winds. You think you can handle that?"

"Just like my second home in the Middle East."

Susan smiled. "Now remember these are micro-climates. They're not that far off from one another, and if you happen to locate the edge of your environment, you might just find yourself with more resources than you know what to do with."

"What about partnering with another survivalist?" Caleb asked.

"We don't encourage it, but if you happen to stumble onto another contestant's camp, you've got every right to team up."

The producers of the show then set up meetings in Washington with a portion of the RP, members of Congress, a contingent of NASA personnel and a few Pentagon staff. The reality entertainers had mapped out a sortie to the planet in which they'd be accompanied by a small production team. All participants in Survivor Andromeda or SA, as crew members had begun to call it, would, of course, have to be acclimate to space travel. This involved tube diets, pool drills that prepared them for the sensation of weightlessness, a vomit comet, a Boeing 727-200F that dropped them like a Six Flags Free Fall amusement, and of course, negotiating nature's calls at zero gravity.

In the weeks leading up to the survival series premier, the contestants spoke at a number of public events.

The media was also rife with promotional buzz. Advertisements would run during the evening news portraying a backpack-laden man hiking in the woods. In the commercial, the actor looked up, and the camera panned along the forest canopy. From here the photographer pulled back further revealing a crimson-shaded atmosphere. "In a distant galaxy, individuals highly trained for primitive survival in the most hostile environments will put their skills to the ultimate test," the announcer began the voiceover.

These promos were followed by a number of other television ad tie-ins to the 40-day challenge. In one of them a housewife-type in her late thirties was shopping for fish with her wholesome, sweater-clad husband. As she walked down the supermarket aisle, she picked up a container of Tuckers Tube Fish, a brand of freeze-dried cod and mackerel that had recently hit the market.

She looked at the label. "Hmm. How does this sound for dinner tonight, honey?"

"Not sure. Never tried it. Let's call Matt." The man took out his cell phone and opened his facetime app.

The ad finished with Matt sitting in the dining area of a spaceship moving through the cosmos. "Tucker's Tube Fish," he said holding the product, "gourmet cuisine on the GOOOOO!" before the camera panned back out of cockpit window for a wide-angle glimpse of outer space and a follow shot of the ship blasting through the heavens.

On the afternoon immediately preceding the scheduled launch, Jack and Susan were meeting at the Clarke headquarters with the crew.

Susan pointed to Steve Dunwick, a balding man in his fifties. "Okay, now you've all had basic weapons training. Hopefully those are skills you'll never need. Our capable doctor here will be there to treat you if necessary, but there's a good deal of risk involved in this for all of you as well as the participants." She then looked around the room. "If anyone wants to back out now, this is your last chance."

Not a creature stirred. The tech side had been hit almost as hard as the production peeps by the waning reality T.V. market. For many of them, their careers in the biz were also pegged to the success of SA. Susan knew it. Part of her still hated herself for what she was potentially pulling these men and women into.

Later that afternoon, Sudan mulled over the prospects of her own safety during the upcoming broadcast. So close to the end of her career and she was going to risk everything to avoid becoming a has-been. She couldn't pull out now, she thought to herself. That chance had passed when the meeting ended. Was it all important that she never offered it to herself?

Chapter 3

The launch took place on a sunny day in Cape Canaveral, FL. The news crews were there in abundance. Reporters flocked to the show's makeshift headquarters at the take-off site for the chance to sneak in an interview.

"Now that the day's finally arrived, Mr. Rucker, are the fears you mentioned at the Des Moines Kiwanis Club event the same or has something changed?" one of the reporters asked Caleb.

"Pretty much the same," he said, "though now I might add not being able to watch episodes of my favorite TV shows for a whole month to the list."

Everyone laughed.

The launch preparations continued to go as planned. Technicians inspected the spacecraft, looking out for any dangers that might be lurking in the interstices of the ship's mechanical structure. In particular, they kept an eye out for issues with the bird's souped up turbo thrusters recently added to all crafts involved in the Andromeda missions. The super warp mothership was ovular in shape. At its stern was an elevated cockpit that sat in the same area as the craft's dining facility. Beneath this bridge were located the living quarters, exercise room as well as a secondary kitchen with a supplemental food store. The term PR disaster wouldn't come close to describing it if anything went wrong with the take-off. The studio had invested millions in production equipment for the broadcast, including a signal device that would ping off a space antenna in New Mexico. Besides the loss of a two-billion dollar ship they rented for the escapade, Clarke would be out all the money they spent to reserve the air time.

The contestants put on helmets over their spacesuits. After Houston did a check of their equipment, the survivalists walked out of the trailer and onto the stage that the studio had created. Peter stood at a podium. Behind him were a set of chairs where Jack, Susan and the five survivalists had taken seats.

"Hello Survivor Andromeda fans. Thank you for coming out today to show your support. Our contestants here really appreciate all of the warm wishes you've been Tweeting and Instagramming."

The audience let out a loud set of cheers--they could not have been more enthralled or, for that matter, more in awe of the contestants' temerity as they sat insouciantly before them only minutes from blast off.

"These brave souls," Peter continued "have been preparing for three months for their voyage and they're eager for the next step in their journey. Though I'm sure you folks need no recap of who they are, I'll introduce them briefly for the people at home. Here we have Bryan Gibson, Caleb Rucker, Louie Perez, Matt Burton, and Gail Howard. Let's give them all a huge round of applause."

There was more cheering from the spectators as well as air horn bellows. Signs held up in the crowd read "Next stop, Caelestis," and "Give them our best," with a picture of extra- terrestrials.

"Now, while the environments of our planet and Caelestis are similar, there are a lot of unpredictable elements. These brave folks might know a lot more than the average layman about nature, but who can predict if that'll mean squat when it comes to eating shrubs they've never seen? Some poisonous creatures up there could still knock our five pioneers out cold with a single bite. So, what you do think? Should they still do this?"

Deafening screams of encouragement came from the entire crowd.

"Well, you heard 'em," he said turning to the survivors. "Guess we can't let these folks down."

All five of the survivalists smiled as they shook their heads.

"Okay, then," Peter continued, "it's one small step for man, one giant leap for Nielsen ratings," he said giving the crowd the payoff line he'd so proudly devised the previous night.

A huge laugh from the audience--followed by more bellows.

Five minutes later on the scaffold erected next to the Survivor Andromeda Mothership, the survivalists all waved to the audience one more time as they made their way towards the spacecraft's bridge. Once on board, the group assumed their designated take-off positions.

Already sitting in the captain's chair was Ben Taylor, the distinguished looking ship steward who'd just started growing some beginner whisps of grey hair--the result of his many perilous asteroid belt voyages. Strapped in tight next to him were members of the show's camera crew.

"Okay, count down with me," Peter instructed the crowd.

Together they began to sound off the numbers: "5,4,3,2,1 Blast Off!"

With that, the engines fired up sending down monstrous flames from the ship's four propulsion rockets located at the base of the craft.

The survivalists all watched from the ship's window as the view of the earth grew smaller and smaller outside. After all the anticipation, it was difficult for any one of them to believe they were actually heading towards their celestial target.

One night halfway through the voyage, Louie and Caleb lay in their cots stacked one above the other.

"So how old's that daughter of yours gonna' be?" Caleb asked the man above him, referring to a child he'd mentioned in one of their interviews.

"Nine," Louie responded.

"Got a picture?"

Louie dug through his pockets and pulled out a set of sheathed photos.

"That's her," he said reaching down and handing Caleb a picture of his child standing next to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

"Beautiful little girl," Caleb said.

"Thanks," Louie responded. "Man," he began his mind beginning to drift into reverie, "did she not want me to do this." His thoughts continued to return to a night back home shortly after he'd been selected for the program. He walked into his daughter Gabriela's room to tuck her in. His little girl wore her long brown hair half-way down her back.

Louie sat next to his child, who was holding one of her dolls as she lay in bed.

Gabriela put down the toy and looked at her father. "Papa, do you have to go?"

"Don't you wanna' see me on TV?"

Gabriela turned away. "I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that the police showed up at the house. They rang the bell, and Mom started to cry as soon as she opened the door."

"Sweetheart, your daddy's not gonna' crash. These ships are super well-built."

"But what if that place isn't safe? What if there's a monster who lives there?"

Louie picked up his daughter's Jabba the Hutt doll, which sat among her collection of stuffed animals. "Like Jabba here?"

Gabriela nodded her head.

Louie began tapping his finger against Jabba's forehead. "Then I'll take my ray gun and I'll hit him right between the eyes. And if that doesn't work, I'll tickle him to death." At this he went straight for his daughter's tummy, eliciting a set of ear-piercing squeals.

Her father finally acquiesced to her cries for clemency.

"You'll be back before my birthday, right?" Gabriella then asked.

"Way before."

"Okay Daddy, I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart."

After a crushing father-daughter hug, Louie walked out into the hallway and closed the door slowly. His wife Fernanda, a woman he'd met while in high school in Mexico before they'd immigrated to the US together, stood behind him.

"She's really worried about you," she said, her own lengthy black locks pinned up for the night.

"I know."

"Do you really think you should be doing this while the kids are adjusting to a new school?"

"They'll be fine. Question is will their mother be?"

"I've kept my sanity when you were flying through tropical storms. I can make it through this 'Tarzan of the Jungle' stint."

"Tarzan, eh?" Louie said starting to curl his hands up to his armpits. "Oooh! Oooh!" he then muttered as he picked up his wife and threw her over his shoulder.

"Louie!!!" she shouted as he carried her towards the bedroom.

"You know, your daughter'll feel differently once this is over and you're the talk of the town," Caleb said finally bringing his bunkmate back from his reverie.

"Hope so," was all Louie could say.

A week and a half into the voyage, Louie sat up at the helm where Ben and a camera man named Simon Lunquist sat in the cockpit logging their fuel levels. The tech was serving as the captain's unofficial copilot. In a previous life, he'd been trained as an aeronautics engineer. He'd been doing photography on the side, playing around with flying robotics videos. Eventually his hobby morphed into a career. After the steward's copilot got up to grab some chow,

Louie had done some spacecraft training. He still marveled at Ben's ability to pilot a craft with the dimensions of the SA mothership. Louie asked Ben if he minded if he borrow his assistant's seat--the other one on the ship where the view of the heavens was like no other.

"Be my guest," Ben responded.

"So, what are you going to be doing while we're out in the bush?" Louie queried sitting down.

"Catching up on some leisure reading. Susan wants me to run a few aerial-shot expeditions. The transports can handle the lower altitudes, but the upper atmospheric conditions don't always suit the preemies."

Louie nodded his head. "Have you done Andromeda missions before?"

"Here and back. It's an amazing thing to be able to travel this far from home. Hope you and your buddies can enjoy that amidst all of this fanfare." He motioned towards empty space with his hand. "Makes you realize how small a dot we are in this whole thing."

"You don't have to tell me that."

"No, I guess not but..." Ben motioned in Bryan's direction.

Louie smiled and nodded knowingly.

The next day the ship began its approach of the wormhole. The group could tell they were getting closer from all of the rumbling--what felt like the beginnings of an interstellar spin cycle. That was nothing, however, compared to what the trip through the portal would feel like.

When they were within one and a half million miles, the captain left his post and walked up to the survivalists and the crew as they sat in the common area. "Okay, wormhole's comin' up soon. A bit of advice. This might be a little rough. Try not to eat anything too heavy for the next half hour."

25 minutes later they began to approach the singularity. The survivalists and crew marveled at the now faintly visible phenomenon from their respective quarters. Caleb thought of the movie Black Hole that his father had taken him to when he was a kid. The ship started shaking as Ben brought the vessel within a few thousand miles of their short cut. As the pilot finally started navigating their way through the hole, the survivalists all remained pressed against the back of their chairs with their stomachs in their throats.

"Welcome to the Andromeda Galaxy," Ben said to the group two and a half minutes later when they'd made it out of--or more accurately been coughed out of--the singularity's back end. The passengers all looked out the window. It was still just a bunch of empty space, but this vacuous void had only been witnessed by a few dozen human beings. That alone made it different.

Once they'd recovered from the interstellar wash, the hungry survivalists headed to the common room to make up the meal they'd missed earlier that morning.

"Hey, you know this stuff really ain't bad," Matt remarked as he squeezed a tube of chopped liver down his throat.

"Enjoy it," Caleb replied. "It's the last synthetic protein you're gonna' get for a month and a half." Suddenly, he lifted his head. "Hey, do you feel that?"

Louie raised his arm. "Yeah, there's gravity again."

That's because we're approaching the Caelestis atmosphere." Steve explained.

"Everyone prepare for our final descent," Ben announced over the P.A.

The survivalists all walked to the window where they observed Caelestis from above. Through the reddish glow surrounding the planet, they could make out the green highlights from the lush forests as well as the beige pockets of desert. The ship slowly lowered itself towards the ground on its retro rockets. A loud thud sounded upon impact.

Moments later at ground level, the survivalists and crew stepped out onto the surface. The gang sported polar fleeces and nylon pants, the best attire for that time of year according to the investigative research team. The only sounds they could hear upon exiting were those of some of the planet's native birds. These fauna were a brightly colored cockatoo-like species--their wingspan, however, was wholly ginormous in relation to their body size. The group could detect a soft odor that resembled recently laid mulch.

"Smells fresh," Matt declared.

"Well, we haven't been up here yet to pollute the environment," Caleb insisted.

"Give our civilization a few years," Matt responded. "We'll have this place smelling just like Jersey."

Five hours later, at the Survivor Andromeda Command Center, Jack, Susan, the contenders and the technicians sat in a 30 square foot trailer that the show's video team had assembled. The little bungalow consisted of a communications area and sleeping accommodations for the producers and camera men.

"Okay, the crew'll be taking you out on the transports, the birds that we stocked in the bay of the mothercraft," Jack informed the five survivalists. "There's a Rehab/NASA camp a mile to our north. Steer clear of that. Otherwise, you're free to roam anywhere you chose. Susan and I will be swinging by each of your sites around once a day. The cameramen are going to be out there until around 10:00, 11:00 pm. After that you're on your own."

Before they were dropped in their respective locales, the show's producers gave the participants diary cams, explaining that this handy tech was for v-logging both day and night. "You never knew what's gonna' make for ripe material," the folks in charge told their contestants, "so keep them within arms-reach at all times."

As Jack was going over the last of the program's boilerplate administrivia with cast and crew, a station anchor broadcasting the five o'clock news was conducting a video call with Susan. "Okay, we've got Susan Milworth here. So, Sue, tell us where you are right now."

"Well, this is command central," Susan explained while sitting at the trailer's communication terminal. She rotated the camera to capture images of the aluminum-sided center. Refocusing on herself, she continued. "As we speak, the survivalists are about to head out to their new digs."

"And how's the morale among the troops?" the anchor then asked.

"Oh, they're raring to go."

"Well, everyone down here's cheering for you," the broadcaster responded. "Right now, we're going to show you some live shots of the crowd that's gathered outside."

The camera panned to the hordes of fans who'd assembled in front of the studio. People held up signs with different messages written. One of them had the words "Tapping Out" inside a large red circle with a line through it.

Louie was the first contestant that the techs shuttled out to his designated site. As he finally reached the clearing that would be his home for the next 40 days, the transport, a semicircular, SUV sized craft, lowered itself down into the open space.

"So here I am finally. Guess the first thing to do is to purify some water." It took a little while for Louie to get used to the idea of a camera crew following his every move. After a few hours, however, he almost forgot they were there. The techs simply blended into the other strange natural elements he found himself faced in what felt both like his back yard, and an environment almost surreal in its strange vegetation and the amber hued sky above it. The crew documented his engineering as he heated rocks in a hole he'd dug by a stream.

"Ahhh," he said with satisfaction finally sipping the product of his extensive labor. This was the kind of footage Susan was sure would keep her, all of her earthbound support staff and the crew members who'd risked their lives for the production, in the reality game for years to come.

Jack then moved on to Matt's site on his own. He was as impressed with this contestant's savvy as Susan had been with Louie's know-how. He marveled as the Army Ranger whittled a stick into a spindle and used a pliable piece of green wood to bow drill a fire.

Chronicling Bryan's adventures on their third stop, the footage the techs captured certainly didn't reveal the same acumen as the other contestants. By late that afternoon, the only footage the crew recorded was his Bryan's failed effort to catch fish with the line he'd brought. They continued rolling camera as he moved on to plan-B.

"Sometimes fish just don't bite on a line," he said as he began the process of weaving strands of the wood together into a funnel. "What I'm doing now is making a trap for these picky eaters here. The fish swim in and don't swim out."

He moved back out of his camp and towards a marsh 75 feet from where he'd built his A-frame hut. He'd just set the trap down when he saw something in the water. "It looks like a turtle," he whispered. He slowly crept up on the animal. He lunged at it. No sooner had he wrapped his hand around the reptile when the creature scurried out of his grasp.

"He's not going far," Bryan said with a heavy note of defiance.

Later that day, the cameras trailed Caleb as he picked up a spear and began walking out of his own wooded camp. "Okay, time to do some hunting," he said looking straight ahead.

Jack and the crew members continued to follow him through the woods. "So, what are you most concerned about right now?" he queried Caleb just after the camera had customarily shut off to avoid picking up the producer's motivating interrogative.

"What I'm about to do," the survivalist responded with his side of the conversation now being documented. "I don't like taking the life of another creature. Even zillions of miles from earth, I'd still like to think that any animal was put on this planet for a reason."

He turned directly towards the camera again and patted his stomach. "But today that reason is to fill my tummy."

He came upon a small rodent-like animal that looked like a cross between an armadillo and a porcupine. He tried to spear it. A hard shell immediately extended to protect its body. Caleb leaned down and knocked on the animal's defensive exterior. He then flipped it over and found the same protective covering on its underside. Seeing no other area that the creature could be penetrated, he finally took his spear and stabbed the animal between its eyes. The creature let out a long screeching death knoll.

"Okay, now I have to figure out how to eat this thing."

Caleb picked the animal up and brought it back to his fire. He put the creature down on the blaze and pushed a stake through the eye socket. The spear came out the back of its shell right next to the base of the tail. He then rested the spit on two y-shaped sticks.

The SA contender sat. He watched the animal cooking over the flame for 15 minutes.

"I'm hoping that I can actually chip away at this shell and get to the meat inside." He continued to roast the creature. As the animal cooked, he noticed that the shell slowly began to recede.


This little hack would no doubt up his chances of lasting the duration of the 40 day-grind.

Finally, the producers chronicled Gail's first experience on Caelestis. The crew filmed her as she acclimated herself to her location with a short stroll around the area, narrating her reactions to the unusual vegetation she came upon. After the production team had left that night, she started the process of creating a round house shelter. She began stacking sticks that she'd collected to build a frame and wrapping them with vine. She pointed to an opening in the top of the hut.

"This is gonna' be my smoke hole. It's supposed to get pretty chilly in this area at night, so I should start a fire before it gets dark."

Just then a stiff wind blew knocking over her shelter.

"Wow, breezy out here," Gail remarked. "Looks like I'm gonna' need more twine."

She continued to rebuild the hut. 20 minutes later, she was still tying sticks together when a light drizzle began falling. "Starting to rain. Better get this done..." Very soon, the drizzle turned into a downpour, and the temperature started dropping by the minute. She could feel herself growing weak from the cold.

Chapter 4

Was she really going to have to give up her first night? she wondered to herself. As she felt the beginning of hypothermia setting in, her mind drifted back to the "I told you so's" her husband barraged her with late one evening two weeks before the SA launch. Outside their home in Springfield, MA, her partner Chris Howard, a man in his forties wearing a polo shirt, sat by her side stroking her hair as his elbow rested on the back of their porch swing. Together they gazed out at their front lawn. The wooden seat rocked slowly as sounds of crickets echoed in the suburban evening.

"Now you sure you wanna' do this?" Chris asked.

Gail turned to her husband. "I know that tone."

"Sweetheart, your combat was one thing. It was risky, but I knew you were trained for what you were up against. Here there are a lot of unknowns. I recognize you're trying to make a statement, but do you really have to be the first woman to put your life on the line for something like this?"

"So, it should be all men up there?"

"Well, no but--"

"But there are a lot of women officers without two young kids... and a husband."

"Mhmm," Chris replied.

"Well, there's also a lot of girls out who're being held back by the X chromosome. I want Ann and Emily to recognize what they're capable of, what any woman is capable of."

"And becoming a corporal in the Army isn't enough?"

"There are tons of women who've moved up in the Army. That doesn't mean the glass ceiling they're pushing their face against has gotten much higher."

Chris had always been a bit on the traditional side. He was forced to adjust a lot after marrying a military officer. He still preferred, whenever he could, to make his wife feel like the delicate young maiden he'd wooed some 20 years earlier.

"When does it stop, huh?" Chris asked smiling. "First it's the military, then women sports announcers and next thing you know, no one'll be happy until there's officially a WNFL."

Gail pulled her head back slightly. "I guess now would be a bad time to discuss our future field goal kicker."

"You're joking, right?"

After a few seconds of ambiguous silence, Gail finally nodded her head. She then gave her husband a soft kiss. The smooch was a small but symbolic gesture. She was making up for punking him and showing her gratitude for his reluctant support.

By the time Gail had finished her shelter, her fire was completely extinguished. She continued to try lighting the wet kindling, but the wood appeared to be too wet. Her thoughts returned to the temptation of tapping out. Just when she felt she couldn't take another minute of the cold, the brush suddenly lit. "Thank God!" she exclaimed. She blew on it before beginning to toss new wood onto a flame that would continue to burn throughout the night.

Later that evening, she picked up the diary cam that sat by her side. "Well, my first night on Caelestis and I'm still kicking. I miss all of you!" was the only message anyone needed to see. She couldn't help smiling as she imagined her Doubting Thomas watching the broadcast along with all of the naysayers just waiting for her to fail.

The next morning, the camera crew was already there to record Louie waking up in the hut he'd built. He was treated to a high-pitched serenade a small flock of Caelestis birds perched in the trees above him offered. He emerged from his hut walked over to his liquid source with his leaves to scoop more water into his pot. When he got to the stream, he saw that it had all but dried up.

"Looks like my water source is pretty much gone. Right now, I'm going to go in search of some more agua." Louie then began his next journey. This was no quick jaunt. He walked for over two miles before stopping. The techs were about to give up and radio for a transport. They decided Louie could hike back without an entourage.

The survivalist turned and looked over at the crew, one of whom was now sitting on the ground completely spent. "Well, been hiking pretty much all day," he said into the camera still trained on him. "Nothing yet. I'll give it another half a mile. Man, not looking forward to that hike back." Louie walked another hundred feet with the crew members in tow before he paused again. He looked around and then pointed. "I think I hear something coming from that direction." He continued humping the jungle until he reached a stream. "Water!" the wanderer shouted. "Guess I might have to relocate." He approached the source and immediately began scooping out dirt with his hands.

As he dug out his new water hole, he heard a rustling.

Suddenly, Gail appeared from behind some trees. "Well, howdy stranger!"

"Look who we have here," he responded. The two primordial beings gave each other a quick hug. "Come sit," Gail then said leading Louie back to her fire and pointing to a log she'd laid down for a stool.

Louie remained standing and looked around Gail's camp. Nice accommodations, he thought... and a water source. The only thing preventing him from broaching the alliance issue was the thought of how his wife would feel about him partnering with a woman. She had a jealous streak. All the women in her family did. He hated think about how she'd feel when the airwaves were beaming down pictures of him and Gail sleeping in the same hut. Oh, what the hell, he'd build a separate shelter, he decided. He took the offered seat. And then five seconds later, "Don't mean to impose, but how about teaming up?"

"Okay by me," Gail responded whipping her head.

"Great!" Louie replied. "I'll, um... build another shelter, but it's a little late to get started on one right now," he said his hands unconsciously folding in front of him as he spoke. "Any chance I could share yours... just for tonight?"

"Mea casa est sua casa."

Upon Gail's agreement, the two survivors shacked up in her hut that night--with Louie's jacket between them. As Gail lay in bed, she wondered if her husband, or her fans, would consider this cheating. She didn't care. She knew she could handle herself as far as the challenge was concerned--she'd just have someone to talk to. That was the only real boon she'd get out of teaming up with a man. If anyone considered that an unfair advantage, that was their problem.

The two survivalists spent the next afternoon purifying water from the stream just outside the camp. That evening, they walked through the woods together in search of game.

"I've been tracking some rabbit-like creatures," Gail explained to her new compadre as they hiked. "A lot similar to the Jacks I used to catch and skin with my brothers when I was a kid. They've got great eyesight." Gail looked up. "Full-moon. Means we've got the best chance of catching them."

Her new partner was confused. The predator-prey components of survivalism were definitely not his strong point. "Rabbit eyes? Then why are they hunting during a full moon?"

"Other animals come out during the twilight and the dusk," Gail explained attempting to avoid sounding pedantic. Her husband hated when she talked down to him about the outdoors. "Normally fellas' like these wait until the predators higher up on the food chain are inside their burrows."

"Got it," Louie replied.

The pair spotted one of the critters. Gail's makeshift bow was not weapon enough for the job. She let an arrow go but missed. The creature took off an instant after this unsuccessful attempt. She and Louie continued to chase after it, but the animal was already history, burrowed deep in its hole by the time they got close.

"Fuck!" Gail exclaimed.

"Bummer," Louie said. The two survivalists gave up for the time being and began heading back to their new shared camp. As they traversed the late evening Caelestis forest, they came upon what looked like an etching on a stone.

"Hey, take a look at this," Louie said. "Does that seem like an engraving to you?"

"Sort of," Gail responded.

"But the planet's uninhabited."

"Well, that's what it said in our contracts."

"How could something like this have gotten here?" Louie asked.

"Maybe another civilization carved it millions of years ago. We could be hot on the trail of finding signs of other intelligent life!"

"Or it could just be what the weather up here does to rocks."

Gail looked at it again. "Probably."

"And right now, I'd take a cheeseburger over a medal anyway."

"With you there, kemo sabe."

After breakfast the next day, Louie and Gail hiked back to their stream. Immediately upon arriving at their go-to water source, they were hit with their first team whammy--the well had run dry.

"Looks like our water is pretty much gone," Louie said into his diary cam. "Time to go search for some more agua."

The crew hadn't arrived yet.

"Should we wait?" Gail asked.

"Too thirsty," Louie responded.

Three miles from their camp they stopped for a rest.

"It's getting late. How bout' we head home and get a fresh start tomorrow," Gail suggested.

Louie nodded his head. "Sounds like a plan to me."

Suddenly a soft "woosh" caught Gail's ear. "Hey wait, I hear something."

Louie listened as well. "Yeah."

The two survivalists began walking towards the sound of water. After passing through an opening in the trees, they found themselves standing on the bank of a steadily moving river.

"Water!" Gail shouted.

"Not only water." Louie pointed to a deer-like creature with long antlers and a bluish coat on the other bank of the river. "Look!"

Gail caught sight of the bounty he was gesturing at.

"Think we can get across this?" he then asked.

"It doesn't look so bad."

Of course, the animal immediately took off at the sight of them.

They began frogging it along a set of rocks that jutted out above the water. Hopping off the last stone onto dry land, Gail and Louie headed in the direction the mock-deer had sprinted after seeing them.

Gail looked at the ground. "The tracks lead this way."

They began following the creature's path. They'd been walking for a quarter of a mile when it started to pour.

"This isn't looking promising," Gail said. "The rain's gonna' wash out the tracks."

Suddenly Louie put his finger to his lips and pointed with the other hand at the animal chowing down on some bushes in the distance.

Gail nodded. She took an arrow from her bag and slid it into her bow. She crept up behind the creature and let the quiver fly.

The animal was hit on its left flank. It attempted to run but collapsed after four steps.

Louie rushed over to the creature. He knelt down and cut its neck with his hunting knife. Gail walked up behind him.

"Boy is my stomach gonna' appreciate this tonight," Louie said standing up and admiring their prize.

Now the rain had begun to come down harder. Louie found a fallen tree branch and whittled a sharp end. Together he and Gail ran the spear through the animal and headed back towards the river.

By the time they reached the bank, the rain had stopped, but the river was now flowing precipitously faster.

"Shit, we have to cook this soon or it's gonna' spoil," Louie said. "And of course, the goddamn fire starter's back at camp."

"We could try making a fire out here," Gail suggested.

"Not a chance," Louie responded. "This wood's way too wet already." He looked again at the river. "Think we can make it across with this thing?"

"It's worth a shot," Gail replied. "Let's try a couple feet. If it's too slick, we'll just leave Bambi here for the birds."

The two contestants started stepping very gingerly on each stone as they balanced the spit they were carrying on their shoulders. They were half-way across when Louie started to wabble.

"You okay?" Gail asked glancing back at her partner.

"Yeah, I can make it," he said lowering his eyes to his footholds. He then looked up again. "It's not much farther."

"Okay," Gail said turning back around and continuing on to the next stone.

"Fuck!" she heard Louie exclaim five seconds later. She turned to see him tumbling headlong into the water behind her.

The current started carrying him downstream. Gail immediately dropped the animal. She began leaping from stone to stone until she reached the other side. She continued running along the bank keeping pace with her partner. As she sprinted, she began to hear the sound of a falls only a few hundred yards ahead.

Chapter 5

Louie was able to catch a rock that jutted above the surface of the river. He could feel his hand slipping by the moment as the water separated his fingers one by one off the sodden moss-covered outcropping. Gail darted in front of him and took one of the arrows she'd made and a rope out of her pack. She tied the end of the cord to the arrow's tail.

She rushed over to the edge of the bank, aimed and shot the wooden dart at a tree across the river. The tip lodged solidly in the bark. She then pulled the rope taught just as Louie lost his grip on the rock he was clinging to. The river continued pulling him towards the drop-off 200 feet down stream.

"Grab the rope!" Gail shouted.

Louie looked around barely conscious of the cord above him. Finally, he caught sight of the line. As the current carried him under the rope, he stretched his arm up. It was no use--the line was an entire foot above his reach.

"Shit!" Gail said. She dropped the cord. The rope snagged on a rock in the middle of the river, and the end flailed amidst the white caps. Gail dove into the water and swam towards a rock just past where Louie floated helplessly. She grabbed onto it and turned around. "Take my hand!" she yelled.

As Louie was pulled mercilessly past her by the rushing river, he reached out and wrapped his frozen fingers around Gail's hand.

After a few moments, the strength of the water was slowly prying his grip loose from Gail's. His partner pointed to the cord bobbing up and down in the water.

"You've got to reach that rope!" she shouted as his last finger began slipping out of her hand. When I let you go, you'll have about 10 seconds before the current pulls you past it. Swim as hard as you can!"

Louie looked intently at Gail before nodding. He thought of his daughter. He'd made her a promise and he wasn't going to break it. He turned around and focused on the end of the cord.

"One, two, three!"

As Gail released Louie's last digit, he turned in the water and swam for the rope. He grabbed onto the cord just as he was about to be swept past. "Got it!" he shouted pulling his way five feet up the line.

"Okay, here I come," his partner said breathing heavily.

Louie reached out his hand.

Gail let go of the rock and swam towards him. Grabbing only his fingers at first, she slowly pulled her way up his arm until she had a firm grip. She then reached down with her other hand and wrapped it around the loose cord flailing in the water. The two survivalists walked their way along the length of the rope towards the shore before collapsing onto the bank.

"Now about supper," Gail said panting.

Louie smiled faintly as he continued to take in long labored breaths.

The two survivalists lacked the energy to move from their current location. With the rain now over, and a three-mile hike awaiting them, they spent the night sleeping on the bank of the river.

The following morning, Louie and Gail trudged back towards their camp. When they finally arrived, they came upon Susan and Jack standing huddled with a set of the show's cameramen. They didn't even notice Gail and Louie's approach until Gail shouted a greeting from 20 feet behind them.

"Oh, my Lord, are you two alright?" Susan asked spinning around.

"We're fine... just a minor near death experience," Gail responded.

"Oh, thank God," Susan said exhaling.

Jack looked at both of the survivalists for a moment. "Did you get it on camera?"

Everyone stared at Jack.

"That was a joke."

"Really?" Susan asked her co-producer.

"Of course!" he said sheepishly, not fooling himself any more than the others.

Meanwhile two miles from Bryan's camp, the intrepid survivalist had taken his spear on his own morning hike through nearby woods.

"I'm venturing out to the uncharted regions of Caelestis to try to find some places where there's food that doesn't slither away." He began to see faint signs of smoke in the distance. He looked at the camera. "Either there's some kind of geyser out here or... my neighbor to the east is closer than I thought."

"Are you going to partner?" Jack asked.

"Nope. In my book, too many chefs spoil the broth."

Five minutes later, Bryan, still over 100 yards away, could tell that right next to where the smoke emerged from was a hut along with other tell-tale signs of human habitation. A minute later, the crew was filming him walking into the camp, where he saw Caleb sitting cozily by his fire.

"Well, I'll be damned," Caleb said standing up.

"Hey there!" Bryan announced as the crew filming him pulled up the rear. They began to move in closer for a better angle on the encounter before shifting their position for an establishing shot of Caleb's digs.

Bryan surveyed the campsite. As he glanced around, he saw a length of vine holding the fish that Caleb had caught the previous day. "Looks like you got a sweet set-up in this place."

"The angling's not bad here. They got a lot of some type of grouper fish cousin." Caleb pointed to a nearby arbor and then picked up a mango-like fruit from a pile. "And these trees are giving me more of these babies than I can eat."

"I guess dining well is easy if you've got the resources."

"You're welcome to join me," Caleb said flat out to his fellow survivalist.

Bryan pursed his lips ambivalently. He was glad there was no camera recording him at that particular moment. He was beginning to be tempted by the offer. What a cop out, he began thinking to himself. Yoking his lot with another player's just to score himself some grub. But then he took one more look at the fish on Caleb's line. As he did, he felt another characteristic grumble in his stomach, a noise that had grown more frequent in the past few days. "Okay," he finally heard himself uttering.

"Well then, welcome partner," Caleb said extending a hand, but Bryan had already darted past him towards the fish strung up along the line.

After recording the marine stuffing his face with Caleb's catch for 20 minutes, the crew stowed their gear in a transport before following Jack back to the SA headquarters. As Caleb filled Bryan in on his hunting strategies, his new partner began to formulate how to sell his alliance to the home viewing audience. While he mused over this, his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a large animal rustling in the bushes.

"That doesn't sound good," Caleb said whirling around.

"I'll go check it out," Bryan announced glad for an opportunity to spin his choice as "going all in" rather than "giving up and crawling in" to the plenty-horn.

"Want company?"

"No," Bryan said. As soon as he'd given his response, he suddenly began to second guess himself. "You stay here and tell the folks at home how big this baby sounds," he said with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

"Roger," Caleb replied.

"Just get the walkie ready in case though," he added.

"10-4," his new partner replied nodding.

Bryan raised his spear and slowly made his way into the growth. "Come out, come out wherever you are," he said to the shadowed beast.

Just at that moment, a huge cat with flaring nostrils jumped out at him from behind a tree. Bryan tried to stab it with the weapon, but the animal chomped down on the spear, breaking it in two. The jungle beast then leapt forward and knocked him onto the ground. It bared its razor-sharp teeth as it lunged at Bryan's neck. He extended his arm to hold the creature's maws away.

Caleb now began walking toward the sound of the animal's snarls. "Holy Shit!" he screamed when he finally spotted the beast.

"Okay. Now would be a good time for some help."

Caleb immediately flanked the creature and dug his knife into its side. The animal let out a groan before collapsing onto Bryan.

"Thanks," the other survivalist said as the saliva of the dead cat dripped down onto his chin.

"Don't mention it," said Caleb.

Bryan pushed the animal off of him in disgust before rising again to his feet.

The two men inspected the creature carefully. The face appeared to them to display the combined features of a tiger and a boar. It had purple fur, a bright streak of yellow covering its haunches and a tail that extended for over six feet.

"Welcome to Caelestis fauna," Bryan said shaking his head.

After hearing about close call #2, the production team began to recognize they were out of their element. Jack and Susan had to finally admit to themselves they weren't really prepared for a publicity stunt of quite this magnitude. They started discussing the possibility of cancelling the show. However, at that moment a call from one of their survivalists required that they postpone any decisions about the program's future.

In the distance outside of his camp Matt witnessed the beginning of a ferocious sandstorm. He radioed the SA trailer to report the development. Jack looked at Susan upon hearing the news. "Sandstorm," he said sighing.

Susan just shook her head.

The survivalist then asked Jack if he had any directives under the circumstances. "Dig in! Hard!" was all the producer could tell him.

"Okay," Matt said. After signing off with Jack, he turned to Simon, the only tech there at the moment. "Time to batten down the hatches. Matt and the tech climbed into his shelter and listened as the winds began to whip against the outside of the hut.

As they waited out the storm Matt's mind drifted back to the last encounter with his own S.O. just before he'd left. For Matt, no disagreements or weepy spouses preceded his trip into the unknown. There was nothing, in fact, waiting for him back on earth but a future so bright that 37 days separating him and his soulmate couldn't go by quickly enough. A few weeks before the launch, Matt and his girlfriend Tonya were having dinner. She happened to be a sister, but only by chance. Matt's previous shorty was Asian. At one point, a financial disagreement sent the two of them on their separate ways. He'd been with a white girl for over three years before that. They might have tied the knot except for her mother's objection. It wasn't race. Her mom just warned her daughter--told her to think really hard if she wanted to cross the widow's walk every time her husband headed overseas. This time Matt wasn't taking any chances.

That night, Tonya, who wore her side swept hair with layered bangs, sat at the dining room table in their apartment. "I have something for you," she announced. Taking a box from her lap, she pulled out a Purple Heart."

"It's a medal that my daddy got for his service in World War 2. He gave it to me right before he died."

Matt admired the pendant. He ran his fingers over its soft ribbon. "Wow, girl!" he said barely able to believe his lady-friend had kept such a prize under wraps for so long. "I won't wear it 'cause I haven't earned it, but this ain't leavin' my side 'till I'm back on earth."

Matt then stood up and walked over to a cabinet.

"I have a present for you too." He opened the door and took out a box. He removed something--his back still to Tonya. Turning around, he walked over to his girlfriend and got down on one knee.

"Ms. Tonya Williams, will you do me the honor of being my wife?"

Tonya screamed. She grabbed Matt's shoulders. She pulled her boyfriend up to her and kissed him before running out of the room.

Matt heard the sound of Tonya plopping down on the bed, of her fingernails against the screen of her phone as she began dialing friends.

"Is that a 'Yes?'" he asked her from the other room as she gushed to one of her besties.

Later that afternoon, Matt woke up to an empty shelter. He walked back out to where Simon stood filming the aftermath of the mayhem. He looked at the sand near his hut where he saw the bones of a skeleton protruding above the ground.

"Was that there before?" he asked the tech.

"I don't think so," Simon responded. The crew member then put down his camera and walked over to the bones. "Looks like a skeleton."

"Yeah, but what kind?"

"It must be some sort of animal."

"Doesn't look much like an animal," Matt replied.

"Well, it doesn't look human. Not completely at least."

Both men continued to stare at the set of bones. Simon finally jumped into the transport and headed back to the compound, debating whether or not to pass on their discovery to the producers.

Back on earth, a pair of technicians sat in a NASA control room. Frank McCoy, was a senior aeronautics engineer who still wore 1950s, The Right Stuff, white shirts and patterned ties. He was seated next to his colleague, Tom Salsburg, another veteran in the administration. The two men drank cups of coffee, black as night. Due to their momentary preoccupation with SA logistics, they'd neglected to put in creamer. That and the pot had also been sitting unchanged for most of the day.

"We're getting a signature from an area at least 30 miles from the program command center," Frank announced.

"Yeah, the crew each have their own transport," Tom replied.

"No, those are these dots right here," Frank said pointing to a monitor. "There's something else up there. It's hard to say what it could be exactly, but whatever it is, it's definitely not related to our Caelestian's broadcast source."

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