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Never Lonely
by Dave Kissling
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It still seemed like a nightmare. Last night, as the night before, Shawnee had hoped that once she went to sleep, she could awaken and discover herself in her own dry bed in her own quarters, surrounded by the sisters and the array of stuffed animals she loved. She wouldn’t even mind if 15-year-old Nina hogged the bathroom, or if her older sister Robin, a lady in her own mind, gave her orders. For all the grief they had given her, at least she would be with them, not stranded on a remote planet far from anything she would call civilization.

In contrast, the air was dank and reeked constantly of the scent of moisture. The grass and leaves were perpetually wet, endowing her with their clamminess every time she brushed by one. Her flowing dark hair and loose blue blouse now cloyed to her like plastic wrap. And though Shawnee had found a relatively dry cave, the chilly air made sleep a multi-part story without plot, without a climax, but with lots of action. Shifting position. Looking for the most comfortable rock to lay her soggy head on. Getting up and finding a new place. Hoping the indeterminable night would soon end.

But when the cool night ended, the muggy daytime began, which carried problems of its own. The perpetually moist air would quickly stifle her in its warmth. She had to fend for her own food, entertain herself, and be alert for wild animals. Whereas the constant drip of bowing leaves had seemed charming to her at first, now it only magnified her loneliness. Would the rain ever stop? Grass and trees greener than any she had seen surrounded her, as did animals of various descriptions, wild and tame.

With many of the tame varieties, she had become fast friends. Monkeys swung out of the trees, one with tufts of fur around its face like a lion’s mane. Large mice or small rabbits—Shawnee wasn’t sure what they were—approached her handful of their favorite seeds and nibbled contentedly. Medium sized sloths with their lethargic movements would keep their distance, but they did not seem to mind her watching them forage for food in the trees like diminutive bears.

Then she remembered yesterday’s encounter with a leopard. Its fur was an odd shade of green, camouflaging it in the forest, with fewer darker spots than the leopards she had seen on Earth. It had stalked her like prey until she had rushed it, flailing her arms. For a moment it had maintained its stand, determined to carry through its plans, but finally it had turned and galloped into the forest.

As the suns peeked through the few holes in the foliage canopy, Shawnee reflected how different life was on the mother ship. She wished her family had never taken that pleasure trip through this solar system in the family runabout, leaving the spaceship Virgo and hopping from one planet to another, to see what, if any, life existed there. And she regretted having been eagerly in favor of the trip when her father had suggested it.

Most of the worlds they had encountered they could never land on, only admire from afar. Colorful swirls of gases. Misty atmospheres impossible to breathe. Rocky worlds devoid of air. So it was with great delight that they had found this one, a world that boasted a wealth of arboreal and animal life. It had seemed so inviting, so Terrestrian, that Shawnee’s father had decided to venture in and make a day of exploring.

How were they to know other men had been exiled here? Surface scans had failed to show them. How was anyone to know they would be so desperate to escape that they would ambush innocent people and force them to take off with them? Shawnee had escaped, barely dodging their fire, but now she even wished for the risk of life to accommodate these men. Were there more around? Would she encounter them, as out-weaponed and helpless as she was? She’d rather wrestle the green leopard than meet one of them.

Maybe there really had been only four left, as they had said. Maybe all the rest really had died. But the nagging fear that they had lied plagued her solitary life. She listened to the constant dripping, the primate calls, the frog concerts, and various insect clicks and chirrups. Nothing in those everyday sounds seemed even remotely human, but on an alien planet, how could she be sure?

Seeing her runabout take off without her had made Shawnee’s heart sink. She couldn’t blame her family; they had been forced to abandon her. What would those men to do them? Would Derek overpower them? Would he and Mike find a way to subdue them? She knew her brothers could hold their own in most conflicts, but against rifles and pistols, how could she be sure they would survive? Nina was probably cowering in Robin or her mother’s arms. She could still hear her father’s voice, trying to keep his family calm.

"It’s all right," he had said. "They won’t do anything if we do as they say."

But Shawnee had escaped, and wound up alone. Would she be here the rest of her life? Would they ever come back for her? Could they? Only if they could shake the pirates first, she was sure. Perhaps they could trick them somehow, take their weapons. How she prayed that that would happen! Perhaps others in the Virgo would catch wind and come for her. But what if no contact was allowed? What if her family was simply overdue, and the captain and crew were left wondering what happened? Surely they would begin a search pattern. Could surface scans see her while she was in her cave?

The uncertainty of it had made her cry, wailing and sobbing from her broken heart. Usually any sorrow would find comfort in family and friends, offering words of encouragement, but not this time. And that made the sobs all the more lung-wrenching. She had mourned nonstop for perhaps an hour before she was cried out.

Then had come the prayers, accusatory at first. "O God, how could You let this happen to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? Why did You abandon me to die?"

But as she continued along those lines, the prayers had gradually changed. "God, please protect my family. Help them survive the pirates who kidnapped them, and perhaps bring them to You. And please be with me in this world, help me survive. Guide me to do the right things in this environment until help comes. And please, please! Send someone to look for me. Rescue me from this place."

That’s when the survival skills she had learned as a young girl had kicked in. Using the food analyzer she kept with her, she had searched for plants she could eat. Her taste buds endured one bitter and sour ordeal after another before she found plants that were edible. One perpetually wet bush yielded berries, ranging from white to purple; only the purple ones smelled and tasted sweet enough to be ripe. She tried the seeds and nuts she fed her little friends, and adopted them into her diet. She wanted to eat meat too, but to do that she needed shelter in which to build a fire. Eventually she had found this cave, using sturdy sticks lashed with lianas to build a wood lean-to at its entrance, but building the fire was the real trick. Finally she had to give up the prospect of cooked meat and forced herself to find edible insects, ignoring the repulsion that had originally entered her mind. Eventually some of them didn’t taste so bad.

Those had been her activities her first night here. Her mind still searched for a way, any way, she could build a fire. Protected in her cave with the lean-to canopy, she was sure the rain could not douse one already burning, but all the wood was perpetually damp. She had a weapon for self-defense, but using it to dry and ignite wet wood would drain its energy bank, leaving her defenseless.

Shawnee checked the branches and leaves she had brought into the cave, setting them in the very back to let dry. Broader green leaves covered them to protect them from the endless mists that reached even here. Moving the leaves aside, she examined the drying sticks and leaves, but her shoulders sagged. The sticks were still green, and though the bark had dried some, the wood remained wet. The leaves, though turning brown, were not brittle enough to make good tinder. Even if they were dry enough, there was still the problem of lighting them under her canopy on wet grass.

Shawnee sneezed, then moaned. "Oh great, now I’m catching cold. I was afraid that would happen, and me without medicine."

In a sense, her survival so far had made her feel empowered. She was into her third day on this dank world, having found sufficient food to avoid starvation, if not to completely fill her. But she felt tired from her continued lack of sleep. Her sneezing and sniffling made her worry about catching pneumonia with no way to ward it off, or to fight it once it gripped her lungs. After the sickness would weaken her, she would no longer have the energy to defend herself against that leopard, or any other predator that might find her.

"Dear God, You have protected me so far. But Lord, I fear it’s a losing battle. I want Mom’s home-cooked meals again. I want my family. Please let them find me, get me out of this world. I trust in You. In Jesus’ name, Amen."

Already the misty air was warming up. The clingy mugginess was starting again. Now would come seemingly eternal hours of wiping sweat, trying to rest, trying to cool off without wind or even a breeze. Would this torture ever end?

"Lord, if I must die here, let me die peacefully. Don’t let pneumonia or anything else make me suffer before You take me. You are my Savior, my Rock, my Redeemer. I trust you implicitly. Give me peace."

What happened next, Shawnee could not explain. An unusual warmth filled her soul, far different from the increasing forest heat. Her heart glowed with the assurance that not only would God protect her, but He would be with her even in death. And she would certainly be with Him in eternal life. Her circumstances were still hopeless, her hunger still real, the dampness still made her hair and clothes cling to her. But these no longer mattered.

"This must be Your peace, Lord," she whispered, closing her eyes and leaning back. "I’ve never felt Your personal peace before. I’ve never prayed for it before. Lord, forgive me for my attitude toward my sisters. I’d give anything to be back with them, with my entire family, with my entire crew. If I must live here another day or two before I die, so be it. I know You are here with me, no matter what."

Finally at ease, Shawnee stood and ambled out of the cave, hugging the post of her lean-to as though it were an old friend. She sneezed, then chuckled a little as she wiped her nose. The drooping trees were the same. The hanging lianas. The glimpses of monkeys in the trees, of the rabbit-mice on the ground, of the colorful plumage of birds that flapped low enough for her to see. And suddenly it was her forest. Her vines, her trees, her pets. This was her home.

"I’m not alone. God is here. Alone but never lonely. That’s what He promised."

A beam shone through the foliage, a light that gradually increased in brightness. Somehow it seemed brighter than normal. Curious, Shawnee wandered toward the light and stood under it. The ever-present rain fell directly on her now. She lifted her face to feel its coolness, if even for a moment. And the beam continued to brighten.

Her mind became aware of a low rumble overhead, the familiar engine rumble of a runabout. It seemed to be a sound from ages ago, as though she were in a deep sleep for a change and dreaming. But the sound continued, and in the light she recognized a familiar shape.

"They’re back!" she squealed. "They’ve finally come back for me. Oh, thank you, Lord! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Backing away, she let the boxy runabout descend in her place, and land in the soggy grass. Monkeys screeched and scampered away; birds cawed and chattered as they fled. Leaves released by their frenzied departure showered Shawnee as surely as the rain. She watched as the familiar hatch lowered before her, anxiously waiting for it to open. Whom would she meet? Her parents? Her brothers? Or someone else from the Virgo crew, here to tell her her family had been killed? That thought she quickly sent on its way.

And it stayed away when the hatch slid aside and she ran straight into her father’s arms—crying, laughing and jabbering, all at the same time. She was passed to her mother, then to her brothers and sisters. They didn’t seem to mind that she was grimy and damp, they all greeted her with tears and kisses and welcome-homes.

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