Every journey offers a vision of hell. Four months into our expedition, the men under my command were emblems of sad-eyed humanity. Our last animals had died. We ate the dogs and smoked the camels. Also, we killed the parrots, which had been nothing but a nuisance the whole trip. This was it. We would have to uncrate our precious last 90 days' supply of
food: the beef tenderloins, the escargots, even the risotto with those little asparagus tips.
Heartened by the scent of citrus groves, we portaged the kayaks to a caldera flanked by moors and iron-red scree. We rappelled down the canyon walls, believing we'd found an oasis of sorts. But it was here that young Major T. E. Randolph, my second-in-command, soon would be taken from us in the most Horrible manner.
Sometime between one dawn and another dawn, Major Randolph lost his footing and plunged into a crevasse between the Great Reef and an alpine meadow. We spent two hours of the morning (and nearly another hour after lunch) roping him out. It was a dreadful business: Judging from his difficulty breathing and doing the officers' laundry, the poor lad had
broken his neck.
Randolph had always been a solitary fellow—strangely detached from whatever adventure we set out upon. I would often chide him with shouts of "Randolph, you must wake up!" or "Better get a move on, Randolph!" And he would pretend not to hear, even when I tried to warn him about the snakes with cries of "Randolph! Look out!"
Later, the men informed me that his name was Phipps, not "Randolph" as I'd always thought. This was quite possibly a clue as to his unresponsive temper. But those intimate few who knew him best—myself, Jerry with the Red Hair, and a fortyish man I believe is from Australia—are certain Randolph wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
As the poor devil lay gasping for air, we knew there was no turning back. It was the beginning of the end for Randolph, the end of the beginning for others—and for some, like me, it was three-quarters of the way through the middle part of the beginning.
Randolph never gave up hope until his final hour (though then he gave up hope loudly and with great enthusiasm!). Beneath the deep booming of the blizzard outside the stained-glass windows of our tent, we could hear his agonized coughing, along with the sad rantings of a man who has lost all reason. "I blame you, Pike," he raved, as we looked on
uncomprehendingly. "Your incompetence caused my death!" and so on, etc., etc. At long last, he shuffled off this mortal coil, and also died. We removed his Mercury 7 medallion and folded his scuba gear into an origami Buddha, then buried him up in an old chestnut tree.
Of course, there is no loyalty without mutiny. Randolph's demise turned many of the weaker men against me. A few tortured souls seemed to have caught the dead man's rhetoric like a fever, shouting "Pike is unfit for command!" and whatnot. I was thus compelled to set 40 of them adrift in open boats. As fate would have it, the pond was quite small, so we
all met up again later in the afternoon.
That night we huddled in the mist, gazing joylessly out at the stars and back toward the cloudy blue Earth. The bleakness was taking hold. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months—but luckily for us, turned back into days again.