What the hell happened, I will never know. It was just some rare electronic glitch that brought me down.
I was on my way to my sister’s wedding.
In transit from Galactic East, clear across to the other side, it made sense in terms of energy curves to cut straight across the southern arm and make a shorter trip to my destination of Westside. In purely conventional terms the Galaxy spun in that direction anyway. Technically the universe is isotropic, in that half of all galaxies spin clockwise, and the other half counter-clockwise. Without some agreed-upon convention, we wouldn’t know which way is up.
Crossing the Great Dark Sea, an anomalous term but not without merit, it never occurred to me that I might have a breakdown. The Petrel had never let me down, or at least nothing that I couldn’t fix on my own and with the few tools and spares available.
When she sputtered and the display warnings lit up, my first reaction was a little mild cussing.
Before long I realized it was serious, as both engines were down, and the re-start procedure failed three times running.
The realization that I was a hundred and thirty or forty light years from the nearest human or other habitation was sobering.
Looking at my map display, I opened it up on a large scale, tracking magnetic anomalies in the projected glide path—I’ve never used that term before or since, but that’s what it was, and I quickly determined that the electronic suite was showing green on all points. According to the computer, there was nothing wrong with the quantum engines. Without knowing what was wrong, I had no idea of how to proceed.
All I could do was to run all diagnostic programs on the software, looking for bugs, glitches, and missing bits of code, which happens often enough. This would take a little time, so I went back to the maps.
One major bulge in the fabric of the space-time continuum bore further investigation. On zooming in, I saw a string of numbers and a pinprick of yellow light. The un-named white dwarf had one planet, and the planet had been mapped a couple of centuries ago. It had that much going for it. There was an asterisk, indicating a robotic surface probe. It was so close to the end-point on this trajectory that it seemed like I was going there anyway, whether I liked it or not. There were some ruins of archaeological interest but no present habitation. The ruins were classified as belonging to a well-known, highly-dispersed group of predecessor species. They were thought to have died out or moved on fifty or a hundred thousand years ago, according to my search of onboard files. While not the most up to date encyclopedically, these were usually good enough for the time being.
Managing a ship without engines is a simple problem of thermodynamics, and it didn’t take long to calculate emergency maneuvering thrust from the auxiliary bottles, which I would have to mount within the next two or three days if I couldn’t get her running otherwise. The ship was stored with the minimum legal number of six, which would require some space-walking. Not my forte, really, but it might have to be done.
Unfortunately, that is exactly the way things turned out.
With a bigger ship, I never would have made it down. With its lifting body shape, more of a styling thing these days with transmission booths everywhere and the modern propensity for saving time, money and docking fees by leaving ships in high orbit, but the atmosphere had sufficient density. My jury-rigged thrust bottles gave enough braking power for insertion. I could at least steer to the initial point.
The low gravity of the planet itself, which was only about one-half of one standard planetary mass, made the glide into the selected destination fairly calm, although there was quite a bit of turbulence in the troposphere.
Picking my spot, dropping the skids, deploying flaps and speed brakes, kept me busy enough, but the signs of past civilization were there all right. The electronics suite was just blank, a new experience for me. It was all dead down there, the people departed long in the past.
There was nobody home.
My landing was slated for an oval saline lake bed, fifteen kilometres wide and about forty long.
I only had one shot at it, and so I held her a bit high, bleeding off speed in a series of pull-ups, gentle stalls, and finally one big, diving S-turn right over the downwind end of the lake.
At three thousand metres, we had plenty of space in front of us. We were falling at a thousand metres per minute. With no place else to go but down, I was committed to the landing.
The ship flared when I pulled back on the stick, battery power still holding out, which was good as hitting a little too hard would have been fatal. Ground effect, which I had never experienced, surprised me and it was like she just wanted to glide forever. There wasn’t even a bounce. Once she set down, she stuck nicely.
It took a long time to stop on the pebbly salt surface, with an improbably blue mirage coming up fast under the nose. My heart raced at the sight of all that water, and the possibility of having to make an underwater exit.
The ship came to rest in a foot of water, nose pointed out into the middle of the lake, and I had gotten very lucky indeed.
The temperature outside was about twenty-eight degrees Celsius and the winds were from the southwest. It was nine-thirteen-thirty-six a.m. by the ship’s chronometer.
I sat in my seat for a long time, but sooner or later I had to go out there. Scanning with the manual emergency periscope, it looked like the nearest mountains, and the most likely place to find fresh water and hopefully local game animals, were about fifteen or twenty kilometres to the northeast.
Hopefully the rescue beacon I’d left in one of the LaGrange points for this system would be spotted by somebody, but that could take a long time if it happened at all. Of necessity, the things were low-powered and traffic out here was pretty much non-existent. Any passers-by would be looking for salvage as much as anything. The ship had its own transponder, one with a little more juice to it, but my hopes were very slim.
Skimming through the start-up checklist, I tried yet again to get the motors running.
No luck, no clue as to what the problem was. She just wouldn’t go. I sat quietly thinking about that. One last restart was all I dared. I was going to need those batteries, at least in the short term, just trying to stay alive for as long as possible in hopes of rescue.
That didn’t seem very likely.
The truth was that I could very well die here—probably would, and no one would be the wiser.
This was my new home.
Without any idea of whether the ship would settle into the silt, which seemed hard enough at first examination, I faced some tough choices. The natural inclination was to stay right where I was. That’s what all the survival manuals said.
Coming down in pretty much any other part of the Galaxy, staying aboard might have been an option. While rescue was not exactly assured—it still took days, weeks or months for missing ships to be found, the thought of leaving her behind and striking off all alone into the barren wastes of an alien planet far from home was not attractive. I figured it had to be done, and the sooner the better. The more supplies I kept in reserve, the more options I had in an emergency.
The thinking seemed clear.
Just sitting there until food and water ran out was not an option.
One way or another, I had to find food, water, and with a little luck, a more permanent shelter.
As for inhabitants of this rather unattractive little pebble in space, they had left long ago, and there wasn’t much we could do about that.
I left a note on my seat and the hatch unlocked. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
I took enough solid food for a three-day journey. I figured one day there, and one day back, which left a day to sit around and wait for something to walk by. If I could find something to eat, that would be helpful. Hopefully, if I could see it, I could hit it with the old .45 I kept for pirates and landings on inhabited but otherwise inhospitable planets, of which I’d seen a few in my time.
Clambering down the ladder, I stood in the warm brine and looked off to the north and east. Walking around underneath, the Petrel seemed in good shape. That was some consolation.
I had no famous last words, just the terrible thought of dismantling parts of the ship and pioneering, hopelessly alone, for the rest of my life out there in the middle of nowhere.
It took twenty minutes just to find dry land. Turning, the Petrel looked forlorn, lost and out of her natural environment. From this angle, she seemed down by the nose already, and again I wondered just how much she might settle.
I did have one last word, and having said it, I turned with grim resolution towards the low dark smudge on the horizon, the only thing I could see that held any promise at all, and then I started walking.
Like many a true spacer, my physical condition was not the best. All that time spent in artificial environments, and tightly-constrained ones at that, meant that I was soon sweating. My lower back and hips had some twinges, but I kept going. Hopefully that would ease over time.
I reached the base of the hills in less than two and a half hours, an oddly impressive feat. It wasn’t as far as I had thought. Partly I think that was due to something called atmospheric perspective, something else spacers weren’t too familiar with. The air dimmed the colour of the distant scene. What I thought were mountains a couple of thousand metres tall were just hills less than a third of that. Rising out of the sun-baked white plain I trod, the first big ridge loomed up in front of me. At first it was welcoming, with glades of grass, and an open park-like forest of tall green vegetation on its lower slopes, with some of the stems two or three metres thick. It was inviting enough until I comprehended the meaning of the bare tops and reddish tint of the summit, sticking up above the tree-tops.
I was sticking to the bottom of a cleft, for surely this was my best chance of finding water, and in fact I was heartened to see rounded rocks, patches of sand and gravel, and the occasional sign of the bank coming down recently. There were roots and dark topsoil exposed in vertical walls of dirt.
So far, no water, but I felt I was on the trail of something. I drained the first of my one-litre bottles and stuck it back in the side pocket of my pack.
Then I set out to find the top of the mountain.
After a few minutes the forest closed in, and the ground got steeper. The thicker brush implied some occasional rainfall if nothing else, for the small gulley I was following was still dry. Up ahead was a tangle of broken rock, roots and fallen vegetation. I got out of the gulley but tried to stay beside it as best I could. The problem in my mind was evolution. If the trees had evolved over millennia for a dry environment, then signs of rain or water might be months old, and of course what looked like trees and grass in my limited knowledge might be anything but comparable to trees and grass elsewhere in the Galaxy. They might be able to go a very long time without rain, but unfortunately I was going to need water in the next two days or it would be a long walk back for more.
While that was my initial plan, and my backup plan still. The view from the top would help me to decide what to do next, or where to go next, is more to the point.
When the trees gave out, there was nothing but the stringy green growths, which had an unfortunate tendency to rip out and let go just when I tugged on them to get up a steep spot. Finally, I was on all fours, slipping and sliding until I got to one final ledge. Above me the rocks were bare and wet-looking. A light mist clung to the summit, one which hadn’t been there when I first started up. Walking along the base of the ominous rock slope, wondering if I really ought to even attempt it, I found a crack, gushing with a small rivulet that petered out within yards. The rocks were green with slime, there were small round pads of something spongy and pale green, and the darker grass circling beyond that was thick and lush.
The water was cool, clear, and there was really only one way to find out. I sucked some up thought a filtered hand pump, examining it in the clear tube of the body. It looked okay. I pumped some through into my mouth.
Unbelievable. I never knew water could taste that good. I filled my empty bottle, drank half of it off now that there was no shortage, and filled it up again.
For the first time in my life, I really appreciated water, which sounds odd for a spacer but it’s true.
That’s all I can say.
So far I hadn’t felt hungry, and I really didn’t feel hungry now, but contemplating the climb that lay ahead, it seemed like a good time. With the mist hanging between me and the lake, I couldn’t make out the ship. That was a lonely moment, and without further hesitation I opened up the pack and took out the first of my meals. Opening a tin of something indecipherable, I saw row after row of small fish packed in a reddish sauce with bits of green leaf in it. That one, I think, had been in the back of the galley cupboards for a very long while. With a lightweight plastic fork, I dug in and began eating dutifully. Whether I liked it or not, I had no choice but to eat every bit of it. Looking down, it looked like a thousand metres or more. I had no experience judging distance by naked eye in such an environment, a sobering realization.
The humblest, most scuttling little four-legged varmint had at least that much of an advantage on me.
It was one hell of a view from up there.
An hour later, drenched in sweat from the unaccustomed effort, I pulled myself onto a flat slab of red rock, banded with wide strips of white, and looked back the way I had come. There was a tiny black dot in the sparkling aquamarine of the dead lake. For all I knew, it was the Petrel.
The thought of climbing back down that wet seventy-degree slab, cracked and studded with ledges and crevices as it was, was not a good one.
The sun was high in the sky. The planet’s rotation indicated about a sixteen and a half-hour day at the equator. This time of year, there were about seven hours of darkness at this latitude.
With a shrug and a strong pull of will, I turned and looked the other way. My knees seemed weak and wobbly.
This actually took some guts. As things turned out, I was deathly frightened whenever I looked down. It was a kind of razorback ridge of up-ended slabs. This made standing tall out of the question—I crouched there, and yet the other side didn’t look quite so bad.
That was a bad moment. To look back, and to fear the descent. To look forward, and it was only marginally better…
Going over the lip was bad, yet I had enough objectivity, once safely clinging to the edge and standing on the first outcropping, to take a moment and try to figure out where I was headed.
Below lay a snaking blue watercourse. Obviously, down was my first priority. The next thirty metres were the worst, for on this side the plant life if I can call it that began almost immediately.
Having a branch or root to cling to was better, especially going down. The fact that I had made it up at all, was something of a miracle.
On one side, it was barren desert, on the other side, a river and a temperate forest. Every spacer must know a little bit of planetology, if only for trading purposes, and it didn’t seem too outlandish. The hills blocked the rain and kept it from getting to the desert. Elementary school stuff. There was a much better chance of food here as well.
Once I felt safe again, I took a little more time to study the prospect laid out below.
The river’s curves tightened up and got closer together on the right, and it seemed wider there. The hills on the far side diminished in the distance, and maybe the valley opened up a bit. Off to my left was nothing but mist, so it wasn’t a fair comparison. I decided to follow the current when I found the river.
Based on what I saw, my instinct was that the river ran to the right, and grateful for the low brush screening my view of precipitous depths and plumb vertical drops, I carefully worked my way down, becoming conscious at some point that the light was fading and it wasn’t all due to the hillsides or the forest blocking out the daylight.
Night was coming and it was time to find somewhere safe to hole up.
With that thought came another kind of dread.
I had a sleeping bag, I had my toothbrush. All that sort of thing, but the real problem was that I had never really been away from home before—I’d always had one ship or another to call home.
So far I hadn’t seen any animals, nothing that even resembled an insect, or anything, really.
The thought wasn’t much comfort.
I didn’t even think of having a fire that first night. I just curled up in my sleeping bag and tried to put all thoughts out of my mind. Sleep was essential, and to get too exhausted in physical or psychological terms was stupid. I would need every edge to survive, even in the short term. Just sitting in the ship for day after day would bring inevitable thoughts of despair. I was no worse off out here, and there was every chance I would learn something of value. I needed that knowledge.
By now, people would know that I was missing. They would be so worried. I thought of my mom, and it was wretched. Tears almost overwhelmed me but I kept them back, sniffling a bit and wiping my nose on the sleeve of my jacket. They at least, would be fine. I didn’t have to worry about that. It wasn’t helping me to dwell on it.
My most important asset was what was inside my head.
I had everything I needed to survive out here, at least that’s what I told myself. As the sky darkened and the temperature dropped shockingly fast, I watched the stars come out and marveled at my fate, thinking about some of the survival stories that I’d read or heard about over the years.
The only sound was the wind. On a ship there are noises, always something running in the background. But here there was only the wind.
It occurred to me that if I ever got out of there…I would be one uniquely privileged individual.
The most amazing thing about the experience is that I finally did sleep.
Nothing ate me in the night.
I woke with a bang, with the rustle of the wind in some low bushes right beside me, and of course I had to pee. The sleeping bag was warm, and the air on my face felt cold, but nature’s call must be obeyed.
My shoes were right there.
After climbing back in the sleeping bag, I waited for a little more daylight, but I could only stand it for another ten or so minutes. There was nothing for it but to go on. At least I had a water source within easy walking distance of the ship, although there was no guarantee the small spring I had found would be there in all seasons.
In an hour and a half of walking, the forest had grown to trees thirty or forty metres tall, maybe higher.
That’s when I came upon a road. At first, it was just a wide slash across my line of travel, which tended downhill and what was indicated planetary west on my old-fashioned compass.
Looking to the left, it seemed to narrow, but the shadows might have been deceptive. It also seemed to climb, while on the right, perhaps due to the angle of the sun, the way seemed more open, and it also appeared to drop in the distance. Through the tops of trees I could see a bright gleam off the water.
I followed the slash to the right, for while my initial impression was of a street or road, there was nothing underfoot to indicate pavement or asphalt or anything like that. It was relatively flat in small, interlinked patches.
It went on for a while and then the forest on the left opened up and I could definitely see that I was paralleling the river. I still wanted to see which way the current was going, so I stepped into the forest proper again and cautiously made my way down to the bank.
Just because the planet was uninhabited, that didn’t rule out big, predatory animals, although I had seen none so far. Neither did it rule out other hazards, inimical plant life, parasites, and unknown diseases, many of which would be water-borne.
The second night found me in what once must have been quite the metropolis. The ruins were a strange mixture of massive stone blocks clearly belonging to a barbaric age, and then crumpled heaps of something much more recent, and fairly high-tech if the bits and pieces of building materials literally sticking out of the grass in places were anything to go by.
Metal would have long since corroded, or simply sunk out of sight. I grabbed the end of one that looked like a twenty-five millimetre T-section. I gave it a good tug, but it wouldn’t come up out of the ground. The impression was of stiff plastic, rather than light metal. There were even small buildings entirely covered in brush and undergrowth, and yet the shape of it revealed that the house inside might still be intact. I considered hacking away with my little hand-axe, and what the interior would probably look like, and gave that idea up. All I really needed was shelter.
Some of the huge masonry ruins had arches and recesses relatively out of the rain, and it was to these that I turned my attention.
Off in the distance, the rumble of thunder, a darkening sky and flashes of light spurred my search.
I found a likely spot, what might have been a temple or shrine, all pale and smooth marble or limestone, or who knows what. It was like a semi-spherical band-shell, and the right end was angled against the prevailing wind.
With some thought to the prowlers of the night—I’d seen a few tracks at waterholes along the way, I gathered up dead branches and sticks, heaping them in big armfuls along the trail. This was on the bank of a small, clear stream that went through in there.
More thunder, and the wind whipped up a little now, and then I started bringing in the heaps, making a big pile three or four metres from where I planned to sleep. I went back for more, thinking that I had really only had two meals so far. Other than a clean white skull and three other small bones from some omnivore judging by the teeth, I hadn’t seen any wildlife so far.
The tracks by the river said otherwise, and although there was nothing there much bigger than a dog would make, the key thing was to be the predator, rather than ending up as prey.
With that thought, I unrolled my sleeping bag and stuck the .45 under the rolled-up jacket I was using as a pillow. If I left the camp, that baby was going with me. First thing in the morning, I would have to figure out a better way of carrying it.
The storm had passed, although flashes still came over the horizon from the south-east. My watch said four a.m., a little after. I must have fallen asleep pretty early, zonked as I was from all the walking. The flickering of adjacent walls made an eerie impression.
I could have sworn I heard voices, a lot of them.
I froze in terror inside the bag. My hair prickled and a chill of something shot right through me.
My guts slowly relaxed as I listened. It was a kind of awe, for surely it must the creek, gushing and gurgling along, dropping over small ledges and bustling past snags and small boulders. I’d never heard anything like that before in my entire life. That stream made the weirdest noise effects.
It was the most horrible thing. I had the impression of laughing, and people talking, like at a cocktail party, one going on just over on the next block but you can’t catch even a word of it.
I mean, like when your ears burn and you think everyone’s talking about you, and there’s another wild burst of laughter just to ram the point home.
My heart ticked over at a steady beat. Maybe a little faster than it should. With dawn still some hours away, I lay as still as possible and tried to convince myself that I didn’t have a care in the world, let alone worrying about what a planet full of stupid ghosts thought of me.
“So, you made three of these expeditions, spending a total of thirty-four days on the planet’s surface?”
“And you managed to finally get some food?”
“Um, yes. There were starchy fruits growing on low bushes. I did see a couple of animals, small furry ones, but I didn’t try to shoot them as they were too far away.”
Constable Owen Barnaby of the Patrol looked sympathetic on the view-screen.
“And then for whatever reason, on impulse, you tried to start the ship and it worked. Okay, that seems clear enough. We can’t find any service bulletins for the GB-19 series, and this one is definitely serious.”
“Yes, also, my folks will be asking about me.”
“Confirmed. Would you like to patch through, or maybe we could notify someone?”
“No. I’ll call in a few minutes.”
“Well, thank you for filing a report. As for a planet there, we don’t have anything on that. Our records just show the magnetic anomaly you spoke of.”
There were some implied doubts regarding my story in that statement, but I was prepared to let it drop if he was. They were more concerned with my safety than anything else. Certainly there were no criminal charges they could lay, as I had filed a flight plan and my ship’s log showed the engine failure and a landing on something.
Going on and on about my irrational thoughts or feelings about the experience was not an option. These guys could yank a permit on a whim if they got grumpy, and a pilot’s mental state is definitely grounds for inquiry.
“Well, if there’s nothing else, Mrs. Snelgrove, all we can do is to let you get on with your busy day.”
“I’ll have the ship checked over as soon as I get home.”
He nodded and stuck his thumb to the screen.
I stuck my thumb on the screen and sealed the file as far as I was concerned. There was more, a whole lot more, but duty was done and unless he asked a specific question, I wasn’t going into it.
We broke the connection at the same time.
I especially didn’t want to bring up the feeling that I got after my first big fright, that demoralizing feeling that someone was watching me, every stinking minute of every stinking day. I don’t know how long I would have lasted out there on my own if I hadn’t gotten lucky with the ship.
I will always think of that place as the Ghost Planet. I would also very much like to get all these voices out of my head.
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