A Story by Ian Reeve

An astronaut marooned on a deserted planet has a long journey ahead of him if he wants to be rescued...

Andrew Hound trudged through the ankle deep slime, his eyes fixed on the line of low hills that crossed the horizon ahead of him. He was heading west. He'd been heading west for the past seventeen years ever since crash landing on this horrible planet, this planet whose every inch, from pole to pole, across every continent, was covered with green slime. Dried slime covered his uniform in cracked, crumbling slabs, caking his standard space force coveralls and making his limbs heavy and stiff in a way he was so used to now that he no longer noticed. Every inch of bare skin had been dirty with drying slime for so long that he was no longer certain what his natural skin colour was. There was no way to wash himself clean. Every body of water he came across, every river, every smallest stream, was clogged with the slime. Every time he tried to wash himself, he ended up putting on more slime than he was taking off.

Still, look on the bright side, he thought as he waded across the shallow swamp, his boots sinking several inches into the soft, muddy silt with every step. All this muck on my skin is protecting me from the UV. Kepler 2124 was a much bluer star than sol. Without the protection afforded by the drying slime, he might well have died several times over from skin cancer by now. And I've got my visor, he mentally added. Without which the sky would have been far too bright to look at without damaging his eyes. The dry slime that smeared the lenses gave his eyes even more protection from the glare than the polarised glass alone would have, so that the landscape he saw around him appeared about as bright as an overcast summer's day back on Earth.

There were no trees. No vegetation of any kind. Not even grass. If you didn't know what you were looking at, the surface of Kepler 2124/5 might have appeared as lifeless as Earth’s moon. Apparently bare hills, featureless, suspiciously flat plains. Only the ever present greenness, and maybe the smoothness of every surface, the complete lack of sharp, jagged boulders, gave any clue as to the true situation, the fact that there was life everywhere, sometimes to a depth of hundreds of metres. Simple, primitive life, such as the scientists thought had existed on Earth millions of years ago, before even the trilobites. Slimy, slippery, ropy, tangly life that resembled the choking algae that filled a stagnant pond. Life on this world had never figured out how to evolve into multicellular organisms, which at least made it safe, Andrew supposed. He would never have to run away from some kind of alien T-Rex, never have to chop his way through impenetrable jungle with a machete. Nothing but the slime.

The slime was perfectly edible, it turned out, if bland and tasteless. He could shovel as much of it into his mouth as he wanted, swallow it down without even chewing. He would never starve, never die of thirst. He could live his whole life here in perfect safety, if you could call this a life. It was why their crippled spaceship had chosen this world to crash land on, but after seventeen years of this he would have sold his soul for a faster way to escape, to get away. To find a faster way to leave this empty featureless nightmare of a world and go to a world that had trees and grass and rabbits. He wouldn’t even have minded if he was killed and eaten by a tiger five minutes after arrival if he could have washed in a clear stream first. Wash the ever present muck from his skin and remind himself what race he was.

He raised a hand to his neck and felt nauseated by the rough feel of dry slime, crumbling away as he rubbed it. Please, God, he prayed, staring up into the cloudless, milky white sky. Please let me find the transmitter soon. Please! Please let me call for rescue! This is hell! I can't stand It! I could handle dinosaurs or mountains, hurricanes or deserts, but this... Every day the same as every other. No rough terrain to cross, no storms, no hardship of any kind except the soul destroying tedium, the complete absence of any kind of challenge. Nothing but the need to keep on walking and the slowly fading hope that he must surely be growing close to his objective by now.

He took the hand scanner from its pouch on his belt, wiped the screen with his index finger until he’d removed enough of the dried slime to be able to read the glowing digits beneath. Still nothing. The transmitter, or more precisely the magnetic monopole that allowed it to send messages across the stars faster than the speed of light, was still out of range. It had come down in the other half of the ship, which meant that it had to be somewhere on the planet's equator. Hierarchy starships forced to make an emergency landing always came down on the equator, if possible, to make searching for survivors easier, and the scanner had a range of almost a thousand miles, so it didn't matter if he strayed a little north or south. All he had to do was keep the noon day sun directly above him and he would come across the wreck eventually, even if he had to circle the whole planet to do it.

Circle the whole planet, he thought ruefully. That would be a long way even on a normal size planet like Earth, but Slimeworld, as he’d come to think of it, was vast. It was a kind of planet the science guys called a silicon giant. Nearly as big as Jupiter, more than a hundred thousand kilometres in diameter, and composed entirely of rock, mainly aluminium and silicon oxides. That should have given it a crushingly high surface gravity, but Slimeworld also spun so fast on its axis that centrifugal force cancelled out most of the gravity on the equator, leaving it only a little higher than on Earth. The vast size of the planet meant that he had to walk nearly twenty times further to reach its other side than he would have had to on Earth, though. A fifteen to twenty year trek! He could only avoid despair by refusing to think about it, by focusing only on today.

The message from the ship's computer had told him that all he had to do was walk due west. It must still lie somewhere ahead then, which meant he must be getting close because he must have travelled nearly halfway around the planet by now and if it was past the antipodeal point the computer would have told him to go east, not west. Every sunrise, and sunrises came every few minutes on this world, might reveal the wreck on the horizon ahead of him. All he had to do was keep walking. He forced himself to feel hope, therefore. The eternity he’d spent walking was a positive fact, not a negative one. It meant that he must, must surely, finally be getting close!

He touched the playback button on the scanner for what must have been the ten thousandth time, needing to hear the message again. He'd tried for days to contact someone, anyone. There must have been other survivors, he’d thought, or perhaps he could contact the ship itself, if any part of its controlling intelligence survived. For days and days there'd been nothing, though, and he’d begun to despair, but then the message had come. Faint, just barely audible, but unmistakable. “All you have to do is head west,” said the recording in the unmistakable voice of the ship's computer. “Once the transmitter and the power unit are connected you'll be able to call for rescue. I know a hundred and thirty thousand kilometres is a long way, but on this planet there’s nothing to stop you getting there. You can just walk...”

The recording ended there. The computer must have been sending it on a loop, over and over again, in the dim hope that he’d be able to hear it. He must have been just a little out of range, but one day atmospheric conditions had been just right and the message had made it. He didn't know how the ship had known his position, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Fate had thrown him a second lifeline, and he was going to take it.

The first lifeline had been the fact that his escape pod had landed so close to the drive section of the ship, just a few dozen kilometres away. He'd already begun following the equator westward when he received the message, but hadn't gotten more than a hundred klicks or so. He'd turned around and raced back to the ship’s sheared off rear end to find that the slime had already claimed it. It had climbed up the cylindrical hypersteel hull like some kind of green protoplasmic monster, covering jagged, twisted hull plates and support struts with quivering, smoothly rounded jelly through which he’d had to push his way to gain entry. The slime had invaded the interior as well, having entered through a thousand tiny cracks and tears, but it relied on sunlight for growth and once inside the dark wreck it had been unable to go further, leaving most of the interior clean and uncontaminated. They had been the last clean surfaces Andrew had seen in the last seventeen years.

The message had told him that he needed the transmitter and a power unit. The transmitter, located in the forward half of the ship, somewhere else on the planet, had its own power units, of course, but they must have been destroyed in the crash. Fortunately the ship's shuttlecraft, stored in the rearmost half of the ship, the half he was in, had its own power units that were of the same design. Reaching the shuttle bay, he’d found most of them destroyed, foam sealant having oozed from between their twin skins to harden into a protective shell that prevented the leakage of radiation. A pity. If enough had survived, he might have been able to just fly the shuttle out into space. It looked more or less intact, but it needed six power units to ignite the fusion core.

Only one had survived. Just one. Dented and scored by a metal strut that had scraped against it, but when he touched the test button the display lit up to tell him that it was 99 percent full, and one power core was all the transmitter needed. Giving tearful thanks for his luck, he'd tucked it away in his backpack, where it fit as if it had been designed for just this purpose. Another sign that the powers that controlled fate were on his side and would ensure his eventual rescue.

So, he had a power unit, the last one on the planet. Now he needed the transmitter, located in the ship's command section. Somewhere on the equator, if the computer had managed some kind of controlled landing. Somewhere west of here. All he had to do was walk, and on this miserable slimeball of a planet there was nothing to stop him getting there. No mountains, no ravines, no oceans. Just thousands of miles of slime. He’d picked his way carefully out of the wreck, therefore, turned his face to the setting sun and began walking. He'd been walking ever since.

He came to the top of a low rise and stopped for a moment to look around. Flat everywhere, except for a few other low rises that weren't even high enough to deserve the name hills. Everything covered in the same lime green that glistened wetly in the light of the swiftly rising sun. He sat down wearily, his bottom sinking into the slightly sticky gelatinous surface until it found something firmer beneath. Dead slime, this planet’s equivalent to deep subsoil. Killed and compacted by the weight of living slime above it and steadily decomposing to feed the new life.

He wondered whether, if he had a microscope, he’d be able to see micro-organisms in the slime. Single celled creatures hunting each other, killing and being killed. A normal ecosystem, such as you might find of any normal planet, but on a scale too small for the unaided human eye go see. He wondered what they would think of him, if they were somehow intelligent and aware of his existence. Would he be a God to them? Perhaps some kind of Lovecraftian monster like Great Cthulhu. Cyclopean in size, vastly ancient, and come down from the stars with no interest in the native life except to feed upon it. He shook his head in amusement at the idea, then marvelled at the fact that he was still capable of amusement. After so long alone, it was a wonder he hadn't gone mad by now. He'd been expecting to start hallucinating imaginary companions at some point, and the fact that he hadn't was a little worrying. Did it mean he was going mad in some more subtle way?

Well, if he was, there was nothing he could do about it except keep his mind focused on his objective. Find the ship's command section. Get in, find the transmitter, connect the power unit and call for help. He looked up at the sun, fuzzy and haloed by the dried slime dirtying his visor. In the early days he’d tried counting sunrises and sunsets in an attempt to measure the passage of time (The scanner had a clock function, but he couldn’t use it too often in case he drained its battery), but it was impossible to avoid losing count and so now he just stopped to sleep whenever he felt tired. He was tired now. A weariness more of the spirit than the body. A weariness with seeing nothing but a flat, green horizon, of dragging his heavy feet through the sticky slime. Of every day being the same as every other. A weariness that seemed to whisper into his ear that it would be so good to just give up. To just lie down and sink forever into the slime...

He shook the malaise from his thoughts and climbed wearily back to his feet, pulling his bottom out of the muck with a squelching, sucking sound. I won't give up! He told himself angrily. I've come this far, and by all the rules of logic and mathematics I must be almost there! I won't give up now! He made to start walking again, therefore, but first he turned his head for another look around before leaving the relatively high vantage point...

He froze, his heart suddenly pounding. There, on the horizon, just barely visible. A shape, covered in the same green slime as everything else. An almost familiar shape. A dome, its sides steeper than anything else he'd seen before on this world. About the right size to be the ship's command section. Could this be it? Could he have found it at last?

He slipped and slid his way down the gentle slope towards the mound, the first time he’d gone any direction except west for seventeen years. As he went he took the hand scanner from its pouch again and read the display. His heart sank in disappointment. Still nothing. The glowing digits still insisted that the transmitter was out of range, which meant that the mound on the horizon couldn't be the ship! He headed towards the shape anyway, needing to get a better look at it. Perhaps the scanner was broken. Perhaps it had been picking up the transmitter for weeks but failing to show it on the display. He could hope, couldn’t he?

The sun rose and fell a dozen times as he trudged his way northwards. Fortunately Slimeworld had a number of moons that allowed him to navigate through the brief periods of darkness, preventing him from wandering off and getting lost. He was about halfway there when he was eventually forced to stop and rest by weariness of the body, and he lay down on his back with his arms outstretched to stop himself sinking and to keep his face out of the slime. He’d slept this way ever since arriving on this world, and it was now a habit so deeply ingrained into him that he knew he’d sleep that way for the rest of his life, even if he was rescued that very day.

He awoke with new energy and hope and climbed back to his feet as fast as the slime would allow, but as soon as he turned to look at the mound with his renewed clarity of vision he was crushed by what he saw. The mound bore almost no resemblance to the ship’s forward section. It was irregular in shape, with bulges and indentations that the ship had not possessed. Crash damage, possibly, he told himself. He travelled the rest of the way in just a few hours, and as soon as he arrived he dug into the surface layer of slime, gouging out great handfuls of the stuff and throwing it aside in an attempt to dig a tunnel faster than new slime could seep down and fill it in. He made rapid progress at first, but the deeper levels were thicker and denser, he had to dig in with his fingernails to make further progress. Eventually he could go no further without digging tools. If he’d known for certain that it was the ship he would have found a way. He might have used the scanner itself as a digging tool, but as he stepped back and looked at the shape again he was forced to admit that it looked nothing like the ship. It was just a large rock or something. Maybe the last remnant of the mountain ranges the planet must have possessed in its youth, maybe some new feature thrust up from deep below the surface by the very last remnant of the planet's internal heat.

Probably a geologist would know what it was, he mused, but he was no geologist and he was wasting his time here. He turned to face the west again, therefore, and carried on walking. The mound shrank behind him and eventually disappeared, leaving once again nothing but featureless terrain on all sides, all the way to the horizon.


Seventeen years earlier. A few days after the crash.

Susan Reynard fingered her hair miserably as it lay plastered to her scalp by drying slime. She loved her hair. She knew it was her best feature, her crowning glory. A flame of chestnut red that flowed down her back and framed her face with almost invisibly fine flyaway strands that invited a man's hand to smooth back from her cheeks. Now it was just a soggy mess along with the rest of her, with no end in sight as she trudged her way westward, away from the escape pod that was already almost covered with the sticky green mess that was growing slowly up its sides like some kind of protoplasmic monster trying to eat it.

Suddenly her hand scanner beeped and her heart leaped in excitement. Another survivor, calling her! She fumbled it out of her belt pouch with hands that were slippery with wet slime and pressed the connect button. “Yes?” she cried eagerly. “It's me, Susan! Who is this?”

“Miss Reynard, can you hear me?” She sagged in disappointment upon hearing the voice of the ship's computer. “I'm sorry it took me so long to contact you but I had to redirect my power pathways to avoid damaged areas. Are you safe?”

“Physically safe, I suppose,” she replied. “I'm not injured, and there’s nothing on this soggy spinning top of a planet that'll try to eat me. Were you able to send a distress signal before we crashed?”

“I’m sorry, no. The power systems were damaged, as I said. No-one knows we're here. However, there is a way for you to...”

“Are there any other survivors? Connor? Alice? Andrew?”

“Connor and Alice were in the reactor chamber. They were killed instantly. Andrew was in engineering. It's possible he got to an escape pod in time but I think it unlikely. If he is still alive, he will be on the other side of the planet, out of communications range except in the event of an extremely unlikely set of atmospheric conditions. You have to assume that you are alone and act accordingly. Now please listen carefully. My emergency power is almost exhausted, I won't be able to transmit for very much longer. There is a way you can send a signal to call for help, but you will have to do exactly what I say.”

“What do I have to do?”

“The ship broke into two halves, each of which crashed on opposite sides of the planet, on the equator. First, you must go to the command section, which is fifty thousand kilometres to the west of you...”

“How far?”

“Yes, I know. This planet is huge. Fortunately, all the ship's wreckage is on the equator, and your hand scanner has a range of over a thousand miles. You only have to keep the sun above you and you can't get lost. The only thing that might be a problem is that the command section won't look quite as you remember. It suffered a lot of damage in the crash. It’s probably severely deformed, bent out of shape. Also, it'll be completely covered by the local vegetation by the time you get there, probably to a considerable depth. Just look for a mound taller than anything else on the planet and with steeper sides. You’ll have to find a way in, make your way to the forward equipment bay and remove the subspace transmitter. It’s quite small, easily small enough for you to carry. Your hand scanner will be able to detect the magnetic monopole inside it and will lead you to it. Unfortunately, the transmitter’s power unit was destroyed in the crash, but hopefully you will be able to find an intact power unit in the rear section of the ship.”

“Where did the rear section come down?” asked Susan hopefully.

“On the other side of the planet. Nearly a hundred and thirty thousand kilometres further on.”

Susan sank to her knees in the slime. Black despair swept over her. “I can't...”

“Yes, you can! You have a simple choice ahead of you. You can give in to despair, lie down and just let yourself die, or you can get up and walk. This is a chance to escape, to see your home and family again. You must take it!”

Susan nodded and climbed wearily back to her feet. “You're right,” she said. “How long will it take me?”

There was a pause before the computer answered, as if it knew the information might trigger a new surge of despair, but the young woman was easily capable of doing simple mental arithmetic. She'd be able to work it out for herself. “I estimate between fifteen and twenty years.” It waited to see how she would take it.

Susan just nodded again, though. “Between fifteen and twenty years, just walking. Walking through this.” She looked around at the barren, featureless landscape. Nothing but slime as far as the eye could see. “I'll have gone insane before I'm halfway there.”

“No you won't,” insisted the computer. “You're strong. Strong mentally. You can make it. Listen, my power is failing. I can't keep talking for much longer.“ The voice got a little louder, as if the computer was putting all its remaining power into one last sentence, to make absolutely sure she received it. “All you have to do is head west. Once the transmitter and the power unit are connected you'll be able to call for rescue. I know a hundred and thirty thousand kilometres is a long way, but on this planet there’s nothing to stop you getting there. You can just walk...”

The voice faded out, it’s power exhausted. Susan yelled at the hand scanner, demanding the computer speak again, but nothing came from the speaker but the crackle and hiss of background static. She stared at the small device in her hand for a long time, contemplating the fact that she was now alone, completely alone. The only intelligence left on the whole planet unless Andrew was still alive somehow. She refused to let herself hope. That kind of hope, when eventually proved false, really could drive her insane. Alone, then. She was alone, and with an impossibly long journey ahead of her.

No, not impossible, she told herself sternly. I'll make it. First to the command section, to get the transmitter, then on to the drive section, to get a power unit. I will make it! The longest journey begins with a single step, after all, and that power unit isn't getting any further away...

© 2017 Ian Reeve

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Great read, you really have a way with words.

Posted 8 Months Ago

Exhausting! I felt immersed in slime, distance and despair by the end of the piece. Remind me not to be an astronaut!!!

Posted 1 Year Ago

Oh my. This is well written. Even knowing where it was leading couldn't keep me from reading to the end. There might have been just a bit too much "look how dismal it is with so much slime" but you contrived to say it entertainingly and I continued to read.
One English grammar mistake in the very last line. You changed tenses. It should read, "that power unit wasn't getting any further away"

Posted 1 Year Ago

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3 Reviews
Added on June 24, 2017
Last Updated on June 24, 2017


Ian Reeve
Ian Reeve

Leigh - on - Sea, United Kingdom

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