A light flickering in his peripheral vision caused Zaladam to jerk his head around. A lit monitor flickered in the cockpit. It was the first time in twenty years a screen had lit up. He dropped his pack beside the hatch of his crashed freighter, and rushed into the cockpit to see what was wrong.

It took Zaladam a second to recognize the in-system screen, the screen that monitored space traffic in whatever solar system he happened to be in at the time. He stared at the icons of two ships uncertainly. Memories of captaining the freighter flooded into his conscious mind. “Identify ships,” he commanded verbally, in case the icons were genuine.

“Unable to identify ships,” his computer answered in the voice of female celebrity he no longer remembered.

Zaladam wasn’t surprised that his old computer couldn’t identify the ships; the database hadn’t been updated in over twenty years.

“Project the ships’ vectors.”

The computer projected a line in front of the ships, and, sure enough, the ships were on a heading straight for the only habitable body in this solar system. His planet.

Zaladam stared at the icons for a moment. “Computer off,” he ordered, not sure what he should feel.

For the first four or five years after his forced landing he had hoped for a ship to come to his rescue, however unlikely it might be. His astronavigation system had crashed and flown him so far off course, before the main engine went offline and he was forced to land, that he couldn’t plot his position relative to any of the settled planets or colonies—but he was certain that he was many light years from any of the shipping lanes. The sight of those two icons should have been a beacon of hope. But they were not. It was a beautiful planet and, after living here for twenty years, it was home. Zaladam had no wish to leave. Walking back to the hatchway his sense of home grew stronger, and he dreaded the thought of sharing the planet with colonists. His proprietary feelings were a revelation. He had not been aware of them until now.

Zaladam leaned against the hatch and looked out at his planet. Exploring it in his shuttle and on foot was his favorite pastime. He had explored many areas with breathtaking scenery, and there was so much more to see.

During his forced landing he’d had the good fortune, and sufficient thruster control, to crash in a clearing beside a river. The natural clearing was on a plateau between a range of low mountains and a vast, flat plain. The clearing was surrounded by bush. He called it bush because it was not a forest; the foliage was very different than the trees on Earth. Something like bamboo was a closer, though still imprecise, analogy. It was quiet, except for the whisper of intermittent breezes. All life on the planet was photosynthetic, there were no insects or animals, and it was free of predators. Zaladam thought there must be microorganisms but none seemed to be harmful; he hadn’t been sick in all the time he’d been stranded here.

He had never tried to eat any of the local vegetation. It wasn’t necessary; he had been transporting a load of agricultural equipment and supplies, to one of the younger and more remote colonies. He had setup a modular hydroponics unit inside his ship and an inflatable greenhouse closer to the river, and grew everything he needed. Solid and liquid wastes were pumped into a wellhe had dug using a water drill he found on the shipping manifest. Zaladam knew his presence must have contaminated the planet, to some extent, anyway. But so far he hadn’t noticed any deleterious effects and he wanted to keep it that way.

Zaladam leaned against the open hatch and viewed the familiar scenery. It was tranquil and serene. In the distance, an arm of the lake shimmered in the setting sun, and he lingered to watch the sun set. Maybe it wasn’t the paradise described in utopian philosophies, but it was the closest thing to it had ever seen, ever expected to see. But how long would it survive after those ships found a planet ideal for development? Before his vista overlooked a city? And there wouldn’t be just one city, there would be more, many more, and every city would despoil nature for hundreds of kilometers around it, to provide its population with food and water, raw resources and luxury goods.

Picturing his home despoiled filled Zaladam with loathing and dread. He closed his eyes to dispel the image. He wished there was something he could do to prevent it, but progress usually ran over anyone who tried to stand in its way. He tried to remember what he had seen or read about the history of other newly discovered planets, and an idea came to him. By the time the sun sank below the horizon and the stars were visible, he had a plan in mind. He got to work and worked through the night. He didn’t know how much time he had left.

It was the middle of the afternoon the next day before everything was done. He packed enough food and sterilized river water to last for several days, and loaded it into the simple boat he’d made from local materials. After rowing upriver for several hours, he pulled the boat onshore and hid it. It took two trips to carry his packs to the base of a range of low mountains. He cached one pack and slung the other on his back, and started climbing. The mountain slope was steep but climbing it wasn’t too unpleasant. The climate was temperate and gravity 0.79 earth normal, a feature he appreciated with advancing age. It was almost dark by the time he climbed to a cave he had explored years before. He unrolled a thermal sleeping bag, ate a light supper and fell asleep, exhausted.

In the morning, he set up a tripod-mounted telescope and focused it on his crashed ship, and waited. He could only hope the cave shielded his life signs; he had no way of knowing what scientific advances had been made in the last twenty years. He had reduced the energy signature of his ship to nearly zero, but even with the equipment on his old, unsophisticated freighter he would have found a crashed ship. He was counting on the approaching ships detecting his.

Zaladam was prepared to hide in the cave for several days, but, by early afternoon, he spotted a shuttle descending. He tracked it on his telescope and watched it land near his ship. The shuttle was a model that hadn’t been in service when he was running freight between the stars. It was shark sleek, the vessel of a predatory species, conquerors. Its aerodynamic shape made his freighter look like the crumpled garbage can it really was.

Zaladam had to wait awhile before he saw the hatch open. The people—if they were people, he could not entirely dismiss the possibility of aliens—exited cautiously. He smiled wryly, remembering his own imaginary fears before venturing out of his crashed freighter.

Three bipeds—presumably human—climbed out of the shuttle and stood together, discussing his freighter. After a few moments, Zaladam turned his telescope to the freighter. It was crumpled and would never fly again, but it was intact and largely functional, and he experienced an intense sense of home seeing it in the telescope. He hadn’t had lived anywhere else since he bought it thirty years ago.

Zaladam turned his attention back to the landing party, and watched them check their instruments. One of the three bipeds tentatively released the catches and opened its faceplate, revealing a human face. Moments later the others opened their faceplates. Two of the bipeds were men and one was female.

All three started walking towards his ship. He had destroyed the crops in the hydroponics bay and greenhouse, and tried to remove all traces of recent activity, but that was practically impossible and Zaladam was worried. If these people knew anything about agriculture, they would see through his ruse. He could only hope his plan worked and they didn’t get that far.

He waited anxiously as the landing party approached his crashed freighter. They stopped suddenly and stood rigid, listening to his recorded broadcast, and immediately lowered their faceplates and sealed their helmets.

The proximity sensor worked, Zaladam thought gleefully, feeling a sense of accomplishment. He began to think there was hope.

The landing party regrouped and appeared to be engaged in a heated discussion. He saw two of the landing party gesture repeatedly towards their shuttle, but the woman seemed determined to investigate the crash site and kept pointing at his freighter, something he had tried to discourage by scrawling the universal symbol for infectious disease onto the hatch, to reinforce the broadcast warning about infectious pathogens on the planet and inside the ship. The woman argued persistently, threw up her hands in disgust and walked alone towards the hatch of his freighter.

Their wearing HAZMAT suits, Zaladam thought in alarm, and his fears for the planet returned.

The woman stopped in front of the hatch, stared briefly at the sign, then reached for the control box while stepping up to the hatch, triggering the emergency lights and sirens. Zaladam saw the flashing lights through his telescope, but was too far away to hear the sirens. The woman stood frozen with her hand reaching for the hatch, listening to his second, dire warning. Her hand dropped to her side and she turned away from the hatch.

Nobody wasted any time returning to their shuttle. Zaladam watched it takeoff and soar into a cloudless sky, and breathed a sigh of relief. His paradise was safe for a little while longer.

© by ABR 2010 and 2012
an earlier version was published in Healthy or Else and Other Stories
 


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