Verner's island was two hundred twenty-two paces long and fifty-three paces wide.
Given the length of his stride measured against the long axis of the shuttle, which he knew was exactly eight hundred nineteen centimeters, he had calculated that this made his island about one hundred seventy meters long and forty meters wide. Further calculation, including pacing its width at various places, had led him to conclude that his island was almost exactly four thousand square meters of real estate. On some worlds, four thousand square meters – slightly less than one acre – was a fairly sizable patch of land for one person to own. On a world known only as the fifth planet orbiting a star with no name other than its seven-digit catalog number, one acre was a stiflingly small prison.
For Verner, used to the cramped confines of Stacy Lee, the small size of the island was not high on his list of complaints. It was large enough that its thick growth of violet-leafed alien vegetation outpaced the needs of his inoperable shuttle's emergency food fabricator, but not large enough to host anything big enough to consider Verner a potentially tasty new treat.
It had been almost a full Terran year since Verner had landed his shuttle on the island to take biological samples: a full year since his discovery that the battered landing craft he'd rode down from Stacy Lee had suffered a fault and bled its reaction mass into the grey sand while he was rummaging about in the underbrush for critters to stuff into stasis jars. 6206920e had orbited its sullen red primary four times in that period, and the full cycle of seasons – dry, cloudy, monsoon, and scorching – was now routine.
Just before sunrise, Verner rose, as he always did, to watch the pinprick of fast-moving light that was Stacy Lee rise above the southern horizon; as soon as it was in view, he hurried into the derelict shuttle's cockpit and cranked up all the juice the shuttle's batteries could spare and sent a distress signal. He'd done the same thing almost every morning for three hundred seventy-four days, but it never seemed to get through the planet's strong magnetic field. Getting a distress signal out was all but impossible, but Verner had little else to use the power for, besides processing alien shrubs into tasteless rectangles of human-digestible food.
This morning, he sent the signal as usual, then clambered up to the top of the shuttle's hull to watch his orbiting ship disappear once again over the horizon. Stacy Lee had been his only home for nine T-years – he wondered who, after he had died on this forsaken, nameless world, would stumble across his ship. He hoped whoever did would treat it well, rather than consigning it to the shipbreakers. Stacy Lee was too good a vessel to be melted down for scrap metal.
As soon as the orbiting starship vanished over the watery horizon, Verner turned around to climb off the shuttle. It was then that he noticed the thin trail of smoke curling up from the far side of his island in the predawn gloom. At first, the significance of this new development didn't occur to him; he stood staring slack-jawed for several seconds. He had set no fires the previous day; something new had happened on his island, on his precious one acre of lush violet growth and grey sand.
Rushing back into the shuttle, Verner unlocked the locker and pulled out the rail-carbine stored within, loading a magazine of ferroceramic slugs with trembling hands. The last time he'd needed the weapon, it had been to scare off a flock of uncomfortably toothy xeno-avians who had decided to claim one of his prospector drones. That had been years before, and light-years closer to Sol. Still, the weapon, unused and stored safely in the intervening time, hummed to life.
It took Verner only a few minutes to creep through his one-acre jungle toward the smoke. He made almost no sound; the pinkish, mossy undergrowth absorbed the footfalls of his bare feet, his boots having long since come to pieces. In his mind, he rattled through several possible explanations for the smoke. Perhaps it was merely a small volcanic vent, or perhaps a pile of decaying vegetation had spontaneously caught fire, as they sometimes did on Earth. Even as he mentally rattled off perfectly reasonable explanations, he knew that wasn't what was happening. He could sense it in every trembling, violet leaf he brushed past. He was not alone on his island.
Peering out of a stand of bright flowers as long as his arm, Verner caught sight of the source of the smoke. A pitted metallic ovoid, perhaps three meters long, sat on the pebbled north-east shore. Next to the object, which was certainly artificial, someone had built a small fire, whose embers now emitted the thin trail of smoke Verner had seen from his shuttle. Verner couldn't believe his luck. He didn't recognize the landing craft's design, but the odds of someone else landing on his one-acre island, on this remote world beyond the colonization frontier, were impossible. Had one of his distress signals gotten through after all? And if so, why hadn't he received a confirmation response from Stacy Lee?
A subtle sound from the foliage behind Verner caused him to look over his shoulder, but just as he did, the barrel of what could only be a weapon poked him in the kidneys.
"Oy. Drop that gun." A woman's voice, hoarse from a lifetime of shouting, barked into his ear.
Verner's heart leaped, then sunk. Someone else had come, at long last. But who else but his competition would brave a trip out this far? And given his luck, which of his usual cast of competition would stumble on the world he was marooned on? He dropped his carbine to the mossy ground, then turned around slowly. "Been a while, Marta." He croaked, his voice broken and faint. After all, he'd had no use for it for almost a year.
"Verner?" Marta responded, standing up. She drew the gun back, but kept it trained on Verner. "I thought I recognized that piece of junk in orbit... You look like hell." Though there was nothing funny about the situation, Marta barked out a short laugh at Verner's expense. "Nice place you chose to take a vacation, though!"
Verner sighed. Somehow, he knew he should have expected that despite impossible odds, even being marooned on an alien planet hadn't saved him from yet another encounter with his ex-wife.
(Banner art altered by me, but originally rendered by digital artist Massimo Verona.)
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