Snakes and Pills

210 - background

Goddamn this hell planet. All Mark wanted to do was die. Why wouldn't it let him?

He had been marooned here for over three months, but his visit began two months prior to that. He was one of ten members of a research team sent to investigate this planet, which carried the unromantic designation of LZ-3081.

LZ-3081 was just one of dozens of planets being studied after the discovery of a wormhole that allowed humans from Earth to easily access faraway galaxies. Thousands of planets were suddenly within reach, with a hundred or so considered potentially habitable. The earthlings wasted precious little time fanning out to explore their newfound worlds further.

During the initial months, the research had proceeded smoothly. The team had heard horror stories of other doomed crews sent to promising planets that turned out to be filled with nothing but death and despair. But life on this planet was suitable, if not downright pleasant. LZ-3081 was not an exact facsimile of Earth, but the differences were negligible.

Until the last day. The last day for most of them. About halfway through Mark's work shift, the Personal Escape Packs activated. The PEPs were designed to quickly and safely extract the wearer off the surface of the planet. Wearing them was mandatory at all times. They could be triggered either remotely from their mother vessel orbiting the planet, or automatically by external triggers, such as sudden atmospheric depletion.

Mandatory at all times. This was stressed to them repeatedly during training. Exploring brave new worlds was no trifle. But the gear was bulky, and missions lasted for months on end. Lapses in obeying the rule were not hard to come by.

Sometimes, the PEPs simply had to come off. For example, when showering after a dirty soil sampling session. Mark had been in exactly such a situation three months ago. He had slipped off his PEP without a thought as he had done countless times before.

The devices gave no warning when they were activated. Designed for life-or-death scenarios, milliseconds mattered. Mark had just gotten a good lather going when he heard the sound of an explosion. He rushed out of the shower to see the faint plumes of his empty PEP and nine others rocketing into the sky.

Mark's first thought was not of abandonment. Since the activation meant something very bad was about to happen, he assumed his death was imminent. He feared the air suddenly turning toxic or a tidal wave five-miles high cresting over the horizon.

Now, it was all he prayed for. Destruction never came. As the minutes grew to hours, days, and weeks, he realized that the PEPs must have been wrong. Surely the other members of the team would return to resume their work, or at the very least, rescue him.

Nobody returned. He never thought he would be so desirous of the company of others, but there was something off-putting about LZ-3081 that only materialized after he was alone. By the end of his second month in isolation, he'd had enough.

Every attempt to end his own life was thwarted. Fires extinguished, knives suddenly limp and elastic. Throwing himself from a cliff, he was able to experience the joy of flight as a sudden windstorm held him aloft until he gently settled upon the ground.

The first time, Mark considered it a miracle. Now he surmised that the planet was sentient and, for some reason, was desperately trying to keep him alive. He spent most of his time brainstorming new ways to end his suffering.

LZ-3081 kept Mark alive, and tried its best to keep him happy, though it was rarely successful with the latter.

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