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A short story by

David Gerrold

The opportunity came unexpectedly. Jake hadn’t settled on a star system, hadn’t narrowed down his options. He was still considering a variety of possible candidates, both near and far, and he still needed to determine how far he would have to go before a pursuit would no longer be cost effective.

But then the convoy was attacked. The battle erupted around them. Alone on the bridge, already dreaming of possibilities... before he had time to think, he acted.

He didn’t have time to wake the captain; he popped off the plastic cover and slammed his hand down hard on the red button. The alarms went off all over the ship; crewmembers dived for escape pods; and within three minutes, the evacuation was complete, and Jake was the last man on board.

It took him less than thirty seconds to bring the ship to a new heading, and then he jumped out and away from the combat zone. In the fury of fighting, barely anyone noticed. Only later, when they checked the various logs in all the surviving vessels, would they realize that one of their colony ships had disappeared—not destroyed, just gone. But that would only happen if there were any survivors. Based on what Jake had seen of the attack, there probably wouldn’t be.

He was alone. He was free. He was here.

And this was Goldilocks.


* * *

He let the adjutant crunch numbers and chew data for a few days longer while he prepared a puddle-jumper. He didn’t know what he might need, so he packed for all the different eventualities projected in the standard landing scenarios, plus all the local possibilities projected by the adjutant, especially any situation that would prevent him from returning to the colony ship.

He also considered sending the big ship into the heart of the sun to destroy the evidence of his arrival. But that decision didn’t need to be made today. Besides, there might be some undiscovered reason Goldilocks was the wrong planet. The technical term was surprise.

He’d already ruled out the main continent. Too many big hungry things. But... there was a chain of islands off to the west, close enough to the main continent to be accessible, yet far enough to provide isolation. The biggest of the islands, at the southeast end of the chain, looked like the perfect spot. The island was triangular in shape, formed by the steep cones of three volcanoes, two of them dormant. The last one—the largest, still smoldering—reached high enough into the sky to have permanent snowcaps, even glaciers. The meltwater provided year-round irrigation, and probably a few hot springs as well. Tropical currents sweeping up from the south kept the seas warm, and the winds from the north pushed clouds up against the western slopes every day, where the cool air triggered almost daily afternoon drizzles.

He studied the big island critically. Dramatic vistas sprawled across wall-size displays. If there was something wrong, he needed to find it now, but the more he viewed, the more the island attracted him.

Exploratory probes revealed carpets of lush vegetation spread across the slopes of the islands, slender fruit-bearing trees and even taller ones with wide sheltering leaves, whole forests thick with ferns and grass and creeper vines. Sparkling waterfalls fed a network of streams and ponds. There were at least six different ecosystems on the islands, determined by altitude, prevailing wind patterns, and water flow. Where the different zones collided, there would be accelerated evolutionary action. That meant healthy hybrid forms.

Additional scanning revealed birds and insects—larger than he was used to, but nothing that seemed as threatening as what prowled the main continent. There were also a variety of amphibians, small animals, and even something that resembled a small wild pig. The seas were teeming with fish of all sizes, including several enormous species. But that was okay; Jake wasn’t planning to go swimming in that surf anyway. On the north shore, some of those waves were breaking nearly sixty meters high. That was intimidating; Jake had never been in anything deeper than a bathtub.

He couldn’t decide what to name the island. Pax? Aloha? Shalom? Haven? The Big Island? None of those felt right. But he could wait. Maybe the island would reveal its own name to him in time.

But there were other possibilities too, and he wasn’t about to make a hasty decision. He’d planned too long and come too far. So he gave the mainland one more careful review. He studied a small lagoon on the western coast of the long continent, sheltered by jagged cliffs that kept it isolated. And a comma-shaped lake in the highlands to the north, well above the migratory patterns. And even a storm-swept stony cliff in the southern hemisphere that was so inhospitable no rational person would ever think of exploring there. In the end, Jake always came back to the beckoning islands. Maybe someday, he’d explore the mainland, but right now the islands seemed both safe and attractive.

But even after the puddle-jumper was fully loaded and programmed with the coordinates of the western slope of the island, Jake still hesitated. He went back to the bridge for one more look-around, one more scan, one more survey, one more run at the data—one more opportunity to find a reason to hesitate.

He sat in the command chair for more than a week, arguing with himself, arguing with the adjutant, eating karak sandwiches and drinking cup after cup of coffee, pursing his lips, furrowing his brow, frowning, thinking, studying, debating with himself, arguing the pros and cons, the merits and demerits, until finally he realized that the situation wasn’t going to change, no matter how much he considered it. Maybe the island was idyllic; maybe it wasn’t. He’d never know for sure sitting here and worrying.

For a moment, he even considered turning the ship around. He could still head back. He could say he’d taken the ship away from the convoy to save it from being destroyed. But that wouldn’t explain why he’d ordered the evacuation or why the unwipable logs would show his long, detailed surveillance of this planet. Well, he could argue that once he’d arrived here, he thought he should scan the planet for possible colonization. Would they believe that? Probably not.

No, he was committed to this path—had been committed since the moment he’d slammed his hand down on the large red alarm button. There was no way he could avoid a court-martial, probably a firing squad. If he went back, he’d never have a chance like this again. He’d never know.

Finally, frustrated with himself, realizing that inaction was producing no useful result, he spoke aloud. "Sitting doesn’t work, Jake. Get off your big fat ass and go."

It wasn’t exactly now or never. This launch window was closing; two hours from now, there would be another, and every two hours after. But there was nothing more to do, nothing else for Jake aboard this ship. You could only study a situation for so long. Then you had to act. He’d planned this escape for over seven years. This was what he’d been aiming for. This was the realization of the promise he’d made to himself.

Even before he realized it consciously, he was standing up. He was moving. He disposed of the last of his meal, and ordered the ship into standby mode, then made his way down to the launch bay. One last look back—if everything went according to plan, he would be the last living being this ship would ever know.

"Goodbye, Jake," said the adjutant. "I shall maintain the ship for your return."

"You do that."

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