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Lonely Planet

by Richard A. Conine

part 1

Each week on Lonely Planet, former decorated Special Forces Commando, battle-hardened Corporate Marine and ace survival expert and convicted murderer Rip Novak is dropped on a recently discovered planet. Rip must survive without any support for three days. He is alone, equipped with only a camera, a limited supply of canned air and no protection from the hostile environment, predators or deadly diseases.

Each new world is unsurveyed and unmapped, and we are seeing it live for the first time, through his lens. Rip must navigate to a pre-planted beacon within three days and stand by for extraction. If he fails to reach his extraction point within 72 hours, he will be left to die, and the cause of justice will be served.

Adding to his predicament are the voters back home. If Rip doesn’t provide suitable excitement or chooses to play it safe, the audience will let him know it. The votes of Lonely Planet’s audience will determine whether or not he is picked up and we get to see him again next week.

Rip is Lonely Planet’s toughest and most enduring survival star with an unprecedented nine missions under his belt. Remember that Rip Novak is a survival expert. You should not attempt to recreate his feats at home.

Rip stood still for a moment, watching the gunmetal drop-pod rise atop a billowing column of vapor. It vanished into the stacked cloud layers, and he heard a little rumble as its orbital thrusters kicked in.

He spent another minute surveying the green, living jungle, through which he would shortly navigate. He listened to the plaintive cries of the creatures deep within, unimpressed. Then he bent, picked up his nylon go-pack and studied the contents.

His producer signaled him with a tired wave. He looked up at the assembled camera crew, annoyed. Billowing orange tents reared up, inflating as he watched. The craft table was already bustling with activity.

The doughnuts were going fast. The munchies were a natural byproduct of long quantum-tunnel hauls like the one they’d just endured. Nobody knew the physiological reasons for the hunger. Scientists speculated that the body’s metabolism became confused by displaced space and time and reacted by producing an excess of neurotransmitters, a chemical effect very like the come-down from smoking weed.

“What?” he asked irritably. “What could I have possibly done wrong, Jim? I picked up my damn backpack.”

“It wasn’t you,” Jim said apologetically. “We’ve got too much white light. I need number-9 filters, Nick, ASAP. What? Don’t give me lip. You’re supposed to be reading the light levels, buddy. Where’s your friggin’ head? Don’t you pull your union card on me, you bastard. I’ve had it with...”

Rip didn’t care. He scratched his whiskered chin and headed for the table, which was sagging under the weight of all kinds of delicious-looking food. Patrice was helping herself to the chips and dip. He sidled up beside her and slapped her wide bottom companionably. “How they hangin’, Patty?”

“Low and to the left,” she answered automatically. “They ain’t the perky puppies they used to be.”

He laughed. “Nothing about you has ever been perky, baby; big, soft and warm but never perky.”

“Shut up,” she said, jamming a chip into his mouth. “That kind of talk makes me sad. And you know what happens when Patrice gets sad.”

“Rip Novak feels lonely and bad,” he finished for her. “I can always just crawl into Carol’s tent.”

Patrice rolled her eyes. “That girl ain’t got no pillows. You’ll wake up with a headache. And don’t give me your crap. I know you slept with everybody here but Jim.”

“What makes you think I haven’t slept with Jim?”

She grinned. “First, I know you don’t swing that way, and, second, nobody has ever slept with Jim; at least nobody dumb enough to admit it.”

He chuckled, gave her a friendly peck on the cheek and moved on down the table. He was interested in sampling the rapidly defrosting jumbo shrimp before the crustaceans started attracting the local equivalent of houseflies. According to the few seconds of documentary video he had grudgingly watched in preparation for the episode, the beasts were ugly, house-sized and mean.

“Hey, Billy,” he said, snagging a paper napkin and a spork. “What’s the name of this place?”

The junior intern glanced at him and quickly reached for the shrimp.

Rip considered stabbing him with the spork. “Hey pal...”

“I heard you,” the young man said, stuffing food in his mouth and extending an empty hand to capture more. “Why do people always ask me these questions? Is it because I wear glasses? It doesn’t mean I’m the smartest guy in the crew, Mr. Novak.”

Rip patted him on the back. “Stop worrying, kid. Nobody thinks you’re the smartest guy here. But you are the most responsible. You’re the only one who reads the writer briefings.”

Billy extended a limp shrimp toward him, which Rip didn’t accept. The kid then thought better of it and ate it himself. He mumbled, “Officially, it’s Bota 76241.1. Not too inspiring, I know. But it’s pre-survey. The head writers are calling it Krusibo, after some damn opera or something. That will probably stick. Hey, Rip...”

“It’s Mr. Novak. What?”

“How do you think you’d do if they actually dropped you on a godforsaken planet like this all by yourself? Do you think you could hack it?”

Novak laughed out loud. “I’m a star, kid. Stars don’t get dropped on those planets. They revolve around stars. Get it?”

Billy squinted at him. “Not really.”

“Ooh,” Rip said. “Are those barbecued wings?”

Foolishly, the kid turned. Novak buried both hands in the shrimp.

A scant ten minutes later, Jim resolved the argument with the lighting guy and Rip was called into action.

Jim clapped his hands, climbed into the bucket of a cherrypicker and shouted, “Rip Snortin’, where are ya? Hustle up, big fella. We need to get thirty minutes of film in the can before dinner. And the days only last half as long as the nights. Savvy, Kemosabe?”

Rip sighed. It was too hard to think about dinner. He had packed down a kilo of shrimp and his belly was badly distended. He turned away from the table, but not before noting that one of the gas cylinders connected to the chafing dishes and plate warmers was hissing. There was something wrong with the valve, or the line, or something like that. He didn’t care. He belched and headed for his mark, carrying the little nylon pack like his survival actually depended on it.

He stepped in something wet. Some sort of liquid was puddling around the table. A sharp fuel smell warred with the mingled odors of scrumptious food. He passed the flat-topped mound that loomed over the camp, the one where the motor pool was set up. A steady stream of gasoline was flowing down the little hill. He didn’t find it unusual.

The techs were in the process of setting up the electric perimeter, the high-voltage invisible fence that protected the crew from Krusibo’s wildlife and fried most incoming insects. Most. It allowed the really annoying ones to go right on through. He paused for a moment to watch them. There was a hiss, a pop and a shower of white-hot sparks.

A hairy man in coveralls swatted a chunky, bearded gent swaddled in a faded Harley Davidson t-shirt. “You idiot,” he complained loudly. “Are you using a steel spanner? That conducts electricity. You know how much current runs through this thing? Enough to fry Brooklyn, that’s how much.”

Another man watched them without interest. He was smoking a cigarette. He flicked his ashes dismissively then caught sight of Novak. “What are you lookin’ at?” he snarled. “You ever seen real work? Kiss my ass, big star. You want a piece of me? I think you do. That’s right. Walk away, chickencrap. Walk away.”

Rip shook his head. He figured a guy with a crap attitude smoking cigarettes around flammable nylon tents, running gasoline, high voltage electrical equipment and leaking liquid propane would eventually, deservingly set himself on fire. But he didn’t really care. There were other things on his mind.

A winged camera buzzed around his head, and he slapped at it, annoyed. “Get this thing away from me,” he complained to Jim.

The show’s director was rising above the site like the god of all nerds in his celestial cherrypicker.

Novak ducked as the camera drone buzzed by on a miniature suicide run directed at his vulnerable cranium. “I hate this thing.”

“Rip, baby, come on. Be careful. That piece of equipment costs more than we pay you in a whole year.”

“I don’t care what it costs. It hates me and I hate it more.”

“It’s a machine. It can’t hate you, at least not any more than the rest of us do.”

Rip paused. “How much is that?”

“Not enough to want you dead, which would screw up our paychecks; maybe just maimed a little. Kidding. Just kidding. Come on, Ripper. Take a joke, why don’tcha?

“Kiss my ass,” Rip retorted, annoyed. “This is why you never get laid, Jim. You don’t know how to tell a joke.”

“Anyways,” the director interrupted.

“And because you say ‘anyways’. It’s anyway, Jim. ANYWAY.”

“Find your mark, babe. We gotta get a move-on. Casey, give him a hand.”

Casey turned out to be a slim, attractive woman with sharp features and long, elegant hands.

Rip stood up a little straighter and tried to pay attention. He asked, “You the new script supervisor?”

She nodded. “Yeah. You missing Barney already?”

“Hell no,” he answered at once. “I’ll take you over Barney any day.”

She glanced at him sharply. “I don’t think so, honey. Stand right there. Go through your pack, lay out the items and try to look nervous about your chances. Then shinny up that tree, look around and pretend you know what you’re doing. Which I’ve heard is pretty much how you handle sex.”

“Hey,” he protested. “Who told you that?”

She grinned, patted his cheek and strolled off.

“That’s right,” he said with good humor, echoing a line he’d heard only moments earlier. “Walk away, chickencrap. Just walk away.”

She flipped him the bird without looking back.

“I love you,” he shouted.

She raised both hands, doubling the salute.

Shinnying up a tree was not a thing he did well, particularly when he was so full of shrimp. It took several tries for him to reach the lower branches. But he managed it and he was proud of himself.

The buzzing camera drone followed his progress, relaying a live feed to the editing crew in San Francisco back on good old Earth. They worked with a one-hour delay and streamed a cropped version of the action to a generally gullible audience.

The viewers could tune in via web sets anytime they liked to follow Rip’s progress. The feed only went dark during sleeping periods. Most accepted that the show was broadcast in real time. The disbelievers were shouted down and called a lot of cruel names, which generally made them cry and doubt whether living in their parent’s basements while studying space-time mechanics and networking with ignoramuses was ever going to get them laid.

The audience members were encouraged to comment constantly and vote Rip up or down via hundreds of social media tie-ins and sites. Now and then Novak issued stinging ripostes to some of the nastier comments and even acted on suggestions, the non-sexual ones anyway. This level of audience interactivity was one of the show’s really attractive qualities.

But there was still an annoying one-hour event lag that had to be explained away. The show’s writers claimed it was due to relativity issues, space-time distortion and other egghead crap that nobody cared about, except nerds living in dark basements and wetting the pages of their Euclidian geometry books with despairing tears.

Damn few viewers were familiar with dusty old Einstein’s theories, which quantum tunneling had long ago rendered moot and irrelevant. There was no time-space distortion because nobody traveled through space anymore. They moved at the quantum level, riding locally produced beams of incoherent light particles.

The same individuals who didn’t get that time-space dynamics couldn’t possibly be causing a one-hour delay in real-time broadcasting also believed quite firmly that their votes mattered and Rip really was in danger, all the time. Their votes weren’t even counted and Rip was never in danger, unless the threat was posed by untreatable STD strains or bad shrimp.

Rip’s stomach grumbled ominously as he clambered into the higher branches. He was already far above the Nerd King in his cherry picker, but Jim kept shouting at him as if he had some real authority. “Get up there, Ripper. Come on. Look like you mean it. We need to see you scouting out the beacon. Find it and convince me you know what you’re doing. Look northwest, make your serious face. What? Ginger ale, sweetheart. And bring me some of those little nuts, the ones with the candy coating. Huh? That’s uncalled-for, young lady. No. It isn’t funny.”

Rip poked his head out of the uppermost leaves and gazed across the jungle canopy toward the beacon. The camera circled his head like a psychotic gnat.

There was a single blinking red light atop the tower, which marked his theoretical extraction point, the one he was supposed to reach after a long, arduous journey filled with danger.

He made a serious face. Then he mumbled into his wrist communicator. “Jim, that thing’s pretty far away. Isn’t it supposed to be closer? I don’t remember it ever being that far away.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Richard A. Conine

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