On Our Own

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Such a routine expedition. Drop camp on an algorithmically-selected planet, stay a year to gather samples, return to the mothership. But this time, morning brought a surprise: A statue, tall as a sequoiadendron.

“Colossus,” muttered Jay.

Awed, we both stood with heads tipped back as far as our spacesuit helmets would allow. Its alien features were calm in the planetary light, its five-eyed gaze fixed on a similar, faraway, statue. The back was perfectly modeled in the same stony blue-gray material. A tail swept almost to the ground. Its size made even our Camper look small. I recorded an array of pictures.

“Well,” I said at last. “We should be collecting mineral samples along the transect. We need to be back in the Camper by 16:00.” The Clock was of course completely artificial, but humans prefer a 24-hour cycle. We calibrated it with pings from the mothership, lying far outside the planetary system.

“Let’s get closer to the other one instead?” Jay gazed at the statue. “We can waste a half-day. We’re on our own.”

We were. We always were. Good thing we worked so well together. I looked at him fondly. Adventure was what we came to space for. What we’d got was routine mineral-gathering drops on dead planets. Until now.

“Half-day it is.”

Half-day only got us part-way there, but the second statue appeared identical to the first: jaw-droppingly huge, calm five-eyed face, swinging tail.

Later, I examined all the recordings. The two statues differed in detail. “See, Suss’s head is tipped down slightly compared with Colly’s,” I said.

Jay saw. “Colly? Suss? What silly names are those?”

“You’re the one who said Colossus,” I replied. “Should we get samples of the stone or whatever they’re made of?”

Jay looked shocked. “How’d we feel if someone landed outside the Louvre and chipped samples from the Venus de Milo?”

“More like from the Sphinx. Clearly the ones who made these are long gone.”

“We shouldn’t chip the Sphinx either.”


The mothership didn’t care about old statues. They wanted mineral samples. The next few days, we made up for lost time, emerging from the Camper and going straight to work — though always aware of the looming presence of Colly not far from our site.


“We’ve made our targets,” I said. “How about we take an off-day for another look at Suss?”

This time, we actually got there. Suss was as gigantic as Colly, but with one foot raised and a lifted tail. We recorded more arrays. Back in the Camper, I opened up all the image-sets.

“Jay,” I said. “Come here? Am I seeing things?”

“Oh wow. Suss is different in the two sets. The angle of the head, the position of the foot. That tail. It’s – moved.”

We stared at each other, trying to understand the implications.


We were either getting weaker, or less efficient; each day, we got less done before we had to return. Something was messed up with the Clock, too, relative to the mothership’s pings. Still, we kept working under Colly’s steady penta-gaze.


It was around the thirtieth day that I saw something odd.

“Jay – did Colly move?”
Jay stared at the statue. “I’m not sure.”

“Are they automatons?” I said.

After a few more days, we realized Colly was indeed moving – very slowly, but moving. And Suss, also very slowly, was coming toward us.

“Maybe they’re not automatons,” I said. “Maybe they’re alive.”

In thirty more days, they’d speeded up a little, though still much slower than us. But one thing was clear from the image-sets: If they were automatons, they were perfectly built to create the semblance of life.


Something was seriously wrong with the Clock. And with the mothership pings. We even missed our periodic check-in with the mothership. Our daily routine consumed all our time, leaving almost no time for excursions. When we skipped two more check-ins, a terse message told us to prepare for extraction.

“Quick in and out,” the captain’s note said. “We don’t know what’s happening on your planet. No risks.”

We’d barely read it when it happened. Blindingly fast, another Camper landed near our site, a crew came and picked us up bodily, took us to their ship, strapped in, and took off. All before we could say more than, “What?” and “Why?”

They unloaded us into the mothership. All around us, the crew darted about like hummingbirds.

Jay and I sat quiet and stunned. Nights and days passed in quick sequences of dark and light. We started to count them, keeping score with shallow marks on the table before us.

Food appeared on trays. The dishes were never empty though we ate, but changed in form and flavor. We worked out that the crew replaced it each day so we had an endless supply of fresh food. A writing tablet and stylus appeared next to me, and another beside Jay.

“I guess that’s how we communicate with them,” Jay said sourly, in tones we knew were too slow for the crew to hear. “What do we say? Stew is better than steak in slow time?”

Them. Not ‘the crew’ or ‘our colleagues.’ Them.

Jay was right. We looked at each other and we both knew. I pulled the tablet over.
WE HAVE TO GO BACK, I wrote. Would They allow it?

The words appeared on the tablet almost before I’d finished.  Are you sure? Mothership is preparing to depart this Sector. You’d be marooned.

I looked at Jay. “We’re marooned already,” I said.

Jay nodded.  “We can’t do anything, talk to anyone. To them, we’re two human lumps sitting here.”

“So we have to tell them immediately. Once out of this sector, they won’t send us back.”

Around us, the speeded-up crew movements had suddenly taken on the familiar buzz of the mothership packing up for a departure – and we were on slow time. I grabbed the stylus, hoping we hadn’t missed the return-window. Would we make it?

WE’RE SURE, I wrote.

Okay, it said, and Jay and I took a deep breath.

We’ll lifetime-provision your Camper and drop you both off. Good luck.

You’re on your own. Like always.

Except for Colly and Suss. Whoever they were. Maybe we’d have a chance to find out.


A peripatetic writer of science fiction and fantasy, Keyan Bowes has lived in seven countries and now can usually be found somewhere on the West Coast of the USA. Her work has been published online in magazines such as Escape Pod and Fireside, and in print in a dozen anthologies. She's a Clarion graduate and a SFWA member. Website: www.KeyanBowes.org