The stark emptiness of the moon was nearly overwhelming to me, a boy who grew up the comfortably overwhelming blanket of noise and information of the habitat areas of the cities. I stood still, some distant part of my brain waiting for an advertisement to fly over the slightly off-yellow sky through the gas that filled the air. Unbreathable gas, sadly. Too much carbon dioxide, sulfurous gases, and methane to be anything other than a choking miasma if I took off my helmet.
Of course, all the methane was why I was here in the first place.
I reached carefully into the case slung at my hip, opening it and removing the diagnostic equipment, before turning to look at the corporate-stamped constellation aquila—simply named Sakura 117—that loomed nearby; the only point of interest in the otherwise rocky, obscured landscape. The Sakura 117’s angular design and dark paint job nearly blended in to the volcanic landscape of the moon, designated MIL-H by the exploration crew that had plotted this little system. No life-bearing planets or moons in the whole of the system, by their scans, but lots of potential for resource exploitation. Especially MIL-H, a moon with active volcanic activity around the whole of its tiny surface. It was the 8th moon of a massive gas giant that loomed above the horizon of MIL-H, visibly round and large even from the great distance that MIL-H was held at by its gravity.
My partner on this expedition, Chris, was in the Ursa rover, going over the diagnostics and making sure that it was ready to go on the first scouting mission of this empty expanse of rock and ash. I took some preliminary samples of the atmosphere while I waited for him to finish. At my back, pillars of black rock stood sentinel, the last standing pieces of what was probably a series of gas vents hundreds or thousands of years ago. The yellowish haze of the atmosphere hung thick around them, billowing occasionally over cracks in the ground where vaporous trails languidly issued from the rock. I cautiously approached one of these vapor trails, analysing it with a long chemical probe from a safe distance. When I pulled the probe back, I noted a small amount of condensation on the metal surface. I plugged the probe into my diagnostic kit, smiling with a small bit of satisfaction as the lights on the kit turned yellow and began the slow process of chemical analysis. I allowed my gaze to drift back towards the pillars and the fog-like haze around them, my thoughts wandering to the oceanside cities of home, and how the fog would drift between the buildings.
Some poet once said something about fog creeping, slow and measured, on little cat feet. I knew better. The fog was an opportunist, rushing to fill the spaces and voids where it was not. Despite these qualities, I still thought the fog was beautiful, but there was something about the haze of this place that felt different. Perhaps the fact that it was so completely present? I almost expected the atmosphere to clear away, and to see a sky full of stars overhead.
“Hey, Doctor Ron, we’re good to go,” came Chris’s voice over the coms, snapping me out of my ponderings. I tucked away the diagnostic kit and probe back into the case and moved toward Chris, who waved at me jovially from the cockpit of the Ursa. I returned the wave out of politeness before stepping around the side of the rover and out of view. I tapped the door control and stepped into the small interior air lock of the Ursa. The lock cycled quickly, pushing out the haze and bringing clean, processed air into the compartment. I felt myself breathe a little easier, despite the fact that my suit and helmet provided essentially the same air at the same quality. Just being away from the haze was a welcome respite.
The Ursa was a great machine, perfect for somebody like me who needed to complete multiple objectives quickly on a job like this one. The onboard lab setup was superb, as were the holding containers for samples and other findings. I entered the primary bay, pulled out my diagnostic kit and hooked it up to the far more powerful computers and processing kits of the rover’s internal lab. Chris peered over his shoulder from the driver’s seat and gave me a thumb’s up, grinning happily, teeth pearly white and impeccable against his darker complexion. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, I noticed, and I scowled at the unprofessional choice. Chris didn’t seem to notice my concern. “All good back there, buddy?” he asked.
“Yes. Let’s get moving to the first site. Go slowly, please. Some of my instruments are delicate,” I replied, focusing less on the overly friendly driver and more on my work.
“Yeah, no problem,” Chris said, tapping the com bead in his ear to deactivate it. He began humming a tune, still smiling, as he started the rover’s engines and began rolling forward across the uneven landscape.
To his credit, Chris took the journey at a slow pace, but that did not change the fact that the terrain was incredibly uneven. Despite the advanced shock absorption of the Ursa and the measured speed, the ride was a bumpy one all the way to the first site. I ignored the trip for the most part, my eyes on my work. The analysis of the chemicals in the vapors from the cracks near our landing site showed they contained methanol in high concentrations—an exciting prospect, ignoring the fact that this meant our ship was probably parked on a massive flammable pocket of the stuff.
We arrived at the first site of interest behind schedule, and I tried not to let this fact bother me. Chris had done his best, and his slow traversal had allowed me to analyse the findings of the chemical analysis We’d have to cut the expedition short, most likely. After all, I’d rather be thorough at one site than rushed and sloppy at two. I rechecked my helmet seals out of habit as I prepared to leave, while Chris left his own sitting in the second seat up front. He parked the ursa and set the engine to cycle down, and then leaned back in his seat. “All right, doc. We’re here. Do your thing.”
I spared Chris a nod, retrieving several tools I’d need from the lab and setting them into the airlock so I could retrieve them at my leisure without needing to cycle through the lock. Having gathered my equipment, I returned once more to the hazy planet surface, suppressing a shudder that threatened to move down my spine as the fog enveloped me once more.
I strode through the ash and dust to the site forty meters away and began collecting samples, getting readings on the composition of the soil beneath the layered ash, the ash itself, and the composition of this slightly less volcanically active area. I set up the first of a dozen automated drills to get a deep rock sample as well. With any luck, a wide spread of these drills across this area would get the results the company needed.
Sakura Sun was a good corporation, as far as corporations could be good at any rate, and their research division paid people like me handsomely to assist with their surveys of possibly lucrative moons and planets such as this one. The work was hard and tedious, but the pay was good, and was helping me fund my own private research work. As my thoughts drifted to my own lab at home, I set the last of the drills going and stood back to check my work. A line of drills were set in the dust, disappearing into the haze, marking my trail back like breadcrumbs. The ursa was gone, swallowed by the thick atmosphere, and I felt a brief flutter of panic in my chest. I began trudging back along the line of drills, checking each one’s progress as I went. I’d have to repeat this every few minutes, and the prospect of losing myself in the claustrophobic clutches of the fog for the next hour or so was unpleasant. The drills stretched across over two hundred meters of ground, and it was a long walk. “The things I do for funds,” I muttered under my breath.
“What was that?” came the reply over the coms, Chris’s voice startling me more than it had any right to do.
“Nothing, just getting a reading,” I lied, too embarrassed to admit I’d been talking to myself.
“Well, all right. Speaking of readings, you probably need to come back and check on this first drill you set up. It looks like it’s got some gas coming out of it,” Chris said.
I scowled. “It has gas coming out of it? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I was just about to call you. Come get it fixed, doc. I don’t want a broken piece of equipment on my hands.”
Chris wasn’t a freelance worker like me. He was a full-time Sakura Sun employee, part of their exploration division. It made sense that he’d rather not have to deal with the fallout of damaged equipment. My job ended after this expedition, after all, and his did not.
I began jogging back to the rover while I tried to envision the issue with the drill. It had most likely hit a gas pocket somewhere below the site, which could be good or bad, depending on what type of gas it was. I assumed the worst and increased my speed.
As I passed the fourth-closest drill to the Ursa, I noticed the drill had vaporous gas issuing from the bore hole, a steady stream that indicated high pressure. I pulled out a tool to analyse the gas, and the tool brought back a reply immediately. Methane, high concentration. “Oh, damn it. Chris?”
“Start the Ursa and get out of the area. We’re sitting on a pocket of flammable gas, and if it goes off, it’ll collapse the ground around us into the gas pocket.”
“Oh, shit. Yeah, okay, doc. When will you be back?” Chris’s relaxed demeanor did not wear concern well, like a foreign accent had invaded his voice.
“You can pick me up after. If I can shut off the drills in time, perhaps they won’t cause a spark that will ignite the gas.” I pulled the power pack out of the drill as I spoke, halting its progress immediately.
“Are you sure? This sounds dangerous, Ron. I don’t know what they’re paying you, but they’re not paying me enough to get blown up.”
“Which is why I’m asking you to leave,” I said, dropping the power pack and sprinting towards the third drill. I could already see the hazy atmosphere billowing as gas issued from the next drill.
Chris didn’t respond, and I assumed he was doing as I’d asked. I focused on the drill ahead. The gas hissed forth audibly, the fog around it agitating angrily. I reached the drill and disconnected its power, sending the drill to a halt.
Two to go.
As I made for the second drill, which was barely in sight, I saw a bright flash that lit the yellow atmosphere. I halted in my tracks as the ground heaved beneath me. Turning ninety degrees, ran, perpendicular to the line of drills and towards a depression in the dust. I dove to the ground, curling into a ball and praying the small pit I’d landed in was deep enough to provide some cover as the second drill issued a massive gout of flame and then exploded violently, sending another shock through my body that knocked the air out of my lungs and planted my helmet face-down into the ash. I screamed as the ground heaved beneath me, slamming my body in a rolling undulation up and then down into the pit once more. My helmet slammed into the dirt and I saw stars. I rolled over slowly, gasping for air, as the third drill exploded. The ripple of the blast rolled me over onto my side and cracked my helmet against the dirt a third time. I groaned, my vision growing spotty briefly. I panted, clutching at my head through my helmet. I could only barely feel the fourth drill, the ground shifting beneath me and the concussive burst sending the fog rushing like a tidal wave.
I stared up at the yellowish haze above me, trying to collect myself, when I noticed the crack.
It ran, vertically, down the side of my helmet’s visor, and split into a tiny star patten at the very edge of my helmet. I must have been hit by a piece of debris from the drill, or maybe the repeated impacts in the dust had found a rock beneath the ash.
As I watched dazedly, a thin wisp of yellow entered my helmet, along with the smell of eggs. I pondered that briefly, by brain still scrambled, before the danger suddenly registered in my foggy mind. I sat up quickly, wincing as my head throbbed in protest, and reached into a hip pouch. I tore open the pocket and grabbed the sealant for my helmet and applied it quickly. The smell of eggs dissipated quickly, and I found myself coughing, tasting the salty tang of sulfur in my mouth. I grimaced and held my breath for a moment, waiting for the suit’s life support systems to cycle in more fresh air. After a pause, I inhaled cautiously.
Clean, pure air.
I coughed once more, and stood up shakily. I called out over the comms. “Chris?”
His reply was tense. “Hey, doc. You all right?”
“Not particularly. My suit integrity has been compromised. Did you get clear?” I spoke, slowly, my tongue feeling thick. The ground seemed to move beneath me, and I sat down.
“Yeah, I’m good. I’ll come and get you, activate your emergency beacon.”
I nodded dumbly, reaching down to my suit’s side and depressing the two buttons to activate the beacon simultaneously. My suit began to emit a harsh whistle, and a red light on the beacon began to blink. Audio and visual cues to any rescuers.
“All right, sit tight, you’re only a hundred meters out from me.”
I sat tight, as requested, the whole of my being focused on not vomiting into my helmet as the moon spun around me. My vision couldn’t decide whether it wanted to black out or not. The Ursa’s headlights appeared first, piercing the fog that swirled hungrily around me, like a shark that had smelled blood…
I was personifying fog. I felt a giggle escape my lips, and lifted a hand up into the air, swiping at the haze and sending it rolling around in eddies, like a current. Fog was an opportunist, rushing to fill voids where it was not. It had almost filled me, as well.
I decided I hated fog.