(working) Title: Bleak Moon
Author: Jesse Allshouse
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
First Rough Draft:
"Approaching coordinates. Landing gear engaged. Preparing for descent." Ursula, the ship's AI announced in a monotone feminine voice. "Switching over to manual controls." Captain Nazir Sayiq, one of the company's most experienced deep space pilots and engineers responded as he gently pushed forward on the throttle lever that caused the ship to begin its descent to the asteroid's surface. "Zero on radar. Looks like we're alone out here.
Asteroid exploration is mostly done by autonomous drones to reduce the risk to human life. Probes containing both the drone and control station are launched from spacecraft. The rover drone maps the surface area of an asteroid while gathering then analyzing samples and relaying that information back to its control station. The probe can then transmit that data back to the spacecraft or to anyone within range capable of receiving such transmissions. Once an asteroid has been mapped it can then be mined for its useful elements such as platinum, gold or even helium.
Several months ago a rover drone from the Pytheas-1 probe reported several anomalies after touching down on the super asteroid Yama. Shortly after this data was transmitted from Pytheas-1 it went offline. All attempts to make contact with the probe have proven unsuccessful. An expedition manned by only a skeleton crew is sent to investigate. Their goal to find the probe, assess the damage, then repair or replace the probe as necessary. A small spacecraft known as The Tartarus arrives at the coordinates of Pytheas-1's last known transmission as the massive asteroid Yama comes into view.
The super asteroid Yama is a huge vermilion stone orbiting a bright beautiful azure pearl of a world. The planet known as Mithra has a breathable oxygen and nitrogen based atmosphere and is mostly covered in oceans. As far as is known no intelligent life has ever existed there. It might be a wonderful place to settle down someday if it weren't for the looming super asteroid in a decaying orbit waiting to rain fiery death down onto the planet's surface.
Upon investigation there are no signs whatsoever of the Pytheas-1 probe. Other than the slight impact crater and tire tread marks of the rover drone, the surface of the asteroid shows no indication that anything had ever been there.
Captain Sayiq, a dark bronze skinned man with black hair, wore a scruffy beard that showed the lack of amenities that often comes with deep space travel. His dreadlocks pulled back revealed the sides of his head were shaved and tattooed with tribal symbols. His ears surgically altered to a point and decorated with piercings made of polished stones and ceramic. A typical company man he was not.
"We should just launch the replacement probe and get the hell out of here. Something about this rock doesn't sit right with me," he opined to his current and only human companion.
"It's important we investigate the anomalous readings that were transmitted by Pytheas-1," Dr. Ayla Mifune, the Chief Science Officer, one of the most enthusiastic and brilliant minds working for the company. She is a pale skinned woman of average height, with short raven-hair and dark almond shaped eyes.
"An entire drone goes missing and we're not supposed to think some sort of pirates are responsible? Enemies of the company? We're a maintenance crew at best, not corporate security. This ship isn't even armed." he argued back.
After a moment he added, "It gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, all I'm saying. Besides the replacement drone will do just that." He flipped a switch and the craft landed on the surface of the super-asteroid. "We have touchdown."
"We still don't know what happened to the first probe. If this backup drone fails we'll just be back out here again. I'd like to get down there and personally collect some samples for analysis while we're here. It could help in discovering what exactly happened to the missing probe."
"Ursula, scan for any signs of the probe. Include laser array, gamma, UV and radio signals to your search parameters." Dr. Mifune ordered. Momentarily the AI responded "Negative on all spectrum. Pytheas-1 probe not located."
"Ursula is it possible to create a chronological map of events from any residual heat patterns or radiation left on the surface? How long would it take you to create such a composite?"
"Assuming their is enough recoverable data approximately 3 hours and 27 minutes. Shall I begin immediately?" the AI asked without inflection. "Proceed and have the results waiting for us when we return from outside the ship."
They unfastened their safety harnesses and meticulously prepared to walk on the asteroid's surface. Nazir flipped several switches that reduced the pressure in the airlock and a gradual hissing sound built to a gentle whoosh then dissipated. They began pulling on armor like hard suits over their form-fitting garments while the room filled with pure oxygen. After fastening their boots, gloves, torso and helmets to their suits, they checked their lights, camera and radio communications gear.
"Communication test. One Two. Over" Dr. Mifune buzzed over her device.
"Read you loud and clear, Ayla. Over." Nazir turned a dial and the pressure in the airlock slightly increased. Once they are confident that there are no leaks in their suits they secure their tethers to the winch adjacent to the inner airlock door. They each began to remove a multi-tool and collection tubes from a compartment on the wall and attached them to the pouches on their belts. The multi-tools can function as tongs, a trowel, a hammer, a drill, etc. The length of its handle can be extended or compressed as needed and housed ports for various attachments that are capable of performing a range of different functions. The outer airlock door opened and they stepped out into the vacuum and onto solid ground.
On the asteroids surface they cannot hear the crunch of the scarlet gravel under their feet nor can they really feel it through the electromagnetic plates in their boots. All there is to hear is the deafening silence of the void. The overwhelming perpetual nothingness that is the vacuum of space. That and the sound of their own breathing echoing endlessly inside of their helmets and the warm static hum of their intercoms. Otherwise silently they moved across the crimson terrain stopping every few meters to fill their collection pouches. Back on board the ship no one is there to notice one of the indicator lights on the console flashing a red error message then ominously go dark again.
"The red color of the soil may help indicate the composition of the asteroid. If this were an oxygenated atmosphere we could possibly conclude it has a high iron content." Dr. Mifune broadcast over her intercom.
"Fascinating Doctor," Nazir replied sardonically, rolling his eyes inside of his helmet unperceived by his companion. "A giant ball of rust doesn't exactly sound like a profitable priority for the company. Or myself for that matter."
"There could be an interesting discovery here, Captain Sayiq. See how those surface spots are darker in some places? I assumed it might be ice when I noticed it from orbit but at closer inspection it almost looks like some sort of vegetation or coral. Either of which would be virtually impossible to grow here. We'll learn more after we drill with the hand auger attachments and take the samples back to the mobile lab. Ursula should be done calculating and ready with a report by now."
Returning to the ship was exactly the same as leaving it only in reverse except this time with their untested samples full of the undiscovered. The results of their task compiled a collection that filled four large cases that they loaded onto the cargo transporter stacked on top of each other. The large metal airlock door closed behind them as they prepared for decompression. They returned their multi-tools to the compartments on the wall and unfastened their tethers which they also returned to the compartment that houses the winch on the inner wall. The air pressure in the room hisses as atmosphere was restored and they began removing their outer hard suits.
"Ursula, summary report.” A momentary silence. "Ursula, report." Still silence. "We'll have to access her application from the main console."
"Maybe she's on coffee break," Nazir sneered. "Lets get the cargo loader to the mobile lab first then I can see what's the matter with the damned AI while you sort through these samples."
"Ursula, acknowledge." Nazir grumbled as he passed through the ship's galley into the cockpit. "Ursula, you dammed machine." He sighed in frustration as he flipped a switch on the side console and sat down in his pilot's chair. He spun the chair around and leaned toward a panel on the rear left hand side wall of the cockpit and removed the panel to reveal an array of circuit boards and wires. The processors that contain Ursula's sophisticated artificial intelligence made up of a series of complex algorithms. He ported a wire into the panel and connected an electronic tablet to it and lines of code started to fill the screen.
In the ship's mobile lab Dr. Mifune has started to divide and organize the contents of the collection cases. The lab is made of various electronic consoles that adorn the walls. She has pulled soil samples out from the collection tubes with a long metal instrument which she also used to place the sample onto a flat work station that has been pulled out from the wall. She put another sample from the same collection tube into a small vial of glycerin and loaded it into a nearby centrifuge.
"Dr. Mifune. Chief Science Officer's log," she pressed the record button on the small audio device she had clipped to her shirt collar. "I'm recording this myself because for unidentified reasons the ship's AI Ursula has been unresponsive since we returned to the ship after manually collecting samples on the surface of the super asteroid Yama. Early analysis indicates,"
"Doctor," Nazir buzzed in over the ship's intercom. "Ursula is still quiet but I have the data you requested earlier. Parts of it have been corrupted for some unknown reason but I was able to mostly salvage it. Sending it now."
"Thank you, Captain."
Dr. Mifune began reviewing the data collected by the ship's AI and using the lab computer she assembled the information visually. She is shocked by the results. The rover drone from the Pytheas-1 probe surrounded by the dark substance on the asteroid's surface which appeared to slowly move as she sped up the playback. As the rover drone became engulfed a retrieval drone from the Pytheas-1 probe entered the frame from low orbit and removed it bringing it back to its place in the probe. Retrieval drones are used to recover damaged equipment so that it can be repaired and also to keep the machinery away from those out to pirate the technology.
"Dr. Mifune, supplemental log. I believe I've discovered the fate of the missing probe. After the rover drone became surrounded by some unidentified substance on the asteroid's surface it was retrieved by its collection probe and returned to Pytheas-1. Once I've run some more tests I should be able to determine if this substance was responsible."
In the ship's mobile lab Dr. Mifune has filled several small vials and began testing them. Her investigation has discovered that the dark substance on the asteroid's surface is some form of mold with the ability to consume metal and survive in the extreme conditions of space. The static buzz of the lab's communications device temporarily diverted her attention.
"Ayla, there are several critical system errors that Ursula has encountered after I rebooted it. We won't be able to take off until we address them." Nazir boomed in over the intercom.
"I think I may have discovered what has been causing them. The dark spots on the asteroid's surface are some undiscovered form of mold that can essentially eat through metal. It seems fantastical but I assure you it is very real and extremely dangerous. Several pieces of lab equipment are already showing signs of contamination. If both the drones and Pytheas-1 were contaminated that might explain why it malfunctioned and disappeared."
"How could the mold have effected our systems before we walked on the asteroid's surface?"
"My best guess is that when we landed dust from the surface containing fungi spores contacted the landing gear and the hull of the spacecraft. It had plenty of time to multiply while we were on the surface. I'm going to continue to study it and hopefully find something to retard its reproduction."
"Alright, I'll get to work trying to restore the ship's critical systems while you do that."
In the cockpit "Ursula, can you reboot the navigation computer or is it something that needs to be done manually?"
Momentarily, "Captain, navigation cannot be restored without replacing several key components including the guidance and control functions. Before takeoff can occur the maneuvering thrusters also need to be repaired."
"Ursula, what will the repairs to the thrusters involve?"
"The launch thrusters must be reconstructed from spare parts. The navigation computer can be repaired by switching out the consoles and replacing them with working ones."
"This flying junk heap doesn't have spare consoles and parts lying around. So basically I have to cannibalize the working thrusters to repair the damaged ones?” frustration in his voice.
"Dr. Mifune supplemental log. In an effort to find a substance to kill or retard the mold's reproduction I have tried several chemicals on some of the samples that we collected. Sodium chloride, acetic acid and sodium borate all possess properties that should stop the mold from replicating. The challenge will be to apply these solutions to the infected areas." Her thought is interrupted by a blaring alarm as the red indicator lights flashed.
The caution indicators all over the ship began to flash and the warning alarm loudly sounded. "Captain, several new critical system errors have occurred. Most urgent to address is the life-support system although several hours of oxygen and power remain." the ship's AI announced in the cockpit.
"What about the escape pod? Can't we just jettison from the ship and contact the company for a rescue?" panic betraying his normal demeanor.
"Long-range communications must be restored in order to contact the company." the AI responded tonelessly.
"Ursula, shut off the damned alarms and inform the doctor that I'm working to fix the communications relay."
Back in the lab Dr. Mifune has gathered several empty collection tubes and modified them to deliver a high pressure aerosol chemical concentrate. The adjustable canister nozzle can be sprayed at a wide angle and a pump used to project the retardant in order to kill the voracious metal eating mold at a distance.
"Doctor Mifune, Captain Sayiq has instructed me to inform you of the impending failure of the life-support systems. He is attempting to repair long-range communications in order to contact the company for assistance. Navigation systems and maneuvering thrusters are also offline."
"Ursula, how much longer will we have oxygen and power?"
"By my current calculations in approximately five hours and forty seven minutes, Doctor."
Captain Sayiq adjusted the laser array control panels in the cockpit console and once again removed a multi-tool from its compartment and connected it to an attachment. After removing several circuit boards he made a few adjustments to the transponders that retrieve and transmit data.
"Ursula, in order to boost power to the communication relay I need you to divert energy from any nonessential systems still running or sitting idle. That should increase the potential range of our emergency alert."
"Captain, this may interfere with any processes and applications that Dr. Mifune is currently running."
"Notify her that this is taking priority."
"Ursula how much power and oxygen do we have left? How much longer will we be able to survive until the company arrives?”
"Captain, approximately two hours and fifty seven minutes of life support remains. After oxygen reserves have been completely depleted about three additional minutes until the human body uses up all of the remaining oxygen left in the blood and unconsciousness will occur." the monotone voice of the AI echoed inside of the small chamber.
Some time later and light years away an interstellar starship received a distorted transmission from the orbit of the planet Mithra. Captain Aldous Jung of The Zarathustra is approached by his communications officer.
"Captain we've just received a garbled transmission from the Janus system. It appears to be a distress beacon but the entirely of its contents are unclear."
"Ensign, set a course for the Janus system immediately."