Thaw (Part One)

Jason Plummer steered the rover blindly though constant blowing snow that blanketed the planet. Having to drive by instruments alone was always treacherous on the broken and uneven surface. Outside, it was the kind of global storm you can only get when there is nothing but ice and snow for thousands of kilometers in every direction, with no terrain or vegetation to break the wind. In this weather, windows were virtually useless.

He hated this planet. For one thing, as he never stopped pointing out, it was cold. The kind of cold the sinks into your bones and won’t let go, not even when you wrap up in blankets and park yourself in front of a portable heater. He had never liked the cold, and he liked it even less now. For his next assignment, the company had better send him somewhere warm, or he was going to quit, contract or no contract.

Then there was the fact that there was almost no land to speak of. The only solid rock to be seen were the few scraggy mountaintops that poked through the ocean of ice. The crust was hundreds of meters thick even here, ten degrees south of the equator. And despite being solid for countless millennia, it continuously creaked and groaned in a way that unsettled him. He knew that it was just his imagination, but he felt like he was on a sinking ship.

While the planet might be a good candidate for terraforming, in its current state it was the worst place Jason could imagine. The only things this planet had going for it were its thin but almost breathable atmosphere and a strong magnetosphere to block radiation. Maybe in a hundred years or so this place would be a paradise, but Jason didn’t care. He wouldn’t be around to see it. Even if he bought some beachfront property now, it would only be his great-great-grandchildren who would see any benefit. Not that he was going to have any children if he stayed here much longer. Already he felt like all he had between his legs was two ice cubes and a shriveled, frozen breakfast sausage.

Jason checked his map. He was almost at the coordinates that his supervisor had given him. One of the hydrologists had seen something he couldn’t explain on his scans, and then the monitoring station had gone dark. Naturally, they had picked Jason to go out in the storm and fix it, just because he had complained about how easy the scientists had it compared to the technicians. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Well, it also gets the crap assignments no one else wants.

It had been this way since he had started working off-world. The scientists looked down their noses at the technical and maintenance staff, like a couple extra years of schooling had given them all the answers to life’s mysteries. The old timers with seniority sat on their fat butts and handed out assignments to the new guys. And security hassled everyone, partly because they were all assholes, but mostly because they were bored and had to deal with everyone else’s petty squabbles. If he didn’t need the money so badly, he would have walked away from the lot of them ages ago.

He drained the last bit of coffee from his mug and tossed it aside in disgust. It wasn’t just him; everyone thought the food here tasted awful. It was something about the atmosphere that made everything taste bitter. Even with extra sugar, the coffee still tasted like battery acid and vomit. He spat on the floor beside him where it froze in seconds.

Suddenly, he was falling. Jason had no time to even think. The rover slammed hard against the ice and tipped over on its side, throwing him against the roof. Without his helmet on, he slumped against the rover door as a thin stream of blood trickled across his forehead. The last thing he heard before losing consciousness was the engine sound of the engine as it sputtered and died.

Jason woke after what felt like hours. It was pitch black, but his helmet had landed beside him, so he bumped into it as soon as he tried to move. After he turned his helmet light on, he took a minute to asses the damage. He felt dizzy and his head hurt, but otherwise he seemed to be all right. He sat up and tried to collect his thoughts, and then with a panic, he realized that he hadn’t checked his environment suit. Outside of the protective envelope of the base, a tear in the protective fabric of his suit could mean a lost limb or worse. A quick inspection showed there were no breaches, save for a few scratches that had already mended themselves. He was safe from the cold, at least for the moment.

The rover was still laying on its side, and the windows were covered in snow giving no clue about what lay beyond. He must have fallen into a crevasse or a sinkhole, and was now buried under an avalanche of crushed ice and snow. He tried the rover’s comm but either the crash or the cold had killed the batteries. The radio was dead. It would be hours before he was missed, and many more before they found him, if they ever did. His best chance has to get to the surface and signal for a pick-up with his suit radio.

He checked in the rear compartment for any tools that had survived, but all the electronics were as dead as the comm. Remembering his survival training, he found a hammer and started tapping on the walls, floor, and ceiling, looking for a hollow on the other side. When he found a large open space on the rear ceiling, he fired up the cutting torch and made a hole big enough to crawl out. The metal fell away to reveal the rover was poking out into a large chamber, some twenty meters across. It looked safe enough, so Jason gathered up what useful items he could carry and stuffed them into a tool belt. He tossed the tools and a small knapsack of rations out of the hole and crawled out after them.

It was warmer here than on the surface, but still cold enough for Jason’s labored breath to condense into clouds. He looked around but he saw only one exit from the chamber, so he stood up slowly to keep from passing out and started walking towards the tunnel. It was dark out here as well, so he figured he must be a fair distance under the surface. Hopefully, he mused that where there was one crack there were probably more. It might take some time and some digging, but he was confident that he could get out of this hole.

He only got a few steps before he heard something big moving down the tunnel towards him. Fumbling with numb hands around his waist until he found his tool belt, he pulled out the heavy mallet. The initial surveys had said there were no complex life forms on the planet that were dangerous to humans, but he had heard the stories told and retold on the long interstellar transits about how entire survey teams had vanished without a trace. He was determined not to go down easily.

To be continued

Crazed recluse and sociophobe who has taken up writing after failing at everything else. Send pizza.

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