Mere looked at the morning starlight shining through the window, illuminating her soggy cereal. She had been eating the same breakfast for over a year and it hadn’t taken long for her to develop a distaste for it. A beep signified that Homme had finished using the hygiene pod; she shuddered thinking about having to use it next, he usually hogged all the hot water. Homme came out with a smile on his face. Mere never understood how he always remained positive and driven- his mind could absorb the routine of living in a remote location and somehow still be happy.
“I am excited for another day of sample collection!” chirped Homme.
“Yeah, yeah sounds really exciting,” replied Mere, rolling her eyes.
“Mt. Cinnabar has been acting up again, I was thinking we should monitor the seismic activity in the region. Also the bio-analysis of the sector we visited earlier was just processed by Allen. There are a few new plant species we haven’t documented. We should get samples for further analysis. I have a good feeling that some of them will be fit for human consumption,” rambled on Homme.
“You know I am never going to get used to addressing the supercomputer like that. Where did you even get ‘Allen’ from?”
“Why not? It’s just a bit of fun. As for the origin of the name, it’s a bit of callback to my time in the academy.”
“Fine, do whatever makes you tick. Why do you enjoy this so much?” inquired Mere, slightly annoyed.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you get out of this whole shindig? Going planet after planet and documenting its life. All so that some rich schmucks can come, terraform and colonise it.”
Homme mulled over the loaded question, “Hmm…ok…wow, that’s a lot to unpack. I am not sure…I learn a lot from doing this I suppose. I am a scientist, and the quest for knowledge is my highest purpose in life. The sheer variety of life in the cosmos is really exciting and in certain ways it is rather reassuring and humbling to know you are not the centre of the universe. Also, the “rich schmucks” wouldn’t be sinking all that money in if they didn’t get something out of it. You should really come out for more expeditions, you might learn to appreciate this part of the job.”
“I am a pilot and a soldier and more importantly, this planet isn’t hostile enough to warrant an armed escort.”
“Well, you are also my commanding officer so you being there makes a lot of sense, and most importantly it’s good to stretch your legs once in a while, without involving a treadmill.”
“Alright,” Mere sighed. “I will bite, what is today’s itinerary?”
“Right, that’s the enthusiasm I am looking for. Let me see, we have to investigate the sector Allen just analysed and then we have to install new seismic sensors near Mt Cinnabar. I don’t trust it to be stable. Pre-landing scans of the area indicated it to be an active seismic zone. I often wonder why the ship’s computer chose this place for the habitat, it’s so close to the volcano. Probably was optimally close to essential resources.Although…”
“Ok, I am going to stop you right there before you go on one of your monologues. Give me a few minutes to use the hygiene pod and we will leave on this expedition of yours. By the way, I am bringing my rifle just in case.”
“Of course, I would never dream of parting a soldier from their rifle.”
Mere cursed under her breath as she stomped through the mud that was thick as tar and somehow smelt even worse. All her military training hadn’t prepared her for wading through this sludge- her instructor had emphasized on avoiding mud, not traversing through it. Homme didn’t seem to have a problem, he was too absorbed with the stream of data on his access pad, happily tapping away. He was probably trying to analyse the data in some new way. Homme could sometimes be like this, analysis this, analysis that. “Hey Homme, want to arm wrestle?”, his reply would be “No thanks, have to analyse so-and-so data”.
Mere couldn’t count on him for conversation- the scenery would have to do. She looked around, admiring the foliage. The trees on this planet impressed her, they reached massive heights compared to their Earthly counterparts and seemed to have denser leaf growth on them. It was something to do with the soil in the area, at least that’s what Homme had told her. There were a multitude of small plants and vines that seemed to coexist with the bigger trees. The trees themselves couldn’t grow any kind of protection like how trees on Earth grew bark, so they depended on the creepers for protection against the elements and anything else that would benefit from their harm.
The initial lack of fauna had baffled her until Homme had explained that the planet seemed to be in its early stages of recovering from a mass extinction. Most of the fauna they had encountered were the survivors of this event and hence would be rather small and suited for niche habitats that were unaffected by the event. Homme had made the observation that these were mostly insectoid in nature while others were amphibian-like creatures. Mere had sworn to him that she had spotted a winged creature near the tops of Mt Cinnabar, but Homme had dismissed it as an impossibility.
Mere suddenly heard a mud bubble pop to her left which broke her reverie. Her instincts kicked in and she swung her rifle to point at the source of the sound. Homme, startled by the movement, turned around and stared at her. After an uneasy few seconds she realised it was probably some gas from something that was decomposing under the mud. She relaxed a bit and shifted her weight back to both her legs, but just to be sure she asked
“Hey Homme, don’t you think the ground is a bit unstable? I feel like we are standing on a sponge.”
“Don’t worry about that, the data says it’s…”
He trailed off as the forest rumbled around them. In an instant, the ground disappeared beneath their feet and they fell into the gaping hole it left in its wake. As Mere fell, all she could think of was where and how she would stick her rifle in Homme the next time he talked about data.
Mere woke up to a Homme nervously staring at her. She should have expected this, the kid didn’t have any medical training. It was a good thing she had no serious injuries; the mud had cushioned their fall. The ground must have eroded causing the tunnel to cave in, they needed to be more careful in the future, hypothesized Mere. She propped herself up and looked down at her now ruined outfit. Homme saw her back on her feet and turned his attention to the access pad. She did a few stretches to make sure all of her joints and muscles were functional, and then checked her rifle for any damage.
Content that all damage was superficial, she felt up her neck yearning for the familiar touch of metal and panicked when she didn’t feel it. She went into a frenzy and immediately started slapping through the mud searching for it. Her eye caught a slight glint under a rock and she yanked it out. There it was, the shiny albeit a bit muddied locket that she hadn’t taken off since they got here. She rubbed the mud off the locket with her pants and wore it around her neck once again. Feeling filthy and slow in her now ruined jacket, she removed it and tied it around her waist.
Homme had missed this entire episode as he had been wrestling with his now malfunctioning access pad. He furiously tapped away at it trying to figure out what had happened. After a few seconds of intense cursing and muttering, he finally got it to work.
“This doesn’t make sense, the data said this region was safe for exploration,” complained Homme.
“Did you consider that the data could be out of date?” retorted Mere.
“These are all pre-landing scans, they were taken an year ago. Geography doesn’t change that fast!”
“Well it did, now we know we can’t rely on the pre-landing data anymore. Let’s find a way out of this and regroup at the habitat. We need to do a geographical scan again to navigate the landscape, which could take weeks with the habitats’ weaker sensors. Wow, this sets back the mission by months,” said Mere spiraling.
“One thing at a time, getting out of this hole could be a problem. We can’t climb back the way we fell, it’s too high and we don’t have the necessary gear. Also, the older scans indicate we are in a network of tunnels. The older data is the only hope of finding our way back. I know that’s not the best of ideas, but it’s the only option we have.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I came along with you. Follow me Homme, and tell me which direction to go if we ever encounter forks.”
Mere switched on the torchlight attached to her rifle and led the way with Homme following her. His face was eerily illuminated by the access pad as he studied the map. It didn’t help their speed as he distractedly kept stumbling upon bumps on the ground. They walked for what seemed like a long time. The starlight seeping through the hole they fell through was long gone, their surroundings illuminated only by Mere’s torch and Homme’s access pad.
They continued with the grueling march when suddenly the tunnel started widening and after a few hundred metres there seemed to be a dull glow coming from around the corner. Excited and anxious to go back topside, Mere lowered her torch and raced forward with Homme at her heels struggling to keep up. She burst through the opening and looked up to see what seemed like the night sky- several bright spots spread on a black canvas. She had never been so happy to see the sky. She settled on the ground and breathed a sigh of relief- they could get back to the habitat easily now. She let herself relax, waiting for the gust of wind that would inevitably arrive and cool down her now exhausted and sweating body. Then it dawned on her- they had left the habitat not more than a few hours ago, it was early morning then and it couldn’t be night right now. She swung her torchlight upwards and what she saw crushed her.
They were in a huge cavern that spanned several hundred meters in every direction and as she looked around she could make out the rock formations that acted like columns supporting the entire structure. The stars that she had been so grateful to see turned out to be some sort of bioluminescent fungi making vast patterns on the cavern roof. It was a beautiful and a terrible sight at the same time. Mere joked to herself that if they died here their graves would be grander than those of the Egyptian pharaohs.
“We must be at the nexus of the tunnel structure. This probably was a huge reservoir of underground water millions of years ago and the tunnels being underground streams from different sources,” piped in Homme.
“You couldn’t have mentioned that a couple of minutes ago?” yelled an annoyed Mere.
“Sorry, I was trying to plot a way out of here. There are so many tunnels out of here that the program is taking a while to plot a course. We might have to wait here for a while.”
With a sigh, Mere dropped to the rocky floor and lay spread eagle staring at the ceiling. Looking at the sky-like ceiling reminded her of her childhood. Her father used to take her on long walks, they would walk up the hill behind their house with their telescope and stargaze for hours. Her father would teach her to identify constellations and would later quiz her as a fun game; if she won, she got to go to the ice-cream parlour. Her father had been an astronomer, and his passion and fascination for space exploration was what had motivated her to follow this career path; she had wanted to do what he couldn’t in his lifetime. She had joined The Academy and gotten a quick taste for that life. She made a lot of friends, she felt everything from here on would be smooth sailing. Only when she started on the job did she realise how lonely it was.
Homme was alright, but he wasn’t really a people’s person. He didn’t make for good, reliable company when the occasion demanded it. She thought back to the first day of training when she met him- the words scrawny and weak had come to mind. How he had gotten into the academy was beyond her and several other cadets. Most of them had predicted he would quit within a week. To their surprise, it didn’t take a week- he was gone in a couple of days. When they had asked their instructor, he had simply said Homme had taken a leave of absence. Mere later discovered that Homme had gotten into the Academy because of his off the charts cognitive test scores. The people up the ladder had decided that a different, more specialised kind of path would serve to improve his skills better and had thus transferred him. Only after they were assigned together did she realise how smart and driven he was at his job. The only reason he hadn’t been promoted further and she was still his commanding officer was because Homme didn’t care for leadership roles- he would rather keep doing what he was doing right now because it made him happy.
The beep of the access pad brought Mere out of her reverie.
“Yes! The course is finally plotted,” cheered an enthusiastic Homme. He had that crazy smile he only got after solving a hard problem. “If we follow the cavern wall to the right and take this particular tunnel,” he said pointing at the pad, “we should resurface a couple of kilometers away from our base. Just a short march from there.”
“Well, that is assuming nothing has changed since the time the data was taken,” pointed out Mere.
“That is a given, of course.”
“Alright, let’s go then.” Mere grunted as she picked herself up from the ground and began their journey back.
They followed the cavern wall till the path narrowed to a ledge overlooking the floor of the cavern. They climbed across the ledge precariously for about 20 metres, and in that short journey, Homme had stumbled twice and had almost fallen to his doom once. Mere had to force him to pocket the access pad and grab her hand before they moved any further so that she didn’t have to haul his dead body to the surface. Homme could be so stubborn sometimes about parting with his toys.
The climb, though arduous, was short in the frame of time. They entered the tunnel that promised them a path to the surface and began their slow but steady ascent. They often encountered newly fallen rocks which had to be moved with a lot of effort, grunts and cursing. Following this pattern they walked a few hundred metres when both of them noticed that the air was getting hot. Much of the humidity and staleness of air present in the areas they had passed previously wasn’t there anymore. The occasional flora they had spotted earlier was absent too. Mere glanced at Homme who seemed to be sweating profusely, more than one is supposed to in a hot underground tunnel.
Shit! His claustrophobia must be acting up again, she thought to herself. Homme could usually deal with his claustrophobia, but over long periods of time it would creep up on him.
“Hey Homme, you doing alright?” she inquired.
“Yeah I am fine, let’s just keep marching on.” said Homme forcing a smile.
But Mere saw through the smile, she had seen enough genuine ones from him to spot a fake. She picked up her pace hoping it would subconsciously make him walk faster, asking him outright wouldn’t help his state.
They reached a fork on their path and Mere looked to Homme for the right way.
“We have to take the one on the right,” said Homme.
As he said that, a strong gust of hot air blew from the left tunnel, filling their noses with the smell of sulphur and leaving the taste of metal at the back of their tongues. Their eyes met and they both knew what it was.
“I have to go check it out,” declared Mere.
“You don’t know for sure what will be there, you can’t guarantee your own safety!” retorted a concerned Homme.
“I am a soldier, I was trained for things like this. Now you follow the tunnel to the surface and give me that access pad so I can give you eyes on what is there. You can find your way without it, yes?”
“Yeah, it’s just a straight path to the surface, I will manage. Promise me you will keep yourself safe.”
Mere nodded before she took the access pad and started marching into the left tunnel. She looked back to see a concerned Homme. She didn’t break away until he disappeared as she turned a corner.
She had only gone forward a few metres before the air temperature started ramping up. She untied the jacket from her waist and put it back on to protect her arms and shoulders. Nothing could be done about her face, she had to risk it. She ventured deeper into the tunnel, the air now becoming less and less breathable, her eyes more irritated and the tunnel walls hot to the touch. Each breath was laboured, every step strenuous and every second painful. It’s just a very hot sauna Mere, she told herself.
After a grueling few minutes she saw a warm orange glow from around the corner and she knew she had made it. She arrived at the other end of the tunnel to find a cliff. The cliff overlooked what both she and Homme had expected- magma, a ravine full of it. This was no ordinary magma, it was bubbling and turbulent and appeared to be rising. She used the access pad to grab a video before she bolted back the way she came. This was very troubling and they didn’t have much time.
She burst forth onto the surface to find Homme nursing a few scrapes on his arms. He had obviously stumbled in the dark on the way to the top. Homme sat upright the moment she emerged and remarked.
“Your face is awfully red.”
“Not important, you have to check this out right now.”
Mere showed the video to Homme whose face went from concerned to horrified as he saw the video.”We only have a few hours, we need to move now,” Homme urged.
They jogged back to the habitat and for once Homme didn’t stumble or miss a step. They arrived at the habitat and exactly knew what they had to do, Emergency Evac was a protocol that was drilled into you in the academy. Homme went up to the terminal and started backing up all the data to the ship’s drives while Mere went to the inventory and started loading up on essentials. It took about half an hour before they were ready to move. With a couple of bags in hand and a cart loaded with equipment, Homme and Mere started their march to their ship. As they steadily made headway, a big cloud of smoke erupted in the distance behind them. It had begun!
That set the tone for their hurried pace as Mere raced ahead, pushing the cart with all her might, with Homme right behind her, keeping up to the best of his abilities. The ground cracked underneath their feet and small streams of hot gasses started erupting around them. Mere did her best to dodge around them and save the equipment at the same time. Suddenly she heard a sharp cry behind her and turned around to see Homme down, clutching his calf, the pant covering it shredded and the skin peeking through red and swollen. She cursed under her breath, ran back to him and loaded Homme and his two bags onto the cart before running at full speed to the ship.
Once she reached the landing site she quickly typed into the ship’s terminal to open the loading bay, rolled the cart in and attached it to a railing to stop it from rolling around. She grabbed a pack of ice from the med bay and threw it to Homme. “Give me a few minutes, buddy,” she said before running off to the cockpit. She started the ship up and checked several dials frantically to make sure everything was right. She withdrew the landing gear and increased the throttle on the engine. The ship hummed to life, rose from the ground and gained altitude. Mere flicked a few switches to prepare ascent as the ship groaned from a year of disuse. “Don’t die on me now, girl.”
Mere punched the button and the ship shot up quickly, the acceleration pressing her against the seat. She only hoped that Homme had the common sense despite all the pain to secure himself on a seat. A nauseating couple of minutes later the ship had cleared the atmosphere and was in orbit. The planet they had been on was a blue-green ball beneath them; Mere didn’t even remember what it was called, 31N… something. She remembered Homme and went to check on him.
She arrived at the loading bay to find Homme crumpled against the walls of the ship; he had not secured himself. Mere ran up to him and was relieved to see him breathing. Homme, sensing the movement, gasped for air, coughed up some blood and whispered, “So we made it, huh?” “Yeah buddy, we did,” replied Mere, smiling. Mere gently lifted him up and took him to the cryo chamber; the injuries he had incurred were beyond the capacity of the ship’s MedBay. She would have to put him in cryosleep and revive him once they were back at their homebase. She sealed the cryo chamber and checked the sensors one last time to make sure everything was alright.
Mere walked upto the cockpit and sighed. It would be one long and lonely journey ahead, especially without Homme for company. The events of the last few hours had rattled even her battle-hardened nerves. But it would be worth it because something special was waiting for her back home. She sat herself down in the pilot sit and took one last look at 31N…something.
She removed the locket around her neck and hung it around the steering. She opened it to look at the young girl she had left behind more than a year ago; she would be a bit older now and heading into her rebel years. Hang in there baby, mommy’s coming home, she mouthed as she punched the button, sending the ship off into the emptiness of space.