Despite the heating elements running throughout the walls of both the docked ship and the station, Michaels still found himself shivering as the cold from outside seeped in. It was a deep, insidious cold, caused by the night on the atmosphere-less planet that was X-952037 and although it wouldn’t improve much in the day - if it could be called that with the planet’s nearest star being roughly 0.05pc away - there would be the comfort of at least knowing that the window wouldn’t just show a black emptiness, that seemed impenetrable. Then again, that might not be a comfort at all, because with the light travelling over 900 billion miles before reaching the planet’s surface it was rare that anything could be seen outside at all but in the ‘daytime’ the darkness was at least a little less impenetrable. However if the program was a success, that would all change with terraforming, and eventually, human habitation. Michaels wasn’t entirely sure how the biochemist Dr Harper could achieve terraforming on an atmosphere-less planet with no sign of life, but he was sure that having completed all of the necessary training to go out onto the planet’s surface, he was the only one out of the three people aboard the station who was qualified enough to conduct the physical research that was needed to complete the project.
He wasn’t looking forward to it, and didn’t feel he needed to state his dissatisfaction again as Dr Harper entered the room; everyone on the station knew how he felt on the matter by this point, not that there were many of them to know to begin with. The crew consisted of himself, Dr Harper and Dr Harper’s assistant Maz who was tall, stern faced and didn’t usually say very much at all. There was also the ship computer that aided with technical procedures, interior and exterior scans, risk assessments and similar things. Although it was supposed to be called by its serial number, one of the other crews that had worked with it over the years had christened it Oscar, for reasons that were never explained to anyone else outside of that crew. It was Oscar, not Dr Harper who was hunched over the desk in deep concentration, that prompted him out of staring into the middle distance in a haze of discontent, in its programmed gentle and friendly voice - as much as a computer’s voice could be called gentle and friendly anyway.
“Exterior scans show optimum conditions for sample collection. Would you like to begin the collection process as Dr Harper recommended to me?” The electronic voice didn’t come from the monitor that showed the constant scans Oscar was running, accompanied by a regular and rather irritating beep when each scan was completed, but came instead from an undetermined area of the room, the result of speakers and sensors running throughout the docked ship and the station.
“Yeah, later. I’ll do it later.” Michaels ignored the look that Dr Harper shot him because of the dismissal, choosing to stare resolutely at his hands, currently folded in his lap.
“Alright. Just let me know when you plan on beginning.”
The reply to Oscar was a noncommittal sound, and Michaels recieved another glare from Dr Harper, as he stood with a roll of his eyes and a hand brushed roughly through his hair in a futile attempt to tame it. Watched by Maz’s emotionless gaze as he left the room with a vague muttered insult about the persistence of science, he chose to go up to the observation deck of the ship for a reason he wasn’t entirely sure of - it certainly wasn’t to see the view, because according to Oscar’s scans X-952037 didn’t have much to see even if it had been brighter - and as he passed through the large and resoundingly solid docking lock that connected the ship to the station, the garish yellow of the warning stripes flared along it as the lights came to life along the ship at his movement.
“Thanks Oscar.” he said vaguely, expecting it to happen anyway; it was the computer’s function to create the best environment for the crew, both in terms of their mental and physical wellbeing.
“You’re welcome David.”
Stopping the correction that welled up in his throat, Michaels made his way to the observation deck on autopilot, knowing his way around from the three months prior spent living in it, and a further six months in stasis prior to that. His thoughts were submerged with the idea of collecting the samples for the project, and they were tainted with dread at the concept. Then again, he supposed that most people would be filled with dread at the idea of going out onto a dark, alien landscape with no clue of what would await them. Except he did know what awaited him; nothing. The external scans showed no sign of life, as was to be expected but the instinctive fear of possibility still crept up on him, despite the knowledge that it was unnecessary because Oscar was never wrong, and could never be wrong due to its very nature as an intelligent machine.
The deck was dim, despite the large white lights shining down from an indeterminate point in the ceiling that cast large, multiple shadows up the back wall as he entered, and reflected with a thin, blinding brilliance off the aluminium framework that supported the large glass window which stretched around three quarters of the room, and up past the point that he could see. Outside, there was nothing except the same black, impenetrable emptiness that he’d seen on the station and the only difference was that here it seemed inescapable. The lights could do nothing against it, and the insidious cold had seeped into the deck much more than it had on the station. The whole thing was unnerving for Michaels, putting him on guard for an enemy that didn’t exist, the instinctive fear of the dark that existed in every human being screaming at him in the back of his head to run, go back to the station where it was bright and warm and safe. But he didn’t leave, didn’t go back to the station and human company, instead moving to the centre of the deck to look out at the nothingness presented to him and consider what he was going to have to do. There was a momentary pause of complete and utter silence, the lights too far overhead of him to make a perceptible noise and in that moment the black nothingness outside smothered his senses, making him immobile and deathly afraid until-
“David, it would be best for your wellbeing if you returned to the station.”
Oscar’s interference had never felt so welcome as it did in that moment, and he turned away from the view and half running half stumbling, left the room. Back in the winding corridors of the ship with the orange humming lights and distinct lack of windows, Michaels felt safer, and more rationally minded. He laughed to himself as he thought of how he’d been overcome with primordial instinct because of something as simple as darkness, but his laughter was uneasy all the same as he finally reached the docking lock and the lights in the ship flickered off behind him.
“Dr Harper has just expressed explicitly that if you don’t start the collection process soon the future data collected may be considered void under the current regulations regarding terraforming and the project would be a failure.”
“So?” Michaels tone was contemptuous as in his current state of mind he felt very little for the outcome of the project. Whether if failed or not wasn’t his concern especially, except...
“If the initial collection for the project is a failure, it will have to be repeated in three month’s time.”
Three more months on X-952037, having to see that blackness for every single day of it. He’d go insane.
“Fine. Tell Dr Harper to send Maz down with the equipment, I’ll be ready to head in to the airlock by the time it’s all been collected.” He changed course, heading the long way around to where the suits were kept in a deliberate attempt to avoid Dr Harper and an unnecessary argument altogether and soon he was standing in the airlock, equipment at the ready and waiting for Oscar to open the outer door.
As the chamber was emptied of oxygen so that he wouldn’t be flung out when the door opened, Michaels made a poor attempt to calm himself before giving up. If he focused on collecting the samples and nothing else, he reasoned that he should be fine. He wouldn’t be venturing too far from the station anyway, and in place of the standard gripping boots there was a long high tensile metal cable running from the back of his suit to the station so that instead of finding his way back blindly, he could simply follow the cable. Then the outer door opened, and he was faced with the darkness again and all thoughts of anything rational was gone and he felt afraid again, until the buzzing of the live intercom in his helmet reached his ears and Oscar’s voice broke him out of it once again.
“David? Are you ready to begin?” The computer’s voice was set against a backdrop of Dr Harper shuffling papers and muttering about details of terraforming and sample types that he didn’t care enough to listen to, as he focused on the doorway and the lights in his helmet blinked on.
“Yeah... Yeah I’m ready.” Michaels could hear his own voice from feedback of the intercom and it sounded haggard and more than slightly panicked so clearing his throat and mentally steeling himself he walked out of the station and on to X-952037. As he did, he felt the ground change under his feet from solid metal to a cold, marble like surface that seemed to crack slightly under his weight, and the cable attaching him to the station began to unwind with the sound becoming vibrations that he felt up his back as he moved around. The surface he reasoned, to keep his mind off the darkness now surrounding him, matched Oscar’s scans of the planet; no star close enough for any significant amount of solar winds, but at the same time no atmosphere to retain any possible core heat or surface solidity. The result was a planet that had been stripped down by random meteor impacts and frozen by space to a point where it was little more than a brittle husk.
Dr Harper was talking to him now, in a voice that clearly reflected the stress of both trying to run a difficult project and living on a station for several months, and Michaels tried to listen closely so that he wouldn’t have to do it all again.
“Oscar’s indicated that the closest crater site is about three hundred feet away. I’ll send the coordinates through.” There was a pause, and then he saw a small red marker pop up on his visor’s inbuilt screen, showing him where the closest edge of the crater was and he started to walk in that direction after looking around briefly to determine how far his lights reached. It was strange moving about, because with no atmosphere there was no air resistance to his movements, so despite moving slowly because his lights only reached a few feet in front of him, the time it took him to reach the site was roughly a third of the time it would have taken him on Earth, or a similar planet.
The red marker blinked out of existence as Michaels reached the edge of the crater and he felt the cable stop and hold firm as the information was relayed back to Oscar. Looking down, he couldn’t see much in his lights aside from the shattered edges of softer ground around the rough groove where the meteorite had hit and skidded for what he estimated was about ten meters, before what was left of it was embedded in the solid wall that made up one side of the crater. He knew that the samples he needed to collect were actually quite simple, one from the edge of the crater, one from the middle of the impact zone and one from ground zero but his hands were still shaking with adrenaline - or what he hoped was adrenaline - as he reached down to attempt to grab a substantial piece and remembering exactly why bending over in these suits wasn’t advisable when a sharp corner of his breathing apparatus stabbed into his stomach, probably causing bruising. After following the collection procedure that Dr Harper had laid out in an exact level of detail to him, he felt thankful to stand upright again.
“Oscar, give me some slack. I need to get down there.”
The computer couldn’t reply outside the ship and station, but the cable loosened at his back slowly, winching him down the side of the crater as he started the careful journey, despite knowing that if he slipped he wouldn’t fall, because he knew that it wouldn’t be especially pleasant for him if he did.
Reaching the floor of the crater without incident, Michaels was halfway through collecting the second sample before he realised that there were vibrations at his back, and it took him a moment before he remembered the cable. The cable that was supposed to be still now, because there was no atmosphere and he wasn’t moving. The vibrations became stronger, like someone plucking a giant guitar string before there was a jolt that nearly pulled him off his feet. Then there was another, and another, and he was being pulled off his feet and backwards up the side of the crater, the shattered ground scraping along the back of his suit before he was out of the crater completely and being pulled back faster now, on the naturally smooth surface of X-952037. He knew this shouldn’t be happening, and could hear Dr Harper yelling over the intercom about rebooting Oscar, or shutting him down but then he couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t even see anything because despite his lights still working, he’d blacked out.
When Michaels regained consciousness, he was propped up against a wall close to the inner door of the airlock with his helmet removed and his suit undone, and somewhere nearby there was a heated argument going on. Maz was looming over him with water, which he took gratefully if a little woodenly because of shock, gulping it down desperately as if it would cleanse him of the entire experience. It was a while before he attempted any sort of clear speech, and failed, his voice rough and shaking.
“What-” He tried to get more words out, but nothing would come.
“What happened?” Dr Harper’s voice rung out down the corridor.
Michaels nodded, not wanting to try for words again anytime soon.
“Well, we’re assuming that Oscar had a glitch in its system and started to pull you back in early. It insists that it didn’t, but I can’t see how anything else would’ve been able to do that. It shouldn’t have been able to do that, which is why I’m thinking it was a glitch in the first place.”
After that brief summary of events, Michaels was helped into the main room and gratefully collapsed into a chair as they all decided to settle on the technical details of the incident later. Dr Harper was talking quietly to Maz about sending a message back to Earth about what happened, and how they would have to postpone the project in order to figure out what exactly was wrong with Oscar, and the computer itself was quietly buzzing away in the background. Then there was a loud and rather jarring beep, and a pause as everyone in the room turned to look at the monitor that was the representation of Oscar, and the single set of information that showed up on the screen accompanied by the computers’ incorruptible analysis of the data.
“Exterior scan complete; life form detected.”