Until we reached landfall, after arriving at the planet on our scheduled tour of duty, it seemed just another ice covered rock on an elliptical course around its yellowish-red sun, one that was older than our sun and almost a third larger. The haze kept the planet’s true nature hidden.
Dani, my sister, and I prepared for the tedium-breaker landing duties that were every bit as tedious having performed them dozens of times before. We crept around the spacecraft hallways and allowed Mom and Dad to sleep off the overnighter they’d pulled fighting an unusually strong solar wind that tried to send us to the next system over. We were both a bit grouchy from the constant all-night bobbing of our craft. The ship’s autopilot found a maintainable orbit while we suited up and grabbed our biological sample kits and weaponry.
Survey work paid the bills for dad’s drinking in the beauty of nature ideograms he spiraled through the solar system, but if mom could put up with it, so could we. Every time we begged Grandpa to let us stay with him so we wouldn’t have to leave our friends, he just snickered and said “I told your mom not to marry your dad because you know, rhyme don’t pay.” The only thing that compensated was our popularity as the most traveled sisters in-system when we finally returned back to school.
The auto-lander pod launched the laser alignment disks used to land while we stowed our gear on board. Half hour later we hopped out, each taking a weighted tread-bike and then halting at the wealth of life surrounding us. Turquoise hazy air and mile upon mile of icy patched vegetation seemingly swimming in brine.
“Oh, no! We’ll never finish. Did you pack The Regas? I know I didn’t and if we don’t get them going…”
I heard Dani’s complaints while flipping through my helmet light filters. I needed something that would help me distinguish where to drive if we could and where to begin and where… Oh, no,indeed. “I thought you were going to pack The Regas? Says so on your duty sheet.”
On my current setting Dani was a purple-hued stalk silhouetted against a sooty washed three legged conical pod. “Noooo. Who put it on my list? We got to go back. I think I need a wet-suit.”
“No way.” I laughed. Only way back up was to call mom and dad and I wasn’t waking them yet just for robots.
“The robots will continue to work for years without us. Let’s just do the first three grids, two if we fill up too soon.”
Following our helmets GPS grid work, we ran a straight first line together about ten meters apart then separated, Dani to the left and me to the right. We’d meet up again after a short one minute lap, so we’d always have sight and sound contact. Just in case. In all our years, we’d never found intelligent life, just bacterias and nothing at all like this planet.
It was just after our third separation that my stomach lurched and acid rose up my throat. “You feel woozy, Dani? I’m not doing so good.” I stopped still, wondering why. I’m pretty good at multi-seeing-one eye tracking the inner eye command readout from PlantSim and GeoSim on each plant or rock surface and AirSim sniffing, one eye following the lens zoom and pan, in and out, focus and store and then my normal sight in the barriers between.
That’s when the ground surged beneath my feet. What? I demanded from the LocateMe system but GeoSim got in the way. “Cryovolcanism-rapidly cooling volcanic emission beneath you.” Ughh.
My sister hadn’t replied. My stomach rose to my throat. “Dani?”
Then I saw him or it or… AirSim classified it a methane spew. Bluish with almost a purplish central flame, at what looked like hands sticking out in front pointing down my path. I continued forward, ready to rush to the next meet up with Dani. There he was again, flaring like a burst, hot fire out of ice of all things. And again, like he paced me. “Dani? You got a flame guy?” GeoSim reported expected resulting vapor release from the likely lava surging below. Had my sister freaked?
I checked the grid report, spotted her a hundred meters off the grid, going somewhere … away from our spacecraft. “Upload all data, now. Mom? Dad? We got trouble!”
The flare returned, this time beside me then off the grid at an angle, then back to me, then off at an angle. My path lurched again. Did it want me to follow? Go off to a safe path? Or did it mean me ill? Leading me astray?
My BikeTread slipped below the ice. I hopped off while I could, fighting to pull it after me but suddenly a shower of icy snow pellets and slush sprayed up over me. I dashed for the flame guy, hoping it meant me good or promised me safety. Then the ground beneath me rose high high high crackling and swooshing and I ran down the side but suddenly a craft hovered off to my left and I dashed straight toward it, never paying the methane man mind and went for home and Mom and safety.
It hardly seemed any time at all before Dad had collected Dani and we met up at our craft, thankfully still parked and not another budget loss. Oh, I was going to hear about that BikeTread. But what I heard about was the lecture “how many times I got to tell you Cryo’s are off limits!”
Dad shook his head and went to sadly sign off on the planet. We ate a family meal together with backs being stiff and our spoons poised at the right angle because Mom was upset about having to launch the Regas.
The next days were grim times because we didn’t make the pay Dad wanted and we were due back at school. Dani and I spent hours watching the returns from the Regas and whispering about the flame guys and then one day Dad walked in on us in one of his “got to find the right word” moods and sucked in air and said “what is this?” The map of the planet coming back from the Rigas showed huge scaly areas where the ice was cratered but nearby eat, those methane emissions showed up in regular blinking patterns.
That’s when I told him about the flicker of methane gas man and Dani told too and so things turned out really well because when the scientists analyzed it all the conclusion came back that we’d found the first intelligent life in the universe.