Prometheus: The New Black Gold
Chapter 1: Darkness Rising
OA-196 was a cold planet.
1.3 astronomical units from its star. Atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon, along with a bit of oxygen. A world covered in ice apart from its equatorial region. A look at what Snowball Earth may have been like, had Earth been located dozens of light-years from Sol. A world on which the Behemoth-class starfreighter Gehenna was currently set up, floating on the world's sea, its rig extending to the bottom. A mobile oil drill.
How oil could have even formed on such a world, Robert McPhail didn't know. But the Extra-solar Petroleum Commission had sent the Gehenna here, and if he wanted his paycheck, he'd do his job. Which basically amounted to standing on top of the rig alongside William Everton, watching the drill spin, checking the pressure gauges and trying to stay warm.
"Christ, it's freezing."
Will looked up from the pipe he was perched on, his look indistinguishable through his rebreather. On a more hazardous world, they might have been equipped with full environmental suits. But here, they had gear meant for the Arctic and Antarctic work of centuries past and plastic masks that filtered all gasses bar nitrogen and oxygen. It was cold, it was unpleasant, but with a crew of five and minimal protective gear, it was cheap for the EPC.
"How long until shift end?"
William glanced at his chrono. "Five…ten minutes."
"Make it five."
William grinned. And this time, Rob saw it.
Standing up, the rig worker rubbed his gloved hands together, gazing at the faint glow of the setting sun. Soon, temperatures would become so low that nothing short of a heated environmental suit could protect them. All that remained now was to perform a final inspection of the drill and pipes before heading inside. All the data would be monitored by Captain Mordain, but EPC regulations stated that an eyes-only inspection had to be carried out as well.
"You boys coming in?"
Speak of the devil, Robert thought, activating his radio. "Hear you cap."
"Good, because I'm shutting down the drill."
"Seriously?" Rob asked. "That's the second time this month."
"You know the regulations McPhail. Maintenance has to be carried out twice per month. EPC regs, ICC regs, environmental-"
"I get the idea Cap."
"Good. So how's your on-site inspection?"
"Just starting," Rob murmured, watching as Will inspected the pipes for any signs of fracture. "Should be finished before long."
"Make it before soon instead."
"Sure cap, I'll-"
"…call you later."
Rob rushed over to the sound of the voice, finding Will sprawled on the ground, his head lying against a valve. Oil was spurting out from one of the pipes, and quite quickly as well, having hit Will with enough force to knock off his rebreather. Looking down at his friend, Rob saw his oil-drenched face staring up at him.
"I'm fine!" he yelled, pulling the rebreather back on. "Just shut it down!"
On instinct, Robert pulled the emergency valve, sealing the pipe section and cutting off the flow of oil. Also on instinct, he helped his friend up.
"Fine," Will murmured. "Not sure about the pipes though."
Rob remained silent. A rupture in the pipes was the last thing they needed, especially at this time of night. The pipes would often freeze, but a cracked one? That would make it even worse.
"Come on," Rob said. eventually "Let's head inside."
"But the pipe-"
"It's freezing, you've got oil on your face, you hit your head and since you've been exposed to the planet's atmosphere, you need to be given an examination," Rob said, leading his friend to the airlock. "And…did I mention that it's freezing?"
"Yes…yes you did."
"Good. Because it's what we're going to tell everyone else when explaining why we'll be adding the pipes to our maintenance schedule tomorrow."
"Seriously doc, I'm fine."
"I'm not a doctor, I'm a nurse."
"What's the difference?"
Anna Chapel didn't say. There were worlds of difference…quite a few light years' worth actually, considering how far OA-196 was from the nearest inhabited world. But while she was trained in the use of the body-scanner, anything beyond that was best left to doctors. Not nurses who were assigned to starships to fulfil the bare minimum of Interstellar Commerce Commission regulations.
"Can I get out yet?" Will called from the machine.
"No," Chapel answered, looking at the read-out on the terminal beside the tube.
"My answer's the same."
"…so, how about now?"
How about you shut up?
Chapel wished Rob was here - he and Will were tightly knit, what with being the jocks of the Gehenna's five-man crew, herself included. Rob, ever the responsible one, could have shut Will up. Rob, the one who hadn't been exposed to the air and suffered a nasty blow to the head, not to mention his face getting covered with oil.
"Is it done yet?"
"Yes," Chapel sighed. "It's done."
It wasn't really. But of what the scan had revealed so far, there was no harm in the bump Will had suffered, and the chances of him suffering from infection were remote. OA-196 probably had some form of microscopic life somewhere (as per the oxygen in its atmosphere), but there'd never been any confirmation, and whatever its nature, Chapel doubted it would be flying around through the air and just happening to enter Will in the few seconds his rebreather had been taken off. So watching him slide out of the tube, she expected to give him a clean bill of health, turn in for the night, and use some more of the ship's supplies of coffee.
She didn't expect the oil on his face.
"Doc?" Will asked. "Something wrong?"
"There's oil. On your face."
"What? I cleaned it off."
He had. Chapel had helped him with it, removing the black goo from his skin. But now, it was back. His left cheek had a dark splodge on it.
"I…" Will got off the tray and stood up, only to stumble over and save himself a fall by grabbing onto the tray he'd just been on. "I…I don't…"
Chapel rushed over, helping him up.
"Oh my God…"
The oil was spreading. All over his left cheek. Some had appeared on his right cheek.
Will stumbled again. He missed the table. He fell to his hands and knees.
"Will!" Chapel exclaimed, kneeling down. "What's wrong? Where's the oil coming from?!"
He remained silent. There was a faint raspy breathing sound, but his face remained fixated on the lab's floor.
"Will?" the nurse asked. "You okay?"
There was silence. Silence broken only by the worker's raspy breathing. By the wind outside. By the hum of the ship.
And as Will Everton looked upwards and lunged, it was silence that was also broken by a scream.
"Hot chocolate again? How old are you?"
Doctor Isabelle Ruda didn't answer as Rob helped himself to some hot chocolate from the dispenser. Most adults would have tea, coffee, or even some synthetic substitute. But no, he had hot chocolate of all things. Maybe he didn't want to stay up like she did. Because while he'd be working on the cracked pipe tomorrow as she'd heard, she wanted to stay up late. The mystery wouldn't let her sleep.
"Can I sit?"
And nor would Rob for that matter. Even as he sat down at the kitchen table without waiting for her to answer.
The scientist winced. She hated the name, but Mister McPhail kept on using it. Thankfully he was outside on the rig most of the time, but every so often their paths crossed, and in this room no less. Mainly because at this time of night, the kitchen was one of the few warm places left on the ship.
"What you reading?"
"Stuff that's well beyond you," Ruda answered, taking a sip of her coffee.
Ruda glanced up at the jock, his mouth already smeared with froth. Common courtesy told her to point it out, but her mind was telling her to cut to the chase, explain her conundrum, and hope it would be enough to drive the idiot away.
"Okay," Ruda said, sliding one of her sheets over to the man across from her. "This is a piece of my lab work."
"You do work?"
"Hardy hah hah. Yes Rob, I do. Based around the oil of course, and whatever else I can get my hands on."
It was all formality. Just like her presence. Oil drilling was a potential nightmare in such conditions because in the event of a spill, there were fewer microbes to help break it down and the oil could be transported via ice, escaping one's notice. In light of this, the EPC had assigned the Gehenna a scientist to do…scientific stuff. Apparently there were few enough people in the galaxy to give a damn about what might be done to the environment of a world such as OA-196, so her presence had apparently been enough to be given the all clear. She doubted that anyone on the board really expected her to do anything.
But she had. And then some.
"So this is oil research?" Rob asked, glancing at the piece of paper Ruda had slid over. "Looks…researchy."
"That's not a word. But look at this one as well."
Ruda slid the second piece over. It was practically identical, showing a chemical analysis of the oil.
"Notice anything different?"
"Um…no?" Rob asked.
"Look at the volume of oil," Ruda said. "It's the same sample."
Rob looked. And looked. And looked. And-
"Give me those."
Steaming like the coffee and hot chocolate, the scientist drew back the papers. There was just no talking to some people.
"I don't get it though," Rob said. "How could oil have formed here anyway?"
Ruda raised an eyebrow - perhaps this was a conversation worth having after all.
"I don't know," she admitted. "There's no indication that this planet has active plates. And even if it did, how could there have been enough microbes for it to form? When was this planet warm enough for the required conditions? And…and why do I think this isn't oil?"
Rob stared at her, clearly interested. So interested that his hot chocolate was forgotten. Unable to contain herself, Ruda showed him the paper again, pointing one finger at each set of statistics.
"I've been studying an oil sample," she said softly. "Carbon, hydrogen…usual chemical formation, though there's far more carbon than usual. The kind of concentration you'd expect in carbon-based life. And…and look at the volume."
Rob did. And still remained silent. But Ruda could tell his mind was going down the same path as hers.
"The oil sample. It increased in volume," the scientist said gravely. "Almost as if it was replicating."
Rob looked back up at her.
"Almost as if it were alive…"
Captain Wheaton Mordain knew it would be time to turn in soon. But for now, he was willing to sit on the Gehenna's bridge and stare out into the snowstorm around it.
He felt at home here. The Gehenna was a rust bucket that was considered out-dated a decade ago, but one perk to its design was that its bridge was located at the top of its hull rather than at the front. It was his own little nest. His control node, a place where he could be talking to McPhail and Everton out on the rig one second, and Ruda or Chapel the next. OA-196 was a hell were every day was a cold one, but as he'd come to realize, better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. It was as if the EPC knew it, what with assigning him to a ship called the "Gehenna" of all things, content to have one of their vessels operate so far from Earth that one usually had to wait a full month to get a return message.
And what else do they know? Mordain wondered, staring out into the snowstorm around him. And what haven't they told me?
Possibly nothing. But still, something was fishy. And with the lack of any marine predators in this world's seas, those fish were free to multiply.
How had oil been detected on this world, Mordain wondered? What compelled the EPC to send a scout ship to an ice world where it shouldn't have been able to form? There were far more lucrative operations being carried out on other worlds, and worlds closer to Earth at that. No doubt they'd get to this world eventually - even in an age of hydrogen fuel cells and the like, oil was still required to make plastics. But it seemed to be jumping the gun a little, and while Mordian enjoyed ruling over his piece of hell, sometimes Heaven didn't seem so bad. Not that Earth was all that pleasant to live on but-
The captain sprung out of his chair.
But didn't react further because it was simply the sound of someone knocking on the door to the bridge.
"Door's open," Mordain called out, sitting back in his chair.
"I said the door's open."
"Oh, for crying out loud…"
Was it really so hard to open a door? To simply press the enter button on the keypad? Mordain wouldn't have thought so, but then again, he never would have thought he'd have been assigned to an ice-world to extract oil either.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Mordain said, approaching the door, looking down at the keypad and pressing the enter button on his end. "Honestly, can't you open a-"
He didn't get the chance to finish that sentence.
As the pair of things sprung into the room and knocked him to the ground, he didn't get the chance to say anything more period.
This being the first chapter of the story, there isn't too much to say that my homepage entry for it doesn't already cover. Still, short version is, this originally started off as a short story with a 2,500 word limit. Realizing I couldn't compress it into that few words, I expanded it into a multi-chaptered fic. Hopefully it works better this way.
For what it's worth, I could have started this off with a prologue, and indeed, I wrote one up. However, I decided not to post it as it felt like too weak of an opening, a "been there, done that" feel was felt, and it didn't convey anything that the story doesn't tell the reader in later chapters.
Update (29/01/13): Corrected some writing goofs.