A single transmission to Earth took three hours – with another three hours necessarily for even the most immediate reply – preventing the technicians from regular contact with loved ones. Rockwood received few communications, but she assumed her family didn’t want to distract her from her responsibilities with frivolous gossip and announcements.
The other two technicians were not the social sort.
John Terry, an older man near the end of his spacefaring career, hardly spoke. He genuinely seemed more machine than human.
Tyler Donaldson, the station commander, was a company crank through and through. Every dull word that came out of his mouth seemed read from an invisible script.
Even the casual intimacy between crew members that defined so many other postings was unusually absent with this assignment.
Rockwood often lounged in the common, a small rectangular room that housed the extent of entertainment and exercise equipment available. Windows stretched from floor to ceiling along one wall, allowing visitors the opportunity to glimpse a robotic miner zipping back and forth between the station and the massive cyan orb below.
Whenever Rockwood wasn’t on duty, there was little else to do but sleep, eat, or bath. These activities were always performed in the bluish glow of the host planet. Even if she tried to exercise or download a briefing from Earth, Uranus loomed in her peripheral vision. The common was a comfortable space though, and she found herself occasionally dozing there as opposed to her quarters.
When she had first arrived at the station, she really wasn’t able to discern any features in the cold, dead atmosphere that loomed beyond.
However, as the months passed, her eyes became more familiar with the bland world, and she believed she could detect the faintest white swirls or occasional darker patches. These rare and fleeting dark spots were closer in shade to the egg of a robin than anything else.
Terry and Donaldson rarely disturbed Rockwood during her visits to the common. Both men seemed content to remain in quarters or in the maintenance bay. Her fellow technicians only concerned themselves with the the various droids and probes that slowly sucked away the lifeblood of the planet.
The cyan and white swirls of Uranus became even more distinct with time. Rockwood assumed this change was a result of the extraction process. The darker patches of the planet gradually grew more obvious, too. She shared this observation with Donaldson, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.
“I have a job to do,” the commander had told her, “and so do you.”
During her lonely stretches of personal time, Rockwood found herself scanning the sphere for those darker regions. These strange discolorations were more apparent with every viewing and seemed to be taking certain shapes.
Donaldson refused to acknowledge the bizarre changes in the atmosphere of Uranus. Rockwood attempted to bring this up during routine conversation, but the station commander only repeated his usual rhetoric about the importance of appropriate rest and recreation on the station.
“Adequate sleep allows for absolute safety,” the commander had said.
Despite his dismissal, Rockwood continued her study of the planet.
Within a few days, great eye sockets, a gaping nasal opening, and a mouth fixed in a jagged grin appeared within the swirling gases. This inhuman manifestation had coalesced from the darkest cyan hues present in the atmosphere.
There was no doubt the expression was threatening and directed at the station. Mankind had attacked this icy world, and now the planet desired to retaliate.
Rockwood wondered if the others knew about this obvious sentience.
The answer quickly rushed into her mind.
Of course this extraterrestrial intelligence was known to Earth!
She didn’t doubt the helium-3 extraction process was a cover to allow for the study of the entity possessing the planet. She quickly decided Terry was an android, programmed to do whatever bidding Donaldson requested. She knew that Donaldson was very much aware of the conspiracy and that he would do anything to stop her from interfering.
Emily Rockwood – selected for this mission because she was probably unexpected to possess much gumption – rushed for the emergency escape craft. She locked herself inside, disabled the autopilot, and ignited the engine. A garbled, confused voice crackled over the transmitter. This was undoubtedly Donaldson trying to stop her.
“Rockwood! Reengage the autopilot!”
He was too late.
He had radically underestimated her.
Rockwood manually guided the craft toward the skeletal face, which had only recently gained a deep demonic voice. She ignored the various warnings about pressure that flashed on the display in front of her, and she easily dodged a few probes that rushed to stop her. These crafts were obviously tapped into whatever programming directed the mechanical John Terry.
She only hoped her real story may one day be known.