Yellow Fungus on a Red Planet

by Mark Zaugg 14. June 2011 05:54

We huddled together around the small mound of ruddy brown soil scooped harshly into a low hewn mound. 

It had been a week, we were no closer to understanding why we were still alive.  Miraculously and mysteriously, we were.  Every night the fungus returned, the small mushroom-like tendrils reaching upwards towards the cold, distant sun.  Every night we collapsed with cold and exhaustion face down upon the ground, pleading for merciful release.  Every long morning began with the burning fury in our lungs and the misery and exultation of life renewed. 

Jeremy was the first to push the soil together.  We looked at him as a madman willing death's arrival.  He flailed his arms and thrust the red dirt ever faster towards his face.  The following night we noticed it caused much fewer of the thin white bodies to rise from the ground near him, but we hardly noticed in comparison to his supine body stretched out from under an ordinarily lethal burial mound upon his head.  The following morning he sat up with red-rimmed eyes and stared as if we were the crazy ones. 

I was the last to bury myself, of course.  I was never one to follow the crowd and could not bury my rationality as the others buried their heads.  Yet there was no denying that while I arose every morning grasping my throat and chest the others woke looking more relaxed than I, notwithstanding their red-rimmed eyes and dying tendrils plastered upon their faces.  I waited three days for my teammates to become zombies as their bodies were slowly taken over by an alien force, but it never happened.  Instead the four of us struggled about on the ground, weakly flinging a dusty regolith towards our faces.

The first day the tang was bitter, but the smell was not a musty fungal smell.  It had dragged my mind back to my childhood when I ran through the puddles after a rain or traipsed through a forest while hiking at extreme altitude.  Except there was absolutely no moisture to it at all - it all felt sere inside my sinuses and lungs.  The mix of sensations I understood with sensations that made no sense was disconcerting.  I was beyond the point of questioning and knew I must obey the unspoken command.

The third day we lay akimbo, heads buried in small mounds of dirt like some bizarre negative image of adults buried in sand at a beach.  The gently yellowed tendrils stretched skyward all around our bodies, much shorter than the first night, extending perhaps a few centimeters above our own forms, except for the mounds above our faces where they continued to stretch a full metre or more.

Clearly it was the tendrils that were giving us life.  Clearly it was the final act of suicidal self burial that kept us alive.  After six days I felt strength returning to my arms, the burn of metabolism coming to my body.  I sat up and stared at Jeremy for the first time since we had landed.  He was stronger than I.  We could not speak, being kept alive was one thing, but there was no way we had enough breath to push past vocal cords.

He stared at me with burning eyes as if to transmit meaning across the short distance between us.  Seeing my vacant expression he fell towards me, landing harshly on the ground.  I collapsed backwards, when next I dared to open my eyes I saw him scraping the ground together with a metal sheet he must have retrieved from near my head.

He mounded the pile at his head higher and deeper than I could ever have done on my own.  Perhaps enough to bury head and shoulders into the sharp, gritty soil.  More depth, more life.  You can't get too much of a good thing.

That night the fungus didn't return.  We lay there, choking, dying, praying for relief, waiting for death, wondering if we'd have the tendrils grace our bodies again before we died.  I'm glared at Jeremy, wondering if he had finally done the right thing through his carelessness.

I looked up to the stars, searching for Earth, longing for home.

A Problem, But Never a Panic

by Mark Zaugg 12. June 2011 13:24

“Refinery? Or science fiction? #melbourne ”

Andrea crested the rise, climbing over the last small ridge and drawing into view of Luna Corp's massive Cabeus Lunar Refinery.  In the distance she could see the particulate matter lazily drifting back to the lunar surface and wispy clouds of volatiles released in the process of turning frozen water to rocket fuel.  

She exhaled a gigantic sigh of relief, no longer worrying about the extra load on her suit.  She was getting back alive - there was nothing that was going to stop her from attaining the airlock now.  She found she had to restrain herself from bounding along the sharp, crunching surface.  Although she was going to make it with air to spare, she still had to be careful about her cooling.  Others had collapsed within 500 metres of the airlock with heat exhaustion as their suits lost the battle with the continual build up of heat.  Andrea hadn't travelled 20 kilometres on foot just to be lost in the final 850 metres and carefully returned to the steady, plodding pace that had served her well up to this point.


Andrea was ranked one of the finest even before she reached Moonbase.  She had left Melbourne nearly 20 years ago to begin her intensive training.  First she left for North America, traversing one end of the continent to the other then returning again.  Each stop added yet another tool to her impressive toolbox.  Arctic training in Yellowknife.  Diving in San Diego.  Her triathlon training in New York and her successful second place finish in Hawaii.  Her doctorate was, of course, awarded from MIT to a thunderous ovation.  Andrea had become the household face of science, unprecedented except perhaps by Madame Curie.

Her acceptance to Moonbase was a foregone conclusion when Luna Corp scooped her up.  An exotic accent and an easy going manner made her a hit within the company and she rode that wave of popularity to engaging the people around her to produce their very best work.  Her department's work on lunar energy recovery practically forced Luna Corp to promote her to continue her work overhead.

What followed was another change in continent as she began training for launch from Baikonur.  For three tireless years she toiled to learn flawless Russian, to integrate with the Soyuz programme, only to miss the final launch and, for the second time in her life, to see a lapse in launches from a space programme.  As she reacted upon missing a chance to launch in a shuttle, she redoubled her efforts and changed locations once again to earn a ride on the brand new Ariane 7.  Four more years of intensive training and she launched to become part of Moonbase Operations Centre to take on the role of ensuring safe operation of fuel extraction from the southern pole of the moon and the transportation of that fuel to the deep space launching facility kept safely out of the gravity wells in high orbit around the earth / moon binary.


The panel lit red on seven of the zones surrounding the Cabeus Lunar Refinery.  The refinery was fed by a circle of twelve solar arrays that fed power towards the central sector.  It was there that the energy collected from the sun was used for electrolysis of water.

Although the meteor showers were loved by the people of earth, they were feared at the CLR because of the heightened danger.  During construction, one of the domes was struck and pierced, putting schedule behind by an extra 15 months.

Today, Perseus had gifted CLR with a shotgun blast of projectiles that landed squarely on the solar collectors.  Five to the east, two to the west had ceased to respond and were no longer pumping power towards the refinery.  Tim and Sergei were dispatched to the east to repair those three, Juan took the southeast two while Andrea took her crawler west.  Although they were the most distant, they were also the closest together.  Mike stayed behind to direct the crews and inform the evening shift once they were awake.

Outages such as this are not particularly routine, but neither are they unheard of.  If the New Ares launch wasn't behind schedule, there would have been no need to expedite repairs.  After half an hour of debate, Mike acceded to Andrea's plan and three crawlers headed out in separate directions to repair the arrays.

Tim and Sergei had already found the first array smashed beyond repair.  Salvaging as many of the undamaged panels as they could find, they had already began moving towards the more distant pair of arrays when Juan radioed in.  His first array was battered, but easily repaired and had already resumed pumping back almost three quarters of its normal output.

Andrea pulled up to her first array and discovered good fortune.  The coupler had been bashed and needed re-wiring, but it would take about half an hour of work.  She got out her tool kit and began reconnecting the broken connections.

The day went well for the lunanauts.  The eastern arrays took little work to bring online and the second southern array was also smashed beyond repair, leaving little more for Juan to do but salvage what he could and return to CLR to await parts from earth.  Andrea finished connecting the first of her arrays and began rolling towards her second just beyond the ridge.

As she topped the rise, she found her crawler sliding sideways down a massive new crater.  She could see the glistening of water ice in the blasted sphere below her just as her crawler rolled into the debris.

Even in the lower gravity, she could not right a crawler on her own.  She ticked through the checklist in her mind taking tally of her situation.  With the crawler on it's face, the antenna could not boost her transmission  back to Moonbase.  The soonest the refinery would be able to send out another crawler would be once the evening crew came on shift and prepared another.  Worse, CLR may be expecting a communication blackout and not think of sending out a rescue crew.  Communication satellites would only be passing over twice an hour and Andrea was expected to be working on repairs.  She'd be able to contact the refinery from the direct line at the array.

Recharging her suit from the crawler to give her maximum flexibility, she retraced her trail towards the repaired array.  She began a trundling, bouncing low gravity shuffle back along her tracks.  She reached the array, plugged in her umbilical and flipped the communication switch.  Dead air greeted her. One of the pins must have bent within the coupler and she didn't have her toolkit to try to repair it again.

She sighed and began her bouncy trudge back to the refinery.  The next six hours were mindless, and passed effortlessly.  She kept her mind on her levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide and temperature.  It was going to be close, but her slow gentle traverse ate up the distance and kept her vital signs well within tolerance.

A problem, but never a panic.  She returned to her training and focused her knowledge to getting back safely.  When she crested the final rise and saw the refinery ahead of her the relief still poured through her.

Strange to see an industrial plant as a thing of beauty, but before her was a gem rising from the lunar surface.  She was safe.  She was home.

Mike crackled in her ear.  "Well hello, little lady!  Looks like you're throwing out perfectly good crawlers again.  Are you up for a debrief when you're inside?"

"Yeah, Mike.  I'll be fine.  It's just another boring day out here."


Change is the only constant.

Welcome to the semi-exciting new look, same crappy blogger.

All comments are still moderated, I'll approve everything that isn't spam or offensive.  Agreement with His Dorkasaurus is not necessary.

What has changed is that I don't have 1000 junk accounts clogging up the system that I have to go through one by one.  Yes, you too can set up an account and no longer need to wait for me to notice you posted.  Completely optional.

As always:  Have fun, be respectful.


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