I had the 'vee to take a little side trek, but my ox levels were getting low. I could spare another fifteen minutes away from home and it would take me twelve to get back. So long as it wasn't really sixty kilometers away, the Verp could get me to the site in a couple minutes if I pushed it.
So I pushed it. I love the Verpine; rugged, versatile, impossible to break-down. I know you kids hate anything that's still got wheels, but what are you gonna do with a levitator when you run out of doot on a frontier planet hundreds of kils from the nearest station? With a Verpine, you can plug in your life support batteries and still move. Those backpacks don't have enough juice to float a lev, but they can still run an inductor. You're not winning any races, but you'll get another hundred kils. Plus, the Verp's got a micro-diesel generator that'll burn damn near anything. It'll go another 50 on the bottle of antiseptic from a standard medpack, but I always carried a full liter of ethanol just in case.
I eased the grips forward, slowly injecting doot into the fuser, trying not to dig the tires into the sand. They did anyway. Nasty stuff, Iasion's sand, it's like little shards of broken glass with a hint of sulfur and phosphorus. Not only did it itch, it burned. I was already filthy with the stuff anyway. The tread on the meter-round hubless front wheels finaly caught a bit of solid rock and broke inertia.
My Verp carved a path through the sand like a knife. The dusty rooster-tail hung nearly motionless in the thick air as I went. It was the end of my run that day, so I decided to burn up the last of my doot. I pushed harder. I was pushing 480 when I came across a rough patch. Hexagonal basalt pillars hide under the dunes everywhere on Iasion. The longer ones would jut out in patches and get carved to sharp points by the dusty winds. These suckers could tear the carbide treads right off your wheels.
I pulled back on the grips hard. The inductors reversed and the body lifted, raising the suspension to what we used to call dirtbike mode, but you kids probably don't even know what a bike is. My Verp took it like a pro, but the jostle knocked loose my whole day's collection. Damn silica composites just aren't the same as carbon, but there's short supply of that in the inner Demeter system. The cylinder broke open on the rocks and spilled my lichens all across the dunes.
I pulled the Verp to a halt, turning around as I did. The back wheel pushed dust into the air like food coloring into starch-gel. I had to make a decision: do I waste the last of my ox picking up and cleaning off all the work I'd done that day, or do I investigate the flock of birds in the distance?
There wasn't much of interest for an Ionian Phoenix on Iasion. They were engineered to eat the insects that feed on the exofungus on volcanic planets like this; just another link in food chain engineering. But on some frontiers, especially tough ones like Demeter, the fauna would be forced to change their diet to survive. With that many birds either there were thousands of lava beetles for them to eat, meaning there was a dense patch of lichen we didn't know about, or the birds had taken a liking to something else, perhaps a dead camelguana or an exposed dograt burrow.
Either situation was worth a look. I abandoned the blue-green pods to the sand and spun my cycle around, heading towards the circling phoenix. I didn't take it flat out anymore; where there's one jut there was bound to be more. It didn't matter much, I was almost to the crest of the ridge. I eased the Verp to a stop just at the edge and looked down.
There were about a dozen phoenix orbiting the small crater. The floor was not the characteristic aqua color of a lichen bloom, nor was the red spot in the middle moving like a carpet of lava beetles would. The figure at the center was too large to be a dograt and too small to be a camelguana.
It was definitely human.
I eased the Verp down the side of the crater and parked next to the body, face-down in the blood colored sand. The patch on his shoulder identified him as a fellow lichen-gatherer like myself from Alpha colony, some three hundred kils away. What the hell was he doing way out here? I could see the faceplate of his helmet was smashed. There was no sign of his Verp; no vehicular signals at all in this sector. He didn't walk all the way out here. Someone must've left him.
I turned the body over carefully with my foot. My waste recycler kicked on when I saw his face. Some kind of stalk was stuck through his helmet and into his head as if someone had impaled his nose with a big green stick. His eyes were pitch black. His whole face was swollen and ripped. His massive tongue had no choice but to bulge out through his broken jaw. Then I noticed that the plexiglass was bent outward. The stalk had come from inside his helmet - from inside his skull.
As if in response to my presence, these pod-like structures along the sides of the stalk uncurled, blossomed, and burst into little aqua clouds. The spores swam through the thick air heading straight towards the warmth of my helmet's exhaust vents. I'll admit it, I shrieked like a baby before I ran like hell.
I got on my Verp an tore ass across the dunes. I hit at least two jags at full throttle and ripped both tires to shreds. I probably hit more than that but I didn't care. I was heading straight for the nearest decon shower. I hardly spoke a word as everyone in my control unit begged me to tell them why I looked like I saw a ghost. I puked for nearly a day straight before I was ready to talk about it.
I later found out that we had lost contact with Alpha colony that afternoon. When our team arrived to investigate, they found the whole colony dead, all killed by what we started to call the face fungus. They brought back a sample for our analysts who discovered the thing had mutated from the very lichens that sustained us, the same lichens I had just harvested that day.
We soon found all our crops were contaminated. The spores had already been selected as the natural survivors on this planet. Without the nutrients, medicine, and synthetics those fungus provided, we were all going to starve to death, naked and diseased. It wasn't long after they returned that the investigation unit died from the infection, followed by the analysts. We quarantined the colony and evacuated on the next transport shuttle.
I imagine that fungus survives on Iasion to this day, infecting all the other engineered fauna we brought there. Maybe they've probably learned to adapt by now, who knows. No one's going back there for a megacycle. That whole sector is a quarantine zone now. Hell, it's a miracle that I broke out of it alive, but that's another story for another time.