The HMMV-16 trundled its way out of the back of the dropship into the orange stained fog. I turned the steering wheel to the right and began to follow the route laid out on the satellite navigation console embedded into the dashboard of the HMMV-16. You had no choice but to follow the route on the screen because if you tried going it on your own you would be lost in no time. The best I've ever seen it down here was twenty feet visibility. That's what we call a clear day.
"Sunny France, huh?" joked Hammond.
We were in an area of southern France near Montpellier although judging by the view we could have been anywhere on the entire planet. The orange had a disorienting effect and it was not uncommon for the mind to get lost down here. We had landed in the car park of a supermarket since this offered us the largest area of perfectly flat surface for the dropship to land on. From out of the orange fog the black silhouettes of parked cars passed us on either side silently laying testament to what was once civilization. I was careful to avoid hitting them whilst trying to stay as close to the route laid out on the satellite navigation computer as possible.
Occasionally I would glance in the rear view mirror and I could see Jamie sitting behind me staring out of the window taking it all in from behind the eyepieces of his protective helmet. After a few minutes he asked, "What would happen if our suits were punctured or something?"
"You'd be dead within a few minutes," answered O'Neil sitting beside him in the back.
"Would we suffocate?" he asked before we each heard a gulping sound in our headsets.
"Yes but that's not what would kill you first," explained Hammond. "There's something in the cloud that shuts down the central nervous system and causes the whole body to go rigid. All your organs stop working and your blood goes hard."
"Goes hard?" asked Jamie not sure what he meant.
"Yeah, it becomes like a kind of red powder. Your whole body becomes a sand bag. Pretty nasty huh kid?"
"Y-yeah," stammered Jamie.
"I still think that it was a chemical weapon being developed in the Ukraine," said O'Neil referring to the origin of the cloud.
"Guess we'll never know," uttered Hammond.
"I think they know they just don't want to tell us."
"Who?" asked Jamie hanging on every word of Hammond and O'Neil.
"The Station's ruling council," explained O'Neil. "They know what caused all this."
"Then why won't they tell us?"
"You mean other than the fact we're rats?" joked O'Neil in a not-so-funny way. "It's because they're fathers were probably the ones who created it and they know there'd be hell to pay if it ever came out. Things are tense at the moment as it is what with the overcrowding on the Station."
Hammond added, "I hear the council is reconsidering the idea of having a permanent base down here again for us rats. They're trying to sell it as being for our mutual survival."
"Mutual survival!" gasped O'Neil. "Mutual! Now there's the very definition of a them-and-us attitude."
"When they say mutual," said Jamie. "I think they mean between the people who would be living on the Earth and the people on the Station. They want us working together for our survival."
"Don't listen to any of that propaganda!" snapped O'Neil. "It's all to try and sell us the idea we can survive down here and free up space for them up there. It's so that when we, the expendable members of society, are all down here and they're up there living in safe sterilized air with a comfortable climate it will be too late for us to change our minds when our children start having orange skin and powder for blood." Jamie felt scolded. "I'm sorry kid. I didn't mean for it to seem like I'm taking it out on you."
"It's alright," said a rather sheepish Jamie.
"I just get so pissed off some days with everything. This isn't a life."
I felt it important to jump in here. "Jamie; listen to me. I want you to stick to Hammond's arse like glue while we're down here. It may seem like he's giving you a hard time but he will take care of you and show you what to do to survive down here."
"Will I?" joked Hammond.
"Yes," I said.
"Well rule one of survival is don't get killed," he said looking over his shoulder towards Jamie. "Rule two is do exactly as I tell you to do. Understand?"
"Yeah," blurted Jamie.
"Well here's your first job," I said bringing the vehicle to a halt. Ahead of us parked diagonally across the entrance to the car park was a large four door sedan blocking our way. It was only fifteen feet from us when I saw it in the thick orange fog. "The two of you can move that car for us so we can drive passed."
"Can't we go around it?" asked Jamie looking over my shoulder out through front windscreen at the black outline of the car.
"Afraid not newbie," said Hammond opening his door. "Come on."
Jamie seemed in no rush to follow Hammond but nevertheless he opened his door and began to climb out. As the two doors opened the orange fog started to snake its way inside the vehicle. O'Neil waved some of it away but I just submitted to the inevitable and let it hover over my protective suit. As I watched the silhouettes of Jamie and Hammond walk away towards the obstructing vehicle I remembered my own experiences the first time I came down to Earth.
For me the fear was almost tangible. Even though I had a protective suit on I felt that if the fog touched me I would die. It's hard to fathom the concept that all that is protecting you from death is a few layers of thick rubber and latex with an inch of plastic around the eyes. Nowadays I've become quite comfortable in the orange fog. It's amazing what you can become accustomed too over time.
My eyes became distracted from Jamie and Hammond as a patch of fog began to snake its way around my body. I lifted my arms up and the orange gas seemed to retreat upwards away from my rising limbs. In some ways it looked harmless almost benign. It was like some kind of creature playing with me. Guess it's just sometimes easy to forget.
"Oh my God!" crackled Jamie's disembodied voice in my headset.
"What's the matter?" asked Hammond's straight after.
"What's going on guys?" I asked them our voices being carried by the small radio transmitters in our helmets.
"F.N.G. here just saw his first dead body," replied Hammond. "Don't worry he won't bite you. Here, I'll reach in and pull the brake off. You just get behind this thing and get ready to push." There was no response from Jamie. "Come on!"
"O-Okay," stammered Jamie.
From the vehicle I could see a silhouette walking towards the rear of the sedan while the other leaned inside it to release the brake.
Hammond's voice crackled again. "His foot is stuck on the footbrake. I'm going to have to move it off. Ah, there. Alright kid, ready?"
"Okay push!" instructed Hammond.
The two of them leaned into the car and it began to roll forwards, slowly at first but then picking up speed.
"That's enough guys," I said to them seeing that the way was now clear and the two of them were beginning to disappear in the dense fog. "I don't want to spend the next hour waiting for you two to find your way back."
"Yeah, yeah," chanted Hammond. "Come one newbie."
From out of the orange fog the two men walked back to the vehicle. The doors opened once more leaving a bit more of the orange gas inside before they were shut again sealing it outside. I applied the accelerator pedal and the vehicle started to move forwards once again.
"Congratulations," said O'Neil to Jamie. "You've just completed your first job as a Ground Rat."
"Thanks," said Jamie half heartedly.
"You did good," I said to him hoping to lift his spirits.
"Really?" said Jamie thinking he was being patronized.
"Yeah. Most people crack up within a few minutes down here. It's easy to go crazy in all this."
I wasn't lying. It really was.