• Liam Hogan

Fiction: Haar by Liam Hogan

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The temperature plummeted the moment we entered the cloud-bank, forcing me to duck below for a windcheater. I'd been on deck of the RRS Hamelin since the grey smudge appeared on the horizon, and we'd made cautious progress ever since. The cloud had been there a week. Hidden somewhere within was the Piper research rig, with a crew of eleven engineers and scientists.

Strictly, the cold sea fog, or haar if you were Scottish like me, wasn't a surprise; that was what the rig was there for. Marine Cloud Brightening: pump seawater from the chilly depths and spray a fine mist into the subtropical air, wrapping the ocean in a reflective blanket. A prototype geo-engineering experiment, and one that appeared far more successful than anyone could have predicted.

It was the radio silence that had brought us there, the persistent cloud that prevented investigation by helicopter. With even the sensor buoys not transmitting, we had absolutely no idea what to expect; from fire, to mechanical failure, to pirates...

I was merely a hydraulics engineer, in case the pumps on the repurposed oil exploration platform needed shutting down. In case there was no-one left aboard to do it. When the rig reared out of the haar, like a three-legged Martian monstrosity, the skipper of the research vessel cut the engines, and the motley scientists took yet another set of readings.

There was no noise but the wet slap of waves. No lights, no signs of life, human or otherwise. Then I heard the soft thrum I'd been listening for: the pump, still operating, explaining why the fog hadn't dispersed.

“Alright, Alyson? Time to earn your wages,” the first-mate called, snapping me to attention.

Six of us boarded the rigid inflatable, weighed down in the rear by equipment. I was travelling light, not counting the life-vest and natty orange coveralls. I had to assume anything I needed was already aboard the rig.

The roar of the outboard faded away as we docked at a sliver of a boat landing, implausibly delicate against the giant metal leg. From there, a skeletal ladder snaked into the fog. The ladder was caged, passing through metal loops every few rungs, a measure that utterly failed to make me feel any the safer, instead reminding me of how high up we were.

We paused at an intermediate platform, a chance for the scientists to wave thermal cameras and for me to stare moodily back the way we had come. There was no sign of the Hamelin, and I could barely see the inflatable, where Connor awaited our return, having drawn the long straw.

The marine biologist, Phillips, joined me at the rail. “Did you know,” he said, apropos nothing, “we discovered a new type of shrimp recently.”

As an attempt to impress it left a lot to be desired.

“Oh?” I said, out of politeness. “Where was it found?”

“In a tank in a British museum. It had been there, breeding merrily away, for over twenty years.”

I didn't say anything, waiting for a point, or possibly a punchline.

“If we don't even know what is in front of us, in plain sight, for decades--”

“--Then we have no idea what's in the ocean proper?”

“Precisely.” Phillips grinned. “Especially in a remote area like this.”

I shrugged. We were, what, sixty feet up? An invasion by shrimp seemed unlikely, and the biologist would have had more to look at if he'd stayed in the boat.

We continued on up, the occasional squawk of the first-mate's walkie-talkie for company. The cold, metal ladder was slippery, slimy even, forcing me to concentrate.

“Wait up...” murmured the biologist, bringing up the rear, but I ignored him and his curses, and doubted anyone else heard them.

It was when we hit the main deck I worked out what he was cursing about. The slime was everywhere. Not evenly spread, like something deposited by the winds or high waves. Footprints. Big footprints, from webbed feet.

I only realised the first-mate was armed when he unclipped the gun from its holster. With his other hand, he reached for his walkie-talkie, but after a few tries gave up. His eyes, frowning and hooded, sought me out.

“Alyson, head back down. See if the launch radio is working. Everyone else, with me.”

I started to protest, before thinking better of it. At that moment, even the rickety ladder seemed safer than where we stood.

I was on the intermediate platform when I felt the explosion, thought it must have come from above until I glimpsed orange through the haar, out to sea. Flickering flames swallowed by black smoke that only thickened the fog. A screech of something metal, an incoherent yell, then everything was muffled and slipped back into stillness.

“Christ!” I yelped, skinning my elbows as I clattered down the last of the ladder. Only, when I reached sea-level, there was no inflatable, no radio. I guessed--half-assumed--Connor must have gone back to the Hamelin, to assist or even help the evacuation. I called into the thick fog until I was hoarse, with no reply. Eventually--I don't know how long I shivered there--I re-climbed the ladder, legs and arms like jelly.

“Hello?” I croaked, reaching the top. But there was no-one there either. Just the first-mate's gun, drowned in slime. I left it lying there.

I searched the entire rig and found no-one, just a wrecked radio room and sleeping quarters that showed whatever had happened, happened in a hurry.

I've shut down the pump. I don't know if that will make a difference, if the cloud will finally dissipate, if someone will come rescue me. I don't know where everyone has gone. All I know is that from out of the haar, in the cold, dread silence, I keep thinking I hear teeth.

Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction, and Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details here.