ONLY ROGER

Andy Southall

Roger gripped the wheel with his padded gloves and steered our rover into the gloom. He was a good driver but too fast, bouncing the skeleton of our vehicle—no doors, no windscreen, no roof — over every rock in our path. We wore spacesuits and harnesses, yet I still held onto my seat fearing I would be thrown out. How Roger could see through the murk, I'd never know. The rover's yellow headlights barely penetrated ten feet. We might have been driving along the floor of a lake with only a fragile bubble of light around us.

"Don't be nervous, old boy." Roger's rich voice boomed inside my helmet.

"We'll be fine."

"Yes, sir. Of course." I addressed him as my superior, although we'd both been out of the forces for years.

"This charabanc's not as duff as it seems." He pointed at a green display where the music-player should have been. "Sat Nav finder, and radar too, so I can see what's coming up."

"Glad to hear it, sir." I shifted uneasily.

"Be there in a mo." He waved into the haze. "The southernmost shore is two klicks away. T minus fifteen and we'll be on the water."

"Jolly good, sir."

"I know this isn't the same as our usual jaunts, but let's stick to protocol, shall we?" His glove patted my arm. "I'll take out V1, and you follow in V2. We'll have to paddle. Can't use outboards, not here!" He laughed.

"Of course not." I nodded inside my helmet. You had to hand it to him, he planned every detail in advance.

He hadn't mentioned how we would launch the two polymer-bubble boats though. Shifting anything in our spacesuits would be a struggle. Not to mention the atmosphere that pawed like a heavy curtain, the temperature that rimed our face plates, and a visibility of only ten paces.

Shifting the boats would be my responsibility. I did all the manual work. All the filming too. Roger paid well and besides, I've always been at his side, ever since we fought in the marines together. My privilege and my pleasure. Anyway, he had to prepare. Rehearse his words, throw back his hair, look good for the camera even though his face was concealed inside his helmet.

The viewers would know it was him. He might be inside a bulky spacesuit, a bulbous helmet, but they'd recognise how he swaggered and waved. They'd notice his enormous fishing rod too, sticking out like a mighty sword, and how with one swing of his arm, he cast his line for miles.

His first TV series, Fabled Fish of Planet Earth, had thrilled audiences worldwide. Only Roger had been intrepid enough to canoe up cola-coloured rivers in search of the legendary three-headed catfish. Only Roger had the balls to confront a swirling hundred-toothed monster known as the Flying Crocsman. Only Roger had lowered himself down a narrow ice-hole to reveal prehistoric fish in a long frozen sub-glacial lake.

Only Roger.

I'd followed him everywhere of course, but then I was never on camera.

Now we were filming his next TV series, Extra-Terrestrial Fish. We'd explored the seas of Mars and the Moon looking for fish fossils and traces of alien plankton. Then we'd voyaged out here to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, to try our luck in its seas. They were the only bodies of surface liquid in the Solar System outside Earth.

He stopped the rover as its headlights glinted on something. "This is it, George! This is it!"

We climbed down. No wind, everything deathly orange gray. Ahead a slab of something like a polished gravestone.

"Doesn't look much, does it George?"

"No, sir."

"A puddle back on Earth would be more inspiring."

"Yes, sir."

"Still we're here now." He traced his glove along an invisible horizon. "The company's forked out a lot of dosh to fly us here. We need to make the most of it."

"Yes, sir."

I knew he was being ironic. If this was the right place, then that quiet surface stretched far beyond the dimensions of a puddle. Beyond the edge of our beams, it continued for hundreds of klicks, bigger than any sea back on Earth.

I started unloading our equipment. Meanwhile Roger trundled up and down in a straight line, no doubt practising his commentary. Anyone else would have dubbed his voice on afterwards, especially as his lips wouldn't be visible. But not Roger. He was old school. Everything had to be authentic. I dragged the two boats down to the sea's edge. They weighed so little in the reduced gravity, I could pick one up in each hand. Whether they floated or not though would be another matter. Roger's boat would be weighed down with his precious fishing rod. Mine had the main camera, sound equipment and lights. And this sea had lower buoyancy than on Earth.

It wasn't saltwater.

But liquid methane.

A shiver ran down my spine.

"You ready, George?" Roger stopped pacing and came down to join me.

"Yes, sir."

"Like I said, usual drill. I'll paddle out first and you follow. I want you filming constantly. Anything could happen. Don't miss a second. And stay close, I'll need your light."

"Yes, sir." I'd mounted my two brightest halogens on V2's stern.

"Right, well let's stop pussyfooting around and go!" Roger leaped in slow motion into his boat. As he landed, it swayed perilously, gunwales bobbing within inches of the methane's surface. Without looking back, he sat, seized his paddle and shot out.

I crawled into my boat on all fours. Then holding my paddle well away from me, I tea-spooned after him. I didn't want to splash any of the liquid on my suit. It was three hundred degrees below zero, cold enough to fracture steel. My suit was made of a special carbon fibre, guaranteed resistant, but if the liquid did pierce it then I'd be finished — simultaneously asphyxiated and frozen.

"Come on, George! Stop playacting. This isn't a Sunday School picnic."

"No, sir." I paddled harder, dipping my paddle deeper. But it wasn't the same as paddling on Earth. Instead of pushing against the liquid, it parted it. Thrust minimal. I might have been using a fork.

"Hard going, isn't it!" Roger was having the same problem, splashing liquid everywhere. "Still thirty or forty feet out should do it. Then we'll get cracking."

"Yes, sir."

I was glad when Roger stowed his paddle and signalled me to stop.

I had my camera rolling. It was mounted on one side of my helmet, with the viewfinder under my visor and with voice controls for tilting, zooming and panning. I focused on Roger as he took up his rod, unclipped the hook and swung the line behind him. He looked so photogenic in his goldfish bowl helmet and shining white spacesuit. A pioneer, a warrior, a latter-day Neil Armstrong going fishing.

Like a whip, he cast. The line soared and disappeared into darkness.

"You getting this?" His face plate turned.

"Yes, sir. Every frame."

"It's time I did the intro. Is the sound good?"

"Perfect."

"Good man!"

To my alarm, he rose to his feet. His little boat rocked, tipping from side to side. I was sure he was going to fall. Then he held out his free arm, and his rod too like it was a tightrope walker's pole, and pronounced his stage voice.

"My name is Roger Tyne." He bowed slightly. "And I'm an extreme fisherman. No matter how deep, how dangerous, how desperate, nothing, nothing, NOTHING, ever gets away from me. You've watched me fish in some of the most remote places on Earth, the upper reaches of the Amazon, the frozen depths of Lake Baikal in Siberia, even Lake Vostok in Antarctica. But now I've gone one giant leap farther. I'm no longer on Earth, I'm on Saturn's largest moon, Titan! Or more precisely, on its largest sea, the enigmatic, expansive, eminently cold Kraken Mare!"

He waved his rod at the darkness, taunting his own good luck. Then as his boat wobbled dangerously close to the methane again, he crouched down. He might play the joker, but he would never capsize, not Roger. He was TV 7's biggest star — the gymnast who danced in his boat, the daredevil who braved monsters, the fisherman who always caught something.

Nonetheless I breathed easier once he was sitting again. He wound in his line, checked it and re-cast, settling in for the long slow business of fishing. We had air and battery for four hours, and ironically water too – a tube in our helmets — for drinking.

For a while, everything was still. I zoomed in on Roger for a close-up, his gloves grasped awkwardly around his rod, a reflection of orange sky in his face plate. All stark and sharp, very space-age. Yet lacking intimacy. On Earth, I always focused on his face, his lips pressed together in concentration, his eyes flitting like butterflies, his white hair whipping in the wind. Not here though. I couldn't see his face. It could be anyone in that suit – a stuntman, the producer, even me.

I panned out for context. Beyond our little sphere of light brooded darkness. We drifted in silence, a sense of time being stretched until it was thin enough to burst.

Then Roger jerked. "George! Did you see that?"

"What?"

"A bite!"

"Yes, sir!"

I zoomed in on his line. It twitched. Something was pulling it.

Roger stooped forward, quivering. "It's a big one! Fifty pounds or more."

"Do you need any help?"

"No! Just keep filming!"

"Yes, sir."

I felt his excitement. Fear too. I panned out for a wide shot, a tableau of his epic struggle, spaceman versus sea monster on this strange alien moon.

"Damn it, it's so strong!" Roger pitched to his knees, both gloves clamped around his rod which flexed and fought. Then lunging, he had to release the reel. The line shot across the surface into the dark.

"Is everything alright?"

"Bloody thing's getting away." He stood up, bobbing madly again. Then he reeled in a second time. Slowly, as if he was tugging a beast as big as his boat.

"You sure you don't want any help?"

"God dammit, George! I've got this." As if to demonstrate, he clutched his rod to his chest. The top end jerked and bent into a question mark. Beneath it, the line stretched vertical. He was on the verge of landing something.

I zoomed in.

His rod jumped. He almost lost it. With a gasp, he released the reel again. The line spun away like a bullet.

"God dammit, George! It's so bloody strong!"

"I can see that." I didn't offer to help, not a third time. Yet I felt his tension, his anticipation, his disappointment. Forward and backward like tug-o-war. The viewers would feel tension too when they watched this.

"One more go. Damn thing's not going to beat me." He reeled in. Slow and gentle. The line tightened into our pool of light. I zoomed in on his stern where the fish would emerge.

"I can see it, George! I can see it! All red and green and shiny. Huge!"

"You can do it, sir!" My heart raced.

"Keep me in frame! They must see me fish it out."

"Yes, sir! Of course!" I panned back.

The sea frothed and boiled. His rod bent double, its tip in the methane. For a split-second, something protruded. Not green or red. But black. A snout or tentacle.

"Hell, it's a fighter!" Roger leaned back. But he was losing. The rod was slipping from his gloves. His boots slid on the floor of his boat. The snout appeared again. I wanted to zoom in on it, let its image fill my viewfinder. But I had to keep Roger in frame. Zooming on the fish would be a betrayal, switching to the other side.

More of the snout emerged, dark and leech shaped. An eye, gleaming and white. A purple duck's mouth. I was revulsed but curious too. I just had to get a close-up. I had to. This was history in the making. Everyone would want to see.

I zoomed in. The creature's surface was criss-crossed with lines like ridges on a slug. The eye wasn't an eye but a sucker, pinky-white and gelatinous. And the mouth was a beak, all curved and blotched and bony, with rows and rows of eel teeth inside.

I felt my stomach churn. This had to be the ugliest fish. Dangerous too. Perhaps Roger would do best letting it go. Cut the line.

"Sir, maybe you should —"

Then Roger shrieked. "George! GEORGE! God damn, I'm —"

The snout vanished in my lens and the sea exploded.

I panned out.

Bubbles shattered the surface. Roger's boat rocked like a crib. Bawling, bucking and empty.

"Roger! ROGER?" Heart thumping, I paddled over.

His boat was full of liquid. Rod and paddle gone.

"ROGER! Where are you?"

Hell, this wasn't in the script. Roger was invincible. He couldn't fall in.

I peered over the edge of my boat. If he was down there, I'd fish him out. I couldn't see anything though. Upending my paddle, I prodded. No resistance. No sea floor. No Roger.

"ROGER, if you can hear me, please say something! Anything!"

Not a ripple now. Mirror smooth. No hint of the shore either. We'd drifted out. In every direction darkness.

Hell, hell, hell!

I breathed hard and quick. My face plate misted. A whiff of gasoline too as atmosphere leached into my suit, my air supply running low. We'd been out here longer than I realised. I didn't have much time left. What would Roger have done if our roles were reversed, if it had been me who'd fallen in? He wouldn't have abandoned the expedition, that was for sure. Not Roger. No fish ever got away from him. Never.

Tentatively, I picked up the spare rod from my boat. It felt odd holding it, angling it outwards, knowing that anybody watching would think I was Roger. Roger in an identical spacesuit, Roger fishing, Roger determined to land his prey.

Then I leaned over his boat and switched on its camera. Suddenly I felt excited, proud, a new surge of adrenaline coursing through me. No longer was I background noise. For the first time ever I was in front of the lens.

And thrusting madly, I cast my line into the darkness.