The Sharp Giants (part 2)

by Gaston Prereth

Hibbard and Dancer stood waiting for the airlock to depressurise. Hibbard could feel his hands sweating inside his skin tight suit and his legs felt like polystyrene. Beyond the thin door in front of him lay Mars. Mars. He checked the seal of his helmet for the hundredth time.

“Have you got your recorder on Dancer?”

“No sir, do you want me to…”

“No, no. Leave it off. You’d think with eleven months to dwell on it, i’d have been able to come up with some first words by now.”

“How about you hop sir?”

“Hop?”

“As far as I’m aware, ‘one small hop for a man, one giant bound for mankind’ is still available. Or there is always ‘we come in peace’, if you want to stick with a classic.”

“I might as well just hum the theme tune to War of the Worlds.” Said Hibbard in a far less playful tone than he had intended. The next few moments were probably going to be the pinnacle of his life and he was struggling to understand the mixture of emotions sloshing around inside him. Their first steps were, of course, being recorded by the copious amounts of camera’s that infested the ship. The whole world would eventually see them stepping out onto the alien planet, but sound would only accompany it if Dancer recorded their conversation. He knew it was going to be an iconic moment, a piece of footage that might get played for centuries, and he felt unworthy to speak over it. Almost as if it wasn’t going to be him on the repeated videos, but some other man. A daring hero of civilisation, not safe and steady Captain Hibbard.

A light next to the hatchway flicked on.

“Well words or not Sir, there’s a whole planet waiting for us.” Dancer leant forward and pressed the button. The airlocks door opened, falling away from the two astronauts like a felled tree, creating a ramp down to the dusty ground below.

The Martian landscape stretched out before them. Flat, cracked in places like dried mud. Unremarkable and featureless. Everything was covered in sand and small stones. In the distance, they could just make out the rim of the crater, like distant mountains across a desert plain, emphasizing the expanse of nothingness that lay before them.

“It’s beautiful.” said Dancer, her voice catching in her throat. Hibbard stepped forward, his weighted boots clanking against the ramp, the sound reverberating up his own body. He paused before the edge of the ship, staring down at rock centimetres from his toes. First words and recordings far from his mind.

It crunched like frozen dew. That’s what he would always remember about his first step. Along with the feeling of a small stone fragmenting beneath his boot. The first destructive act of a man on Mars.

“Are you ready Dancer?” Hibbard asked once he’d awoken out of his reverie. The young scientist was staring down at her own feet, twisting her toe into the ground. She did not respond for a moment, then looked up at him. Her eyes visibly damp, even through her visor.

“We’re standing on Mars.” She said. Hibbard felt his own throat tighten at her words, as if she had just told him his childhood pet had died. He fought the wave of emotion that coursed through him, threatening to burst from his eyes and mouth in a torrent of shouts and tears.

“Mars” he said once he could be certain his voice would not crack. They stared at each other for a moment, and then both of them were smiling. “Mars” he said again, and laughed.

It took them awhile to adjust to the rhythm of walking in the lower gravity. Experimenting with different stride lengths and speeds, but once they found the right balance they made good progress. The trick was to fool their feet into thinking that they were skipping, alternating with one long slow stride followed by a shorter quicker step to keep up their velocity. Pushing too hard with the long stride would send them more vertical than horizontal, too soft and they found themselves stumbling forward, their feat catching on the ground while the thin atmosphere provided no support for their upper body.

Changing direction, once at full skip, was difficult and Hibbard found himself having to plan his foot placements three or four strides in advance, watching out for the occasional round boulders that were littered across the plain. There were sometimes slight changes in elevation, but these happened in slow long curves and proved no problem at all to overcome. The flat landscape reminded Hibbard of the Salt lakes of North America, adding credence to the prominent theory that the crater had once been filled with water.

“There she is Sir, Bertha. Just to our left.” Hibbard followed Dancer’s arm, seeing the small rectangular box sitting on the plain. It stuck out of the landscape like a postbox in the middle of a field. Totally out of place. Alien to the alien world.

With his eyes on Bertha, Hibbard lost his rhythm. Not noticing a small tennis ball sized rock in the way of one of his short strides, his toe caught it and launched him towards the ground. He fell in despairing slow motion, as the planet’s weak gravity clung to him. He tried to save himself by swinging his right foot forward, but it only grazed the rocky earth and spun out in front of him, rotating his body in the opposite direction.  With his arms flailing like a stumbling gymnast, Hibbard hit the floor.

He lay on his back. The sky above him was white, as empty as the world around him. There was a brief moment of silence and then a burst of laughter hit him over the intercom.

“That was the best fall I’ve ever seen”

“I’m glad you found it so amusing Dancer, but I could have been seriously hurt” Hibbard felt ridiculous and was glad his visor would be hiding his reddening cheeks. He was an informal captain, he had to be to hold such a small team together on a long, cramped journey like theirs, but he still needed to be respected. “This isn’t a school playground. Help me up.”

“I’m sorry sir,” said Dancer, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him back to his feet. She patted some dust off the back of his suit, and then let out another giggle. “I’m just glad I wasn’t the first sir. It’s bound to happen out here, everything is so strange. Even things as natural as walking.”

“That’s not the point Dancer. You know the score, we’ve got another eighteen months out here before we can leave and another nine months after that to get home. If one of us gets injured then there’s no help coming to air lift them out. What if my suit had been pierced?”

“Yes sir, sorry sir.” Said Dancer in the tones of a scolded school girl. It was a load of rubbish, of course. The new design spacesuits, far removed from their inflated balloon cousins used during the Apollo age of spaceflight, carried no pressurised air within them. Instead, the suit’s material was designed to apply the pressure, allowing for a skin tight suit that gave relatively free and easy movement. A small cut or tear therefore would not be followed by explosive decompression, but instead could be quickly covered with a peptide based glue until they returned to their base and patched it properly. The only real danger with the suits was in the faceplates, which curved around the face from just behind the eyes and from the jawline up to the brow. If that got damaged it would be game over, but the strong polymer was bullet proof and would take some cracking.

Hibbard looked out across the plains toward the distant cliffs and took a deep breath. The sun, smaller and paler than on earth, was starting on its downward journey towards the western horizon. Soon he would be one of the first people to see a sunset on another planet. He felt a tingle in the tips of his fingers. All other thoughts faded from his mind as he blinked away returning tears.

Bertha was about the size of a three door car. She squatted on eight independently moving wheels that spread from her bulk like the legs of a giant mechanical spider. Hibbard was grateful that the vehicle looked as mechanical as it did. There was no doubt it was a product of man, something that did not belong on this planet. Part of home, encased in aluminium.

Dancer stroked a gloved hand across the machines flank.  “How are you doing, baby? Did you enjoy your little flight?” She crouched down behind Bertha’s rear wheels and looked under her chassis with the care of a doting mother inspecting a child’s imagined injury.

Hibbard looked on, standing on his heels and holding his hands together behind his back. To him it was just a tool, a mobile laboratory that doubled up as useful transport. In the months before the launch they had spent a lot of time training with Bertha’s sister rover, getting used to the controls and testing its performance over different types of terrain. It had been fun, but it had become clear to the rest of the crew that Dancer saw more in the machine than its utility.

“I just want to confirm her own readouts against the ones she told Midas, and then we’ll take her for a spin.”

“Is that necessary?” Asked Hibbard, turning back to survey their land across which they had come. He could just make out the smudge against the foothills of Mount Sharp that was Midas. He was keen to get back to their ship. The weather on the plains was unpredictable, strong winds could appear in minutes and the dust storms that would accompany them would make navigation virtually impossible.

Dancer ignored his question, climbing onto the personnel platform at the back of Bertha and flipping open the cover of the on board control panel. The rigg at the back of Bertha was little more than a scaffold around a square standing space. There were no seats, but two poles that held a body harness each, much the same as the seatbelts they used back on Midas.

Hibbard wandered away from Bertha and, using a small switch on his wrist, opened a communication channel. “Midas, this is Hibbard. We’ve picked up the payload and are just confirming it’s all green.”

“Roger that, Hibbard.” Came Kendrick’s voice over his earpiece. “Portillo has found us a place to hunker down.  A lovely spot with ocean views and a busy nightlife.”

“Keep it to business, Kendrick. Send the coordinates to Dancer. How long will it take you to get there?”

“Oh a couple of minutes, as long as we don’t get held up at baggage claim.”

“Kendrick.”

“Sorry sir. The chosen site is about half a kilometre from Curiosity’s resting place, but Portillo has not been able to plot a route for us, so I am suggesting I use the retros and jump across. We still have plenty left in the tank from our landing allocation. Air speed is nominal. I don’t see any risks.”

“Portillo, thoughts?”

“Sir, there is a second site with a smooth route. That is my recommendation. It’s a further kilometre out from Mount Sharp, but our fuel is valuable. Burning it off to jump Midas to the other site seems a waste. We need all our fuel to get us back home.”

“How much fuel will this take Kendrick?” Asked Hibbard, making his way back to Dancer who was strapping herself into one of Bertha’s harnesses.

“We’ve got plenty Sir. As i said, we used less than our allocation on landing. We’ll still have plenty left for take off and get us home. Trust me.” Said Kendrick.

“Portillo, check routes for Bertha to get to Kendrick’s preferred site. As long as we can get there within a few hours, you’re all green to jump Midas.”

“Roger that.” said Kendrick, covering a quiet protest from Portillo. Hibbard flicked the switch on his wrist again.

“Did you get all the Dancer?”

“Yes sir, we’re all green here. Bertha has already planned a route to the suggested site. Shouldn’t take us more than three or four hours.”

“I know, but Portillo needed to have something to keep him occupied. He worries too much and I don’t want him distracting Kendrick. Even for Kendrick it’s going to be a difficult manoeuvre with limited fuel.”

“He’ll do it sir. He might be an arrogant cock, but he’s a good pilot.”

“I think that’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard you say about him.”

“I know,  but if you ever tell him, I might just let slip about your little fall.”

“I’m sure I can remember to keep my mouth shut.”

Hibbard climbed onto the platform alongside Dancer and strapped himself in. Dancer tapped a few keys and he felt the metal plate beneath his feet lurch as Bertha flexed her joints and tested each of her wheels. Then, without ceremony or fanfare, the large rover started to roll forward, accelerating slowly.

Click here for part 3

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