The Sharp Giants (part 3)

by Gaston Prereth

Portillo closed the maps on his screen. He knew he was being kept quiet. The captain would know that he knew it too. They had all done the same training. They had all sat through the same lectures on the capabilities of Bertha. There was no way that Bertha would not have been able to work out her own route to their chosen location, and she could handle far rougher terrain than Midas. It was just another example of Captain Hibbard not trusting him. He bet the captain wished that Travis had come on the trip instead. Travis was the risk taker, the imaginative one.

“Can you come up here, Portillo. I need someone to keep an eye on our fuel burn and, well, you’re the only one here.” Kendrick looked over his shoulder and grinned as Portillo pulled himself out of his seat and dragged himself up the slender fuselage. He strapped himself in, tightening the buckles around his midriff.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Keep an eye on this read out. We want to use less than point four. I’ll have my hands full with trying to keep us steady.”

“The other location would be easier.”

“Relax. Enjoy the ride, you’re about to witness a master at work.” Portillo shuffled his shoulders back into the captain’s chair, checking his buckles again with tentative fingers. The mass of dials, buttons, and readout stared back at him with the judgemental air of a Victorian school master, waiting to spread derision over him at the smallest mistake.

“This read out here?” He asked, tapping a finger against the digital figures.

“Yes, the one labelled fuel.” Kendrick was flicking switches now, and looking around the dashboard like a provincial baron. He looked totally at ease. Calm. For some reason, that he could not explain to himself, it made Portillo feel more nervous. It was if there was only a limited amount of confidence in the cabin and, with Kendrick’s unbounded arrogance, there was none left for him. He stared at the fuel readout, as if it were the wrong end of a shotgun.

“Alright, we’re all green, brace for lift off.” said Kendrick, still dancing his fingers across the dashboard.

“Shouldn’t we call the captain?” asked Portillo.

“Three, two, one, ignition.” Kendrick hit a button slightly larger than its counterparts and Midas trembled as the retro thrusters burst into life. Dust billowed around the spacecraft and Portillo felt his stomach drop as the ship defied gravity and pushed itself into the air.

“Altitude thirty metres, firing rear thrusters. How’s the fuel?”

“Down by point one three. One four.”

“Good, all green. We’ll be there in no time.”

“Point two.”

“Cutting thrusters. Coasting.” Kendrick glanced at Portillo, his inane grin plastered across his face. The ground rolled beneath them as Midas cut through the thin Martian atmosphere. Portillo, now that the thrusters had been switched off, tore his eyes away from the counter and looked out through the main view screen. The point of Aeolis Mons loomed before them like Mount Olympus. One solitary spire driving forth from the centre of Gale Crater, like a lone finger pointing back to Earth, instructing them to leave.

The weak sun was already starting to coat the sky in pale pink as the planet’s prolonged dusk began to set in. Kendrick was still fully occupied in flying Midas at low altitude. He looked at home, almost as if he were part of the ship. Portillo looked down at his own inanimate hands, his fingers wrapped around the straps of his harness, and then glanced back at Kendrick. The pilot was still engrossed in his task.

Portillo leant forward and started to click through the various options on the captain’s personal screen. There were views from all around the ship, sent by camera’s capturing a three-sixty degree view from Midas. There was the satellite data on atmospheric conditions. A delayed text feed from Earth with various messages of good luck and technical information. The mission plans from the on-board database and… Portillo paused and flicked the screen back a couple of feeds.

“Kendrick?”

“Bit busy Portillo, can we have a heart to heart in a bit?”

“Err… Kendrick, I’ve got a storm heading in our direction. A big storm.” Kendrick glanced over at him, but quickly returned his attention back to his controls.

“How long until it hits?”

“Another ten minutes, I think. It’s moving fast.”

“We’ll be down by then. Midas will be fine once we’ve landed.”

“It’s not Midas I’m worried about. The captain and Dancer are going to take at least four hours to get to us. They’re going to get swallowed up by the storm.”

“Well there’s not much we can do, we need to get Midas down before it hits.”

“Kendrick, if a storm hits them, even if they don’t get blown away and suffer fatal injuries, it could last for months. They’ll be lost out there.” Kendrick swore and flicked a few switches, bringing up a map on the screen in front of him. “Kendrick. We need to do something?”

“Captain,” Kendrick had opened their communications, ignoring Portillo. “We have a severe dust storm heading in our direction. I can land Midas before it hits, but you’re going to be in for a really rough ride.”

“Roger that Kendrick,” came Hibbard’s voice from the small speakers in the cockpit. “How long have we got?” Kendrick looked over towards Portillo, who fidgeted.

“About eight minutes, Captain.” said Portillo, his voice quavering.

“Shit.” the word stood before all of them with the same impact as Aeolis Mons. Portillo felt himself getting hot and his hands were shaking. There was nothing they could do. The captain and Dancer were going to die on their first day on Mars. The mission was failing before it had got started. “Land Midas,” continued Hibbard over the intercom, “make it safe. Dancer and I will think of something. It may just blow over, Bertha should be able to look after us.”

“Captain, this isn’t a spot of rain at a barbeque. If you’re out there when this hits…” Kendrick trailed off and closed the communications link. “What’s the reading on the fuel gauge?”

“Twenty eight point seven six.” said Portillo, “Why?” The communications clicked again.

“Okay Captain, hold tight. We’re coming to pick you up.”

“No. Kendrick. Get Midas down. Get her safe.”

“No can do Captain.” Kendrick cut the link again. “Right, Portillo, I need you to watch the storm, the fuel, and when I say, I need you to get back there to the airlock, strap in and make sure Dancer and the Captain get on board as quickly as possible. Use the winch, I won’t be able to land and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold Midas steady.

“Kendrick, I can’t do all that. I’m a geologist for God’s sake.”

“Fuck that, Portillo, you’re an astronaut. Burning right retros, preparing to bank.”

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.” Said Hibbard when he heard Kendrick cutting their communications. “He’s going to jeopardize everything. I knew he was a liability.” Dancer stayed silent, her hands tapping away at Bertha’s control screens, picking up the feed from the satellites. Hibbard glanced at the monitor. It showed the curve of Mars from orbit and, spreading across the face of the planet heading towards a small little blue speck, was a tidal wave of brown. “Look at that thing. It’s going to pluck Midas out of the sky in seconds.”

“It looks more impressive than it is, dust hangs around in the atmosphere far longer than back home.”

“And it also takes far stronger wind speeds to get it up into the air in the first place. We’ve all done the same studies here, Dancer. That thing, that could rage on for weeks, if not months. Look at it.”

“It’s probably a good thing that we’re going to get picked up then sir, isn’t it? Otherwise we’d be stuck out here, marooned in a sea of dust.”

“Very poetic.” said Hibbard staring beyond the bulk of Aeolis Mons. There was a brown line on the horizon, beneath the pink sky. Even as he looked, the line was getting bigger. Turning into a wall rather than a distant smudge. Dancer had killed Bertha’s engine and Hibbard could see the rover’s instruments pulling into it’s body for protection. Bertha would probably be fine. She could withstand most of the atmospheric conditions of the planet. Even their suits should be able to resist the turbulence of a dust storm, but if one of them got swept away, or the storm stayed for any length of time, they would not stand a chance. They would starve, lost in the desert with no hope of finding their way back to the ship.

“It’s not us I’m worried about, Dancer.” He said, watching the brown wall grow ever closer. Before it, he could see a two giant sand dervishes spinning over the landscape towards them. Two huge columns of grey dust, spiralling up into the glowing pink sky and then puffing out as if they were each topped by a Doric capital. The dervishes stood tall and straight before the astronauts, making them appear stationary. Standing pillars with an approaching storm beyond. A doorway to an ancient temple that housed the wrath of the gods. “Without us, Kendrick and Portillo can still finish the mission. Even without Bertha they could send enough data back to Earth about the statues. They’ll be able to ascertain what they are and how long ago they were carved.”

“Still, it would be nice to see them, sir. I’ve been cramped in a spaceship with Kendrick for eleven months. I’m owed at least one look at a Martian art gallery.”

The columns were close now. So close Hibbard felt as if he could reach out and stroke his hand along their curved sides. They moved with effortless grace, gliding across the flat ground.  It felt to Hibbard like Bertha was driving between them, racing to cross the threshold and enter the storm beyond. He had to look down to make sure the ground was stationary beneath them .

He felt Dancer’s hand reach for his. He squeezed back. “Kendrick is many things, sir,” she said as their bodies started to shake in the upping wind, “but he’s a fantastic pilot. He knows what he can do and the risks. If he thinks he can get us, then he can.”

Strapped onto the back of Bertha, they could do nothing but watch the brown wall approach. With the dust dervishes behind them, there was nothing to see but the dust cloud eating up the ground before them. It had already swallowed the bulk of Aeolis Mons and still looked hungry for more. Hibbard held Dancer’s hand a little tighter.

And then it was upon them. Hibbard fought against the desire to close his eyes as the dust lashed around him, blocking out the weak sun and turning his world into an empty grey. The bulk of Bertha started to tremble beneath him, causing the supporting pole of his harness to vibrate against his spine. It felt like a jigsaw cutting between his shoulder blades, splitting him in two.

Sound roared all around him. As the sand laden air rushed past, the tiny grains scratched and clawed their way along his spacesuit. At first it had been like white noise on an old analogue radio, then it was the hissing of a leaking canister, but as they were swallowed further into the storm it grew deeper and more thunderous. Booming through him as his body shook and strained against the pressure.

He felt Dancer’s hand loosen in his, and then it was gone. His arm was blown backwards, straining his shoulder. The pain shot into the joint, digging deeper into his body with every fresh battery from the storm. He was alone now. Dancer was only a foot away, but to Hibbard there was no one there. He was the last man in the universe, watching the world disappear.

Hibbard’s eyes forced themselves shut, but that only made the sound worse. It gave the storm a voice. Every growl, every groan was a curse against him. An angry god spewing hatred at him for stepping onto a land he did not own. He squeezed his eyes tighter, hoping that this would somehow block out the cacophony of loathing carried by every particle pressing against his suit, but it was in his body. It was vibrating through his whole being.

Click here for part 4

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