Midas was still banking when the first wave hit them. The dust storm itself was still a couple of minutes away, but the outriders of the storm were difficult enough to contend with as the ship tried to turn. Kendrick’s hands moved as if of their own accord. They flipped switches, adjusted dials, tapped at the touch screen monitor, all without him having to look down once. His eyes were glued to the world outside. Portillo watched him in silence.
Kendrick’s concentration unsettled Portillo. He had never seen the pilot so intense, so focused. There had been times, during difficult manoeuvres or their contingency training, when all of Kendrick’s attention had been on his task, but he had never looked like this. Even in those moments of stress he had found time for a quip or found an excuse to show off. Now it looked like, if Portillo slapped him, Kendrick would not notice.
Once Midas had turned its back on the storm it’s streamlined hull helped the wind scramble around it and the cockpit settled down around them. Kendrick sat back a little and glanced down at one of his monitors.
“Bertha is just two minutes away, I need updates on when the dust is going to hit.” He said to his controls, then glanced at Portillo. “Ey, you still with me? I need updates on when I’m going to lose visibility.”
“Sorry.” Said Portillo, shifting in his chair and glancing around at the screens in front of him as if he had never seen them before. He felt out of his depth. All the doubts and fears he had had when he’d applied to the programme were back rushing around in his head. He was a scientist, not an explorer. He should not be here. “We’ve got about a minute.”
“About isn’t good enough.”
“It’s er.. fifty six, no fifty eight seconds.”
“Damn it. Looks like it’ll be lights out before pick them up. You better suit up.”
“Suit up?” asked Portillo. His whole body tensed and a hot sensation fell from his chest into his stomach.
“It’s going to be close to zero visibility. There is no way I’ll be able to pinpoint their location, I doubt i’ll even be able to hover. So I’ll need you on the winch.”
“You can’t ask me to go out in this. Dangling like a fish on a line amid this storm.” Kendrick didn’t look across at Portillo. His eyes were glued on Midas’ airspeed readout while his fingers kept the large ship steady.
“I’m not asking you, Portillo, I’m telling you. Suit up and attach the winch line. You’ve got a hundred and fourteen seconds until I need you out that airlock and ready to do the most amazing thing you’ve ever done in your life. Now fucking suit up.”
Dancer’s world was roaring shadows. Shadows and sand. Her back ached. Her head buzzed. She felt like a bundle of feelings rather than a person. A disconnected collection of sensations with no centre or whole. She closed her eyes and tried to focus. Searching for something to hold on to, something to steady the world.
Her body rocked against her harness. Even though she knew her feet were planted on Bertha’s back, her stomach insisted that she was rising and falling on the largest of Atlantic waves. Everything was unstable, in constant motion with no beginning or end.
Not for the first time, Dancer wished her body had an off switch. Bertha was lucky, she thought. She could sleep through months of this and wake up in bright sunshine without a memory of how close to death she had been. She could escape any torment by powering down and waiting.
Dancer tried to find her own switch. She tried to picture her mind as as a jumble of circuit boards. A mass of transistors, diodes and resistors. She had to have a fuse somewhere, something that could pop, and stop the world around her. She needed everything to stop.
Dancer was never sure how much she remembered of the next few moments. There were the sensations of confusion and panic, broken by short flashes of soundless activity. The feeling of something heavy hitting her in the chest. Opening her eyes to see a looming dark figure. Her harness falling from her shoulders. Bertha disappearing. Clear sky. Some of the memories felt real, but others were more like images from a silent film. In some she could see herself, others seemed to last forever as if shot in slow motion.
Over the next few weeks she had often wanted to talk to Captain Hibbard about it. She needed to know what had happened. She hated not knowing, but, as she found herself on the point of asking him, she would look into his eyes and the words would fail her. If only she had kept hold of his hand. She should have held on more tightly.
What she could remember, in crystalline clarity, was the sound of the closing airlock behind them as they collapsed onto Midas’s clean metal floor. It was a sucking sound, pulling the howling winds from around her and banishing them to the outside of the ship. She could feel her whole body trembling as she lay on the floor, Hibbard slumped on his knees next to her, Portillo lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling.
Kendrick saw a yellow light on his control panel turn off. The airlock was closed. The winds, now he’d been able to gain some altitude, had calmed a little and flying had once again become easy. He tapped a finger on the monitor in front of him and switched it from statistics on the engines to the on-board cameras.
He could see his colleagues in a huddle on the airlock floor. All three of them were coated in a thick layer of grey dust, like miners who had only just managed to escape a collapsing shaft. His eyes were drawn to Hibbard. He was on his knees, his shoulders curled forward, and his head bowed. He looked like a pilgrim praying before an altar, beseeching a higher power to right the ills that had befallen his family. He was motionless. Statuesque.
“Would all patrons of the Mars Experience please vacate the exit area before the next party arrives.” Said Kendrick over the intercom. The figures on his monitor did not stir. Below Midas, the dust storm had collected in the basin of Gale crater. In the failing light, the pool of dust glittered and glinted, shimmering through the spectrum.The peak of Aeolis Mons was poking through, like the an island in the middle of a murky lake. For a moment, Kendrick got the impression of what Gale crater might once have looked like when there was still liquid water on Mars. He watched it for a moment, then looked back at his colleagues on the monitor. Portillo had got to his feet and was helping Dancer to hers. Hibbard was still on his knees, looking down at the floor.
“In all seriousness guys, I can’t keep us up here forever. Captain, what are your suggestions?” Dancer looked unsteady on her feet as she unlocked and removed her helmet. Her cropped blonde hair clung to her neck, thick with sweat. She ran a hand over her head and then gave Portillo a pat on his shoulder.
“What are the options Kendrick? I think we’re all still getting used to the size of a world not clogged with dust down here.” She said, her voice sounding distant as the microphone in her helmet strained to hear her. Kendrick tapped a few buttons and turned on the airlock’s communications.
“Not particularly good. I can pull us up into a low orbit, but I can’t promise you how much fuel that would take. It’s likely we’d be stranded up there until it’s time to go home.”
“Is there a second option?” Dancer still sounded a little breathless, but entirely lucid.
“You can let me impress you all with my skills, and I’ll land Midas”
“Take us up.” The voice was hoarse and faltered on the last word as if the speaker had tried to swallow it.
“Captain, was that you?” asked Kendrick.
“If we go up, that could be the end of the mission.” Said Dancer.
“Take us up.”
“We could use Bertha from orbit,” said Portillo, bending down before the kneeling figure, “we’d probably still get a good view of the Sharp Giants and get some valuable data.”
“Or she’d get stuck like Curiosity did.” Said Dancer.
“I’ll be stuck in the ship either way, but I’m confident I could land us. I think we should risk it.”
“No. Take us up.” said Hibbard, pushing Portillo away and staggering to his feet. He looked around the airlock like a drunk, then his head turned to face Dancer. He raised a hand and pointed at her. “No Bertha, no exploring. Take us up Kendrick. Take us up and then we leave. now. we leave…” he staggered again and then collapsed. They could all hear his heavy breathing for a moment, and then his intercom went quiet. He lay motionless on the floor.
“I think he’s passed out.” said Dancer, kneeling before him and unlocking his helmet. Portillo fidgeted behind her.
“What do we do now?” he asked, “What’s happened to the captain?”
“I’m sure it is nothing. It was intense in that storm, he’s probably just overloaded. He’ll just need some rest. Kendrick?”
“What are you going to do? You’re in charge of Midas’s safety now.”
“I think we’ve got to risk it.”
“The captain told us to go back into orbit.” said Portillo.
“I’ll need some assistance though.”
“I’ll be there in a couple of minutes. Portillo and I need to strap the captain in.”
“He said we shouldn’t land.”
“Okay, hurry up though Dancer, every minute we waste up here decreases our chance of getting home.”
Continues in Part 5