Sorry for not being able to post last weekend, unfortunately I was away for the weekend and while I had written most of this chapter, it wasn’t up to the standard I wanted. So I decided to keep you waiting an extra week, I hope it didn’t reduce your appetite.
For those who have not yet read the first parts, or for those of you who want to refresh your memories, here are the previous chapters:
And now the story continues:
“This wasn’t what I was expecting,” said Dancer, slumped in the captain’s chair while Kendrick aimlessly fiddled with Midas’s controls beside her. “Nice welcome to a new planet.”
“What were you expecting? A parade?” said Kendrick, leaning in close to his dashboard and flicking away an imaginary speck of dust. Dancer tried to fall a little further into the captain’s chair, glancing around the cockpit with a thin lipped grimace on her face.
There was always something about talking to Kendrick that unsettled her. She found it impossible to know what he was thinking, what he wanted. Beneath his bluff and cries for attention she knew the cogs must be turning, but in what direction? He was too intelligent, too gifted a pilot, to be as shallow as his jokes suggested. Everything about him, every mannerism and every comment, felt like a magician’s misdirection, it felt like theatre, and Dancer hated not knowing what was backstage.
“What are we going to do Kendrick? We’re stuck here. The fuel we’ve got left will never get us home. The captain has lost control of his senses. We can’t step outside in this storm. We’re fucked. We’re well and truly fucked.”
“Before we get caught up in all this despair, can I please get a thank you first?”
“What?” Dancer stared at Kendrick for a moment, but he continued to examine Midas’s controls without looking up at her.
“I just landed a space shuttle on an alien world in a dust storm with almost zero visibility. Admittedly it was a little bumpier than I’d have liked, but still, I think I’m owed some appreciation.” Kendrick looked up from the dashboard for the first time, flashing her his boyish grin. Dancer looked away.
“Thank you Kendrick. Thank you for burning up all our fuel and killing us all so you could show off your piloting skills.”
“You agreed we should land…”
“Yes. Look, that’s not important. We just need to decide what we are going to do next.”
“If the dust storm hadn’t hit, what would we be doing now?” Said Kendrick, standing up and stretching his arms above his head, bending backwards to avoid the roof of the cockpit.
“We’d be waiting for dawn before we tracked down Curiosity in the mouth of Mount Sharp, possibly getting ready to take our first look at the Sharp Giants.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is, Kendrick, that our captain is having to be sedated to stop him ranting and we’ve burnt nearly all our fuel on landing.”
“I’m sure Hibbard will be fine, and we don’t need the fuel again until we leave. Maybe something will turn up. Maybe Earth can send supplies. Maybe the Martian’s will jump from behind a rock and tell us it’s all fine because they’ve got teleportation technology. It doesn’t matter until we need to get home. We’re on a mission here, and we can still do most of it as we were before. It’s just the pesky little detail of getting home that’s going to cause the issue.”
“So we act as if everything is fine?”
“Everything is fine. Until we need to get home, everything is on schedule.”
There was a rustling behind Dancer and she glanced over to see Portillo entering the cockpit. His shoulders were curled forward and he was holding his hands in loose fists. He looked like a forlorn orang-utan whose favourite tire swing had been removed from his cage. Dancer bit her lip and got up, stepping towards Portillo.
“How is he?” she asked in as soft a tone as she could manage.
“Still asleep. He woke up once while we were landing. He was ranting, almost feverish. I’ve never seen him like that. He’s always been in control.” Portillo spoke as if delivering a eulogy and, Dancer thought, in some ways it was. Portillo had idolised Hibbard, looked up to him like a boy looks up to his father or a confident, older cousin.
They were very similar in some ways, both cautious and watchful of things they did not understand. They both thought things out before acting, approaching everything rationally, but Hibbard was calmer and more self-assured. Once he’d thought things through, he was confident in his conclusions and would fight for what he thought was the right action. Portillo, on the other hand, always lacked confidence. He would back down when questioned and never trusted his own ideas.
“He kept repeating the same thing over and over,” continued Portillo, sitting down in his seat and leaning forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “He kept saying, ‘they don’t want us here. They want us to leave. They don’t want us here.’”
“Sounds like the drugs have got him seeing little green men.” Said Kendrick, leaning against the bulkhead. Dancer ignored him and knelt before Portillo.
“He’ll settle down, don’t worry. The best thing we can do is carry on and get on with our mission. He’s just had a shock. You know him though, he’ll be fine.”
“Go talk to him. Talk to him when he wakes up and then tell me he’ll be fine.” Said Portillo in a high pitched whine.
“Is this how it’s going to be for the next nine months? Seriously?” Said Kendrick. “It’s like a school kid’s soap opera. We’re meant to be professionals here.”
“Shut up Kendrick.” said Dancer, getting to her feet.
Dancer was sitting next to Hibbard as he started to stir. They were in the operations room, a thin corridor with banks of computer consoles and the communications equipment. It was where she had been during landing. Hibbard was sat in her seat, loosely strapped in.
She had decided to keep him sedated for a couple more hours so his body could calm down and drain its adrenalin. Kendrick had been all for tying him into the captain’s chair and allowing him to wake up, letting him ‘work it out for himself’, but Dancer knew that would not help matters. She knew what it had been like in the storm. The isolation. The torment of the constant grinding sand. He just needed time to let his body calm and to let his mind take control again.
“How are you feeling captain?” she said, touching his hand. He jerked away from her as if she had given him an electric shock. Dancer glanced down at her own hand, the one that had let go of his during the storm, and felt a pang of guilt. Hibbard looked at her, avoiding eye contact. His groggy red eyes were unfocused, rolling around the features of her face like loose marbles.
“They don’t want us here Dancer. Didn’t you hear them? They told us to go.”
“Captain, there’s no one here but us. This planet is dead. If it did ever have life on its surface, it’s long gone now. It was just the dust that…”
“I heard them Dancer. I heard the anger.”
Dancer stayed silent for a moment. The storm could still be heard outside, like drizzle on a window. It was a constant reminder of their situation and of what it had been like on the back of Bertha. Things would be better when it settled down, it would help the captain relax. Help his mind refocus.
“Captain, we need you. It’s hard to be sure, but from the bits of information I’ve managed to retrieve from the Satellites, it looks like the storm will have settled down by morning. As soon as we’ve got contact with Bertha again, we’ll get her over here and we can go take our first look at the Sharp Giants. We need you with us for that, we need our captain. This is going to be the greatest discovery in the history of Humanity.”
“It’ll be the end of Humanity. They’ll kills us all.” Hibbard glanced down at his feet, his brow wrinkling with confusion for a moment. He wiggled his toes in his socks, then rotated the ankles as if her were testing an old strain. “These feet, they did. They were the first to step on Mars. They have killed us all.”
As if to emphasise his point, the sound of footsteps bounced down the fuselage into the slender room. It was Kendrick prowling the ship. The man refused to go to sleep, instead opting to constantly pace up and down Midas like a caged tiger searching for a weakness in the bars. It made Dancer more anxious. His demeanour was like a stretching elastic band. She could feel her insides wincing, waiting for him to snap.
There were so many problems that needed to be fixed, and once again she seemed to be the only one capable of fixing them. Hibbard had lost his mind, Kendrick was a time bomb of pent up energy, and Portillo was, well, Portillo. Useless in a crisis.
She wished Travis was here. He would have known what to do. He’d have had a joke with Kendrick and calmed him down, he’d have argued with Hibbard until his senses returned to him, and he’d have known just what to say to her. But he wasn’t here, so it was up to her.
“Captain. You’ve just had a shock. The planet is dead. Whatever we find tomorrow will be no more alive than the rock it is carved from.” It was at that moment that Hibbard looked up into Dancer’s eyes for the first time after they had been rescued. He focused on her. His whole body seemed to steady, tensing. Dancer shifted in her seat.
“You don’t understand what we’ve done. We’ve opened the tomb of Tutankhamun. We’ve unleashed the curse. Not the curse of a King, but the curse of a civilisation. The box has been opened, but this time there is no hope.”
The Story continues in Part 6