Portillo folded one leg over the other, shifted in his seat, then unfolded his legs again. Dancer had called him and Kendrick onto the bridge over the intercom and was busy fiddling around with the computer at Portillo’s desk. She had not acknowledged him as he had entered and, as he could not think of anything to say, he sat behind her in silence, shuffling in his seat every few seconds.
Before she had called him, Portillo had been standing next to the captain’s bed, watching him roll and murmur in a drug induced sleep. He had a agreed with Dancer, although he was not sure if she had only accepted to appease him, that they would take shifts watching over Captain Hibbard. Portillo needed to know that the captain would be okay. He felt paralysed and unable to concentrate on anything while the captain was suffering.
They had not been able to reduce Captain Hibbard’s medication, and had had to keep him in an almost constant comatose state. Every time he started to stir and become more aware, he would rant about them needing to leave and about them bringing a curse upon the whole of the human race. He was a broken man, and that scared Portillo. Five minutes in this planet’s clutches, and it had broken one of the strongest men Portillo knew. If the captain couldn’t cope, what hope did he have?
Kendrick marched into the cockpit and grabbed a chair, throwing himself into it as if he had been dragged away from something far more important. Portillo was certain he’d purposefully made them wait. He’d always liked to wind up Dancer and make her the butt of most of his jokes, but since they’d landed the second time, his playfulness had become more antagonistic. Whenever Dancer had tried to talk to him about their situation he gave the impression she was worrying about nothing and causing problems where there weren’t any, but the rest of the time he had taken to prowling around the ship. He hadn’t slept, he had barely eaten, and his demeanour was that of a prisoner on the verge of mental collapse.
Portillo shifted in his seat again, and gnawed on his thumbnail. Kendrick ignored him, as usual, but stared at the back of Dancer’s head, his body statuesque save for the incessant vibration of one of his legs. Portillo could see him through his peripheral vision. He looked resolute, determined not to be the one who spoke first. Finally, Dancer broke the silence.
“Since the storm outside has begun to settle,” she said, facing the console in front of her, bringing up a folder from Midas’s data-store. “I’ve managed to restore a continuous signal with the satellites. We’ve got a message from Control. It must have been waiting there from not long after the storm hit. So I’m guessing, given the delay in transmission, that it was recorded before things went off plan.”
Kendrick gave an uninterested grunt in reply, but Portillo lent forward in anticipation, his eyes glistening with excitement.
“What does it say?” He asked.
“I don’t know yet. It’s a video file and I wanted to call you here before I watched it. I thought it might… Help.” She said, edging around her words like a cautious dog.
“The only thing that will help Portillo is a new pair of bollocks and some plastic surgery.” Said Kendrick, still slumped in his chair with a disinterested expression on his face. Portillo felt his cheeks reddening, but he stared resolutely forward hoping that Kendrick wouldn’t notice his body’s reaction. Dancer, ignoring Kendrick’s comments, clicked something on the computer and then moved away from the monitor, leaning against the bulkhead next to Portillo. The monitor screen went black for a moment and then flickered a few times before the image resolved into a face.
It was Colin Dexter, their commander back on Earth. It took a moment for Portillo to recognise him. It had only been eleven months since he had shaken the man’s hand and said goodbye, but it felt like a lifetime. His was literally a face from another world. He looked several shades greyer than Portillo remembered and his skin looked darker and more wrinkled around his eyes.
The image of their commander left an odd feeling in Portillo’s stomach. Of course he’d known that things would change during the three years that they were away, but he’d never actually thought about it. Looking into Dexter’s tired eyes brought home to Portillo that Earth was still turning. Things were changing on their planet while they were stuck on this dead lump of rock. If they ever made it home, the world would not be the same. Life would have continued on without them. In essence, they could never get back home, even if they returned to Earth, it would not be the Earth that they had left behind.
“It is an honour to be the first person to congratulate you on such an amazing feat.” Said Dexter, his voice crackling a little as it erupted from Midas’s speakers. “For thousands of years, man has dreamed of setting foot on another world. Millions of eyes have looked up and seen the soft red glow of Mars and wondered when, or if, Man would ever make it that far. You are now part of history. To be the first Human beings on another planet.” He paused and glanced down for a brief moment, presumably at some notes on the desk before him. “The whole world was behind you as we watched your descent to Mars’ surface. Each one of you is already a household name and the whole planet is proud of what you have achieved. I don’t know if any of us understand the significance of what you have done yet, but it will come in time.” He smiled at the camera and his features relaxed a little. When he continued, he spoke in a more casual tone, the way he used to during their mission briefings.
“I am assuming that both you, Captain Hibbard and Dancer, have already stepped out onto the Martian surface, on your way to retrieve the payload. I cannot imagine what it is like to walk on another planet, but you will be the first of many, and all those who walk on another world will have you to thank for their experience. I’m very jealous of you all. I wish I could have joined you up there, especially for the next stage of your mission. If we thought walking on another planet was monumental, God only knows what we will have to call the discovery and analysis of the Sharp Giants if they turn out to be what we all hope.”
“You could be on the verge of proving that not only was there once life on Mars, but that it was intelligent and sophisticated. If the Sharp Giants are statues carved by ancient Martian hands…” Dexter paused again, but this time he didn’t look down, he just grinned into the camera and spread his hands out before him. “There are no words I can say that will do justice to that discovery. Just know, that when you are making your way underneath Mount Sharp and exploring the cavern Curiosity so invitingly sent us its final images from, that the whole Earth is behind you and willing you to succeed. Good luck, my friends. Good luck and say hello to the Sharp Giants for me.” The screen image wavered and then cut out, leaving a blank screen.
The cockpit was silent. Portillo could feel a cocktail of emotions rushing around inside him. A strange mixture of relief and loss. Seeing Colin Dexter and hearing his voice had made him feel closer to Earth than he had done since they had left the International Space Station eleven months ago, but as soon as the picture had disappeared he felt like he had lost all connection to Earth.
“Well that was a waste of time.” said Kendrick standing up, “You’d think they’d keep communication down to important things only, not any of this patting you on the back nonsense. Colin was always soft, I doubt he’d have lasted as long as Hibbard did.” Having said his piece, Kendrick turned and left the cockpit without waiting for a reply. Dancer and Portillo listened to his footsteps as they faded down the fuselage.
“How are you feeling Portillo?” asked Dancer, once she was sure Kendrick was not going to return.
“Good. It was good to see him.” Said Portillo without conviction. He looked back at the blank monitor, avoiding Dancer’s questioning eyes.
“It’s a bit weird though, isn’t it?” She said, “having a message come from Earth. A bit like looking at an old school photograph. Seeing all those faces from a past life that used to be so important to you, but now you can’t even remember their names.” She gave Portillo a tap on his shoulder then went to leave the room. “A bit of homesickness I guess. I’m going to go look in on Hibbard, want to come?”
“No, now the storms dying down I better start the preparations for the expedition to the mouth of Mount Sharp.”
Once Dancer had left, Portillo went and sat at his desk. He had no intention of doing any work. He knew he would not be able to concentrate on it and, somehow, it did not feel as important to do the preparation anymore. He muted the sound from his console and then clicked on the video file again. The face of Colin Dexter sprang back onto the screen and Portillo stared at him, watching his mouth as he soundlessly spoke his speech once more.
Continued in Part 7