Dancer pulled her suit over her shoulders. This was the first time she had worn it since being rescued from the storm, and she could feel her whole body tensing as the tight rubbery fabric stretched around her. It felt unnatural. It was almost like she had never worn a spacesuit before and her body was having to adjust to the sensation of having something cling to every crevice and bulge of her body. She ran a hand along her thigh, flattening down an invisible crease, and forced herself to take a few deep breaths.
Bertha was edging her way closer. According to the data she had sent back to Midas, she seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the the extreme weather, but Dancer still felt anxious. Bertha, to her, was as much a part of the team as Hibbard or Portillo, and she hated being separated from her, especially at a time like this when everything else around her was unfamiliar and not as she had planned.
Yet, despite Dancer’s desire to see Bertha again and check that she was okay, there was a dark part of her mind that was unsure in what condition she wanted to find her. She hated the idea of Bertha being ‘hurt’ and it would upset her as much as Hibbard being in his current condition, but she knew that there was hardly anything that could be wrong with Bertha that she would not be able to fix. Bertha being damaged would give her a problem to solve. It would be one thread she could untangle amid the mass of intractable knots that tied them to this planet.
“Are you ready Portillo?” She asked as she checked the seals around her gloves and neck. She jumped her back back on, feeling it catch against the bulge of her air canister, before picking up her helmet and inspecting the visor as if looking for finger smudges on her best crystalware.
“Probably.” said Portillo without enthusiasm, his eyes dull and lifeless.
“Come on, are you not excited? This will be your first time to properly walk out onto another planet and enjoy it.”
“Enjoy it? There wasn’t much to enjoy last time and there is even less now. We’re already going to go down as one of the biggest failures in space exploration ever, and so it hardly matters what we do from this point on.”
“I think we’ve got a long way to go until we make it onto that list Portillo.” Said Dancer, trying to force some conviction into her voice. “The captain’s having some difficulty and we’re a bit low on fuel, but it’s hardly Apollo 6. It’s not even Apollo 13. We still have a chance of topping the list for greatest ever missions, that’s what you should be focusing on. You’re the expert. We’re just the grunts helping you get to the Giants, you’ll be the one confirming what they are. This mission could herald one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and it’ll be your name on all the reports, not ours.”
“What excitement. I get to prove that intelligent creatures were once alive on this planet and are now dead. That’ll be true in a couple of years anyway. We’re not going anywhere.”
“Pull yourself together, Portillo.” Said Dancer, trying a new tack, “get your helmet on and let’s get going. I want us to be at the mouth before midday so we know we’ll have plenty of time down there without having to worry about the light for getting back. I doubt we’ll have Bertha to take us back today, we had best let her rest and run her through a few checks before we use her.”
Portillo didn’t reply. He slotted his helmet on and started to wander towards the airlock. Dancer wasn’t sure if she had been right to raise her voice, but she guessed Portillo needed a captain at the moment, not a friend. There was something unsettling about his demeanour today, even more so than before. He was quieter, less fidgety. Resigned. Yet, she was certain if she could just keep him focused, then soon his natural competence would start to override his anxiety.
She knew he was competent, too, she had seen enough examples of his work and read enough of his papers. If Control had based their decision purely on academic talent, than Portillo would probably have been first choice for this mission, but Travis had brought so much to the team in other ways and with a four man crew there was not any room for a one trick pony. Now they were finding out first hand how important Travis’s other talents had been, but Portillo still had a lot to offer as long as she could keep him functioning at his optimum level.
It took them an hour and forty minutes to arrive at their destination. A towering outcrop of rock around sixty metres tall where Aeolis Mons started to turn steeply up towards the sky. Across the jagged cliff’s face stretched dirty brown and terracotta stripes, the scars of the planet’s long history etched into its fabric.
At the outcrop’s base was a dark black rectangle. The mouth of Mount Sharp. It was around two and a half metres high and four metres wide. A black letterbox leading into the belly of the mountain. As soon as she saw it, Dancer could feel herself being drawn into it, like the mountain was inhaling and sucking her inside. Portillo, on the other hand, went straight to the outcrop, stroking his hand along one of the pale red strata. Dancer smiled as she watched him unclip a sample bag from his belt and a small chisel. She let him work for a few minutes then she moved towards the gaping mouth of the mountain.
“Are you ready to see something amazing Portillo?” She crouched down before the cave and peered into the lightless tunnel beyond. It dropped down on a slight gradient, staying pretty much the same size as it disappeared underneath Aeolis Mons. The walls were worn smooth, perhaps by wind or water. Either way, any signs of what might have dug the tunnel had been ground away over the years. It could be natural, of course, but it was too uniform, too symmetrical. She was certain it had been dug, not eroded.
Dancer pulled her backpack off and removed a rope and a chunky metal cylinder about the size of a shoebox. As she knelt before the mouth of the tunnel, she was sure she could feel a cooling gentle breeze somehow pressing through her suit and caressing her short hair. She glanced down into the darkness then placed the cylinder, end first, onto the ground. The cylinder let out a clunk as it drove a piton deep into the bedrock.
This was it. Dancer felt her body tingle, the breath from the mountain once again rippling through her suit and body. They were going under the mountain. Under the surface of another planet. For the first time Dancer felt more like an explorer than an engineer. She could feel the weight of History resting upon them or, rather, she could feel the weight of future histories and all their possibilities. Whatever they found at the end of this tunnel, Giant carvings of aliens, natural rock formations caused by water erosion, or even microbial life, it would be momentous for their understanding of this planet and it’s life before Humanity existed. It would lead to future expeditions, maybe even new theories and a greater understanding of the solar system. In twelve hours, the world was going to be different. In less than that, she was going to see them.