The Sharp Giants (part 10)

by Gaston Prereth

We return back to Sharp Giants after the brief break.  For those of you who haven’t been following the serial, you can go here to read the first installment. Once again i appologise for being late this week, I will be posting on time for the next few weeks which, I hope, will take us to the conclusion of The Sharp Giants.

Dancer was sitting alone in the captain’s bedroom. The air felt heavy, as if she were still wearing her suit. Everything was pressing against her. She had spent the night taking care of Hibbard’s body with Kendrick. They had intended to bury him, but the ground had been too hard and in the end they laid his body down on the surface and stacked loose rocks over him. Dancer had wanted to place a cross as a headstone, but Kendrick had refused to let her.

“He wasn’t religious.” He’d said as if talking about a distant and unloved relative, “and besides we don’t have anything with which to make a cross. He wouldn’t want to cause a fuss and interrupt the mission. The best thing we can do for him now is to complete our job and ensure he’s remembered for our success.”

Dancer looked down at the pile of rocks, a pang of pain rifling through her chest. “He was fine when we left. I don’t understand how he could have gone downhill so quickly. Just as we got to the Sharp Giants. He didn’t even get to see them.”

“I think in some way he must have known you’d found them. He gave up the fight because he knew his job was done. He must have known, somewhere under his confusion, that he was a burden to us. He must have known we couldn’t look after him for the rest of the mission.”

“We’d have found a way. Maybe we should have done what he said and left as soon as we could.”

“No.” Said Kendrick, showing the first signs of emotion since Dancer and Portillo had returned to Midas. “The mission is what matters. We all knew the risk. He never would have forgiven us if we’d given in to his illness. This is what he would have wanted in the circumstances.”

“Yeah i’m sure this was his plan all along.” said Dancer, turning away from the small rectangular pile of stones. Midas crouched not far from them, looking like a giant metal insect. For the first time Dancer felt a malevolence from the silver ship. She guessed it was a similar feeling that the luckier passengers of the titanic had felt as they looked back at the sinking ship from their lifeboats. Something that had promised so much, had given them such excited elation, was now dragging them down. Midas, through no fault of its own, was becoming the badge of catastrophe.

“We’ll get through this.” Said Kendrick from behind her shoulder. “Midas and I will get us home.”

In the captain’s room, the feelings of dread had not lifted. She felt isolated. Alone. Stranded on a desert island. Hibbard had been the only one of the crew, without Travis, with whom she felt able to talk openly. With Portillo, she always felt like she had to be confident and reassuring, and with Kendrick it was just not possible to have a serious conversation at all. Even when Hibbard had been in his confused state, she’d felt able to unload her thoughts and feelings. He was her release valve and now she could feel the pressure building up around her and clogging up the circuit boards of her mind.

“Portillo’s been holding up well.” She said to the empty bed, patting a hand on the crumpled sleeping bag. “I thought we would lose him when he heard the news, but he’s shown no signs of being upset. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to say he doesn’t care. I know he misses you, but you know what he is usually like. He has convulsions of panic at the merest signs of things going wrong, but now, he’s doing nothing but working on the fragments we took back from the Sharp Giants. I suppose I should be worried about that in itself, but I’m just relieved I don’t have to mother him.

“I’ve not seen him since we put you” she paused, looking away from the bed, her hand clenching the soft fabric of the sleeping bag, “since we took your body outside. He’s just been in the small lab. He’s sealed it up to stop cross contamination from the ship. He even made a joke about not wanting to find some of Kendrick’s DNA on the sample and ruining the reputation of the Martian’s by suggesting they were related to him.” She smiled to herself and stood up. “I don’t think Kendrick knew what to say, he took it with good grace, but i’m sure that was just because he didn’t have a comeback ready.”

“I had plenty of comebacks.” Said Kendrick as the door to the cabin opened and he stepped in. “But I thought it more useful for Portillo to think he’d had a little victory, help spur him on with his research.”

“How very pragmatic of you.” Said Dancer, smoothing down the bed with long swipes of her hand. “I’ve never known you to let ideas like that stop you from making fun of him before.” Kendrick smiled an easy, almost too easy, smile and turned to leave.

“Well it seems like it’s paid off. Portillo would like us to meet him in the cockpit. Says he’s discovered something. Possibly that he’s not an incompetent tit after all. That’d be the scientific breakthrough of the century. ” He let out a chuckle as he left the room. Dancer watched him go. Kendrick had lost that nervous energy he had had only the day before. He seemed more relaxed and in control. It was like watching him pilot Midas in difficult conditions. Those rare times when he looked like a man rather than an arrogant university student, and now that part of him seemed to have taken over his whole personality. He still joked, but now it felt controlled. Planned, even, and for some reason Dancer couldn’t explain it unnerved her even more.

Portillo was waiting for them in the cockpit. He was sat in his chair, but he was anything but still. His left leg jiggled and his fingers tapped against his thighs as if he were playing a whole symphony on a tiny hammond organ. He greeted them with a wide smile as they entered, Dancer several steps behind Kendrick.

“Sit, sit.” he said with a motion towards a couple of seats. Dancer obliged, but Kendrick leant against the bulkhead, his arms crossed but a slight smirk on his lips. “As you both know, I’ve been analysing the samples we took from the tunnel and the Sharp Giants. I’d hoped to prove that the stone from the Giants was not from around here. If I could show that, then it would be another layer of proof that they were statues carved by intelligent beings.” His eyes glinted and he glanced at the turned off monitor next to him for a moment, as if ordering his thoughts.

“Firstly, I can confirm to you that the tunnel walls and floor, and the Sharp Giants are not made of the same material.”

“Excellent.” Said Dancer, “So we can say with certainty that they are statues and…”

“Oh no, they are not statues, or at least not sculptures as we would understand them.”

“But if the rock they’re made of…” started Dancer, but Portillo held up a hand to silence her.

“It is not rock. It’s like rock, but… well let me show you.” He swivelled his chair around and switched on the monitor. An image flashed onto the screen of a shard of stone. Portillo spoke to the monitor as he continued. “This is the sample we took from the back of the ankle of Sharp Giant number one. You’ll remember, Dancer, that black ooze that swelled out of the giant? Well there was a small deposit that came out of the sample too. You can just see the small beads of it around the edges there.” He waggled a finger at the screen, and then glanced over his shoulder to check his audience were still with him. “But, the interesting thing, the world changing thing, happens when we magnify the sample.”

The image jumped and a close up of the shard appeared. Portillo did not need to say anything as both Dancer and Kendrick stared at the image before them. It was not rock, but a collection of thick skinned cells, similar in structure to plant cells back on earth. A crazy paving of individual units, each with their own black and circular passenger.

“I don’t need to tell you what this looks like.” Said Portillo after a few moments of silence, “Now, I’m not a biology expert, but there are a few key differences I’ve been able to spot between this collection of, well, lets call them cells and the ones we find on earth. Firstly, the cell walls are much thicker than the ones we find in plants. At least ten times thicker. This is why, I think, that the structures of the Sharp Giant’s are so rigid. As you know in plant cells, their strength and rigidity is caused by water pressure, like air in a tyre, but with this sample I’m certain their strength and shape is almost entirely created by the thickness and composition of the cell walls themselves. Secondly, the size of the cells and the thickness of the walls is not consistent through the sample. The ones on this side,” he waved a finger over the top of the image, “are the thickest and strongest, whereas the ones here, which is the part that was attached to the Giant, is much smaller and thinner. This suggests that the outside of the Sharp Giants forms an exoskeleton that supports the whole structure.”

“So what are you saying?” Asked Kendrick, with incredulity, “that this is a little green man?”

“No, no. Of course not. I can’t believe anything created like this would be able to move. There is a chance, I suppose, that it could be a type of corral or a martian equivalent, but given the stylised outside that would be of no evolutionary benefit to corral, my gut feeling is that this is a statue, but one that has been grown rather than carved. Maybe through some sort of genetic engineering. Think of it. How much cheaper and easier would it be for us if we could simply grow complex structures rather than having to manufacture them. Let nature collect and convert the resources, and we just provide the genetic blueprint for it to grow into what we want.”

“Grown statues? You’ve gone off your nut Portillo. It’s probably just a contaminated sample. You’ve just been staring at Dancer’s skin flakes for half a day…”

“I can assure you that…”

“Okay guys, cool it.” Said Dancer, “I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. We’ve taken one sample. We can’t honestly conclude that Martian’s were so sophisticated that they had genetic engineering on this scale from one chunk of rock. If we’re going to work out if these things are natural or engineered we’re going to need to do more research and gather more samples.”

“You’ve both gone Hibbard crazy. It’s just a statue…”

“Don’t you dare use the Captain’s name like that.” Said Portillo, swinging round in his chair his face red. “Don’t you dare say anything about him.Whatever we discover here, we do it in his honour. Whatever breakthroughs we make will be in his name. He did not go crazy. He died doing his duty.”

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