Kjellman 3 was a small, brown world. At first glance, it could have been a mudball. But that was only until Sixteen’s ship cleared the soft halo of stellar dust and fragments of rock away with its energy shields, exposing the hot beige sands of the rocky world. The dust and rock had once been a moon, possibly melted by the red supergiant star, a monstrous crimson football in the sky, dimmed in the viewer. Or had alternately been annihilated by the impact of another celestial body. Or a nuke big enough to make a Trogg blush.
“Well…I wouldn’t take it home to meet my mother.” Decker commented. The planet was an uneven globe of sifting sands, and occasional spurs of red rock, poking like knobs of shattered spine through the skin. Occasional cirrus clouds drifted across the bare world as Tobias brought them smoothly into a geosynchronous orbit. The dark disc of the night side of the world, rumoured to get as low as a bracing minus 40ºc, gave way to the harsh glare of day, the reflected sun glittering off a ring of immense red mountains, clustered around the lip of a crater that had to stretch for a thousand kilometres. Like a giant fist had punched a hole in the world. Decker wondered if the high cloud coverage had anything to do with evaporated ocean.
A great dark brown spot dominated a third of the Southern hemisphere. According to the ship, it was a dust storm estimated to have lasted for several hundred years. It was probably a cranky geriatric. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to ask it for milk and cookies.
The floor did that disorientating thing again, turning transparent so the crew could stare through their feet at the world below. Decker considered ordering Tobias to shut off that particular feature, but he was the only one on the bridge squirming. A captain had to save face.
“It’s beautiful.” Said Eldred, unexpectedly. Decker turned in his chair to shoot her a surprised glance. Eldred hated planets. They hurt her spine and she lived in some kind of mortal terror that she’d be flipped off like a pancake if some malevolent god allowed it. Water confused her. For a smart woman, she could be wilfully stubborn. Maybe that was why Decker liked her. And why she liked the planet. It seemed to have purposefully eradicated all its water, and was about as inhospitable as the space around them.
I concur. Bril cast his words to the main viewer, like the god in question. Of course the rodent would like the desert. Perhaps if they were lucky, he might like it enough to stay.
“We’ll need full suits.” Tobias said. Bril was perched on the back of the pilot’s chair, and Tobias was leaning forward to escape his musk. The Herminoid’s ropy tail hung off the back of the seat like Tobias had grown a particularly unpleasant ponytail. “60ºc median temperature.”
“Yeah, fucking delightful.” Decker grumbled. He noted that Tobias hadn’t asked to join the ground team. He had a more pressing question.
“How exactly do we get down?” Eldred voiced it for him. Another we. Her hands fluttered behind him, and a cross-section of the world hovered in blue on the screen. Just like Sixteen had said. The valley was half a world away from the orbit of the ship.
“I didn’t see any shuttle.” Decker broke in. “And if that bastard thinks I’m-“ He shuddered as he recalled the sensations of Sixteen’s parlour tricks. He might be able to teleport directly into the mouth of the cavern the old man had marked on their maps, but he preferred his liver this side of his pelvis.
“We’re rated for atmosphere.” Tobias said.
“Meaning?” Decker waved at him.
“Meaning we’re landing.” Tobias said, and touched his console in the same moment. The screen dimmed again as heat began to build silently on the edges of the craft, and the world jumped forward.
“Now wait a minute-“ Decker started. “We don’t even know if-“
“Scared, Decker?” Eldred shot at him. He turned to look at her as the craft rumbled faintly around them. Their eyes met, and her teasing smiled evaporated.
“Maybe.” He whispered. But she heard him, and nodded. He’d never seen anything like Sixteen’s ghosts before. Apart from on those long, sleepless nights, when he’d drank something loaded with as much caffeine as alcohol, or shot a rocket up his arm. When he drifted in and out of a fractured consciousness, and saw his father. Screaming in a way he never had. The way he had been screaming ever since Decker took the simulations on the journey here. Suddenly he knew he wouldn’t fight her, wouldn’t fight any of them. They might all die. But at least he wouldn’t die alone.
The planet was filling the viewscreen now, fire melting away from the ship as it punched through the thin atmosphere, like an arrowhead cleaving soft flesh. The ship muffled the noise, but the air resistance still shrieked around them, making the deck ripple and Bril’s fur puff up in primal threat response. The swirling sands, driven by 40 kilometre an hour winds, seemed to undulate like impossible snakes on the surface of the barren world. Giant spurs of red rock, like the fingers of an apocalyptic carcass, sprang up around the ship as it fell into the dead world. Decker prayed the corpse didn’t want company.