The ship settled on the sand with a series of deep crunches. It lurched alarmingly to port for a moment, and then rocked back on its landing gear with a faint hiss. The viewscreen in front of them was still dim, but Eldred could see a large dune rising in front of them, backlit by the sun, huge enough to fill half the sky. She fingered the patch on her arm and shuddered a little at the thought of stepping onto the world. Not that she had much choice. At least she’d made up with Shen.
“Hope you’re all happy.” Decker muttered, and strode off the bridge. Eldred caught Tobias’s eye and they shared a shake of their heads before they followed him.
The airlock of Sixteen’s glider was cool, expansive, and looked just off the assembly line. Two rows of gleaming steel lockers sat around a low bench, on which Decker was sitting, stripped to the waist as he pulled on his suit. Outside the port-holed double hatch, she could see soft white sand, that occasionally blew in gusts against the ship, and made a sound like crackling electricity. Decker’s body odour filled the room like an unsanitary phantom.
At least the suits were nice. She pulled hers from her named locker, unsurprised that it fit her gangly measurements perfectly. It was basically a thin outer layer of transparent plastic, millimetre thick, that sat in open configuration until it felt her body against it, and then closed over her like a beartrap. The plastic misted into a white opacity, so she needn’t have to worry about Decker walking behind her. Incongruously, a bulky grey helmet with tinted visor sat on top of the plastic in the locker. She bundled her dreadlocks together and slipped it over her head, where it met the suit with a faint click. She felt a prickle as something itched at her temple, and then the suit’s readout was scrolling across her eyes. Heartrate, body temperature, both elevated in a flush. 16 hours of O2, and an inbuilt targeting computer for a weapon she didn’t have. The suit tightened briefly against her skin and then it was if she was as naked as the day she was born. She flexed her fingers and felt them close like coiled steel. She was strong!
“Fancy suits.” Tobias was already suited, tapping a foot restlessly as he looked beyond the airlock. His helmet looked impossibly large on his frame. She had the feeling they would look like a procession of bobbleheads crossing the desert. Bril was waiting with him. The Herminoid had done his own calculations. He was used to high temperature, and he’d forgone the full suit for an absurdly cute fishbowl-style bubble on his furry head. Eldred stifled a giggle as he tried to preen his rear leg and bumped his helmet. But she was aware Herminoids possessed 270 degree vision. She figured the helmet bumped him up a few degrees. It didn’t make it less funny.
“Could have done with a fucking instruction manual.” Decker grimaced and poked his suit aggressively in his lap. Eldred sighed and stepped over to help. And stifled a scream when the monster walked in.
Shen strode into the airlock like some kind of malevolent building. It was easy to see what he’d been doing now on a trip where the ship practically mothered itself. The suit he’d built was jet black, all angles and diamond-shaped tiles that flowed over each other like snakeskin as he moved. His boots rang on the deck like thunder, and Eldred almost missed the neon-green flashing slit of visor in his bulky helmet for the field artillery he was carrying in one hand as if it was a feather.
“Compensating, much?” Decker asked in a small voice.
Shen considered the gun in his hand, a rod of black steel over a metre long, a central chamber humming with a faint blue electricity, surrounded on three sides by barrels with bores large enough to sink her arm up to the elbow. A holographic readout further up the weapon said something in a language she didn’t read.
Shen shrugged suddenly and laughed, the sound somehow deeper and demonic in his shell.
“Shoot first, talk later.” He opened his other hand and spilled an assortment of weapons on the deck in front of him. “Take your pick.”
Tobias and Decker started cautiously forward, both prying weapons that looked vaguely familiar from amongst the glittering pile. Decker set his into the crook of his arm, seeming to take comfort in the short laser rifle. Neither he nor Tobias, toting a heavy pistol in each hand, looked half as comfortable as Shen. But then, neither had killed before.
“E?” Shen dipped his neon visor at the pile. His filtered voice didn’t betray the usual shake upon planetfall. Either the suit masked it, or it wasn’t there. With the gravity inducer, he could pretend he had four atmospheres on top of him. As she could pretend there was none.
“We won’t need them.” Eldred looked across the lock at Bril, who inclined his trunk slightly. She had no idea how she knew that. She just did. She looked again at the sand and shivered. It wasn’t right, somehow. She didn’t know how she knew that either.
Shen shrugged again, the armour hissing faintly. “Your funeral.”
Decker walked unsteadily to the door of the lock behind them, as if he was already drunk. He turned to face them, but his face was hidden by his helmet, and she could only see his eyes. He looked young.
“I suppose I can’t talk you out of this.” He said.
“You kidding?” Shen barked metallically. “I got fucking dressed up and all.”
“And you look dashing.” Tobias’s sarcasm dripped from his pores. “Now can we go?”
“Just stick behind me, asshole.” Shen grunted at Tobias and moved for the lock. The younger man visibly bristled.
Bril crossed the room in two quick bounds and tried to climb her leg. His claws, unused to the sheen of plastic, squealed as he struggled for purchase. It sounded like a pair of rats mating and magnified off the steel walls.
The crew jumped as one and turned to glare at him. Eldred bent to pick him up and set him on her shoulder. But Tobias stepped away from the fight he couldn’t win. As Bril had intended. Tobias chuckled weakly.
Between them they might have half a brain Bril’s words scrolled across her helmet. But she couldn’t laugh.
We need more than that. She sent back. He didn’t reply.
“If the dramatics are over…” Decker said, then realised no-one was taking the bait. He couldn’t stall any longer. He shifted uncomfortably, fiddling clumsily with his weapon. It was probably meant to look heroic. “Let’s go, team.”
Decker cranked the handle of the airlock, and stepped through before he could think again. Eldred followed behind Shen and Tobias, absently stroking Bril with one plastic-coated hand. It was time to face her demons.
Shen was right. She might have been walking on air. Apart from the fact that fine particles of sand were being blasted against her as she climbed the hill, in the rear with Tobias. Shen strode out front in his power armour, Decker lagging just behind.
“Couldn’t have landed us any closer?” Eldred groaned at the slight incline, despite not feeling any ill effects.
Tobias shook his bobblehead. She could see a line of stark trees falling away to a narrow gorge on their left. She had a feeling if she touched one, it would crumble to ash. The hill filled their vision like some great beige blanket, and the giant sun turned the world a deep crimson.
“The valley is molten rock. I’m not landing in that shit. Unless you want to get out and push again.” He sounded distracted, and he kept staring around him, as if he was looking for an oasis in the great brown nothing. Soft sand sifted under her boots in the gentle breeze. It was probably burning hot, but the suit was good. She might have been back on the ship. Having that dream. She shook her head to clear it.
“How far?” She asked, noting that he’d only holstered the one pistol.
“About two klicks.” He grunted as Shen and Decker disappeared over the brow of the dune. “Best I could do.”
“Do better next time then.” Eldred muttered. He didn’t reply, merely breaking into a shuffling trot to catch up with the others.
Still with me, furface? Eldred tapped out the message to Bril. The Herminoid was bounding at her side like some overly-intelligent dog, stopping occasionally to roll in the sand. He was panting steadily and Eldred realised the one-and-three-quarter g’s was probably enough to give him a good workout.
Forgot how good it was, He took another tumble, the pink pads of his paws flashing in the sun, to be on a half-decent planet.
“Speak for yourself.” She said, and finally crested the dune. Bril was briefly lost behind her in a cloud of his own dust.
She almost bumped into Shen’s obsidian back on the downslope. Decker and Tobias flanked him, like two predators guarding a throne. She stumbled for a moment, lost her balance, and fell on her ass in the sand with a soft woof. At least no-one had noticed. They were too busy staring. And after a moment, she joined them.
The dune fell away from them in a gentle gradient, actually seeming to move under her like the galaxy’s slowest conveyer belt. She shuddered and regained her feet. About ten metres below, the sand levelled out against some kind of rock shelf, naked red stone that was spattered with loose pools of sand. The surface was unnatural-looking, even for a planet. It appeared to be holding some kind of glaze, like a sickly-tasting bun. It stretched to the horizon in each direction, unbroken apart from some more of those dead trees and the occasional house-sized boulder. About a kilometre and-a-half distant, ugly red cliffs rose to meet the ugly red sky.
“What happened here?” asked Decker, his voice crisp in the expensive comms.
Eldred chinned the controls of her helmet and an interactive green overlay fell over her vision. She zoomed into the smooth surface, little red halos appearing around hidden pitfalls covered over with sand. A flashing blue waypoint popped up in her vision, winking in the red cliffs. A thin blue trail skirted from her feet to the entrance to the valley, snaking around the bizarre rock like a ropy snake. “I fucking hate planets.” She said.
High-impact plasma warhead Bril sent to the group. Big one.
“Bullshit.” Said Decker. “There isn’t so much as a fucking bird in the skies.” He sounded like he was shivering at that. Eldred had no idea why. “Place is dead as your conversation.”
Shen grunted. Eldred felt herself bristling. Did he always have to act like a child?
She opened her mouth to say something, but Tobias beat her to it.
“Got a storm coming in.” The words chilled her as she turned her head in the direction he was looking. She hadn’t noticed the wind, but now she did. It was picking up fast, moaning off the distant cliffs and lifting sand in gentle drifts. And he was right.
In the Eastern sky, great purple thunderheads were amassing, like a giant bruise on the sky. The sun’s giant surface was almost half-obscured. Not another storm. Not after the dream.
“Shit.” Pronounced Decker. “How long?”
Bril calculated at lightspeed. Fifteen minutes. He hopped up onto Eldred’s shoulder. We need to go.
Shen was already gone, a dark blur halfway down the slope, his gun slung over his shoulder.
“But this planet doesn’t even have water.” Decker pointed out. He was pointing his rifle at the storm, as if he planned to blast it away. “How can it-“
Stay here and find out. Bril sounded as if he meant it. In the mile-high clouds, yellow lightning bolts the size of small moons flared in the purple.
“Why the hell didn’t we see this on the way down?” Eldred stuttered as she started to run for the plateau.
“Because hotshot didn’t want to wait.” Decker panted in the comms as he struggled to catch her up. Eldred didn’t have time to ask what he meant before the storm was on them.
They crossed the plateau in a series of dashes, the smooth rock slippery and hard under the suits. Shen led the way, his heavy suit keeping him anchored to the rock. The wind was deafening as they ran for the cliffs, and the passage between the rocks. She didn’t want to get stuck in there when the storm hit, suit or no suit. The sky was dark, sand swirling around them and pattering off the suits. She could hear the thunder, the sound like an apocalypse. Her teeth chattered together in her suit and she lost her footing momentarily. Brill flew away from her with a surprised yelp.
Then Shen was there, all clanking servos and thudding boots. He hoisted her up like a toy and ran into the wind, screaming around them now. Sand flew around them in great clumps.
“Bril!” Eldred shouted. Even the suit comms seemed muted in the roar as the light bled out of the sky. The slick ground shot by like a dark river. Where was he? Had he fallen in-
Here. And she saw him, clinging to Shen’s belt by one claw, the furry body flapping in the wind. Relief shot through her like a bullet. She couldn’t lose her last friend too. As well as Gabriella. As well as The Institute. The…what? The image vanished as rapidly as it appeared. But it meant something. She’d never heard of-
Shen couldn’t fit through the gap in the cliff. It didn’t stop him. His power armour groaned and bent as he barrelled into the narrow passage. Red rock dust blasted around him in a rustic bath. The wind was like a banshee in the passage. There was a blur of movement ahead, that might have been Decker, Tobias, or the cliffs falling in. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Someone shouted in the comms, but her fear obscured it. She couldn’t see anything but redness, darkness and Shen’s arm, like a steel hook around her waist. He squeezed tighter and she blacked out.
The Institute was a beautiful building. It climbed out of a complex of brilliant white domes like a needle piercing the stars. They always kept the grass long, blue and wavy. It was fun to lay down in after a hard day’s genome sequencing. The susurrus of the porm trees was like chimes in a gentle breeze. The fruits were poisonous, of course, but tasted delicious, and with the right immuno-suppressors, made a wonderful lunch. It was important to enjoy life before it was gone.
Her lab coat rippled around her long pale limbs in the afternoon breeze. She would need to go back in soon. The schedule had ramped up with the heavier military presence. The azure sky was spoiled by the darting silvery flickers of the drones around the spire of the building, like insects bothering a goliath. It was too bad. They’d bombed the houses of parliament the other day. The first minister had only escaped by chance and a vigilant chauffeur. Why couldn’t people accept progress? She supposed there would always be dissenters. Like her children, they benefited from a sharp tongue. And sometimes a sharp hand. But it would all be fine, soon.
But it really was beautiful out here. The complex sat on the shores of the Lake, and on a clear day, you could see all the way across to City Zero, where her ancestors had knocked rocks together and made a world. Birds wheeled and called in the afternoon light. She breathed deeply. Fresh grass and saltwater mixed deliciously in her nostrils. But it was time to get back to the sweat. And the blood.
She walked the long gravel drive slowly, escorted lazily at distance by a soldier in flickering active camouflage. Light bent around the shape and itched her eyes. Soon he would be gone too, and his dreams of invisibility realised. The glass doors of the white needle beckoned to her, as much as the flag fluttering at half-mast for the attack called to her patriotism. Children, slow to learn.
She did hope the little boy was done screaming. There were no nerve endings in the brain, after all. It was rather melodramatic. And he had to be alive for the procedure. That was just how it was. Her hands trembled faintly with anticipation as she crossed the cool lobby and stepped into the elevator. This was the one. She could feel it. She just had to rub the right neuron the right way, and it would be over. It would be over for him too, but what was the price, to save a world?
Eldred screamed when she awoke.