Her ship blew up, her crew-mates died and now Dr. Rachel Galliance has crash landed on an alien world. Stranded without her leader, she feels ostracized by the others who remain wary of Rachel’s true identity.
With the truth of Silver’s disappearance yet to be uncovered, it seems as if Rachel could be in danger; not only from the new hostile world, but those within her crew.
“You’re a bloody maniac in this thing.”
Rachel grinned as she snuck a look towards Dendrick. His knuckles were white from clutching the handgrip and he was being pushed into his seat by the G-force. She couldn’t see his face properly because of the gas mask he wore, but she heard his heavy breathing through the comm in her ear.
“Shoulda seen me back on Earth,” Rachel replied with a smile as she turned her attention back to the barren, white plateau before them. “There was a little more gravity back there to suck you down.”
She pushed her foot against the pedal and applied more pressure. The engines roared and there was a kick from the underside of the vehicle as their ride became even bumpier. This was the feeling she wanted. This was the only way she was able to think clearly these days.
They raced across the salt flat, and she checked the mirror to see a vast plume of dust behind them. They’ll know I’m out here. They’ll have questions. She knew she’d be able to wriggle out of the interrogation. It was the others she worried about.
“You need to ease off,” Dendrick muttered under his breath.
“Why? ‘Cause we’ve only got two of these babies?” Rachel shouted above the drone coming from the planetary exploration transit – P.E.T. They’d discovered the vehicles in the Renovo’s hold when the crew began disassembly. They’d been meant for Mars. Now they were discovering an alien world. “She’ll hold together, you just see.”
“No, because I’m about to bring my guts up.”
“Seriously,” Dendrick managed to stutter.
Rachel’s feet hit the brakes so hard she had to spin the P.E.T. to prevent it flipping. She looked over to her friend as they lurched to a halt. That can’t have helped.
He flung open the door and she felt the icy atmosphere of their temporary home on her skin. It quickly penetrated the triple insulated fleece she was wearing and stabbed at her skin, but she was so used to it now, the pain was as innocuous as getting her tattoos had been; dermal removal had been far more painful.
She unbuckled herself as Dendrick fiddled with his own straps and almost fell out of the door. His mask was off in seconds and he began retching, splattering the pristine white ground with the remnants of breakfast. Rachel stepped carefully out of the door, detached her mask’s airway tube from where it snaked into the P.E.T.’s integrated oxygen supplies and made her way around the hood to retrieve Dendrick’s discarded life support. As soon as he began to gasp for air, she quickly held the mask in front of his face, allowing him to quench his thirst for fresh oxygen instead of the barely viable atmosphere around them.
“Not quite,” he mumbled, before pushing the mask away and vomiting again.
Thank God I didn’t bring Lito.
“How the hell can you not cope with this, but positively enjoy Slider spins?”
“Well, for one, I’m in charge of those, not you.”
He quickly wiped his mouth before reaching out and taking the gas mask from her hand. “Can we get out of this friggin’ freezer?”
Rachel ignored the fact it had been he who’d exposed them to the friggin freezer in the first place. She made her way back to the driver’s seat quickly and slammed the door behind her. As Dendrick hauled himself back into the seat beside her, she reconnected her mask and took a large gulp of air. You could survive for a few minutes in this alien environment. After that, the body began shutting down as the minute proportion of oxygen caused suffocation.
As Dendrick fastened his seatbelt, she opened up the heating vents and began to flood the cabin with warm air.
“Give us a blast of O2 as well, would you?”
“We shouldn’t,” Rachel replied, knowing they only had limited resources onboard. If they got stranded, there was enough with them for 36 hours.
“Oh, c’mon. This isn’t an exploratory mission after all,” he raised his eyebrows knowingly.
She gave in, and reached out to the console. Upon her command, the vehicle sealed itself to the outside world and she heard the hiss of air coming through the vents.
“You just did that to slow me down,” she said, pulling off her mask and drinking in the freshly oxygenised air. It felt good to remove the elasticised straps from her face and allow her skin to breathe. But with the P.E.T.’s ports now locked shut, she couldn’t roar across the landscape for fear of overheating the engines. Still, they’d made good progress; whoever said it took an hour and a half to the Crest sure wasn’t driving at her speed.
Looking ahead, Rachel put her foot gently on the pedal and resumed their journey. There it was, dead ahead; a vast piece of rock that signalled the end of the vast salt flat. It rose from the floor like an enormous wave. She wondered if they were there already, waiting for she and Den to arrive, hiding behind the boulders that lay atop the Crest. She scanned the distant peak, but saw nothing; not even the flash of the high sun catching a mirror shard. They can’t have arrived yet.
“What’s going on with Smithson?” Rachel asked, focussing her thoughts elsewhere. “Did you make up yet?”
“He’s not talking to me.”
“He’s not talking to you? Surely it should be the other way around?”
“Yeah, but I did punch him.”
“For good reason, Den. If I’d found him kissing Craktorov, I’d have probably done it for you.”
“Yeah, but he was drunk and….” He paused as if he was deciding whether to tell her not. “And, I’d already had a fumble with Craktorov that night too.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Den. Now you tell me this?”
“He’s a rookie from a few rotations back. We had history; good, fun history.”
“Well, we need Smithson,” Rachel said, taking a moment to quickly glance at Dendrick and roll her eyes. “So you’re going to have to make up with him. And be bloody quick about it too.”
They fell quiet as the P.E.T. rumbled on. Beneath the base of the Crest, the number of boulders grew and it took increased focus to slalom her way through the hurdles in their path. Rachel knew the way now, having done the trip many times before, but there was frequent seismic activity in the region and landslides were common. One day, their route could be clear. The next there might be a six foot rock in their path.
“I don’t see them,” Dendrick said. He reached to the floor and picked up his discarded gas mask, beginning to adjust the straps as he did so. Once he’d fixed his in place, he reached over and fiddled with Rachel’s one so she could focus on avoiding the shifting stones and rocks in their way. “They left before us. I don’t see the P.E.T.”
“They’ll be here,” Rachel urged. Despite her words, she pushed on the pedal beneath her foot a little harder.
Since their last visit to the Crest, a large boulder had rolled into the path, and she swerved to avoid it, only realising she couldn’t get through the gap at the last moment. Luckily, the route around it was clear, and other than being thrown into the air momentarily, they avoided any major damage, especially as she was able to ride the lower gravity to avoid meeting the ground with a thud.
“I still don’t see them,” Dendrick said again as they began to climb the incline to the peak.
I don’t either, Rachel thought, but she refrained from voicing her concerns.
There was dust ahead, as though a vehicle had climbed the hill before them. It could just be the wind. Blue sky filled the view-screen as she pushed harder on the pedal and forced the P.E.T. engines to work a little harder on their ascent. She turned off the oxygen supply and opened the vents to give her a little extra help. They were almost there now, climbing for the sky, rising to a vista of the like she’d never experienced back home.
Finally, Rachel saw the lip coming and readied herself for the inevitable bounce. It hit, and the lump in their path threw them into the air again so their seatbelts were pulled tight. It took a few seconds for them to land, and in those heart-stopping moments, it was all the same; her brother, the race, the mangled truck that had brought about the end. But as soon as their tyres bounced back into the alien ground, she shed the thoughts from her mind as if they’d never been allowed to escape the box they were hidden in.
Ahead of them, the scene was empty. Rachel steered the transport across to her favourite sandy-coloured boulder so they’d be sheltered from the wind, and parked. She reached out and disconnected her gas mask from the vehicle and screwed the tube onto a portable canister instead, aware that Dendrick was doing the same. Then, she braced herself for the cold, opened the door and stepped out into the freezer once again.
“Something’s wrong,” she said as she and Dendrick pushed themselves under the overhang of the rock and sheltered for a moment.
“See, I knew it,” he replied. “What’s going on, Rachel? Why’d you insist I come out here? I’ve never been a fan of the mysterious.”
“Shhhh,” she whispered, catching the sound of falling rocks as they drifted by. She couldn’t tell where they had come from, so she put a finger to her lips and inched away from the transport, following the curve of the wind-polished rock.
“What is it?” Dendrick hissed.
“I thought I heard something,” she replied as she looked around the edge of boulder and saw the view. It took her breath away every time. Above them, the sky was intensely blue; bluer than she’d ever seen on Earth. The bright white salt flat disappeared into the distance. She’d once seen something similar in Bolivia, though this was whiter, cleaner and on an entirely different scale. Huge mountains tore towards the heavens on either side; towers of rock that looked like organ pipes. When the wind was right, they sounded like it too. She remembered the first time it had happened; when the orchestra had deafened her ears and ripped into her very soul. When wind caught in those tubes and whistled from the various nooks and holes punctured into the mountains it was as if hell and heaven combined had come to take her away.
Rachel reached up to the side of her mask and clicked a button, bringing the integrated binocular function online. It was far better than having the real thing. She stepped out from behind the rock having assured herself the path was clear, and tapped the mask’s connected and transferable console currently attached to the back of her hand. It took a few seconds to focus but it came into view; the Renovo. Every day she looked a little different; a carcass that was rotting away. She was so large up close. But here, when she was the smallest blip at the end of a pair of binoculars, she was but an inconsequential speck slumped like a dead ant at the base of the mountains. Before her, the huge rut from her landing ran out across the plain towards where Rachel now stood.
She zoomed into maximum and moved her way across the broken shell of their home. Even at this distance, she could still make out the thin halo of the biodome that enveloped the entire ship. It was still partitioned but, with the gradual creation of oxygen, they’d managed to fill almost two-thirds with breathable atmosphere. In those sections, they’d begun dismantling her. Bulkheads were removed, modules unlatched. She was like a beetle; her outer carapace being peeled away, her segments reconstituted into new roles.
We’re never getting out of here.
Rachel didn’t know why she continued to even comprehend any other outcome. They had to recycle her. They had to break her down into modules if they were to survive. But she couldn’t be rebuilt into a space-faring vessel. That was not her role. That had never been her design.
“I hate seeing her like this,” Dendrick muttered as he voiced Rachel’s own thoughts. “If it were Mars, then fine – break the old girl down and roll out the supplies. But here… it’s torture… it’s like she’s showing us our future demise.”
“C’mon,” Rachel said, reaching up and patting him lightly on the arm. “Let’s wait for the others.”
She moved across the Crest as the wind began to sing through the mountains. The blustery weather whipped through her clothes as if it weren’t even there, pawing into her skin with its icy fingers. The droning became louder; a menacing growl that filled the air.
That isn’t the organ pipes.
Rachel began to run, shouting out to Dendrick as she headed back towards where they’d parked. She rounded the corner within seconds but saw instantly she was too late. She’d been fooled. They’d caught her out.
“Who the hell’s taking the P.E.T.?!” Dendrick shouted as he ran past her, hollering and waving his hands as the vehicle descended the slope.
It was only then that Rachel realised the noise hadn’t only been their vehicle’s engines. The ground began to vibrate, particles of dust and tiny pebbles leaping off the ground as if they had a life of their own. A crack appeared in the rock ahead of them, and then another to their left.
It was only now that she knew for sure what she’d assumed so far; they wanted her dead.