Deirdre gave up. No matter how often she tried to call Cailean, it just wouldn’t work out. She couldn’t focus on anything, with so much going on around her, in this alien environment and the permanent twenty-or-so kilograms on her back. And now another effect altogether set in. The morning light didn’t progress to a brighter state, and as pretty as the golden sky looked, she already missed the blue she was used to. That was a stupid thought, of course. She hadn’t travelled through the galaxy all the way here to end up where she had started.
Something moved in the distance, tiny specks of dust. She zoomed in—and the dust turned into ants. Four of them, side by side, crawled over the surface of the planet slowly. Another zoom-in wasn’t necessary. Lieutenant Murray had already got in touch with her, and she’d keep direct contact with him to a minimum. As long as there was no need to deal with the man, she’d keep her distance. He didn’t seem like the type of guy she’d hang out with in her time off.
Now her concentration was gone completely, but Deirdre made out another movement altogether, this time in the sky. A tiny light passed through her location, almost invisible before the intense glow. It, too, had the same colour and not much more brightness to it—or them. It wasn’t one light, more like a small group of particles flying in formation like birds in a flock, only a few hundred years earlier, before the storms had picked up and the extinction event set in.
She checked her gear. All there, her runes, her paraphernalia, plus the usual equipment of a landing crew’s standard issue, minus the hand gun. She had refused to carry one with her, and her special status had allowed her to do so. What would she shoot at here, anyway? Nothing on this planet’s surface moved. The entire world seemed as though it was frozen in time and had a dreamlike quality to it she found comforting and unsettling at the same time. This was not a contradiction. The serenity was something she enjoyed, but the situation they were in was all but trivial. Another notification icon flashed in red and interrupted her train of thought.
The doctor. This was the first time she had contact with him directly, and in private. She accepted the connection, and an overlay showed the broad, round face of a fir bolg whose age she couldn’t guess.
“How are you?” he asked with a booming voice that shouldn’t need a communications module to travel around the globe. Her AI turned the volume down automatically. Now that the group had come closer, she could make out their features in a little more detail, but they were still too small, even with amplification. She could even identify the giant frame of the fir bolg, walking along the flank of the small group with an uneven gait.
“No problems here. Are you limping?”
“Yes, but no problem. I had a rough landing, but it’s almost healed now. How do you feel? Is the heightened gravity tolerable?”
It was a little tiring, but Deirdre had so far mostly sat around and gazed at the sky.
“I’m good. But I’m not looking forward to this march.”
The doctor didn’t laugh. His expression was serious and professional. Not stern, like that of the marine, but she already missed Maya’s presence. Joking around and being silly was an excellent way to vent some stress.
“The suits have an assist feature, an exoskeleton with servo joints, in case you feel tired.”
Exactly what she had always wanted, a built-in walking stick. Now all she needed was meals on wheels, and she’d be set.
“Is something not right?”
She had grinned without realising it, while strain stood written on the fir bolg’s face. “No, doc, it’s all right. Looks like you almost reached me, anyway. We can talk when you’re here. No hurry.”
He lifted his palms. They had come close enough now for her to see the gesture.
“See you in a moment. Just wanted to make sure you won’t need medical attention before we go on our trek to the Wisp.”
“No problem. I had a soft landing and enough time to sit and rest. I’m good to go.”
“Good,” he said, and cut the connection.
What a weird guy. If he got over his awkward uptightness, she might get along with him fine. The scientist was okay, too. Good thing he was in charge here, and not the marine—that would be a pain in the ass.
She grinned again, stood up and waved. They had almost reached her position.
Almost two hours had passed, and they had still not reached the xenobiologist. The sky was still the same golden morning light, and in the meantime, a wind had begun to blow. This was another strange sensation that fit right in with the world. Its speed was slow, barely even noticeable, but it drove her forward as if a giant’s hand were pushing her. If this was a soft breeze, she wouldn’t want to be outside when it stormed. Good thing it blew from behind, at least.
“Over here,” Adams said. His voice reached all of them. This wasn’t a private connection. It was also unnecessary. They had made out his position minutes ago, but she could relate to the restlessness he must have been feeling.
“We have your location. Estimated time of arrival is five minutes.”
The lieutenant sounded like a recording, only with a less pleasant voice than the synthetic ones that were usually used for announcements everywhere. Deirdre grinned, but weakly. They had wandered only five kilometres, but it had taken them this long for a reason. Every step was a fight. It was worse than walking under water; not only was there resistance against the movement itself, everything here felt slower. Yes, there was the high gravity, but only a short while ago she had felt as always, as she should be. She was young and in good shape. The academy had seen to that, with the daily exercises, despite her being a druid, not a combat specialist. And yet, she already felt like an old woman. Maybe having that walking stick wasn’t that bad after all. She looked up at the sky from time to time, but had seen no more tiny lights passing by. It hadn’t been a hallucination, though, and if they appeared again, she’d make the recording she had forgotten to start last time.
The scientist was now clearly visible, and he had a backpack next to him on the ground, reaching all the way to his hip. Whoever was doomed to carry that thing deserved some pity. It wouldn’t be Deirdre. The marines didn’t seem bothered as much as she, and the doctor’s leg injury seemed to have healed back to normal again. He walked around as if he was living here, his movements fluid and unbothered by the insurmountable weight his body must have presented. If he had to be carried around for any reason—no, she’d not think about that.
“There you are. How was the walk?”
“A walk in the park,” she said out loud. Too late to stop herself now, but Adams smiled.
“If we can keep up the speed, it will take us eight hours to get to the vehicle. We have roughly twelve hours of breathable air left. That means we’ll be able to take short breaks on our way, but sleep is beyond all questions.”
Eight hours, and only if they could keep on walking at the same speed, which objectively was slow, but had felt like corporal punishment. She could stop the “Fuck this” from coming out narrowly. If the wind kept getting stronger… but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. It had carried her onward like an enormous wave, rolling in slow motion.
“Bad news is, the Wisp’s AI seems to be damaged. It reports only minor damage and confirms my orders to come without an error. Given that it’s stuck somewhere, that’s odd, and I hope the other systems are still okay.”
“We’ll have to find out when we’re there. If any of you need assistance, we can help you,” Murray said. She’d rather not lean on him while hobbling around this planet for hours. The thought alone was enough of a motivation to push through.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I hope we won’t have to take you up on this offer.” Adams’ smile had not disappeared from his face, but she could sense the terror. Maybe that was just projection.
Dr Maon walked over to the backpack and picked it up as if it was weightless. It looked heavier than her, but not in his enormous hands. Note to self: No pissing off the doctor.
“Alright, then. I hope the wind doesn’t turn.”
They’d be in trouble if it changed direction. Even if not, if it got any stronger, walking would become more of an adventure than it had already been.