Pendulum Ch. 20: Search

Air supply was down to less than thirty minutes—but it wouldn’t take long anymore. Only past that ridge over there, then they should be able to see the Wisp, their mobile mission headquarters. Adams needed it for more reasons than the clean air inside and the filtering systems. Much of the specialised equipment he had brought was still strewn over the landscape, along the path they had come. He had been tempted to pick up a piece here and there when they passed it, but resisted. Burdening them and slowing them down would have cut their breathable air reserves even shorter than they were already.
Hours had passed, but nothing had changed. The daylight was still at the same brightness level, and the landscape had been unremarkable in its monotony. Not in its general makeup. The fungus-dominated surface of Gliese 667Cc was more than fascinating, and he couldn’t wait to run some tests to see if there were more commonalities between this and the fungi he knew from earth. This was an alien world, and looks could be deceiving.
“Less than a kilometre. Almost there,” he said, more for the benefit of the druid. Deirdre had needed breaks more often than she had been willing to admit, and her earlier liveliness had gradually turned into stoicism. The marines looked as if a walk like this was no problem for them, and the doctor was just marching on without saying a word. Nobody answered even now. He wouldn’t break the awkward silence with useless talk. A low hum and a notification icon drew his attention simultaneously. The hum came from his analytical gear, what little he had been carrying around. His test results would be ready at any moment. The notification icon was just another system warning, surely about his dropping oxygen reserves. He opened the message grudgingly. As expected.
His feet sank deep into the spongy underground, and he slipped once more. Climbing a ridge on this kind of land had proven to be more difficult than he had expected, but his problems were way less severe than that of the doctor. The fir bolg could only take slow steps on the reddish-brown lichen that covered everything, but had not enough structural integrity to stabilise the enormous body weight of the Aes Sidhe in motion. He had staggered for most of the walk, but not one complaint had come from his lips.
“There it is.”
Lieutenant Murray had been first on top of the ridge, followed closely by the other marines. One moment later, Adams saw what the commander saw. A large valley opened up before his eyes, as far as he could see. Mountains surrounded the area in the distance, almost out of sight. How far away was the horizon on this planet? It must have been more than the five kilometres back home. The radius on this planet was about fifty percent bigger than earth’s, that meant… A gleam distracted him. The Wisp, and he felt like he could almost touch it now, but reality didn’t support this feeling.
Deirdre appeared next to him. Her face was distorted by the exertion, but her eyes widened when she oversaw the valley.
“Wow.”
He smiled. Yes, wow. Two large rivers fed into an enormous sea in the forward direction, the only one not closed off by mountain ranges. Small groups of fruit bodies were clustered in what looked like random patterns, always in groups of six. Their size gave him an idea of the true dimensions of this valley.
“Be careful now. We don’t want any accidents last minute,” he said and continued his walk.
The hum on his hip had stopped, and another notification announced the completion of the analysis task he had started an hour before. He wandered slowly, putting one foot in front of the other, without taking an eye off the overlay. Rows of data had come on; it was too much to show on one screen. He scrolled through the test results, inconclusive in most cases.
“Now we know why the vehicle didn’t move,” Murray said, and the message was only audible for him. “It’s stuck, only the top half is above ground. It’s a miracle that it isn’t in pieces.”
Adams established contact with the Wisp again, but the kind of data he got was nothing new. All systems running, structure intact, hull undamaged, interior sealed, air pressure inside at normal levels. Why did it claim to be ready to move? Something didn’t add up.
The thirty-minute mark had come and gone by, but it didn’t matter anymore. Only a short, five-minute walk over to the capsule now. He resized the analysis overlay and called up the command module of the Wisp. Another window opened next to his data. He went through the menus quickly, into the security settings. There it was, the access parameters.
“Send your technician. I gave him permission to connect to the Wisp’s control systems.”
He closed the console again and returned to his data, all the while treading carefully on the treacherous ground. Something crashed behind him, and the vibrations ran through his feet and legs.
“Sorry,” said a deep voice before he could turn around. The doctor had slipped again. For how many times now? Another reflection from the Wisp took him off his thoughts, but he regained focus and continued his check. As expected, most of the organisms in the atmosphere were alien, but their cellular makeup didn’t differ so much from similar life forms on earth. The number of cyanobacteria was astounding, but not surprising, either. The fungi didn’t look as if they used photosynthesis at all, and he hadn’t come across a single green plant yet. There probably weren’t any. No known pathogens in the air didn’t mean much. Also, no organisms that somehow resembled anything known to be harmful on earth. That wasn’t much, but better than nothing. Would he take his helmet off? Probably not. At least not voluntarily, and they had reached the Wisp now, so nothing to worry. They’d get through the airlock’s disinfection procedures, so there was no need to—.
“The Wisp won’t open.”
A voice he hadn’t heard before had spoken the message on the shared frequency. What did that mean, the Wisp won’t open? Before he could ask that question, the youthful male voice continued.
“All systems seem fine. I can send the signal to open the airlock and get a confirmation, but it won’t comply. I’ll have to look at this, but it’ll take a while.”
“How long?” Adams’ voice had come out more harshly than intended.
“Can’t say. It depends.”
Adams exchanged a glance with Murray. The lieutenant shrugged. They’d have to wait while their air reserves shrunk with every breath.

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