Pendulum Ch. 23: Wisp

The suit’s exoskeleton had taken over a long time ago. Hours had passed at this point, and Deirdre had enough. She needed a bunk to lie down and sleep for a week straight. Her head hurt like a motherfucker. It had started as a low beat in the back of her skull at first, but taken over and grown stronger as time passed, until the suit’s med-unit injected her with a painkiller. The heavy beats had subsided by now, and she could see clearly again, but the headache continued to still throb in the background. Thankfully, without subjecting her to its rhythm and dominating her perception anymore. She couldn’t ask for more.
She sat down on the only naked rock in a sea of red-brown. The wind had picked up speed and slowly turned—at this rate, it would blow in the direction they had come from. So they had been lucky. Not only would it have been much more exhausting to get here, it would probably also have taken longer, and her oxygen reserves were already at two percent.
The Wisp lay over two hundred metres ahead, gleaming in the golden light like its magical namesake. Their team looked like a group of ants from her position as she looked down the gentle slope of the only hill as wide as her eyes could see. She had turned off the radio chatter earlier. Maybe it was time to switch it back on now that they had reached their destination. The last update she had received was from half an hour ago, when one of the marines had started his checks. She closed her eyes and turned her face upward, allowing the closest of the suns to send its warm rays through the front of her helmet.
“No good, sir.” The voice of the marine sounded desperate, and it didn’t take a lot to figure out what he was talking about. “The only option I see is to force it to shut down and open it manually, then restart all its systems.”
“What does that mean for the airlock?” This was Adams’ voice. He was calm on the surface, but some tension underneath was undeniable. Deirdre had an ear for such things.
“Won’t be a problem, sir. I can operate most functions manually once I’m in and have direct access.”
“Gotcha. Get it done.”
“Yes, sir.”
She opened her eyes again. The team stood around the capsule, their technician close to the hull. What was his name again? The wind had turned completely now, but nobody took notice or cared.
“Less than five minutes left until we run out of air. Will we make it in time?”
The tech hesitated. “No, unfortunately not. This will take at least fifteen minutes.”
“So close,” Adams said under his breath, but his answer was clearly audible for everyone on the team’s frequency.
“What does the analysis say?” The doctor’s deep bass was distinct, and there was no sign of tiredness or agitation.
“The general composition is very similar to that of Earth. There’s a high density of cyanobacteria all the way down, even here in the troposphere, but I couldn’t find any known pathogens.”
“So we’re safe?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. There is an exorbitant amount of biomass everywhere, and my database can only classify a tiny amount of them. But I see no alternative to taking off our helmets.”
“It’s a gamble then,” Murray said. “Not happy with that.”
“Nobody is happy about that,” Adams said, and now a slight distortion in his voice betrayed anger.
The commander of the marines had to know better than to object. Each of them had their role to play, and the exobiologist was the leader of this enterprise, even though they were more similar to castaways than a scientific expedition.
“Okay then, everybody. Take your helmets off. We’ll be inside shortly and have access to the med bay of the Wisp, in case we need it,” he said.
The suit’s radios fell silent as they removed their helmets one after the other. She watched them from her vantage point and reached for her own locks. Two of them went off just fine, only the last one was jammed. She stopped her attempts when two of them jumped around and patted their suits, as if to get rid of insects. What was going on over there? She put strength into her grip, and the lock opened with an ugly squeak. Warm air rushed through the slit between helmet and suit. It smelled musky, but not unpleasant. The heavy aroma fit the sunlight, the high gravity, the strange melancholy that lay over the place. She lifted the helmet over her head and tucked it under her arm. No more radio transmissions. If she wanted to know what they were doing, she had to either send a message—pain in the ass—or walk over to them. She sighed and rose in slow motion, like an old woman back in the day, when people still died of old age. Granny Deirdre. The image made her giggle, followed by a cough. The air was humid, and breathing took effort. Walking down the slope was tricky, too. The underground didn’t provide grip for her boots, and the exhaustion took its toll, but the suit did its best to support her movements. Muffled sounds from the direction she was facing turned out to be words. They sounded muted in this environment, but the closer she came, the better they could pick out words until she was in range to follow the conversation.
“I believe it came from over there.” The fir bolg pointed at a group of tall mushrooms. “It would fit the direction the wind is blowing.”
“What’s the matter?” Deirdre asked.
“Something rained on us. Can’t tell what it is yet.”
She looked at Adams, but he shook his head. “I need at least the equipment of the Wisp to say more.”
A look in his eyes told more than his words. He needed the gear they had passed on their way here, but hadn’t been able to pick up. She’d feel the same way if it were her runes. Can’t work without tools.
“Got it.” A dull metallic sound followed by the hiss of escaping air accompanied the marine technician’s words. The airlock swung wide open, but the darkness inside didn’t reveal what lay inside.
“Good job, corporal. See if you can restart the vehicle’s systems now,” his superior said, and the young man saluted and disappeared into the opening.
The doctor turned to Adams and the two men’s eyes met.
“I’ll start examining the druid while you do your analyses.”
“Sounds good. I hope the onboard lab is still working.”
“I was over there when whatever-it-was happened,” she said, and the doctor’s forehead wrinkled. He nodded.
“Systems booting up,” the tech shouted from inside the capsule. Time to get on board.


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