[On an alien world, don't expect fact to match theory. Seeing is believing, or at least it's suspecting...]
The wind was a living, carnivorous thing.
Half-frozen, it charged from the shadow of Vulcan’s nightward-facing side, casting aside boulders and scattering dunes in its stampede toward dayside. It devoured the land, chewing towers and licking arches from the indurate volcanic rock, howling through the sculpted landscape like wolves enraptured in a hunt.
The airlock rattled under a pelting of windswept grit as Sahra peered through the narrow viewport on the door. Anyone outside for too long would be whittled down, she thought. Death by a million cuts.
The churning tempest was mesmerizing, but Sahra did her best to ignore it, lifting her emergency flashlight to the window and flicking it on and off. She watched black motes swarm like wasps in the beam, silhouetted briefly by her artificial light. The surface of Vulcan was wrong, it was too dark, too cool. Inside Mercury’s orbit, she would have expected the Sun to be as big as God and twice as bright. As it was, it was hidden behind sooty clouds, dimmed by the flashing strobes of ceaseless lightning.
Two hundred yards away or more, a jagged silhouette against the furrowed stone, lay the torn forward half of the Barwaaqo. A day ago it had been a merchant ship, ferrying cargo and spacers from port to port, as well as Sahra’s home while she trained to be an engineer. Now, she and her fellow crewmen were castaways, trapped within the bisected halves of their ship by the screaming gale. She flashed her light at the distant hulk, signaling to the others presumably stranded within.
Or maybe not stranded, she thought. Maybe the wind had gotten inside and eaten them. Sahra licked her chapped lips apprehensively.
She scanned the ground, searching for a fading set of footprints, or the disheveled lumps that could denote the freshly fallen remains of some brave survivor. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to tell the difference between a half-submerged corpse and a broken fragment of the ship, thanks to the shifting dust. She didn’t think she’d like it, if she could.
At the edge of her beam, just out of sight, there was movement. Not the driving ecru of the storm, but a shadow, a slithering dart that disappeared in an instant. Frantically, she redirected her light, imagining Second Steward Xirsi fighting for his life, or Comm Technician Jamilah, or Chief Astrogator Blake, or Captain Taifa, or a dozen others. But all she revealed was a cluster of weathered rocks.
Nothing, she thought. A trick of the mind. Vulcan was a lifeless waste.
Sahra turned off her flashlight and made her way back to the cargo hold, picking over the collapsed shelves and broken machinery of the Barwaaqo’s rearward section. The hooting of the wind grew dimmer the further she delved, but it remained ever-present, whispering in her ear like an evil spirit.
Inside the hold, the other survivors were sitting or reclining on toppled shipping crates, their contents scattered, forgotten. The night before had been hellish, every ear straining for the telltale hiss of a broken seal, none daring to sleep. Altogether they numbered seven beleaguered spacers, three officers and four crewmen. Steward Hani Erasto, a stout woman with short black hair and a well-maintained spacer’s jumpsuit, handed her a cup.
“Your share of the water today,” she said. Water sloshed around the bottom, barely enough to quench her thirst, but Sahra smiled gratefully and drank it, letting it wet her chapped lips. Being the youngest member of the crew, she had found it difficult to make friends, but Erasto had proven to be a fair and amiable superior.
“Wish I could give you more,” the steward said. “The survey shuttle’s tanks barely got enough to wash your hands with.”
“We can stretch it,” said Yussif Fahmi, a lanky chief engineer. He had an unkempt beard and eyes like needle points. “We just have to ration it properly.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Erasto replied, sitting on a broken box of winter clothes intended for the Martian settlements, useless now. “I’m just saying I wish I could her give more.”
First Mate Kowuko stood between them, a middle-aged man with a bit of hair under his nose that had ambition to be a moustache. In her time on the Barwaaqo, Sahra had barely spoken ten words to him, being as low on the totem as she was. In fact, she only saw him when the other crewmen had her run errands to the bridge. Now it was he who barely spoke.
“Sir,” Erasto said, “Sahra’s back.”
Kowuko’s eyes rested on Sahra dismally, not really seeing her. “Any response?”
“No, sir.” Sahra said.
The first mate deflated visibly. “No sign at all of Captain Taifa, then?” He was drowning, it seemed to Sahra. The responsibility of all their lives was too much to bear, and he wanted desperately for another pair of shoulders on which to shift the burden. Rather than feeling sorry for him, his hopelessness left Sahra dismayed.
“No sign, sir,” she said.
Kowuko sagged. “Continue to try?”
Fahmi sighed. “Any minute now their emergency batteries will have died. They’ll lose their power seals, and then… well, then they’re dead. The storm kills them, if it hasn’t already.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Erasto said. “We survived this long, didn’t we? They might’ve found a way to stretch their batteries.”
“The Barwaaqo is a cargo ship, not a war cruiser,” the tall chief engineer said forcefully. “We were lucky the crash didn’t kill us, and we were lucky the reactor didn’t give out, and we were lucky in a hundred other ways. But it won’t last.” Behind him, two other engineers huddled like chicks around a hen. They were Gakere, the muscular, long-haired fusion engineer, who liked to write vulgar poetry for the entertainment of the crew, and Doanne, the wispy second engineer with sunken eyes and a tattoo of a daisy chain on her wrist. With Sahra they made the only division of the ship to come through the crash unscathed.
Fahmi went on. “That’s what I told the captain when she decided to cut this close to the sun. I said it was a bad idea, I told her deadlines weren’t worth our lives, but he didn’t listen to me.” Erasto tensed as he spoke.
“If you’re trying to imply this is my fault, I only suggested to the captain - ”
“What I’m saying now,” Fahmi enunciated, “is that we need to focus on calling for help.” Nevertheless, there was an edge to his words, and Sahra felt uncomfortable standing there beside them.
“Well, I agree there, at least.” said Erasto. She turned to Sahra. “How bad did she look? The Bar, I mean?”
Sahra was confused. “Um… split in half?”
The steward waved dismissively. “Sorry, I mean our side. Apart from the obvious damage, does it look pretty banged up?”
“What are you getting at?” asked Fahmi.
“I’m trying to figure if there’s any exterior damage to the shuttle. It seems alright, from the inside, but it was docked to the outside of the ship when we came down, and it might be bent outta shape.”
Sahra understood. “I couldn’t see the shuttle. It might still be flightworthy.”
“An escape? Would we all fit?” Kowuko asked.
The chief engineer guffawed. “I wouldn’t want to ride it out in that storm. Besides, none of us are pilots.”
“I am.” Gakere spoke up. “I used to fly a Lunar hopper.”
“None of us are atmospheric pilots.” Fahmi sounded annoyed. “You ever flown in a thunderstorm, fusion engineer? No?” Gakere closed his mouth, subdued.
“I’ve flown in atmo.” Erasto said. The whole crew turned to her.
“Really?” Fahmi said with derision. “You’re a pilot, but you don’t like money, so you became a steward instead?”
“I didn’t say I was a pilot, I just said I’ve flown in an atmosphere. Used to fly for fun, with my dad. I say I take the shuttle, poke my nose above the storm, and radio for help. There’s a depot in orbit, they’ll hear us.”
Hope dawned on the First Mate’s face. “Could you do it, Hani?”
“I think so,” Erasto said.
Fahmi was unimpressed. “But what about our water? If you crash, you take it all with you.”
Sahra was reminded unpleasantly of her parched throat and dry lips. Looking around, she wasn't the only one.
“It’s our only shot,” the steward insisted.
“No, it’s not.” Fahmi addressed the First Mate. “I can get the backup radio working. The auxiliary dish reads as functional.”
Sahra wondered if he could. Her technical experience was limited, but she doubted the backup system would have the power to cut through the storm, being a third of the size and strength of the lost forward array. Still, she kept her mouth shut. Fahmi was the chief, after all, and she didn’t cherish the idea of coming down against him.
Thankfully, she didn’t need to. “Could anybody hear us?” Erasto supposed.
“They’ll hear,” said Fahmi. “It’s spec’d for three AU clear communication.”
“What if there’s too much static, between the storm and the Sun?”
“So you’re a steward, a pilot, and an engineer?”
“I don’t wanna fight.” Erasto said. “Let the First Mate decide.”
They turned to Kowuko, who seemed to be caught off-guard. “Explain the options to me again.”
After listening to their increasingly vehement proposals, he seemed unsure. “I - I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to risk our water…”
“Sir, lets at least check the shuttle from the outside, before we throw the idea out the window.” pleaded Erasto.
Fahmi huffed. “That’s just too risky. My idea poses no danger to anyone.”
Kowuko furrowed his brow, at a loss. He turned to the rest of the crew. “What do you all think?”
“May I?” spoke a rugged old woman named Yasmoon. Sahra once heard she’d passed up a promotion to captain, apparently content to plot courses through space without the strain of command.
The first mate nodded enthusiastically. “Please.”
“Steward’s right. No chance of talking through all that interference. We’ve got to take the shuttle, try to get clear of the clouds.”
“I’m sorry,” Fahmi cut in, “no disrespect, but you’re an astrogator, not a comms officer.”
Yasmoon raised an eyebrow. “Neither are you. You think I never ran comms? I’ve been starside for a long time. I ran comms on The Marcos Pontes back when ‘chemical’ was the only type of rocket available.”
“Good.” Kowuko said. “Great. So, we go with the steward’s plan.”
“Alright, I’ll suit up,” Erasto said, making for the exit.
The first mate stopped her. “Actually, uh, I’d rather you stayed.”
The stout woman raised an eyebrow. “Why, sir?”
"Um, I appreciate your input."
"It'll only take a sec."
"Please, Hani. Someone else will go."
Kowuko had no reply. Everyone else waited uneasily. Sahra imagined stepping outside and facing the demonic winds alone, feeling the rocks pelt her suit like arrows.
“Hell. I’ll do it.” Yasmoon piped again. Sahra was ashamed of her relief.
“Uh, I dunno, Yas,” Erasto said. “Somebody else can go - ”
“Somebody younger?” the old woman interrupted.
The steward looked embarrassed. “I didn’t mean - ”
“Forget it. I'll be fine, haboobs don't scare me. Although they aren’t quite this energetic, on Mars.”
“Yasmoon,” said Fahmi, “you don’t need to do this. Nobody needs to do this, it’s just not safe.”
“Listen,” Yasmoon said to him, “it’s this, or we sit on our asses, waiting for you to finish playing with your radio. I want to do something.” Fahmi shut up, his mouth a line.
Erasto smiled. “If you’re sure, then I’ll help you into your hardsuit.”
“I’m not sure.” Yasmoon replied. “But it beats waiting for nothing.”
The two women left together, Yasmoon leading the way determinedly. Sahra listened to their metal footfalls fade as they descended to the airlock. A while later Erasto returned.
“She’s in the lock.” she said. “Somebody get her patched through the intercom.”
Gakere volunteered himself, disappearing down the engineering hatch where the backup radio controls were kept. A moment later Yasmoon’s course voice came over the ship’s speakers.
“Well, here I go,” she said, and then an avalanche of static fell onto their ears. “Can y - ear me?”
There was silence as, presumedly, Gakere told her they could.
“Good.” Yasmoon said. “I’m heading - the shuttle.”
“Tell her to keep on hand on the side of the ship,” Erasto called down the hatch, “so she doesn’t get lost.”
There was a lull, then Yas said, “Tell- know what I’m doing.”
A hollow chuckle rose from the crew then as they stared into the empty air, tensely parsing the interference for the old woman’s words. Fahmi leaned back on a stack of crates, his gaze pointed, and Sahra tried not to meet his eye. Erasto was standing nervously on the other side of the hold, arms akimbo, head down. Beside her, Kowuko fiddled with a hangnail on his thumb.
“Jesus - ist. The wind - I have to crawl,” Yasmoon shouted, apparently trying to hear herself above the roar. “Alrea - a small breach in my suit.”
“Okay,” Erasto leaned over the hatch, “Tell her not to hesitate to come back inside, if she needs to. Don’t rely too much on the hardsuit to autoseal the holes.”
“I’m alright,” Yasmoon crackled. “Wait - ”
There was a long silence. No one breathed.
“What happened?” Kowuko asked finally.
“Sorry.” Came the old woman’s harried speech. “Thought - saw something moving.”
“Something moving?” Doanne, the slender engineer, said. “Like, a person?”
Sahra thought then of the flicker of movement outside the ship, the brief shadow she mistook for a thing alive. Or thought she had.
“ - evermind” Yasmoon continued. “It’s nothing.”
Fahmi stood up. “She should make sure her oxygen isn’t leaking out. She could be hallucinating.”
“Is she at the shuttle yet?” Erasto asked. Gakere forwarded the question.
“Now I am,” Yasmoon replied. “Looks okay from here. Goin- get a better view.”
“Tell her not to take too long.” Erasto said. “Her suit won’t last forever.”
There was quiet again, nothing but static that dipped and rumbled and dipped again. Occasionally a ripping screech could be heard through the white noise, the loudest pitches of thunder making themselves heard over the radio. To Sahra they sounded like the shrieks of enormous predatory birds.
“I think it’s undamaged. My hardsu- leaking bad. Coming back-”
Erasto frowned. “Let her know to be careful.”
“Well, good.” Kowuko grinned. “With the shuttle working, we have a way out.”
Yasmoon’s voice boomed suddenly.
“-ere it is again,” she said. “Went behind the rocks.”
“What?” Kowuko said. “What’s she talking about?”
“Looked like - . It was close.”
“Is it one of ours?” Asked Doanne.
“Tell her to say that again.” Erasto ordered.
“ - not sure.” Yasmoon answered. “It’s fast-”
The intercom modulated wildly, a split second of feedback that made the survivors yelp. Then dead air. Not even the thunder could be heard.
Gakere emerged from the radio room. “Line’s dead.”
“Dead?” Erasto asked. “Like, too-much-interference dead? Or did something happen to her?”
The large fusion engineer shrugged solemnly. “System says there’s nobody on the other end.”
“I said it was too dangerous.” Fahmi said accusingly. “I said it was safer to stay inside. But I was ignored again. You all listened to her again.” He pointed at the steward.
“She could be in danger,” Erasto said. “Somebody’s gotta bring her in.”
“She said she saw someone.” muttered Doane.
“She said something.” Gakere said.
The flash of movement continued to weigh on Sahra, and she tried to make out the details from her memory. In her mind’s eye she saw a human figure lunging through the dust one moment, then a snaking beast writhing over the rocks another, each form more threatening than the last.
“Is there any life on Vulcan?” Gakere wondered.
“No.” Fahmi growled. “Nothing could survive out there. Let’s not get crazy.”
“It has to be one of the others. What else could it be?” Doanne said.
The chief engineer frowned. “For all we know, her suit was holed in a million places. If she saw anything, she saw a mirage.”
“Yes, thank you, chief.” Erasto said. She turned to Kowuko. “Someone has gotta go and rescue Yas. She’s alone out there.”
The first mate took a second to look miserable. “Yeah.” He said. He swayed, as if unable to make up his mind, then turned to the crew. “I guess we need another volunteer.”
The hold was as still as a grave. Sahra knew she should step forward, but her legs refused to obey her, and her throat closed up before she could offer herself.
Finally, Fahmi spoke. “You should go, sir.”
Kowuko all but jumped. “Me?”
“It was your idea to send her out there.”
“That’s not true,” interceded the steward. “She volunteered.”
“But it was his idea to ask for volunteers. He’s our leader, but he elected to put an old lady out rather than risk his own skin.”
“Yeah,” Gakere said. “He did.”
“I - I didn’t mean it like that.” Kowuko said. “I didn’t think-”
“You can’t volunteer somebody else. Especially not the first mate,” said Erasto.
“Why not?” Fahmi demanded. “Just because he’s the second in command?”
“No, because he’s first in command, now,” Erasto replied, exasperated.
“Captain Taifa was first in command. She’s dead. Kowuko sent Yasmoon out there, he should be the one to get her.”
The first mate looked like a caged animal, timid as he searched the faces of his men for recourse. Sahra looked at the floor, the walls, anywhere but at the man’s face.
“Alright.” Kowuko said, defeated. “I’ll go.”
“You’re not gonna be alone, sir.” Erasto said. “I’ll suit up with ya.”
“You should take guns.” Gakere said. “Just in case.”
Fahmi scoffed. “In case what? The storm starts shooting at them?”
“For whatever’s out there,” Gakere said defensively.
“It was a mirage.” Fahmi asserted. “Yasmoon even said it was nothing!”
Sahra glanced at him nervously, the shadow pressing on her mind. She couldn’t let Erasto go out unarmed. “When I was at the airlock, I saw something move outside the ship.”
Everyone seemed to notice her, as if they had forgotten she was there. Fahmi glared.
“What did you see?” Erasto asked evenly.
“I don’t know.” She said. “Just a moving shape… I couldn’t make it out.”
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t think about it. I figured it was the wind.”
“It was the wind.” Fahmi said.
“I’d like a gun.” Kowuko said.
“So would I, at that,” Erasto agreed, turning to Sahra. “And we should take a medkit, too, in case she’s hurt. There’s one in the shuttle.”
Fahmi held up a hand. “Uh-uh. What if you lose it in the storm? It’s all we have, since the medical bay was smashed to pieces.”
Erasto scrunched up her face. “Okay. Get the guns, Sahra. Two K&Ms and some extra magazines.” As she spoke, Kowuko reached into his pocket and handed her his master key.
Sahra accepted the key and left for the armory. It was up above the cargo hold, a narrow closet with a reinforced door, and she had to climb up a warped and twisted ladder to reach it. Inside she found a meager array of handguns and shotguns, “pirate deterrents” as Erasto had once called them, although there were hardly enough there for a quarter of the crew. She took two Kuttner and Moore Coil Pistols, as ordered, along with the spare ammunition, then paused. Up here, nearer the hull, the clamoring wind could be heard more intensely. She pricked her ears, listening for a cry, a call, a scream, anything that might answer the burning question of what she had seen out there. Was that baleful moaning just the storm? That rattling only debris?
Before her was a third pistol. She took it, slipped it carefully into the pocket of her coverall, and locked the armory again.
Down by the airlock, Erasto and Kowuko were already in their hardsuits. Fahmi stood at a distance, arms crossed.
“If you get a chance, check the secondary comm dish,” he said as Sahra handed the guns over. “Since you’re out there anyway, it can’t hurt to see if it’s still in the proper alignment.”
Erasto nodded and the two went through the exit, pulling it closed behind them. Fahmi and Sahra returned to the hold.
Gakere was back at the radio. “They’re out.”
“No footprints. Erased by the wind,” came the steward’s beset report. “Already minor dama- to suits. Heading to -uttle.”
Again the survivors in the hold held their breath.
“-an’t see three feet.” Ersto barked. “Wind is gonna knock us over.”
For a while, there was nothing but static. The gun in Sahra’s pocket felt heavy, and she regretted taking it; unauthorized withdrawals from the armory were supremely forbidden. Why had she done it? Did she think she was going to fight off alien monsters herself? Fearing Fahmi would notice the weapon outlined in her pocket, she turned to hide it.
“No sign of -asmoon.” Erasto sounded at last. “Dust mighta buried her already.”
“Look, there-,” said Kowuko. “-is that?.”
“-hold up, sir.” came the steward’s broken words. “Don’t get too far ahead.”
There was a garbled reply, through which the first mate could barely be heard, followed by ear-piercing feedback.
“Sir!” Erasto shouted. “Sir! Kow-ko!”
Another unintelligible answer, and then the steward’s breathing became heavier, pulsing like a drumbeat over the intercom.
“Kowuko! -ook out!” She screamed again, but this time there was no response.
“The Vulcanians.” Gakere breathed.
“Shut up.” Fahmi said.
An indeterminate amount of time passed, during which the intercom did nothing but hiss. Suddenly there was a pounding from below, and all of them jumped.
“The airlock.” Sahra said.
“It’s them!” Doanne concurred, and they raced down to the door, Fahmi and Gakere behind.
They threw the inner door open and Erasto tumbled inside, her suit shredded and oozing autoseal resin in a dozen places. She ripped her helmet off and tossed it to the side, fine dust leaking out, and she coughed bitterly.
“What happened?” Doanne asked. “Where’s Kowuko?”
“I… I lost him.” Erasto replied, hacking up dust. “There was something with us. I don’t know what it was.”
“Like a creature? Was it attacking you?” Gakere questioned.
The steward shook her head. “I don’t know,” she huffed, “I don’t know. I think it took my gun.”
“It took it?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t one of us?” Doanne asked. “Maybe it was Yas!”
“No,” Erasto said, clearly frightened. “No, it was something else.”
Gakere put a hand on her shoulder. “What did it look like?”
“I don’t know. It was big. I only saw it for a second.”
“It was the storm.” Fahmi said. “Rocks. Debris. Lightning.”
Erasto shook her head, coughing. Gakere helped her stand, began patting the dust from her suit. Fahmi watched her dispassionately.
“So the First Mate is lost,” he said flatly.
Erasto looked up at him, hunched over, shaking. “Yes.”
Wordlessly, the engineer turned and marched back up to the hold. After a moment’s hesitation, the others followed, leaving Sahra and Erasto behind.
“You okay?” Sahra asked.
“No.” Erasto replied, wiping the dust from her mouth. “There’s something out there, Sahra.”
Sahra had never seen the steward like this. Even when the Barwaaqo faced the perils of space, Erasto had been loud and brave, even sometimes reckless. Now she shivered, and there were tears in her eyes, as if she were battling to hold back an anxious torrent. Sahra wanted to comfort her friend, but she didn’t think she could, not when she felt that flood bubbling in herself.
“Come on.” She said, and led the steward to the hold.
Inside, the others were talking.
“On Venus, there are animals called wraiths that take people, sometimes. Gone without a trace,” Gakere was saying.
“This isn’t Venus, though.” Doanne pointed out.
“I know, but it could be something like that!”
The slight woman waved her hands. “It’s our people they saw out there, lost in the dust. And it's the dust that swallowed up Yasmoon, and the first mate.” She said. “Back home, if you go ten steps into a blizzard, you could get lost. If you’re not rescued quick, you freeze to death.”
“Yeah,” Gakere rumbled, “but this isn't, what, Europa? This isn’t Europa, either.”
“But it’s the same kind of thing!”
“There are no monsters,” Fahmi said. “And it isn’t our friends, much as I wish it were. It’s the dust, plain and simple.”
Erasto began to object, but the chief engineer spoke over her. “Yasmoon, Kowuko, they were killed by the storm. Not any bug-eyed creatures.”
“But what about the things they saw?” Gakere asked desperately.
“Illusions. Hallucinations born of frightened minds,” Fahmi explained calmly. “And who can blame them? But the truth is, the threats we face are mundane, not alien. There’s no life on Vulcan. Qualified explorers and scientists have checked. Nothing could survive out there, human or otherwise.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” said Doanne.
“I’m sorry, I really am,” The chief engineer replied, “but even if our friends were alive, we couldn’t do anything to help them. We’re just five people, a radio, and dwindling supplies. We need to focus on saving ourselves.”
The second engineer looked downtrodden. “Yeah, yeah alright.”
“Now,” Fahmi went on, “Doanne and I are going to go down and get the radio working. I suggest the rest of you stay here, and try not work yourselves into a panic.”
The pair descended through the hatch to the radio room. Gakere turned to them.
“He’s right, I guess,” the big man said. “No use getting unscrewed.” Sahra wanted to agree with him. The wind was deadly, but fathomable. If only she could get that shadow out of her head...
The three of them sat in the hold together, Erasto’s cough growing worse. After a while, Gakere lay back on some crates and closed his eyes. Sahra was suddenly aware of how tired she was, and did the same, finding a toppled crate of mail and making a pillow for herself. None of the these messages, she thought, would ever reach their destination.
Her unease, the dryness of her throat, and the stewards ceaseless hacking made sleep elusive. Occasionally, Fahmi was audible through the hatch, bellowing with increasing frustration. At one point, she thought she heard a clanging on the roof, like footfalls, and she jerked upright. Erasto didn’t seem to have noticed, and Gakere hadn’t stirred, so after a while she lay back down and willed herself to rest.
Some time later she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey,” Erasto whispered, and Sahra blinked. The steward was crouching beside her. Gakere still lay still, apparently asleep.
“Keep quiet. You still got the master key?”
“Good, I need it for the shuttle.”
Sahra sat up, reaching into her pocket where the key sat beside the K&M. Erasto coughed violently into the crook of her arm, staining it with a spattering of blood. Sahra wondered just how much dust the steward had inhaled.
“For the medkit?”
Erasto shook her head. “I gotta take it and get help. We both know Fahmi’s never going to reach anyone from down here.” Indeed, he and Doanne could still be heard below.
“Can you actually fly? In that?”
The steward looked at her, eyes still fearful. “I don’t know.” She said. “But I have to get off this planet.”
Sahra glanced at the hatch, and at the sleeping engineer. Faintly, always, the whistling wind impinged on her hearing.
“Okay,” she said, “but you’re taking me with you.”
Erasto nodded and stood. She padded softly to the exit, disappearing in the direction of the survey shuttle. As gently as she could, and keeping an eye on Gakere, Sahra rose from her makeshift bed to follow.
The shuttle was only a short distance away, but the door was a reinforced airlock. It unlocked with a clamor, latches popping free, and as it swung aside the muffled fury of the storm spilled into the hallway. Sahra glanced worriedly behind them. When it was open just enough, they slipped inside.
“Alright,” the steward said, stifling a cough. “Just gotta get the engine warmed up.” Sahra was amazed at how well the small ship had held together. The interior was clean and orderly, and looking at it one might never have known any disaster had occurred. Even the windshield was uncracked, the gusting sand visible clearly without.
“Wow,” she said. “This thing is tough.”
“Has to be, you’re a lot more likely to crash on a planet than between ‘em.”
“...What are you doing?” Came Gakere’s voice. They spun around.
The fusion engineer occupied the door, his large frame seeming bigger in the tight quarters of the shuttle. His expression held an accusation.
“You're jumping ship.”
The two women stared at him, momentarily lost for words. Sahra felt the weight of the gun in her pocket. Protection against whatever was outside was one thing, but Gakere?
“No, just need the medkit,” Erasto said. The fusion engineer eyed them suspiciously.
“Our water’s on this shuttle. All of it.”
Erasto let out a long, wet, ragged cough. “We know. I just need the meds.”
Gakere pointed to the wall. “It’s there,” he said, directing them to a cubby clearly labeled “FIRST AID.” “If you’re that sick, you should be resting,” he said.
“I will,” the steward replied. Sahra, not knowing what else to do, went and retrieved the kit. Gakere held out his hand.
“Now give me the key.”
“What?" Erasto asked. "Why?”
“Give it to me.”
"Sorry, no. I’m your superior officer, you don’t tell me what to do.”
“Give it to me, now!” He snarled, suddenly angry.
“You can’t be trusted with it."
"Can’t be trusted? You've got nerve - "
Sahra’s hand rested on her gun, and she had an idea of threatening him with it, forcing him out of the cabin. But she didn’t move. She watched the enraged giant like a deer in headlights.
“Just give it to him!” She finally heard herself shout. “Let him have it, he’s lost it!”
Erasto looked between her and the engineer hopelessly, then reluctantly turned over the key. Gakere grunted and gestured from them to step out of the shuttle. As they returned the hold, he walked behind them, hovering like a hawk.
Fahmi and Doanne were inside, a rusted old toolbox between them. “Where were you?” the chief engineer asked.
“In the shuttle, getting the medicine,” Erasto answered hoarsely. “For my cough.”
Sahra handed her the kit, and she took out a bottle, emptying some pills into her mouth. Fahmi watched her silently. When she was finished, she set the kit on a crate.
“How’s it going?” She asked the chief engineer.
Fahmi looked worn. “We need to realign the secondary dish,” he said. “It can’t be anything else.”
“I thought you said it was fine,” Erasto croaked. “It ‘read as operational.’”
“Nothing else is broken.” Fahmi said. “It must be the dish.”
“Or maybe there’s just too much interference.”
“It has. To be. The dish.” Fahmi gritted.
Erasto glowered. “Well it doesn’t matter, because the secondary dish is outside."
“And it needs to be repaired.”
“That thing is out there.”
“There is no ‘thing,’” Fahmi said vehemently.
“And who's it gonna be?” said Erasto. "You?"
The engineer regarded her coolly. Gradually, he bent over and picked up the toolbox, holding it out to her.
“No,” Erasto said, horror plain on her face. “No, I won’t go back outside.”
“There’s nothing out there.”
“There is! I saw it! It took Kowuko, it took Yas!”
“It’s just the storm.” Fahmi insisted.
“It’s not!” exclaimed Erasto, “And even if it were, they still died from it!"
Fahmi shook his head. “You killed them.”
The steward looked confused. “What?”
“You convinced the captain to take the shortcut, ignoring my warnings about magnetic interference from the Sun. Then, you proposed the plan to run off in the shuttle, leading Yasmoon to her death, even though I said it was too dangerous. What's more, when Kowuko tried to save her, you let him die too. All this is your fault.”
“Someone has to realign the dish,” Fahmi continued, “and it should be you. We’ll be listening in, in case anything happens.”
“In - case-” Erasto broke down coughing.
“You’re already dying.” Fahmi said. “Dust inhalation is bad way to go. I’ve seen it on the Moon.”
“I’m sorry, Hani,” Doanne said. “I’m sorry.”
“Please, don’t.” Erasto pleaded. The others were surrounding her, herding her back toward the airlock. Sahra stood back.
“You have to,” Fahmi said, “to save the rest of us.”
The steward cast about desperately. “Sahra,” she begged, “Sahra, I didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt.”
Sahra just watched, petrified, a spectator again.
Abruptly, Erasto’s expression hardened, and she threw a punch. Fahmi stumbled back, but before the steward could plant another strike she was held back by Gakere and Doanne.
“Put her outside.” Fahmi said, caressing his jaw.
Erasto struggled, kicking and biting and flailing, but it was no good. She was forced backward, inch by inch, down the passage to the airlock. She hurled curses at Fahmi, who shrugged them off, urging the others on, walking after them as they dragged Erasto to the door. Sahra noted distantly that she, too, was following.
They were at the airlock. The steward was hurled inside, her helmet thrown on top of her with the toolbox.
“Please!” she begged, “stop!” Beyond the viewport, Sahra saw something skitter fleetingly.
“Close it!” Fahmi was ordering, and Gakere was moving to obey. Erasto lunged for the door as it shut.
“Get it cycling,” Fahmi commanded Sahra, who realized she was standing beside the airlock controls. He seemed even taller now, and his sharp eyes were ablaze with righteous necessity. To Sahra’s ears, his voice was muffled, like the howling wind outside. He loomed, his will washing over her. Her mind went blank.
"I'll do it," Gakere muttered, and made to push Sahra out of the way.
There was a bang, and then a stillness. Sahra felt a heft in her hands. The coilgun. Wispy arms of smoke danced from the barrel, twisting lazily.
Gakere started to crumple, his large frame tumbling forward in the slow motion of low gravity. His eyes were wide, surprised, and his mouth twisted spasmodically as he lay on the deck.
Sahra stared at her victim. Her hands began to shake.
Fahmi opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words escaped. The airlock door swung open slowly, and even he stepped aside as Erasto emerged.
She kneeled in the puddle of blood collecting beneath Gakere, resting a hand on his neck. Then she took the master key from his pocket.
“Sahra,” she said, “let's go. Might need an engineer.”
None of the others blocked them, even when it was clear they were going to the shuttle. Fahmi gave a meager protest when Erasto unlocked the door again, but she ignored him, letting Sahra enter the aircraft ahead of her.
“We’ll get help.” Erasto said, closing the hatch on the dazed engineers. She flopped into the copilot’s chair.
“You ever ridden in a hurricane before?”
“Well I imagine this’ll be worse than that. It’s just be a straight shot up, though, so I think we’ll be okay. And, uh, thanks.”
Sahra took a deep breath to steady herself, then she buckled into her chair as Erasto flipped the ignition. The wailing wind was drowned by the firing of thrusters...
For the author's thoughts on composing this tale, see The Gritty NOSS.