She was standing by the window, gazing out at the disappearing frost while sipping the last of the soup from the thermo-jar. The pain in her left foot was always worse just after waking, and she was leaning on the wall to take the weight off it until the pills kicked in.
She liked looking at the frost in the mornings. The ground was covered with a thick layer of sprawling ice crystals, and the windows were coated with swirls and intricate patterns, shimmering like glass prisms in the first sunlight. Soon it would all melt away, and trickle down the capsule’s metal hull to be absorbed by the sand. Only in the deeper, shaded valleys would the frost remain until afternoon, the sand there hard and frozen, shattering beneath the soles of her boots.
How long now? she wondered, instinctively checking her watch. It was flashing the same useless numbers over and over again. The same numbers the computer gave her, as if time had stood still since the crash.
But trying to remember was pointless. She had lost track of the days and nights sometime after the first two weeks. When she awoke she never knew how long she had been asleep, if it was days or just a couple of hours. Sometimes she would wake at the first light of dawn, but more often she woke up much earlier, laying there in the dark, waiting. In the darkness, sleep and wakefulness blended together, with the wind ever-present. Its high, lamenting, pitiless tone was always there, penetrating even the thick walls of the capsule, piercing every dream and thought.
Maybe one of the others had a watch that still worked.
The thought took her by surprise and made her throw the empty thermo-jar against the wall in sudden frustration.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why hadn’t she thought of that before?
I could go and get it, she mused, looking out the window at the steep rise, its shadow creeping slowly across the ground as the sun rose higher in the sky. It wasn’t far. It would just take a couple of minutes to climb up the rocky bank, shuffle down the slope on the other side, and then she would be there, with them.
She felt the food turn inside her, the vomit burning in her throat.
No. She should have thought of that before she moved them. It was too late now. She couldn’t go back, she couldn’t face them again.
Two had died in the crash. The third had managed to stay alive the first night, but she hadn’t been able to help him. When he too was dead, she had hauled out the bodies one by one, dragging them up the hill and then rolling them down into the hollow on the other side, out of sight. They had been much heavier than she had expected, so difficult to move, their cold skin resembling some kind of syntho-material when she touched them, their eyes still wide open, their mouths ajar as if they were about to speak.
What would you say? she had wondered as she watched them. But she knew it no longer mattered.
When the last one had been placed in the hollow, she had stretched out on the cold ground next to them to get some rest. She stayed there for a long time before recovering enough strength to go back. It had been so quiet, protected from the sand and the wind, and it would have been so easy to stay with them. But night had fallen and the cold had come with it, so in the end she had crawled back up the sandy incline. She had left her gloves behind, and her hands had been so stiff, numb fingers searching for something to hold on to, scratching and scraping.
How long ago now?
She studied the palms of her hands. On the crest of the ridge she had fallen, slamming her hands hard into rock and sand and gravel. The cuts had healed by now. How long did it take for a wound to heal? A week, two weeks, three? But it must have been longer than that, months probably.
The frost was melting, glistening drops running down the window. She followed one of them with the tip of her finger, saw it join other droplets, becoming larger, heavier, until it finally fell out of sight, into the dry sand.
The screech of the emergency signal stabbing her eardrums.
She had always assumed that people would scream in situations like that, but nobody had screamed. The only voice had been the computer’s voice, calmly repeating that the rescue capsule’s emergency landing system had been activated. And then there had been the noise of the bodies slamming into each other.
The guidance system was defective, she thought, nodding to herself and wetting her chapped lips with the tip of her tongue.
She went over what had happened before, during, and after the crash quite often in her mind: memorizing the details, recapitulating the sequence of events, making sure that she remembered everything. Her report had to be complete and accurate when the rescue team arrived. She had tried to document it all, had even attempted to make a voice-record of it. It had been like reading a fairy-tale to herself at bedtime, but when she reviewed it the next morning she couldn’t stand listening to it and had erased the file.
They had to know about the crash by now. The emergency signal must have reached the beacons. It wouldn’t be long before someone came to get her.
There was so much to do until then. She had put most of the intact scientific equipment to use, setting up atmospheric and seismic testing stations in three different locations. The wireless relays were not working, and the stations were not situated as far apart as they ought to be, but all the stats she had gathered so far looked promising. She was already preparing several terra-forming proposals as well as a preliminary resource plan, suggesting which transformation methods would be the most suitable. In ten years this planet would be ready for limited colonization and maybe then she could return here: apply for a settlement permit and get a place of her own. Ten years of service gave you top priority in the colonies, so they couldn’t deny her that.
Her breath was fogging up the window and she wiped off the mist with her sleeve. A few drops on the outside of the glass were all that was left of the frost now, but tomorrow morning it would be back again.
It always came back.
Today she would take readings from the station she had set up by the cliffs. She was always hesitant about going outside and especially to that location, because it was so far away from the capsule. But by now the pills she had taken had numbed the pain: her foot hardly hurt at all when she pulled on the thermal suit and put on her boots, tightening the straps of the left boot to give her ankle enough support for the walk.
The inner airlock opened with a sharp hiss, then closed behind her before the outer hatch opened. Dust and grains of sand drifted in, sparkling in the sunlight, and she snapped the UV-shield down over her eyes so as not to be blinded.
When she stepped over the threshold, the wind immediately grabbed hold of her, pulling at her hair and clothes as she walked around the capsule to perform the mandatory, daily check of its exterior. The wind didn’t seem to have changed direction at all since they arrived, and the dunes surrounding the vessel built up higher every day. They almost covered the windows by now. Soon she would have to remove some of the sand, or the capsule would end up completely buried.
Halfway around she suddenly stumbled, causing her left ankle to bend awkwardly underneath her. She banged the hull hard with her fist so that her knuckles ached, sucking on the pain through clenched teeth.
They were back. The tracks were back.
They looked the same as before, and trailed across the sand in exactly the same direction. She already knew that trying to follow them was futile: a short distance from the capsule the ground turned stony for a stretch and after that they didn’t reappear.
Crouching down, she studied the tracks. There were more of them this time, crisscrossing each other, coming and going, leaving and returning. Ripples and marks in the sand. Nothing strange about that. Wind patterns. Yes. The wind had made them, and now the wind was erasing them, and in just a few hours they would be obliterated.
She squinted past the capsule, towards the crest of the ridge, but there was nothing to see there, nobody could see her anymore. Turning around, she stood up and kicked sand over the tracks, trampling them until the only marks were the ones made by her own boots.
Afterwards she stood there, a little out of breath, rubbing her still aching knuckles. The wind was pushing her very hard. It was inside her hood, wailing in her ears, groping her neck with cold fingers. The shadow of the ridge was shrinking already as the sun moved higher. Later in the day the shadow would fall on the other side, where they were - in the hollow where not even the wind could get to you, where all sounds were so muted and so distant that it almost seemed like silence.
But she couldn’t go back there.
Adjusting the UV-shield she turned around and began walking away from the capsule, taking long, confident strides. With every step she put her left foot down hard on the ground to test it. It barely hurt at all. As she walked, she tried not to think of how far she had to go, and rattled off snippets of data in a loud voice to occupy her mind: atmospheric oxygen levels, rotation times of other planets they had visited, details of planetary orbits, the periodic table, anything would do. It wasn’t like it mattered what she said. The wind ripped the words out of her mouth and scattered them, leaving nothing but sand on her tongue. Still she kept on talking, putting her head down, leaning into the gusts and striding onwards.
Even though the wind-rippled ground seemed level and unchanging, she was soon unable to see the capsule when she turned around. Out here the wind was all there was. It never left her alone: it screamed in her ears, it whipped the sand against her face, and it blew in under the UV-shield, stinging her eyes. She tried to think of something else, something from before, something from back home, but she no longer had any such memories. They had been swept away by the wind, leaving only the high-pitched wail, the sand, and the shadows.
Finally the cliffs were there in front of her: their sandblasted silhouettes rising like twisted, crumbling towers out of the otherwise featureless landscape. She ran the last hundred meters, limping and panting, the sweat chilling her skin. The station was situated at the mouth of a small ravine, and even from a distance she could see that the instruments had been knocked over. As she got closer she saw the tracks, looping and circling around the scattered equipment.
For a moment she just stood there, trembling in the harsh wind, staring at the destruction. Then she kneeled down and started brushing sand off the instruments, but there was nothing left to salvage. Pieces of smashed plastic and fragments of twisted metal were strewn everywhere, the electronic innards pulled out and shredded. As best she could, she gathered up the pieces and put them in a small pile next to the cliff, then used her hands to smooth over the tracks.
When she had done all she could, she crawled further in between the walls of the ravine, scrambling in on all fours as far as she could until the gorge became so narrow that the rock walls touched her on either side. Between the cliffs, she was protected from the wind, but she could still hear it moan and wail through innumerable holes and crevices. Even though the wind couldn’t touch her, the noise of it ripped through her: piercing her, shaking her thoughts and bones and flesh, and she wrapped her arms tightly around her body to hold it together. The wind howled ever louder, its howls sometimes resembling high pitched cries and voices, frayed and difficult to understand. Now and then she thought she could make out certain words, and after a while she could even recognize the voices. It was their voices, their words speaking to her out of the cliffs and the sand. They shouldn’t be able to talk to her anymore, and yet she could hear them.
Nothing but the wind, she thought, banging her head against the rocks. That’s all it is. There’s nothing else. Just the wind. Making ripples in the sand.
The tracks had been there the very first morning, the very first time she headed out to check on the hull after the crash. She had covered them up immediately, but he had seen her. He had been watching. When she came back inside, he was sitting up in bed, leaning on one elbow, facing the window. She had been so certain that he would sleep longer than that.
“It’s just the wind,” she explained before he had a chance to say anything.
He just shook his head.
“I saw it,” he said without looking at her. “During the night. It was there, outside the window. It was watching me.”
Then he lay down, facing the wall.
“We should never have landed here. The probe would have given us info about it. Whatever it is.”
She had tried to be understanding. After all, he had suffered from shock, confusion and amnesia after the crash. That made it difficult for him to remember what had really happened during the last few days on board. She had explained it all to him again, that the probe had been sent out and that the readings hadn’t shown anything out of the ordinary. Then she had asked if he remembered the accident.
“We had no choice,” she had told him, holding his hand to comfort him. “The guidance system was broken and we were forced to evacuate to the emergency capsule.”
“It’s too risky to land without probe info,” he said stubbornly as if he hadn’t heard a word, and he still refused to look at her.
“It was an emergency landing,” she said, speaking slowly and clearly so he would understand. “We had no choice.”
But it was as though he couldn’t remember that.
“Where are the others?” he asked and she nodded towards the two bodies covered with blankets next to the exit.
“They died. The entry was rough. Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember that the probe didn’t show anything unusual and that the systems malfunctioned and we had to get out of there?”
He had just looked at her then: eyes glazed, a trickle of dried blood in the corner of his mouth. Still she had tried to be patient. He was suffering from hallucinations. Nightmares. Just like she was.
“It was watching me,” he told her again. “It was standing out there, looking right at me. Even with the insulation, the capsule must give off some heat. Maybe that’s what lures them. It must be so cold out there at night.”
There had been nothing more to say after that. She had given him his pills and then he went quiet and fell asleep. The next day she moved them. His eyes were still shut when she dragged him across the sand, and finally put him to rest on the other side of the ridge with the others. She had put the memory clip with the ship’s log on his chest, placing his hands on top of it. It just seemed like he ought to have something with him. She didn’t know for certain whether he had made entries in the log since the crash, but he could have done it while she was asleep, and there seemed to be no way to crack his encryption.
The bodies had looked so lonely laying there on the ground. She had put the first two face-down so that they wouldn’t be able see her, but his eyes were closed, so she had left him on his back. There was nothing to see anyway. Not now. Not anymore.
Nothing to see, she thought as the cold, rough surface of the cliff scraped her forehead.
The UV-shield was cracked. She pulled off her gloves, removed the shield and threw it away, then rubbed her eyes to get rid of the sand but now the tears came, stinging her nostrils, spreading their salty taste in the back of her mouth.
The wind grabbed hold of her when she stood up to leave, it shoved her in the back, almost toppling her while the cliffs kept howling behind her, calling out tattered words she couldn’t escape and didn’t want to understand. She tried to get away, didn’t want to listen, but the sand was soft and deep and her boots sank into it, it was like treading water. In the end you always sink no matter how you fight, you’re pulled down and under until you can’t breathe. The pills were wearing off and the pain in her foot had returned, but she couldn’t stay here, she had to get back. So she went on, every step another stab of pain.
When she dared to turn around the cliffs were gone. The storm was blowing harder now, whipping up swirls and clouds of dust that filled the air and sky, making the landscape look exactly the same in all directions. She could feel the world turning, tumbling and spinning around her until she had no idea where she had come from or where she was going. Standing there, assaulted by the wind, she hesitated, squinting up at the sun until her unprotected eyes burned, vainly trying to remember the position it had been in before.
It seemed to her that there were other shapes surrounding her in the storm, but she couldn’t see clearly and they always seemed to stay right at the edges of her field of vision, flitting in and out, uncertain and unseen. They flickered in the wind and the light, then disappeared completely when she turned to face them. Shadows. Sand. Wind.
Maybe it’s the search party, she thought. Sent out to find me. Maybe they just landed and found the empty capsule. She shouldn’t have thrown away the UV-shield. It was so difficult to see in the shimmering sand and sunlight.
She screamed, but the sound of her own voice being devoured by the wind was so strange that she immediately fell silent again. After a while the shapes around her disappeared and the air seemed to clear. She was alone and started moving again, more slowly than before, dragging that left foot. The fatigue overcame her then, it entered her mind and her body like a familiar, almost welcome warmth in the chest, spreading slowly into her arms and legs.
It was like it had been when she dragged the others across the ridge. The fatigue had been like an inviting, seductive heaviness - making it difficult to move and even more difficult to think.
Soon, she thought and struggled on, they’ll be here soon. Maybe they’re already here.
When she finally reached the capsule, she collapsed inside as the airlock closed, and lay there for a while with her flushed, wind-burned face resting on the floor, listening to the wind howling through the holes and cracks inside her, just as it had howled through the cliffs.
There was nobody there. Nobody had come for her.
She took two pills before sitting down at the work-desk. It was difficult to get the boot off because of the swelling, and the searing reddish blue bruise had spread halfway up her calf and shin. Carefully, she wrapped her ankle with a cooling bandage and felt the throbbing subside. She pulled up the diagrams and graphs on-screen, all the data she had previously collected from the test sites, and she sat there staring at the screen, trying to make sense of it all. It was so difficult to concentrate, so difficult to see, as if the sparkling sand and sunlight were still in her eyes. The report was incomplete, but maybe it would still be enough for a terra-forming license. It would have looked better with the info from the probe, but it was too late to do anything about that.
I can’t do it all by myself, she thought angrily. They’ll understand that. They have to understand that.
She felt her lacerated forehead and saw blood on her fingers.
The damn probe.
If they had just listened to her it would have been so much easier, but she had done the best she could under the circumstances. She had done what had to be done.
It had been roughly six months into their trip, barely halfway through their mission.
When she had accepted the position with the research team, she had thought that analyzing and classifying the planets in the sector they had been assigned would challenge her terra-forming knowledge. After only a month on board she had realized that it was going to be very different than she had imagined. The work was monotonous and repetitive and mostly consisted of evaluating long-distance sensor info, not analyzing environments on-site like she wanted to do. The others always found something that ruled out surface expeditions, and soon every new planet became just another source of disappointment.
Scanning the first long-distance data for this planet, she had immediately realized that it was ideal, near perfect for terra-forming, and she had wanted to get down there immediately. It was true that they had lost contact with the first probe, but that was just a technical mishap, and the others ought to have given in when she reported the impressive info from the second probe. Instead, they had requested access to the raw data feed. She had refused because it was unnecessary, but the others remained obsessed with seeing that raw feed. In spite of her expertise, in spite of the well-written reports and the excellent stats she provided, they did not want to listen to her.
She ate even though she wasn’t hungry. The whole time she could hear the wind outside - the sand hissing as it drifted over the dunes and rocks. She could feel it on her face, hear its mournful whine through the crevices and crannies of the cliffs. Voices. Their voices. She shook her head when she heard what they were saying. No, she said, no, it wasn’t like that. But that didn’t silence them.
She didn’t go to bed when darkness fell. It was impossible to see the sunset from inside the capsule, but you could see the sky shift from dark blue to black and then the night sky was split in half by the galaxy’s wide spiral arm, its brilliant white starlight casting shadows on the ground. She turned off all the lights until just the screen on the desk remained lit behind her: a cold, pale light fuelled by statistics, data, numbers, plans. More distant than starlight.
It was very cold out there at night. Ice and frozen sand, frost and cold fingers curled as though they were still trying to grab hold of something. Other hands stretched out as if to protect, or fend off. The wind was picking up, she heard the sand scraping against the windows and the hull, and she covered her face with her hands so that it wouldn’t get into her eyes.
If it drifts up against the door, she thought and the wind was screaming in her ears now, could not be shut out. If it drifts over the top and buries me.
The screams and the voices rushed at her, the words clearer now, more distinct, but she shook her head because they didn’t know, they didn’t see, they couldn’t know, they couldn’t see.
How long now?
She looked at the useless watch that kept flashing the same numbers, the same moment again and again and again.
They would find her. It was just a question of time.
When they finally did come she didn’t dare to move at first, hardly dared to breathe so as not to scare them, but they seemed completely unafraid.
I knew they’d come, she thought, leaning closer to see better - just the glass separating her from them now. She raised her hand in greeting, placing it on the window, fingers spread.
After a while they disappeared from sight and she stood up. The thermal suit was hanging in the closet but she didn’t need it.
They finally came. I knew they would. I knew they would come for me.
The door closed behind her as the outer hatch opened. She ventured into the darkness, into the cold, where they were waiting for her.
The capsule was almost completely buried when they reached it, and he thought to himself that it resembled a rock or a cliff formation, a part of the planet itself.
“Get going,” he said, pulling irritably at his tight silver collar adorned with the black leadership pin. “Looks like we’ll have to dig our way in.”
The wind pulled at his hood and the sand lashed his face when he turned around, squinting up at the ridge further away.
A noise. Distant.
He tried to catch it again but it was difficult to hear with the hood pulled up over his head.
It took less than ten minutes for the team to dig their way down to the outer hatch. When they were done they stood silent for a moment, leaning on their shovels. In their black outfits with silver click-seams they resembled nothing so much as a gathering of mourners.
The corpse patrol, he thought, brushing the sand off his shoulders. A well-deserved nickname perhaps, but they could at least have given us suits that look a little more cheerful.
“Perhaps their comm-system has been damaged,” he said in a loud voice to make himself heard over the wind. “We can’t know for sure. They may still be alive.”
When he closed his mouth grains of sand cracked between his teeth.
The hatch opened and they looked at each other but didn’t need to speak: they had all done this before. When they stepped inside they prepared themselves for the smell and sight of death.
“Light,” he said and the capsule was illuminated.
The tension eased slightly around his shoulders and neck. Most of the interior seemed intact. Only one computer unit appeared to be damaged, its interface panel black and cracked but the screen on the work-desk seemed active. In a corner they found bloodstained clothing and empty packs of painkillers.
“Somebody’s been working here, after the crash,” one of his crew said after checking the work-desk.
“Working on what?”
“Looks like observation stats. They must have set up a couple of stations judging by this. But nothing from the probe as far as I can tell, neither the first nor the second one.”
“Not surprising considering that we haven’t found any traces of them either. Not even a positioning blip.”
“Crew of four, right?”
“Two men, two women, the usual. One terra-former, a couple of engineers, a ship’s specialist.”
“Somebody must have been injured. Almost half the pain pills are gone from the medical supply.”
“Okay,” he said. “A search party. You three. One k radius to start. Maybe they’ve collapsed close by. Look for tracks.”
“With this wind it’ll be difficult to find any kind of tracks. Anything older than a few hours, maybe even less, will be gone.”
“I know. But look anyway.”
“If they’ve spent the night outside they must be dead by now. It’s pure desert and tundra out there.”
When the others had left, he haphazardly went through the furnishings, the bedding and toolboxes.
“I don’t think they’ve been here for quite a while,” said his second in command who was still going through the work-desk entries. “The last info is a few weeks old already. Before that it seems to have been used almost daily.”
“So where are they?” he asked testily. “The life-support systems are intact and as far as I can tell the hull is intact as well. The rest of it is no worse than that they should’ve been able to fix it in a couple of days. The food and water supplies have hardly been touched, the solar panels are working. Why aren’t they here? Try to find the ship’s log. It must be here somewhere.”
“Maybe they snapped. Wouldn’t be the first time that happened. You and I have been on enough expeditions to know that. The psych problems in these teams are rampant. Even worse than our own.”
He was standing by the window, peering out into the sunlight.
Nothing but sand and wind out there, he thought. Sand and wind. Finally he said:
“Out there, when we approached. Did you hear something?”
“Hear something? Like what?”
In the light he could make out a palm print on the window.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Kind of a yell, or howl.”
“I didn’t hear anything. Could’ve been just the wind. This place is not too inviting. Blustery to say the least. That sand gets everywhere and it’s as cold as a deep freeze at night.”
“No worse than many other places they’ve terra-formed.”
“We’ve found them.”
The sudden sound from the comm-link in his ear gave him a start even though he’d been expecting it. He adjusted the volume behind his earlobe: it was always set too loud.
“What shape are they in?” he asked.
“Dead. Have been dead for quite a while. Since the crash is my guess. Frozen solid by now. But there are only three of them here. One of the women is missing.”
“Cause of death?”
“Two of them have skull fractures and some serious lacerations. Death was probably caused by a sharp object to the head. Almost identical injuries on both. Could’ve happened during the emergency landing I guess, but I don’t want to speculate. The third has some broken bones and signs of internal injuries. We’ve found the ship’s log but it’s useless. Looks like somebody tried to erase it. Not a professional job, but there are only bits and pieces left.”
“Erased it? And no sign of the fourth?”
“Nothing so far.”
To hell with it, he thought and held up his hand to shield his eyes from the light. To hell with all of it.
When they left four days later he was standing by the round observation window in the gathering hall, watching as the planet’s illuminated crescent disappeared beneath them. The three bodies were resting in the cargo hold, sealed in shiny metal containers.
“Seems perfect for terra-forming,” his second in command remarked.
“But without complete stats they can’t begin. And they don’t know when the next science team can be sent out here. They’re pretty busy elsewhere.”
That elicited a derisive snort.
“Busy. Right. If they’d start terra-forming now, it could be ready for colonization within the next decade. Instead we have to wait for another expedition before the process can begin. Sending out another ship could take several years considering how slowly Search and Science works.”
“The regulations are there for a reason.”
“But following them is occasionally a waste of time. We both know that. As if we have all the time in the world. As if we can afford to be picky. You know my opinion. These manned expeditions are a waste of resources. A couple of robot teams could make evaluations on flyby, maybe not all that precise but good enough. We don’t have to be so thorough.”
He said nothing, just blew on the hot cup of tea he had just poured, watching the steam fog up the window.
“They’re running an analysis on the remains of the ship in Tech-lab right now,” the other man continued. “But with the crumbs they have to work with, it’ll be difficult to determine what really took place.”
“What do you think happened to her?”
“Anything could have happened to her. Most likely an accident on the way to one of those useless monitoring stations she set up.”
“But no body.”
“No body. Maybe she overdosed on pain pills like the ship’s specialist. Maybe she committed suicide out there in the sand somewhere. We’d never find her.”
“And the probes? Two of them gone and not a trace. And the monitoring stations? Every instrument smashed.”
“She must have done it before she killed herself or got herself lost. Psychosis. How many times have we seen that before? A couple of months down there all alone would drive anybody crazy. It was a stupid idea to set up those stations, but I guess it gave her something to do anyway.”
The stars were dense here in the inner spiral arms of the galaxy, and they stood silent side by side looking at scraps of white starlight while the ship kept going.
Cold, he thought. It must have been so very cold.
“Long shifts for those teams,” his second in command mused. “Enormous psychological pressure. I don’t envy them. Hey. Are you listening?”
He felt the tug at his sleeve and turned, but instead of the other man’s face he saw the ridge and its shadow and the shimmering ice crystals that had shattered beneath the soles of his boots when they had gone down into the hollow to pack up the bodies.
If it wasn’t so cold.
He closed his eyes so the sand would not get into his eyes.
“The wind,” he said finally. “Almost like voices sometimes even though you can’t understand what they’re saying.”
“What are you talking about?”
But he turned away, staring out the window again.
I wonder what she saw, he thought, placing his palm on the window, fingers sprawled on the glass as if in a greeting, but all he could feel was the cold outside.
This story originally appeared in The short story collection "Odin's Eye"..
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