The Eyes of the Storm

by

Neil Carstairs



Can you hear that howling?

Thatís the sound of hundred-mile-an-hour winds whirling around your survival igloo.

Can you hear that groaning?

Thatís the lava crust shifting beneath you.

Can you hear that whimpering?

Thatís Wyatt, over in the corner. We thought he had The Right Stuff. Now heís slowly going insane -- if he isn't mad already.

So what are you going to do?

Your hand is on the iris release. Are you going outside? Think about it. The storm is still here, and has been for six hours. Prowling round the igloo as if itís a living thing. Maybe it is alive. Maybe Wyatt is right.

The first time Wyatt said he saw something was when the Lander was on final approach. A storm, a different storm than this one, came writhing like a snake from the south, engulfing the Lander with its ferocity. Thatís when Wyatt claimed he saw a gaping maw, lined with teeth, that opened around the Lander and tried to consume it. Mission Pilot Delap did what she could, fighting the terrifying force until the Lander broke free, three thousand kilometres off course, beaten and bruised. Mission Commander Lorenz chose an emergency landing site, what you thought was a dry lakebed. Pure luck you landed on solid ground. Twenty-five metres north and the Lander would have gone through the lava crust and into the fires of hell.

Remember taking stock? The team carried out what parts of their mission profile they could, while Bowden and Ross did running repairs to the external tanks and sensor arrays. Lorenz got you to set up the igloos the regulation Ďsafeí distance from the Lander, and it was only when you were done that Jackson felt the ground shift. Everyone thought Ďearthquakeí. It was Chavez who identified what it was. Lorenz told you to get to the Lander. Li was closest to the shore. She took two paces before her foot went through a soft spot. The air ignited around her leg, vaporising the limb, before the vent in the crust ruptured, and a geyser of flame leapt skywards, consuming her fully in the blink of an eye.

Lorenz told everyone to freeze. So you stood and waited as the sky began to darken ominously above the mountains and Wyatt began to babble in fear. What was it he said? The storm has eyes? Itís watching you like itís about to pounce?

Then the tempest came down. A dark, roaring blast of sand, dust and noise. The storm was a physical blow, a body-check from a linebacker that made you stagger and almost fall. The team was separated. Communications were shot to hell. You got to an igloo as the sand tore at your suit. Voices tumbled through your head. Ross and Bowden screaming, Chavez begging for help, Lorenz commanding people not to panic.

Your visor got sandblasted, vision down to sixty per cent. But you made it into the igloo, dragging poor Wyatt in as well. You looked back through the iris, holding it open as long as possible. What you saw chilled your blood. Chavez stumbled out of the gloom. His suit degrading before your eyes, fibres stripping and peeling away to reveal his skin as that, too, was torn away. The storm swirled around; particles eroded Chavezís flesh, epidermis, dermis, blood vessels, tissue and muscle. Carrying them all away until only bones remained and then they, too, crumbled to the attrition of the storm. You closed the iris with that image burned into your brain. Chavez was gone, sucked up into the maelstrom. It was like the storm had consumed him. Eaten him. As if the storm was a living being.

Youíve still got your hand on the iris control. Are you still thinking of trying to reach the Lander? Youíve scoped the distance at four hundred and twenty two metres. The last twenty-five are solid ground; the first three hundred and ninety seven are lava crust. What are the chances of getting across safely? Are you willing to take the chance? And what about the storm? Your suit is at seventy two per cent viability. The good people at Merrit-McFarlane, manufacturers of Exploration suits, will tell you that life support is non-sustainable below thirty percent.

So how fast can you run? Figure it down to seventy three seconds for the dash to the Lander, seven seconds for the lock to open to admit you and close to make you safe. Whatís that, eighty seconds? If your suit degrades at one half per cent per second, thatís a mighty close call. A stumble, a miscalculation on your sprinting speed, anything and that two per cent envelope is gone.

Are you still going to risk it? You think the wind is lessening, as if the storm has grown tired of waiting and is moving on in search of other prey. If thatís true, then your chances go up. If.

So, whatís it to be? Your hand is tightening on the iris control. Youíre going to do it. Youíre going out. I canít say I blame you. You can die in an attempt to reach the Lander, or you can stay in here and die in the company of a madman. The igloo is tougher than an Exploration suit, but it can't last forever. And even if it could, there's the question of consumables: air, water, rations Ö

Well, good luck. Donít forget to close the iris behind you. I donít want the storm coming in for me.

Just leave me here, lying in the igloo, alone.

All alone.

THE END



© 2006 by Neil Carstairs

Neil Carstairs is a saucy fellow, hailing from Worcester, England (NOTE:: This joke is the Editor's fault, not Neil's.) His work has appeared in Aphelion ( Never Say Die, March, 2005) in the December, 2005 issue of Byzarium webzine, and in the current (May 2006) issue of Quantum Muse.

E-mail: Neil Carstairs

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