By A.G. Hilton

(From Issue #4 October 2020)

Her world exploded in flashing lights racing across the instrument panels; alarms blaring in her ears; a sickening tilt in her stomach as the artificial gravity faltered and the ship tilted wildly. All the while her head pounded as a familiar pain lodged like shrapnel in her brain.

They were going to crash.

Shelia knew this as surely as anything and yet even in the chaos, a part of her mind calmly asked: why? She remembered no collisions, no bombardments, no indications of imminent system failure. And yet they were going to crash.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Shephard’s hands flew over the controls wildly. “Nothing’s responsive. It’s like we hit some kind of EMP field or techno-shielding, but the goddamn sensors didn’t even chirp!”

Shelia fought with her own control module but to no avail. The ship plummeted planetside in a ball of white heat.

The two of them scrambled wordlessly to secure themselves, each accepting the inevitability of the next moments and bracing for the impact. Shephard offered his hand across the center console. Shelia took it, squeezed, and closed her eyes.

*~*~*

For a time, there was darkness. Then it came to her: a blaring, incessant sound. She moaned and batted a hand as if trying to silence her morning alarm when the pain settled into her body bringing with it total clarity.

I’m alive.

A feeling of joy lifted Shelia in a pure elation of survival which for a time blotted out all else. Then she became aware of the blaring sound once more. Eyes darting to the feebly illuminated readouts on her screen, her joy in survival broke away. The fuel cells had ruptured. If a single spark contacted the fuel residue, she knew that her surviving the crash would be inconsequential.

“Shephard, we’ve got to move!”

Shephard did not heed her. Struggling to be free from her safety harness, she called his name again. Shephard sat limply in his seat, his head at an odd angle.

She disengaged herself from her own safety restraints and flew to her partner’s side. Working quickly but carefully she pulled him free of his own harnesses and laid him as gently as she could on the floor. Scrambling past him toward the back of the vessel, she felt a numbness and sickening nausea wash over her. This whole thing was a dream, had to be. It was a familiar but terrible nightmare from which she would soon awake. However, no sooner had the thought occurred, the full and horrible reality of the predicament set in with a glance at the respirator suits: they lay thrown about their storage compartment, visors smashed, material torn and useless.

Seeing no other option, she went to the hatch. The controls were down, but the manual safety lock seemed to be intact, and with great effort she managed to throw it open expecting choking gases or fierce frozen winds to decide her fate before the fuel cell explosion. Neither came.

Heat wafted in at her, bringing with it coarse sand and dry but breathable air. She took only a moment to reflect on the bit of blind luck before rushing back to the ship’s pilot cabin and the limp Shephard. Grasping him under his arms, she hauled him back through the ship, heedless of the still blaring alarms from the control cabin. She dragged him through the hatch and deposited him on a mound of sand beside the wreckage. That accomplished, she made one more foray into the ship, hauling out a black case and a duffle bag; both of which she laid beside her partner.

“Shephard? Shephard, come on!” She patted his face lightly with no response. Hesitantly, she reached for his throat with two fingers, but the way his head lolled in response to her touch confirmed her fears before she felt the absence of a rhythmic beat. Shephard was gone.

The sting of tears came immediately, but her desire to mourn clashed with her survival drive and its own blaring alarms inside her skull. Through blurred vision she took stock of the situation. The land around her lay barren, a repetition of dune upon dune as far as she could see. Aside from a rocky outcropping in the distance, the world was a swirl of whiteness under an empty and cloudless sky.

She looked at the duffle bag and the long black case she’d retrieved. She had enough rations to last for a few months and the small evaporative unit could draw out the water supply a little longer, given there was any moisture to be drawn out of the air. The disassembled plasma rifle might just weigh her down. Another look at her surroundings told her that game — likely life in general — would be sparse to non-existent in this dead place.

Then she saw something, a glint flashed against a rocky outcropping in the distance. Training reflex brought her to the ground beside Shephard’s body. She recognized the glint instantly, the reflection of a rifle scope. Perhaps the planet was not as dead as it seemed. Perhaps whomever had disabled the ship had come to clean up.

She tried to remain cool-headed, but the panic expanded in her chest with each thump of her heart. She knew how exposed she was, that it would be nothing for an average marksman to pick her off. She thought of her own rifle, knew that she would not have time to remove and assemble the components. An acrid smell in the air reminded her of the fuel cells. Then her eyes found Shephard’s. The eyelids had parted as she had moved him, the whites of his eyes beneath looked back at her emptily.

Panic ignited fear. Shelia snatched up the bag and black case, heedless of the possible sniper on the ridge, and plunged away over the nearest sand dune.

*~*~*

Shelia didn’t know how much time had passed before the explosion sent a gust of acrid wind blowing over her. Her flight had been a thing of pure instinct. Wildly, she plunged across the yielding sands, her calves screaming with the strain until, at last, she had collapsed against a monstrous dune shaking uncontrollably. She’d thought she’d heard a scream then, a mournful howl carried on the wind just before the detonation of the wreckage, but she could not be sure.

For a time, she could only lay there. She’d had the awareness to throw a blanket from the survival kit over herself to protect against the beams beating relentlessly down, but already she felt the beginnings of sunburn on her face and hands. These things were distant. Her mind was elsewhere; in her thoughts she was still with Shephard, returning from their reconnaissance mission primed for leave, and she was bursting with good news. Once we land, she had told herself, once we land, I’ll tell Shephard he is going to be a father.

She allowed the tears at last. And as they spilled down either side of her sunburned face, she could not be bothered about the waste of moisture.

*~*~*

Food would not be a problem. The condensed nutrient packs in the survival kit would sustain her for months, possibly longer. Of primary concern was the water. She had enough to hold her over a period of weeks if she conserved it, but the portable evaporator proved unable to draw much moisture from the air. Survival seemed more and more a lonely and pointless game, the conclusion of which might be brought about sooner using the plasma rifle.

But she wouldn’t let herself give in so easily. It was not just her life at stake.

She allowed her mind to focus on the one hope that remained, no matter how remote its likelihood: she knew that the ship’s last coordinates would have been broadcasting even as the crash occurred. As soon as the Corps outpost stopped receiving the transmission, they would dispatch a recovery team. But how long it would take for a ship to reach her, she could only guess.

*~*~*

Shelia assembled the plasma rifle at last. Her fear of the possible hostile presence had been rekindled. Over the previous days, she thought she had glimpsed a solitary figure following her. Sometimes there even appeared to be one ahead of her. Although, at this point a run in with anything, even a Skree war party, would have been a welcome change of pace from the stillness. But they were likely hallucinations, combinations of mirages and her heat exhausted mind which she could guess was beginning to unravel.

There was no way to tell how long she’d wandered or how far. The desert continued, a limitless expanse of ever shifting geography. Hot winds stirred the sands, filling in footprints as she went, covering up any telltale tracks behind her, and constantly remolding her surroundings. Once, she waited and watched as a section of dune seemed to break away only to reform seemingly exactly as it had been minutes later. Her disorientation was worsened by the perpetual sunlight, for the planet seemed to rotate in an incredibly slow manner, if it even rotated at all. The whole world seemed unstable, unstuck from any points of reference that would denote the passage of time or the accumulation of progress. Her existence spiraled into a maddening swirl of heat stricken Deja-vu under a perpetual sun and she wondered if she was beginning to feel the same grinding erosion of sanity which took those crews unfortunate enough to become stranded in the deep midnight between stars.

Eventually, not knowing how long a day in this world might stretch, she gave up on the notion of being able to wait to travel by nightfall and struck out in search of any shelter that might protect her from further heat exposure. She stumbled upon a rocky crag and climbed within its recesses, a haven of mercifully cool stone. Sickness rolled within her belly. Her head felt as though it had been staved in with a hammer. Greedily, she drank some of her water; it stung her cracking lips but felt like life rejuvenated inside her. Exhaustion closed in and her eyelids became leaden weights. In those moments before sleep, she imagined that she saw things clearly: this was just a nightmare. When she woke, Shephard would be fine. They would be en route to their rendezvous and all of this would forgotten.

*~*~*

How long she lay there she could not tell, but when she woke in a daze, the sunlight radiated just as strong as it had when shed taken shelter. Outside the wind continued to break down and reform the land about her.

I am in Hell, she thought wildly. Maybe I died in the crash or maybe we crashed into Hell itself.

Something in the thought struck her as funny in its absurd aptness and giggles rose in her from some empty and resigned place. She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle them, slamming the door on their source. They came from a place of delirium and dementia from which she feared she may never return if the door were allowed to fully open.

She felt isolated like she could have never fathomed before this barren waste. It was as though she had come unstuck in time. Her days spiraled into endless repetitions of the same natural cycles, her nights into maddening dreams of the crash and of her flight through the desert. Sometimes when the sun seemed to beam its hottest, she thought she saw figures coming toward her. As heat rose from the dune ridges, she saw them, one following the other seeming to stretch to an infinitely distant point.

Yet she would not allow her mind to break. Whatever would happen, she would see it through or decide her ending on her own terms. This world, with its unending bleakness and despair, had become an enemy more personal than any she had faced for the Corps, and she would not let it win.

She clutched at the bag of supplies beside her. It was nearly empty.

*~*~*

The roaring tore into Shelia’s nightmare. She’d dreamt of plummeting to the hot sands and woke feeling sick and disoriented. She sat and listened, thinking at first that it was just the endless wind finding some new crevice in the rocks. But it persisted. And what once was a sound carried by the wind seemed to grow louder and more concrete. Wrapped in her blanket, she leaned out into the heat and gasped as she saw light arc against the blue sky. A transport descended rapidly through the atmosphere.

Shouting and waving, she watched as it came down leaving a thin line of smoke behind. Only after pausing to watch the ship’s descent did she see that it was wrong. She knew from the speed at which the craft approached that it was no longer under the control of the pilot.

No!” Her unused voice came as a hoarse croak, the grinding of sand on rock. “Stop it! Stop it!”

The ship streaked down, now arcing her direction. She screamed incoherently, willing it to right itself, to settle gently into the sands. Meanwhile it tore above her head and when she heard the thump and felt the reverberations through her feet, she knew it was too late.

Gathering her things, she cursed her hopefulness. How could she imagine that her rescuers would be free from whatever disabled her own ship? Still the fierce, animalistic survivor in her had taken charge, coldly calculating the possibilities of further rations and survivors. She would live. She would live yet, and there would be another transport.

Climbing atop the rocky crag, she saw a thin line of smoke twisting in the wind. At its base, only a dot, she could see the wreckage. Scrambling back down, she retrieved her rifle and used its scope to survey the scene. A scout ship from the looks of it, like the kind she had once flown with Shephard. She could only look for a moment—the brightness of the land magnified through the scope made her head spin. The ship looked intact enough that someone may have survived. At the very least, food stores may be salvageable.

Then she was plodding toward the site, eyes ever fixed on the coiling smoke. As the ship came into view, her mind flew back to the crash, to Shephard’s lifeless eyes gazing into her own. As if conjured by the thought, she saw a form lying nearby in the sand. She ran to the crewman’s side but stopped within a few yards of him and fell to her knees.

The crewman stared at her with half opened eyes, the whiteness of the up rolled orbs burning into her mind with sickening recognition. But it couldn’t be. She rushed to the body, grabbed it and shook it so that it flopped limply. There on its chest was the undeniable evidence: a nametag reading J. Shephard.

I’ve broken, she thought in a voice from beyond the door of insanity. This is what is feels like to be lost within oneself. Then another voice, shouting, trying to drown out the call from the void: It’s a dream. All a dream. It must be a dream. Please God let it be a dream!

But when she ran to the ship, saw the state of the wreckage, felt its metal against her skin, she could not deny the reality of it. She fell to her knees and looked over her shoulder to see tracks leading away from the detritus and over the nearest sand dune just before the wind blew them away and in one horrible moment, she knew who had just fled across the desert.

She screamed. The fuel cells ignited. 

Her world exploded into flashing lights racing across the instrument panels; alarms blaring wildly; a sickening tilt filled her stomach as the artificial gravity faltered and the ship tilted wildly. All the while her head pounded as a familiar pain lodged like shrapnel in her brain.

End.

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