The landing was rough.
The ship tore an incandescent blaze through the planet’s outer atmosphere, trailing great streamers of smoke and debris as chunks of the hull detached and burnt up. It fell from the sky, landed in a vast desert and cracked open. The rear half exploded in a great fireball, whilst the remainder slewed along the sand, leaving a blackened furrow almost half a mile long. Finally, the vessel came to rest. Its silvered edges gleamed as the smoke began to disperse and the light from the planet’s parent-star settled upon the battered, cooling flanks.
After a time, a hatch irised open, and two figures appeared. Stepping down onto the hot shifting sand, they walked a little way from the wreckage and surveyed both this and their new horizons. Desert sands stretched to rippling infinity, the air was hot and dry, the sky deep blue and cloudless.
Taka removed his helmet. “Shit.”
Paz followed suit, taking experimental gulps of the air. “Yeah. We were lucky.”
“Lucky? The ship is destroyed, Taros is unconscious.” Taka rubbed his eyes, his head was pounding. “What part of any of that was -”
“We’re alive,” Paz grinned.
“Great.” Taka tossed his helmet into the sand, watched it sink a little way then begin to fill as hot winds blew fresh grains. “I suppose.”
Paz looked at his wrist. “Four-fifths nitrogen, remainder oxygen, trace carbon, argon . . . Not too unlike home. Breathable, anyway, like they said.”
“Amazing.” Taka flopped down in the shifting sand, shaking his head. “Aside from the fact the ship’s carked, and we didn’t have time to launch a distress.”
Paz was nodding. “The interface was off, just a few degrees. That’s never happened before.”
“No. It hasn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. Command will catch the signal loss, they’ll send someone.”
“We’ll be dead before they get here.” Taka watched smoke curling from the nearby wreckage. For a few seconds neither spoke, then Taka got up from the sand. “I’m going to check on Taros.” He set off across the yielding floor, shielding his eyes against the sun’s glare.
Taros was still breathing, but other than that, it didn’t look good. There was a nasty gash across his temple, blood was leaking from his ears and nose. The med-unit was doing its best, but this too was damaged, the bio-read flickering every now and then like a fluttering eyelid upon its cracked screen. Curse the stars! How were they to survive this? Taka laid a hand upon his friend’s chest and whispered a blessing, then stomped outside again.
Paz was gulping from his canteen. Water splashed from the sides of the canister, trickling down his chin.
“Easy on that,” Taka warned.
Paz belched. “We got more. I bet we can find more too.” He offered the bottle. “You saw the oceans, right? And from what I caught of this terrain before the heat-shield deployed, it’s not all desert. I saw mountains beyond these dunes. We may find water there.”
“Have you taken stock?” Taka shouted, sweeping his arm to indicate the shattered hull. “The water units were in the tail section, Paz! What’s left is maybe enough for a week. As for those mountains, they could be hundreds of miles away! If we’re really lucky, and Command weren’t sleeping, we’re still looking at two cycles till they get someone out to us . . . ” He paused, staring at the canteen, then tipped the water into his mouth. It was cold, instantly refreshing; he felt his mind clear a little. “What if the rover’s damaged?”
Paz slapped his shoulder. “If there’s a chance it’ll end your pessimism, let us go check!”
Luck was on their side; the rover was a little battered, but seemed serviceable. Taka deployed the ramp and guided the six huge wheels onto the soft yellow sand. Paz jumped aboard, but before he closed the hatch: “What about Taros?”
Taka gave a grim smile. “Nothing we can do for him that the ‘bots can’t. Anyway, no water, we’re all screwed.”
“Inspiring,” Paz chided, and activated the door. “So, which of us is in charge now that Taros is out of action?”
Taka gave a small laugh. “Who cares? But I’m driving.”
The rover started off across the sand, and was soon lost to its immensity.
Time bore on, marked by endless miles of white dunes and baking sun (and the corresponding hum as the rover’s cooling systems fought to compensate). When night at last began to fall, the headlights came on and cast bright pools. The first faint stars appeared in the sky, but the air remained thick with heat.
Paz studied the wheeling pinpoints beyond the cockpit dome. “All that emptiness. What makes us think we’re even beginning to make a difference?” He turned to Taka, who was staring grimly ahead. “What’s your take?”
“What do you mean?”
Paz swept his hand expressively across the dome of the rover. “We’ve colonised a quarter of a million planets, and counting, mined the life out of nearly double that. We have the resources of millennia. Why continue?”
Taka shrugged. “We’re not going to be mining this one, are we? Anyway, you signed up.”
Paz laughed, nodded. “Pay-check this big who wouldn’t?” The smile faded. “I just sometimes feel like, I don’t know . . . Like we’re going to overreach one of these days, extend our grip a little too far, and the whole thing will start to unravel. I mean, within a few millennia we’ve gone from using rocks for tools to drilling holes in the fabric of the universe. Now it seems all we’re doing is darting from planet to planet and stripping them bare, like some excited little species of insect. When are we content?”
Taka turned, studying his companion’s profile in the low cabin light. “I’ll be content when we find a way off this hell-hole.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Look, now’s maybe not the best time to worry about that.” He tapped the dashboard. “We’ve got an hour or so till the tanks are half spent, at which point we either turn back, or keep going.”
“We can’t leave Taros.”
Taka scowled. “What difference does it make? Have you forgotten? If we don’t find more water, we’re all dead.” He glared for a moment, then his tone changed. “He’s my friend too, but if we reach halfway on our fuel, turning back means death. So until we find water, I’m not – oh!”
They both stared at the dashboard, where a small light had started to blink. “Something big,” Paz whispered, craning forward to scan the darkness.
It was a mountain.
“Must be over a mile high,” Paz whistled. “And the damn thing’s made of sand. Pull up, let’s get out and have a look.”
Taka slowed the rover, killed the lights. Together they dismounted and started across the dark grey dunes. A series of stippled ridges led up to the mountain’s flat peak. Its dark outline soared above them, silhouetted like a giant fist against the night. They stopped a few hundred yards from the first immense ridge and stared up.
Taka frowned. “Is that vegetation? I can’t tell, too damn dark.”
Paz turned his wrist, studied the screen. “Copper ore, gold, malachite . . . Nothing organic, at least in the vicinity.”
Taka cursed, kicked the sand. “We can’t go round it!” He turned to the mountain and shouted, “Get out of the way!” Then, to Paz’s surprise, he fell to his knees and started to scream.
“Stop it,” Paz said. “What use is there?”
Taka punched the sand, groaning. Finally, he collected himself. He stood, breathing hard. “We’re screwed.”
“No. There’s still enough juice to get most of the way round, and damn it, we’ll walk the rest if we have to. And besides -”
A loud cry from the darkness made them both start with shock.
“What was that?” Taka was looking around wildly.
“It sounded like an animal,” Paz whispered, reaching for his companion.
From the shadows some way ahead they saw a bright yellow glow. It hovered near the foot of the mountain, flickering. Other lights joined it, and now strange, high-pitched cries. The lights started to come their way.
“Curse the stars!” Taka was backing towards the rover. “What are they?”
“We don’t have weapons!”
“Get back to the rover!”
They ran. The rover was a small dark shape against the desert, impossibly far. Sand sucked at their feet, the strange yelps and howls grew louder and now they could hear rapid thudding sounds, rising faster yet.
Suddenly Paz cried out. He pitched forward and fell still. Taka stopped, staring down. Something was sticking out of Paz’s back, a long, narrow shaft, still quivering.
“Paz!” Taka ran to him, but before he got there something struck him hard and he was down too. His puzzled gaze took in the spear protruding from his chest. The thudding sounds were upon him. He watched as the creatures came into view: Dozens of them, pouring from the darkness, giant four legged things, with rippling muscles and long necks, and upon each of these sat yet another species, this one bipedal, impossibly tall and thin, clad about their waists in strange white skins. Several of these beings were holding spears like the one currently protruding from his stomach. The tallest of them leapt down from its monstrous steed and came towards him. It stopped a few feet away, a towering silhouette, then turned and addressed the others. Murmuring replies. The creature took hold of the spear in Taka’s chest and pulled. There was no pain; the spear slid free, bodily fluids jetted in its wake. The creature raised the spear above its head.
Taka stared into that strange, pale face, the narrow mouth flapping near its chin, the tiny centralised nose holes, the questing, dark-ringed eyes. He whispered, “Water.” His own eyes widened in horror as the spear came down again, before closing forever.
Sebakstet stared in disgust at the tiny bleeding form upon the sand. He heard a soft thud, and turned to see his brother, Sabaf, padding across to the other stricken being. “Have caution, Sabaf,” he called across. “I’m not sure that one is dead.”
“What are they?” his brother said. He reached the creature and nudged it with his toe. “Some demon, cast from the underworld? My heart had begun to follow sleep, and then I heard these things cry out!”
Torchlight flared, as one by one the soldiers joined them. They hopped from their steeds, gazing down at the two tiny beings with nervous mistrust. “Don’t act thus, speechless!” Sebakstet shouted. “The creatures are dead. Let your horses bear them back to camp.” He bent to the carcass and pulled free his spear a second time.
One of the soldiers said, “They are demons, captain. Perhaps the day of the landing is upon us. If we touch them, will we not be taken to Tu-at?”
Sebaskset shot the man a dark look. “A night is made for you now if you do not obey my orders.”
One by one, they moved reluctantly towards the bodies and bent to the task, lifting the creatures, trying to ignore the glistening material of their clothing, the staring yellow pupils glinting in the torchlight, the strange, sickly scent that emanated from the dark green skin and the bright pus leaking where the spears had pierced.
Sebakstet turned to his brother and pointed to the black shape on the horizon. “They were running for that small object yonder.”
“What is it?”
“I do not know, brother,” Sebkstet took the bridle of his horse and leapt into the saddle, “but Pharaoh will not smile kindly to learn his finest soldiers quailed from battle. If it be another enemy, then let us go oppose its movements! We shall be brave!” He grinned. “Until the day of landing comes!”