Stack Goes Walking
by James A. Ford
part 1 of 2
The desert sand was a dark coral colour. Its texture was so fine that it reminded Stack of sand from inside an hourglass. He had never seen sand like this before, at least not while awake; there was an idea in the recesses of his mind that he had walked once before in a similar desert, a long-faded dream desert.
Stack smiled as he plodded on. Dreams would not help him here. Each step he took was a struggle. The sand, though beautiful to look at, seemed to reach out and suck his feet down with every step as the wind whipsawed constantly. It was agony; the few seconds one normally spent in walking ten feet were stretched into minutes. The whole damn planet was one dusty hellhole, but this place, this desert, was the very definition of barren wasteland. Stack smiled anyway: why not? He was still alive, and that was something.
His transport had crashed halfway across this alien desert. The complement of four was made up of himself and the three shuttle crew. All were company men; Stack, however, was the only one of semi-importance: his survey skills had made money for the company, although probably not enough for them to spend much time searching for him in this far-off region of the quadrant. He was all too aware that this planet was not even fully charted. How would the company even begin to know where to search?
He’d sat with the remains of the shuttle for two days. Of the four crew, only he and Flynn, the pilot, had survived the crash, and Flynn just barely. After Flynn had died, Stack made up his mind to do whatever it took not to end up the same way. He was determined to survive and just as determined not to balk at using any means at his disposal.
Stack wasn’t stupid, he knew there was little to be gained from trying to walk out; the desert was large, and from his calculations he knew he was roughly in the centre of it. Several hundred kilometres of sand lay between him and civilization in any direction he chose. He had to try though; he had to do something.
Yesterday, after Flynn had died with one final dry wheeze, Stack had drunk all the remaining water reserves he couldn’t carry. He’d thought long and hard about what to do with Flynn’s body. Once he’d decided, the rest had gone quickly. Stack had just started walking away from the wreckage of the craft.
That was a full Terran day ago; and although he could no longer see the mangled shuttle; he knew that the day of walking had not netted him much of a gain. Five kilometres, tops, he thought. Pathetic. He knew that unless he stumbled across someone in this vast empty expanse he would not live much longer. Someone or something.
Stack stopped and peered out at the rolling desert dunes disappearing off to the horizon in every direction. Nothing moved. He sighed and reached into his carry pack. His stomach rumbled and his mouth was watering despite his advancing dehydration. He found the food, pulled it out and started gnawing immediately. "Tastes like chicken," he said out loud in a raspy cackle, and immediately started laughing.
* * *
Nement surveyed the damage to the shuttle craft. It was badly twisted from the crash. He was not surprised it had met this end: to Nement the ship looked woefully inadequate for desert travel; too small to withstand the low-altitude wind storms that ravaged the desert during this season.
He smirked and blinked his eyes in the order that had become habit for him since infancy: top left, then top right, then bottom right and finally bottom left. This allowed Nement to have stereoscopic vision at all times. This ability was of extreme importance in this desert landscape. Bleak and empty as it seemed, dangers lurked everywhere, behind every dune and under every rock.
Nement took out his auto long-viewers and turned up the magnitude to give a wide, sharp field view. He placed the view pan in front of all his eyes and scanned in every direction. Nothing was moving out there but drifting sand. Satisfied, he took off his battle armour, which although light in weight was quite bulky and made movement in close spaces awkward. Then he crawled through one of the exit portals of the crashed ship to explore and salvage anything of value or practical use.
He was immediately greeted by the raw stench of rotting meat. Two dead humanoids lay in pieces on the floor of the shuttle, they appeared to have been dead only a few days. The desert heat was magnified within the closed metal shuttle and the putrefaction of the carcasses had begun in earnest.
Nement had seen many different species come through this desert. He often wondered what important trade route ran over this area, one that compelled so many to risk their lives travelling over what was basically a wasteland. Life was hard enough for those who had lived in the desert their whole lives; outlanders who found themselves stranded here were not alert to its deadly ways and didn’t have much of a chance.
The smell of the dead, although rank, made Nement salivate. He crawled back out the portal and refastened his body armour. He had found nothing inside the craft and felt frustrated that he couldn’t take something away from this find. He circled the wrecked shuttle again and this time noticed another door. He smiled showing many of his fifty-four sharp, pointed teeth. A storage bin, he thought, and a large one, maybe full of all manner of goodies.
Nement turned the latch; it wasn’t locked. He pulled open the door pointing his Gredulin Sager pistol towards the bin, just in case. Inside was the body of another humanoid, this one barely smelling at all. Nement got down close to take a good look. The bin compartment faced away from the sun and the decay had barely started. His first thought was that this humanoid had survived the crash and crawled into the compartment to avoid the sun. Then Nement stood up abruptly. The humanoid had been partially eaten.
* * *
Stack chewed thoughtfully and wondered if this was to become a habit. He remembered watching a history disc once; it showed ancient footage of people in strange clothing drawing smoke from small white burning paper cylinders into their lungs. The cylinders were full of a poisonous weed that grew in vast fields on Terra. Even though this weed had been proven to kill gradually, many who tried the smoke developed a habit that was by all accounts very hard to stop.
He smiled to himself and thought that if his taste for human meat became a habit it would also surely kill him. Someone would discover his secret and he would be dealt with. Right now, though, he didn’t care.
The meat had started to turn; Stack was concerned that it would make him sick if he didn’t stop eating it soon. Even a minor ailment, like the runs, would be the end of him out here. With no way to replace the fluids, he’d dry up like a prune in hours.
One last bite and Stack threw crewman Flynn’s mostly eaten left arm over a dune. He watched as the ravaged limb tumbled to the base of the sand hill. For a moment he wanted to go after it, whether to retrieve it or simply to throw himself away as well, he wasn’t sure. He continued to stare down the dune; then, with an effort he broke off his stare and started walking again through the never-ending sand.
* * *
Nement drew a deep breath through his four large nostrils; they were hooded by a large nose-like overhang of cartilage. His sense of smell was very sensitive and he could tell much from this fresh carcass.
He smiled his toothy smile again and took out a large knife. He hacked off crewman Flynn’s remaining arm and greedily sucked at the blood and fluids that dripped from the stump. He then tilted the body so it stopped leaking. He wrapped the arm in a special plastic compound that would keep it fresh longer and started off after the survivor who had eaten the other arm. Whoever that humanoid was, Nement knew he promised to be much fresher then the ones decaying in the abandoned shuttle.
* * *
Stack felt complete exhaustion. He had run out of water and had not eaten in two Terran days. The heat was incredible, like living in a slow cooker. This was the end. He knew he could not last more than a few hours. At his back lay an outcropping of rock that blocked the sun; it was the only shade he had seen since abandoning the shuttle, and he was not about to leave it.
Stack’s head rested on a bed of sand that the winds had pooled around the rock outcrop like a large pillow. He buried himself in the sand, which acted as a cooling insulation and protected him from the fierce wind. If he died here... when he died here... he knew he would at least be as comfortable as possible.
An hour later and Stack had fallen into a delirious semi-comatose state. He had just enough wits left to see through dehydration blurred eyes the figure approaching him. Stack tried to recoil when the creature’s image grew clearer as it moved closer; but he soon gave up, knowing one way or the other that death had surely arrived.
Nement looked down at the humanoid partly buried in the sand. It was well on its death journey, and Nement could not allow that journey to continue. He knelt down and dug under the sand and grabbed the humanoid’s leg. The creature flinched but otherwise put up no struggle.
Nement pulled from his belt pack a short sharp needle filled with a grayish green liquid. He jabbed it home in Stack’s leg and grinned a toothy grin at the humanoid’s sudden response to the sharp pain. Good, thought Nement. It wasn’t that far gone after all, it can still feel pain. The humanoid will survive. Nement sat back to wait.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by James A. Ford