Author : Joseph Hoye
A choice: the camp or the city. Carl would be dead within an hour if he approached the city without an offering for the Fathers – mercy and I.O.U.s have long since dried up on this world. An offering is not merely a representation of life. It is life. No-offering is death. Carl has no offering … yet. The camp beckons.
The sun is four hours away from its apex and already Carl feels moisture roll down his back, pooling just above his belt line. He reaches up to swipe the moisture from his forehead but his hand halts almost of its own volition before making contact. He lets his perspiration wash down his face and drip from chin and jaw line onto the catcher around his neck. It’s not enough for the offering but it’s a start.
He trudges north, hoping the camp hasn’t moved on.
Centuries ago, this land, this world was golden sand. It stretched further than the eye could see, further than imagination allowed. Now, the sand has become mere dust, clogging his shoe treads but doing nothing more. No wind disturbs it, nor rain turns it to mud. Just the sun, turning it into a mirror of sorts – a mirror for a vain god, unaware of lesser beings just trying to stay alive. Gold-dust, millimetres thick near the city, metres deep in the badlands and ever so slightly tacky to the touch; the glare could turn a man blind in less than ten minutes if he didn’t wear suntacts.
A scream broke Carl’s heat induced fug. Beyond the dunes, someone was in distress. Do for yourself before you do for others was the planet creed, so Carl waited, eyes scanning the horizon, feet glued to his patch of dust. Another sound rose from the dunes, a feeble cry instead of a shriek. Carl shuffled towards the sound. Opportunity called.
He skirted the dunes, preferring the security of the flats to the soft and probable death of banked dust. It took him twenty minutes to discover the cause of the commotion. A fellow traveller lay on the ground, one leg bent at an awkward angle at the knee. Carl wiped away the sweat from his eyes and licked the moisture from his fingers.
The stranger saw Carl and tried to raise himself … no … herself. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, Carl decided, and walked up to her.
She was young, maybe twenty Terran years and pretty, despite her pallid skin. Carl swore out loud before rushing to her. Her face relaxed, losing its look of fear.
She gestured down at her shattered leg, guiding Carl’s gaze to a slow bleed leaking on to the dust. Carl took out a dressing from his survival kit and pressed it none too gently on to the wound. She gasped but refused to flinch.
He grabbed a tourniquet from his belt kit and placed it around her thigh, tightening it to further slow the flow. She smiled. Then he took out the Needle and Filter. The screaming started again.
Half an hour later, Carl unhooked the Needle from her arm, scraped out the red dust from the Filter and stood up. He hefted the plastibag of clear liquid, judging it plenty to start up a small store and reap the rewards that a gold-dust planet could offer. The city fathers would welcome him with open arms just to get their hands on a fraction of this water. He began the trek to the city, the desiccated husk of a once beautiful woman already forgotten.