Three Million CE - Episode 4
Subscribe to my podcast for more audio versions of my stories.
A hook formed out of thin wire carved a narrow trench through the sand as Doyle steadily dragged it toward him. In his right hand he held a chunk of metal shaped like a cricket bat, which he had christened Grub Smasher. He had salvaged both the wire and Grub Smasher from the debris that had dropped from the Ark.
The sound of shifting sand came from the loose end of the wire. Doyle’s muscles tensed.
“Come on you little bastard,” whispered Doyle.
A small hole appeared in the ground next to the wire, and a pale finger-sized worm poked out. The squirming creature snatched the loose end of wire with dozens of hair-like tentacles surrounding its mouth. Before it could drag its prize underground, Doyle swung Grub Smasher down. A cloud of dust puffed up around the impact. Doyle turned the weapon over and observed a wet purple smear at its center–confirmation of his kill. He put Grub Smasher down and yanked the dead worm’s body out of its hole. Purple slime dripped from its smashed head onto the sand. Doyle tossed the carcass behind him and it landed with a splat on top of the others.
Doyle sneered at the pile of dead worms. That last one made two dozen. They looked like a pile of rancid uncooked hot dogs sitting in a puddle of their own liquefied remains. If only they tasted as good, thought Doyle. He shuddered.
Doyle and Sarah had been ecstatic when they first discovered the creatures. After nearly two days without food or water, the worms had saved them. They spent hours luring them, yanking them out of the ground, then consuming them–two bites, then on to the next–purple goo smeared across their cheeks and dripping from their chins.
Fuller bellies and clearer heads ushered in the realization that the worms left much to be desired in the way of flavor. They paced themselves to limit their disgust–one meal a day, forcing down as many of the creatures as they could without vomiting.
“How many is that, my dude?”
Doyle looked over at the pile of cables and computer components that had spoken. The Ark’s stasis chamber was too heavy to drag around, so Desmond had walked Doyle through the process of extracting his computer core and a few key peripherals. It involved Grub Smasher and a lot of swearing, but the end result was a tangled but much more portable version of Desmond.
“About two dozen,” said Doyle. “Should be more than enough. Yesterday Sarah could only choke three of them down. Don’t think I did much better.”
“Shit, bro,” said Desmond. “I wish I could do more to help you guys find different food. I feel totally useless like this.”
Sighing, Doyle glanced over at the derelict spaceship that he, Sarah, and Desmond had been calling home for the past two weeks. The ship had been half-buried in sand, but not in a way that implied it had crashed–rather abandoned and forgotten for so long that the wind was gradually tucking it in. Doyle had spotted it while they were searching the perimeter of the city ruins for anything that might help them survive. The ship was exceptionally large–it consisted of a spacious rear cabin connected by on over-sized doorway to a cockpit with similarly over-sized controls and chairs. The chairs made comfortable beds and, despite having its rear door stuck open, the cabin did an acceptable job of shielding its three stranded inhabitants from the elements.
And best of all, it had power.
Somewhere deep in the ship’s guts was a backup power source. A power source that had sat dormant for ages, automatically activated by the arrival of a couple humans and an AI stranded three million years into their own future. The cabin had working lights, a comically large but fully functional stove top, a toilet the size of a small car, a sink, and–Sarah’s favorite–an enormous bathtub that filled with hot water at the press of a button. After having spent over a week sleeping on the barren dirt ground in the open, discovering the ship had felt like booking into the Ritz Carlton.
Despite it’s odd proportions, Desmond had claimed the ship’s technology was “human-esque,” whatever that meant. He even managed to communicate with its systems over a radio-based protocol similar to Bluetooth.
“You’re not useless, Des,” said Doyle. “In fact if you can figure out a way to send a distress signal from that ship, you might be our only hope.” Doyle stood up, facing away from Desmond as he unzipped his fly to pee.
“Not yet,” said Desmond. “And you should probably do that on the ship.”
“What?” asked Doyle.
“The ship’s water supply isn’t what it was when we first found it,” said Desmond. “When you urinate outside there’s no way to reclaim it.”
“No way to… Wait, what?”
“All waste water in the ship is purified and re-circulated,” said Desmond. “I mean, where did you think all the water was coming from?”
“So, you mean we’ve been drinking our own…?”
“Yeah. Well, not just yours. Obviously the ship’s previous crew was the source of the original supply.”
Doyle’s eyes widened. “So, the bath… We’re bathing in…”
“Recycled urine,” Desmond said matter-of-factly.
“Do not tell any of this to Sarah,” said Doyle. He was certain that Sarah’s nightly baths were the one thing keeping her remotely sane. He didn’t want to think what would happen if those got spoiled.
Doyle zipped his pants back up, deciding to wait. As disturbing as it may be, water was water. Without it they didn’t stand a chance out here. Doyle gathered the pile of dead worms up in his arms and tossed them into the ship before picking up Desmond and following them inside.
“I have been making some progress on that other thing,” said Desmond.
“What?” asked Doyle. He narrowed his eyes and glared down at the mess of wires and metal doodads cradled in his arms. “Please don’t tell me you’re wasting time and energy on that…”
Doyle looked to the far corner of the ship’s cabin–the corner that had remained shrouded in darkness even after the lights came on. A tall, dark figure stood quiet and motionless in the shadows. It reminded Doyle of a minimalist toy robot–the kind you’d expect to see little kids playing with in cartoons–only this one was solid metal and nine feet tall. Every surface was smooth and featureless.
“Just watch this,” said Desmond.
Two blue lights appeared on the smooth surface of the statue’s head where its eyes might be.
“Wow,” said Doyle. “Uh, neat. Its eyes light up.”
“Yeah!” said Desmond with alacrity. “And that’s not all, watch this!”
As Doyle watched, either the eye lights moved across the surface or the statue turned its head ever so slightly.
“Huh,” said Doyle. “Can it walk, or do something useful?”
“Not yet!” said Desmond. “But I’m close to…”
“That’s great,” Doyle cut him off. “Just make sure you’re not letting it distract you from what’s important. We need to find a way off this planet. We’ve got to signal for help, or establish some kind of communication with… I don’t know, with anybody I guess.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Desmond. Doyle didn’t know if artificial intelligences could sigh, but if they could he guessed that’s what it would sound like.
“Sarah should be back from scouting the city soon,” said Doyle. “Just in case she still hasn’t found a Ruth Chris hiding somewhere out there, I better start cooking.” He looked disdainfully at the dead worm creatures scattered on the floor of the cabin where he had tossed them.
“Oh, by the way,” said Desmond, “I’ve been noticing something weird whenever you’re out fishing for those things.”
“Oh?” said Doyle. He put Desmond down and started gathering up the worm carcasses.
“At first I thought my accelerometer was acting up, but it’s too predictable to be random noise. I’ve detected micro tremors that occur every time right after you kill one of the worms.”
“Tremors? You mean like earthquakes?” asked Doyle.
“Yeah,” said Desmond.
“Huh,” said Doyle. “That is weird.”
Ancient, crumbled husks of once imposing towers and the sand-blasted metal shells of defunct vehicles were all that remained of the planet’s long-departed inhabitants. Sarah couldn’t judge how tall the largest buildings had once been–of those still standing, all had suffered collapse of their topmost floors, revealing eroded cross-sections of their abandoned interiors. In the starlight the towers cast jagged shadows across the sandy, arterial passageways that snaked between them, like giant dark teeth gnawing at Sarah as she crept through the quiet ruins.
The sky had remained dark in all the weeks since the Ark crashed on the alien planet. Desmond had explained it–something about how the same side of the planet always faced the sun, one half stuck in an unending blisteringly hot day, and the other half in an eternal freezing night. They had crashed somewhere between the two extremes. The “habitable zone,” Desmond had called it. It didn’t seem particularly habitable to Sarah.
The only food that she and Doyle had managed to find were the vile-tasting underground worms that poked their heads out at the sound of light scraping on the sand. Sarah was desperate for an alternative, but so far her excursions away from the camp had proved fruitless. But she refused to give up hope–those worms were hunting something on the surface. Maybe something edible. Maybe something that didn’t taste like the rotten scent glands of a roadkill skunk.
Sarah had noticed other signs of life too–paw prints, mostly mouse-sized but some larger; and tiny pebbles of half-buried scat in the sandy streets. So far the animals themselves had eluded her, but knowing that they were out there kept her coming back to the city night after night. Though she had yet to find food, her trips had not been entirely without merit. On one she found a pot-shaped scrap of metal, in which she one day hoped Doyle could cook something other than those cursed worms. On another she found the metal canteen she carried, slung around her neck with a rubber cord salvaged from the Ark’s debris.
The wind had started to pick up. It wasn’t too strong yet, but Sarah could see a sandstorm looming over the tops of the skeletal towers and heard the shrieking winds in some distant corner of the city. She sighed. Time to head back to camp. Another wasted day with nothing to show for it but an empty stomach and a full bladder. She grabbed the canteen around her neck and swallowed her last drop of water.
Having to eat worms again would suck, Sarah thought. But at least there was the bath. The wonderful tub that filled with gloriously piping hot water at the press of a button. She had been reluctant to use it at first, unsure whether she could trust Doyle to wait outside without peeking–but she had gotten into the habit of bathing every evening, and Doyle hadn’t tried anything pervy yet. The bath was the one thing she had to look forward to, and not even Doyle could take that away from her.
Doyle wasn’t that bad to have around. He had managed to get Desmond out of the stasis chamber, albeit with Desmond’s help. And Doyle was pretty much catching and cooking all their food by himself without complaining, although the food was horribly disgusting. To be honest, Sarah couldn’t understand why Doyle wasn’t more upset with her. After all, she was at least partially responsible for the situation they were in. She was still a little miffed at him for ruining her plans with Heady–although having Desmond around was pretty nice. Desmond was all she had left of Heady now, since her video collection had been stolen along with the Ark.
As Sarah began retracing her path through the city streets, she heard a thud, followed the sound of something scuffling in the sand. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat and she snapped her head in the direction of the noise. All that remained of the building the sound had come from was the first-floor wall, but that was over six feet high at its lowest point, and there were no doors or windows facing the road.
Sarah unholstered her concussion pistol and crept along the ruined wall, following it around the corner into a narrow alley. Once her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she spotted animal tracks leading through a section of the wall that had crumbled entirely away. The image of a large medium-rare steak danced in her mind, and Sarah’s mouth started watering. She could practically smell the cooking meat.
Sarah stepped gingerly through the ruined section of wall into the building. She could still hear the noises–scuffling sounds mixed with grunting and snorting. The ground inside the building was a mix of rubble and sand–the collapsed remnants of what had once been upper floors and ceilings. It would be impossible to move over the gravelly surface without alerting the animal to her presence, so she crouched by the eroded section of wall and listened closer. She would have to pinpoint where the animal was, and move quick enough to catch it by surprise.
Sarah squinted and scanned the back wall of the hollowed-out building. She couldn’t discern any movement in the shadows, but her eyes rested on a large slab of concrete leaning against the far corner. A sudden loud squeal from that direction confirmed it for her–the sounds were coming from under that slab.
Shielding her eyes from the starlight with her hand, Sarah studied the slab in the darkness. If the space under the slab was open on both ends, then catching the animal would be difficult, since it could flee in the opposite direction no matter which side Sarah approached from. She was in luck, though–it appeared that the far edge of the slab was tightly wedged against the side wall. Nothing big enough to make those noises could escape that way. That meant the opening between the back wall and the slab was the only way in or out of the enclosed shelter.
The plan was simple. Sarah shifted her weight and prepared to sprint toward the slab. The crunchy rubble-strewn ground would announce her approach, but hopefully the animal would be too startled to react, allowing Sarah to reach the opening before it could escape. And if not, Sarah still clutched her concussion pistol, ready to use it at the slightest hint of motion.
Sarah licked her lips. Whatever the animal was, it had to taste better than those horrible worms. Maybe it would taste like chicken. Or like the well-marbled ribeyes with herb butter that she always ordered at the fancy restaurants her dad took her to when she was younger. Or maybe it would taste like bacon. Sarah loved bacon.
Her stomach growled. The animal under the slab squealed. Sarah pushed off and launched herself across the building toward the hidden animal, sprinting as fast as she could over the loose chunks of rock and gravel. She heard the animal squeal again–louder and higher pitched. She held the concussion pistol up, aiming it as best she could toward the opening beneath the slab as she approached. The animal’s sounds of distress intensified as she neared, but she still saw no movement.
Five paces from the back wall, Sarah started to brace herself, planning to crouch and slide in front of the opening beneath the slab. She misjudged a piece of dark rebar jutting out of the ground for a shadow. The rebar snagged on her leg. Sarah’s jeans ripped and she felt a tearing pain in her right calf. Her arms windmilled in a desperate attempt to regain her balance, and she lost her grip on the concussion pistol.
Sarah’s shoulder slammed hard into the back wall, and she collapsed on the ground. For a moment, she couldn’t breath. She lay with her cheek in the dirt, wincing from the pain and trying desperately to inhale.
When her diaphragm relaxed, Sarah sucked air into her lungs in braying gasps. She remained laying on her side, staring at the chunks of dirt and rock in front of her face until her breath returned to normal.
A close-sounding snort startled Sarah. She looked up. Staring back at her from the darkness beneath the slab was a small animal–around the size of a house cat. It had a smooth round gray body and a pronounced nose with two large forward-pointing nostrils. Jutting above its snout was a five inch horn that curved slightly back into a dull point. It looked like a cross between a pig and a miniature rhinoceros.
Sarah turned onto her belly, pressed her hands into the ground and raised herself slightly, preparing to back away from the animal. She could see the animal’s sides moving in and out–it was breathing rapidly as it studied her. Then the animal squealed–lower pitched than the noises it had made earlier. It sounded almost like a moan. The animal’s body relaxed and it collapsed on its side.
With her sense of curiosity now outweighing her fear, Sarah decided to inch closer to the animal. As her eyes further adjusted to the darkness under the slab, she saw that the animal’s back leg was sticking out at a funny angle, stuck beneath a piece of rebar jutting from the bottom of the slab. The animal must have caused the slab to shift and trapped itself. Sarah moved closer until her entire torso was inside the dark cavity. The animal stared up at her wearily, as though resigned to whatever fate Sarah had in store.
Sarah felt around on the ground in the dark until she found what she was looking for–a large dull chunk of cement. She weighed it in her hand and looked down at the pathetic animal in the darkness.
“Bacon,” said Sarah softly. She put the chunk of cement down and placed her hand on the animal. She felt its side raising and lowering as it breathed. She felt the rapid pulse of its beating heart. She felt the animal quivering. The poor thing was terrified. She patted its head and it made a quiet whimpering sound.
Sarah grabbed the chunk of cement again, then jammed it under the rebar that was pinning the animal’s leg. She crammed the cement forward as far as it would go, then started rocking it side to side. Loose dust and bits of gravel shook from the top of the slab and rained down into the cavity. There was a scraping sound–cement on cement, and the slab shifted slightly. Sarah felt the cement wedge jolt in her hand as the rebar slid across it, then grabbed the animal with her other arm and pulled it free.
More and more dust and stones fell on Sarah’s head, and the sound of scraping and creaking cement grew louder. Keeping her grip on the whimpering animal, Sarah scurried them both out from beneath the concrete slab right before it collapsed to the ground and shattered.
Sarah sat with her back against the wall, coughing. When the dust cleared, she saw the rhino-pig was in her lap, licking its wounded leg. She looked past the animal to her own leg. Her calf had a foot-long gash from the rebar, but it didn’t look deep–it just needed to be cleaned. As though sensing her thoughts, the rhino-pig sat up, then crawled out of her lap. It limped to where Sarah’s jeans were ripped and started licking her scrape.
Sarah smiled. She looked up and saw dust and dirt blowing over the top of the building’s wall, partially obscuring the stars. The winds had almost reached her. The wailing in the distance had grown much louder, sounding like an approaching freight train. And there was something else–an unfamiliar sound carried on the wind, poking at the edge of Sarah’s perception. A deep, frightening growl. Sarah felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. The rhino-pig had been making a lot of noise, and she hadn’t exactly been quiet herself. Had something else out there heard them? Did the looming sandstorm bring with it some other horror that this planet had yet to unleash upon her?
“Come on, Bacon,” said Sarah. She scooped the rhino-pig up in her arms. Sarah stood and tested her leg out. Her ankle felt sprained and half her body felt bruised, but she could still walk. Maybe even run, if she had to. She limped back in the direction she had come, out of the building, and into the shrieking dust-filled alien winds.
“The wind is really starting to pick up, I’m a bit worried about Sarah,” said Doyle. He glanced toward Desmond–the pile of wires looked like a dark blur on the ground at the feet of the giant robot statue.
“She’s gone out to the city every night since we found the ship,” said Desmond. “I think she’s proven she can take care of herself.”
Doyle shrugged. He wrinkled his nose at the steaming pile of worms in the pot next to him, then gripped the plate-sized dial that turned the heating element off with both hands. He had to sit on the edge of the stove to use it–it was too tall for him to reach its controls from the floor. He felt like a little kid using a grown-up kitchen. “I think she’s less tough than she wants people to think she is,” he said. “She acts all hard, but I think it’s just that. An act.”
“So what do you think is behind the facade?” asked Desmond. “Who is the real Officer Sarah Jefferies?”
“I dunno,” replied Doyle. “She carries that gun of hers around like a safety blanket. I wonder if she’d act so tough without it.”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Sarah’s voice came from the ship’s entrance.
Doyle jolted at the unexpected voice and almost fell off the stove. He looked over at the entrance and saw Sarah limp into the ship’s cabin. Her entire body was dusted with a thin film of dirt. Her jeans were ripped and there were blood streaks down her right calf. She had taken the jacket of her security uniform off and held it bundled in her arms.
“Holy hell, what happened to you?” asked Doyle. He slipped off the stove and ran to her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” said Sarah. “Here.” She held her bundled up jacket out to Doyle. Doyle took it from her and almost dropped it from its unexpected heft. Something inside it moved.
“I think her leg is broken,” said Sarah. “Take her outside and see what you can do while I take a bath. If you come in here for any reason I promise I don’t need my concussion pistol to fucking murder you.”
Doyle’s brain was overloaded–he had so many questions. He looked down at the jacket cradled in his arms. A little pig snout with a horn sticking up poked out from between the zipper and snorted at him. He looked back at Sarah who had started filling the bath. His eyes went to her hurt leg. Her holster was still strapped to her thigh, but it was empty.
“What happened to your… What the hell is… Where did you… How did you…”
“Her name is Bae. I found her in the city. I hurt my leg and lost my pistol while I was trying to…” she paused. It seemed to take her a moment before she decided what to say. “While I was trying to rescue her. I got caught in a dust storm for a while on the way back. Now fuck off so I can take my bath.”
Doyle carried the jacket with the strange animal out of the ship. He plopped down in the sand. A gust of wind blew the jacket open and revealed the small animal curled up inside. Doyle studied it for a moment, then a crashing noise startled him. Sarah had tossed Desmond out of the ship too.
“Des, make sure Doyle doesn’t hurt Bae Bae,” Sarah called from the ship. “Doyle, find a splint or something for her leg.” Sarah retreated back into the ship.
“Bae Bae?” Doyle said. He looked down at the gray pig-like animal. The animal looked back up at him with wide, frightened eyes. “I thought she was hunting for food, not looking for a pet.”
“Doyle, bruh. I know a lot’s going down right now, but I need to draw your attention to something. You know those micro tremors I mentioned earlier?” said Desmond.
“Yeah. What about them?” said Doyle.
“They’re not so micro anymore.”
Doyle tore his attention from Bae. The ground was vibrating. Loose grains of sand danced up and down on the ground around him.
“I feel it,” said Doyle. He looked into the distance toward the city. The entire horizon was obscured by a cliff-like wall of moving sand. “Something to do with the storm?”
“I don’t think so,” said Desmond. “The seismic activity seems to be coming from the opposite…”
“What the hell is that?” Doyle interrupted. A small cloud of dust seemed to have punched through the distant sandstorm, creating a finger-like trail along the ground. “Is that a vehicle kicking up dust out there? It looks like it’s headed right for us.” Doyle’s heart started racing. Had someone found their camp? Were they friendly?
“Point my camera,” said Desmond.
Doyle set the jacket with Bae on it aside and scrambled over to where Sarah had tossed Desmond. He fished a little circular camera from the nest of wires and pointed it toward the horizon. The thing traveling over the ground and kicking up dust in its wake was closer now.
“Ummm, I don’t know, dude,” said Desmond. “Point me at Bae.”
“What?” asked Doyle.
“Sarah’s new friend, let me see her.”
Doyle pointed the camera to where the small creature was still sitting on Sarah’s jacket.
“Mmm hmm,” said Desmond. “I think… Yup, that’s probably it.”
“What’s probably it?” said Doyle. He squinted into the distance, but still couldn’t make out any details.
“I think Bae’s mom followed Sarah home,” said Desmond.
Doyle dropped his arm. He opened his mouth, but failed to find any words.
“Hard to believe something so adorable could grow into such a muscle-laden and angry-looking behemoth,” Desmond continued.
The thing had approached close enough for Doyle to make out some detail–poking out of the roiling cloud of dust, bobbing up and down and sparkling in the starlight, was the white gleam of what looked like a large rhinoceros horn.
“S… Sarah!” Doyle shouted. He backed away from the angry charging mother. It would be upon them in seconds.
“Sarah what did you do?!”
The ground started shaking harder, and Doyle tripped. He landed in a sitting position close to Desmond.
“So, again, I know you got a lot on your plate at the moment,” Desmond said, louder than normal to be heard over the thundering roar of Bae’s charging mother and the violently shaking ground. “But I feel like I should once again draw your attention to these earthquakes.”
Bae started to mew.
Doyle scrambled to his feet and gathered up Desmond. He turned, ready to make a mad dash into the ship. Sarah’s modesty be damned–he would deal with the fallout later. For now he just needed to get to safety.
As he took his first step toward the ship, the ground beneath Doyle’s feet started to shift. A circular sinkhole the size of a backyard pool formed in the sand just outside of the ship’s entrance, caving in and threatening to suck Doyle toward its center. Doyle backed away from the widening pit. He slipped on the sliding sand and dropped Desmond. Sand, dirt, and rocks continued to roll down the slope, carrying the tangled wires and computer bits with them toward the center of the hole.
Bae continued to mew somewhere behind Doyle.
“Desmond!” cried Doyle. The pit continued to grow in diameter at an alarming pace, forcing Doyle to back further and further away from the ship, and away from Desmond.
“Stay back!” Desmond’s voice came muffled. He had reached the center of the sinkhole and was almost entirely submerged in the sand. “Save yourself, I’ll be…”
Before Desmond could finish, the sand at the center of the pit exploded into the air and a monstrous pale yellow worm the size of a large tree burst forth from the ground. The creature’s entire head was a gaping maw, filled with concentric circles of razor-sharp teeth. Snake-like tendrils surrounded its horrific mouth, wriggling spasmodically as the worm bellowed out an ear-shattering shriek. Reams of oozing saliva rippled through the air from the force of its roar, drenching Doyle.
A dark object thudded against Doyle’s shoulder and onto the ground. Doyle glanced down and saw Desmond’s shattered camera roll down the sinkhole and disappear beneath the surface of the sand. The worm shrieked again, raining a fresh slathering of slime on Doyle.
Bae’s distressed mewing stopped. Doyle turned, more in preparation to flee the shrieking sand-worm than to check on the little rhino-pig. But when Doyle saw why Bae had stopped crying, he froze dead in his tracks.
Bae’s mother had arrived. The size of a tank built from pure muscle, she poised herself protectively over Bae. The gigantic rhino-pig gave a menacing snort. Doyle looked into her eyes, then followed her angry gaze back around to where the giant sand-worm towered against the star-speckled sky. The rhino-pig growled deeply, bearing two short tusks jutting out from the sides of her mouth. She lowered her head, aiming her horn at the lurking sand-worm. She scuffed at the ground with her front hoof, like a bull rearing to charge.
Doyle suddenly realized that, should the raging rhino-pig one the one side of him decide to charge at the massive carnivorous sand-worm on the other side of him, his present location directly between the two would more than likely prove to be an unfortunate one. He scampered as fast as his arms and legs could take him across the edge of the worm’s pit. The mother rhino-pig used her snout to nudge Bae to the side. Bae snorted and whimpered. The sand-worm shrieked. The rhino-pig lowered her head further, braced herself, then launched into a thunderous charge toward the worm. Doyle leaped out of her way just in time.
The rhino-pig barreled into the sand-worm head-on, ripping a gash with her horn. The sand-worm shrieked as purple goo spewed from the wound, then reared up to its full height. The sand-worm lunged like a viper, and its mouth latched on to the rhino-pig’s side. The tendrils surrounding the worm’s mouth slithered and squirmed against the rhino-pig’s skin. The rhino-pig gave a pained grunt, but continued eviscerating the worm’s trunk with her horn and mouth.
Doyle felt a tug on his arm as he watched the battle, wide-eyed in terror. He glanced at his arm and saw that Bae had come to him. She was cowering and shivering, peaking out to watch her mother from behind his arm. Another piercing shriek from the sand-worm drew his attention back to the fight.
The sand-worm had released its grip, revealing a circular bleeding wound on the rhino-pig’s side. The rhino-pig’s thick hide must have borne the brunt of the bite, as its own attack on the worm continued unabated. The ground beneath the two creatures had transformed into a muddy swamp of sand, purple worm guts, and the rhino-pig’s red blood. Once again the sand-worm raised up to its full height. The rhino-pig rammed her horn into it over and over, causing more purple slime and pale chunks of flesh to slough away from the worm’s body where it protruded from the ground.
Then the sand-worm retreated, disappearing beneath the sand, like it had been forcefully sucked down the hole from whence it came. Its final shriek finished muffled through the sand, and then there was silence.
The stillness felt eerie to Doyle. The rhino-pig stood at the center of the sinkhole, panting and bleeding. Doyle looked across the sinkhole to the ship. Sarah was standing in the entrance, staring back at him. Bae noticed her too, and started making a high pitched honking sound.
“Bae!” Sarah cried. She ran out of the ship and started making her way around the edge of the sinkhole. Bae’s mom turned her attention first to Bae honking in Doyle’s lap, then to Sarah as she sprinted across the sand.
“Sarah, no! Stay in the ship!” Doyle yelled. But too late. The gigantic rhino-pig at the center of the shallow crater lowered her head and started tracking Sarah with her horn. Sarah continued making her way toward Doyle and Bae as the rhino-pig started charging.
“Sarah for fuck’s sake!” Doyle shouted.
Sarah turned and screamed when she saw the rhino-pig rushing up the side of the sinkhole.
“Shit,” Doyle whispered. Sarah braced herself. The rhino-pig was almost on top of her, there was no way Doyle could reach her in time. There was nothing he could do. He winced as the rhino-pig lowered its head, readying itself to impale Sarah. There was a powerful rumbling, then the ground beneath the charging rhino-pig exploded. The sand-worm had re-emerged with enough force to launch the rhino-pig into the air. There was a visceral thud when the rhino-pig landed, and the sand-worm struck. On her back, the rhino-pig’s horn was useless. The rhino-pig struggled and cried out as the sand-worm’s mouth shredded and devoured the exposed flesh of her belly.
Sarah, knocked down by the sand-worm’s emergence, was getting back to her feet. Doyle scooped Bae up in his arms and started running toward Sarah. With the sand-worm’s attentions on its kill, now was their best chance to get back to the safety of the ship.
“Sarah!” Doyle cried as he sprinted. He stopped when he reached her, panting heavily. They were less than ten feet from the massive trunk of the sand-worm where it protruded from the ground. Its upper half was still preoccupied, though the rhino-pig’s screams had begun to fade away.
Doyle pointed. “Ship! Safe!” he said between gasps.
Sarah looked from Bae to Doyle, then nodded with a look of grim determination. They both turned toward the sand-worm and the ship.
A monstrous shriek hit Sarah and Doyle like a powerful blast of wind. Doyle looked up and saw the sand-worm’s head hovering directly above them–a dark, gaping tunnel lined with rings of needle-sharp teeth, framed by a nest of writhing tentacles raining droplets of fresh blood. It had finished off the rhino-pig and now turned its attention to its smaller prey.
Doyle felt Sarah grip his arm. The sand-worm reared back. Even if they started running now, there was no way they could make it out of the sand-worm’s reach before it struck. Doyle looked at Sarah. She looked back and nodded slightly. Doyle hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much–for Sarah’s sake, and for Bae’s. The little animal had buried its head in the nook of his arm and was shivering uncontrollably. Another shriek. A fresh torrent of saliva and blood, then a whoosh as the sand-worm moved in for the kill. Sarah closed her eyes and lowered her head. Doyle did the same.
The sensation of being eaten alive was not at all what Doyle had expected. It felt a lot less bitey and a lot more slimy. A lot less like being masticated by hundreds of tiny dagger-like teeth and more like being pelted with buckets of foul-smelling goop.
Several seconds passed, and Doyle opened his eyes slightly. He saw Sarah, standing in the same place where she had been a moment earlier, drenched in purple sand-worm blood. Behind her he saw the stars in the sky, still shining brightly. On the ground he saw the body of the sand-worm laying motionless on its side. Purple blood and shredded entrails oozed from where its trunk had been severed.
Doyle opened his eyes wider and turned toward the ship. There, next to the still-oozing stump of the sand-worm’s body sticking out of the ground, stood the giant robot statue, Grub Smasher in one hand and a chunk of yellow sand-worm flesh in the other. The robot’s eyes shone blue against its otherwise smooth, featureless face, and stared back at Doyle.
“Check it, dudes! I got the robot working!” Desmond’s voice came from the robot.
Doyle exhaled, then collapsed. He leaned back and stared up at the stars. He was still alive. Kirsten was still out there. Some how, some way, he was going to get off this planet and find her.
Sarah entered Doyle’s vision, staring down at him. “You okay?” she asked.
Bae, wrestled herself free of Doyle’s arms and limped across his chest, then started lapping at the purple goo on Doyle’s face.
Desmond walked his new robot body over and joined Sarah staring down at Doyle. “Well, at least someone likes the flavor,” he said.
Doyle started laughing, then Sarah did too. Doyle laughed so long and hard that he thought his stomach muscles might burst. There were tears in his eyes when he managed to stop. Desmond and Sarah were both sitting on the sand next to him. Desmond was flexing his hands and admiring his new robotic limbs, and Sarah was petting Bae in her lap. Doyle realized he hadn’t once seen Sarah smile in all the time they had spent stranded on the planet. It suited her, he thought.
“I’m hungry,” said Sarah.
Doyle nodded in agreement. He wondered if then would be a good time to bring up the idea of eating Bae’s mother, but decided against it.
“First I need another bath,” said Sarah. “And I really need to pee.”
“Just make sure to do that on the ship,” said Desmond.
“Why?” asked Sarah.
“Trust me,” said Doyle, before Desmond could respond. “You do not want to know.”