The last of the scattered beams from First Sunset would bring about Second Sunrise soon enough. Those rays turn the rocky terrain, typically grey and bleak, to a rather ominous shade of crimson.
It's fitting, as I'm out for blood. And I plan to get it from this thing laying on the ground, fresh hematoma on its head and a gash in its right front leg. I didn't cause the gash, it had that before I caught up to it. The lump was all me though.
Are the guttural sounds an attempt to plead for its life? I have no idea. We don't speak the same language; did this... this, uh... did it even have a language?
Hell, I don't even know what to call it; we were supposed to study these things from afar in our orbiting shuttle.
No contact. Strictly forbidden, NASA insisted.
"It shouldn't be a problem. The vibrations are well within parameters."
Maria always said that. Well within parameters. I assumed it was engineer-speak; I didn't speak to many engineers.
I was just rehearsing my call to NASA, waffling between "the risk far exceeds the benefits of continuing" and "grave consequences if we don't turn back now". It didn't matter; NASA brass would be furious either way. Two years into our mission to visit and study Planet 3894286c only to have it killed by vibrations?
Careers were on the line. Hell, NASA itself was on the line, with funding plummeting in recent years. Ours was the mission to save all other missions.
I leaned over Maria's shoulder, pretending to understood the numbers on her monitor. "So we're ok? Should we inform NASA?"
"No, sir. We can keep this to ourselves."
"Do you foresee any further issues before we arrive? Will this slow us down? We're only halfway there."
"This won't cause any real issues; it's annoying at most."
I'd leaned over Maria long enough to appear like I'd read the screen. I stood up to leave. "Good work, as always. Keep me informed of any changes. NASA will have my ass if we don't make it to that planet."
A mission's commander would be expected to make a grand announcement at such a time. I didn't have anything planned. I winged it.
"There they are. Incredible! After four years of flight time, weeks of orbiting, and an incredible amount of hard work from each of you, we're watching native inhabitants of a foreign planet."
"Me either! This is so exciting!" Oscar giggled like a schoolgirl, covering his mouth.
The family of quadrupeds had ventured out onto the surface for a bit of sunlight. The smallest offspring hesitated; one of the parents nudged it forward with its head perched atop its long neck.
Their excursion didn't last long. They ducked into the next cave entrance after less than a minute. I don't blame them; I'd want to get out of those suns too.
Excitement filled the air. So too did a feeling of reverence. No one spoke.
Someone needed to break the ice; might as well be me.
"Lady and gents, we've just become the first people to observe life outside of Earth. We will live on forever in history books. You all deserve a much bigger round of applause than this, but let me be the first to congratulate you."
My slow clap was quickly joined by the three crew members. Our subdued cheers couldn't possibly match the magnitude of the event; we'd done it, we'd encountered alien life. The holy grail of space exploration.
Well, we observed alien life on our high definition cameras. Same thing; didn't diminish our accomplishment at all.
The applause died down; everyone looked to me. What now, their stares inquired. I didn't know how to follow up that proclamation.
I told them to get back to work.
I tried to shout over the repeating whoops of the ship's central alarm. It didn't work. I shouted between whoops while running towards the sleeping quarters.
"Maria, wake the hell up. Something's wrong."
Maria was already awake. Of course she was; the alarm was loud enough to wake the natives on the planet. And they lived below the surface.
"Sir, I was getting dressed. I'm on my way to the check the central computer."
"Hurry. The vibrations got worse for a bit, then we heard a loud clank then a screeching sound. Something's stuck in the engine, but at least the vibrations have stopped. Figure out what happened."
"Yes sir, I need to check the..."
A sudden shove from behind hurled my body across the room, the force of the blast registering before the heat. My left arm broke as soon as I hit the metal wall. Maria was the lucky one. She never felt the blast.
A piece of flying equipment took her head clean off her shoulders before she realized what was happening.
It took a while to come to my senses. I spoke to Maria's disembodied head for an hour. I realized something was up when she never responded. She was never that quiet.
Was the air conditioning broken? Why is it so damn hot in here?
I could barely see anything; the flickering ceiling lights provided little light. I got to my feet then tripped over a crate that was knocked loose by... whatever the hell happened. What DID happen anyway?
I needed water. Sweat poured down my forehead; my uniform was drenched. My mouth, on the other hand, was bone dry.
The hallway was a tangled mess of crates, twisted metal, and debris. I fumbled through it towards the central terminal, turned the knob, and pushed. No movement. Jammed.
I tried again. Harder this time, throwing my shoulder into the door. It gave much easier, my shoulder thrust far more potent than necessary. I stumbled through, struggling to maintain my balance on the sandy ground. I was outside somehow.
Goddamn... is that the Sun? Am I back on Earth?
No, that wasn't possible. My brain was scrambled, sure, but I hadn't forgotten four years of spaceflight. That wasn't a dream; Maria's head was proof of that.
My eyes finally adjusted to the light. This sand, these rocks... we're on the planet. My mind cleared quickly; the gravity of the situation hit me.
None of it felt real. I willed my body, my mind, to wake up. I pinched myself. Nope, it hurt, and I was still there. On the planet's surface. In the wreckage of our only hope of making it home.
I walked out into the open air, realizing far too late I'd confirmed one of our working hypotheses: the air was breathable. The relief I felt was cut short by the sight of Jose atop a boulder. What was left of Jose. That looks like it would've hurt... I hope the end was quick.
Any grieving would have to wait; I needed water. I could barely open my mouth, my bottom lip glued to its counterpart. My dry tongue was no help when I tried to lick my lips.
The water supply room was located in an extension in the other half of the ship. I headed towards the room but stopped long before reaching it. That section of the shuttle got the worst of the impact. No chance I'd be able to crawl through the mangled, jagged metal that used to be its hallway. I'd have to walk around.
As I walked to the side of the shuttle's outer hull, I felt the sand beneath my feet change. Looking down, I noticed a large wet spot.
How is the sand wet? There's no water on this...
It hit me like a slap in the face. I knew what I'd find in the water room.
Well, for the most part. I didn't expect to find Oscar's body crumpled in an unnatural position next to the water tank. But the tank that contained our reserve purified water being split open? I hoped I was wrong, but I'd expected that.
The last drops of water fell on the metallic flooring. They sounded like a judge's gavel sealing our death sentence.
The day I presumed to be my last also brought my first glimmer of hope.
I woke up and knew it would be the last time I would. It'd been days since I had any water. My body was revolting against my brain - on strike and refusing to work. Only a matter of time.
I decided to die in the cockpit. It was where I'd lived my life, in one cockpit or another. Grandpa's crop duster. Multi-billion dollar Navy jets. NASA shuttles. My life should end where it was lived.
At some point, NASA's brass would decide that a "rescue" mission was in order; they'd spin it as a mission to save the crew. Really, they'd just want to salvage the data and bring our remains back for the PR. They'd use the fervor over the headlines of our crash to get immediate approval to send another crew.
It would take four years for them to arrive, and I'd be long gone by then. I accepted that days ago. Both John and I did.
He decided to go out on the toilet, thought it would be funnier. He was right; a skeleton on a toilet? If I was on the next crew, I'd sure as hell get a laugh out of that.
John checked out the last night. I found him hunched over, pants around his ankles on the commode. I managed a weak chuckle in honor of his final hurrah.
The cockpit was a terrible idea in all actuality; I could've stayed in the shade and been comfortable in my final hours. The Suns on this planet were brutal, and with no water, there was no such thing as clouds. The two Suns were like twin bullies, tag teaming as they took turns assaulting your skin.
This is going to give me a wicked sunburn.
How foolish a concern; by the time anyone found me, I wouldn't have any skin left. By the time my skin became sore, I wouldn't feel it anyway.
Goddamnit, it's hot as hell. What I wouldn't give for just a sip, one sip, of water.
My head rolled to the side - without my permission. As it did, I caught a glimpse of something moving near the rock face. It'd been days since we crashed to the surface, and neither John or I had seen a living thing outside of each other. Now that John was gone, I was alone.
Or so I thought. A rather sickly looking native hobbled close to the rock wall, one of its legs curled up like a dog's when it's injured. It walked away from a wet spot on the rock face, and I noticed small droplets in the sand. Yeah, it must've nicked itself pretty badly.
I almost leapt up from my seat in the cockpit. Well, no, that's not true; I had just enough energy to slowly push myself up out of the seat; there would be no leaping.
Still, for the first time in days I was excited; I was beyond exhaustion, but if that thing was injured, I might be able to catch up and follow it into its cave. To water. Possibly... hopefully.
The day before, John and I discussed what we'd do if we happened across one of the natives. A pointless conversation between two dead men to be sure, but then again, we had to pass the time somehow.
"They have to have water somewhere, right sir?"
"That's NASA's theory; they're sure that water has to be on this planet somewhere. I don't know where it would be, though. I haven't seen a drop."
"What if it's all underground? Where the things stay?"
I'd thought of that already, but since we had no way of getting all the way to the caves where they lived, it didn't matter. "If that's the case, you and I may have a chance."
"Yeah, we may..." John trailed off. We let the thought pass. Hope was a luxury we could no longer afford.
Yet, there I was, staring at one of them.
For the first time since I awoke on the planet, I had a glimmer of hope.
It tasted terrible. Yet, I couldn't stop licking the wet rock face.
Of all the survival shows I'd ever watched, none ever mentioned licking alien blood off a boulder. If by some miracle I survived this, I needed to remember to to tell Bear Grylls about this one.
Maybe I'd get my own show. Vampire or Expire, with Mark Hammerschmidt. That's a good one. John would've laughed his ass off at that one.
It wasn't water per se. Water was thin, refreshing. And while the liquid was clear, that was where the similarities to water ended.
The native's blood was closer to egg whites in consistency. The same could be said for the taste - provided you left the eggs out a couple of weeks first. Did I know for a fact it had water in it? Yes, I knew for a fact before trying it.
That's a lie. I had no idea.
I also had no choice; the walk from the shuttle to the rock face took almost all of my remaining energy. Perhaps if I wasn't so afraid of the alien turning around and seeing me, I wouldn't have brought the wrench with me. That thing was heavy as hell.
If I do survive, I'll name this the Blarney Stone.
The disgusting, wonderful blood now gone, I waited. Did I end things quicker? Or prolong the inevitable? Time would tell.
After a few minutes, I felt a bit of strength return to my limbs. My head pounded just a little less.
Holy hell... there's water in their veins. THERE'S WATER. IN THEIR VEINS.
I was nowhere near ready to have my own survival show. I couldn't even sneak up on an injured alien. Bear Grylls would have had this thing captured, drained, and would've made a canteen out of its liver already. Do they even have livers?
It didn't matter; I would never find out. I couldn't catch the damn thing. The only saving grace was that it hadn't noticed me, yet. Well, that and the fact that it had to take regular breaks due to its injured leg.
When it did move, it moved quickly. Even with three legs, it could've run circles around me. And this wrench. I thought about just dropping the damn thing. How would I kill the thing if I did, though? It stood almost twice as tall as me while on all fours... or threes, rather. No, I needed to lug it around in the off chance I caught up to it.
And I was catching up. It stopped for far longer than it moved, allowing my lumbering pace to exceed its move, rest, move, rest cycle.
But could I catch it before my energy boost ran out? That was the million dollar question.
Two more rest breaks passed before I got in range for a final charge. Either I would catch it or burn the last of my energy trying. I waited until it rested for a third time, beginning my gallop just before it laid down and rested on its haunches. I hoped it was too burnt out to jump up as soon as it heard me.
I was surprised that my legs moved as fast as they did. After days of despair, though, I had hope. And hope seemed to release more adrenaline.
Twenty meters out.
My leg began to cramp. Bad. I stumbled, nearly dropping the wrench in the process. I caught my balance and looked up. It still hadn't heard me. I hobbled as fast as my one and a half good legs would allow.
For the first time, I considered how I'd go about killing this thing. It hadn't occurred to me that I could catch it; I never thought through the kill itself. I'd never harmed an animal on Earth; how was I supposed to kill this?
I would need to hit on the head, that much I knew. But where was the best spot to hit? On the side? The top? Perhaps the neck, breaking it and paralyzing the native? You know who would know? Bear Grylls would know.
The side it was; it was the only place I could hit at this angle.
Its head turned. For the first time, I saw just how large those bulbous eyes were. All five of them were locked on to what had to have been the strangest sight it had ever seen. Some bipedal, bright red alien, hobbling towards it holding a big grey stick. I'm sure it was a terrifying sight.
It got up to flee but didn't go far. Its front leg gave out the moment it tried to stand. The alien collapsed in a heap.
My swing was timed terribly, but it was an immobile target. A sitting duck.
I connected with the top of its head.
Is it dead?
I don't have enough strength left to lift the wrench.
The native's leg is still twitching; it's not dead. It is unconscious, though. Clear blood flows from the wound on its head.
I have no clue how to kill it other than the wrench I couldn't lift.
I need to drink. My adrenaline has worn off, and reality is setting in again. I need water, now. And since I don't have the strength to finish this thing off, I'll have to just drink direct from the source.
Licking my lips, I reach for the head just as the first rays of Second Sunrise peak over the rocky horizon.