The larger of the two setting suns was barely visible from up here, a sliver of light on the horizon painting the clouds pink and gray. It was Dex’s favorite time of day, the twilight between the two sunsets when the heat dissipated and long shadows crept over the desert.
It had been a month since they crash landed on this planet, a month of searching wreckages and junk heaps for the parts necessary to fix their spacecraft. Only the natives of the planet - the species and planet name a mystery to Dex - with their tough, scaly skin and translucent second eyelids were able to stand the brightness and heat during midday, when both suns were in the sky - which, at this time of year and latitude, was eighteen of the twenty-three hours in a day. Aliens like Dex came out at dawn and twilight, clinging to the shadows like rats. They had seen a couple in towns, though none of their own species. The other aliens tended to be small, living underground, taking night shifts of service jobs. They were generally helpful to Dex, willing to help translate their charades or barter for food through gestures. Dex hadn’t seen any pilots like themself, but they knew they existed; they had searched numerous ships of Earth design, though all of them were too badly damaged to be of any use.
There was another wreckage just an hour’s journey north in the makeshift sand speeder, then another hour on foot to the east. It was the wreckage of a small ship, too far away to tell the make or model.
Having pinpointed the next point of interest, Dex scrambled down the ancient radio tower, binoculars swinging from their neck, rusty handholds scraping against their dirty palms. Dex had given up long ago on trying to get the engine grease from their clothes and skin. It was part of them now, just like the freckles darkening their pinkish skin, which had grown more numerous over the past month, even with Dex’s nocturnal habits. Their dark hair had matted into dreadlocks and eventually had to be cut off with a knife from their spaceship’s emergency toolkit.
Their spaceship was parked a good half mile from the base of the tower. The small one-man fighter had been fitted with skis, wings and cockpit suspended in a crude metal frame Dex had welded together from junkyard scraps. The ship still was far from spaceworthy, but the backward thrusters worked and that was enough to move the sled contraption forward in a straight line across the sand dunes. Turning was another matter. Dex had been mainly traveling north and taking detours on foot, having landed somewhere in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Eventually, they hoped, the desert would give way to a more hospitable climate. There, there might be more alien settlements, somewhere Dex could work or barter for the parts they needed. The desert they had been scouring for weeks was inhabited mostly by the planet’s native lizard-people, who had spaceships of their own design that were completely incompatible with Dex’s Earth-made fighter.
The engine roared to life, and Dex shot across the desert, sand and sparks flying up behind them. Dex kicked back, feet up on the dash, and pulled out the one book they happened to have been carrying with them when they crashed. Having read it approximately one million times, Dex flipped open to a random page. It was old Earth science fiction, written when space travel was about rocketships to the moon.
It wasn’t terribly realistic, Dex thought, envious of the universal translator and the near-instantaneous travel so common in fiction. Dex had read books like this when they were younger, and it was disappointing when they finally got their flying license and realized space is empty. The books didn’t say anything about the long hours in between star systems, feeling like you’ll never see another living being ever again. The loneliness of space was something Dex could never feel fully prepared for. They were lucky enough to crash on an inhabited planet, but the loneliness of the desert wasn’t very different; it was just a lot brighter.
Luck was a funny concept in space. It seemed like, with all that space, there would be room for everything to move around without crashing into each other. After all, what are the odds that of all the places for an asteroid to be, it would choose right in front of Dex’s engine? But fate has a funny way of making things collide just so: an asteroid pulled by an invisible hand to the right place at the right time to make Dex’s ship fail just enough to make it to a planet safely, which happened to support sentient life.
Another miracle was on its way. It’s hard to say if it was the hand of fate that pulled Dex toward the wreckage, or the wreckage toward Dex. But of all the places to crash land in the desert, this particular ship had chosen a point close enough for Dex to notice and alter course. And that was very important for this particular ship.
Dex noticed it was different while they were still several hundred meters off, trudging through the sand and looking periodically through their binoculars. Most of the ships they had seen were half-buried in sand, a result of days and weeks of sandstorms blowing over them. This spaceship had crashed more recently, though there was no telltale smoke. Dex’s heart jumped at the thought of survivors.
Up close, it was smaller than it looked, smaller than Dex’s ship. It was mostly wings, large sails that billowed in the sandy wind. Dex had never seen the model before, but it looked Earth-made, older. Dex scrambled to the cockpit. The normal door was badly damaged, but there was a hatch at the top. Dex clamored to the top with their toolkit, using their clothes to protect them from the scorching hot metal. A little jimmying with a screwdriver and it was open enough to squeeze through.
Dex breathed in the first breath of fresh air they had taken since landing on this godforsaken sand planet. The interior of the ship was cool and dark. There were little red and green lights blinking in the cockpit, but that was all they could see. They scrambled in their toolkit for a flashlight, then screamed when they turned it on.
There was an unconscious figure slumped over the controls.
Dex shook their head. “Don’t be stupid Dex, a corpse can’t hurt you,” they muttered to themself. Cautiously, they shined the flashlight over the body. It was a humanoid shape and size, at least. They were dressed in eclectic clothes, and had long hair and hairless skin. Dex crept closer to get a good look at the figure’s face. A large gash on the forehead dripped blood across their features. There was a large scar on their cheek. They were a human, all right - a man in his twenties, a bit younger than Dex.
Dex thought they saw something move - maybe a twitch of an eyelid, or a hair moving with a living breath. That was enough for them. There was a medkit back at Dex’s ship, and a human companion was more than they ever dared to hope for. They forgot about finding the missing spaceship parts, at least for now.
Dex threw the body over their broad shoulders and tried to climb through the hatch with it. The opening was too small, and Dex’s only solution was to feed him through the opening, feet first, and hope he didn’t get a concussion sliding down the ship.
Dex followed the body out and slid down next to it. He was still unresponsive. Dex listened for a heartbeat. It was faint, but it was there. They grabbed some pieces of the sail and rolled him on top of it, using the material as a sled as they dragged him across the ground.
It took three times as long to make it back to Dex’s craft, and by then the dark sky was already filling with the colors of first dawn.
Exhausted, Dex bandaged the man’s wounds and gave him a supplement to make up for the lost blood.
Slowly, his breathing became more regular, and his heartbeat steadied. His eyelids fluttered. He looked up at Dex and said something they couldn’t understand.
“Can you repeat that?” Dex asked.
“Who’s coming?” Dex asked.
“The raiders,” he said. “They shot me down when they couldn’t steal my cargo.”
Dex instinctively looked up at the sky, but it was just bright and empty blueness, as always.
“We’re under my ship,” Dex said, gesturing to the vehicle suspended in iron above them. “I usually climb up, but I couldn’t carry you.”
The man looked dubiously up at the bar Dex used to climb into the ship. “Is it fast?”
“It doesn’t fly. I need plasma coils and regulators. Your ship?”
He nodded. “I don’t know if they’re still intact, but you’re welcome to mine.”
“Can you walk?” Dex asked. The man attempted feebly to scramble to his feet, then collapsed in a heap.
Dex looked out at the beautifully painted reds and oranges of the first sunrise. “I’d better hurry if I want to stay out of the sun. Stay here and recover. There’s a medkit if you need it.”
The man nodded weakly, and closed his eye that wasn’t covered with a bandage. Dex hopped out of their spaceship and trudged with the toolkit through the sand to the wreckage of the other ship.
Dex was sweating under the heat of the second sun by the time they finished, but they successfully managed to extract the needed parts. They used another piece of sail to pull the bulky metal parts the several miles through the sand.
After three hours they came across tracks in the sand. The ship was gone.
“Fuck!” Dex screamed. They cursed themself for being so naive as to leave a stranger alone with their spacecraft.
“I’m going to die here,” Dex said. The suns were unrelenting, and there was no water in sight, no landmarks to follow. There was nothing to do but to follow the tracks.
After a few hours, Dex was about to pass out from heat exhaustion, when they thought they heard the hum of an approaching ship. It had to be a hallucination.
The ship landed in front of them, blades spinning and throwing sand into the air, creating a small dust storm around it. The blades slowed to a halt and when the dust settled, Dex could see a humanoid figure approaching. They had scaly skin and large eyes - a native of the planet.
“I’m with the Q’nofo police,” they said. Dex could see the translator over their mouth, speaking English for them. “I’m trying to apprehend a criminal. He’s wanted for multiple counts of murder.”
“So he wasn’t a trader shot down by raiders,” Dex said.
“You came across this man?” the police officer said.
“He stole my ship,” Dex said. They gestured to the lines in the sand. “It only goes in a straight line on the ground.”
The scaled officer looked down at the sand, eyes following the lines to where they disappeared on the horizon. “I’ll take you and your baggage. Can’t just leave you here in the middle of the desert.” They gestured for Dex to follow them into their spaceship. “I can drop you off if it’s on the way, but my priority is catching this criminal.”
The police spaceship took of at blinding speed following the tracks in the sand. After a few minutes, Dex could see the metal contraption of their spaceship quickly growing closer.
The ship was empty. There were no tracks around the ship. “He must have taken off for the nearest settlement,” the police officer said, “but which direction?”
Dex, meanwhile, was installing the salvaged plasma coils and phase regulators.
They hopped in the cockpit and cautiously pressed the button that should theoretically turn the spaceship on now. Nothing happened. Dex held their breath and flipped another switch. All of a sudden, the spaceship thrummed with energy. Dex looked back at the police officer, who was beckoning them. “Help me catch this criminal! He stole your ship.”
Dex took one last look at the desert planet they had been trapped on for so long, then gunned the engine. Metal rack and all, the spaceship shot into the sky, silhouetted against the two suns, leaving a cloud of sand behind it.