For a few minutes their silent stride across the cold desert fell in time with their hearts. The rhythm became one and he zoned out on the horizon, step after sweat inducing step. Each pace sunk down and back a bit in the sand, like climbing stairs and not getting any higher. A bead of sweat pooled in the corner of his right eye and he blinked hard to send it trailing down his cheek. He raised his arms up over his shoulders and held in a scream.
Nobody had said a word really. The stakes were known and they were shit, to be honest. But what wasn’t shit? He kicked at the next dune sending a puff of sand up into his face. Blinded by the fine particles he let out the aforementioned held-in-scream. He dropped the bulky leather satchel that hung over his back and scraped at his eyes with dirty fingers. After a minute a light hand rested on his shoulder and pulled away.
“I’m fine, keep walking.” He had to repeat himself before she strode ahead. He blinked into the sunlight and sniffed at the air. The sea was near. It smelled like the port he’d grown up on, he opened his mouth and started to speak but caught himself. With one hand pressed close to the pain in his ribs he bent over and hauled up his pack. The others had passed without saying a word to him. He went to jog up to the front of the group again but gasped and halted holding his side. His breath was ragged, his head light. The white clouds above him spiraled and he got warm and cold at the same time in a wave before he knees gave out. The horizon tilted wildly and spiraled into a mandala of nausea.
He looked up from the ground and saw the last of the crew peak the dune. He’d catch up. With a few heaving breaths he groaned and rose to his feet. He drug the pack behind him it erased his footsteps from the landscape. He couldn’t smile at the symbolism but he noted it in his delirium. Voices on the wind were that of his friends and family, he noted that. The odd dancing lights in his peripheral vision though, he tried to ignore. When you’d think he was at peak temperature, a hot rush of anxiety accompanied his acceptance of his own descent into heat stroked madness or whatever was happening. His thoughts weren’t stringing together as they should. His hands were shaking and he shivered a bit. Shit. He reached the top and his crew were nowhere to be seen. Shit. The desert was beautiful though. Swirling dust motes carried his dreams away and danced along the landscape.
He took a few steps but the pounding in his head seemed to shake the world around him and he tripped over his own feet, tumbling down the dune in a pile. His pack ripped in the slide and the parts of the atmospheric beacon went flying across the hillside. Not all of them, no luckily one piece had stayed within arm’s reach. Unfortunately impaled in his left shoulder the thin antenna would do him little to no good. It came out with some effort and a noise he could have gone his life without hearing. He watched his shaky hands prepare a bandage and wrap the wound tight. He lifted his shirt and looked at his injured side for the second time. Regretting it immediately. It had stopped bleeding, but a blue-purple-badness seemed to be spreading from the entry wound. If he reached his right arm around he thought he could feel the shell or bullet or whatever the thing had shot, a hard sphere just under the skin. It was cold to the touch. He didn’t know how to feel about that. His head hung for a few seconds. Some people get sucked out of an air lock, hell some people just go to sleep and don’t wake up. He wasn’t afraid of death but what was this?
He held off another shiver and started gathering the pieces of the beacon in vain. The thing was ruined. He grabbed the sharpest bits and trudged onward.
Kenly walked ahead of him mopping the sweat from his face with a torn piece of fabric. “You.. uh, you.. alright, where’s the beacon?” He said.
He shrugged and laughed a little before taking a swing at Kenly with the antenna. He overextended himself and fell forward. Kenly dodged out of the way but not before a jet of crimson shot from his throat.
He knelt down and closed Kenly’s eyes, he hated losing crew members. But a captain knows when his mission has failed. Before he stood up familiar voices called out on the salty air. He could hardly hear them over the roaring tide.
“Put it down!” It was her. He did put it down. Something was wrong. They bound his hands and buried Kenly as the sun fell below the horizon. He slept far from the fire. They took turns watching. In his dreams he saw a man with six eyes sitting atop a floating cloud. He sat with the figure and soared up over the desert. They flew out of the atmosphere towards the stars where the battle continued to rage. In a dance of death the small frigates twisted around one another lining up turret blasts while the cathedral sized cruisers hung back launching torpedoes. The man next to him laughed. His mouth was too wide when he spoke, the words stuck together like syrup. “All-That-You-Have-Accomplished-Burns-Before-You-But-I-Have-Plans-For-You.” His teeth were like needles and his voice rumbled like thunder.
He tried to wake up or open his eyes but the creature was still there and his fleet fought lost and died before him. They watched it all.
His stomach dropped and he plummeted to the surface. His crew was nowhere to be seen, his steady hands dug at the sand beneath him. Only a foot down he found dark stone with intricate bas relief. He dug for hours at the stone object searching for a door. He spent the day uncovering a portion of the temple. He didn’t hunger but his body was spent. He slept and the many-eyed man returned to show him the fleet, his fleet losing again. In the morning the dunes had shifted covering the temple, he began to dig.