Sandstorm by Sylvia Cumming

Sandstorm
Sylvia Cumming

Where are we?” Poldark yelled as he wrestled open the door to the little concrete bunker set in the side of an unnamed dune. They could hardly hear him above the roar and whine of the wind. The four men were battered and bruised, thankful to find any shelter in this brutal sandstorm.

Least gods! Why are you asking me?” the Lieutenant said, pushing Poldark’s wide, dusty back. “Get in there before the storm pulls the door off.”

All four of them fell into the room and the Lieutenant wrestled the door closed after them with a firm “whump.” The sound of the storm abruptly faded to a distant whine. The dust and sand that had blown in gently settled a fine grit on every surface, including the skin. The men sneezed and unwound the face cloths that had kept at least some of the storm out of their eyes and mouth, and dropped their packs into a pile.

There was no light.

Doc could hear the others breathing but couldn’t see anything; he heard Poldark in front of him near the door, panting through his smoker’s wheeze, the Lieutenant with his measured inhalations in his left ear and Sharky’s shaky sighs to his right.

It’s too dark in here,” Sharky whined. The sound fell flat, absorbed into the walls. He shifted so he was leaning his bony form against Doc, pushing him up against the Lieutenant. Doc caught a rank, acidic odor from Sharky. Fear.

If we’re lucky this room is what will get us through the storm and keep us from being suffocated by the dust,” the Lieutenant snapped.

The dark never saved anybody,” Poldark muttered. His voice came from above their heads, oddly disembodied. He was still standing.

The room is sealed, dummy,” Doc said. “We’re not going to suffocate in this gods-forsaken storm. And thank the least gods we found this place before it got too bad.”

It’s smaller than a least god’s head,” Poldark shot back. Doc could hear shuffling sounds. “I’m in the corner and I swear the door is less than a man’s length away.”

More shuffling, then: “Hey, there’s another doorway, and a bed here,” Poldark’s voice was further away than before. There was a sound like bedsprings squeaking. “I’m gonna take a nap.”

To Doc’s left, he felt the Lieutenant stiffen. “How far back does this place go, Poldark?”

Not far. It’s cooler back here though. If we gotta wait the storm out, we got time to explore later.” The springs squeaked again.

The front room was too small with three bodies in it. Too small to stretch out, but the men settled in. The Lieutenant pressed against Doc’s left ribs and Sharky against his right. The wall in front of him pressed against the soles of his feet, keeping him upright. But Doc was too tired to think of a reason to move.

They sat for a while in the dark without talking. There was nothing to see, no point in either looking or not. With his eyes open, Doc found himself straining unconsciously to find something to look at, so he closed them.

Sharky’s terrified panting gradually evened out to a soft snore. Beneath Sharky’s dead weight, Doc could feel his tired muscles stiffening up. He pushed Sharky away and felt for his pack near their feet, found the tinny of water on its side. It sloshed comfortingly as Doc took a good swig. He might pay for that luxury later, but it was worth the pleasure of feeling the coolness move down into his gullet and settle in his stomach. He thought about taking his sandshoes off but it was too much bother. So he sat back and let the coolness of the concrete wall behind him penetrate his back through his sweaty shirt, knees bent, flat footed on the floor. After days of forced marching in the unrelenting heat it felt good.

We need a light,” the Lieutenant said nervously. “I want to know where we are.”

Sharky stirred. “It’s a munitions dump a hundred kilometers from the Rim of the Eye. Sir.”

How do you know?” Doc asked.

I’m a navigator. I’m supposed to know these things, Doc,” Sharky snapped.

You’re not a magician,” Doc snapped. “And don’t call me Doc.”

I’m smart. I read maps and don’t trust my locator on a planet with only one satellite to feed data.”

From the other room, Poldark said, “I heard they bury the light sensitive munitions in the dunes, in case of accidental exposure. You think this is a dump for light-nukes?”

Wouldn’t surprise me,” Sharky replied. “There are three of them in this area.”

How’d we get so far off course?” the Lieutenant wondered aloud.

Have you ever been in a sand storm before?” Doc asked him.

In the Namib on Earth,” he replied.

Been there, done that,” Poldark sounded bored. “Storms are worse here. Different, too.”

A dust storm’s a dust storm,” the Lieutenant said confidently. “You wait it out, get your bearings and force march home. Works every time.”

I was in the Eye on Jupiter once,” Sharky said. “That sucker’s been going for millenia.”

That’s not a sand storm,” Poldark pointed out.

It’s worse,” Sharky agreed in a melancholy voice. “It melts things.”

This is my third sand storm here on Vir Viridium,” the medic said. “We’re going to be here a while.”

Hours, days, maybe a week,” agreed Poldark.

Well, then we might as well get a light going, find out what our situation is,” the Lieutenant said.

Beside him, Doc felt the Lieutenant shift positions, and an eddy of air moved past his face.

No!” Doc said, grabbing at where he judged the Lieutenant’s arm to be. “No lights. I’ve seen what those bombs can do.”

Don’t grab me, Medic,” the Lieutenant snarled. But he pulled his arm back and settled back against the wall next to Doc.

I hate the dark,” Sharky moaned. He leaned against the medic even harder.

Poldark said, “I don’t see why we can’t have a light. Nothing happened when we opened the door to come in.”

If we knew where we were, we’d know which dump this was,” Doc said. “And what was in it. We might already have triggered something when we opened the door. Some of these dumps are rigged that way.”

They sat in silence for a while. The faint thud of rocks hitting the sides of the bunker punctuated the sounds of their breathing, the only accompaniments to the constant moan of the wind. After a while Doc fell asleep.

Hey,” a voice hissed in the medic’s ear. A hand poked him in the ribs. Sharky’s.

The medic roused himself, instantly awake. Battle instincts, survival habits, drilled in.

Listen,” Sharky whispered.

The wind wasn’t moaning and flinging rocks into the bunker’s walls. Doc didn’t hear anything outside, just the sounds in the bunker of Poldark’s snore and a slight wheeze from the Lieutenant. He wanted to stand up and stretch but the Lieutenant was leaning against him, so the tall medic settled for unfolding his legs. Unsurprisingly, the muscles were sore, but the stretch, such as it was, felt good. He was hungry, too. He found two meal bars in his pack.

Here,” he whispered to Sharky and handed one to him.

They heard the creak of Poldark’s bed. “Hey, Doc,” he whispered.

Do you hear it, too?” the medic whispered back.

The Lieutenant stirred and sat up. “Shhh,” he said.

The men shut up.

Sounds like it’s over,” he said. “No wind.”

It’s the eye,” Poldark said. “It’ll pass.”

The storm’s over,” the Lieutenant repeated firmly.

No, sir,” Poldark said patiently. “We’re in the middle of it.”

Sharky whined, “If we go now we’ll be caught out when it passes.”

This isn’t a hurricane,” the Lieutenant said sharply. “Just a dust storm. I say we march while the marching’s good. It’s a hundred kilometers to the base and the more time we waste here, the less chance we’ll make it.”

Sir, this isn’t the Namib,” Poldark said.

A storm’s a storm,” the Lieutenant said firmly. He stood up abruptly, and the scraping of metal and cloth on the hard floor sounded like he was readying his pack.

That storm on Jupiter had an eye,” said Sharky. “Thousands of kilometers across. You’d never know there was a storm when you were in it. That’s how my buddy died.”

We don’t have a weather specialist here. If you want to argue, expect a court martial when we get to base,” the Lieutenant snapped. “We move out in five minutes. That’s an order.”

Doc had seen the remains of guys caught out in these storms before, skin flayed from bone, and worse. With his free hand he felt for the knife in his belt and slipped it out, feeling its razor sharp edge with his thumb. As quietly and quickly as he could, the medic slipped off a sandshoe and sawed through the polyflex webbing, trying his best to make it seem like a rough break rather than a cut. The knife did its job silently; he was glad he’d kept it sharp.

Oh, least gods! My sandshoe is ruined, the strap is broken,” the medic groaned, holding it up as though it could be seen in the pitch-darkness. “There is no way I can walk a hundred kilometers after a storm. In sand this unsettled I won’t get ten paces without sinking.”

Then you can guard the munitions. Someone should have been here anyway—no reason this post should be deserted. You should be carrying rations for a week. When we get to base we’ll send transport for you.” The Lieutenant let out a slight grunt as he swung his pack onto his back. No one else moved. “Let’s move out now, you two.”

Harsh desert sunlight flooded into the room when he opened the door. The medic closed his eyes against the temporary blindness. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust, and when he did he saw the Lieutenant’s silhouette still in the doorway. Not ten meters past him was the base of an immense dune that hadn’t been there when they’d arrived and probably wouldn’t be there once the storm’s eye passed.

The sun illuminated the gray concrete walls and fell through the inner doorway to Poldark’s bedroom. Dust, and more dust. Khaki packs and headcloths in a pile, Doc’s broken sandshoe leaning crazily against the wall.

Move out, men. That’s an order,” the Lieutenant said loudly. Veins stood out on

his neck.

Sharky stood and screamed, “The munitions! Shut the door before you kill us all!”

Poldark was at the inner doorway, looking out at the Lieutenant. “It’s just the eye, sir. We can’t go.”

Instinct kicked in. In the instant before the Lieutenant walked out, the medic leapt up and grabbed him, yanked him roughly back in and pulled the door shut, leaving the sun-blind men in the dark once again. The three men heard the Lieutentant stumble back and curse as he fell to the floor with a dull thud.

No one spoke for a minute, then a groan came from the far corner where the Lieutenant had fallen.

Are you injured, sir?” Poldark asked.

He groaned again.

Oh, hells,” said Sharky mournfully. “Laying hands on a superior officer. Now you’re in for it.”

The medic shivered involuntarily. Injuring an officer was a high crime. When they got to base, he’d get the works no matter how he tried to explain it. Court martials don’t care about facts when regulations are broken.

Doc sighed and turned that thought aside. That was the future – he had a job to do now. He knelt beside the Lieutenant and said, “Are you awake?”

The injured man moaned again. “My head…” his voice trailed off. The medic could hear him panting and felt for the pulse in his neck. Fast, and too shallow.

What is it, Doc?” Sharky asked nervously, leaning over his shoulder.

I don’t know, give me some room here. Never diagnosed anyone in full darkness before,” the medic snapped.

He fumbled in his pack and found the bag with his medical supplies. He slipped a pair of surgical gloves on, willing his hands to be steady, and gently probed the Lieutenant’s head, noting the sticky patch where the left parietal and temporal bones should have met. Double hells, his skull was cracked just above his ear. Almost certainly he had some brain trauma. He needed a hospital, not a dirty munitions bunker and a battlefield medic.

Here, lemme help,” Poldark said. He flicked a portable light on.

Turn it off!” Sharky and the medic yelled together.

No. Look.” He shined the light into the room behind him. “I saw it when the Lieutenant opened the door.”

The medic looked up, leaned over to see around the wall. Set flat against the far wall behind Poldark was a concrete door. The word “MUNITIONS” had been stenciled in white spray paint on the middle of it. The room behind it and any munitions in it were secured against the light.

Sharky laughed shakily. “Well that makes sense,” he said. “Who stores munitions in a bedroom anyway?”

Bring that light over here,” the medic ordered.

Okay, Doc,” Poldark said.

The Lieutenant didn’t make a sound the whole time the medic was working on him. His luck, he’d hit his head on the only rock in the place, a sharp piece of concrete the size of a shoe that had somehow blown into the room. The medic sewed him up and bandaged his head.

He needs more help than I can give him,” Doc said. “He’s breathing, but that’s about all he’s doing.” Then he gave him an injection of antibiotics and cleaned him up as best he could with one of the head scarves.

There wasn’t anything else to do with the Lieutenant but cover him with a blanket and let him sleep. Better to leave him still than risk more injury moving him without proper equipment.

What now?” Sharky asked querulously.

Both Poldark and Sharky looked at the medic for an answer.

The dark man shrugged and looked around in the dim light. It was the first time he was able to inspect the bunker since they’d entered. The front room had barely enough room for the injured man to lie flat and another to keep watch next to him. Their packs and sandshoes crowded by the door in a forlorn pile, taking up the rest of the floor space.

Through the doorway the medic could see Poldark’s broad shape settling back down on the single bed frame. The mattressless springs complained every time he moved.

There are shelves over there,” Poldark said. “With some canned goods.” He pointed to a wall the medic couldn’t see. “We don’t have to worry about rations for a day or two extra.”

The medic stood with a sigh, knees popping, and looked in. The room was a slightly larger twin of the first room, except for the shelves and the door to the munitions storage.

I wonder where the guard went,” Poldark mused.

And his radio,” the medic added.

It might not have been one of ours,” said Sharky.

Whose, then? The natives don’t use munitions and they don’t write in English, either. I bet he stepped out in the storm and got lost,” Poldark continued.

They thought about this for a moment.

How long do you think we’re going to be in the eye?” Sharky asked.

Just then, the sound of rocks hitting the outside of the building was accompanied by the faint low moan of the wind.

Favored by the Least Gods, you got your answer,” Poldark said.

At least we’ve got some light now,” Sharky replied.

I got some dice,” said Poldark.

Sharky smiled. “Good. We got time, let’s play.”

The medic rolled himself in his blanket and went to sleep listening to the clink of dice. It was strangely comforting.

The Lieutenant’s moaning woke him up. Doc pulled a little light out of his pack and set it up on the floor. The injured man had thrown his blanket off and his face was flushed. The medic felt his head, but it was an empty gesture. The Lieutenant’s face was flushed and his hair was plastered to his head from sweat. The medic swore and gave him another shot of antibiotics and one of anti-inflammatories. He shook his head and sighed. “Wish we were near a field hospital.”

Nothing to do now but wait. The medic sat back and swigged a cautious mouthful of water from his tinny and picked up his sandshoe, inspecting the damage.

With fingers busy, his mind wandered to the inevitability of a court martial in his future. In this harsh desert climate, military men were harder of heart and less likely to grant clemency for circumstance. It was the worst side of the letter of the law. And the first law of the military is that the superior officer is always right. The medic had heard of other men who’d bucked their commanding officer’s orders, but even when the commander admitted his wrong, the men were imprisoned. Or worse. Leading men to their death in order to be right on this gods-forsaken sand dune of a planet was preferable, it seemed, to a sensible command who paid attention to his men and drew good conclusions. It was a bitter thought.

The medic sighed and said a silent prayer to the Least Gods. “I’ll do everything I can to save the Lieutenant. It is my sworn duty. I know there will be no reward for it; please let there be no penalty.”

He rested the half-repaired webbing in his lap and closed his eyes.

He woke to Poldark’s whisper. “Hey, Doc, you awake?”

The medic opened his eyes. “Why is it dark?”

We finished our game and decided to sleep awhile. How’s the Lieutenant?”

Give me some light and I’ll check,” the medic said, rubbing his eyes. However long he’d been asleep hadn’t been long enough. His body ached from sleeping upright and his thinking was foggy and slow.

The sounds from the storm continued outside, unabated.

The medic heard some shuffling, then the little light went on in the other room. Shadows waxed and waned as Poldark walked the few paces over to where the injured officer lay.

Is he breathing?” Poldark whispered, squatting down on the other side of the medic.

They looked at the still figure laying with closed eyes and hands half-clutching the blanket. His skin looked pale, and his features looked peaceful. He was cool to the medic’s touch. He felt the injured man’s neck for a pulse but couldn’t find one.

Least gods’ hells,” the medic swore and buried his head in his hands. He’d killed an officer; he was a dead man now.

Poldark patted the medic’s shoulder and stood. After a minute he left, and the medic heard the bedsprings squeaking.

To keep from showing emotion, the medic busied himself with what he could remember of the Rituals. He rolled the Lieutenant up in his blanket and rummaged through his pack for a portable Holy Book to place on his chest. He whispered the Journeying Prayers as he placed the book in the blankets. There was no burial possible here but the desert air would preserve him long enough for his body to be shipped back home, wherever and whenever that was.

The medic slumped against the wall next to the entry door and stared blankly at the dead man on the floor across the room.

Poldark sidled over and handed Doc a small bottle labeled with a snake. “Here,” he said quietly. “You need this.”

It wasn’t something the medic had ever done before, and he knew it was against military rules, but once the bottle was in his hand, he wanted it. He’d heard whispered stories of the Dreamless Sleep from other enlisteds. He’d prided himself on his ability to live with his demons, but at that moment he could not face himself. He drank the bitter drink and let the drug take him.

When the medic awoke, the relentless desert sun was shining through the open door, baking his face and arms. He tried to sit up and groaned. “It feels like a squadron of armored dune movers has run me over, head to toe.”

Sharky handed him a tinny. “Drink some water, you’ll feel better.”

How long was I asleep?” he asked. He forced himself to sit up and gulped down a half a tinny. The water made him feel less foggy.

Best guess, two days. Long enough for me to win all of Poldark’s coin.” Sharky grinned. He was eating a meal bar.

The medic looked around. Poldark was lounging in the doorway between the two rooms. There were three packs and three sets of clean, well-strung sandshoes neatly lined up by the door. The room was clean-swept, and the bloody rock was gone.

Where’s the Lieutenant?” The medic asked sharply.

Sharky and Poldark glanced at each other, then Poldark looked out the door and said, “Don’t you remember? He wouldn’t listen to reason and went ahead out into the eye, poor fool. You tried to persuade him, even tried to pull him back, but he went anyway. Least gods know what happened to him.”

Both Sharky and Poldark made the Sign of the Gods, and Sharky shook his head sadly.

It was just like on Jupiter when my buddy wouldn’t come back,” he said mournfully.

The medic looked closely at Sharky, who looked away, then at Poldark, who stared back at him with a level, unreadable gaze.

We should get going while the weather’s good, Doc,” he said after a minute. He stepped into his sandshoes and swung his pack up onto his back. “Base is a hundred kilometers.”

End

Sandstorm by Sylvia Cumming 1

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