A Long Road From Kansas

Another dune, like a dry boil on the face of a never-ending wasteland. Red-capped, and oozing sand, the blemish produced a terra cotta haze that whipped at his visor. Completely dusted in the bloody red dirt, Daniel fisted a gloved hand into the gut of the dune, and gained foothold in the sand, to make another attempt at scaling against the blistering wind.

It had seemed like forever, but in fact, had only been but an hour since he had gazed back to watch the remains of mankind's first steps on Mars be lost in soot and fire.

The dune began to give out beneath his shifting weight, and he collapsed onto his back, beneath the cinder-flecked, tangerine sky. Even the distant mountain ranges had become nothing more than impressionist smudges in his eyes. Scraping at the visor-shield, he had managed a few lines of visibility from the clots that had been building up on the surface. Char-lined rock formations leered over a forsaken Daniel like disapproving beasts, all mangled and twisted, with wisps of dust flitting from their forms like a maiden's windswept hair.

Something moved. It was not that hallucinatory movement- those lurches and butterflies that simulate flying from adrenaline. The sand was draining out from under his body, and something had brushed against his chest. The pressure was subtle, yet noticeable, and when he dented the sand with the butt of his palm, something pushed back at him from beneath.

When almost convinced that the sand, itself, was alive, something far more thrilling occurred. The appendage was slowly surfaced, sunset-tipped quills fanning from the ground, and standing completely erect, stiff and still. He extended a finger, but it had already vanished.

"Wait- what the..." He coughed into his stuffy helmet, raising a hand weakly to try and help steady his footing once more.

"Hey!" The voice must have been no less than a couple yards away, but everything was so densely shrouded in a heavy red haze, Daniel had to nearly touch his own visor to see a hand. The focused beam of an LED flashlight had pierced that shell of writhing dust, and a man-shaped silhouette began to materialize within.

"Oy!" Daniel wheezed when a heavy, metal-set gloved hand dragged him to his feet. He scrambled, feet shuffling in the soft sand to keep level, and was caught again by his rescuer, after nearly falling face-flat again.

"Identify yourself." The voice was firm and gruff, sun glaring like a cyclopean orb reflected in the rescuer's visor.

"D-Daniel... Daniel Acheson, Linguistics and Xenological Studies... room-" he was cut off by a "thank God" from the rescuer, and then a "Sergeant Stephen Davis."

"Are there- there other survivors? What happened?" Daniel fought back the compulsion to shake the soldier.

"Yeah- yeah, pretty sure we're not the lucky ones, though," Daniel raised a brow at this confession from the sergeant, "how so?" Davis clenched his teeth, and flared a nostril, "we're still in this hellhole." With one good slap on Daniel's back, he breathed a sigh of relief, "comon, we can mingle when we get back to camp."

"You didn't- what happened?" Daniel re-inquired, inciting another grunt from Davis, "hell if I know."

"Anyone see anything? Surely someone- someone... had to see something..." Daniel gasped, Davis scrunching his face beneath the visor and patting his fellow survivor stiffly on the shoulder, "still got a long way to Kansas, Dorothy- save your breath." The thicket of sand had begun to wear as the soldier finished his drawn sentence.

"So... where's the yellow brick road?" Daniel cleared his throat with the adjustment of an oxygen tube.

"You're standing on it." Davis pointed his flashlight at Daniel's feet- something skittered, and the delicate sand rippled with its presence. All of a sudden, Daniel's boots turned a lumpy brown, as something splashed up from directly underneath their feet. Davis blew the steam from his revolver barrel, and forced another bullet into the setting.

"What the hell, man!" The scientist tumbled backwards into the sand, palms planted firmly in the dust, "dinner." Davis knelt, and peeled back a strip of sticky, wet mud, removing the carcass concealed underneath. Post-mortum reflexes sent the creature's translucent, sunburst orange tendrils into a series of grotesque, inward curling spasms. A round, leech-like maw, flecked with tiny barbed teeth, had begun drooling chunky globs of watery brown excrement.

Davis wrenched the carcass from the slime, squeezing the neck tightly to release the creature's quills into the sand.

"What is it?" Daniel scraped a crust of dirt from his visor, watching intently as Davis wrangled the stilt-like, barbed legs in his fists. "Hell if I know, but it tastes like cheap calamari," the sergeant laughed, wiggling the corpse in Daniel's face.

Daniel batted it away with one hand, and grimaced in utter disgust at the sergeant, "stop arsing about." He breathed in to retain what little composure was left, "how many people have you found?" A tinge of hopefulness drew into Daniel's every breath, but it all quickly dissolved into utter horror when Sergeant Davis began wracking in the kill count on his fingers.

"Including you and I, seven." They both breathed in, knowing that the worst had yet to come.

"We're stranded." It hit Daniel as he said it aloud, and his hands quickly snatched at the oxygen cords pumping from his tank. It's all over, now. Not even the specimen Davis had blown from the sand phased him any longer- Daniel knew that he was going to die, and that it was hopeless to prolong the inevitable.

"God- what the hell is wrong with you!?" Davis snatched at Daniel's killing hand, restraining it behind the hopeless man's back.

"The shuttle's fried, everyone's dead, there is no way to contact Earth, and I am running on less than half of a single oxygen tank!" He attempted to wiggle his arm free of the sergeant's grip, but it only tightened.

"Seriously, shut up, man. Yes- it looks like we're screwed, but these things are all over the place," the sergeant shook the carcass of the dead cephalopod again, "and everyone is working to try and salvage enough to reinstate communications. You have to have faith in Human perseverance, Dorothy." Davis shoved the carcass at Daniel, and the frightened man hastened to catch it.

"We're also some four-hundred million kilometers from Earth." The scientist bitterly retorted, about to vomit as he felt the slimy, gelatinous corpse continually sliding through his fingers.

"Just means I finally get a vacation..." The sergeant slapped Daniel on the back so hard, he felt himself struggling to not just fall on his face as the weight of his equipment caught back up with him. Still losing the battle with his legs, Daniel struggled to keep up with Davis' long, brusque strides through the heavy, sinking desert terrain, "musta put a good thirty or forty extra pounds on durin' Desert Storm. Don't you hike, or somethin', Dorothy?" The seasoned, middle-aged sergeant was heartily chuckling about Daniel's plight for what seemed like hours. Every single step was becoming that much more strenuous on Daniel's underworked body, "can we stop?" He uttered weakly between wheezing breaths, knees literally trembling from lack of exercise.

"Hell, no- we've got a few good hours 'til camp. If anything, this is good for ya." Davis seemed greatly amused by the scientist's lack of structural integrity, holding his head just a little higher as a show of superiority and triumph.

Daniel was dragging his feet sluggishly, eyes barely being able to stay open, feet getting caught in pockets of loose sand, and instead of stepping over rocks, Daniel just sort of trudged through them; with every step, he was losing ground to the sergeant.

Another gust of scathing red wind stampeded by. By the time the dust had cleared, the sergeant had vanished ahead, leaving Daniel to lie on his side, too exhausted to die.