With half a mile to go, Private Dante Rodgers watched the ship’s thrusters roar to life. Orange dust clouded under its metallic keel as it lifted. He slowed his jog, mask steamy from his hot breath. He clicked his radio to life.
“Hellhound Cruiser Four, this is Rodgers, come in.”
The ship was a dark gleam against the twilight sky. It turned its bow North.
“Rodgers to Lieutenant Chokiev. Come in. I’m still here.”
He dropped his radio as the Hellhound Cruiser Four shot away with a roar; leaving the dry, desolate planet they called Cox-82 and Private Rodges behind.
His radio clicked one last time and the lieutenant’s voice spoke.
“You’ve been compromised, soldier.”
* * *
“Entering the atmosphere. Two minutes till landing,” buzzed the intercom.
“Alright! Gather up, marines,” Lieutenant Chokiev said.
Dante gathered around the lieutenant with the other soldiers, awaiting their debriefing.
“We go in, keep tight. Eliminate all hostile life forms,” he said. “Make quick work. We’re here to show these things the Alliance doesn’t tolerate acts of terror.”
They were here to eliminate rebellious foreign forces on an inhospitable planet. They had told them all to avoid hot dust storms. Cox-82 had two suns and a grainy surface of minerals that he wasn’t trained to understand. All he knew was that the dust storms were dangerous and potentially lethal.
“We have approximately two hours before the sun rises. Anything left out in that desert burns. Ship leaves at 0800,” said the lieutenant. “Gear up.”
The Hellhound flew smoothly. It was a new model that didn’t shake and rattle when entering a planet’s atmosphere. Dante could barely feel the landing when they touched ground. He grabbed his mask; a full set of head gear that protected his skull from enemy projectiles.
The marines stomped their boots in unison. It was almost time.
Dante could already feel a trickle of sweat down his back, where his gun was strapped to him. They stomped and lined up while the lieutenant sized them up. He was a tall man, broad of shoulder with a scar over one eye. He stopped in front of Dante, accent thick.
“Who you fighting for, solider?” Chokiev asked.
“My dad was a marine, sir. Like him, I fight to serve and protect.”
The lieutenant nodded.
“Ever shoot a man, solider?” he asked.
Chokiev eyed him for a moment.
“These things are savages,” he said. “You aim to kill.”
* * *
Dante stopped walking and tried the button on his radio; dead silence. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tiny shred of cloth that had started it all. It was dusty, ragged and felt as though it would fall apart at his touched. It was almost entirely black, but some parts were still blue. He could barely make out the letters and numbering; IN42048.
The suns rose from the East and the West. Dante could already feel the rising temperature. He hoped the internal cooling in his suit and protective exoskeleton would last. Cox-82 only ever experienced a few hours of twilight; the rest of its day was spent in blistering heat. It was a desert; its dry and cracked surface was only relieved by craggy boulders and deep fissures that dropped off into darkness.
Light spilled over both horizons and drowned the planet in waves of heat that shimmered like a mirage. The internal temperature of Dante’s suit increased by a few degrees. He guessed it wouldn’t last long after all.
Sweat stuck his suit to his skin, like the summer he went swimming in a T-shirt and shorts with his brother and father. They had always liked the sea.
Then Dante heard it, the sharp howls of a storm. Dust roared. Red and orange vortexes of hot sand raged, as if some lonely god was blowing across the desert. Dante waited and wished it to be quick. The storm was upon him in half a minute, heated winds slamming into him; a hurricane of dust.
It was hot–scalding, like when he stepped out onto the beach on hot summer days and the sand was so hot it scorched the bottom of his feet.
Now, the orange sand clung to his suit, little bits of metals and earth, weighing him to the ground as they tore into the protective outer covering. Dante screamed and struggled futilely. He couldn’t stop it. It was like a wave. Powerful and overwhelming. Once it took you, it was over.
It didn’t take long for the red, hot sand to corrode his suit. The only thing stopping it now was a fine layer of clothing which it tore much more easily than his exoskeleton. It was endless pain. Complete agony. Much worse than the time he stepped on a jellyfish.
His dad was angry at his blunder and his brother peed on it before they rushed him to the hospital. Why was he thinking of these things now? His father and brother were gone. They had much more honorable deaths.
Still the dust raged. Once the sand got in and past the sensitive first layer of flesh, Dante couldn’t feel much but an aching as it ripped at his muscles and tissue. He was grateful. His bones and joints began to throb with the pressure of his collapsed and torn suit warping around them.
Defiantly, he screamed. But they were lost to the noise. Mere whimpers on the wind.
And just as it had come, the storm soon passed.
Dante laid there, panting and huffing with the occasional weak groan of pain. His suit corroded in and stuck to his raw flesh in different ways than before. Everything burned. His whole body felt raw, as if his skin had become liquid fire. He bled but the heat of the storm had dried it instantly, cauterizing his body. With crusted eyelashes crumbling away, Dante opened his eyes.
There, int he distance, figures appeared. They looked like dark angels in the shimmering heat, crooked creatures hobbling towards him. The closer they got, the more he could see. They were burned and awkward just like the others. Dust men. They were savages. They were animals. They were the forgotten.
Dante reached a hand out towards them, imaging the faces of his father and brother.
“Don’t…leave me,” he croaked, high pitched and raspy. “I’m still here.”
* * *
“Move out!” Lieutenant Chokiev said.
Dante thought he was good at following orders. So was his brother and their father. He wanted to follow in his footsteps, regain the honor and fame his father had. “Killed in combat,” they said. Just like that, glory gone.
The platoon spread out. Dante hit the orange dirt, boots kicking up dust. His weapon was in hand and his heart beat like a trapped bird against his chest. One, two, three, four clicks away and he finally spotted something; Dust Men, hostile monsters. They were not what he thought they’d look like. They were Bipedal and human-like. Hunched over creatures, long limbs, tattered clothing and blackened, burned skin. They walked as if every movement pained them.
The gun rose. He sighted them down, a few yards away and they spotted him, making high pitched and raspy noises. Dante wanted to cover his ears. Instead, he opened fire. It took several rounds to pierce their thick, blackened skin. He licked his dry lips.
These things weren’t men.
They all fell and Dante went to the remains. They looked disfigured and lumpy, black skin crusty with reddish minerals and rock. He bent down and looked at their clothing. They were rags that were almost completely gone. One tattered piece hung off the chest of one. It was burned but the numbers were still a touch legible. They read IN42048. Dante immediately recognized the systematic numbering used for prison inmates.
His radio came to life.
“Rodgers, confirm location,” came Chokiev’s voice.
Dante tore the piece of clothing and stared at the body.
“Confirm location, Rodgers.”
He stuffed the cloth in his pocket. “Rodgers here.”
“Four clicks out.” He paused. “I think I found something.”
“Like what, Rodgers?”
It couldn’t be.
“Human prisoner, sir.”
The radio was silent for a moment.
“No prisoners out here, solider,” the Lieutenant said. “Now, confirm your kills.”
They were supposed to be savages.
“I found a number on it.”
“Confirm your kills.”
He stared at the body; two legs, two arms, ten fingers.
“All targets down.”
“Good,” Chokiev said. “Forget what you saw out there.”
He killed it.
“Nothing but animals out there.”
He killed him.
“You good?” Chokiev asked. But Dante couldn’t answer him.
“Protect and serve, soldier.”