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, away from the dry, desolate planet they called Cox-82.
“I’m still here.”
* * *
“Entering atmosphere. Two minutes till landing,” buzzed the intercom.
“Alright, gather up, marines,” Lieutenant Chokeiv said.
Dante gathered around the lieutenant with the other soldiers, awaiting 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 unhospitable planet. “Avoid hot dust storms,” they’d said. Cox-82 had two suns and a grainy surface of minerals he wasn’t trained to understand.
“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 was smooth, 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; full head gear that protected his skull should the enemies possess projectiles. The marines stomped their boots. Dante could already feel a trickle of sweat down his back, where his gun was strapped to him. They lined up and the lieutenant sized them up. He was a tall man, broad shoulders 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.”
* * *
The suns rose from the East and the West. He 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 fissures that dropped off into darkness. Light spilled over both horizons and drowned the planet in waves of heat that shimmered like a mirage. Dante’s suit’s internal temperature increased. He guessed it wouldn’t last long after all.
He 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.
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 always liked the sea; marines.
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 and the sand was scorching. 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. Once the sand got in and past the sensitive first layer of flesh, Dante couldn’t feel much until his bones and joints began to ache with the pressure of his suit collapsing and warping. His screams were lost to the wind. And just as it had come, the storm soon passed.
Dante laid there, panting, suit corroded in and sticking to his skin in different ways than before. Everything burned. His whole body felt raw, as if his skin had become liquid fire. With crusted eyelashes crumbling away, he opened his eyes.
Figures appeared in the shimmering heat, that of crooked creatures, hobbling in his direction. They were burned and awkward. Dust men, savages, the forgotten.
He reached a hand out towards them.
“I’m still here,” he croaked, high pitched and raspy.
* * *
“Move out!” Lieutenant said.
Dante thought he was good at following orders. So was his 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 beating like a trapped bird against his chest. One, two, three, four klicks away and he finally spots a scavenge, a group of hostiles. They’re not what he thought they’d look like. Bipedal and human-like. Hunched over creatures, long limbs, tattered clothing and blackened skin. They walked as if every movement pained them, gangly, as if they had extra joints.
The gun rose. He sighted them down, a few yards away and they spotted him, making high pitched, raspy noises, like metal scraping together. Dante wanted to cover his ears. Instead, he opened fire. It took several rounds to pierce their thick skin. He licked his lips. They weren’t men.
Dante went to the remains. They looked disfigured and lumpy, black skin crusty with minerals and rock. He bent down and looked at their clothing. They were rags, almost completely gone. One tattered piece hung off the chest of one. It was burned but the numbers were still a touch legible; IN42048. He recognized the systematic numbering they used for prison inmates.
His radio beeped 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.
“Four klicks 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,” Lieutenant said. “Confirm your kills.”
It was supposed to be savage.
“I found a number on it.”
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.
“Protect and serve, soldier.”