SAND and SHADOW
1st place in the 2015 Houston Writers House Competition in the sci-fi/fantasy category.
To preserve the human race, a fleet of shuttles are sent with orders to inhabit a new world. But when Adan Fuentes awakes from cryohybernation, he discovers that most of his crew are dead and his shuttle has been severely damaged.
Adan and the surviving crew members attempt to scavenge their mission on an inhospitable planet. But when an unseen creature begins picking them off one by one, staying alive becomes the crew's primary objective.
Beneath the thin mantle of dust, a single LED flicked on. The feeble green bulb illuminated the shuttle’s cryo compartment just enough to emphasize how completely still it all was. The first light was succeeded by another and another until there were six. Only six. The other eighteen bulbs remained small, dark lumps beneath the dust. The compartment, awash in a hazy emerald radiance, might have been perfectly suitable in the Land of Oz, but here it simply did not belong.
He did not belong.
That was the first conscious thought in Adán’s head. Before he sensed that he was breathing or that his heart was pumping, he knew he shouldn’t be there. He’d known it for a long time, but he had kept it to himself. Hadn’t said a word right up to the moment the acrylic shield had come down and the icy serum entered his vein. But his apprehension was abruptly interrupted as he succumbed to the anesthetic that prepared him for cryo-hibernation.
Adán opened his eyes to a disorienting darkness. Light, he thought. There is supposed to be light. He blinked, squeezed his eyes shut, and then opened them again, straining to detect even the slightest glimmer. Panic seized him as he felt his own hot breath collecting in the narrow space between his face and the shield. Had the respiratory system failed? Was that why his cryo had been terminated? He had been asleep only moments. At least it felt like moments. He awoke to his half-finished thought, still feeling the tightness in his gut, what Colonel Foster had deemed nerves. “It’ll pass,” she had assured him. “It’s as easy as going to sleep.”
He breathed harder, faster. The moist air from his lungs condensed on his skin. Or was he perspiring? Raising his right hand to wipe the sheen of sweat away, his knuckles hit the underside of the shield. A dull thud reverberated through Adán’s unit, and something shifted just at waist level. Adán couldn’t lift his head much, just an inch or so, but it was enough to look down at the speck of green light near his feet. He lifted his hand again, striking the acrylic over and over. Each time it hit, the spot of light grew larger. Dust, he realized. My shield is covered in dust.
Finally enough light had filtered into his unit that Adán could make out the panel at his left just beside his fingertips. On it was a rectangular button marked COMM and a lever marked RELEASE. He struggled to remember his training. Even the simplest of thoughts resisted recall, and he understood that this was a temporary effect of coming out of cryo. Slowly, as memories coalesced in his mind, he pressed his thumb against the COMM button.
“H-hello? Can anyone hear me?” Adán held his panic in check as he waited for a reply. Nothing. “This is Mission Specialist Adán Fuentes. 4-ENG-003. I’m awake and need assistance.”
Again he waited. Adán re-adjusted his thumb. “Hello? Hello?”
The shield, so close to his face, seemed to press in on him. He had to get out. He had to get out now. He balled his hands into fists and hammered against the shield, striking it again and again. “I’m awake in here! Somebody!” More dust shifted off the shield, and the unit’s interior filled with an eerie green light.
Adán hooked two of his fingers around the emergency release lever and pulled. The dull click of the latch resonated through his enclosure. The shield slid open, pushing more dust to the floor. For a moment, he saw only green, and it reminded him of the time he went scuba diving with his dad—how under water everything had that odd seaweed-like tint to it. But then the overhead lights blinked on, and the dim oceany color evaporated. The sudden brightness stung Adán’s eyes, and he shielded them with his elbow. When he thought he could tolerate the light, he lowered his arm and cautiously sat up.
He was in the Quarters just as he should be, the vast cavern-like hibernation compartment housing two rows of twelve identical cryo units each—twenty-four in all—and the main control panel at one end. This room was the last image he’d had before his shield came down, but it had looked nothing like this.
The overhead lights that ran the length of the room flickered and dimmed at irregular intervals. The intermittent light made it difficult for Adán’s vision to fully adjust. Then, instead of cryo units, all he could see were two dozen oblong heaps of rust-colored dirt—his own open unit the only exception. They reminded him of the mounds of earth on freshly filled graves. The next thing he noticed was the thick indentation along the starboard wall, extending from the far end of the room to just past midway—a long, massive dent in the side of the ship. Adán noted that the dent had actually displaced several of the units.
Adán felt weak and lightheaded, which he had been told to expect. After the initial dose of anesthesia, the needle in his arm had delivered a steady stream of nutrient-infused fluid during the three year journey to Europa. But even so, upon waking his stomach felt horribly empty, as if the very core of him was missing. Adán ignored it. Lifting his hand and sitting had been difficult. His muscles cramped, and his fingers felt tingly. He made a weak fist, and then cautiously unfolded each finger, allowing time for normal sensation to return. Once it had, he turned his attention to the I.V. needle in his arm.
Where were the medics? The MED squad was supposed to awaken first and help the others. There was protocol to follow. How else could they fulfill the mission successfully? But from what he could tell, none of the others had awakened yet. He looked at the dent, the dust, and swallowed back the panic rising in his throat.
Something had gone terribly wrong.
Adán walked his fingers up his arm to the circular silicon patch that tracked his vitals and peeled it off. He did the same for the one on his temple, the one that had recorded his brain activity during hibernation. Then he slid his fingers around the needle above his wrist.
There was bound to be blood.
Leaning over the side of his unit, he felt along the edge of the dust-coated metal cabinet below him until he found the clasp. He popped it open, retrieved the familiar plastic case from inside, and set it in his lap. It was a first aid kit, and each unit had one just like it along with other necessary supplies and equipment, as well as a storage box for personal items. Adán removed a square of gauze and spool of medical tape from the kit. He wondered if the tape’s adhesive would still work after so long, but to
Adán’s relief, the low humidity and temperature maintained throughout their flight had preserved everything well. He tore off two lengths of tape and stuck them to the back of his hand, and then returned the kit to the cabinet.
Once again he gripped the needle. He considered just yanking it out, like tearing off a band-aid, but couldn’t quite get up the nerve. Instead he tugged, gently at first. An acute pain rippled up his arm. He released the needle, gasping.
No wonder the medics were supposed to remove the IVs and then wake up the crew.
He tried again. This time he sucked in a deep breath while sliding the metal tube out from under his skin. Ignoring the throbbing pain, he slapped the gauze over the small globe of blood swelling on his arm and secured it in place with the tape.
It’s as thick as a nail, he thought, examining the red-tinged needle.
Adán pressed the heel of his hand against the bandage to stop the bleeding and shifted his legs over the side of the unit. As he set his bare feet on the floor, a cloud of dust puffed up, staining the hem of his white pants burnt orange. As he took his first step, the muscles in both calves seized up. Pain stabbed at the backs of his legs and knees. Cramps. He had been warned about the cramps.
Pull your toes up, Colonel Foster had told him. Stretch out those muscles.
Adán let go of his arm and reached down to pull on his feet, straightening each leg as he did so. It took minute or two, but eventually the cramping subsided.
He stood up, taking a few wobbly steps down the center aisle between the two rows of cryo units. If he was awake, then maybe others were, too. At least the ones whose lights were on, though after the MED squad, they were all scheduled to come out of cryo at the same time. But none of the other units were open yet.
He studied the pale green glow beneath the dust on his own unit. The light signaled that his body systems had stabilized and that he was ready to be released. He turned to the unit beside his own and wiped the dust away from the light panel with his arm. There was no green, no light at all. Not even the yellow LED that should have indicated the unit was in use.
The mound of dust on the unit’s shield had formed a sort of crust, like the plates of caked earth in a dry river bed. Adán touched it with the tip of his finger, and the crust crumbled. It was so delicate that if he blew on it, it might all just float away.
But something inside of him resisted. Instead he stepped away from the unit and moved to the one beside it.
The green light was like a beacon. Adán was so relieved he had to steady himself. He wasn’t the only one awake. He was not alone. Scraping the dust from the shield with the side of his hand, he peered inside.
A pair of bewildered brown eyes gazed back at him.
“Tink!” Adán laughed at himself when he realized the occupant could not hear him. He reached for the lever on the chamber’s exterior and pulled. The shield slid away. “Tink,” said Adán, “are you all right?”
Tink was on the engineering squad with Adán. The patch on his uniform read H. SEOUNG, but thanks to his fascination with electronics, he’d been christened with his nickname, the Tinkerer, during the months prior to departure.
Tink moaned. “My arms are numb. I can’t feel my fingers.”
“Don’t worry,” Adán told him. “Give it a minute and you’ll be fine.”
Tink rubbed his arms and rolled his ankles. His Asian straight hair stuck out at haphazard angles like black porcupine quills.
He ran his fingers through it trying to smooth it down. “I feel gross,” he said. “And hungry.”
“Me, too. Just hang on, okay?”
“Sure. Okay. Hey, where are the medics?”
Adán moved to the next chamber and rubbed the light clean. He was again relieved to see green and pulled the release.
The dark-haired girl lying inside snapped her eyes shut against the sudden light. Her face was round and pale with a sprinkling of freckles. “What the hell—”
“Dema, are you awake?” It was a stupid question, Adán realized the moment he said it. Of course she was awake.
“What do you think?” she said, grinning. “Yeah, I’m awake, but—” She blinked her eyes open, gazing around the compartment.
“Adán? What’s happened?”
Retrieving the first aid kit from beneath Dema’s unit, Adán prepared a gauze compress and some tape. “I don’t know, but I think we’re going to need your help.”
While Dema expertly detached her I.V., Adán moved from chamber to chamber, brushing the dirt from each pair of LEDs.
“There are only six lights on,” he called out from the far end of the room. “Six out of twenty-four.”
“Only six of us awake?” asked Tink, climbing awkwardly from of his unit. He grabbed hold of it, steadying himself, and closed his eyes. “Ugh. Did that too fast. Dizzy.”
“Take it slow, Tink.” answered Adán. “The rest of the units’ lights aren’t on.”
“What do you mean their lights aren’t on?” asked Dema, pushing a tangled strand of dark hair out of her eyes. The ID on her light blue jumper read D. SARKISSIAN 7-MED-002. Below that was a simple red cross on a black background. “Where’s the rest of my squad? We were supposed to revive first.”
Adán shrugged. “I woke up first. I don’t know why. We’re the only ones so far.”
Dema was on her feet. She seemed more stable than either Adán or Tink, but then again she had ranked first in the physical trials. She was strong and stocky, built for endurance. She moved to the remaining three units with green lights, wiped away the dust with her sleeve, and released their shields. The occupants each responded with uncomfortable moans.
Dema leaned over one of the open chambers. “You all right, Fess?” she asked, pressing her fingers against the boy’s throat. A sheen of perspiration glistened on his dark skin.
Fess nodded, his eyes still shut tight. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just got to get my bearings, is all. I’m a little woozy.”
“All right, just stay here a minute while I check the others,” Dema instructed.
The last two open units were occupied by a girl and a boy. Lainie Taylor was part of the agricultural squad. Adán recalled that she had worn her auburn hair in a braid when they were put down, but the braid had come loose somehow. As she eased herself into a sitting position, it fell across her shoulders in soft waves.
Surveyor Specialist Rulon Smith remained prone in his unit, nodding in response to Dema’s questions. She moved between each crew member, checking their pulse and pupil dilation. But except for the muscle spasms and stomach cramps, everyone seemed all right.
“Where did all this dust come from?” asked Tink.
“I think there’s a breech in the hull,” said Adán, pointing to where the dent connected with some of the chambers. “There must be a hole behind there. The dust must have blown in during a storm or something.”
Dema returned to where Adán and Tink were brushing off more dust from their uniforms. “We’ve got to check them all,” she said, her voice low as if she didn’t want the other three to hear. She nodded toward the cryo unit next to Adán’s.
“But the lights are off,” said Adán. “They’re not ready.”
Dem stepped over to the chamber, examining the unlit LEDs. Then she shot a questioning glance over her shoulder at Tink.
“No yellow light,” he told her. “Means the power’s off.”
“No power at all?” she asked. “Any of them?”
Adán knew what Dema was thinking. He and Tink were thinking it, too.
“They’re gone, Dema,” he told her. “Something went wrong. Look at that depression in the hull, and the way the lights keep flickering. The shuttle’s been damaged. The power grid’s damaged. Without power, the life support isn’t working.”
But Dema didn’t seem to hear him. For a moment, her gaze remained fixed in front of her. Then her eyes darted from one chamber to the next. “I have to check all of them,” she said again, determination in her voice, and uncertainty. “There might still be a chance.”
Without hesitation, Dema swept her entire arm down the full length of one chamber’s shield. The dust sloughed off into a soft pile, leaving just a thin sheet of powder behind. This Dema blew away with a single breath. Then she stepped back with a surprised gasp.
Adán leaned forward a little so he could see into the unit, but he wished he hadn’t. Its occupant resembled something made of papier-mâché, its skin as dry and brittle as aged parchment. The severe contour of cheekbones and eye sockets jutted out from its face like tiny mountain ranges. The only thing Adán had ever seen like it was the thousand-year-old Egyptian mummy at the Museum of Natural History. If not for the ID patch, which crewmember it had once been would have been impossible to tell.
Adán recoiled from the sight and backed up a few steps. Dema pressed her hand against her mouth. Her eyes wide with shock, she stared at the thing beneath the shield. Tink turned away, his face pale.
“What the hell’s going on?”
Adán hadn’t noticed Fess standing behind them. At eighteen, he was the oldest member of the team by several months and had only joined their crew two weeks before departure. All the others had been selected by lottery twelve years before that and had been training together ever since. From what Adán had heard, Fess’s test scores were so high that the government flagged him.
Usually that didn’t mean much. Most flaggers were just assigned as alternates, but Fess went right to the top, joining
Carpathia’s crew at the twelfth hour. He was tall and lean with caramel-colored skin and a head full of tight curls that looked like tiny black springs. His real name was Ray, but everyone referred to him as the Professor. Fess for short.
Fess looked both scared and angry at the same time. He paced nervously between the rows of cryo units. “What is that? I mean, geez man, that guy’s—you know—oh god!”
Rulon still sat inside his chamber, his arms wrapped around his knees. “Shut it, Fess,” he said. “He’s just dead. All right?”
“Yeah, man, he’s dead!” Fess stopped his pacing and flung his arms out in a frantic gesture. “What about the rest of ‘em. Are they all dead?”
Dema dropped her hand from her face, resting it on the dead boy’s shield. “Tink?” she asked in surprisingly steady voice. “Why don’t you have a look at the control panel. Maybe we’re missing something.”
Tink nodded and headed for the opposite end of the compartment. As he passed Lainie’s unit, she reached out to touch his arm. It was just a brief encounter, but Tink gave her a reassuring smile.
Tink reached the control panel and brushed aside a hard layer of dirt. He slid his index finger across the glass plate, studying the data on the screen. “Just our six,” he said, shaking his head. “Ours are the only functioning units.”
Adán looked up at the dented wall. “Something must have hit us hard,” he said.
“Or we hit it,” said Rulon, who was finally easing his way out of his unit. “Maybe we crashed. Maybe the landing systems malfunctioned.”
“We might have struck an asteroid,” suggested Lainie, twisting her loose hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. She caught Adán watching her. “Rubber band broke,” she said. Despite her bashful smile he could see that she was fighting back tears.
Adán turned his attention back to Tink. “Either way, the impact damaged our life support system.”
“And the power system,” said Tink, indicating the flickering overhead lights.
“Who knows what else is damaged. I think we need to evaluate our situation before we decide what to do next.”
“Evaluate what situation?” Fess’s voice was taut and shaky. He turned to the unit beside him and pushed away a swath of dust. He did the same with several units in a row, each time revealing another mummified crew member. “Look at them!” he said.
“They’re all dead! That’s our situation! We’re it, man. Six out of twenty-four! There aren’t enough of us to do anything!”
No one replied to Fess’s revelation. They all knew what he said was true. There were six squads tasked with specific responsibilities, each dependent upon the other for a successful mission. Each squad had four members—three core members and one alternate. NASA had made sure there were enough people to function even if someone got injured, or worse—died.
But no one could have foreseen something like this.
“Hold on.” Tink stared at the control panel.
“What is it?” asked Adán.
Tink didn’t answer at first, his eyes fixed on the panel. Then he lifted his eyes, scanning the room, his gaze finally resting on unit #23. It was the second to last unit in Adán’s row, just below the end of the dent—one of the displaced units. Adán wondered what Tink saw there. What was he looking at?
Then he saw it, too. A momentary flash of green, barely visible beneath the swath of dust. It blinked on again, holding steady for a few seconds before switching off.
“I think that one’s still functioning,” said Tink. “The indicator light keeps going on and off, but the yellow LED is holding.”
Dema hurried over to the unit. A moment later, Adán was beside her, wiping the lights clean. Yes, there was the faint yellow light just like Tink said. How had he missed it before? Maybe it hadn’t been on, but it was on now. As they stood there watching, the green light turned on again.
Dema didn’t waste another second. She pulled the release, and the shield slid open. Dust sloughed to the floor, and soft clouds of it billowed up around their feet. Inside lay a boy with wavy blonde hair. He was unconscious, but he was most definitely alive.