The wind wailed through the remains of the outpost, burying corroded machinery in a shifting tide of fine red silt.
“This is pointless,” Lyndie said, not for the first time, from the right seat of the lander. “You think there’s going to be anything salvageable left in there?” He waved a scarred hand at a cavernous hole in the side of one of the derelict hangars.
“With that asteroid field up there? I think so,” Neff grunted back. “I don’t see many scavengers risking their lives for the chance at the scrap from an outpost this small.”
Lyndie snorted. “We did. And scrap? More like battery packs. Weapons. Field generators. Maybe even antigrav flyers. Just look at the size of those buildings. This wasn’t no farmers’ outpost!”
“Exactly,” Neff growled, piloting the battered craft to a gentle touchdown on a field of silt. “Good stuff. Stuff we need.”
“Think we’re the only ones to have that idea?” his copilot shot back. “Either everything good is long gone, or it’s booby-trapped. Remember Prima-5-Centauri? The FCP doesn’t leave their outposts for looters.”
“Who says its a FCP post?” Neff grumbled as he pulled on his helmet and locked its seal to the collar ring of his EVE suit.
“Oh, great. Alien tech. I feel so much better.” Lyndie’s sarcasm was apparent even over the radio connection afforded by the sealed extra-vehicular exploration suits.
“Could be some exploration firm’s abandoned field station. Quadrant’s littered with ‘em.” Neff pulled his rifle from the charging station and popped the hatch.
A gust of silty wind greeted the scavengers as they stepped out of the lander, coating them in dust. Nothing else moved between the ragged red cliffs that towered over the derelict outpost. The system’s sun blazed down from solar noon, casting stark shadows across the windblown landscape.
As the duo made their way across the field toward the nearest hangar, Lyndie’s eyes kept darting back to the lander’s sensor feed.
“All clear up there?” he asked via their link to the interstellar vessel hanging in geosynchronous orbit.
“All clear. You’re still the most lively thing on our scanners,” the reply came a few seconds later. “There’s nothing else down there that could even remotely be described as life.”
“Quit being so jumpy,” Neff jibed, prodding at one of the buried vehicles. “Planet’s deader than a cold rivet. Nothing down here but dirt and wind.”
“It’s too quiet. Nothing worth putting an outpost on should be this dead.”
“Rare minerals? Strategic location? Then the funding dried up or the asteroid field claimed too many lives or the strategic significance moved on.” Neff shrugged. “Like I said, quadrant’s full of places like this.” He shoveled silt out from around the vehicle until he found the catch to the drive compartment, but the exterior was too badly crushed to allow it to open.
They moved on, passing more battered vehicles slowly drowning in the tide of windblown silt.
“What the hell happened here?” Lyndie muttered, gesturing toward the charred shell of a tracked vehicle, its body twisted as if some giant had attempted to fold it in half.
“Who knows?” Neff shrugged indifferently. “Planetary bombardment? Natural disaster? Prisoner uprising? Doesn’t really matter the why. Their loss is our gain.” If he’d been looking, he would have seen his copilot shaking his head.
Up close the hangars looked even less structurally sound. Their walls were dented and their supports bent into tortured shapes. The pair of scavengers slipped into the darkness, twitchy as bogeys in the wiring of a ship just out of jump.
Most of the buildings were as picked over as Lyndie predicted they’d be. Drifts of red soil hid broken equipment long since stripped of its valuable components. Just another ruined outpost, crushed by calamity and relieved of anything of value by enterprising scavengers like themselves.
A low building near the center of the outpost seemed a little more intact than the rest. Tattered skeins of wiring swayed from the rafters, illuminated by the lights of the men’s EVE suits. The entryway and the hallway beyond were covered by a thick layer of red dirt.
“Jackpot!” Neff crowed as they moved into a large room lined with regen units. Older than anything operational he’d seen in years, several of the tube-like enclosed beds still held the dessicated remains of their final occupants. Although dark and dusty, the contents of the medical center looked surprisingly intact.
Pulling a pry bar from the back of his EVE suit, Neff jimmied open a locker full of medical supplies. The planet had an atmosphere of sorts and was more or less in the habitable range, so it was possible that some of the contents were still usable.
“Hey Lyndie, check out the regen units. See if there’s any parts we can use to patch up our own tanks.”
His words were greeted with silence. Neff turned to find his copilot frozen in place, staring at the shadowy far side of the room. “Lyndie?”
“We need to get out of here,” the other man said suddenly. There was an edge of panic to his voice that set the hair on the back of Neff’s neck prickling.
“The hell for?”
“Don’t you hear it?”
“Hear what?” Neff demanded, straightening up from cleaning out the bottom shelves of the cabinet. “Did you forget to take your medication again?”
“I took it right before we came down. It’s– at first I thought it was just the wind, right? But it’s not. It’s like someone speaking very slowly. Like they’re sounding out the words.”
“You’ve lost your farking mind. There’s no sound. There’s no wind in here, barely even a breeze. And there’s definitely no voices.”
“She says we’re in danger. We need to get out now!”
“She.” Neff turned to give his co-pilot a particularly chilling look. “Who’s ‘she’?”
“I don’t know. She says we shouldn’t be here.”
He’d never seen rock-steady Lyndie like this, not even in the grip of a full-on withdrawal. This was a guy who’d stared down FCP warships with him. This was a guy who’d calmly dispatched the conspirators in their last mutiny, and as if offing half their once-loyal crew was no more disturbing than taking out the trash.
“The fark is wrong with you?” Neff asked again, more slowly.
“I’m telling you I can hear something, boss, and it’s giving me a real bad feeling. We need to get off the ground and try’ta figure out what’s going on.”
That was something more like sense.
“Is it a signal?” Neff asked as they made their way back through the darkened building. “Can you tell whether it’s local or long range?”
“Not a signal, a voice. I told you, it’s like it’s in the wind.”
Outside the building, the wind roared and a curtain of red silt descended over the ravine holding the outpost. Airborne dust cut the glaring red light of afternoon down to a ruddy twilight and turned the lander and surrounding wrecks into vague shadows.
“–can hear me, please respond!”
Neff swore as his man on comms, Devin, came through over their ship-to-surface link. Something about the building they’d just exited must have been blocking the transmission.
“I repeat, get to high ground or get off the surface now!”
“What’s that about high ground?” he barked back.
“There’s something big headed your way! I can’t tell whether it’s a landslide or just the densest damn dust storm I’ve ever seen, but you need to get out of its path right now!”
“I told you this was a bad idea,” Lyndie muttered. “Believe me yet?”
“Shut up and get in the damn lander,” Neff shot back as they broke into a lumbering run.
The ground under their feet began to tremble, and for a moment Neff swore he could hear it too. To call it a voice would have been a stretch. It sounded like someone screaming over a vastly distorted signal, fading in and out as if carried on the wind that seemed determined to buffet him away from the lander.
Fifty meters. Forty. Thirty…
The ground lurched, and suddenly the lander was much closer. Lyndie gasped, recognition dawning as the vehicle surged forward and crushed the pilot between its shielded hull and the side of a wrecked freight loader. Neff’s eyes bulged, and an ear-splitting scream came over their shared comm link. Then the pressure caused the faceplate of the pilot’s EVE suit and its contents to explode outward in a bloody red spray of flesh and shattered composite.
Lyndie threw himself out of the lander’s path as the alien world bucked under his feet. Silt flowed around his ankles, swallowing the legs of his suit and trapping him. A churning wave of earth approached, rising like a tidal wave– waist high. Chest high. Taller than his head…
Then it was on him, encasing him in darkness. Lyndie screamed. Called for help. Begged for release. Eventually, entombed and immobile in the whispering dark earth, unconsciousness rose up to take him.
This flash fiction was inspired in part by an artwork called Rust by Alberto Vangelista. It may or may not be the end of Lyndie’s story; I can think of a couple of ways for it to go from here, and I’m finding that I don’t really want to just leave him there. That’s not a fun way to die.