The crack in the window pane should
have been repaired already. Had Mariah done what she should
have done, what she had been instructed to do, everything
would probably be okay now. Or at least her window would be
intact, instead of gaping where the wind had shattered the
pane into shards, exposing the interior of her tiny hut to
The large roll of gray duct tape included
as part of the emergency supply kit was labeled "for
any and all tears, breaks, cracks, or fissures in any window,
wall, floor, or door of the residential huts." Originally
designed strictly for sleeping, the huts had become personal
fortresses since duty had been abandoned.
Duty. That was why Mariah was here.
She had been assigned to the perimeter of the southwest quadrant
of the newly claimed territory. Sentries were necessary on
newly acquired turf; she understood that. Ambushes in the
past had cost them dearly. Her brother Bryan and his family
were among those settlers whose tragic deaths drove home that
She, along with her eleven fellow recruits,
arrived last spring. The weather had been beautiful. Though
she was among strangers, Mariah felt certain they would all
become close friends as the months passed. They helped one
another set up their individual huts, followed by the lookout
tower, and the command center that doubled as a mess hall.
Mariah actually had reread the manual upon arrival as they
were instructed to do, but with the spring weather and the
excitement of setting up camp and meeting all the other troopers,
she hadn't actually believed she would ever need to employ
any of the emergency provisions.
They were here to survey any potential
risk factors, explore the new territory, establish a base,
and document environmental activity. Could the winds be harnessed
for energy? Could terraforming be utilized? Were there other
resources available? What, if anything, could this place offer
that would make a settlement worthwhile? Those were the questions.
Answering them was the assignment.
It was not a particularly harsh environment,
and other sentries had patrolled similar terrain for years,
or so they thought. The winds here were unique; if one were
caught outside when a deadly simoom started up, suffocation
could occur quickly unless the person lay flat on the ground
to avoid being dehydrated by the intense, moving sands. In
the past, desert travelers had called the blowing sands a
sea of blood, adding to the superstitious lore the idea that
a supernatural force sent the winds to avenge some wrongdoing
by hapless pilgrims making their way across sacred, forbidden
The sandstorms hadn't scared Mariah.
They had been discussed in detail in training. They could
be deadly, dehydrating those caught out when the winds picked
up, but proper training and equipment lessened the risks.
A simoom was simply a force of nature to be dealt with. It
had no mind or will to kill; it simply blew. And when it did,
proper precautions rendered it a nuisance, not a killer.
The length of the sand storm season
was supposed to be short, intense, but endurable. Until the
crack in her window, Mariah had thought she could manage in
this new, stark outpost. If she could do anything to prevent
what happened to her brother's family, if her observations
could ensure that proper preparations and precautions were
taken by the next group of settlers, then the sacrifice of
her time and energy were well worth it. "For Bryan,"
she whispered inwardly when she took the oath that was required
of all new sentries.
Now, as the wind howled in gusts continually
and the lookout tower had toppled and the camaraderie of the
group had shattered, along with Mariah's nerves, the thought
of even one more month seemed insufferable. After the brutal,
unexplainable deaths of three fellow sentries, the remaining
survivors kept his or her own company, counting the days until
the ship returned for them.
The murders could have been committed
by some unseen invader from the area, though no species had
been observed. The lack of a visible enemy led to a growing
paranoia that the murderer was among them. Why? Who in their
right mind could ever answer the why behind such random, heinous
crimes? No one. Had insanity sprung up among them? Was it
from the sand? Or from the sounds the wind made, shrill and
haunting? Or was madness a trait one of their group had brought
with them, cloaked behind a friendly smile, concealed until
the proper time arrived for its unleashing?
Mariah had attempted to barricade the
door of her own hut, placing the hotplate and its shelf across
the width of the doorway. She slept uneasily in short spurts,
constantly surveying from her one window the stark vista of
sand gusts swirling throughout the camp. She wished she were
anywhere else, away from the howling winds and the eerie silences
that fell on the outpost between the gusts. Still, she knew
she was stuck until the overdue supply ship arrived.
Because she checked her window continually
for any approaching creature, human or not, Mariah had been
quick to note the fissure running from the bottom left corner.
It was no more than a third of an inch long, and though she
and all the other recruits had been told to tape breaking
glass immediately, Mariah had delayed the repair.
It had been so small! Instead of rushing
for the tape to make the repair, she paused to survey the
barren landscape while sipping hot tea from her tin teacup.
It was her morning routine. Sunrise and tea, a cherished ritual
that had somehow comforted her with each passing day, an assurance
that she had survived another night, a promise that she was
one day closer to escaping the nightmare of this assignment,
that brief indulgence might very well prove disastrous.
The crack, which remained miniscule
as her gaze fixed upon it, spread upward rapidly when Mariah's
eyes glanced away. It seemed to Mariah that the crack grew
furtively, aware of when her attention was diverted. It was
monitoring her gaze, taking advantage of any distraction.
Two quick glances to the distant huts, and the crack was four
Mariah dashed for the supply box, only
to return and find the crack had become a long diagonal slice
across the entire pane. The gray duct tape was on the bottom
of the box. The scissors were on the stove where she had used
them to cut into a box of oatmeal. Retrieving them took only
seconds in such a small hut, but seconds were precious now
with the intensity of the wind blasting the sand dust against
her one small window.
Her hut, located slightly uphill from
the rest of camp, had allowed Mariah to watch all the other
huts from her window. She had considered her view a tactical
advantage over her comrades should they attempt to sneak up
and victimize her as someone had surely done to the three
dead sentries. Though some of the other surviving sentries
had boarded up their windows, Mariah had not.
She had treasured being able to observe
the camp, which now appeared to be a ghost town. No one ventured
out since the sand storms had increased. After the murders,
the idea of gathering in the control center with a group of
former strangers, leaving one's hut vulnerable to whatever
predators existed here, didn't make sense to Mariah. Obviously,
others felt the same, for she saw no one coming or going anymore.
Only the sand swirling, creating dunes in the distance.
Now, the window had become her greatest
vulnerability. The gray duct tape would have been adequate
had she applied it before the crack spread. That was what
she had been told to do. If caught early, the industrial glass,
which was supposed to be impervious to shattering, could be
kept from cracking by applying tape immediately to any fissure.
Why had she delayed?
The sand sprayed once more against
the hut and the window was suddenly gone. Bits and pieces
of the supposed industrial glass exposed Mariah to the elements;
but worse, it exposed her to the reality of her own vulnerability
from blindly trusting that the glass couldn't shatter, that
the supply ships were actually coming, loaded with food and
replacements, that help was on its way because they would
never abandon their sentries.
Throughout the lonely months, Mariah
had reassured herself with the comforting thought, They
value us like family. That had been the mantra in training,
and the new recruits gratefully repeated it among themselves.
Now, she pondered the words: They? Us? Both sounded so foreign
to her, as though the words belonged to a language she no
She couldn't keep the sand out, and
she wasn't sure she could make it to another hut before the
devastating effects of the simoom left her in the yard as
a dehydrated corpse, a human raisin. And if she were able
to make to the nearest hut, would she be let in? Would she
be killed upon entering? Would she rather die from murder
or from wind?
Her vision was already blurring from
the swirling dust and sand. Mariah understood the risk of
suffocation from sand filling up all the space around her.
The terror within seemed suddenly more dangerous and more
imminent than the unknown perils without.
Entombment was the compelling thought
that pushed her forward against the sand. She would run. Run
until she died or until
until they found her, whoever
they were. They could not possibly be more frightening than
the claustrophobic thought of a dune for a grave. Though she
knew she shouldn't, for an instant, she opened her mouth to
From a sudden blast, she tasted sand.
Tiny grains, so dangerous when carried by the wind, were now
about to bury her former place of refuge, threatening to reduce
her to a pillar of salt if she remained exposed to them. Employing
her sleeve like a scarf to block the grains from penetrating
her eyes and nose, she lunged blindly into the sandstorm.
She ignored the alarms going off inside
her head, warning her of how little time was left before the
wind's fury dictated she lie flat on the ground and pray that
she would ever get up. The smallest kindness in the form of
a temporary haven could spare her life, if only she could
Guided only by instinct, not vision,
Mariah probed the blowing sands for any shelter, desperate
to press herself against a door before the simoom could overtake
her and erase the fact that she was ever here at all. With
one arm held out in front of her, Mariah reached into the
storm, groping irrationally for anyone or anything to grab
To clasp a hand, to feel the contours
of a face, a formsomething, human or not, that could
save her from the cascading mounds propelled Mariah in the
direction of the nearest hut. She held one image in her mind:
an unlatched door. One goal: survival. And one intense desire
Fingers! She felt them! Oh, blessed
mercy, she thought as the extended hand in the storm clutched
her own, wrapping its fingers tightly around her fingers and
tugging, pulling her from the certain death that the sand
presented. Who was it? Her eyes were hid behind her sleeve
but sight was useless in a sandstorm. Still, someone was here,
aware of her, pulling her toward the nearest hut and
She couldn't have retrieved her hand
if she had tried. The too-many fingers, all eight of them
that surrounded her hand and wrist, were quickly enveloping
first one arm and then the other. The pull was too strong
to resist. It reeled her into the simoom. Sentient sand? She
sensed the curiosity, the intelligence, and in that terror-drenched
epiphany, Mariah understood. She was new territory to be explored.