Dispatch #4: Beyond the Tallest Dune
Everything in the desert was farther than it seemed. There was no way for JB to tell Snazzy that he miscalculated the distance; that he needed more time to reach the peak. He kept climbing upward and onwards because he knew something was out there. He could feel it pulling him toward it, like an invisible tether.
“I swear that dune is moving farther away from us,” said Riemer, wiping sweat from his brow. “Or maybe it’s taking longer than usual because we’re out of shape. That’s probably it, to be honest. I haven’t walked this much in months.”
“You’re telling me!” said Von, looking over his shoulder. A couple thousand recruits followed their lead. “I bet they’re feeling it too.”
The relentless sun seared their skin. The only element that kept them from overheating was the wind. What started as a well-intentioned quest turned into countless sighs and groans, with bored recruits acting like children, repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”
Captain Brian looked back toward the spaceship. He could barely make out the handful of officers he left behind. They looked like shadows now, huddled far away from the burning vessel and its toxic cloud of smoke.
“At least Captain Glorious is there to guide them,” he mumbled to himself. “If I don’t make it, there’s still hope.”
It didn’t seem like that long ago that S2TM’s captains, second-in-commands, lieutenants, flight officers, combat specialists, astrophysicists and science officers were celebrating their new roles, raising glasses of ale in a pub. They felt like dreamers then, with Captain Glorious chief among them, envisioning a better future for all.
Only after leaving members of his fleet behind did it occur to Captain Brian that time on this strange planet may operate differently than time on Earth. A minute could be an hour: an hour, half a day. Some rabbit holes were nearly impossible to escape.
“I think we’re finally getting closer,” said Captain Degenerate, pointing to a soft ring of light appearing on the other side of the peak. “There’s definitely something over there. I can feel it.”
Sean, Von and Captain Degenerate quickened their step. Too much was at stake to quit now and turn back. Without saying a word, they ran as fast as they could up the side of the dune, scrambling on all fours toward the sharp edge of the ridge.
“I really should have taken gym class more seriously,” said Von, catching his breath. “If you haven’t noticed, cardio and I are not the best of friends.”
Sean was silent, and he’s rarely silent. Sprawling before him was a flourishing metropolis unlike any he had ever seen.
“Are those flying cars?” asked Officer Fizzy, rubbing his eyes.
“Looks like it,” said JB. “We only have prototypes of this kind of technology on Earth. This is far beyond anything we’ve ever dreamed. Wish we could send evidence of this back home. It’s unbelievable.”
One by one, the recruits reached the top of the dune. The crystal city before them sparkled beneath the sunlight. It looked clean, pristine, and orderly. Technologically advanced with its rail-less trains weaving around floating parts of the city bobbing so effortlessly in the sky.
“This can’t be real,” said Officer JASooner. “It has to be a mirage. How are these sections of land just hovering? And those gigantic trees — they must be the thickest and tallest I’ve ever seen. How is any of this possible?”
“Pinch me,” said Officer RCar. “If this is a mirage, it’s the biggest mirage I’ve ever seen.”
“You don’t see a big arrow pointing us to where we need to go for help, do you?” asked Von. “Or maybe a tourist information center? That would really make navigating this situation a lot easier.”
“Looks like there’s a bazaar over there,” said JB, pointing to a sea of white, honeycomb-shaped tents on the edge of the city. “I wish I had my vision enhancement system right now. We’d be able to assess the situation better. I can’t stand being this vulnerable.”
“What if I just run down the dune real fast, yelling and waving my hands?” asked Von. “That’s like the ultimate vibe check.”
“I don’t think you’re listening,” said JB. “That couldn’t be farther from what I’m suggesting.”
Just before JB could reiterate their vulnerability and recommend the best course of action, down Von went determined to get attention.
“Hey! Help! We’re stranded in your desert! Help!”
Captain Brian rolled his eyes. “I’ll never understand how Von passed basic training.”
“It’s like he’s writing a guide on what NOT to do when you’re stranded on a foreign planet,” said Riemer.
Without hesitation, thousands of recruits followed Von’s lead, yelling from the tops of their lungs as they rushed toward the bazaar.
“Do you think they realize that this looks like a stampede?” asked Master of the Mop (Jake), shaking his head.
“Doubt it,” said Sean.
“I could really use some popcorn right about now,” said Riemer. “This is entertaining.”
Snazzy lifted her hand to her forehead, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Captain Glorious! Risk! They finally made it to the top.”
“You sound surprised,” said Risk, smirking. “Should we join them?”
There was a sense of power and pride in activating an army, motivating recruits to come together to step toward the unknown.
“We can’t stay here any longer,” said Captain Glorious, watching the team slowly vanish from the top of the dune. “I don’t even understand why we agreed to stay behind in the first place. I get that JB is trying to play it safe, but we’re already running on borrowed time. Let’s move!”
It was all too quiet in Outer’s Bazaar. The merchants, all evenly spaced and neatly lined in rows, tidied their bronto berries, polished their hoverboards, and stirred large pots of cypris soup. Strips of smoked lyonloin dangled beside stuffed woo-zoo birds hanging upside down by their tiny woo-zoo feet. It seemed like every second vendor had their variation of impskimp jerky. Some spicy, salty, and sweet. Some strips were nearly liquid, like little packets of watery fat just waiting to explode on your tongue. Others were so tough that only those with artificial teeth could dare to break it down with their mechanical beaks. In Outer’s Bazaar, citizens of Makanan, and occasional strandlings, could find just about anything. The magic that existed in the bazaar’s passageways slithered beyond what the eye could see; for the motto of noble Outer, when he lived and reigned, was simple: Ask for what you want. It shall set you free.
The merchants in Outer’s Bazaar paid little attention to the humans rushing over Oswald’s Dune, stumbling head over feet. It was a recurring theme every time the powers that be crashed a spaceship into the desert, leaving it up to the crew to find its way to The City of Sagird. A night in the desert was not safe for anyone or anything. This is what every Makanan knew to be true. Deep beneath the dunes, in the hollow caverns of forged sand, lurked moon dragons plagued with everlasting hunger; gluttonous, ravenous beasts swirling in circles as they patiently waited for their opportunity to feast.
If JB knew what lived beneath his feet, he may think twice about volunteering to stay behind, waiting for Snazzy, Captain Glorious and Risk to make the trek. Night falls quickly in the desert once daylight willfully surrenders and no one, not even the inhabitants of Makanan, can outrun moon dragons.
“Why don’t you two chase Von?” said JB, sitting in the sand. His skin, raw and sun crisped, ached with every bit of movement. “He needs a chaperone, and we need someone to stay behind for Risk, Captain Glorious and Snazzy. As your Mission Specialist, this is a plan of action I wholeheartedly stand by.”
Sean, Riemer, Fizzy and Captain Brian watched as Von and the recruits raced toward Outer’s Bazaar. It didn’t make sense for everyone to stay with JB on top of the dune, waiting beneath the hot sun for the others to arrive. Then again, not much of anything made sense. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Commander Sean to know what decisions would lead to prosperity or trigger catastrophic events. Especially when he couldn’t shake the feeling that, in space, death was always imminent.
“Thanks for taking one for the team,” said Captain Brian, leading Sean, Riemer and Fizzy down the dune. “You’re a gem!”
JB laid face down in the sand. He was too tired to think about where the faint vibrations lightly shifting the sand were coming from. Nor did he realize that by resting on the sand, the famished moon dragons deep beneath him could better hear the beating of his heart. A soft rhythm that could only mean one thing — food.
Walking through the desert, without food or water, made it easy for Von to quiet his hunger and suppress his thirst. The bazaar’s alluring aroma awakened the beast inside of him, so much so that he felt quite unlike himself. A feeling he shared with the thousands of officers running behind him, thinking and feeling the same thing. Feast! Feast! Feast!
No matter how quickly Von moved his legs, he couldn’t reach the bazaar fast enough. Doubt set in as he wondered whether he’d run out of fuel. It was like climbing the dune all over again. Everything was farther than it seemed.
“Maybe this really is a mirage,” Von mumbled breathlessly. “Maybe we’re imagining all of this.”
As the curve of the dune flattened beneath his feet, he felt the sands shift to harder, more permanent ground. It was enough to motivate him to keep going, even though he felt like he could tumble and never get back up. That he could close his eyes and drift away forever.
“I wonder if there’s a popcorn vendor in the bazaar,” asked Riemer, trying to keep up with Sean. “I bet they have some wild flavors. Just the craziest kinds. I mean, I guess they’d have to have corn as a food source. Do you think they have corn?”
Sean shook his head, ignored Riemer and pressed on. The last thing Sean wanted to think about was food.
In Outer’s Bazaar the merchants went about their business, bartering with Skimus, Inkfellers, Rostamoles and Cowichthrongs. Tinselflies, small and fairy-like, fluttered around bushels of fruit. Everyone was happy; everyone was laughing. It was perfect, perhaps too perfect to be true.
“It’s time to welcome our guests,” said Murna, straightening her white, glittery gown. It twinkled brightly, as did the attire of the other members of the Makanan Council. It wasn’t hard to find them in a crowd. Beacons of light, angels of the cosmos, they were. Or at least that’s the story that was perpetually told. No one dared to challenge the narrative. Standing up against the Makanan Council meant spending a night alone in the desert. And a night alone in the desert meant only one thing: death.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Recruits, it’s time for you to choose what you think happens next.
Select ‘1’ if you think the Shot2TheMoon crew receives the technology and equipment to repair their old, busted ship in Outer’s Bazaar.
Select ‘2’ if you think Commander Von digs himself a hole and disrespects the Makanan Council while in session.
Select ‘3’ if you think Captain Brian and Commander Von get sick off of bazaar delicacies.
Head to the Choose Your Own Adventure channel in the S2TM Discord and discuss your choices with fellow Space Pass Holders! Listen to next week’s podcast to hear what happens.