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+++Sergeant Sturdy fought the embrace of the shifting red sands at his feet, keeping a shuttering eye fixed on a levelled horizon. Ringing bypassed his ear drums, resonated through the soft tissues and nerves sitting steamy and loose in his skull. He could make out faint echoes of gun shots and terrible ululations in his wake.
+++He didn’t know for how long he had been walking, didn’t know where he was headed, didn’t much care. He chased the light across the sky, taunted, mesmerised, craving its warmth impossibly. In the tormenting swelter of the desert no sane man would fancy more sun, more warmth; but this was somehow the only rational objective for Sergeant Sturdy.
+++His shotgun punished him with increasing mass, but he would never… never part with it. The firearm would need to be pried from his rotting flesh — twisted against his cracking, dusting bones. The side-by-side shotgun bore an insignia: the Sturdy crest worked in amongst an intricate exhibit of beautiful Earth-rose etchings. Such markings were present too, on the man’s biosuit, which now only served to keep the cooking sand from his feet as he had removed its outer torso/head casing in his delirium. Really, the man had been lucky to keep his life after a magnitude 6 dire bomb had detonated well within a lethal proximity. Still, it had shocked him, enough to willingly expose himself to a mildly toxic atmosphere. Toxic? Well, it just induced vivid hallucinations.
+++Sturdy recalled those lab folk: skin tight whites, sterile polymer, computers, charts, data. They had discussed the atmosphere — not a hallucination at all, more of a window, a filter to another world with other people
+++Pffft! Sturdy had his side-by-side.
+++The day crept on… really crept… something like twice as slow as Earth.  And man, the extra G’s didn’t help, nor the atmospheric pressure. Waves of heat crashed into unseen pools of cool. High to low, high to low. The wind on this wretched planet was erratic —more so than its aberrant natives. They had started this fight, the natives, purely for the challenge of it. The audacity of these things! Safe bet they regret calling out the Terrans.
+++Left, right, left right… until the sun had outrun him verily. Sturdy would now find it easier to catch it on the way up. Still, the man was driven to the twilight horizon — a set clean and violet, and wedded gracefully with the auburn sands.
+++It gradually became much cooler, wind dissipated. Time strung out, so slow that it paused.
+++Revivifying now, the Sergeant found the peace to halt, scan his surroundings wholly for the first time. His brain had ceased its loose sloshing, felt firm in his skull. He felt euphoric and light, anaesthetised.
+++To the north, he saw the Grease Plains — distinct with the scattering of rigs and worker hives. To the south, he saw the Powdered Ridges — thermal anomalies in the heat of the silty desert. To the west, he saw… a man? One of them?
+++First instinct, probably not so smart: “Oi! Hold up there!”
+++Sturdy broke into a pathetic jog. “Halt, soldier!” Kept chasing the guy.
+++Man, the thing was heavy. Couldn’t remember it being this heavy. Still, he would never… never part with it. Thoughts of the giver of such a fitting gift drifted through Sturdy’s easing mind; thoughts from an easier time, with green fields and the shelter of a log cabin. Floating in it now.
+++Then, the Sergeant’s grip gave a tad, and he halted to tighten two hands worth of brawny digits upon the weapons wooden stock. Not today… not ever.
+++The man in the lead, in moments the Sergeant had halted to readjust, had formed a dispiriting gap between them; the Sergeant would have to heave and sprint to bridge it. He felt that this may be an impossible task.
+++If the leader was one of them (one of the bastard natives, the Loci), the cretin would surely respond to the Sarge’s desperation. It would feed off it and try to slaughter him. Sturdy concluded that the man in the lead was a man after all.
+++Left, right, trudge, right, trudge — and he picked up his pitiful stride to an aggravating jog.
+++“Please!” He was getting desperate, weak; and the shotgun again became heavy. Had it lightened when he had halted briefly before? Yes. Undoubtedly, yes.
+++How much time had passed since abandoning the deployment? How long had he followed? Hard to judge on a stretched-out planet like this, a wretched planet like this. He must get off, must move faster and catch the guy.
+++A primal snarl! The Sergeants muscles tortured him. His bones were lead, and the shotgun — denser than a neutron star. Must push on, catch the bastard.
+++Left, trudge, right, trudge, trudge, trudge… to his knees… into the silky red grain… then his full face in it. Now he was in a side-on world. A wall of red sand tipping into violet nothing.
+++He would breathe a while, soak in that toxicity. Would his trip take him to these other worlds? It was soothing to think of it: another life, free from the guilty miseries that plagued his stained mind. Hmmm.
+++From here Sarge could still see the leader, stuck to the side of the sand wall like a fool.
+++“I’ll get you, believe me,” he whispered, taking in some silt.
+++He watched the leader for a while, watched the sand… the leader… the sand —— But what is this? The Sarge was in awe. What sort of bipedal land creature leaves not a track? No wind to cover it now… there should be a track! The scientists were right! — and this drove Sturdy mad, drove him to stand, to charge! Like the ape, he roared! The Sergeant was fierce, unstoppable! The Sergeant was a menacing foe.
+++But the leader was calm; kept its happy, explorative pace. The manner of the creature toyed with Sturdy’s psyche. The plaything of a phantom, he was.
+++And again, cutting through the Sarge’s determination was the weight of the gun. Though he would never… never part with it. Oh, it grew so heavy. Impossibly heavy. No longer something that could be lifted with muscle or machine, but a mental hurdle. He could never let go: his mind was anchored.
+++Impossible, he fell back to the sand.
+++Defeated, by the Side-By-Side.


Illustration Credit: Roderick Fernandes

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