Trudge slumped idly on the skull of the giant, the sandstorm fading away over the western horizon behind him. His deck – what little of it he managed to hold onto – lay in ruins at his feet. He was alone. He was always alone, though, when he stopped to really think about it. But the company of others – friends, strangers, lovers—kept him from thinking about it, kept him from being lonely.
He was lonely.
He had seen Aresian sandstorms before, but none like the one that had just taken his arm.
Hours earlier, Trudge had been skating the dunes outside Melas IV with some of the other ZenCrickets: Sledge, Squid, Razor, and Daffodil. Trudge was jealous of Razor and Daffodil – the pair hit it off within seconds of meeting, and while the other Crickets were hesitant to let an inexperienced thrasher into the crew, they eventually relented when Trudge pointed out that she’d probably lose interest the first time she ate sand. That, or Razor would ditch the chick once he realized she was holding him back.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead of holding him back, she learned to give the veteran a run for his money. The girl got more than a face full of red many times, but she just kept going. Before long, Daffodil thrashed harder than half the skins on the squad. She was fucking indesctructible. She attributed this to Razor’s “tough luv.” “Keep up, chica,” he said to her. “We will leave you behind. Skate or die!”
Trudge wanted that. He spent much of his time feeling empty, wishing for someone to fill him like Daffodil and Razor seemed to fill each other. In the end, it was Trudge who didn’t keep up. Trudge got left behind.
The sandstorm didn’t look like much on his pressure suit’s HUD – not until it hit Melas Chasma, anyway. High winds dipped into the canyon, churned once, and sprang out with all the ferocity of a dragon strike. Squid was the one who saw it first. “Shit! Four hundred kph, kids. Fucking punch it!”
At Squid’s direction, the five lit out for an abandoned bunker they knew, hoping to get underground before the storm arrived. From his position near the rear, Trudge could see Razor and Daffodil speeding along the sands, hand-in-hand slinging their favorite trick, the orbital, two lovers dancing in the face of death.
Trudge just couldn’t handle it. He stomped down forward to pick up some speed and get ahead of the pair, but he just lost control. His pitch was too extreme when he opened his burners, and the nose of his deck went straight into the dirt followed by his skull.
Sledge cackled on the comm, “Oh, fuck! Haha! Hey, T-man, you alright?” He swung back in a wide circle around the spot where Trudge had fallen while the others sped into the distance.
Immediately on his feet and embarrassed at having pulled such a newbie stunt, Trudge replied, “Yeah, whatever, I’m chill. Pump up, I’ll meet you guys there.”
“Check. You got four-thirty, copy?”
“Four minutes thirty, yeah, I copy.”
Trudge’s HUD reported a minor tear in his suit that its on board nanofactory had already started repairing. His deck checked fine. Four and a half minutes was plenty of time to reach the bunker, so Trudge decided to make up for planting face by pushing the envelope a bit. He would dive through the door seconds before the storm hit – just enough time to lock down – and make up some story about how he wrecked his gear and had to make split-second repairs. That should do it. He checked the weather display on his HUD, eyeballed the storm, and fired his burners.
He was too slow.
Just as the bunker came into view over the dunes, the first of the front began to push him off course. Trudge went wide, thrust harder to compensate for the bad yaw on his board, crested a narrow rise, and launched himself into the air just as the storm hit him.
Martian sand ripped at his suit. Martian wind flung him mercilessly astray. Trudge tumbled, flew, tumbled some more, and bounced off the ground once again in the low gravity. He was twenty feet skyward when the rocks started coming. Small at first and growing progressively larger, they pelted his chest and legs with alarming force. A crack appeared on his visor, and he held his deck up to shield his face. Red sands stripped the reflective paint from his gloves while he fell sideways wishing to hit firma more than he ever had in his entire life.
A large, dark shape loomed in the storm ahead of him: a stone the size of his head, according to his HUD. It dipped, hit the ground, rolled, and skipped up to head straight towards the airborne thrasher. Trudge moved his board to cover his vitals, turning his head to avoid further damage to his visor.
His deck snapped in two on impact, and with a jarring thud, blood sprayed from his shoulder where there was once an arm.
The eerily detached sound of his own screaming was joined almost immediately by the screeching of his suit’s alarm as it sent billions of nanomachines to patch the gaping hole. Pain dulled instantly to become shapes and colors as his medical system automatically injected anesthetic to the wound and synesthetic to Trudge’s spinal column. The sharp impacts of the smaller pebbles turned into jagged yellow lines in his peripheral vision. His missing arm was reported as a transparent field of bruise blue that encompassed his entire field of view, pulsing and throbbing in time with his heartbeat.
As quickly as it had picked him up, the storm put him down, one-armed and without transportation, near the giant’s skull. That was hours ago. Trudge sat alone and close to giving up hope of his mates’ ever finding him.
Delirious from the synesthesia, he idly traced designs in the dust covering the ivory artifact. He wondered, what was the giant’s story? Nobody had ever found out. The archaeological teams that dug the site were scared away by the first war with Terra, never to return. As far as Trudge or anybody else knew, here was just another species that failed to keep up and had been left behind to die. Like Trudge, with his wrecked suit, his depleted nanofactory, and his rapidly diminishing oxygen supply.
“Is this irony?” Trudge thought aloud as he ordered his suit to inject the last of his drugs into his bloodstream. If he was going to die cold, alone, and lonely, at least he wouldn’t die in pain.