As the suns disappear beyond the horizon, Bluefang Rockstepper crests a dune ridge several kilometers from the cave with the repaired pulse rifle slung over his shoulder. He checks his PDA, then looks back down the hill toward Razorback. “Twilight’s the best time to move through this region,” the assassin notes. “Sand eels tend to slumber.” He points northeast. “Outpost is that way. We’ll have to go about an hour out of our way to avoid the Scalding Fields.”
An overcharged pulse pistol is holstered on Razorback’s hip, but more importantly, his war axe rides in its hanger between his shoulders, and a pair of short swords cross his back at the waist. “Agreed,” he rumbles as he scents the air, coming up beside the assassin, “Keep your ears open for other predators, though. They begin to hunt, just as we do.” He begins to move forward across the dunes at a quick, but steady pace.
Far overhead, an orbital satellite sweeps the Sand Mother Desert. Looks for specific indicators. Homes in on two figures moving northeast across the fringes of the desert.
A militia officer monitoring the images steps out of the control tower at the Alhira Spaceport and activates an encrypted commlink: “I think I found them. Hard to say for certain, but it definitely appears to be two Demarians traveling together. Both armed.”
The woman’s voice on the commlink replies: “Good work.”
Another satellite moves into position and transmits a signal to a trio of weaponized drones. They alter course, swooping off in search of their new targets.
Razorback, blissfully unaware of the searchers, follows the dune ridgelines as a matter of policy, avoiding the moonlight as much as possible. “The sands will soon begin to cool,” he calls to his temporary comrade, “We must hurry, lest every serpent for miles will be seeking out our bodyheat.”
“No argument that time works against us,” Bluefang says, trudging ahead. “But one misstep can send us down into the mouth of a sand eel. Or into a sinkpit. Or…saw this once with the militia…a tribal razornet. They use it to protect against predators ranging too close to their villages. Diced our scout apart. Wasn’t clean. Wasn’t painless.”
“In another life,” Razorback says with a faint smile, “My people and the tribals fought together against living machines bent upon our destruction. We learned much from each other. Including the manner of traps they set, and how to spot them. As to the sand eels… few know the danger they present more than I.” He glances back at the assassin with a grin that splits his muzzle, his fangs flashing in the starlight.
Bluefang does a double-take at the revelation of this “other life.” His fangs clack as he thinks about it, framing a question in his mind. Finally, he asks: “Which madhouse did you escape from?”
A dark, but muted laugh escapes the Cliffwalker as he moves across the sand. “You are closer to the mark than you might guess,” he replies, “For truly, through madness and death have I come. More than once at that.”
“What does that even mean?” the assassin inquires. “You’ve talked about death more than once. No one comes back from death. The Sand Mother takes us when she wants us, and we never return.” He starts down the next ridge, moving in a serpentine fashion. His injured leg still drags a bit. “You seem to have your wits about you. Yet you make no sense.”
“I know not why the Mother has seen fit to return me,” Razorback replies, “Nor why it seems that she sees fit to place me in first one world, then another.” He sighs, sadly. “Perhaps my time to enter her comforting embrace will come, but I think it not soon.”
Bluefang taps the slope of his skull, near the T-shaped area that was shaved for suturing. “Now I remember what you sound like.” He climbs the next dune. “I once met a Shohobian Mystic. Never spoke a clear word in the time that I spent with him. Just one cryptic comment after another. Fine, I get it. We all come from different worlds. I grew up an underclasser. Other Demarians dwell among the nobility. We live certain lives and then die, reborn anew. I was a simple hotel porter just a few days ago, after all. Now I am a hunted fugitive. Mr. Blackfield lived. Then he died.” His whiskers flex and his ears twitch as he keeps walking.
“True enough,” Razorback replies with a nod, “Though it gets more complicated. For example, I was born in 2632. I died in 2952. Of course, when I was brought to this world, your world, I was over a decade older, but I found myself in the same year I had left.” He pauses to look back at the other Demarian again with a smile. “Is that less ‘cryptic’?”
The other Demarian opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens again. Marches in silence for another minute or so before he finally says: “Brought here. Who brought you here? How? Where did you come from? *How* did you get here?” The questions just spill out with each step through the sand.
“You see now why I spoke in riddles,” Razorback replies to the torrent of questions, “I have come to believe that it was the Sand Mother herself who has done this.”
Bluefang bobs his snout. “Once we get off this planet, I would like to hear more of your other life. I would also like to know if it is possible to get to this other world from here. I mean, what better way to escape my pursuers than to vanish entirely from this place?” He stops as he reaches the top of the next ridge, ears twitching. Razorback too should detect the sound. A distant buzz, growing closer and louder, from the southwest. Bluefang pulls the rifle from his back and hefts the weapon in both hands as he scans the darkened skies.
“Either that is an astounding coincidence,” Razorback mutters, his ears zeroing in on the source of the sound, “Or our passage is being watched. Come down from there, quickly.” He begins to make his way down towards the valley between dunes.
The assassin snarls at the unseen aerial predators, reluctant to leave the perch. He peers down at the valley and shakes his head. “Not going into the open with a target on my back.” He drops into a crouch, then onto his belly, the butt of the pulse rifle pressed against his right shoulder as he peers through the sight. “Where are you, then?”
“Personally, I would prefer someplace less visible,” Razorback replies, some irritation in his voice. He moves as close to the sand as possible to decrease his profile, but lifts his muzzle, searching the air for signs of any wildlife in the area.
“Less visible?” Bluefang chuckles. “They somehow spotted us in the dark in the desert. I no longer think stealth favors…” He pauses, listening. The buzzing sound is splitting into different directions. Three, specifically. “They’re trying to hem us in.” His fangs clack and his ears twitch.
Razorback spies a sand eel pit not far away. A little farther off, toward the valley’s edge, an obsidian outcropping juts from the sand.
The Cliffwalker does some quick math before looking up to Bluefang. “They might stop looking for us if we are dead…” he says, pointing to the pit, “Get down there and hide. I shall go … clear it out for you.” With that, he rushes down towards the nest of the apex predator, shrugging his axe free from its place as he does so.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Bluefang responds as he sees where Razorback’s going. “You *are* mad.” Still, as the buzzing grows louder, he decides the odds on the slope are little better than down the belly of a sand eel. He chases after his comrade.
Razorback, not entirely disagreeing with the assassin, takes a spring, landing just shy of the eel pit and slapping the flat of his axe against the sand. He does this until he hears the faintest sound of movement before taking off towards the wedge of rock as fast as his legs will carry him.
The sand eel, true to its nature, lurches from its underground burrow to pursue the quarry – it hunches and slithers, a circular mouth full of fangs pushed along by a body of ribbed muscles and tendons under gray pebbled skin. Bluefang just barely avoids the eel as it rumbles past in pursuit of Razorback. The drones are getting closer; their buzzing louder.
The Cliffwalker bounds up towards the edge of the outcropping and readies his axe, his ears forward in resolute concentration as he awaits the pursuer at his heels. The timing must be just right…
The sand eel hurtles after Razorback, closing fast on the outcropping. About this time, the first drone whirs over a dune to the southwest. Its companions appear to have been slowed by their altered courses, but may not be far behind. Bluefang pops his head up from the sand eel pit, trying to see what’s going on, but the action is beyond his line of sight.
The big Demarian waits for a precise moment, roaring with effort while whipping his axe towards the open maw of the eel, then drops to the ground, hoping its momentum will carry it over him, and if he can sink his claws into the creature’s hide from below, its death throes will seem like his own from above.
She watches the feed from the drone on the holovid display, eyes narrowing as she sees the Demarian make a heroic last stand with an axe before vanishing under the hulking creature.
“Get a full rotation,” she commands calmly. “Any sign of Rockstepper?”
The Demarian controlling the drone waves his fingers over a sensor, turning the drone in midair. “Nothing on the feed. Maybe already in that sand eel’s belly.”
The woman frowns. “Maybe won’t work with my employer. One of those drones has plasma grenades, right?”
“Yes,” the Demarian says. “It’ll be on target in five minutes.”
“OK,” she replies. “Detonate right on top of the eel, just to be sure.”
Razorback listens to the sound of the drone, growling quietly when it doesn’t seem to be leaving right away. He draws out a short sword and drives it as far as he can into the beast’s hide as he can, then buries the muzzle of his pistol in the resulting puncture. He squeezes the trigger stud, hoping the body will hide evidence of the blast. A paw is thrust into the hole, and the Demarian begins to pull the creature towards its nest, grimacing at the smell that washes over him. With luck, it might seem as if the creature were limping away to someplace safe.
Just as the other two drones buzz over the dunes to reach the little valley where Razorback and Bluefang are hiding, a Demarian Militia commander walks into the control center at Alhira Spaceport. He’s waving his PDA as he reaches the duty officer’s station and demands: “Why are our assets dispatched to the middle of nowhere tonight? Those drones are earmarked for predator-tracking as part of our cooperative agreement with the tribals. They’re one hundred and seventy six kilometers off their patrol routes.”
The duty officer jerks upright in his seat. “I…uh…wasn’t aware, sir. I’ll…shall I recall them, sir?”
The commander snarls. “Yes. Recall them. I want a full accounting of their activities. Download the footage banks and detach their flight data records for review.”
“At once, sir,” the duty officer responds, his shoulders slumping. He taps a sequence on the sensor pad of his desk, transmitting new command overrides to the trio of drones.
The woman in the secret observation center sees the crimson lockout indicators flash on the holovid array. Not so calmly: “What’s happening?”
Her Demarian pilot shakes his snout back and forth. “Lost local control. Militia override.”
“Override the override!” she shouts.
“It’s a fresh code,” the drone pilot says. “I don’t have access.”
They watch, helpless to do anything, as the three drones depart the valley without dropping grenades.
Bluefang watches all three of them pass overhead, returning to the southwest. He’s just trying to scramble out of the pit when he comes face to fangs with the horrific corpse of the sand eel. Panicked, he lunges backward toward the other side of the pit rim and draws the rifle, ready to fire right down the beast’s belly if it attacks.
The Cliffwalker pauses as he hears the drones turning away, then pulls himself out from under the eel and looks down into the pit. “Are you alright?” he asks the other Demarian, “Help me pull this thing down. Someone found us somehow, and I’d just as soon have them not watching us directly when we climb out of here.”
“Wait,” Bluefang replies, lowering the barrel of the rifle as Razorback emerges from beneath the corpse. “You wore that thing like a costume?” His whiskers twitch and his nostrils flare at the stench. “Oh, by the sands and stars…that’s nasty.” Then he goes quiet as he considers. “Might be room for both of us if we’re standing upright. Look something like a sand eel on the move to a satellite.”
“Now you are thinking like a dead man,” Razorback replies with a feral grin, “Now lend a paw.”