I stood at the edge of the desert. Before me the white sands extended to the horizon, towering dunes and wavering haze breaking up the harsh alien landscape. I shielded my eyes, the dark goggles I was wearing doing little to ease the blinding glare. I had been stranded, one of my engines was hit by orbital debris on approach and the freighter I had been piloting to the refueling station had ditched on the surface of this planet. The landing hadn’t been too hard, most of the surface was just desert and sand. I hadn’t paid enough attention to my course chart to remember its name, but the AI co-pilot had reported that the atmosphere was breathable, and that if I had tried to launch an escape pod I would have been caught by the gravity well anyway.
I had recovered everything of use from the wrecked ship and headed out in the direction of a space elevator used to transport goods to and from the surface, mostly ores and minerals. Unfortunately that elevator was a hundred miles away across a strip of especially harsh desert. The gear I had salvaged didn’t really equip me for this trek, I had a pair of pilot’s goggles that would darken when exposed to sunlight, a crude survival poncho lined with insulation intended more for ice planets than deserts, the ship’s first-aid kit, some basic ration bars and a canteen that would siphon water vapor from the air and refill over time.
I unscrewed the cap on the silver canteen and took a quick drink. As I wiped my mouth I turned behind me and took another look at the scuttled freighter a few miles back, my footprints trailing away in the sand. It extended into the air like a black skyscraper made of broken pipes, its freight had spilled across the dunes like the innards of a gutted fish. Billions of credits of goods that now would never make it to their intended destinations, if I survived this there was no way I’d be keeping my job. I had tied my leather flight jacket over my head to protect from the sun, and as I tightened the sleeves under my chin, I braced myself for the journey.
“Come on O’Brian, you can do this!” I said aloud.
“Are you crossing?” I started, and looked to my left. There was a creature standing right next to me, the leather jacket had obscured my peripheral vision and it had just walked right up to me.
“FUCK!” I exclaimed and fell on my ass, shuffling backwards to get away. The thing was large, at least eight or nine feet tall, it was bipedal, basically humanoid, and was draped in some kind of brown shawl from head to toe that obscured its features.
“Oh, did I startle you?” It was speaking Galactic Standard, heavily accented with some odd clicking vocalizations, but well enough that I could understand. I stood up and brushed sand off my clothes, embarrassed. I wracked my brain trying to remember GS grammar I had learned in flight school.
“Yes, sorry about that.” I replied, I was rusty but it seemed to understand me. The thing eyed me up and down, its head obscured by the ragged shawl blowing in the wind that swept in from the dunes.
“Are you crossing?”
“Yes” I replied, still wary of the large thing.
“I saw your ship crash,” it clicked, “I came to find survivors.”
“It wasn’t too hard a landing,” I bragged, looking back over my shoulder at the new landscape I had created, “I’m the only crew member, most of the ship’s functions were automated.”
The alien seemed melancholy, it looked out over the desert, pensive.
“You have no cooling unit, you can’t cross without one, the desert heat will drive you to madness then kill you.”
“Hardly matters,” I replied, “If I don’t get to that space elevator I’ll die anyway, might as well chance it rather than starve here.” The alien paused for a moment, then spoke again.
“I have a cooling unit, I too wish to reach the spire, but it will take several days to cross that desert and my kind cannot survive the cold nights, you are a mammal, I can sense your warm blood, you have an insulating blanket, you could keep us both alive.”
I relaxed somewhat, was this alien stranded here like me? Would circumstance make allies of us?
“I propose a trade for the common good.” It said, gesturing at me with a long, three-fingered arm tipped with shiny black claws that protruded from under the shawl, its skin a deep purple in color. “I will keep you alive during the day with my cooling unit, you will keep me alive at night with your insulator, we will cross together.”
Clearly someone was watching out for old O’Brian, I didn’t know anything about this creature or its species, but it seemed to need me as much as I needed it.
“If you think you can make the trip, I’ll go wth you.”
The alien paused again, surprised.
“Then it is settled, the bargain is made.”
I gestured ahead, “Lead on!”
I labored to keep pace with the loping alien, its long legged strides let it scale dunes with relative ease, as my boots sank into the sand and I struggled up them practically on all-fours. Occasionally it would reach out a clawed hand to steady me or lift me over a crest. It was too exhausting to keep a conversation going and the alien showed far less curiosity where I was concerned than I had expected. It might have met humans before, as it knew Galactic Standard fairly well.
From a belt around its waist hung the cooling unit, an unwieldy, blocky device of alien design that projected a four meter bubble of cool air around us. While it didn’t block out the burning sun, it protected from wind and sand, and cooled the air to a tolerable temperature as we struggled on. It was right of course, the exertion and heat would have driven me to delirium long ago were it not for this magical device.
It knew a fair bit about me, but I knew nothing of it. It had called me a “mammal”, implying that it was something different, an insect or a reptile? I couldn’t see past the shawl it wore, save for glimpses of dark purple skin, like bruising, covering its forearms and ankles. The desert was featureless besides the dunes and the elevator in the distance extending into the azure, cloudless sky. There were no plants, no animals, no oasis, no rocks protruding from the ground, just sand as far as the eye could see.
“I need to rest.” I gasped, doubling over to take a breath, sweat pouring from my face and stinging my eyes. The alien came to a halt, and turned to look at me.
“The less time we spend resting, the better.” It chided, seemingly unsympathetic.
I raised a hand, gesturing it to stop.
“You’re bigger than me, I have to walk twice as far as you with those beanstalk legs, I won’t be long, I just need a drink and a breather.” I pulled the canteen from my pack and took a refreshing swig.
“Is that water?” The alien asked, eyeing the silver canteen. “May I have some?”
I tossed the canteen to it, it caught it and unscrewed the cap. From beneath the tattered fabric snaked a ropey tube, like a tongue or a proboscis. It slipped inside the rim of the canteen, and I assumed it drank. After a few moments it handed the canteen back to me, I wiped some viscous saliva from the top and screwed the lid back on.
“So what’s your name?” I inquired. “Mine’s O’Brian.” It looked me up and down, at least that’s what I assumed it was doing as its face was hidden.
“You couldn’t pronounce my name.”
I stood with my hands on my hips, and gave it a sarcastic look.
“Well then what do I call you, beanstalk?”
“Beanstalk will do.”
I laughed at it, what an antisocial companion I had landed. I didn’t think it even knew what beanstalk meant.
“Alright Beanstalk, where are you from? How did you come to be here?” It began to move away from me again, and I hurried to keep up, my feet sinking into the sand.
“Walk as you talk.” It replied, although I noticed its gait was a little slower now, allowing me to keep up at an undignified power-walk. “I was born here, I am native to this planet. I came from a region further East.”
“Why do you need me to keep you alive if you’re native to this climate?” I asked, perplexed. It extended a clawed hand to help me over the crest of a dune.
“My people retreat to burrows when the cold comes,” it said. “In this white desert the ground is hard, and the cold is harsh, noone lives here.”
“So you need my poncho.” I huffed, as I attempted to descend a steep incline, my feet sliding.
“And your body heat, you are a mammal, you have warm blood, my people are reptiles, our blood is cold and we get our heat from the sun.” I nodded, it made sense. As I started to climb another dune, I asked the alien why it wanted to reach the space elevator, and it told me the story of how human miners had collapsed tunnels during mining operations, killing several of its species. It was a simple mistake, albeit a deadly one, but the natives had no way to cross the “dead band” deserts that separated many disparate tribes from eachother, which the miners simply flew over. This alien had been tasked with finding a way across and delivering detailed maps of the tunnels so that the miners could avoid them when drilling.
.... There is more of this story ...