As he stood on the top of a dune, a light breeze was pushing the brown sand in small currents, rising over the crests and the grooves of the ground.
It wasn't the first time he was lost in a desert, as it happened, by error, during his fifth-year simulation at the Academy, but this time there wouldn't be any reset button.
He opened the bag he retrieved from the capsule before it got swallowed by the sand. The first thing he found was a standard green plastic canteen. As it was too light, He removed the cap and turned it upside down, shaking it, but his hand below remained dry. Was this supposed to be a joke? He pulled everything from the bag: a roll of tape, some lengths of rope, a large sheet, and a tin pot. Something stung his thumb, “Damn!”, he said and sucked the blood from the small cut. He found a saw-toothed knife at the bottom, but not even a drop of water.
A white bar loaded over his vision, followed by a red flashing triangle. On the right side of his vision, there were three numbers, rising and falling: 85/54 and 108. This was the old HUD system, but it was the only one is new-but-old body could withstand.
Attention! Said a female voice, Fluid level unbalance detected; Electrolyte level unbalance detected-
Fluid economy mode activated.
The dryness of his throat, the clamminess of the palms of his hands and forehead, combined with chilling shivers running along his spine made him really think he was in danger of dying of thirst.
His heart skipped a beat, sounding with a beep over his HUD. He was really in danger. His armor had a function that could gather water and electrolytes from the environment and purify them without him needing to think about it. But many things changed: for starters, he didn’t have his armor, and he wasn't seven-foot tall anymore.
Going towards the only sign of civilization was the best idea, and even seeing something that can resemble one made him much more hopeful. Even the fact that earth still existed altogether and that he could breathe without catching fire reassured him. Maybe now the Enemy was ruling on everything, and another fire spear was waiting for him if he went that way, but he knew that in this desert there was nothing naught than death.
But first, he needed to find water if he wanted to reach that point.
He got down the dune he was at the top in under a minute but climbing the next one took more than an hour. When he arrived at the top again, his breath was cooling into a small cloud. The suit was making a good job at keeping his body warm, indicated by a green 98.5 in the right part of his vision. The wind stopped, and he could hear the blood entering his heart, the valves closing, and opening again. The night vision layer of his eyes was reflecting itself on the ground in two small yellow dots. At least, he still had some of the commodities of a twenty-fourth-century soldier.
Looking at the night sky made him think he how forgot its beauty in his past life: it was easy to do when you lived in fear of a missile dropping on your head. It was cramped with stars of all dimensions and variety of colors, with the Milky way tracing a wide line in the middle and the polar star gleaming over the mountains. It was like the one during the mid-terms of his first year at the Academy, when they had to spend a night alone in the woods. He was sleeping in his tent when, after hearing a howling sound, he bolted out and screamed “Wolf!”, only to discover that the upperclassmen had buried a sound device beneath the fallen leaves. In a sort of way, those days felt more real now than before, as if they happened yesterday and not fifteen years ago, or more like five hundred fifteen.
A narrow strip of flat terrain lied between two stony faces at the feet of the dune he was on top. Most probably, he won’t find anything if not weeds, and he kicked one of the many cobbles lying around, then sat against the rock wall. It was hard to keep his lids open, a sensation he didn’t experience since the academy days because the HUD 2.0 cleaned his brain from toxins without any need of sleep.
His hand caught a pebble, touching the moisten sand under. Moisten sand. His eyes pried open. Earth got under his nails as he started digging until he found he could use a rock, or a stick sharpened with the knife. “Come on”, he said, pushing away the drier sand of the surface.
When the pit was at his arm’s depth, murky water started flowing from the walls. “Yes!”, he said, but his excitement died when it stopped just soon after. It wasn’t enough, but if he wanted to look at the positive side, just its presence was a sign that the planet was still habitable by something. He collected it inside his canteen.
He wasn’t going to reach the mountains in one day. As he was still too tired, finding a shelter to spend the day would be the better choice. Walking on the right side of the gully, he found a recess inside the rock in which he could fit inside. He buried the pot in the ground, together with some brown leaves of a plant he found nearby and closed the hole with a piece he cut from the plastic sheet. At last, he crouched inside his shelter.
“My name is Felix”, he said, “If someone is listening, I’m stranded in the desert. I require help. Please answer me”. He repeated the message many times until he sighed and got bored of it. Maybe he was really the last human on earth, or maybe he was sending a message to the Enemy telling them: I’m here! Kill me again, please.
He had the time to recollect his thoughts, waiting for an answer to his message that never arrived. He sighed as he looked at his stats:
Before all his stats ranged in the thousands. He could push a fully loaded semi alone just without sweating much, or jump from the top floor of a skyscraper without a parachute and land without a scratch. Normal bullets couldn’t penetrate his skin, and the Enemy had to invent a many thousand-degree hot flying spear to put him and his comrades down.Now, he yawned, he was just a normal human, if not weaker than average.
His lids were starting to droop until they closed, and he started to dream.
It was a normal day at the Academy: he had been shooting at the range in the morning, missing most of the shots, while that pretentious jerk of Elliot blasted off a dummy head into goo and got all the praise; at lunch, he lost a bet to Lucas, but he couldn’t remember what was it about, as he never won one against him; in the afternoon, Lt. Neptune made the same boring talk about how they lost another battle, in which a city with a weird name had been turned to glass and their citizen ended up being kidnapped or vaporized, and this wasn’t even news anymore.
But something else happened in the night when he was in his lower bunk bed. He was trying to shrug off the talk of the afternoon because deep inside he knew his parents and his siblings could end up as guinea pigs. Reminding himself that those atrocities were only happening in another continent, with an entire ocean separating him from them, wasn’t enough to shrug away his fears. He would roll on the other side of the bed, asking himself what prevented them from crossing it, then he’d try to find the colder part of his pillow.
The red lights of the alarm illuminated the room, followed by a loud screech rising in tone, toning down, and rising again.
His eyes widened as he woke up, shaking. He dreamt again of the day the Enemy attacked America for the first time, killing most of the cadets and changing his life forever.
The sun’s rays were entering from the fissure made by the sheet and the rock, sharply separating a bright yellow side from a dark one. There wasn’t much to do if not wait for darkness to arrive. Moving now would be a suicide. The sheet was keeping his shelter cool, but if he put his finger on the bright side of the rock, he had to retract it as if he was touching a hot pan.
Radio signal picked up.
A female voice talked over white noise.
I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I can’t stand by while you struggle in this desert. You may be on the point of giving up, but don’t: I assure you there’s an end to it. To whoever is listening: be careful, because this is their night; their hunger hasn’t been quenched yet. A breath; Do not sleep, do not hide in a corner, just move, and do it quickly! They are coming.