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I stood where the bronze sand and blue water met, creating a seamless border that extended south for as far as I could see and on the north side disappeared beyond the formidable sandstone cliffs. The Sun on the horizon of the ocean was setting quickly, tinting the water a brilliant gold. Once it dipped out of sight beneath the surface of the sea, two others would remain.
Three brilliant celestial bodies in the sky could not fulfill the void left by our long forgotten centre of the Solar system. I buried my toes in the blistering sand trying not to flinch, blinking hard against the piercing glare that bounced off the water surface.
Each day in this part of the world was equal to two hundred and fifty two earth days. The time was soon approaching now when the temperature would spike beyond tolerable limits and the heat would get strong enough to boil the flesh from our bodies.
I had witnessed two nights and two days in total, this being my third. We were a team of explorers, never staying in one place more than an E-week. The E signifying earth. The campers had their own communities. They were willing to settle and to live with whatever they were blessed with on the spot. We were not.
I scoffed at the idea that some idiot had once referred to the planet as habitable. I started to trudge up the coastline, away from our encampment, the sand getting hotter every second, careful to steer clear of the range of the waves and it’s spray.
This liquid resembled the stuff of life. Every physical trait appeared similar, but we knew better what it was. A lot of sacrifices had been made by the ignorant before we learned better. This sprawling expanse of ocean was not water, but thousands of square miles of vicious acid.
The forty first survivor pod had accidently missed its designated landing spot and instead landed inside the ocean, almost a mile off shore. The steel compartment had not been designed to navigate through water and definitely stood no match against the malevolent acid which ate through it. The pod, along with its two dozen survivors, was chemically disbanded within less than Twenty-four hours.
Scouts had been dispatched almost three E-weeks ago to assess the landscape and consider locations in which we could escape the impending heat wave. I expected them back any E-day now, thus I had taken to spending a lot of time on the beach.
The scorching Suns beat down upon me and I made sure to keep myself hydrated. I was wearing a makeshift turban to prevent heatstroke. The horizon shimmered before my eyes and I considered departing back to the cave for a while to cool down, when suddenly, in the South, a speck became perceptible to my eyes through the rough haze.
I squinted, trying to ascertain whether I was mistaken but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t. There were three distinct specks now and they were growing larger every minute. We had dispatched six scouts to different locations but they were all supposed to meet up at an agreed upon rendezvous zone and return collectively to home base. We had not lost a scout for almost a whole world day, which was two-hundred-and-fifty-two Earth days.
As it was, the sight of only three, instead of six figures rolling down the desert landscape made my heart lodge in my windpipe. I kept standing. the adrenaline in my system would not let me sit. My throat was getting dry and my lips parched beyond belief.
Twenty minutes later, the approaching figures converged and the signal went up. Apparently they had just spotted me. The signal was a green flag, only to be raised in cases of emergency. There was no mistaking that green cloth fluttering in the menacing wind almost two miles away.
There was a moment of hesitation from my end but with a sudden bout of strength, I turned on my heels and sprinted in the opposite direction. They needed help. From what or who, I did not know. I ran as fast as I could, ignoring the jabs of pain as I stepped on small stones and rocks.
Our cave was located in a very discreet opening at the base of the rocky cliffs. The mouth of the cave was completely invisible to those who didn’t know where to look. From there it went down an incline and dipped deep into the ground. Hence it was way cooler than the outside.
It was exceptionally roomy and further in transformed into a labyrinth with many intricate pathways. It was easy to get lost in there, hence our group had carefully marked their path with white arrows.
I broke into the main chamber with my lungs completely devoid of oxygen.
‘They’re back! They’re back!’ I croaked. My voice echoed inside the place that was taller and wider than a cathedral with charcoal black walls.
Every head in the hall turned to face me, with excitement on their faces. There were about fifty people in there.
‘But… something’s wrong. There’s only three. They raised the flag’
The jubilant excitement immediately turned to shock.
“What do you mean?’, said a voice from the throng.
‘Come with me. Quick’
Accompanied by a dozen strong men, we raced back to the beach.
As we got near enough to the arriving party, I witnessed one of them collapse, as if the life had been sucked out of him. The other two didn’t stop to aid their companion but continued limping towards us. I could see now that they were heavily bent and almost on the verge of collapsing themselves.
Within minutes we reached them. But the moment I caught a glimpse of their faces, I froze in my tracks.
Their faces looked like they had been bleached.
‘We are all dead’, whispered the nearest one, in a voice that horrified me.
Credit: Salman Khattak