A great desert as far as the eye could see. Thousands of dunes of slowly shifting sand, stretching forever beyond the horizon. Dead. Devoid of anything living. But above her, trillions of stars she had never before seen. Glowing with life. Constellations in a dark sky that no one in the past had before seen. Through either the lenses of high-powered telescopes, and those installed on deep space-faring probes, or with the naked eye. Cassidy had never seen stars so clearly.
“Hmm, where’s the machine?” Cassidy asked aloud.
Quickly she pivoted, trying to recall what happened. Trying to remember, and then Cassidy winced in pain; her head was suddenly throbbing.
She touched the sore spot, and was relieved that there was no blood. But there was a massive bump on her temple, which stung tremendously when she put her fingers to the wound. That must have been from the…
Cassidy remembered through the migraine. The light and cascade of changing colours she couldn’t name shining through the porthole. The machine humming and whirring as it rampaged through the future. It all had seemed normal. Routine, had it not been the first ever time travel.
But something had hit the machine. Something big, had crashed into and dented the hull. She remembered that clearly. That was how she hit her head in the first place.
After that, Cassidy was completely disoriented. I must have blacked out. She had meant to travel precisely one year forward in time; to the anniversary of the world’s first time jump. But the last she saw was the year on the dial, counting rapidly upward. 2047 was the last she could recall. Judging on the landscape she found herself in now however, she was certain she had arrived at a time several centuries further into the future than she, or anyone else back at the university had intended.
Only to add to the list of things she didn’t know, was how she got out of the time machine, and what had become of it.
It was cold out, and there was a slight breeze enough to shiver, even though inside the capsule, she had remembered it was a little warm, and claustrophobic. And the air was still and dull. Unlike the desert. Far in the future. With every breath she took, she felt she could do anything. It smelled fresh but earthy; she thought it even tasted bittersweet. Saffron came to mind.
She had looked about the area tirelessly now, and save for the expanse of sand there was nothing. There was no lab, no university, no Berkeley. She couldn’t even see the familiar San Francisco Bay in the west, nor the mountains in the east. Those landforms didn’t seem to exist. She wasn’t even sure which way was what, since it was night, and the constellations were foreign to her, and the moon—
The moon! Cassidy scanned the skies more closely now, twisting and craning her neck, peeking on the fringes of the horizon, and climbing over the hills of the burgeoning wasteland for a better vantage point, but she couldn’t find it, when she knew she should see it. This time of month should be a full moon…
“Okay, don’t panic, Cass… something hit the machine, remember? It was malfunctioning. Nothing happened to the moon! The machine easily could have transported you to a day of a new moon,” said Cassidy to herself, trying to stay calm. “That’s the least of your worries right now!”
Suddenly her head ached again, and a tremor went down her spine, forcing Cassidy to her knees. She closed her eyes and held her face in her palms, ready to curl into a ball and rock back and forth. And she would have, had she not heard something in the distance.
The sound came from perhaps a hundred yards off, over the ridge of the next sand dune.
Cassidy wiped away the tears about to pour out of her eyes and rose to her feet. And with conviction in her step, she nearly glided to the top of the hill. And below her, half-buried in the base of a barchan was the machine.
Unfortunately it seemed to be in poor shape. She could easily see the dent in the side of the hull, and that the outer hatch door had been… completely removed. There seemed to be no sign of it.
Then she heard the noise again; what Cassidy suspected to be the inner components of the machine sparking and smoking. The crackle of electricity.
“Oh no!” cried Cassidy, “NO! NO! NO!”
She ran down to the wreckage as fast as she could. Meanwhile, so many emotions went through her mind. Worry, anger, frustration, and especially fear. Fear that if the machine was damaged beyond repair; that if all attempts to do so were futile, she would be trapped in the desert. She would be exiled.
In such dire circumstances, she knew there would be no rescue. And since I have very little in the way of rations, I won’t survive for very long. And the night will turn to day, and it will feel hotter than my hottest day. And once I am dehydrated, my death will drag on for what will seem like ages.
When she reached the machine, she saw smoke start to billow out, and realised there was a fire lit inside, beginning to ravage the machine’s inner workings. Quickly she scooped up great handfuls of sand, and smothered the flames within a minute.
Once the smoke had cleared from the machine’s interior, she gingerly climbed through the hatch opening to make her initial assessment.
Not all of the of the control panels were burnt, but they had been broken. Buttons and levers were strewn across the sand-covered floor. A single fluorescent light dangled from the ceiling, flickering on and off, as if it couldn’t decide whether to live another day.
Cassidy sighed, “Dammit.”
Daunting and discouraging as the damage was to see, she had just exited the pod to scream loud and foul obscenities out into the void, when something caught her eye.
All over the hull, that which was showing under the sand, were dozens of deep punctures in the metal. Along with them were as many long and jagged scratches. Disturbing marks which conjured up tell-tale images of bestial aggression. As well as memories of a savage animal attack. It made her cringe at the thought, and immediately her hand went to her right side. Where under her jumpsuit, there were similar looking, though much smaller scars on her skin. Claw marks. Bite marks.
And peering back inside, using only starlight, Cassidy saw identical slashes and lacerations on the inner walls, as well as the machine’s components.
It now seemed clear to Cassidy that she had been attacked. The time machine had been attacked, and eviscerated. By something sinister, and dangerous, thought Cassidy. It clawed its way inside, and ripped everything apart… but not before I was flung well clear of it.
She also noted the absence of her chair. Instead, there were pieces of mangled leather, chewed up nylon straps and shredded hunks of metal sitting outside of the capsule, a thin layer of sand blown overtop of the mess.
Cassidy’s eyes widened. The hairs on her neck and arms stood on end as she shivered. And she covered her mouth as she gasped; pure terror welling up inside her.
Struggling to wrap her brain around the mystery that was the assault on the time machine, and when she had arrived, Cassidy whispered, “What the hell is going on here?”
All of a sudden, a rush of sand surged down the dune behind her. Cassidy spun on her heel and saw at the top of the ridge three dark shadows. Looming above her.
They looked to be riders, with alien-looking mounts. And if so, one of the riders was missing.
Finally she heard the crunch of sand, and footsteps so she turned again. This time she faced a broad-shouldered figure with robes as blue as navy. Cassidy would have screamed, but she didn’t think there was much point.
It lifted its hood and she saw it was a man. His skin was bronze and his chin was bold. A great beard was carved about it, like his hair; Stygian and wild. And the locks came down his forehead but couldn't hide his brown daunting eyes.
Then he smiled at her, and said something in a language she didn’t understand.
Before she could reply, he lightly pressed his thumb and forefinger to her temple, knocking Cassidy unconscious. The last thing she saw were the diamond-bright stars, studded in the sky.