The sun hid behind what few clouds there were.
Without direct sight of the sun, he couldn’t get a fix on which way he was going. The dunes had long ago started to look all the same to him. Sand dunes and mountains often changed their shape or completely disappeared over time. Using one as a landmark was a newbie trick, and he was far from a newbie.
He was down to rationing water and food. Suppose he didn’t find civilization soon. It wouldn’t matter which direction he was going. He wouldn’t be going in any direction—ever again.
He didn’t want to become one of the many sets of bones found by travelers decades later with only a few small bits of clothes or leather to identify them. Investigators referred to them as “Desert” bones and stored them in a special section of the capital city morgue, but unless he found help soon, he would become what he feared.
His compass said he was going in the right direction, but compasses can be wrong. Magnetism and other factors could cause the needle to fluctuate. Being off even by a little can be enough to put you in the wrong direction or to miss a destination. Without direct sight of the sun, he couldn’t use his watch to confirm which direction he was going.
The mountain of sand loomed before him. The shade that it offered was tempting. The bright glare of the sun on the brown sand brought back memories of snow in the mountains when the white glare of the sun on the packed snow blinded him. Shade would be good.
He felt compelled to head for the mountain of sand, but he knew the dangers of the dunes. If the sand were loose, one wrong step and his foot could become buried and trap him. He didn’t know what it was drawing him to the Sand Mountain. He only knew he needed to get there.
It took him some time to eke out a path to the dune. He was lucky as the wind had packed the sand around the dune, and he could walk on it. He headed for the side that had the shade. Occasionally he’d place a hand against the sand to steady himself as he picked his way over the small crevasses that the wind had dug into the base as it wound its way around the dune, which appeared to be several hundred feet high.
He was near the shade when he touched the sandy wall, and it was cold and hard. He stood still, shocked. A very slight breeze of fresh air caressed his face. But where did it originate? Cautiously, he moved his hand toward the wall again and felt the coolness reached his hand even before touching the sand. The wall should have been hot, but it wasn’t. The longer he kept his hand against the sand, the colder it became. The chill traveled up his arm, cooling his skin from the effects of the glaring sun and heat. While it was noticeably cooler in the shade, this was completely different. His arm seemed to generate the source of his drop in body temperature.
He walked a few paces until he was in full shade. Shifting his footing, he turned toward the wall and placed both hands against the surface. The sand was colder, and the cold started to work its way along his arm. Within a couple of minutes, his arms felt cool, as if the chill emanated from inside his body. He stood there for some time, not moving. The reason he found himself in the desert faded from his mind. At this point, it didn't matter. All he knew was he was tired. Muscles and joint that he didn't realize he had called to him. He was plain tired and had no idea exactly where he was. But at the moment he didn’t care. He was comfortable again. For that, he was grateful, but how and why?
Slowly the chill worked his way over his body. First, his arms then his shoulders, and upper chest, eventually down to his feet, still wearing the leather chukka boots he had on when his adventure had started. He wanted to lie in the shade and rest. He was careful as he stepped away from the wall not to disturb the sand and cause an avalanche that would bury him. When he found a suitable spot, he laid down and quickly fell asleep.
It was dark when he woke up. His watch said it was almost midnight. When he originally sat down, it was only to rest his legs and enjoy the coolness of the shade and the sand. Not to fall asleep for hours. It occurred to him he wasn’t cold. The desert is known for its wide temperature swings. In the day, it can easily reach more than a hundred degrees, and at night, as low as thirty degrees. He had left without a blanket in the meager supplies he had with him. Standing up, he walked around to get his legs and arms moving again. For several minutes, he realized the further away from the dune the colder he got. Whatever was in the sand was keeping him warm, just as he had cooled him off earlier today.
Standing where he had been earlier in the day when he’d put his hands on the wall and felt cold radiating from the sand, he placed his hands in the same. He immediately felt the warmth of the sand ebb through his hand’s arms, and into the rest of his body.
He tied several other places along the same wall. He got the same results. The warmth of the sand engulfed his hands when he laid them. Looking up into the sky, he saw the dots of stars as far as his eyes could see. The moon cast a long reflection from the sun over the desert, thankfully lighting up what the dark desert night. He could see dunes in the distance, their dark sides casting eerie shadows across the landscape. At least he was warm here, so he stayed put. He stayed put.
Morning came all too quickly. As the sun worked its way up over the desert, the heat soon increased. The shadows of the dunes changed direction dramatically throughout the early morning, and he was no longer in the shade.
He knew he couldn’t stay next to the dune forever. No matter how cool and warm it kept him. He had to get back to civilization soon. But he wasn’t in any hurry to start his trek across the remainder of the desert. Especially since he had no idea how much more he had to go.
“Do not go.”
He stopped short and looked around, not seeing anyone. He scanned the terrain, no one. But he’d heard it as clear as day. The voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. He spun around and looked at the wall of sand he had been preparing to leave.
“Please, do not go.” The voice spoke again.
“What? Who are you? Where are you?” He managed to get out. As he hadn’t spoken a word in several days, his mouth was having trouble remembering how to work.
“Come closer.” The voice seemed to come from the sand itself. He stepped back deeper into the shadows and touched the grainy surface.
This time, along with the coolness, he felt something hard, just under the outside layer of sand. There seemed to be something else. Something that wasn't sand. He brushed the sand a little with his hand, expecting more sand to replace it instantly.
Brushing more, he saw the sand slide down to the ground. It formed a small pile next to his feet. Over a minute or two of brushing lightly, he revealed a structure hidden just under a layer of sand. A large metal wall of some kind appeared as he continued to sweep the covering away.
He stood staring.
“What the Hell?” The only words he could muster. On the metal wall was a familiar symbol.
It took a minute, but he remembered seeing it in a museum years ago. It had been in a display of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. He had no idea why he remembered that particular symbol only to find it in the middle of a desert some twenty years later.
He touched the surface and found it was cool. Just as the sand that had covered it had been. For lack of any ideas of what to do, he knocked on the panel. To his sunrise, the panel moved.
He jumped back slightly as it slid to the side—the door burying itself into the sand that covered the rest of the object. The sand above the door dropped to cover his boots. He shook the sand loose and, taking a deep breath, stuck his head inside the doorway. There was a room, but it was hard to tell how large the room was from outside.
He stepped inside as invited to do and noted several things. A long couch strewn with many pillows sat along one wall. A counter of some sort sat beyond the couch. He found it difficult to see in the dimly lit room.
He paused, trying to take in his new surroundings. The sound of the door almost silently closing behind him barely registered in his mind as the voice spoke again, his attention drawn to the far side of the room.
“You are safe here.”
He turned towards the sound of the voice, and without thinking, approached the figure sitting the glow of light that seemingly came from nowhere.
The human-looking man with the soft voice, and dressed in long flowing robes, stood to greet him. He extended his hand, and the man hesitated, then took it. He wondered how this person living inside a mountain of sand would know of modern protocol, but then he was unsure exactly what the protocol was either.
“I am Erron.”
“Who? Where did you come from? How?”
“Please relax. Sit, as I will explain in time.” Erron stood up and steered him toward one of the couches. As he sat down, he tried to form words and questions, but nothing came out. Erron put his long finger to his lips and schussed him, then sat next to him.
“You must be hungry.” He nodded. At the mention of food, he realized how hungry he was.
Erron rose and walked to the other side of the room, where an array of machines sat. Punching a code into what looked like a microwave, he returned carrying a tray with several dishes on it. A table appeared out of the floor right in front of him.
“I hope this is to your liking. I am unsure what people eat as it has been eons since I have had a guest.”
As he ate, he found the food was excellent, although he wasn’t sure what some of it was. He knew better than to ask. Sometimes you were better off not knowing what it is. A lesson he learned years before. The drink served was a coffee-like that seemed to satisfy the need that coffee would fill back at home. Home—he hadn’t thought of that in several days.
As he finished the last of the food and sipped the drink, he leaned back on the couch, more comfortable than he’d been in many days, perhaps even weeks. It dawned on him that he was too comfortable, but at the moment he didn't care. His belly was full, and he was neither too hot nor too cold. And for the moment, he didn't feel like he was in immediate danger of death from any number of venues, including mother nature or other forces. He relaxed.
“Okay, Erron, tell me what's going on?”
Erron cleared the tray and returned with a cup in his hand. He sat back down across from him and appeared lost in thought for a moment.
“You never told me your name.”
“You didn't ask. It's Robert, Robert Manning.” He didn't feel like explaining how he had wound up in the middle of a desert. He only had a vague memory of people wanting something from him and that he had fled. Instead, he changed the subject.
“Better question is who you are, what are you doing here?” Now he was full, he felt the brain fog lift and was able to think.
Erron appeared perplexed as if he were trying to form an answer to a complicated question.
“I was exiled to Earth several eons ago. I expected to die here before I served my sentence. Sometimes I wished I had. However, in a cruel stroke of fate, I survived and learned to adapt to this planet. He waved a hand around in front of him, gesturing towards the room as a whole. “This is all I have left. I have lived here for the last several hundred years, alone. I have had an occasional visitor to the dune. Some managed to uncover the door, and I watched them trace the symbol. I have monitored your communications, but no one seemed to give this place a second thought.” Erron rose and walked to the far side of the room. Robert followed him.
“I saw that symbol in an exhibition years ago. For some reason, I remembered it.” Robert paused then asked the question he wasn’t sure he wanted Erron to answer. “Uh, why were you exiled?”
“Because I stood up for what was right, and the powers did not like it.”
“Yes, the Council of Planets did not like that I wanted to run my homeworld fairly and honestly. They were only interested in what goods and profit they could get from my world. They didn't care what happened to the inhabitants, and that is when I stood up to them.” He lowered his head. “They drove me from my world, and I have been here ever since.”
“Can you go back?”
“I do not know. I have never tried it.”
“Maybe it's time you went back and reclaimed your world, Your life.” Robert couldn’t believe the words that just came out of his mouth. A day ago, he had wandered in a desert close to dying. Now he was telling an alien being he’d barely met an hour ago at most, to go home again.
“You are right. I should go back. I have outlived the length of my sentence.” The change in his voice was startling as he no longer sounded dejected or forlorn.
“I’ve been here on earth studying it for longer than I can remember. I know more about how to govern then I did before. I am going back, and you are coming with me.”
“Me? I can’t go planet-hopping with you. I have a life here.”
“No, I am sorry. I should have told you this, but as soon as you stepped inside, your time on earth ceased. This capsule is not only a space vessel but also a time chamber. Time does not exist here. I can see what happens in the world, but I cannot affect it. However, once home, I can implement the things I learned here. Do not despair. To your world, you are just another missing desert walker, lost and buried in the sands like the others I’ve watched die here over the eons.”
Robert turned away. Overcome at the idea that he no longer existed in his world, but he considered how his life had been up until today. His marriage was over, his kids never spoke to him, and it occurred to him, there wasn’t much to like about his life. Besides, he remembered why he was in the desert. He owed gambling debts, and the goons dropped him in the desert with little food and water and told him if he survived, they’d forget his debts, then laughed. Last laugh was on them. He was dead, and he’d survived. How about those odds. He sighed. In short, he had no reason to stay. He turned back to face Erron, the song “Fly Me to the Moon” playing in his head.
Robert stuck his hand out. Erron took it.
“Okay. When do we leave?”