The desert sun beat so harshly on Maia’s back that she wished she still had the hydration left to sweat. What little water she was able to collect for the day was stored safely in a bottle she’d found thrown more than a mile away from the debris of her ship.
As she trudged away from the merciless dunes, and back under the small outcropping of rock that had been her home ever since the crash, she sighed slightly in relief. The difference in temperature between shade and sand was stark, so the moment she was out of the sun, she let herself go limp against the rock face.
Her breath was ragged, pained. It’d been like that after the first week. It was the dehydration. Maia pulled the bottle out of her pack and looked at her meager prize after a day of searching. The container was barely a quarter full and the water within was stained a sickly green color from the plant she had gotten it from.
This water would have to last her at least a couple days. In her current state, there was no way she could make another trip to find another cactus-like plant that she could steal water from. Maia brought the bottle to her lips, taking a tentative sip. It was disgusting, tasting like rotten leaves and improperly fermented fruit. But it was water. She took another sip, and laid her head down.
Maia had been trapped on this planet for more than a month. The wreckage of her ship, The Atlantis’ Return, lay a few miles away from her. It had landed in a way to block the sun during the late evenings, giving her a few extra hours away from the blistering heat.
From her small shelter, she could see the massive gash along the hull of the battleship. They’d barely managed to escape a fight with a large Affini capital ship, but the electro-pulse the plant-people used had fried their directional sensors.
The pilots were forced to navigate by instrument, which was next to impossible on contemporary starships. They managed to get away from the Affini ship by hiding in a cloud of debris from a battle decades previously, one from before the Terran Defense War, and using an experimental cloaking system.
Thankfully, Affini Capital Ships couldn’t maneuver quickly and seemed to lose visual contact with them, and using that opportunity, the Atlantis was able to escape. But they’d been flying all but blind. Her ship didn’t notice the asteroid field until it was too late. The first impact destroyed the bridge and all primary navigation controls. The second tore the side off the ship, and sent it diving towards an uncharted desert planet. For the few people who survived the first two impacts, no one survived as their ship barreled into the atmosphere.
Maia was a special case. She’d always been a special case. The entirety of the Atlantis’ Return had been tasked with protecting her. Her father was one of the last admirals overseeing the Free Terran Rebellion. The ship had been en-route to drop her off with her father when it was attacked.
And she only managed to survive because of two reasons. First, her cabin was in the center of the ship, and heavily protected by walls of metal that were meters thick. And second, all of her time spent on the run from Affini forces had taught her to always keep a bug-out bag.
When she felt the first impact, she managed to throw on a survival escape suit. The second threw her around her cabin like a ragdoll and, and she didn’t know what happened next, as an impact left her unconscious.
When she awoke, Maia found herself in pain but alive, thrown a mile from the wreckage. Her suit was torn to shreds, but she was intact.
Her first week in the desert was spent trying to pillage the remains of the ship for any water or food she could find. She found enough to temporarily survive, as well as a weapon or two, but once the indigenous life forms on the planet began to feast on the crew’s bodies, she felt it was wisest to look elsewhere for supplies.
During the day, Maia would scour the wasteland for food and water. Either from the sparse flora that managed to live here or from the rare bits of wreckage from the Atlantis. During the night, she would try to sleep under her rock shelter, and not let the raucous howls and roars of the creatures eating her former crewmates keep her awake.
For the most part those giant lizards left her alone. There was too much good eating in the wreckage for them to care about her. The few who dared to stray too close to her were often shooed away when she fired her shotgun in their direction.
She’d tried to roast one over a fire shortly after her first stock of ration bars ran out, but the lizard meat was poisonous, and she spent more than one day puking out the small amount she’d had. And several days worth of water.
That would have been the death knell for Maia, had she not discovered that the cactus-like plant that dotted the dunes produced an edible fruit, and contained a sip or two of water within the plant’s core.
Every day, she kept an eye on the sky, hoping to see a ship from her father’s blockade. Surely he knew she was missing. He’d always told her that she was the most important thing of his life. At least, that’s what he’d say when he was in a good mood.
As the days dragged into weeks, she even began hoping that an Affini ship would surface in the atmosphere. Anyone to save her from this barren planet. She felt like she was beginning to decay from the inside out.
The worst part about being trapped on the planet? The isolation. She was used to being alone. Much of her life had been spent by herself. It was easier that way when your father is a Navy man. But being on this planet was a different kind of horrifying.
The dehydration, the hunger, the stranding, all of it paled in comparison to how nothing there was. She was totally and utterly alone. She was even too afraid to speak to herself, lest the action dehydrate her further.
The hallucinations started somewhere during the third week. First it was just her name on the arid wind, making her snap her neck in the direction she heard it. But it got progressively worse. Whispered voices commanding her.
“Come this way!”
“Do you miss me, Maia?”
“Not long now…”
It was too much. She could feel the edges of her mind fraying.
The worst was when she looked out of her shelter and saw a figure standing on a dune some distance away. For a moment, her hope skyrocketed, and she desperately ran towards the figure, only for them to vanish like a mirage when she got close. As sanity leaked back into her consciousness, she realized where she’d landed in her mad pursuit. It was a den of those giant lizard beasts. They always hunkered down between dunes while the sun was up. Unless something particularly tasty looking got their attention.
And Maia had done exactly that. A dozen horned heads, frills out, all glared at her. Their voices hissing in unison.
She bolted as the first one dove for her. She ran and ran, as hard as her legs could go back to her shelter. But the pitter patter of their feet followed shortly after her.
She slid into her shelter and grabbed the shotgun as soon as the first one crested the dune that surrounded her home. They kept coming, lining the sand, until her shelter was surrounded. A chorus of hissing filling the air in this standoff.
“Just let them take you.” She winced as the hallucinatory voice whispered in her ear. And that motion was enough for the lizards to pounce.
Maia barely had time to raise her weapon towards the first one. The trigger pull took off two of its legs and half of its head, but that did little to daunt the others.
Two more drop dead. She was thankful for all the shooting lessons her father forced her to take.
The lizards paused then, pacing back and forth. Trying to find some way to breach her strange boomstick defense. She used the short pause to reload her weapon, hitching it under her chin like she’d been trained.
The creatures started a new tactic as she finished. Their tails whipped the sand in Maia’s eyes and mouth, making her blink and cough. She heard the patter of their feet as they came to attack her, and she tried to roll away.
The whiff of air from above told her that at least one missed, but it was immediately followed by a slashing pain on her arm and another sinking its teeth into her leg. The pain seared through her body, freezing her in place.
The hissing began to crescendo, as the lizards sensed their victory was nigh, and that broke Maia’s pain paralysis. With a roar she slammed the butt of her shotgun into the head of the one biting her, then turned the barrel towards the others.
Six shots and her gun was empty. The remaining lizards snarled at her. Surprised that her boomstick still worked. They began to scitter away, back across the dunes and out of sight
She reloaded her gun and frantically waved it this way and that. For an hour she waited for them to return, but not a hide nor hair of them appeared again. She knew they’d be back though. And with enough teeth that she wouldn’t be able to survive.
With what little strength she had left, she pushed herself back against the rock wall and inspected her injuries. The slash on her arm was shallow but long. The bite on her leg was far more worrisome. The flesh was torn to shreds and at least a few of the marks looked deep enough to have hit bone.
With few options left, she tore off her shirt and tried to bandage her leg as best she could. Almost immediately she began to bleed through the fabric, bu it didn’t really matter in the long run. Chances were, she’d be dead by nightfall. Either from blood loss or the lizards coming back.
What a pitiful way to die. Alone. Starving. On an alien world. She took a bite from her last remaining fruit. A pitiful final meal.
She passed out as she finished eating. A few miles away, there was the roar of an engine as a light spacecraft entered the atmosphere and set down. But Maia was too unconscious to notice. Two creatures, ten feet tall and looking like plants given human form, stepped out of the vehicle, chattering softly to each other in an alien language. The Affini had arrived. One headed towards the wrecked ship, the other found an odd set of footprints and began to follow them.
Maia eventually came to, her breath ragged, her body weak, She fumbled for her remaining water and downed it all in a single gulp. The sun had set, but the countless stars and dozen moons still lit the desert bright enough to see.
The sand around her was stained red and clumped together. She almost wished the lizards had come while she was passed out. Save her the pain.
Almost as though the heavens had heard her wish, a small army of the creatures crested her dune, all hissing in unison. She raised her shotgun, more a pale act of defiance in the face of death rather than any actual attempt to defend herself.
To her surprise though, a rain of strange silver dust settled across the lizards, and one by one their hissing died away, as each, in turn, quietly fell asleep.
Maia stared at them in confusion, she hadn’t seen a weather phenomenon like this before. Her execution seemed to be stayed for a moment longer.
Not even a second later a wall of green leapt off the overhanging rock landing solidly in front of her. It turned to face her, with a facsimile of a human face constructed out of small leaves and bark. It’s eyes glowed a yellowish green, akin to the light from a firefly. Behind it, a cape unfurled, almost looking like a pair of magnificent wings. Its entire body, cape included, was covered in a soft looking moss. Multiple flowers dripping with poisons peeked out from above its shoulders, and two ferns, like a moth's antenna were curled on its head. An Affini.
It took a step forward and Maia shakily raised her shotgun towards it.
“Now, now, there’s no need for that little one. You’re safe now.” It’s voice was kind… almost motherly.
As it- she?- took another step forward, Maia instinctively pulled the trigger. Years of indoctrination against the Affini, through the war and into the rebellion, were not easily overcome by a kind voice.
There was a click and a trail of smoke leaked out of the barrel. A hang fire.
The Affini rushed forward and a tangle of vines pointed the gun upwards, only for the gun to finish firing a moment later, showering the both of them in dust and pebbles.
“I think that will be enough of that, little one.” Her vines curled around the weapon, easily prying it from Maia’s hands and tossing it into the desert beyond.
With her other hand, the Affini pulled the girl close, into a tight embrace. “It’ll be okay. You’re safe now.” It was the first contact she’d had in months, maybe even years. Maia melted into the alien’s moss and began to cry. She just felt so overwhelmed, and emotions fought for dominance within her. Fear, relief, hope, anxiety.
She felt the Affini pick her up and cradle her like a small child. “Don’t worry. No harm will come to you again.”
Maia looked up as a flower on her captor- savior?- sprouted and began shaking a small rain of silver spores on her face.
They tingled as they landed and a soft sleepiness quickly followed from their touch. she fell asleep as the Affini quickly crossed the desert and stepped onto the shuttlecraft that she’d landed in earlier.
Despite her father's best efforts, Maia Brand had fallen into the hands of the Affini Compact.