A wheeze of cool air evaporated into the arid desert as Will and Edward stepped out of their time machine, squinting through the unrelenting rays of sunlight that beat down on the ocean of bright red sand surrounding them for miles, completely flabbergasted at the unexpected future they were seeing.
Double checking the dials on the steel machine they’d arrived in, Edward asked, nonplussed, “This is 2550?”
“You tell me,” Will muttered, still struck by an intense awe by their surroundings. “Did you set it all up right?”
A warm wind blew over the sand dunes, bringing with it a thin layer of airborne particles that wasted no time clinging to the exposed skin of the two time traveling friends. Will brushed off his forearms as Will stepped back into the time machine for a brief moment of sanctuary, examining the settings and double checking the condition readouts.
“This is 2550,” he confirmed. The bleak, disappointed undertone that crept into his voice was unmistakable.
They both took a moment to gaze into the distance. For as far as they could see in every direction there were waves of red sand, and above them the hazy distortions of heat accompanied a light yellow tint to the air that melted into the yellowish blue sky above them, completely devoid of any clouds or streaks in the atmosphere. The sun radiated brightly from behind them, and Edward cringed visibly as he turned to see it, quickly changing his mind with an uncomfortable, instinctive shout.
“It’s really bright,” Will observed, then pointed forward into the distance, though at nothing in particular within view. “We should probably walk that way, you know, so we aren’t facing the sun.”
Just recovered from a brief stint at staring at a thousand suns, Edward incredulously asked his friend, “You want to actually go out there?”
“Of course,” Will enthusiastically exclaimed. “We came to adventure, didn’t we?”
“This isn’t what we were expecting,” Edward said nervously, looking around at the lack of life the future of their world apparently held. “Maybe we should go back, I’ll reconfigure the machine for some time sooner; maybe we’ll find life there. Something safer.”
“Nonsense,” Will retorted. “We’re already here, and it has to recharge after each trip, right?” He pointed at the machine behind him, refusing to let his gaze slip away from the limitless horizon in front of him.
Edward leaned back into the cool metal capsule and examined the energy gauge, cursing — in his own, innocent way — under his breath, before reporting, “It’d probably be fine, but maybe it’s a good idea to let it charge up a little bit, just to be sure.”
“That’s the spirit,” Will sang out immediately, reaching down for the backpack of supplies they’d packed before the trip.
“We’ll just check out what’s over those dunes over there,” Edward continued, lost in a cursive thought that omitted everything his overly excited friend might be plotting, “and then come back; that should give us enough recharge time, and then we can head back and check out, maybe, 2450.”
“That’s a good point,” Will called out behind him as he started walking into the red seas of sand, “it’d be interesting to see what caused, well, this, from our world, you know?”
Edward scrambled to catch up, only barely remembering to stoop and grab his own backpack of supplies before running off after his friend into the unknown, and completely ignoring the comment that would inevitably lead to their next epic adventure… assuming they made it through this one.
* * *
The sun had shown no signs of slowing its unforgiving blanket of fever over the desert, and while Edward had seen a few scaly creatures scurrying between, through, and under dunes, neither he nor Will had observed any signs that might point to a present occupation of intelligent life in the present, let alone any time even remotely recently.
There were, however, remnants of civilizations past scattered among the desert, sometimes buried, sometimes — probably temporarily — unearthed, but always decrepit, defunct, and puzzling: the most curious of which was an abundance of solar panels that seemed to layer the entire desert beneath them, unabashedly revealed in every valley of sand that dipped just barely too deep, resulting in a hard, black surface that the friends refused to walk on, lest it not actually be some solar panels but instead some foreign material with unexpected consequences for resting one’s weight upon it.
The panels were interesting, nonetheless, and Will and Edward couldn’t help but theorize at what powers must have been at play to not only fund and direct such a massive feat of technology, but also at what could have possibly let a vast scene of this magnitude wither away into its present, dilapidated state.
“What if we switched over to solar power entirely,” Will theorized, hands waving, “and we had some kind of extended eclipse that drove everyone underground until the sunlight returned?”
“That wouldn’t make sense,” Edward responded quickly, eyes glazed over with intellectual stimulation. “The sun’s back now. Where is everyone?”
They’d been walking towards a grand littering of what looked like ruins for nearly an hour, checking their direction in comparison to the potential pocket of life each time they reached a high dune that afforded a view of the alien pieces of scrap protruding from the dunes down in an especially low valley.
“They could be in those ruins,” Will hoped. “Or, somewhere. We’re a race of resilience; there’s no way we’d all be gone.”
“I can think of a million ways off the top of my head to wipe the entire race off the face of the earth,” Edward shot back smugly.
The sight of a large, red fox scurrying across a dune in the distance caught both of their gazes, and the friends stopped in silence to observe what the closest thing to life they’d yet seen would be doing out here in these harsh conditions.
Like everything else in the desert, the fox had distinct differences from what they were accustomed to seeing in their past lives. The most noticeable difference, of course, was its blackened face, blurring its facial features together into an indistinguishable mass of charcoal. Behind that, an extraordinarily long tail flowed in the air behind it as it moved, flopping around as it leaped from step to step, yet never touching the ground beneath it.
Unfortunately, the fox merely continued running in its original direction, never stopping to even look around or change its path.
“Maybe we should go that way,” Edward suggested. “It seems to be going somewhere on purpose. Maybe water?”
Ignoring his friend, Will resumed walking and incredulously asked his friend, “You don’t think someone would survive each one of your Doomsday scenarios?”
“Two people,” Edward corrected. “At least. And no, I’m pretty sure I could concoct something that results in everyone gone. You think that’s hard to believe?”
“Lets hear it then,” Will said, calling his friend’s probable bluff.
The two walked in silence for nearly a full minute before Edward spoke up again, apparently ready for a game of cerebral chess of apocalyptic proportions: “The obvious start point is a nuclear winter.”
“Go on,” Will piped in when his friend paused.
“A nuke drops every so many miles to cover every inch of civilized land,” Edward began, glancing quickly between their destination still forever away and his friend beside him. “Obviously some people will make it to bunkers underground, potentially hardened against nukes specifically, depending on where we’re talking.”
Will tripped over a piece of protruding solar panels, broken from years of wear, but caught up to his narrating friend before he could notice.
“So those who would survive would be those who could survive underground for, what, thirty, forty years? I don’t know how long radiation sticks around, but I’m sure it’s quite a while.”
“Most people with bunkers are equipped to hold out in them for quite a while,” Will added. “I don’t think you can starve them out.”
“No,” Edward continued, “you wouldn’t have to starve them out; if they make it to the bunkers you could get them in other ways. Perhaps something in the payload could sterilize on contact, or permeate through rainwater or traditional barriers to devastate resources, or maybe some lingering effect could perpetually heat the area and keep everyone underground for far longer than they could ever plan for — forever, even.”
The friends looked around at the arid desert they’d been wandering through and wondered whether these desolate lands had been forged on purpose, on accident, or as a inevitable byproduct of nature; what rate at which the transformation occurred, whether over centuries with civilizations grasping on and on for hope, or instantly, as a result of a meteoric impact by mankind or otherwise; as well as, of course, there was anything a sufficiently advanced society from the future could have done to prevent such a widespread loss of life, land, and prospects.
“There would still be people underground then,” Will finally responded, shaking his head. “And clearly there’s nothing particularly dangerous out here if we’ve been wandering for this long. Not to mention a nuke — or a meteor, if you want to get that crazy — would have blown all these solar panels away, not buried them in an ocean of sand.”
“There’s always global warming,” Edward joked, and they both laughed nervously.
“Could you speed that up somehow, maybe, without damaging the land directly?”
It was Edward’s turn to trip over something extruding in the sand, and it wasn’t until Will had fully added, “Maybe the Russians made a hairspray space nuke,” that he noticed his friend’s footsteps had not caught up with his hilarious jokes.
“Come on,” he called as he looked back, but cut himself off staccato when he saw his friend violently seizing in the desert sands; his arms flailing energetically but without reason in the air, consequently smashing his hands repeatedly into the dense ground, a bright red pattern of the individual sand’s texture quickly forming on his hands and up his arms; and his head over and over again suffered a similar punishment as a yellow-eyed Edward forcefully thrust the flat of his head repeatedly into the sand, flinging a small cloud of hot powder into the air each time his hair had a moment of rest on the ground between convulsions.
“Ed,” Will found himself saying as he kneeled down to hold his friend’s head in place before twisting slightly to pin an arm down as well, after noting a particularly painful rash of rawness starting to form along the skin. “Ed, calm down!”
A glimmer of something almost like a stream of water through the air, bright blue and flowing, caught Will’s eye as he spoke, and quickly stole his attention from further exclamations, instead flexing and perplexing his mind with logic that made no sense: what Edward must have tripped over was now flowing — no, spilling? — out of the ground and into the air, as if a gas with the looks of a semi-transparent, blue liquid.
Instinctively, Will pulled his friend back from the unknown, holding his convulsions tight but yanking him several feet from the being starting to take shape in the air, flying as if by just oozing through the air. Around its perimeter, only visible when it dared to come notably close, animated rings of yellow and orange were repeatedly born to flicker and die out along its surface, giving it the appearance of potentially pulsing with electricity.
“Ed, wake up,” Will shouted again, keeping his eyes transfixed on the polymorphic mass now circling he and his seizing friend.
* * *
“What do you think it is,” Edward asked slowly, still recovering from the seizure he’d had nearly forty minutes prior. “What do you think it wants?”
“I don’t know, dude,” Will answered for the fifteenth time. “Lets just get you to those structures up there so I can set you down.”
Again, the blue mass seemed to dip in closer on the air, until Will shouted again to scare it off. His eyes scanned the ground again for something to throw at it that wasn’t a handful of hot sand, but was again unsuccessful.
“Why is it following us,” Edward groggily continued. “Where are we going?”
Will pointed with his free hand at a metal structure, knee-high, about a hundred feet away, and said through a sigh, “There.”
They reached the metallic construction three eternities later, physical strain to stagger forward accompanied by agonizingly simple questions from a simpling mind, repeated ad nauseum. Will dropped Edward down onto the silver surface, who then immediately screeched and curled over, diving head-first with arms tucked in toward the ground.
Dulled from the heat and a headache, Will let his friend fall to the ground without a physical response, until he belatedly glanced down between the structure and Edward, lying down motionless on the ground beneath them. Instinctively he outstretched a hand to the structure and confirmed that it was way too hot to sit on. With a quick crouch to the ground, he hid the silver away with a red color that effectively dampened the heat radiating out from beneath it.
“Do you want to sit up here or on the ground,” Will asked his friend, concerned by the heat in either place. “Which would you prefer?”
“Too hot,” Edward mumbled, then let his head fall between his shoulders, where it rested momentarily before starting to rise and fall with the deep breaths of the newly asleep.
“Down there it is, then,” Will said to himself, looking around for anywhere in the ruins of what looked like a small camp that might hold a water reservoir.
He spotted a cottage a stone’s throw away and glanced nervously at the blue blob in the sky between it and he. Another glance around the ground was finally prosperous, and he eagerly fingered the panel shard now flitting between his fingers.
He stood up, glanced at the blob, and shouted, “Go away!”
It did not move.
Will glanced back at his friend, now snoring and slumping closer and closer to the ground, and felt a surge of emotion flow through him, manifesting in another, louder, shout of “Go away!” before thrusting the sharp panel shard in the blob’s direction, passing directly through the lower-left quadrant of it, though it seemed not to notice.
“Go on,” Will continued yelling, “get out of here! Go, get! Please!”
The blob remained stoic through Will’s shouting up until the final word, at which it once again began to morph inside itself — generating waves of blue and orange rippling over its body — and flow slowly backward in space, as if drifting away in the greediest of seas.
The blob floated infinitely away, somehow seeming to decrease its size in whole as it drifted backward, until it was minuscule enough to blend in with the heavenly skies behind it and disappeared completely.
Another glance toward Edward told his friend that he needed to move quickly, and Will sprinted off towards the cottage with overly optimistic hopes that there might be water — or anything even remotely of use — inside.
* * *
“Ed, can you hear me?”
The sun had begun to fall in the sky, having lost its turf to a full moon that brought with it a night of quickly dropping temperatures, and what little win had graced the day with its sandy presence had died off in favor of a complete stillness that permeated the desert with a palpable quietness — aside from Will frantically trying to rouse Edward into consciousness.
“Ed, please,” Will cried out again. “Can you at least tell me how to work the time machine home? You can’t fall asleep yet, Ed, stay with me. Ed, can you hear me?”
Ed’s eyes had already rolled back in his head, replacing what had become a disgusting yellow film over his eyes with a fresh area, white with innocence but devoid of pupils.
“Ed!” Will cried out into the sky, looking haggardly to the heavens for an answer to why or how this could have happened, already starting to feel the seeds of guilt for forcing the two of them out of that cool metal machine they’d arrived in an unexpected world in.
The cottage, like the rest of the structures in this so-called camp, was entirely empty aside from a hilarious number of power outlets and several large batteries jutting out from the walls. There was no water, no first aid, no books to learn from, no communication devices, no medicine — nothing.
As he looked over his dying friend, Will began to notice a soft bluish color radiating outward from Edward’s contorted face, a tint that quickly intensified until it covered his entire face and spread out to his neck, his chest, and the ground beneath him.
It wasn’t until then that Will thought the color could instead be coming from a source behind him, rather than within his friend, and he turned quickly to see whether he was correct, falling backward into the sand as he found himself face to face with the blue blob he’d scared off earlier, now larger than ever in size and sizzling vociferously with arcs of electricity that crackled and popped in the otherwise silent night.
“Get,” he cried out in reflex, catching himself at the last moment with his hands before tumbling completely backward into the sand. He swatted forward, following up with, “Go, out, away!”
The blob was unphased, and instead continued to ooze into itself, hovering in place several feet off of the ground below. As if managing the weather for its own piece of the world beneath it, tiny bolts of lightning occasionally fell down from the bottom of the blob as if droplets, instantaneously finding a jagged path of white into the sand and then immediately disappearing.
Will glanced down from the blob to see Edward laying down on the other side of the creature, completely blocked by an effective electric fence; he called, “Ed,” one more time, but his friend had already stopped the last of what little movements he had been hanging on to.
The world seemed to tint blue entirely and Will noticed there were now bright blue blobs floating in from every direction now, coming from inside the structures, beneath the sand, and possibly from above in the atmosphere, if that weren’t too far-fetched. He watched in horror as the blobs wafted closer and closer to where his friend lay motionless, their arrival almost perfectly coinciding with the largest blob’s re-positioning entirely on top of Edward, from which miniature lightning bolt after miniature lightning bolt rained down upon his friend.
Will was frozen in place and watched helplessly as the blobs began to float away from Edward once again, leaving only the largest still raining unruly electricity onto his torso.
It wasn’t until Edward started violently seizing again did Will break out of his trance and lurch forward towards his friend, who had almost immediately stopped seizing in favor of a cacophony of coming-to-consciousness coughing. The giant blob began to recede into the horizon as well.
“Ed,” Will exclaimed, leaning down to hug his confused friend, who struggled to scramble to his weary feet. “No,” Will soothed, noticing the normal color that had drained with the original seizure quickly returning. “Don’t move. You’re going to be fine, Ed.”
Will looked up again to check on the blob and was surprised to see it laying motionless in the sand several yards away, almost completely drained of color. A single blob floated in from a structure nearby, and Will realized he may have had exaggerated the changeability of the blobs and mistook the large blob for the one his friend had tripped over, when it almost certainty was this much smaller one approaching.
When the small blob was hovering over the large blob, it too began to rain down petite bolts of lightning from its underside, though the colorless blob beneath it refused to stir.
“Will,” Edward asked groggily. “What happened?”
“Well,” Will smiled, turning back to his friend, “now that you know you make it out okay, I think you’re going to love the story. Lets get you rested up and us back to the time machine first, though. I’m buying us ice cream back in our time and I’ll tell you all about it.”