Online Exclusive

A tree stump, leg’s length, scorched black. Dragging slowly through snow sand so as not to take down any of the edges. The grains leave a fine film on the hand. One of several wood pieces to help prop up the broken end of the vessel for repair. I am stranded, marooned, run aground. Struck from the sky by something unseen in the night. How I might attempt to lift the vessel onto the stumps by myself remains to be seen. I have been hauling the dead remains of trees to the site for days. Behind me always, a perfect trail of depressed sand snow snaking into the distance. The wind is merciless so there is no evidence of my circuitous journey. With each step, each push of the log, a gust comes and smooths everything away.

A battered barrel of water, brackish, far from toxic, a short way off from a large cave system. Water must come from the cave’s depths. Fertile soil permeates the area near the mouth. Markings lost to the elements like faded tattoos on the side of the barrel. There are dozens of barrels scattered on the ground, submerged in the earth or torn open, dried out. Sensors are too unreliable to generate a map of the cave system. Presence of lead, possibly other elements for harvesting. The water barrel is rounded on all sides, meant to be handled by carrier units—no latches, grips, holds of any kind—, the barrel too large for my hands. If only I could roll it. But the lid has been punctured so there is no other recourse. One hour to retrieve it, two hours to bring it back. Not time lost, but energy.

A weather tackle in disassembled parts, housed in golden solar sheets. The entire valley appears to have dried up. The vessel needs water, more than I can carry, more than I can find in any of those intact barrels. What little that exists, the result of these devices, rainmakers, all moisture left to collect underground. Mining. Speculation. Whatever industry needed such technology, it’s gone now. The cave system may be a viable source, but there’s a creature sleeping at its entrance. Taloned feet sticking out, skin like oil, black and mucous green, twitching. Inoculated by sunlight, that’s the only explanation for why it hasn’t moved, for why I didn’t see it near dusk yesterday. For now, ignore it. The weather tackle is one way forward, if I can draw cloud cover from it, or possibly, ideally, rain. Failing that, forage elsewhere, but quickly. The vessel is in hibernation, slowly drawing from the water barrel. Without results, it will perish soon.

A tarp riddled with holes, heavy with various cloths, synthetic threaded textiles. The vessel is maintaining its condition, no deterioration, no improvement. Still in hibernation, occasional bouts of activity mostly relegated to water intake. Nocturnal heating has become an issue despite my modifications and admittedly feeble repairs to the exterior. The vessel shakes at night, requires extensive warming contact. Heating units broken. Fire too risky. Textiles an attempt at a solution, imperfect as every other alternative to uninterrupted rehabilitation. Yet. This may now become the most vital solution, a temporary source of water having been acquired. I work through the night. Gathering. Arranging. Carrying. Accumulating. Critical mass at a steady pace. What is required.

An automaton leaking green coolant from its torso. Bitten by something with sharp baby teeth. Large, yellowed bone shards jut from the unit’s casing, some puncturing through the metal like large hair follicles, others dangling loosely inside holes chewed open by those teeth. Completely broken, nonfunctional, though what salvageable parts are left may prove useful for repairing the vessel. The child with the teeth sits near the entrance of the cave. In the beginning, the child’s maw was round the unit, in the midst of a deep, drooling slumber. I carefully pried the unit away from that mouth, wires stretching and breaking like string. The child didn’t wake. When I left, only the bare feet could be seen. Bare—as if there would ever be clothing on such a thing. The child had wrapped some of the automaton’s wiring round the wrists and several of the arms. Not entangled, deliberate, a sign of play. The child’s kind are like any other sentient thing here: alive, docile under optimal circumstances, formidable when threatened. A distraction.

A wing. Large orange membrane, pliable skeletal structure, longer than my height. Light for the creature it belonged to but heavy to lift. I hear them when the sun sets, when I continue repairs. Culprits of my predicament. They emerge from the cave system but are limited in range by their need for water. Old causeways crisscross the valley and they fly along them as if attached by magnets, birds with navigation metal in their beaks. The weaker numbers, from exhaustion or malnourishment, drop from the sky and crawl back to the cave on the path of the causeway. Unclear what they are searching for. The vessel and I are well hidden at the valley’s edge, though their presence raises a question about the efficacy of fixing the weather tackle to make water. They are starved for water, do not hunt for food when they leave the cave. Their numbers appear great, their resources depleted, both. I see one didn’t make it back. Swift decomposition. First, solar burns, then disintegration of tissue before melting into a puddle that soon evaporates. No trace. Yet. The wings are hardy, difficult to tear. I’m collecting, expending energy, without the aid of machinery or extra hands, but to what end? To restore the vessel, yes. For safety, yes. And then?

An unconscious body, half naked. Old scratches, deep lacerations about the face, long since healed. Body pulled from a concrete bunker hole adjacent to the cave system. The body approaches as I search for fuel for the vessel. They drop to the ground. I strike them on the head, self-defense. These bunkers dot the valley floor. I suspect piping from the cave system connects water to each. But I have yet to descend into the mouth. The terraforming that brought rain to the valley is the most likely reason these creatures run rampant, newly created, reanimated. So where did the body’s comrades, other personnel go? Did they escape, disappear? Investigation into the bunker where the body emerged reveals little. No compatriots but scraps of food. Broken visual surveillance system, functional thermal readings suggest a significant heat bloom several kilometers into the cave. I have no quarrel with whatever’s down there, but I do need its resources to escape this place. So perhaps I’ll have a quarrel after all. Of all the bounty thus far, the body is the lightest. A reprieve.

A segment of tube, fleshlike, fluid carrying. A straw? A pipe? At least three hundred feet in length, diameter near one foot. The body awakes at our site with fear and skepticism, especially when they catch sight of the vessel. It speaks? Of the recent past, events of destruction, ruination, something concerning the now-defunct industries I have formerly speculated on. Former miner. Information useless for the purposes of evacuation. The body alerts me to a subterranean circulatory structure whose function is puzzling, even fascinating had we the luxury of time. An intricate, vast arrangement of ducts and canals, organic in material, preceding the colonists, who used them in lieu of an artificial irrigation system. Hundreds of waypoints throughout the system tied off, cauterized, drained of whatever fluid ran through them, repurposed for the distribution of water. Everything here hides underground. Weather tackle indeed too risky, could draw the attention of the cave dwellers. Disappointing. I was close to total reconstruction. The body emphasizes, confusingly, that these primordial tubes are not roots but arteries. Intriguing thought, logical answer to certain questions. Explains why water seemed brackish. Same for the black spots around the valley, craters dark as rain soil, like sores. Blood. If these are literal arteries, some central mechanism must function like a heart. Have functioned. The body stresses the past tense. One wonders how far down such a heart might be, but pursuing this curiosity is not the goal.

A dead cave dweller. Freshly dead, not killed by me, fallen. The best candidate thus far to reconstitute the vessel’s fuel levels. Hibernation ended two days ago, indicated by the vessel’s partially restored cognition and consciousness. Irritable, groggy, temperamental. Near the head, a pile of scraps, potential fuel sources, organic, inorganic. The bunker body next to me? Has opted to stay for fear of the creatures and the vastness of the desert. Not alone, abandoned. The valley was cleared of some other bodies after the inhabitants of the cave awoke. Surrounding area quarantined. Those left behind in hiding. The vessel judges the assemblage of fuel candidates, roots around the pile, chews on some items, spits out most. The body watches with concern, subdues into calm. Then the vessel suddenly switches orientation, faces the body, moves swiftly. Too late. Unfortunate, unplanned, ultimately useful. Organic matter preferred. Many more weak ones litter the causeways this week, more than before. Plentiful fuel. Increased activity? Desperation? Expulsion from the cave? Expulsion by what, worrying question. Repair must accelerate. Collect more arteries, connect them, thousands of feet worth, ensure vessel’s safe distance from the mouth. First descent tomorrow for reconnaissance. The child no longer at the entrance. I’m exposing us. Can’t be helped. With the vessel out of hibernation, nearly fueled, evacuation is close at hand. Could all go horribly wrong. At least an end will come.

Dead creatures, thousands. Outside the cave. Fleeing, driven out. The vessel descends into the valley slowly, some parts atrophied. Wings restored, fully fueled, alert. Pipe fashioned from threaded arteries in its mouth for water intake. Waits at the entrance. Ready for immediate flight. Carry the artery into the depths of the system. Broad daylight. Creatures everywhere inside, trapped in some state between asleep and awake. Viscous darkness along the walls. Blood. World blood, eroded grooves on the floor. Cacophony of bodies breathing. But the water is deeper into the cave than anticipated. Far deeper. The den of cave dwellers only populated the outermost section of the system. Past the boundary, further in, nigh unbearable humidity. Heat, condensation, sweat, water in rivulets running freely along the ceiling, the ground. I lose count of how many hundreds of feet. Still farther in, a great red pool awaits, red from unseen light that glows like sunshine through cartilage. Rock surroundings give way to material, rubber like. Not a pool, bigger, a lake. Place the artery’s end onto the lapping shore, secure suction from the vessel. Soon after, a throbbing, deep vibration, imperceptible at first. Behind me, screeches, talons against stone, some rude awakening. Throbbing continues, shaking so violently vision blurs. Suction from the tube ceases, completion, unforeseen complication. Shaking intensifies, structural integrity of system is compromised. Rushed return, creatures fleeing ahead, a small, frantic group attacking blindly in their panic. Stumble out into the sunlight, perish immediately. Vessel in sight through entrance blocked with bodies. Wings poised, no damage visible, anxious. Behind me, throbbing, trembling, convulsion. An undulation. A pulse. A heartbeat.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Baffler, X-Ray Lit, and the Believer, among other publications. He is currently at work on his first novel.