The school bus flew across the undulating landscape of red-brown sand, a bright yellow lozenge filled with children who were all rapidly becoming bored as the novelty of being out of the classroom wore off. Every now and then, as the dunes rose to meet it, the bus kicked up a thick plume of sand that hung briefly in the air behind it. The hum of the anti-grav engines at each corner of the bus contrasted with the whistling of the ever-present wind. Faces peered out of the windows, watching the vast desert slide past, searching for sand-sails or jackals, or indeed anything to break up the monotony of the sands.
Kendra Williams, history teacher and unwilling tour guide, also stared out of the window, enjoying the relative peace. It wouldn’t last long, it would only be a matter of time before boredom got the better of the children and they returned to the squabbling and the endless, endless questions. Not that she minded being asked questions - that was generally a large part of her job - but she was a history teacher, not a geography teacher. The geography teacher who was supposed to be leading this field trip, Mr Reiker, was apparently ‘sick’, which Kendra was sure had nothing to do with him celebrating his birthday at a club the previous night. Most of the staff had gone; the recently arrived history teacher, in her first job after qualifying half a galaxy away on the far distant Earth, hadn’t been invited.
Kendra huffed out a deep sigh; her knowledge of the geography of Danelon IV amounted to little more than “This bit’s a desert, at the equator it’s a tropical jungle, then there’s more desert on the other side.” Was there ice at the poles? It suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t know. Had she looked out of the window when the transport ship that had delivered down to the surface was heading into the atmosphere? No, she remembered with some embarrassment, she had been too busy violently dispensing her lunch into the conveniently provided paper bag.
Well, as long as none of the children asked any questions about the polar regions then she could probably wing it. I mean, it was just rocks and sand, right? She looked down at the notes she had frantically scribbled down some twenty minutes before the trip had started. Was the information she had correct? She didn’t have the faintest idea. Honestly, she was suffering no small amount of anxiety that she had actually looked up the wrong planet; it was entirely possible that she had typed in Danelon V or Danelon VI instead. Were they desert planets as well, were they even habitable? She was sure she remembered that at least one of them was a gas giant. Would it have been so hard to give the planets individual names, there were only eight of them after all? It displayed, in her opinion, a desperate lack of imagination. She looked out of the window and tried to let the motion of the bus and the desert flowing past soothe her worries.
“Miss?” The peace and quiet crumbled and drifted away like the sand below them.
Suppressing another sigh, she swivelled in her seat to look back down the length of the bus. In amongst the rows of children staring out of windows or looking at their personal holoscreens; a small, lone hand was stretching up towards the bus’s ceiling; it quivered in a way that suggested great urgency. “Yes, Jason?” she said.
“I need the toilet, miss.”
Kendra stared at his pudgy little face, which was currently clenched up like a fist; it spoke of someone undergoing great stress. “You can’t need to go now, Jason, we only left the school twenty minutes ago.” She had been very particular about reminding the children that they should go before they left; it was one of the most important lessons that a teacher learned.
“Misssss!” The panic in his expression suggested that a very damp explosion was imminent.
Muttering curses under her breath, Kendra looked inquisitively at Mr Lennet, the driver, her eyebrows raised.
“No chance, love,” he said, with more than a hint of a smirk on his thin lips. “Can’t set down here, we’re in the middle of a jackal pack’s hunting range. Lad’s going to have to hold on for a bit.”
Why her? She had set aside her free morning to sit in the library working on lesson plans for the next month but no, that would have been a much too productive use of her time, so instead she was now stuck out in the bloody desert with a lippy bus driver and an incontinent child. She silently laid another curse on the absent Mr Reiker. “How long until we reach a safe spot?” she asked the driver.
He thought for a moment, rubbing at the coarse stubble of his chin with a thick, yellow stained finger; the action raised a cloud of dust from his beard. Kendra tried not to think about it circulating around the closed atmosphere of the bus. “About another ten, fifteen minutes, I reckon,” he said.
“Ten minutes,” repeated Kendra. Truly, the universe has a grudge against me.
“I’ve got an empty bottle if you want it.”
The bus had settled onto a rocky escarpment that had been declared more or less safe by Mr Lennet, who was currently taking the opportunity for a quick cigarette. It offered a fantastic view as long as you liked looking at an endless sea of brown. To think she had left behind the verdant fields and gentle forests of Earth for this over-sized litter tray. There had been a job in Dublin she could have taken, or she could have stayed on at university for a doctorate and a life in academia where she wouldn’t even have needed to deal with children; it was something she lay awake at night thinking about.
“Miss, I can’t go with you standing there!” Jason had clung on with a Herculean effort, striving against the mounting stress, however now that the opportunity to relieve himself had arrived it appeared that the irresistible pressure had suddenly abated.
Kendra glanced back over her shoulder, trying to look without actually looking; the boy was standing at the back of the bus with his back to her. “Sorry, Jason, but I’m not leaving you on your own. There are, I’m led to believe, sand jackals out here. Just try to relax and let it happen on its own,” she said and left it at that. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do if a jackal appeared, nor was she sure what one looked like. The only jackals she had any vague knowledge about were the ones back on earth; they were, if she remembered correctly, a type of dog. Probably. There had been an orientation for new arrivals to Danelon IV but Kendra had missed it, the victim of an asthma attack brought on by the ubiquitous dust. Her hastily cobbled together notes also had no mention of jackals, or indeed any of the other wildlife; apparently she hadn’t made it far enough through the article on the net to reach that section.
She looked back over her shoulder; Jason was still there, still doing precious little to introduce water to this arid place. There was a slight breeze but all it did was move the hot, dry air around and blow the fine, abrasive sand in all the places that sand had no right to go.
“Having trouble is he?” The bus driver was leaning on the front of the bus, puffing on a hand-rolled, and in no way legal, cigarette while he waited. “He just needs a good fright, that’ll get it flowing!”
“I do not believe you are helping, Mr Lennet.”
“Maybe if we squeezed him.”
Kendra gazed up into the hazy blue sky, perhaps looking for guidance from a higher power or perhaps just to look at something that wasn’t yellow or brown or Mr Lennet’s smirking face. Far above, she could see a flock of, well, not birds but whatever it was that had evolved to fill that niche on Danelon IV.
“Sand sails,” said Mr Lennet, following her gaze. “High up as well. Must be a sandstorm heading this way for them to go that high up. Best tell the young lad to open the tap if you want to go see these fancy rocks and get home again before it arrives.”
Oh good, thought Kendra. “Jason…”
“I’m trying, miss!”
“Maybe I should have set down in the jackals’ range, bit of fear might have spurred him on!” said Mr Lennet with a rough laugh that degenerated into a hacking cough. And then he was gone.
Kendra blinked to try and clear her eyes because surely this was some kind of desert-induced hallucination, but no amount of blinking returned Mr Lennet to his previous spot. On the ground, his roll-up smoldered on, its tip glowing red as the wind fanned the burning fibres.
Her only reply was the hiss of the windblown sand over the rocks.
“Jason, very quietly get back in the bus,” said Kendra, starting to slowly move towards the door, her eyes fixed on the cigarette as the wind made it roll around in a circle.
“I’ve not gone yet, miss.”
“Jason, the status of your bladder is the least of my concerns right now. Get back on the bus or I’ll tell the rest of the class about the note I confiscated last week.”
“Miss!” Shock, betrayal, fear; all of these things were evident in his voice.
Kendra didn’t hear him, her attention was on the thing pulling itself slowly, deliberately over the lip of the escarpment, its savage claws - which Kendra couldn’t help but notice appeared to be bloodstained - digging into the soft sandstone. Oh, she thought with a kind of detached terror, so that’s what a sand jackal looks like.
Moving smoothly on six legs, it was about fifteen feet long from its narrow snout to its long tail, sleek and sinuous and covered in overlapping scales the same colour as the sand. Its mouth was open, revealing rows of jagged teeth; they, like the claws, were stained a distressing shade of red.
“Jason,” hissed Kendra.
“Miss, I can’t justAAHHHHHH!”
Kendra risked a glance over her shoulder; the boy was staring open mouth and wide-eyed at the jackal. His mouth wasn’t the only thing that was open, Kendra reluctantly noted. It turned out that, whilst his knowledge of sand jackal hunting ranges may have been lacking, Mr Lennet, may he rest in peace, had been right about the effectiveness of a fright for loosening a recalcitrant bladder; the barren rocks were getting more of a watering than they had received in countless geological ages. “Get in the bus, Jason.”
The jackal was sniffing the air now, possibly confused by the unfamiliar aroma that was currently mingling with the desert wind, the flaps that covered its nostrils flaring wide as it tried to work out what the new smell was. Then it lowered its head, deep-set, hooded eyes fixed on Kendra, and growled. It was like the rumble of distant thunder.
“Jason, are you in the bus yet?”
“Miss, I can’t move, miss. There’s another one behind us, miss.”
A scream suddenly rent the air. One of the other children had come to the door of the bus and had seen the jackals, both of which were now staring at the new source of noise and potential protein.
Kendra turned and ran, taking advantage of the jackals’ momentary distraction to scoop up Jason and sprint for the door, trying not to think about what might be sprinkling on to her feet. There was a roar behind her as she hurled herself through the door, scattering the children out of the way and diving for the door control. With a hiss, the door swung shut just as the nearest jackal leapt. Its snapping jaws thudded into the toughened glass, shaking the whole bus, but the door held.
“Is everyone okay?” said Kendra, wide eyes locked on to the frustrated jackal.
Everyone was fine, if badly shaken up and terrified, as long as you didn’t count the unfortunate driver.
The bus rocked again as the jackals threw themselves against the door and windows. The bus was made of tough stuff, it had to be in order to survive the grinding, scratching sands, but it wasn’t indestructible and the sharp claws of the jackals were already carving deep grooves in the outer skin.
“Right, let’s get out of here,” said Kendra, sitting in the driving seat.
“What about Mr Lennet, miss?” asked one of the children. They were all looking at her with wide, horrified eyes.
“He, er, won’t be joining us,” she said. “Where are the keys?”
“Mr Lennet has them, miss.”
Kendra looked at the Jackal that was gnawing on the front of the bus. She could have been in Dublin, walking along the banks of the Liffey or sitting in a comfy little bar with a pint of Irish stout, but no. “Balls. Right, have any of you got in touch with anyone back in the city yet?”
Heads shook. “There’s no NET connection on the bus, miss, it got disabled cos they thought it was too distracting.” The voice took on an accusatory tone.
Kendra took a moment to curse the universe before regrouping. “Okay. This thing must have a radio.” There was nothing that looked like a handset or a speaker. “Anyone?”
A small hand appeared in the periphery of her vision. “That button there, miss.”
Kendra looked round. “Thank you, Aleesa.” She pressed the button. Nothing happened. “Aleesa?”
“Just speak, miss.”
“Oh, right.” Kendra pushed the button again. “This is the Mesa School bus, we’ve broken down, is there anyone out there?”
There was no response. It occurred to her that she should probably inject a little more urgency into her request for help given the current situation.
“We are also getting attacked by jackals. Um, help?” Outside, the efforts of the jackals had stirred up a dust cloud around the bus. Other shapes, indistinct yet threatening, could be seen moving through the haze.
There was a faint hiss from the radio’s speakers but no reply.
The radio burst into life with a crackle. “You’re supposed to say ‘may day’.”
Kendra stared, open-mouthed, at the console in front of her for a moment. “This is hardly the time for a protocol lesson!” she shouted.
“Button, miss,” said Aleesa’s voice from behind her.
“What? Oh.” Kendra pressed the button. “My poor protocol aside, some help would be appreciated. I think it’s going to get through the door quite soon.” She was having to raise her voice over the snapping and snarling of the jackals and the yelling of the children.
One jackal had discovered that the door panel gave slightly and was attacking it with increasing ferocity, claws scrabbling at the edges. Then, with a violent crack, the toughened glass broke, the jackals front leg coming through the hole and swiping wildly. Kendra threw herself back in the chair, narrowly avoiding the slashing claws.
The radio crackled again, barely audible over the screaming in the bus. “Hang on a mo.”
The door was buckling inward, the claws were getting closer and closer. So this is the end, thought Kendra, all because of one poor life choice, a hungover geography teacher and a boy with no bladder control. I hope my parents get some small consolation from knowing that their ridiculous objections to me coming out here turned out to be almost exactly right. The jackal lunged forward, straining at the buckling door frame, stretching out with all its might, so close that Kendra could see the individual scales that covered its paw and the scrapes and scratches on the side of its vicious claws.
And then, with a final push of its powerful limbs, the jackal shouldered the door aside, opening its jaws wider than Kendra would have believed possible, and…
The radio crackled. “Sure, he was a keen one. Give me a second here…”
Thunder filled the air, thunder and the howling of jackals as they died or fled.
“You’re all good now,” said the radio. “I think your bus is fecked though.”
Trembling, each step unsteady, Kendra went to the door and looked through the ruined window. Bits of jackal, some twitching, most oozing an assortment of disgusting fluids, poked out from beneath a giant metal foot. Following the leg up, and up, and up, Kendra found herself looking at a huge grey plate of metal suspended above the bus.
There was something else she was supposed to be doing wasn’t there? Oh yes.
“Is everyone okay?” she asked the children. They had pressed together in the centre of the bus to the point that they resembled nothing so much as a whimpering, multi-limbed blob of wide eyes and video devices, because even facing death there’s still the chance that you might record something cool that might make you famous, albeit posthumously.
When it became clear that death was no longer imminent, the blob collapsed, separating into three distinct groups; the ones wailing and crying, the ones staring in terror-filled shock out of the window and the ones high-fiving one another and talking about how awesome that had been. The majority seemed to be in the latter camp. There was still a lot of videoing going on.
Once she had assured herself that her charges were all intact, even if one or two could perhaps do with a change of underwear, Kendra looked out of the window again at their metallic saviour. She went back to the console and pressed the radio button.
“Hello, are you still there?”
“Sure I am, just trying to clear a bit of space for you,” was the crackly reply. It was a female voice. Probably. “Best if you stay in the bus for now,” said the voice. “I’ve got the old proximity sensors on the go but there’s always the chance that one of those buggers’ll dive in before the gatlings have a chance to spin up. They’re sneaky wee bastards those jackals. Okay, get your kiddies to hold on to something, this might get a bit bumpy.”
There was a loud thud from outside that shook the whole bus and the shadow that was covering them disappeared. Hearing cries from the back of the bus, Kendra ran down its length and peered out of the back window over the children’s heads. Only a few feet away, a large robot, shaped almost like an enormous spider with an enlarged abdomen that had six thick, jointed legs sticking out of the sides, was lowering itself down on to the sandy rocks. It was a dull grey, bare metal that was covered in scuffs and scratches, easily forty feet wide and just as high.
As Kendra watched, the back of the “abdomen” split into two large doors that swung wide to reveal a cavernous interior, one filled with what looked like piles of junk. A woman in a wheelchair rolled into view at the top of the ramp that was extending out from the base of the opening, waving to them as the ramp thumped on to the rocks in a cloud of dust. She looked to be about the same age as Kendra, with a shock of short, bright pink hair sticking out in all directions atop her head. She was dressed in a khaki tank-top, revealing lean, muscular arms with several tattoos, and cargo pants that looked to be more pocket than pant. She waved at them again and hit something on her chair’s control panel, then started speaking into it.
“Hi there, how’s it going?” said the radio at the other end of the bus. “It’s grand to meet you. Now brace yourselves, this will likely be a bit rough.” On the ramp, the woman wheeled herself to the side and tapped at the control panel. Two large, metal arms swung down from above her and extended out towards the bus. “Safer to just bring you all in in one go rather than risk you running around outside. Hold on!”
The grabbers on the end of the arms clamped on to the bus with a thump that almost knocked them all off their feet. Somewhere on the bus’s exterior, metal crunched and twisted.
“Sorry, bit of bodywork damage there. Not to worry, it’ll buff out. Right, here we go.”
With a grinding, tearing shriek of painful and expensive destruction, the arms dragged the bus up the ramp and into the cavernous hanger. The giant doors swung shut behind them, swallowing them up and plunging them into darkness.
In the ringing silence that followed, as her eyes adjusted to the interior lights, Kendra could see that the children looked, if anything, even more terrified of their noisy, rough arrival within the robot’s interior than they had been of the jackal attack.
Suddenly, with a loud bang that was just one more heart-stopping moment in what was becoming a long series of such things, the last remnants of the bus’s door were wrenched aside. The woman’s head appeared through the hole, her pink hair vibrant in the low light.
“Hi there,” she said in a broad Irish accent. “I’m Aimee Westmorland. Welcome aboard!”
“Sorry it’s such a mess,” said Aimee, backing away so that the teacher could step down out of the bus and into the clutter-filled cavern; piles of miscellaneous junk, none of it recognisable to Kendra, covered the floor and lined the walls. “Not that I’d have tidied up or anything, mind you.” The teacher, a tall willowy woman, with light brown, wavy hair who looked as if a strong breeze would knock her over, peered around at the inside of the cargo bay like she’d never seen the inside of a mech before. “Tell your kids to watch themselves on the salvage, there’re some sharp edges on there.”
“Is this your, um, robot?” said the teacher.
Aimee winced. “It’s a mech. Well, yeah, technically it is a robot, but we prefer the term mech because it sounds cooler.” She span her chair round and headed up the ramp that led through to the living quarters and cockpit. “Follow me and I’ll give you the quick and dirty tour before we get underway.”
The teacher herded the children out of the bus, doing her best to steer them away from the piles of jagged metal. “Are there others here?” she asked.
“What? No, there’s just me riding along in this old girl,” replied Aimee. She reached the top of the ramp and span round to watch her new passengers following her up. “Why’d you ask?”
“You said ‘we’.”
“Ah, right. I meant ‘we’ as in the salvagers, or ‘sand-dancers’ if we’re trying to sound even more cool. Other mech pilots. Honestly, I think it’s just because saying you’re a mech pilot sounds better than saying ‘I ride around in a robot all day and pick up junk’.”
There was a muted muttering from some of the children. A high-pitched voice from within the huddle of bodies piped up. “My daddy always said salvagers were vicious parasites and cannibals.”
“Trudi! That’s a terrible thing to say, apologise immediately,” said Kendra.
“Nah, she’s right,” said Aimee, grinning broadly. “I’m just biding my time until dinner. Until then, there’s a galley through here where you can fix yourselves coffee (no tea, I’m afraid, can’t abide the stuff), or maybe something a little stronger. The fridge is stocked up with nutritious but phenomenally tasteless snack bars and plenty of beer. Help yourselves.”
She led them into the living space, which consisted of a table, a kitchen area, and a scruffy orange sofa, which was covered in a bewildering array of stains, that faced a large viewscreen set into the grey metal wall. The only attempts at decoration in evidence were a collection of posters on the wall that appeared to depict a variety of engines, and a distressingly threadbare rug of indeterminate colour. “Sorry about the lack of chairs but, well, not something I have much need of, you know.”
“I’m sure we’ll manage. Er, is there a place to get cleaned up. It’s just that there were a couple of ‘accidents’ during the jackal attack,” said the teacher, nervously eyeing the sofa in case the greasy covers spontaneously ignited.
“Sure, there’s a small toilet and shower through the door to the left of the viewscreen. It’s not the last word in luxury but it does. So,” said Aimee, raising her eyebrows, “should I just keep thinking of you as ‘the teacher’ or do you have a name I can use?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. My name’s Kendra Williams. I’m still a bit shaken after everything that happened; the jackals, poor Mr Lennet…”
“Our, er, former bus driver. The sand jackal thing got him.”
“Ah, right, sorry. I have to say, I was a bit surprised you stopped for a break around there - it’s slap-bang in the middle of the jackals’ hunting range.”
“Mr Lennet thought it was safe there. We had to stop for a bathroom emergency. Oh, the poor man, what am I going to tell the principal?”
“Can’t really help you with that,” said Aimee. She thumped her left thigh with the heel of her hand and a small panel slowly swung open. Reaching into the compartment that had been revealed she pulled out a pewter hip flask, unscrewed the cap and held up the flask. “To Mr Lennet, a brave man with a poor understanding of the local fauna. Sláinte!” She took a gulp of whatever was inside the flask, coughed and held it out to Kendra, then she followed the shocked teacher’s wide-eyed gaze. “Oh that. Sure, I’ve only got the one leg, mislaid the left one years ago. I just have this thing…” She thumped the top of her thigh; it clanged. “…to balance everything out, and for the extra storage. It’s amazing what you can fit inside.”
“Right,” said Kendra. “And no thanks, I’m not a big drinker.”
“Grand, more for me then!” Aimee took another slug from the flask. “Now, I’d best be getting us on our way.” She stowed the flask back into her leg and shut the panel. Spinning round, she went through a doorway to the side of the galley’s counters. “Cockpit’s in here. There’re a few more seats you can use, long as you don’t start pressing buttons. Just imagine that every button you see is an eject button that’ll send you flying out the hatch with my boot up your arse.”
Kendra peered around as Aimee headed for the pilot’s seat; the walls and even the ceiling were lined with switches and gauges. Lights blinked in a variety of colours, some faster than others. “Do you know what all these do?” she asked in amazement.
“Nope, do you?” said Aimee. “There was a manual but my da lost it.” She looked at Kendra’s worried expression. “I’m joking, bit o’ mech pilot humour there for you. However, I will confess that despite my best efforts some of the switches remain forever a mystery.”
“How do you…uh…nevermind.” Kendra blushed as she played the question through in her head and cut herself off.
Aimee looked over her shoulder and smirked at Kendra. “How do I reach the ones on the ceiling?”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry.”
“Sure, don’t worry about it, and in answer to your unasked question: I have a stick.” Aimee pushed her chair up alongside the pilot’s seat, locked the wheels in place and then hauled herself out of it using two handles that were hanging down from the ceiling and dropped down into the seat. Looking at the scanners as she settled herself in place, she could see something big approaching from the east, a large swirling maelstrom. Sure enough the sky was darkening over the eastern horizon. “Right then, let’s roll.” She grasped the joystick on the right hand side of the chair and the throttle on the left and, with a jerk that sent several of the children and Kendra stumbling, the mech lurched around and started walking across the sand with an uneven, rolling gait. “Funny story,” said Aimee. “When I was first getting this set up I didn’t have the handles properly installed and one of them came loose. That joystick went right up…” she looked round at the children who were all staring out of the cockpit’s panoramic windows with varying levels of interest or boredom. “Well, let’s just say it wasn’t entirely unpleasant but I’ve avoided doing it again. Mostly.”
“Thank you for coming to our rescue,” said Kendra, making sure she had a good view of all of the children. “It’s reassuring to be in something as substantial as this.”
“Sure, it’d take more than a pack of sand jackals to get through this old girl’s hide. There are a few things out in the deep sands I’d steer clear of, even in this, but there’s nothing round here to worry about. Except for the sandstorms - the real bad ones out in the deep, deep desert can still mess you up.” She glanced at the scanner again. “Speaking of sandstorms, I’m afraid it’s going to take us a couple of days to get back to the mesa.”
“What, why?” said Kendra. Her eyes were wide, horror-struck.
“There’s a sandstorm rolling in, one of the bigger pre-season buggers that come through to soften you up before things get really serious. As much as I love this bucket of bolts, speed is not her forte - we’d be caught out in the open when the storm arrived. I mean, we’d be alright, but we’d need to turtle up, seal up all the external ports and joints to stop the sand getting in - things would get a mite warm and close in here with this many people. There’s a large cavern in a mech graveyard not far away where there’s usually a salvager camp on the go. Even if there’s not, we’ll be out of the wind and the sand.”
Kendra was rubbing at her temples. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, their parents are going to think I’ve lost all their children.” She looked up suddenly. “Do you have a connection to the NET?”
Aimee punched a couple of buttons on the console in front of her. “I do, so, but the connection’s terrible - there’s a magnetic storm that runs ahead of the sand and it fu…” She glanced at the children again. “Messes up communications. You can try and get through but I don’t fancy your chances. Use the co-pilot’s console.”
Kendra battled with it for a few minutes, trying vainly to get a message out, before she gave up. She slumped back in the chair. “I am fired. They are going to fire me, and possibly throw me off the mesa.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it, it’s not like you lost any of them!” Aimee opened her leg again and held out the flask. “Here, it’ll take your mind off things.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Kendra took the flask, unstoppered it and tentatively sniffed the contents. “Oh my…what on Earth is this?”
Aimee laughed. “Nothing on Earth! That’s genuine Danelon IV whisky. Take a shot.”
Kendra took a tiny, cautious sip. There was a moment’s pause, and then, “Dear Go…ach!” She handed the flask back with a shaking hand.
Aimee knocked back a much more generous portion. It ran down her throat like liquid fire; just the thing to wash the sand away. “A fine beverage that, very smooth.”