On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The Sand King
They always worked in pairs. One man and one woman. And no matter what their real names were, when they worked, they were always called Adam and Eve.
Informally, each of the dozens of Adams and Eves distributed around the world referred to their employer as the Department of Wildlife Control, and their superiors had never tried to dissuade them from the grim humour. If a civilian ever saw them, and the gear they carried, the bystander may well wonder what sort of wildlife they could possibly be responsible for.
This particular Adam and Eve had landed in the very late evening, and it had taken several hours to reach the site they were now approaching. Most of the overland trip had been in a rugged vehicle, but they had been on foot for the last several kilometres. Sounds carried very far indeed out here, especially in the dead of night when everything was as still as the dunes ever were.
The thing they were hunting had been sighted by a lone badawī who had been making haste to rejoin his tribe the previous day, and he had almost certainly been rooted to the spot in fear after his camel had thrown him off in a frenzy of terror. Adam had noted the remains of the animal a short while ago. Satellites had picked up the man’s last attempt at communication hours before.
While such tribes remained a simple and traditional people, modern technology had made its mark on them, as it had everywhere. The man tried to use his hatif to obtain help. The word literally meant a restless ancestral spirit of the air, but it had a more mundane translation in English.
“Last cellphone ping was two hundred metres ahead,” Eve said, and Adam nodded.
They both had their weapons ready; sleek rifles with reflex sight magnifiers, and side-mounted GPS readouts with satellite-relayed video cameras. The rounds in the magazines would each leave exit holes the size of a basketball in plate metal armour. What they’d be firing at tonight, though, was somewhat tougher.
Adam consciously shifted his weight, walking as softly as possible, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before their footfalls were detected. It didn’t matter; they were here to be detected, after all.
Eve was several metres in front, since she was lighter and thus quieter. It wasn’t easy going, and both would have been sweating heavily if not for the chill in the air. Twelve hours from now it could be almost forty degrees Celsius, but in the small hours of the night it would be easy to succumb to hypothermia instead of heatstroke.
Their weapons had a mission-specific enhancement, which they were field-testing tonight. Laser microphones pointed forwards and downwards at a thirty degree angle, their signals routed to an embedded microcomputer and synced with their earpieces as an early-warning system for subterranean approaches. The first perimeter alert chime sounded simultaneously for Adam and Eve.
“I hate this thing,” Eve muttered, and Adam grinned. She spoke as if she was personally familiar with it, but no-one in their organisation had ever sighted the creature before. It was the stuff of legends, figuratively and otherwise, but thankfully unknown beyond this arid and virtually empty region.
The nomadic peoples who were the place’s sole and intermittent inhabitants had a name for it in their own language, and it had taken months to find a scholar who could interpret it. Adam couldn’t pronounce the original words, but he would remember the translation for the rest of his days.
The Sand King.
They both felt the tremors now, even as they heard a more insistent and higher-pitched chime from the warning system. For a brief moment, Adam felt ill, but he pushed the feeling away just as he had hundreds of times before. Fear was a good way to get yourself killed. In the optimal scenario, there would be time for a post-traumatic response later. It would be a luxury.
“Everything is more dangerous in the desert,” he said under his breath, quoting from a source he couldn’t quite remember, and Eve just had time to give him a questioning glance before the undulating surface of the dunes erupted at a point only fifty metres in front of them.
It was everything they’d been trained to expect, but no training could adequately prepare someone for the sight of it. Even as he brought his rifle to bear on the massive target, Adam’s mind remarked that the researchers back at headquarters had been right; it really was simultaneously reminiscent of a scorpion and a spider and a manta ray — only much, much larger than any of them. It moved with a profoundly unsettling speed and grace, and the specialised appendages it used for rapid tunnelling were immediately apparent.
“Must be over forty tons,” Eve said tightly, her voice perfectly audible in his earpiece. He could also hear her elevated respiration, and the plumes of her breath in the chilled night air danced in his peripheral vision.
The creature saw them without conventional eyes, sensing in ways both known and unknown after a lifetime mostly spent in the pitch darkness beneath the desert. It lowered itself, and some primal part of both Adam’s and Eve’s brains told them that it was the precursor to a charge. The movement revealed one of the reasons for its name, showing the circular arrangement of venomous horns forming a crown atop the carapace.
The thing surged towards them, filled with ancestral hatred and eerie intelligence, moving as if it was weightless. Its tail reared up, and the barb was as long as a man was tall.
I love my work, and I am doing the work of the Lord, thought Adam and Eve simultaneously, repeating the affirmation that was common to all of their brothers and sisters.
Then they fired.
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