“The original ship in a bottle.”
The Shifting Sand
Jack Conner fell to his hands and knees: his helmet long since discarded, his oxygen and water supply depleted. He struggled to stand, and then fell again into the deep sand. The planet would not let him go, but his survival instinct and plain raw fury drove him forward like an over-run horse.
"I’ve gotta keep moving," he said, and then that old cowboy song restarted its continuous loop again inside his brain. When the day is oddly quiet, and the breeze seems not to blow, one would think the sand is resting, but you find this is not so . . . .
The song was one of Jack's favorites, 'The Whispering Shifting Sand', and it pushed him onward. He almost laughed at the thought, causing a spasm of coughing that wracked painfully in his chest. "Sure, Jack," he said, "that's a good one." It is whispering, softly whispering, as it slowly moves along, and for those who stop to listen, it will sing this mournful song . . ."
But he was already washed-out and Jack knew it. His legs felt like they'd been dipped in cement, and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t spit.
The sand-flow swirled beneath him, continuously moving, beautiful blues and greens shifting like some exotic piece of living art. Jack watched it spiral down, mixing the two colors together into a breathtaking whirlpool of turquoise.
It’s started, Jack! Get up! Get up or die right here, buddy. Move!
The alien world had taught him the consequences of staying in one spot for too long.
The whirlpools could pull you under and bake you in molten sand; within minutes he would be encased in glass forever.
Jack Conner, a twenty-seven-year-old Spacer, had been on a routine marker check close to Saturn’s rings. The buoys setup there were warning devices for exploratory mining ships. In the tedium of space travel, even the best of pilots needed a little wake-up call every now and then, and the buoys kept them on their toes. Spacers were known to fly by the seat of their pants, in old, unreliable ships that had gone more than fifty years without any upgrades. They relied on the proficiency of their on-board computers, and the time it took to manually react to any emergency within a split-second. Time was everything in space—too much, or not enough.
Still, Jack thought that checking markers was a better call-of-duty than just sitting around in the cramped confines of his cabin in the National Space Station. Most of his downtime was spent researching Old Earth history and music. The early cowboys were his favorite subject. Jack could really relate to how they lived by the seat of their pants in the wide-open spaces and under a sky full of stars.
He'd sit in front of his computer for hours-on-end searching the old archives for western stories--just killing time . . . always killing time. Jack felt that life in space was very similar to what those old cowpokes went through, and that checking buoys was like inspecting miles and miles of fence-line out there in the vast emptiness of space.
A Spacer's life was filled with routine—doing the same thing over and over again in the exact same way was how you stayed alive. But nothing exciting ever happened, and the dregs of boredom were the endless enemy.
Even before he flew in toward the rings, drinking in the magnificent grandeur of Saturn, he should have known trouble was coming. During his sleep period, he had dreamt of being pursued by ships encased in gigantic glass bottles across an ocean of sand. Now flying in close to the planet, he was gripped by a sense of wrongness.
Checking his control panel, the problem became evident amid the clusters of toggle switches and flashing lights.Thruster malfunction. It was not a large problem—not at first—but its intensity multiplied moment by moment, and as he studied it in dismay, it seemed as though the cabin had turned into a furnace, incandescent, malefic, and brutally hot. As he finally awoke to the seriousness of the situation—the engine failed. The other thrusters screamed to compensate, and tumbling madly, he shot out past the buoys and into the thick of the asteroid belt.
The rocks hammered against his ship, tearing it to pieces. Jack used every trick in the book to maneuver clear of the field, but the damage was already done. Out of control, he plummeted toward a small moon on the far side of Saturn, caught in its gravity-well.
He quickly released his emergency beacon, but with all the static and interference of the belts, he couldn’t be sure if it would be heard or not. His ship was nothing more than a small flame silhouetted against the blackness of space. Jack rode the one-man craft down like an old cowhand busting a bronco. He heard himself screaming inside his helmet: “Eee-haw!”
He marveled at the sand when he first saw it, watching its circumfluent motion through the small window in the ship’s front hatch, and thanking his lucky stars he survived the crash. The sand had ironically saved his life as his ship skidded across the surface of the planet like a flat stone bouncing across water. But now he noticed massive amounts of the blue-green sand sweeping by his downed craft in a continuous flow, constantly shifting, changing, making swirling patterns all around the base of his ship.
In the distance, he could see tall sculptures dotting the sandscape like grotesque, misshapen trees—transparent hands of green reaching up toward the blackness of space. Jack thought it was beautiful: a planet that forever changed its face, like a giant river—never the same—always moving.
Then his ship started to sink.
He had been frantically pulling down data from his computer on atmospheric conditions and eremic planets, when he felt the first lunge of his scout ship. It twisted in a circle, moving clockwise and caught in a whirlpool of sand.
He didn’t have time to do anything but react to the situation. As the ship spun around inside the very core of the eddy, Jack blew the hatch and jumped clear. He waded through ankle-deep sand, staggering away from the whirlpool until he was completely clear of its pull.
He anxiously turned and watched it go down like a sinking vessel upon the high seas. “Going . . . going . . . gone,” he said aloud. A plume of sand and dust shot fifty feet into the air as the tail end of the craft twisted and waved goodbye, and then completely disappeared beneath the surface.
Jack watched the sand began to bubble and percolate where his ship had gone down, and even through his flight-suit, he could feel waves of intense heat emanating from it. He thought the planet was trying to cook his vessel in some gigantic, underground furnace.
Then the ground shook, knocking him to his knees, and a large mass of bluish-green sand pushed upward from the sand like a mountain newly forming. A bizarre sculpture emerged. It was huge, multi-branched, and misshapened; turquoise in color, but translucent like a glass modeling, and as alien as anything Jack Conner had ever seen. Within the interior of this monstrous formation was his ship—totally encased in solid glass.
“What the hell is this?” he yelled, climbing back to his feet. “Hey! Gimme back my ship!” He stood there defiantly, looking up at the colossal glass tree with his ship trapped inside as steaming hot blue vapors rolled and swirled from it in thick, oily clouds.
He felt a slight tug at his boots. It reminded him of the way the surf felt when he was a kid; the sand slowly eroding beneath your feet as the ocean waves receded from the shoreline. He looked down and in horror realized that he was standing in the center of a whirlpool.
Quickly, Jack threw his body toward the nearest edge, laying out flat and clawing at the sand. He scrambled for his life, desperately pulling his boots free, then literally rolled away from the undertow.
He exploded to his feet, heart racing, dancing across the sand—not sure of where it was safe to step, or for how long he could stand there. He no longer looked at the horizon that appeared to ripple like overlapping waves of flame; his eyes stayed glued upon the shifting sand beneath his feet.
As the moments dragged on, Jack quickly learned the sand was solid enough to hold any size mass, but any stationary object that was caught in its currents, or interrupted its flow for any length of time, would cause the granules to shift, swirling around the intruder in small whirlpools that quickly grew in size and strength. Once the whirlpool was big enough, it would inevitably suck anything down like quicksand—the proverbial “sand trap.”
He saw little swirls already forming around the heels of his boots so he moved to another spot. Again, the sand tried to take him—and he moved again. He found himself near the glass structure that held his ship and he reached out and touched it as he circled the tree. Through his suit gloves, the deformity felt solid—hard as a rock.
“A tree made of solid glass.” Jack said in awe. “Now, that’s something you don’t see everyday.” He looked at his vessel, its nose pointing upward. “The original ship in a bottle.”
Jack moved again, walking to the opposite side. He removed a six-inch metal clasping-hook from his suit’s waistband. The hook was used to tether pilots to their ships during emergency spacewalks. Jack did not think he would need it anytime soon.
He smacked it against the glass form—noticed minute chip-marks on its smooth surface. Repeatedly he rapped at the glass with the hook, but it was too thick. “This stuff is as hard as petrified tree sap.” He looked up into space, hoping to see the bright thrusters of a rescue ship approaching, and then he moved to another spot with an exasperated sigh. Gotta remember to keep moving.
Not standing still was becoming a ritual he quickly adapted to—every sixty seconds he would have to move to new ground. In frustration, Jack threw the hook. He watched it bounce off the alien sculpture, and then fall to the sand. He sucked a mouthful of water from his suit’s water supply—it tasted hot and stale.
He moved again.
Jack noticed a whirlpool forming under the discarded hook. He watched it curiously; counting the amount of time it took the hook to disappear. The sand swirled around it forming a bowl, and then the hook vanished. The hot gas bubbles pushed through and a small glass cluster began to rise from the ground—Jack’s hook implanted in the very center.
He marveled at how the sand never attacked the glass sculptures. The flow went smoothly around them. Since it formed no base of resistance to the streaming current, not even the slightest eddy appeared.
In the face of everything that had happened, here was hope. Jack got the idea, that in a pinch, he could shimmy up a glass tree and rest without fear of being sucked under. He was adapting.
He looked closer at the sand-flower that held his tether-hook. Jack figured the sculptures grew in height according to the weight of the object it was encasing. This piece was small and delicate looking. Angrily, he kicked it as hard as he could. It snapped off midway up the stock, but the jagged edge caught and ripped the pant-leg of his flight-suit, and his oxygen began to seep out.
"Shit. Shit. Shit!" He grabbed at the three-inch rent, balling the fabric up in his fist, trying to stop the leak. Even during all of this he had to remember to move, so he took a couple of steps to his right, panic gripping him. “You’ve gone and done it now, Jack-O. You’re goose is cooked . . .” He carried nothing to patch the tear. Solemnly he watched his O2 meter dip down into the red.
“Come on, Jack, think! What can you do to save yourself?”
But he already knew there was nothing he could do.
He plopped down in the sand shaking his head over his stupidity and exhaling a deep sigh. Solemnly, he waited for the inevitable.
Watching the oxygen meter drop to zero, Jack took a long, last, deep breath.
His eyes caught the change in movement of the sand beneath him. He stoically wondered which would kill him first—asphyxiation, or the sand.
He released his breath and quickly took another, but there was nothing there. He panicked like a swimmer going under. Gasping for air, Jack instinctively flipped the release latch to his helmet, yanked it off, and threw it away.
“This is it . . .” he thought.
The temperature change momentarily locked the breath in his lungs. Then he sniffed the atmosphere—sniffed again. The air was dry and hot, and burnt the back of his throat. Jack tried to identify the smell . . . alkaline, or maybe iron oxide. It smelled like . . . "Oh, my God . . . it’s oxygen!” He took several deep breaths. “I don’t know what’s in this stuff, but I’m breathing it. Hells-bells! Eee-haw! I’m still alive!"
Abruptly, he dropped down about a foot into the sand as a whirlpool tried to take him under. Jack immediately straightened his body and rolled out of the hole. “Not yet, you bastard!” He shook his fist at the sand. “Jack Conner is still alive! Still alive and kicking!”
He took another long drink of water to celebrate—felt some bubbles come up the tube. His heart sank. He carefully checked the water cache on the inside of his suit. It felt flat and empty. “You can’t cross a desert without water Jack. You're screwed.” As quickly as his jubilation had arrived, it now deserted him. Again he looked up at the sky for a rescue ship, but there was nothing.
Nevertheless, he followed the current north for several hours; felt it push him along like the sand in some enormous hourglass. He fell to his hands and knees—his helmet long since discarded—his oxygen gone—his water supply depleted. He struggled to stand, and then fell again.
When the day is oddly quiet.
and the breeze seems not to blow,
one would think the sand is resting,
but you find it is not so . . .
It is whispering, softly whispering,
as it slowly moves along,
and for those who stop and listen,
It will sing this mournful song.
But Jack was washed out and he knew it. His legs felt like they'd been dipped in cement, and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t spit.
The sand-flow swirled beneath him, continuously moving, beautiful blues and greens shifting like some exotic piece of living art. With the song replaying in his head, he watched it spiral down, mixing the two colors together into a breathtaking whirlpool of turquoise.
"Round and round it goes . . . where it stops nobody knows . . . ."
And then he disappeared from sight.
Moments later, the bright plumes of a rescue ship flew overhead, registered no life forms, and continued on its way.
As the ship fired its main thrusters, the whispering, shifting sand erupted, and a new blue-green tree pushed up from its depths. Inside the tree, preserved in a beaker of thick glass, was Jack Conner, forever reaching toward the heavens.
You can hear, "The Whispering Shifting Sand' by Jim Reeves, if you follow the link below...*