Marooned under a cruel sun, there was only one thing they wished for.
|"One cloud," Ensign Nadolny groaned. "Can't I wish for one cloud?"
"What good would one cloud do against that?" Lieutenant Keene flinched under the incandescent fire that blasted them from the indigo sky. "Wish for a sky solid with them!"
It was a star with no name that glared down at them, but it covered a quarter of the sky, its writhing corona merging seamlessly with a disk that blazed white with a tinge of blue. For a ship with faulty engines, falling into its gravity well had been like hitting a reef. It was only with luck and no little daring that the three-man crew of the good rocketship Collingwood had steered their crippled vessel onto its one rocky planet.
"Less talk, more work," Captain Shuster growled. He grimaced as he attacked the bolts to the engine casing. It had been assembled under factory conditions, but he had no more than an improvised manual wrench to work with.
The air was lethal, so the men were helmeted. But even behind their polarized visors there was no relief from the sunlight that flooded the valley into which they had glided. The rock was white and shot through with quartz, so that the hard rays bounced and refracted off every surface, until the air itself boiled with light. After the first day's work left them reeling and poisoned, they spent ten of every twelve hours huddled in the welcoming darkness of the ship.
Nor could they look to night for relief. For five Earth-periods they labored, and in that time, Keene calculated, the star advanced less than ten arc-seconds across the sky.
Toward a zenith it would not achieve for many Earth-months.
"I know there are clouds somewhere," Nadolny grumbled. "We saw a whole hemisphere of them as we were coming in!"
"Maybe we landed in a rain shadow," Keene muttered.
"Talking about it makes it worse," the captain snapped.
"Just one cloud," Nadolny murmured under his breath. "One very big cloud."
On the eighth day of tedious work—like repairing a ground-shuttle, said Nadolny, with nothing more than tweezers, a corkscrew, and some wire for tools—the captain sent Keene and the AT buggy out of the valley with some surveying equipment. If they could find some outcrops of iron—or any other workable metals—they might be able to forge themselves a better toolkit with the heat from the ship's reactor.
"It's a broiling pan out there," the lieutenant panted when he returned.
"It never got above fifteen," the captain retorted.
"I'm not talking about the heat," Keene said. "I'm talking about the light!" His brow was twisted into a knot over his squint. "It's nothing but white quartz sand and white quartz rock for six kilometers in every direction! It's like the light's hammered the land flat, and it hammered me flat on it!"
He pushed past the captain, but fell to one knee before he could reach the ship's hatch.
"A wind came up, for a little while," he groaned after slipping over onto his back. "Spun the sand into a small cyclone." He smiled. "I thought, how nice it would be to get inside of it, to get in the eye of it. At least there would be a little bit of shade!"
"The sand could have disabled the AT," the captain warned him.
"It didn't," he said. "I drove straight into it. Right into the center of the sandstorm." His smile faded. "For all the good it did," he went on. "All those crystals, all those damned, flashing crystals, catching and spinning the light back at me!" He pressed his open palms over his visor. "It was like being sheathed inside a lightning bolt!"
Another week passed. The Collingwood was a long-range scout, so the men had no fear of their rations running out, not so long as they stood some hope of getting back into space. And the heat, even in their thermal suits, was tolerable.
But the light! Each day, when they opened the outer hatch, it tore through the doorway, broiling the air, obliterating the shadows. It had no weight, but it crushed like iron.
"I can't see!" the ensign screamed as he writhed in the airlock. It was the twenty-seventh day since the crash. "It's tearing my eyes out! I'll tear my eyes out!" He clawed at his visor.
"Three days, Nadolny!" The captain shook the man. "Just eighteen man-hours! Twenty, tops! We're halfway done reinstalling the fuel rods, then we close the cover, and—!"
With one day left, they ran out of time.
It was Keene who saw the cloud bank, black as tar, advancing over the horizon. He hooted and cheered and danced as he hurled himself into the valley to report. "Shade! Clouds!" he exulted as he pointed behind him. "From here to—!"
Nadolny put down his tools, and he and Keene both defied the captain's order to pick them up again. Not until the clouds came, they said. The captain worked alone, a little longer. Then he too gave up.
The clouds were four days in coming. Their edges were only purple when they arrived, but they towered in cyclopean cliffs.
"We could have lifted off by now," the captain reminded the others.
"We'll do six hours work in two, once the sun is gone!" Keene promised.
But the sun was only half obscured when the first breeze kicked up. When it topped thirty knots, the captain sent Nadolny out of the valley to get a measurement. The ensign returned in a panic: Doppler indicated winds of two-hundred knots rolling toward them.
"And this valley will act as a wind tunnel," the captain said. His expression turned sickly.
With nothing else to do, they locked themselves inside the ship to pray.
Soon after the wind arrived, the rain of acid began to lash them in sheets.
Winner of The Writer's Cramp: 3-2-21
Prompt: Title it "One Cloud-Filled Sky" and use "Emotional" as a genre.