Queen of the Desert
by Andrew Hughes
Nothing deserves captivity.
Andrew Hughes has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. They have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Penumbric and on the No Sleep Podcast. His fantasy novella, Children of the Arc, was published in 2023 by TWB Press. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a middle school English teacher, and mediating heated debates between his roommates, a Maine Coon cat and the world’s most rambunctious husky.
Novella by Andrew Hughes: https://amzn.to/3qIVFrx
More TTTV stories by Andrew Hughes: https://talltaletv.com/tag/andrew-hughes/
The car was miles behind him now, so far back that when he looked over his shoulder, he could no longer see the tendril of smoke reaching up and dispersing into the pulsing blue sky. The smoke had disappeared a half hour ago and Sanderson had stopped looking back. Now, his attention was focused ahead as he limped across the sand, the sun thumping down on him, slowly cooking him. If some great being was to reach down with a giant fork and knife and saw into his flesh, he would be close to medium rare by now, the blood boiling and sizzling, the flesh a pinkish hue, several shades lighter than his skin, which pulsed hot, fire engine red. If he didn’t have skin cancer when this was all over, he would renounce science and go back to religion.
Sanderson opened his mouth to laugh at this lunacy, but his lips were charred. As they parted, the skin cracked, and he winced, drawing them back together into a grimace.
The desert stretched out before him like eternity. An endless landscape of sand, steaming and bubbling, a mirage like magma flowing across level earth. There were mountains in the distance, tall, looming things that seemed to remain stagnant despite hours of trudging toward them. Cacti dotted the landscape, and occasionally, he would dip into a gully, the remnants of some long ago dried out riverbed. Still, the canyon remained exactly that, a flat open space. To the birds above, it may as well be a dusty pane of glass stretching onward into oblivion.
Yet still, he clutched the box.
A low hill of boulders and shrub appeared to his left, and Sanderson stumbled toward it, his boots dragging through the sand, granules pilling up on the toes with each step, only to be flicked off in the next trod. He’d shed his blazer back at the car, on the opposite side of the road. He’d left it sprawled out for OZIC to see, before doubling back, erasing his tracks, and crossing to the east. Now, he wore only a thin white shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, black trousers tailored to be loose and flowing that now stuck to his legs with sweat, and his black heeled dress boots that dragged through the sand because they were too heavy to lift. But, he still had the box. And that was something they’d never take away from him.
Sanderson reached the hill and rounded the base. Above, the sun had begun its descent. He selected a spot on the easternmost side, with his back against a boulder where he would enjoy at least a teasing of shade.
He set the box down first before settling with his back to the rock. It was cool against his sweat soaked skin, and as he lay back, he felt the stone soothe the blisters on his neck.
One of the water bottles was empty, so he tossed it to the side. The other contained just enough to tease his scorched throat. He unscrewed the cap and wet his lips, taking two short sips of the warm water before forcing himself to put the cap back on.
“Conserve,” he urged himself.
He set the bottle in the shade and turned out the contents of his pockets. The watch he’d taken off an hour before, a silver link band lined with gold that encircled the intricately ticking face. One of thirty-six designed by the legendary watchmaker, Hans Kimmimoto; OZIC’s gift for twenty years of service. He balled it in his fist and hurled it at a nearby cactus. The throw fell short, and the watch landed half buried in the sand.
He had a pen and a napkin which he’d scrawled equations on. Sanderson set this to the side, next to the water bottle.
Finally, there was a pack cigarettes, Mississippi Larks, and a book of matches with the Garden Home restaurant logo on the front. He flipped open the cigarette pack, three left, and then the matches. He counted six sticks with their dull read heads. He closed the booklet and set it aside. Sanderson turned his attention to the sky.
They’d noticed he was missing by now. There was no doubt about it. Dr. St. Patrick would have been the first to pick up on his absence. They would have checked the incubation room next and realized the scope of the problem. Maybe if he hadn’t raised such a fuss at the meeting it could have been written off as coincidence, but no, he had to speak up.
“You and your fucking mouth,” Sanderson said.
The alarm would have gone off and the lockdown ensued. But, as soon as they saw his car missing from the lot, they would have put two and two together. They would know he’d taken it. The manhunt team would be out in force. They might even have discovered his car and his blazer lying two hundred yards into the desert. But, that wouldn’t fool them for long.
Sanderson looked at the box.
It was a simple thing, a few feet of red metal with sharp edges. If it wasn’t for the biometric fingerprint scanner on the lid, it could be mistaken for a child’s toolkit, the kind a father might buy his son and feel proud to see him lugging around the yard, pulling out a hammer or a screwdriver from time to time to bang against the earth.
Sanderson sighed. All of this for something that could fit in a box this small.
He didn’t know if they would risk going into the desert at night. It had been six years since the outbreak, the last major stain on OZIC’s research department’s record, but they were still afraid of what lurked beyond the installation’s gates. And with good reason, he supposed. Because, even after all those years he remembered her. Every time he stepped out of the shower, he remembered her. The evidence was right there on his chest; the thick, jagged scar that marked him from clavicle to navel. Sanderson reached into his shirt and felt it, ran his thumb down the center of its length, and as he stroked it, he remembered that day in the lab.
He’d gone there to feed her as he always had. But, that day, instead of pushing the food crate to her, he’d walked closer. He’d looked into her eyes, those giant opals. He’d reached for them, the chains and the talons and the beak be dammed, he wanted her to know that he admired her beauty. And she had struck him and struck him hard, slashing him with her talons and launching him into the one way mirror hard enough to crack the bullet-resistant glass. St. Patrick had dragged him out, and in his fading vision, he’d watched her and her glossy, opal eyes. Even when they sent the electrical charges through her chains, she’d watched him.
In those eyes he learned a simple truth. Nothing deserved captivity.
Three weeks later, she’d escaped all on her own. A team of OZIC agents tracked her to the distant Kalabash mountains, but that’s where the transmission’s had stopped. None of the agents returned.
Sanderson considered his water once more, but suppressed the urge to remove the cap and suck down the remaining ring of water at the bottom of the bottle.
The standard for desert travel was to move in the nights and lie low in the shade during the days. He should have planned for this more properly, acted weeks before, but the email caught him by surprise. The contents of the box were being sold to a private, Chinese investor tomorrow morning. What was he supposed to do other than act on instinct? And now, they would be coming, braving the desert, her terrain, to recover the box. It was OZIC’s last hope of survival. The clients were not to be disappointed.
Sanderson looked to the distant mountains. If only the gates hadn’t lowered, crushing his engine. He could have driven another twenty miles around the canyon, to the base of the mountains.
He would never make it there, not like this. Sanderson leaned over and peered around the boulder. The plume of smoke had disappeared, but there was something else now, a cloud of dust building in the distance. An OZIC vehicle approaching. He shoved the water bottle into his pocket, picked up the box, and ran.
The sand was loose and his footing was poor, and as he dashed in vain toward the Kalabash mountains, his legs buckled. But, he kept running, looking over his shoulder at that tower of dust spinning across the desert after him. Sanderson felt the urge to cry, but no tears came.
A thin black spot came into view a half mile ahead, streaking across the plain. He ran toward it, the column of dust growing closer. As he reached the dried out stream, he looked once more over his shoulder, and the image became clear, twin Humvees in a staggered column. Sanderson slid down the embankment, one arm clutching the box to his chest, the other dragging in the dirt to slow his descent, his hand burning from the sand, his skin perforated by rock and thorn. He landed in the bottom, a six foot wide trench full of broken boulders and scrub grass. Twenty feet down the bed, a rust colored lizard darted beneath a rock. Sanderson looked each direction and settled on a patch of brush nestled into the wall of the ravine. Above, he heard the distant rattle of engines. Sanderson moved to the bushes, set the box down, and pressed his finger to the biometric lock.
A few minutes passed and the engines grew nearer, then stopped.
Sanderson crept along the riverbed to the next pile of boulders, and listened. Car doors opened and boots landed on the sand.
“Doctor Sanderson,” a voice boomed.
He ducked lower into the shadow of the boulders.
Two hundred feet away, a pair of body armored soldiers slid down the embankment. They held MPK5’s on short slings. Facing in opposite directions, they brought the butt of the weapons to the crook of their shoulders.
“Doctor Sanderson,” said the booming voice from above. “We know you’re down there. You have thirty seconds to make yourself seen before we glass this trench.”
Sanderson took a steeling breath, reached into his pocket, and withdrew the cigarettes and the matchbook. He tapped one from the pack, and struck a match.
“Elliot,” said another, pleading voice.
Sanderson stopped, the lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. It was St. Patrick.
“Elliot please,” St. Patrick urged. “Come in peacefully. All can be forgiven. OZIC is ready to listen. They will listen to you, they will allow the research team to regain control of this operation. But you have to comply.”
Sanderson took a drag of the cigarette and down the trench, the goon pointed the weapon in his direction.
“It’s not right, Tom,” said Sanderson. He took the cigarette from his mouth, and extinguished it on his thumb.
The soldier’s came for him then, and he stepped out from behind the boulders with his hands raised.
“Where’s the box doctor?” said the closest soldier, the weapon pointed at his chest.
In the distance, two more soldier’s slid down the embankment, followed by St. Patrick, still in his laboratory gear, white lab coat and thick-rimmed spectacles.
“It’s not right,” said Sanderson.
“Elliot,” St. Patrick pleaded.
One soldier carrying a Beretta 1911 broke from the formation. He struck Sanderson once on the temple. Behind him, St. Patrick gasped.
Sanderson collapsed to his knees, his ears ringing.
“Now you listen to me,” the man said. “I have one hour to get you, and the package, back into OZIC custody.” He placed the 1911 to the crown of Sanderson’s head. “Start talking.”
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Sanderson said.
“You’re right,” said the man. “But, I am authorized to shot him.”
The man whistled and one of the soldier’s turned and shot St. Patrick in the shin. The doctor fell to the ground, screaming.
Sanderson shouted in defiance and the soldier struck him again with the butt of the Beretta.
“Now wise the fuck up,” he said. “There will be no more warnings.”
Sanderson looked at St. Patrick convulsing in the dust.
“The rocks,” he whimpered, and pointed behind him. “It’s right over there in the rocks.”
Two soldiers pushed past him and looked into the pile of boulders.
“It’s here,” one called out.
“Good,” said the man with the pistol. “Bring it over.”
They brought it and set it on the ground in front of Sanderson.
Sanderson laughed, low at first, building to a hearty chuckle as the man glared down at him. He pressed the pistol against his forehead.
Sanderson shook his head.
“Open it!” the man yelled, pointing the barrel at St. Patrick.
“I can’t,” Sanderson said.
“Fine.” The man holstered the pistol and drew a fixed blade knife. “Then I’ll take your thumb and open it myself.”
“No, you won’t,” Sanderson laughed and held up his thumb with the cigarette burn, black and charcoaled, across the fingerprint.
The man yelled and kicked Sanderson in the chest, launching his head back against the rocks.
“Stupid fucking doctors,” he said. He knelt down and began to pry at the lock with his knife.
“It’ll never work,” spat Sanderson. “The box is indestructible. My fingerprint will never form the same way again. That part of our history is lost now.”
The man stood and sheathed his knife.
He drew the pistol and shot St. Patrick between the eyes before turning back on Sanderson.
A shadow fell upon them, swooping over. A massive, black shade that blotted out the sun as it passed. The man stopped and looked to the sky. Behind him, the soldiers pointed their guns in the air.
Then, the shadow fell again and the man opened fire at the mass in the sky, the beast with a wingspan the size of a jet, but still the shadow came, and she crashed down into the ravine, fifty feet of feather and talons. She snatched the man with the pistol first, throwing him into the riverbed behind her. A soldier screamed and the others fired, bullets finding new homes in the bird’s flesh, but still she came, impaling one with her beak and throwing him aside, pinning another against the wall of the trench, burying him into the sand, squeezing the life from his body as his armor cracked and sand filled the holes. She released him, and went after the next two, smashing one into the boulders with her beak. The other turned and ran, and she bounded after him, taking flight. Sanderson watched as she snatched him in her talons and took to the sky, looping up, up, up, before releasing him. The soldier fell like an asteroid, smashing into the sand.
Sanderson crept forward on his hands and knees, watching the sky. He crawled past St. Patrick’s body toward the bushes when the shadow fell upon him again. Wheeling a turn, she landed before him, her lance of a beak feet away, dragging back and forth on the stone riverbed as she studied him with her opal eyes.
Sanderson pushed himself to a knee and held his hands in front of him.
“Hello lady,” he whispered, creeping forward toward the bundle of bushes.
She followed him with her opal eyes.
He reached his hand into the brush and retrieved the egg. Kneeling, he presented it to her.
“It’s the last one,” he muttered. “The only one I could save.”
He set the egg down on the stone and took a step back.
She looked from the egg, to him.
“Do you remember me?” he asked, moving his hands to his shirt. He undid the buttons. “Do you remember me, girl? You marked me. You made me remember you.”
He peeled back his shirt, and let it hang open, revealing the long, jagged scar.
Her opal eyes studied him, unblinking, and then she leaned forward, edging closer with the point of her beak. Sanderson shut his eyes and felt the tip run its way down the length of the scar.
He opened his eyes as she pulled her head back, blinked once, and then closed her beak around the egg. With two great steps she took to the sky, the downbeat of her wings knocking him into the wall of the ravine. He collapsed into the sand and watched as she circled up toward the sun, before fixing a path for the mountains.