Sand and Fog
by Stan Moor
The planet was a dead pile of sand with ruins millennia old that tourists came to deface as a stop along an interstellar cruise route. There were other layovers at alien beaches, colonial cities, and a space station observing three local nebulae. The ship dispatched automated tour pods to ferry passengers to and from the ruins.
Sarah peered out the reinforced glass shell of the pod, attempting to pierce the dense fog with her gaze. A few other tourists read magazines or slept in the quiet plush interior of the vehicle as it rolled steadily toward the next site.
The first ruins had given Sarah chills, watching them through the protective visor of her safety suit as they faded in and out in the rolling fog that enveloped them. They were magnificent crystalline columns and archways, built by a people long dead. The ruins had supposedly been discovered by the crew of a crashed cargo freighter. The ship was attempting to slingshot off the planet’s gravity when a miscalculation sent them skimming into the atmosphere. Marooned, the crew found themselves in the midst of a sea of sand, but, gleaming in the distance, they noticed the twinkling ancient wreckage of once-great cities.
Now, back in the pod, Sarah examined the hazy gray outside. She relished the feeling of safety preserved by only the barest sliver of a divide, like being in a submarine surrounded by the crushing pressure of the ocean, or sitting at home near the fireplace while a blizzard dropped pillows of snow just beyond the window.
The pod stopped moving. Sarah sat up. The other tourists put down their magazines and headphones, looking around. There were no ruins visible in the mist outside. A face appeared on the glass shell.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please accept my apologies. It appears your pod has encountered some technical difficulties. Another pod is on its way to retrieve you. ETA is 15 minutes. Again, we are very sorry for the inconvenience.” The face disappeared. Disgruntled, the other passengers resumed reading and sleeping.
Sarah turned back to the fog. On the other side of the glass stood a man, staring back at her. Sarah screamed, leaping towards the center of the vehicle. The others jumped out of their seats.
“What? What happened?” they asked.
“There was a man, outside the pod,” Sarah cried. “An old man with wrinkled skin standing in the fog, watching me.” They peered outside but saw nothing except the swirling gray haze.
“It’s alright, honey,” said one of the other tourists, stroking Sarah’s back. “There’s no one and nothing out there except sand.”
“No,” said Sarah, shaking her head, “I know what I saw. There was an old man, older than I’ve ever seen, and he was just standing there looking at me, right outside the glass.” The tourists looked at each other nervously.
“The new pod will be here soon, and then we can go back up to the ship,” said the tourist. Sarah nodded. They grew silent. No one moved, no one sat back down or picked up their magazines.
Then, a quiet tapping broke the silence, coming from the glass shell. The group swiveled to see what caused it. The same old man stood in the haze outside the pod, calmly knocking with his fist. His drooping eyes looked up at the tourists, his mouth flat and his face without emotion.
As the tourists watched him with horror, more tapping started at the other side of the pod. Terrified, the group turned. Another old man peered up at them from the fog outside, rapping the glass with his knuckles.
“Oh god,” whimpered Sarah from the floor of the pod, “oh god, oh god.”
“Who are they?” yelled someone else.
“Passengers from another pod, maybe?” somebody suggested, panic in his voice.
“Where are their safety suits then?”
“Oh god,” Sarah whispered.
From all sides, more old men appeared from the mist. Some stood motionless, staring at the tourists inside, while others tapped at the glass. The passengers huddled farther inward, away from the figures outside. No one took their eyes off the old men – faces pale, eyes wide, mouths open, they gaped at the men, dread and sweat dripping from their brows.
“What – what do you want?” shouted one of the group. All of the men snapped their heads to look at him. He felt the blood drain from his face, his limbs felt weak, and his body shook in fear. After a moment, the old men shifted their gazes away from the passenger.
“What are we gonna do?”
“We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!”
“Oh god,” Sarah wailed. She shut her eyes. When she opened them she saw that some of the old men had begun crawling, creeping, toward the roof of the pod. After a moment, the ceiling was covered with them, staring down at the tourists with the same blank stares.
A bright light penetrated the fog, blinding the passengers. A moment later, still dazed, they felt the pod shake. A whirring noise filled the cabin.
“You folks alright?” asked a cheerful voice. The spots dissipating from their vision, the group made out a uniformed man stepping into their pod from another, which was docked and with a beam of light pointing at their own glass shell. The tourists glanced around the foggy outside. The old men were gone; they saw nothing. Quickly, and without a word, they shuffled aboard the other pod, while the cruise worker’s grin turned quizzical.
Back in orbit, Sarah shivered in the infirmary. A doctor stood next to her.
“Tell me again what you think you saw on the planet, Sarah,” said the doctor. Sarah looked up, eyes wide and gleaming. Then she looked back at her knees, saying nothing.
Another tourist spoke up: “Old men. They were old men.”
“Not old,” said Sarah, grasping the doctor’s arm. “Dead. They were the ghosts of the people who built the ruins. They wanted us to save them.” Her voice quivered.
“Do you want to save them?” the doctor asked.
Sarah let go of the doctor’s wrist. She looked away.
The ship broke orbit.