Every bone in Chloe’s body felt as if it lost a battle with a power drill. As her mind swam up from the darkness, the pain hit with a sudden force that knocked the breath clean out of her. She was laying in the middle of an empty street with blazing chunks of metal raining from the sky, littering the streets along with piles of broken glass and building rubble. Somewhere to her left, an explosion shook the ground, covering her in slightly burning debris.
“Impossible.” She tried to stand but found her legs pinned beneath several chunks of rubble. No matter how furiously she pulled and tugged, there was no budging her legs. A low growl broke the burning silence, followed by a sudden crash. Glancing over her shoulder, Chloe caught a glimpse of the creature as it emerged calmly from a wall of flames.
A ragged tarp caught her eye and she had just enough time to throw it over herself before the creature could see her. For several long moments Chloe held her breath, sliding her hand to the dagger attached securely at her hip. The thing’s footsteps grew nearer, crunching under the piles of shattered glass. She wished she could silence her heart, beating loudly and frantically against her ribs. Only when the footsteps began trailing off did Chloe allow her shoulders to lower down from their perch near her ears. She had just released a sigh and loosened her grip on her dagger when the tarp was yanked away.
Chloe’s mind held a half a dozen images of these creatures but not one ever got this close. This one, a male, had black eyes so large Chloe thought they’d pop from its skull. Saliva dripped from oversized teeth sharp enough to tear through metal. The body still wore the original owner’s military uniform, although it had been reduced to rags. Chloe often wondered if the real man or woman survived the process but one look into the demon’s twisted face told her any consciousness the original owner may have possessed had long disappeared into the void, leaving behind this terrible monster.
Just a dream, Chloe repeated in her mind. It would all be over soon and she would wake up with Oliver telling her what to do, even if he was the younger brother.
Dropping to her level, the thing closed in on her until his face was inches from hers. Nose wrinkling in disgust, he ran his tongue along the side of her face.
“Your smell… it is strange,” he licked his lips in contemplation. “…Who… are you?”
Chloe bit back the insult bubbling in her throat. The creature curled its lips upward. “No matter… you will make a delicious host for Shera.”
“Not today.” The thing’s furrowed brow was quickly replaced with surprise. Bloodshot eyes darted to where Chloe’s dagger had sliced into his side. Howling in rage, he tore the dagger from Chloe’s grasp and tossed it out of reach. His other hand flew across Chloe’s face. Just as he raised his hand for the final blow, something slammed into the creature’s back. Two more projectiles embedded themselves before the creature’s body grew limp and fell sideways off her body.
“Alara!” Telloc’s voice cut through the haze in her mind. She struggled to lift her head but saw the small patrol surrounding her.
“You were angry.” Her voice sounded distant like an echo in a tunnel.
“Doesn’t mean I was going to let you die, you stupid machine. Now pull your legs out on three. One, two, three.” With several pained grunts, Telloc and the rest of his men managed to free Chloe. “Can you walk? There’s an entrance to a safe house a few blocks from here.”
Chloe nodded and with Telloc’s help, managed a semi-fast limp along the wreckage. Telloc darted his gaze around before sweeping her into his arms, cursing about her pace. Thankfully, the city was deserted, and they managed to reach an abandoned warehouse. Telloc placed her on a cot and fetched his medical supplies, sending the others out to secure a perimeter.
“You want to tell me what you were doing out there? You could have gotten yourself killed or worse, you…” He dared not finish his thoughts.
Chloe turned her gaze toward a dirty window. “You must know I apologize for what has happened to your world. I barely remember what this place used to look like. How long has it been?”
“Two hundred harvests at least. I hardly remember the invasion myself. We were all young.”
Without warning, Chloe’s eyes started welling up with tears. They spilled down her cheeks so quickly her lips tasted of hot salt. Telloc wrapped his arms around her, running a hand through her singed hair. He placed a kiss on her forehead and whispered reassurances he didn’t really believe himself, but it was better than nothing.
The morning’s work seemed destined to failure. Part after part broke for virtually no reason. It was enough to make even the best of people snap and Chloe was far from those kinds of people. Even worse, Chloe couldn’t shake her latest dreams. Every now and then she’d find herself on the strange planet called Gallash with that equally strange man. Who was he, and why could she not shake this terrible feeling he was in danger? When the supper gong rang, Chloe was the first of her family to arrive. Fishing in her pockets, she soon found a spare rag and wiped the machine oil from her hands and face. To eat while dirty was sacrilege to the mayor and by extension, the gods. From their perch, the mayor, his family and the foreman’s family ate in solemn silence.
“It’s rude to stare young lady,” her mother commented.
“Apologies, mother. Did you and the others have any luck this morning?”
Her father sat down with a plateful of roots and something she’d never seen before. Her father tore a piece off for each of them and pointed to his. “I haven’t seen a rabbit since the disaster…and, well, technically this isn’t a rabbit but it’s a very close cousin. They must have survived the initial devastation to make it into the caves. Your mother and a few others found a whole colony today. With careful planning, it could feed us for quite some time.”
“What’s a rabbit?” Oliver said the word slowly, rolling it in his mouth as if it needed to be handled gently.
Her father’s eyes lit up as bright as newly lit torches. “A small furry little creature. It…” He stopped mid-sentence when her mother elbowed his ribs.
Chloe looked up just in time for the foreman to walk slowly past their table. The family bowed as was custom at which the foreman smirked satisfactorily.
“Perhaps later tonight?”
“Perhaps.” Chloe glanced up to see her father’s lips twitch into a smile.
After dinner, the mayor gave a long speech about the bravery and courage of all present and introduced the lottery. Remembering last week’s winner, Chloe clutched her stomach. Her mother was instantly by her side.
“Darling, is everything okay?”
Chloe waved her mother off. “Yes, I think I should retire early.”
“But what if your number is called?”
They glanced up to the giant cage being rolled out. “Somehow, I doubt it. Please, I need to be well-rested for work tomorrow. Lots of things need fixing.”
“Oliver, walk your sister home.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Mother, please, I’m twenty-four years old. I can walk myself.”
“No arguments.” She kissed her daughter’s cheek and waved her off. “Now go on before I make you stay.”
As Oliver and Chloe were making their way to the exit, the foreman stepped in to block their path. “And where are you two going?”
“My brother is walking me home. I am not feeling well and should get rest for work tomorrow”
The foreman eyed the two carefully before nodding. “Alright, but we detected unsafe levels of radiation down South Corridor 12, Section 7. Be sure to stay clear.”
“Will do, sir. Good night.” Oliver carefully prodded Chloe.
“Yes, sir. Good night.”
Satisfied, the foreman returned to his post by the exit. Oliver and Chloe continued through the tunnels until they reached a branch where one path was closed off with a sign reading “Stay Out: Dangerous Radiation Levels.”
“I wonder what they’re really hiding down there?” Chloe asked.
“What do you mean hiding?”
“There hasn’t been a report of radiation from the surface in at least fifty years, and all of a sudden it’s managed to get through their precious force field? I don’t think so.”
“You know you’re going to go get yourself somewhere you shouldn’t be and when you get caught, I’ll have to explain… again… how you didn’t mean to blatantly ignore signs telling you where you shouldn’t be.”
“It’s not my fault they make it so damn tempting.”
“Do you hear how ridiculous you sound?”
“And do you hear how uptight you sound?” Her eyes flashed towards Oliver. “Come with me this time. I’ll bet they’re hiding some great treasure. I wouldn’t put it past Mayor Ratface and his foreman lackey.” She approached the sign and looked down the dimly lit passage way. Clicking her tongue against her cheek, she ran to the wall and grabbed the torch. Returning to the tunnel, she ducked under the sign and started down.
“Wait,” Oliver called out. “This is dangerous. Come, we must get home.”
“Then get the foreman,” she taunted.
“Maybe I will…” As his empty threat echoed down the tunnel, he scowled and muttered “…and I am not uptight.”
Digging a small disk from his pocket, Oliver flipped on a small red light and whispered. “We have a problem.”