The sun had barely risen when Telloc delivered an abrupt wake-up call. He brought with him a small plate with what looked like bread and cooked meat. The meat tasted like rabbit. She followed, still half-asleep, to an underground cavern made of the same metal walls as the rest of the place. Weapons lined every inch of available wall space. Marna was standing at the far end of the room, talking to the other man she met yesterday. His shoulders were hunched forward as if he was carrying a heavy pack. Occasionally his tongue would dart out to wet his lips. They abruptly stopped when they heard Telloc call out.
“Marna, I trust you’re ready?”
Marna’s eyes traveled up and down Chloe’s thin but slightly muscled frame. She looked back at Telloc and shrugged. “You’re the better fighter. Why don’t you train her?”
“Because you’re the best we’ve got and if anyone can train her, it’s you.”
They exchanged some other comments but Chloe’s focus was on the weird twitchy man. His eyes, the way they stared through her, sent shivers down her spine. No matter how hard she tried, Chloe couldn’t break eye contact. A smaller scar ran from the corner of his mouth, along his jaw and met up with the bigger one at the base of his neck. Did the worm things do all of that to him?
Chloe blinked. “What?”
“The parasites make sure their host’s suffer before they take over. We are like insects to them.” He took a step closer. “They let us watch when they torture potential hosts.”
“Garren,” Marna placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. Garren’s eyes shifted back and forth from Marna to Chloe. “Why don’t you go with Telloc? He has some new medicine for you.”
Garren looked at Telloc with the eyes of a child. “Will it make me forget, doc?”
Telloc motioned for Garren to head out of the arena. As he walked towards Telloc, Garren kept a watchful eye on Chloe like he expected her to grow claws and bite his head off. A cold sweat broke across Chloe’s neck. After Garren and Telloc disappeared, Chloe let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“What,” she tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. “What did they do to him?”
“Just what he said. The aliens want to test the durability of the hosts so they run experiments on them. They enjoy the rush of emotion within their hosts, particularly craving fear. What better way than to force them to witness torture?”
“How was Garren rescued?”
“Luck.” She grabbed a dagger on a nearby table. “Telloc can tell you more about that and our mission later. For now, we need to train you.”
Chloe nearly scoffed. Training to Marna was giving Chloe a weapon she had no idea how to properly handle and diving right into combat. All Chloe could do was dodge the raining blows. Most got so close, she could hear the blade slicing through the air by her ear. After a dozen or so swings, Marna stepped back and started circling Chloe. Clasping the dagger tightly in her right hand, Chloe circled with Marna and focused on keeping her heart rate down. That’s when Chloe noticed Marna favored her right side.
As Chloe tried getting closer, Marna charged. Chloe threw up her dagger to defend but Marna grabbed the arm Chloe blocked with and twisted it behind her back. Chloe gasped and dropped the dagger. Marna let go of her arm and stepped back five paces.
“Pick it up. Try again.”
For over an hour, the same scene played. Marna lured Chloe closer and always managed to send Chloe crashing to the ground. After about the dozenth time face planting into the ground, Chloe found it easier to lie on the ground. She licked her dry, cracked lips and wiped away the small trickle of blood with the back of her hand. She just needed a moment to catch her breath. Of course that crazy alien wasn’t going to let her have it. Marna marched over to where the stupid girl had landed and yanked her to her feet.
“Come on, human.” She refused to call Chloe anything else. “If I can push you around like this, you’re in for a world of hurt when you face them. I’ve seen better defensive moves on a chulan.” A chulan, Chloe later learned, was the Taren equivalent of a snail except nearly ten times the size of the Earth variety and their shell was covered in a thin layer of fur.
“Give me a god damn break.” Chloe clutched her side, which was throbbing uncontrollably. “Where I’m from I’m a mechanic not a soldier.” She looked down at the curved dagger lying at her feet.
“Like it or not, and believe me I don’t, Telloc has charged me with preparing you for combat. If I have to listen to another one of Telloc’s damn team player speeches, I might just give myself over to the aliens as a host.” Marna rolled her eyes as she watched Chloe try to grab the dagger and collapse onto the ground.
“And here Telloc assured me Alara knew what she was doing.”
Chloe pushed herself to her feet. “Telloc said you all needed me for machine stuff.”
“Those things won’t care you’re only there for ‘machine stuff’. They’ll kill you just the same as us.” Marna placed her dagger with the others and left the room.
Day after day, Chloe spent more time eating the ground than food. Telloc or Marna were with her at all times. The others stared at her like she was a walking disease. Garren appeared to take an interest but always scuttled away when she got too close.
She spent her nights nursing her ego and looking through the English translations of Taren books. Their technology was incredible when the Taren were in their prime. If they weren’t invaded, they could easily of fought off the aliens a few hundred years down the line. The way they pumped and cleaned water was actually very similar to how they did it back home. Chloe stopped when she thought about home. She wondered what it was like now, even though it already happened. Two thousand years and this is what humans achieve. Chloe fell asleep with the screams of her people echoing in her head.
The next day she was passing through the dining hall on the way to bed when she noticed a small gathering of people. She was about to look away when she noticed two were shouting at each other.
She pointed it out to Marna. “What’s going on?”
She bit her lip. “The water filter’s been acting funny. Makes people a little crazy. Nothing of consequence to you.”
She ignored the disdain hanging off Marna’s words. “I’ve been looking through the schematics of your water pumps. I think I can help.”
“Haren is one of our best engineers. He can figure it out.”
Telloc came up behind them. “What’s it doing this time?”
“Same problem, just worse. We might have to move.”
Telloc swallowed loudly. “Another pair of eyes can’t hurt. Come on, Chloe.”
Telloc pushed Chloe towards the group of people arguing. “Haren. What seems to be the problem?”
An older gentleman with a long white beard turned towards Telloc. He stroked the wiry hairs. “You think she’s gonna fix it?”
“I spent my childhood working on something similar.” Only Telloc smiled. The rest grumbled and turned away from Chloe.
“Hey,” Telloc said. “If the alternative is to move, at least let her look. Haren, get to it. The rest of you get to bed.”
Haren pointed to a clunky machine and explained the problem. Chloe listened and examined the set up.
“So basically,” Chloe furrowed her brow. “There’s something clogged.”
Haren and Chloe worked for hours but got nowhere fast. Eventually Haren threw up his hands and stormed out, leaving Chloe and Telloc alone in the dining room. Chloe sighed, rubbing her neck.
“It’s not you. We’ve known about this problem for a while.”
“Still, I’m pretty sure they see me as nothing more than one of those things.”
“Better prove them wrong, then.” Telloc nodded to the water pump.
Chloe heaved a heavy sigh. “I don’t suppose you have any coffee?”
“Its equivalent but I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Good enough. As long as it keeps me awake.”
Chloe worked through the night, tinkering with the different valves and still she could not find the clog. Until she realized that maybe it wasn’t a clog at all. Maybe there was a loose connection between the…that’s it! Chloe chugged another cup of the black sludge Telloc had brought her. She chuckled when she realized it wasn’t the worst cup of synthetic coffee she’d ever had.
A high pitched humming and hushed whispers woke Telloc. He opened his eyes to the entire colony huddled around the water pump. He pushed to the front of the crowd and found Chloe asleep in front of the water pump, which was humming happily behind her. In her hand she was clutching a dirty glass with the clearest water he’d ever seen.
Chloe’s eyes slowly opened and she jumped when her gaze met a few dozen, all looming over her. “I got it working, I think.” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
Telloc looked over at Marna who for years never once showed anything but a frown. Now, she was smiling. For the next few days, Haren and the others held their breath but the pump continued working and worked better than it had since they first installed it.
Over the next few weeks, she improved in combat training. Marna still kicked her ass every day but now it took more work on Marna’s part. Chloe even got the woman to break a sweat. Marna taught her how to even use a disruptor, which Chloe preferred but knew she wouldn’t always be able to use it.
She even got a few smiles when walking back and forth from the arena to her bedroom. Haren and her spent nights looking at old machinery that was being held together by practically nothing. Sometimes Chloe could help and sometimes she couldn’t. After a while, Haren started telling her stories about the time before aliens that his grandfather had told him. The outside world sounded like a beautiful place, much like the Earth her father told stories of when she was little. Maybe she could stick around after this crazy mission and help the Taren. As she lied in bed one night with these thoughts running through her head, Chloe closed her eyes and sighed. What was she thinking? They would never let her stick around.
That’s when she heard the handle on her door jiggle and turn. A figure, cloaked in black, slipped through and locked the door behind it.
“Time to die, human.”