Into the Void: chapter one

4431198-desert-wallpapers.jpg
 

CHAPTER I: FLYING

 

I was six when I lost my humanity.

My father had always said flying was a thrill, but my mother found the very idea of it terrifying. But then again, she was always afraid of something. We’d been on the run for as long as I could remember, hiding not only from the harsh elements of a now decrepit planet, but also from the things lurking in the sky.

Between the famine, the heat, the lack of water and the constant threat of being snatched away by creatures twice the size of any man, life on Earth was unbearable. Everyone dreamt of someday leaving the corpse of a planet. And our chance was finally here. Our one shot for a happier life. My entire world was about to change for the better—so I thought.

We waited onboard the Harrier-craft that was going to deliver us to our new life, along with a dozen other families of similar well-connected statuses. From my window seat, I could see the spaceship engineers scrambling below. They looked like a bunch of frenzied ants as they darted around to tinker with and fix any final pieces before we set off into space.  

My father leaned over to ruffle his hand through my wavy auburn hair and gave me one of his signature princely grins. I flashed him my biggest smile in return. “I’m so excited, Daddy!”

I clung to the stuffed dog in my lap—a memento handstitched by my grandmother, who wasn’t going to make the journey with us. Though I was sad to leave my grandparents behind, my excitement for a new life easily overwhelmed my despair.

Taking the yellow-knit dog into his hands, my father stared into its beady black eyes. “Mr. Snifflesworth, are you ready to see your new home?” He squeezed his lips together and made an animated, nasally voice. “Why yes, Mr. Harris. I can’t wait to get to Azylo. I hear there’s lots of delicious food to eat and warm, cozy beds to snuggle in!”

“And friends?” I asked bashfully.

Remaining in character, my father threw the dog’s arms up and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, yes! There will be so many children there we won’t ever want for friends again!”

I giggled, patting the dog on the head.

After handing the stuffed animal back to me, my father stared at me, his brow furrowed, his mouth turned down. “Are you frightened at all, Myzer? Flying can be scary the first time around.”

Flying won’t be scary, I remember thinking. Flying will be fun so long as the sky monsters don’t get us. Just the thought of the aliens made shivers crawl through my skin and goosebumps prickle my scrawny arms and legs.

I recalled overhearing a conversation between my father and the pilot before we boarded the ship. They had been talking about the odds of making it to Azylo and how great the chances were nowadays—a ship hadn’t been ambushed in almost two months, up until the day of our departure. The aliens were becoming scarcer.

Turpis, they called them. I had yet to encounter one in my six years of life, but the stories frightened me all the same. Rumors spread like wildfire about the giants with bat wings and toothy mouths so large they could swallow a child whole. The stories made little boys cry like pansies. But not me. I was the daughter of Anthony Harris, the famous botanist who slew three winged beasts back in his prime. I was stronger, braver than those sissy boys, and I had convinced myself that I was incapable of shedding a single tear.

I took a deep breath, and bearing my brightest smile, said, “No, I’m not scared. Azylo is waiting for us!”

My father stared at me with his deeply set eyes. His face was hairy, his robust chin unshaven. There were more wrinkles around his mouth than usual that day, and the bags beneath his eyes had grown heavier and darker. He looked tired—so tired—but strong. He gave me another handsome grin. “I’m glad to hear that, darling,” he said while stroking my untamable hair. Then, he rose from his seat. “Be sure to stay in your chair. I’m going to fetch your mother.”

He left the ship in a hurry, making his way down the ramp to join my mother as she bid her parents farewell. I could see the melancholy oozing off their faces from my window. Tears streamed from their eyes, soaking their cheeks and chins. My mother embraced her parents tightly, whispering something softly into their ears. Words of sadness, I imagined, since they weren’t coming with us. As my father approached them, my mother started to bawl. She wept so shamelessly that passerby would duck their heads and scatter away as quickly as possible. I felt like a witness to a funeral, the way she sobbed without care. I couldn’t understand why she was so distraught. No one was dying. Not yet, at least.

I longed for my family to stay together, for my grandparents to make the long journey to Mars with us, but the elderly were forbidden from residing on Azylo. It was a subject many were touchy about. My father and grandfather had argued about it the entire way to the shelter.

“The system’s corrupt,” my grandfather said, clenching his fists. “They should be providing refuge to everyone, no matter their background.”

“Laws are in place for a reason,” my father rebutted. “If everyone was allowed sanctuary on Azylo, then nothing would ever get done. We need to restore it to its prime before we allow to the colony to be overrun with people.”

According to Azylo’s law, everyone had to contribute a substantial amount to society, elsewise they weren’t given sanctuary. The elderly were viewed as too old to be of much use, too withered and frail to help build the space colony back up to where it needed to be after its collapse at the end of the First War. The concept of equal contribution was too broad for my young mind back then, so I convinced myself my grandparents were staying on Earth simply because they wanted to.

Black watermarks formed squiggled lines down my mother’s dampened face as she climbed the ramp. She leaned on my father for support, her legs so weak from misery they barely functioned. Once they entered the ship, my mother stumbled over into the seat beside me and hit the button above the window to shade the outside world in darkness.

“Mommy, why’d you do that?” I whined. “I wanna see outside.”

She brought her hands up to hide her face as she sunk deeper into the chair, whimpering quietly.

“Mommy?” I grabbed her arm. “Can I look outside? Please?” I huffed, took a deep breath, trying everything I could to practice patience, but it was no use. “Mommy? Please let me look outside. I wanna see—”

“Myzer, let your mother be,” my father warned, peering at me from across the aisle. “She’s very upset right now. Why don’t you play with Mr. Snifflesworth instead?” His dark green eyes lingered on me until I finally caved, nodding.

I sighed loud and long—one final, desperate call for attention. No one so much as glanced my way.

For the first time in my short life, I had something to look forward to, something to make my heart flutter with immense joy. But my mother was ruining it; she was always ruining everything. Always depressed or moaning about something. Whether it was moving shelters again or my father being gone too long on one of his scientific expeditions, she always seemed to have a complaint. But that’s what life on Earth did to a person. It ruined them, mentally and physically.

My family had constantly been on the move, going from one shelter to another, never lingering in any one place for long due to my father’s work. He was a botanist, and a good one at that. One of few who still knew every plant species, their properties, how to cultivate them in every kind of environment imaginable. For a colony trying to revitalize its resources from collapse after the First War, my father’s skillset proved to be in high demand. His knowledge was our one ticket to Azylo, our only way off the decaying hell hole called Earth.

“Good afternoon,” a voice boomed through the ship’s intercom. “We are departing for Azylo momentarily. Please make sure your personal belongings are stowed in the compartments at the back of the cabin, and that your harness is securely fastened.”

My cheeks swelled at the thought of leaving. A nervous excitement surged through my veins. I glanced over at my mother, expecting her to share my raw enthusiasm, but she was still crying. Her shoulders trembled as she tried to suppress the tears. As soon as the thruster engines kicked on, however, she lost it. Her quiet sobs escalated into dreadful wails that seemed to summon everyone’s eyes to us. I tried my best to pay the onlookers no mind.

Vibrations from the engines intensified as the shuttle rolled back on the launch track and angled us toward the sky. My entire chair was rattling. I tried to countdown the launch, but by the time I reached three, the ship was already hurling up into the air. The force was so powerful it glued me to my seat as my hands clung to the armrests for dear life.

Though the deafening roars of the thrusters and the bone-stirring trembles of atmosphere against metal should have left me stunned with terror, I felt a strange mixture of curiosity and ecstasy as we soared higher into the sky. My mother’s face was white and drenched with sweat, and suddenly I felt oddly out of place because it was pleasure that churned my stomach, not fear. Even the rest of the passengers seemed scared out of their minds—eyes squeezed shut, knuckles white from gripping their chairs so tightly, muttering prayers. If everyone was this afraid of something as harmless as flying, I wondered, then what would happen if the Turpis attacked us? What would their pale, sweat-ridden faces look like then? It wasn’t a very pleasant thought, but it stuck with me nonetheless. A sort of unshakeable, eerie sensation that something was bound to go wrong.

With my parents distracted during our ascent—my mother wallowing in her sorrows and my father busy on his holo-tablet—I took the opportunity to steal a peek outside. I unfastened my harness, wriggled up onto my knees, and jabbed the button below the window with my thumb. Instantly the darkness fled, giving way to sunlight so bright it made me jerk back and cringe. It took almost a minute for my eyes to readjust, all the while my heart raced in anticipation of the view.

I leaned into the window, eager to peer out at the great beyond. Vast and cloudless, the sky appeared to have no limits. Crystal blues and colors as deep as the sea swirled together in a beautifully painted melody that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I seemed to be the only person enjoying it, the only person who dared to think flying was an amazing thing. I couldn’t understand why everyone else was hiding in the shadow, away from the windows and the magnificent expanse beyond.

A gust of wind rocked the ship, teetering it sharply from one side to the other. I collapsed back into my chair, knocking my head against the headrest so hard my brain throbbed. Trembling with newly discovered fear, I sought my mother’s arm.

A woman screeched somewhere in the cabin behind me. Children and babies started to cry. Several men stirred from their chairs, wanting to ease the woes of their loved ones, but froze in their tracks when the intercom buzzed on. Muffled sounds trickled out of the speakers, inaudible. The pilot’s voice was mutated by static. Then the speakers cut out. Everything fell into an unnerving silence.

Stunned with fright, I eyed the cockpit door at the front of the ship, anxiously anticipating an announcement about a storm or unexpected turbulence—anything but Turpis. Seconds came and went like minutes and eventually I sought refuge somewhere else, somewhere that could give me instant relief. I turned to face the window, wanting to forget the fear and focus on the colorful sky.

A gigantic shadow swooped past the window, only meters beyond the ship. I reeled back in my chair, screaming. My father leapt to his feet and pulled me into the aisle.

“W-what was that?” I wrapped my trembling arms around his waist.

“Shh,” he whispered while gently stroking my head, “you must stay quiet, alright?” As soon as my shaking subsided, he stepped away. I didn’t want to let go. He was my armor, my shield. But still he left and made his way to the other passengers. “Everyone, remain calm. Don’t give in to fear just yet. We need to keep our wits about us if we are to get through this. For now, stay in your seats and keep your voices to a whisper if you must speak.”

The other families stared at my father like deer in the headlights. They were stunned by his calm demeanor and his ability to take charge. One by one, they nodded their understanding.

My father may have been beaten down by years of anguish and desert heat, but in that moment he stood as mighty as a king. I knew he would protect us. I knew he could keep us safe. Nothing bad would happen so long as he was there.

“Put this on,” he said, coming over to hand me a bag from under his seat. His movements were subtle and slow. “Your mother will help you.” But my mother didn’t hear him, she was too afraid, still hiding behind quivering bony fingers. My father placed his hand on her shoulder. “Martha, dear, everything is going to be alright. You must trust me. Breathe. I need you. Your daughter needs you. You must be brave, now more than ever.”

The fear bubbling inside me weaned as I watched my father attempt to draw out an uncultivated courage from my mother. I didn’t want to be useless like her. I wanted to help fight off the danger and make my father proud. I was the daughter of Anthony Harris, after all. I was brave and strong. So, I slipped the bag onto my back without aid; it nearly consumed my entire body with its massive size and weight. When my father looked at me, I smiled. He didn’t smile back, rather he nodded then hurried off to assist the other passengers.

“Myzer, come here.” My mother reached her arms out to me. I shuffled over to stand beside her chair. “Do you know what this bag is?” I shook my head and watched as she struggled to slip on her own pack. “I-it’s…” Her voice trailed off as she looked around hopelessly for my father. My mother had never been very independent. She constantly leaned on other people for support. But regardless, I believed she could rile up more courage than she ever thought possible. “This bag…it’s a parapak used for” —she swallowed— “for emergencies. See this cord on the side here? I want you to pull it as hard as you can, but only when I tell you to, okay?”

It sounded simple enough, so I nodded.

She pulled me in for a half-hearted embrace, pressing her cold, chapped lips against my forehead. My heart fluttered as her undeniable nervousness spread into my body.

I was about to climb back into my seat when a vicious wind howled outside. It sounded like a pack of ravenous wolves trying to tear a hole into the hull of the ship. Frightful squeals echoed in the gale’s wake. People began muttering to themselves, praying to gods they half believed in as our ship descended dangerously fast. Those who were standing stumbled to the ground or tripped over the rows of chairs. Those who were seated struggled to tighten their harnesses and clung to their armrests. The inside of the ship rattled and creaked, stirring loose anything not buckled down into place. Bags and tablets crashed to the ground and onto people’s heads. A poorly screwed panel shook free from the ceiling and collided at my feet. I screamed.

Static dribbled over the intercom, followed by a muffled, but audible, voice. “This is your captain speaking.” The passengers’ cries and squeals came to a sudden stop. In the silence, we could hear the captain hyperventilating on the other end of the com. “This is not a drill. Everyone must equip their parapaks immediately. I repeat” —he inhaled a gasp of air like a suffocating fish— “this is not a drill. The co-pilot will give you further instruction momentarily.” The intercom shut off.

Everyone sat dead still in their chairs as they absorbed the reality of the situation. Not a minute later and everyone was scrambling about the cabin in a panic. They hurried for their parapaks, lunging under chairs and fighting each other off like wild animals. A scraggly man in a tattered blazer took a swing at a woman, his fist meeting her square in the jaw. He shouted, accusing her of stealing his parapak, as he prepared to strike her again. The woman’s husband intervened, cursing at the man as he jerked him back by the tail of his coat. The scraggly man spun around, nailed the husband in the stomach with his fist and dove on top of him, thirsty for blood. Onlookers hurried to pry the man from the unconscious husband.

Only when the cockpit door slid open and the co-pilot staggered out into the cabin did the madness finally cease. The young pilot hugged the nearest wall, his unruly black hair dripping with sweat. “E-everyone please remain calm.” His stuttering voice was as timid as a mouse. “I will be opening the…the evac door as soon as we reach a desirable altitude. Women and children will be the first to evacuate. When you exit t-t-the ship, the time on your parapak will initiate a-a-a…countdown. When it reaches zero, pull the cord t-t-to release your chute.” He paused, exhaling a long, drawn out breath. “I’ll say it one more time. A-activate your chute when the timer reaches zero. Not a second later.”

I didn’t understand what was happening; everything felt like a blur. Jumping out of a moving spaceship thousands of meters in the sky seemed like madness. We were much safer inside, protected by thick carbonite walls. There were monsters waiting for us out there, and they would kill us if we left. Especially me, I thought. Turpis liked gobbling up little kids.

“Did you catch that, Myzer?” my father asked, but his voice barely cut through the thick haze of my terror. I wanted to cry, to shake my head and beg to go back down to Earth where I was safer. But I nodded my head, as always.

Quivering, I reached for my mother’s hand. Our fingers intertwined—her bony knuckles against my twiggy stems. But there was no warmth to be found in her touch, only a cold, sticky sweat. I realized then that I wouldn’t find any relief from her.

My father left us again, striding toward the front of the cabin to meet the co-pilot who still clung to the wall, knees shaking. “Where do you keep the guns?”

“O-over here,” the co-pilot stuttered, reluctantly shuffling across the aisle to a metal cabinet built into the wall.

“Well, open it.”

“I-I can’t…”

“Why not?” My father furrowed his brow.

“I-it’s against my j-j-jurisdiction…”

“It’s in your best interest to arm as many men as possible,” my father said sternly. “Elsewise we might all be dead.”

“Yes sir,” the young man answered meekly, then stumbled into the cabinet. He smashed his finger onto the scanner and entered a code into the lockpad.

The metal doors sprung open on rusted air-lock hinges, letting out a high-pitched squeal. Inside was a small selection of arsenals. My father reached in to grab a gun, but the co-pilot shoved him aside and took the weapon for himself. Rather than bicker about the co-pilot’s insolence, my father brushed him aside and took up a different rifle.

“The rest of the men,” he said, turning to face the passengers, “come to the front and grab a gun.” His gruff voice had the rest of the men up and out of their chairs without second thought.

As the men worked their way to join my father, static crackled through the intercom. “—clear. I repeat, everything is clear. Begin Evacuation Protocol 2A immediately.”

“You heard the pilot,” my father grumbled. “Once we confirm the path is clear, I want the women and children to report to the evac door.”

An ox-like man with burly arms and a heavy gut joined a tall, gangly man in front of the evac. The ox man tried to pry open the door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Release the lock,” the co-pilot squeaked from his hiding spot behind a row of seats. “The door won’t open with the airlock still activated.”

My father must’ve thought the co-pilot was a pathetic coward because he shook his head, grunted a sound of displeasure and looked around for the release button. When he found it, he slammed his fist into the case guarding the lock. Glass exploded into the air. Giant pieces lodged themselves into his hand, but he ignored them and the blood spewing from his injured fist and hit the button. A heavy click sounded from the evac.

“What if it’s a ruse?” the gangly man asked his partner, knees buckling as he stood waiting impatiently by the door. “What if the Turpis are waiting for us on the other side?”

“Then we’ll be your back up,” a tattooed man said, standing behind them in the aisle. His scalp was covered in tattoos of women—clothed and nude alike. Three other men stood ready at his sides, guns aimed at the evac. “Open the door. If the bastards are there waiting, we’ll blast ‘em back to Hell!”

“On the count of three,” another said.

My mother yanked me down behind the chairs, out of sight. Heart pounding like a fevered drum, my hands and knees started to shake.

Don’t open the doors, I pleaded in my mind. Don’t let the aliens in.

The men started their countdown. “One…”

I listened for the sound of the evac door flying open, for its metal hinges to wail as they twisted and turned under the heavy pressure of solid steel.

“Two…”

In that moment, I realized leaving Earth was a mistake. A terrible, horrible, life-ruining, deadly mistake. We should have stayed. Should’ve never left what little safety the hollow shell of a planet had to offer.

“Three!”
 

Original work by Ashley Danielle LeTourneau