Into the Void: chapter one

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CHAPTER I: FLYING
 

I was nine when I lost my humanity.

My father had always said flying was a thrill, though my mother found the very idea of it petrifying. Then again, she was always afraid of something. We had 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 the things lurking in the sky. Life on Earth was a terrifying thing. Everyone dreamt of someday leaving. We finally had our chance. Our one shot for a better life. My entire world was about to change…

We waited onboard the spaceship that was going to bring us to our new life in space. The people outside my window looked like ants, or so I imagined they would once we finally left the ground. Being young meant my imagination was wild. I could picture the vast blue sky and glistening white clouds as if we were already flying.

My father ruffled his hand through my wavy, auburn hair and gave me one of his signature princely grins. I flashed him my biggest smile. “I’m so excited, dad!”

My tiny hands 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 them behind, my excitement overwhelmed my despair.

Taking the yellow 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, made a funny character voice. “Why yes, Mr. Harris! I can’t wait to see Azylo. I hear there is lots of food and fresh water and warm beds to sleep on.”

“And friends?” I asked bashfully.

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

I giggled, humored my father by patting the dog on the head.

After handing the stuffed animal back to me, my father stared at me with a look of concern. “Aren’t you frightened, my darling? Flying can be quite scary the first time around.”

 Flying wouldn’t be scary, I remember thinking naively. Flying could be fun so long as the sky monsters didn’t get us. Just the thought sent shivers crawling up my spine. Goosebumps rose on my arms, prickled my scrawny, pale legs. I recalled a conversation between my father and the pilot before we boarded. They were talking about the odds of making it to Azylo. It wasn’t until later when I learned how less than half the people who left Earth actually made it there safely.

Turpis, they called them. I had yet to see one in my nine years of life, but the stories frightened me all the same. Rumors about the giants with bat wings and toothy mouths so large they could swallow a child whole. The stories made little boys cry like sissies. But I was the daughter of Anthony Harris, the notorious botanist who slayed three winged beasts back in his prime. I was stronger than the pansy boys, incapable of shedding a single tear.

I took a deep breath. Bearing my bravest smile, I said, “No, I’m not afraid. 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 that day, and the bags beneath his eyes were dark and weary from restlessness. He was tired, so tired, but strong. He gave me another handsome smile. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said, stroking my untamable hair before rising 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. Melancholy oozed off their faces. Tears drowned their eyes. My mother embraced her parents and whispered into their ears. Words of sadness, I imagined, since they weren’t coming with us. I felt as though I were witnessing a funeral the way my mother bawled when she saw my father approach. But no one was dying. Not yet, at least. My grandparents were going to be fine, so long as they managed to stay hidden in one of the countless underground cities.

The elderly were forbidden from entering Azylo. It was a subject my grandfather and father argued about on our way to the shelter. The system was corrupt, my grandfather had said. Everyone had to contribute to society to be allowed sanctuary on Azylo. The elderly were too old to be of much use, too old and frail to toil away and help build the space colony to where it needed to be. The concept was too broad for my young mind back then, so I convinced myself they were staying on Earth simply because they wanted to.

Black watermarks formed chaotic lines down my mother’s tear-soaked face as she climbed the ramp. She leaned onto my father for support, her own legs so weak from despair they barely functioned. Once she entered the ship, she took a seat beside me and hit the button above the window to shade the outside world in darkness.

“Why did you do that, mom? I want to see outside,” I whined.

Ignoring me, she brought her hands up to hide her face. She sunk deeper into her chair, whimpering quietly to herself.

“Mom?” I grabbed her arm, stirring her for attention. “Can I look back outside? Please?” I counted to five in my head, trying to practice patience. But it was no use. “Mom? Please let me look outside. I want to see—”

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

I sighed loud and long. No one looked at me. For the first time in my life I had something to look forward to, something to make my heart beat with joy. But my mother was ruining it. She was always ruining everything. Always depressed or moaning about something. But that’s what life on Earth did to a person. It ruined them, mentally and physically. We were constantly on the move, going from one shelter to another, never lingering due to my father’s work. He was a botanist, and a good one at that. One of a small few who still knew every plant, their properties, how to cultivate them in all types of environments. My father’s work was our ticket to Azylo. Our only way off the decaying hell hole we called Earth.

“Good afternoon everyone,” a voice echoed over the intercom. “We will be departing for Azylo momentarily. Please make sure you have your belongings stowed in the compartments in the back of the cabin and that your harness is securely fastened.”

My cheeks swelled with my smile. We were about to leave. Nervous excitement surged through my veins. I glanced at my mother, expecting her to share my enthusiasm, but she was still sobbing. Her shoulders shook as she did her best to mute her cries. And when the thruster engines jolted on, she wailed. I could sense everyone’s eyes on us, on her. I tried my best to pay them no mind.

As the shuttle rolled back on its launch track and angled us toward the sky, the vibrations from the engines grew, rattling me in my chair. I tried to countdown the launch, but by the time I reached three, the ship was sent soaring into the sky. The force was so intense my back was glued to my seat. My trembling hands clung to the armrests for dear life. I wasn’t sure if I was shaking out of fear or ecstasy. My mother’s face implied it should be fear that shook my bones and sickened my stomach. I peeked behind my chair to see if everyone else looked the same—faces tight and dotted with sweat. They had. For some reason I wondered what they would look like if the Turpis came. Though I didn’t want to find out.

With my parents distracted, my mother hiding in her hands and my father working on his tablet, I took the opportunity to steal a look outside. Unfastening my harness, I jammed my thumb on the button below the window. Darkness fled, giving way to a vibrant sunlight so bright it made me jerk back and shield my eyes. It took nearly a minute for my eyes to readjust. All the while my heart beat in anticipation.

I leaned in to the window to peer out at the great beyond. Vast and cloudless, the sky appeared to never end. Crystal blues and colors as deep as the sea swirled together in a painted melody. It was beautiful. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I was the only one enjoying the glory of flying. The only one who dared think it an amazing feat. I couldn’t comprehend why the rest of the passengers cowered in fear.

Then, reality struck. A powerful gust of wind rocked the ship. I collapsed back into my chair and immediately reached for my mother’s arm. A woman screeched somewhere behind me. The intercom buzzed on. Broken sounds spilled out of the speakers, inaudible. The pilot’s voice was muffled by heavy static until finally the speakers shut off. Everything fell into an eerie silence.

Consumed by terror, we eyed the cockpit doors at the front of the ship, waiting eagerly for an announcement. Anxious, I scanned the ship for refuge. The only thing that could comfort me was the sun and the mystical blue sky, so I turned to face the window. A monstrous shadow bolted past. I reeled back, screaming. My father leapt from his chair, tugged me into the aisle.

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

“Shh, darling,” he whispered, stroking my hair to calm me. “You must stay quiet, alright?” As soon as my trembling subsided, he stepped away. I didn’t want to let go. He was my armor, my shield. But still he left, making his way to the other passengers. “Everyone, we must stay calm. Do not allow fear to cloud your judgement. Stay in your seats and keep your voices low.”

Everyone stared at my father like deer in the headlights. But one by one, they nodded their understanding. My father may have been a tired man, beaten down by years of anguish and desert heat, but in that moment, he stood mighty as a king. I knew he would protect us. I knew he would keep us safe. Nothing bad would happen so long as he was there.

“Put this on,” he said, handing me a pack from under his seat. He kept his movements small and slow. “Your mother will help you if you need it.” But my mother didn’t hear him. She was too frightened, still hiding her face behind her bony fingers. My father placed his hand on her shoulder. “Martha. Remember to breathe. You must help Myzer with her chute.”

My tremors dissipated as I watched my father try to stir my mother’s courage. I didn’t want to be useless like her. I wanted to help and make my father proud. I was Anthony Harris’ daughter. I was brave. So, I slipped the pack on my back without help, though it nearly consumed my entire upper body with its bulky size and weight. When my father looked at me, I gave him a smile. He didn’t smile back, rather he hurried to go help the other passengers.

“Come here, Myzer.” My mother reached out for me. I shuffled over to stand beside her chair. “Do you know what this is for?” I shook my head and watched as she struggled to slip into her own pack. “T-they’re for…” Her voice trailed off.

My mother was never a strong, independent woman. She constantly leaned on other people for support. But I believed she had more courage in her than she realized.

“These bags are for an emergency,” she managed to say. “See these cords here?” Her hand brushed against the rope dangling on the side of my pack. “I want you to pull it with all your strength, but only when your father or I tell you to, alright?”

Sounded easy enough. She pressed her cold lips against my forehead as she pulled me into an embrace. My heart fluttered as she spread her nerves into my body.

A vicious wind howled outside. It sounded like a pack of wolves trying to tear a hole into the hull of the ship. Panicked screams shattered my eardrums. People began praying to gods they half believed in as our ship descended dangerously quick. Those standing collapsed to the ground or tripped over into a row of seats. Chairs and luggage and loose parts rattled violently. Static dribbled through the intercom once more. “This is your pilot speaking…” The screams ceased. We could hear the pilot hyperventilating on the other end of the com. “This is not a drill. Everyone must equip their parapaks immediately. I repeat…” He inhaled air like a suffocating fish. “This is not a drill. Your co-pilot will be out to provide you with further instruction momentarily.” The intercom shut off.

Too in shock to move, everyone sat startled in their chairs. Their deepest, darkest nightmares were coming to life. Then suddenly, people broke into panic. They scrambled for their parapaks, diving under chairs and fighting each other like ravenous beasts. A scrawny man in a ragged tux took a swing at a woman, his fist meeting her square in the jaw. He accused her of stealing his pack. Another woman intervened, shouting at the man and tugging the back of his suit. He spun around, nailing the woman in the stomach before diving on top of her for more blood. Others hurried to pry the man from the unconscious woman.

Only when the cockpit door slid open and the co-pilot stumbled out did the madness finally cease. Unruly black hair a mess and sweat dripping down his ghastly face, the man stood close to the wall. “Please put on your own parapaks first. I will be opening the evac as soon as we reach a desirable altitude.” His voice was timid as a mouse. “W-women and children will be the first to evacuate. When you exit the ship, the timer on your parapak will begin counting down. The last ten seconds will emit verbally through the strap of your bag. When the timer reaches zero, pull the cord to release your chute.” He paused, exhaling a long, drawn out breath. “I’ll emphasize this once more. Activate the chute once the timer reaches zero. Not a moment before, not a moment after.”

I couldn’t understand what was happening. It all seemed like a blur. Jumping out of a moving ship thousands of meters in the sky was absolute madness. We were safer inside the ship, protected by thick carbonite walls. There were monsters lurking in the sky. They would kill us if we left. Especially me, I thought. Turpis liked gobbling up little kids.

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

I reached for my mother’s hand. Our fingers intertwined, her bony knuckles against my twiggy stems. But there was no warmth in her touch, only a cold, sticky sweat. Her face was white as a corpse. I realized then I wouldn’t find any relief from her.

My father left us, striding toward the front of the cabin to meet the co-pilot. “Is this where you keep the guns?” he asked, knocking his fist on the metal cabinet latched against the wall.

“Y-yes,” the co-pilot muttered.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?”

“That is against my jurisdiction—”

“—It’s in your best interest to arm as many men as possible. Am I right?”

“Y-yes sir,” the man answered meekly, stumbling into the cabinet. He smashed his forefinger onto the scanner, then entered a code into the keypad.

The steel doors sprung open on their air-lock hinges, exposing an array of arsenal. My father went to grab a gun, but the co-pilot shoved him aside, taking the gun for himself. Mature and always refined, even in the face of insolence, my father took up a different rifle and threw the strap over his shoulder to let the gun hang against his back.

“The men need to come up here and grab a gun.” My father’s grizzly voice rumbled through the quiet hull of the ship. Without hesitation, the men formed a line in the aisle to receive their weapons.

Static hummed into the cabin. “—clear. Everything is clear. Begin evacuating immediately,” the pilot urged over the com.

“You heard the man. Once we assure the way is clear, I want the women and children to report to the evac door!” My father moved to the center of the cabin.

Two men, one built like an ox with thick arms and a heavy gut and the other gangly and tall like a heron, positioned themselves on either side of the evac door. They tried to pry open the door, but it wouldn’t budge.

Hiding behind a row of seats, the co-pilot poked his head above the chairs and muttered, “Release the lock. You can’t open the door while the airlock is still active.”

My father must have thought the co-pilot was a pathetic coward. He grunted, worked his way to the front. When he found the release lock, he slammed his fist into the case guarding the lock. Glass burst into the air. Ignoring the blood spewing from his tattered hand, my father hit the button.

“What if this is a ruse?” the ox man asked, knees buckling as he stood waiting by the door. “What if they’re waiting for us to open the evac?”

“That’s what we’re here for,” a hefty man said. His scalp was covered in tattoos of women, clothed and nude alike. Three other men stood at his sides, their guns aimed at the door. “Open that sucker up. If they come, we’ll blast those bastards back to hell.”

“On the count of three…”

My mother yanked me down behind the chairs, out of sight. Heart pounding like a furious drum, my hands shook and my knees wobbled as I crouched. Don’t open the doors, I pleaded in my head. Don’t let the monsters in.

The men started their countdown. “One.”

I listened for the sound of the door sliding open. For its metal hinges to wail as they twisted and turned under the heavy weight of solid steel.

“Two.”

I realized in that very moment leaving Earth was a mistake. We should have stayed. The life of a starving, homeless soul was better than no life at all.

Original work by Ashley Danielle LeTourneau