Into the Void: Chapter three

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CHAPTER III: SIGHTING

Current year: 2483

 

It happened in the middle of the Board meeting. Beverly said something about a lack of military power, how we didn’t have enough support to spread our wealth and success to the slums of Arx, Azylo’s gem of a city.

Frustrated from being shot down repeatedly, I stood from my chair. “We don’t have enough military power because you refuse to spend more money on recruiting!” My face was red with fury.

“Your methods of recruiting are ridiculous, futile even. We have thousands of civilians residing in Arx to choose from. Why waste precious resources going to Earth?” The vicious blonde crossed her arms, staring at me with soulless eyes.

“Why?” I snorted a laugh. “Because the people here don’t need saving. They have nothing to fear but poverty. There are millions of helpless people dying on Earth. People abandoned by the likes of you. They’re the ones who need to be saved. They’re the ones we should be recruiting.”

Beverly shook her head, sighing. “Your idea of recruiting disease-ridden children and teens is nothing more than a pursuit to curb your self-pity. Find a new hobby, Myzer. The Board’s decision is final.”  

♦♦♦♦

“How much longer ‘til we’re there?” Mak croaks through peeling lips. His eyes are dull, his oval face spoiled with oozing red sun blisters.

A week has passed since I left Azylo under cover of the night with nothing but my favorite set of Z-guns and a backpack full of supplies.

Two days have passed since I abandoned my gear in exchange for children I felt were qualified to make the journey across the endless sea of desert. We haven’t stopped to rest, not once, though the children constantly beg for reprieve. Resting is a luxury we can’t afford. Not while our destination is still so far out of reach.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. My navigational skills are considered prime at home, but here on this dismal planet, they are practically useless. It’s sand as far as the eye can see. And the heat from the sun skews my d-band’s ability to receive signal from Azylo. Basic observation skills hint we are heading west, but by mid-day, when the sun is situated high in the sky, it’s nearly impossible to tell.

“How do you know we’re going the right way? Everything looks the same,” Marcus whines. He presses his hands against the side of his head. Earlier, he was complaining of black, fuzzy lines floating across his vision. But the only thing I could do was give him water from a supply that is nearly depleted.

“You just have to trust me,” I say.

This is the first time I have recruited such young kids. The brothers, Marcus and Mak, are twelve. And the girl I carry on my back, Liza, she’s only eight. Typically, I try to find older recruits. But lately all I’ve found is kids. Most people on Earth don’t live to see twenty anymore.

I’m beginning to regret dragging these children from their homes. I promised their caretakers a second chance at life, but as we trek through the heat and sand, I realize I have only hastened their death.

“It’s so hot. Can we take a break?” Liza asks, clinging to my back with her legs, her arms wrapped tight around my neck.

“No.” I try to keep my tone gentle when I speak to her.

I play her question over in my mind. Can we take a break? The idea doesn’t seem so bad. My body is heavy with exhaustion and for the first time in years my legs actually ache. Pain is a feeling I have become unaccustomed with. The throbbing sensation sends ripping jolts through my quads and lower back. Suddenly, the frail eight-year-old girl feels a hundred kilos. I want to stop and rest alongside the children, who no doubt need the break more than me, but we can’t.

Five years ago, the Turpis disappeared. Half a decade has come and gone and not a single soul has perished at the hands of the aliens who once seemed to have an unquenchable hunger for human flesh. For nearly three hundred years they ravished this world. So, when things went quiet, I became skeptical that they were truly gone. I’ve come to Earth dozens of times since, and still no sightings have been reported. My brain tells me it’s safe to rest, but my gut says otherwise. Some risks are never worth taking.

“I’m exhausted!” the children cry. Their voices crack as if the desert has penetrated their throats and left them choking on sand.

“We can’t stop,” I say again, this time more firmly. I should have never taken them with me. I’m a fool for thinking they were resilient enough to make the journey. They will die before we ever catch a glimpse of the shelter.

“I need water,” Mak mutters, reaching for the satchel hanging from my waist. His hand brushes the bag. It sways easily against my hip. Too easily. It’s empty. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

“No,” I say. “No one is dying. We’ve got to keep moving. I’m getting you to the shelter if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Are we almost there?” Marcus asks.

I bite my lip. Their constant questions are making my head pound. “Can everyone be quiet for five minutes? Please?”

Liza moans in my ear, her frayed, golden locks bouncing as she falls in and out of consciousness.

“Is she going to be okay?” Mak asks, watching the girl with worried eyes.

“She’ll be fine,” I lie through my teeth.

The brutal heat is kill her, just as its killing the brothers. They don’t realize death has them in its grasp. I would never tell them, of course. Being orphans, they are highly deterred by grim news, and although Liza isn’t the boys’ true sister, they’ve seen her as such for years. I may be a firm believer in speaking my mind no matter the cost, but I decide this is a case when the truth is better left unsaid.

Marcus kicks sand at his brother, then groans about a sharp pain throbbing in his stomach. I glance at him, then Mak. They are puny things with bones as fragile as glass. Their limbs are bent and knotted like the branches of a corkscrew willow, their eyes glazed over with a thin layer of cataracts. Dressed in ragged canvas garments, they have poor protection for their nearly transparent skin. Whenever I look at them, I am reminded of all the lives I couldn’t save in the past. I want so badly to bring them to salvation. To give them the same chance I received. But no matter my efforts, I still feel like a murderer.  

Even with the Turpis gone, hundreds of people die on Earth every day. The sun is relentless, water sources scarce. For those who dare to brave the surface, their fates are left in the hands of the elements. Life underground has caused humans to morph over time, turning them into pale, ghastly things and making them even more prone to suffering under the open sky. If it weren’t for my hooded jumpsuit built to regulate my body’s temperature to a cool twenty-five degrees centigrade, my skin would be torched, too. And although I hate relying heavily on technology, for once I am glad to have it.

We trek on for hours and still all we see is sand. Sand as far as the eye can see. By now the children have lost hope of ever finding salvation. They stopped complaining long ago, believing we have gone too far without any sign of the evac shelter.

Marcus suddenly stops walking, points to the horizon. “What is that?” he asks, then after a moment his eyes widen with joy. “No way! Look!”

I lift my gaze to find lush palm trees dancing along the horizon. My heart stops. Before I can find my voice, the brothers are already running for the alluring shade of the trees. “Marcus! Mak! Stop!” But they are too far ahead, too eager to reach salvation.

The Turpis are intelligent creatures, capable of many things. Creating illusions to lure in prey is one of their many tactics, and there is nothing more enticing to people stranded in the desert than the idea of water and shade. But they disappeared five years ago. Is it possible this oasis isn’t a mirage after all?

A high-pitched shriek shatters the stillness. I grip Liza’s legs to ease her shaking as we listen to the silence that follows. Minutes pass like hours. I bite my lip, anxious for the boys’ return. Without my weapons, it would be foolish to run in after them. If Christian has taught me anything, it is that my survival is imperative.

Mak returns, staggering through the sand. Blood saturates the side of his body. His right arm is shredded, bits of skin and meat and tendon flap around. “Help! You have to help…”

The Turpis are back.

I stare at the bleeding boy, speechless. Why did they disappear? And what stirred their reemergence?

“My brother…we need to help…” Mak collapses to his knees, clutching his arm as blood spews from the deep tears in his skin.

What do I do? I bite my lip too hard, drawing a droplet of black blood. “Keep an eye on her,” I tell Mak as I lay Liza gently on the ground before running off for the oasis. I should go the other way, ignore the mirage and leave the children for dead. It’s what Christian would have me do. Risking my life for tainted children is idiotic, he’s always said. It breaks every protocol in my book. But I can’t convince myself to turn a blind eye to people in need, especially since I used to be one of them.

Steamy hot sand gives way to luscious green grass as I enter the lifelike illusion. A cool breeze caresses my face and I find comfort in the shade of the towering palm trees. My mouth saturates at the sight of a pond whose clear waters ripple with temptation. There is nothing I would love more than to drink its sweet nectar. But I know it’s a trap. There are enemies lurking nearby.

The longer I am immersed in the mirage, the more difficult it is to concentrate. My mind grows weaker with each passing minute. Soon I will give into the temptation. Soon I will kick back in the sand to enjoy the relief of the shade and persistent breeze.

To keep my mind alert, I start listing the names of Academy guns. “Shorteye…Hacker…Mhag…”

Something bolts into the desert. Wings can be heard flapping in the distance.

Please don’t be Turpis.

I make my way through the oasis, stalking silently through the grass. Instinctively, I reach for my Z-guns that once sat around my waist. My hands come up empty. Somehow, I keep forgetting I traded my weapons for children. It was ignorant to think I wouldn’t need them.

Standing in the center of the oasis, the wind begins to settle, the stifling heat slowly returning. The illusion is fading, its creators gone. But staring at a torn-up patch of grass, I know for sure the Turpis were here. Blood spots the trampled earth, along with chunks of bone and meat. With Marcus nowhere to be seen, I can only assume the worst.

Ryota was right. “You shouldn’t go,” he told me the night before I snuck out of Azylo in the cargo hold of a supplies vessel. “The Board has forbidden your involvement, even Christian has stated his disapproval. Not only that, but it’s far too dangerous for someone to go alone. Let Beverly handle the recruiting from now on.” He was irate, calling my decision reckless. He even denied me his company on this endeavor.

I know I shouldn’t have come, especially without my team, but the Academy needs new recruits. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is going to happen. My gut tells me so. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually we will be caught with our pants down, hands tied behind our backs. And the sudden reemergence of the Earth-dwelling Turpis tells me my gut is right.

Frustrated by the Board’s lack of drive, by Beverly’s thirst for dominance, by the death of Marcus, I leave the oasis in a hurry and return to the other children. By the time I get back, Liza is awake and using a torn part of her tattered grey gown to wrap Mak’s bloodied arm. Her touch seems tender for an eight-year-old, her concentration unbending as she purses her lips while tying the ends together.

“Where is he? Where’s my brother?” Mak can barely get the words out. His throat sounds swollen, raw.

“He’s gone,” I admit. Some truths must be said, regardless of how much I hate it. I hate that Marcus is dead. I hate that he was murdered under my care. People shouldn’t have to suffer like this, children especially. But this is the cruel world we live in, and will continue to live in unless something changes. I am determined to be that change.

“We need to stay together,” I say. “It’s the only way we will make it to the shelter alive. Do I make myself clear?”

Mak winces as if he wants to cry. He squints and pouts, but the tears won’t come. Liza finishes securing the tourniquet on his arm, gets up, hurries over to me. She wraps her arms around my hips, holding on for dear life as she presses her delicate face into my stomach. I can feel her body trembling. She’s afraid.

“We have to go.”

“I don’t want to leave without Marcus,” Mak whimpers, rising on wobbly legs. The fabric on his arm has soaked through. Blood drips onto the sand at his feet.

“The Turpis are back,” I say, trying to inflict fear into their hearts in hopes it will urge them to act. “They know where we are. We have to hurry and get to the shelter if we don’t want to die.”

“I’m not going,” Mak says, grimacing.

Liza glances up at me, her eyes glazed with tears. “I want to go…” Her cheeks are red and peeling, her hair a tangled mess.

“I’m staying here. I’m not leaving without my brother!” Mak shouts.

“Myzer…” Liza tugs on my jumpsuit.

I could easily force Mak to come with us. But I can’t risk drawing attention to us the entire way. He’ll be kicking and screaming and fighting me if I make him come. And that will get us killed.

“You will die if you stay here,” I tell Mak. I stare at him intensely, hoping he will heed my warning and come willingly, but he doesn’t flinch. A heavy feeling fills my chest. “If this is what you want to do, then I won’t stop you. But Liza and I are leaving.” Crouching down, I let Liza climb onto my back. I give Make one final chance, staring at him, silently begging him to come.

The boy plops down in the sand, making his decision clear. I grit my teeth, turn the other way, and head deeper into desert. I feel his eyes follow us. I hear his silent pleas for us to stay. But I don’t dare look back. Not once. I can’t.

He won’t survive the night, that much I know. If he is lucky, he will die from a loss of blood. Chances are however, he will meet the same fate as his brother. Mak will come face-to-face with the monsters that have hunted humans for centuries.

Original work by Ashley Danielle LeTourneau