The buildings grew, monoliths towering above and beneath. Carmen ignored them. Instead, as she hurried along the ledge, she checked the tablet to ensure the path was clear. In the depths, water had given way to rock—a surface that rose, steadily and was soon visible even as the drone hung level with her. While the water was gone, bodies still covered the rocks, more than she could count.
The buildings peaked, and—abruptly—ended. The stumps of shattered buildings lining the path ahead reminded her of pictures of bombed out towns, leveled by conflict. What have I been used for, Carmen asked herself, is this what my father would have wanted?
Forcing her mind away from the question, she sent the drone out ahead of her. Just as it disappeared into the mist, a wall of rock loomed ahead of it. The sight set Carmen’s heart racing. I’m almost there.
Carmen searched for some exit, zooming in on splotches of lichen and banks of moss. Her ledge did not end at the rock face but disappeared through into a cave. She began to jog. The cavern’s ceiling began to curve downwards. The breeze grew stronger, a current of cold air.
She reached the cliff face and hesitated. The cave entrance towering over her was a perfect circle, its edges unnaturally smooth. Inside, a single shaft of life fell from above, illuminating an enormous space beyond. A steady stream of cold, fresh air flowed from within. As her ledge entered the rock face, it broadened.
She glanced back at the city, half shrouded by the mists. I cannot believe I found a way out, Carmen thought, I still need to be careful—there’s at least one creature out there, and this cave does not look natural.
Sending the drone ahead of her, she watched the machine lift past, towards the light. Beyond the rockface lay a huge circular room. A raised walkway ran along its walls, enclosing a courtyard of snow and ice. The drone ascended and she saw the cavern was shaped like a diagonal teardrop—as though caught by a gust of wind. A path zig-zagged up the steep face across the room, narrowing at each switchback until it disappeared through a hole. The drone slipped into the light and hung above in open air. Snow stretched into the distance to its right but to its left were short cliffs capped with snow laden pines.
Finally. She stepped from ice to rock, squinting in the relative darkness. Her footsteps echoed, breaking an absolute tranquility. Rather than taking the path around the edge of the room, she strode across the center of the room, letting the faint white light wash over her.
Halfway across, she tripped. The tablet skittered across the floor. She looked back, and saw something jutting slightly from the otherwise smooth surface. Brushing snow off it, she found herself looking at the top of a thermos. The dented, scratched thing rattled. She pulled. It slid out of the ground, which she realized was nothing more than a patch of ice. Slipping the thermos into her pocket, she shrugged, picked up the tablet, and began up the path towards the light.
Ten minutes later, Carmen took her first breath of freezing air. She almost cried. The snow stretched out behind her, and to her right was the island: a small spar of land spattered with pines, diminished by the surrounding snow. To her left was a small cliff, topped by three tall pines, festooned with a brown, papery material flapping in the wind. The Cravens’ nest.
Taking a step forward, Carmen felt the reassuring crunch of rock beneath the ice. The beach; I’m ten minutes walk from the house. She pulled out the tablet, and checked the drone feed. A dark shape was dragging something across the snow, but it didn’t look like one of the creatures. She zoomed in and found herself looking at Chris.
He survived. Tears welled in Carmen’s eyes. She wanted to sprint to him, to wrap herself around him, but all her body could manage was a slow jog. As she crunched along the snow-covered beach she kept her eyes on the tablet, watching him. Chris had seen the drone, and was waving, his feet kicking up snow. He stepped aside, revealing a form on a stretcher behind him.
The drone shifted slightly in a gust of wind, throwing the frame across the ice. She zoomed out, trying to find him again, but even as she did she saw something else. Another shape, dark against the snow and lurching toward the island. She zoomed in. One of the city’s inhabitants was dragging the body of another across the snow towards Chris. Hugging the coastline, she pushed herself to run.
Chris dragged Roderick across the snow; the other man had long since gone quiet, asleep or unconscious. The snow had stopped, but the sky remained overcast, its pale grey melting into the white ground. The island with its promise of warmth, and maybe even a shower, hunched a few hundred metres ahead of him. He felt tired, more tired than he had ever felt. His vision blurred and he felt as if he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet still he managed to put one step in front of the other.
The sound of drone engines cut through his reverie. He scoured the skies and saw it. A drone hung above the Cravens’ nests, unmoving. Carmen, thank God—I hope that’s you and not just a machine. He fumbled with the clasps across his chest, dropping the stretcher.He ran towards the drone, waving his arms.
“Carmen!” He shouted,“Carmen.”
The drone lurched toward him. It’s her, elation overwhelmed him. His eyes stung. And, for a moment, he just smiled up at the approaching drone, beckoning it in. Then he remembered Roderick.
“Carmen, I need help,” Stepping aside, he motioned at the stretcher. ”He needs help.”
The machine roared over him. Chris turned. A megapede stood a few metres across the ice, its back to him.
He almost tripped as he recoiled but It didn’t seem to notice either of them. Its gaze tracked the drone. Chris held his breath.
The creature scuttled backwards, and jerked forwards; it seemed to be pulling something, something that glinted just as it did. The body of the other one. It clicked quietly, watching the drone bank around, circling their position. Then it noticed them.
The megapede shrieked, dropped the body, coiled, and rose up, towering over him.
Chris scrambled back. It swayed in place. He stared into its eyes. It glared back.
He saw a glimmer of something, as though the creature was evaluating him. He had the urge to say something, to tell it that he meant it no harm.
The spell broke. It lunged. Chris threw himself out of the way, trying to draw it away from Roderick. He gasped in pain as his left hand struck ice beneath the snow. He forced himself to roll as the creature’s tail slammed into the snow nearby.
He clambered to his feet but the creature was already upon him, grabbing at his leg with its mandibles. The snow cushioned his fall. The creature clung to his left leg, pinning it down. He kicked at it with his right, glancing off one of its eyes. It shrieked and twisted away, leaving his left leg searing in pain.
Carmen stumbled, tumbling forwards, plunging into the snow. She threw both arms out in front of her and caught herself, gloves digging into the pebbles. She could see Chris in the distance. He had seen the creature and was stumbling away.
I’m not going to get to him in time, Carmen thought, I have to help him—he doesn’t stand a chance. Her eyes flicked up to the drone hanging above him. She remembered the crushed bodies piled in the depths of the cavern. If Chris can just stay away long enough, I can drop the drone on it. She pulled out the tablet. I have to void the tank otherwise it will explode and kill Roderick if he isn’t already dead.
On the feed, Chris hurled himself away from the creature. He scrambled to his feet, limping away towards the island. Perfect, go, go, go, Carmen thought, maneuvering the drone over the creature. But Chris barely made it three steps before the creature was upon him, seizing him by the leg. Chris fell forwards, and the creature dragged him back. He kicked at its face but it deflected each blow with its mandibles. Shit shit shit, Carmen stumbled toward him. Taking a deep breath she began to cry out.
“Chris, Chris get away from it, the drone—”
Chris’s hands scrabbled across snow and ice. The creature had pinned both his legs, and was inching up his body, pinning down each part of him with its innumerable limbs.
“Chris,” he heard faint shouting in the distance, “Chris, rrrrr”
Suddenly, the pressure lifted. He sprang to his feet ready to fight, or run. The creature hunched over Roderick. Gently, it ran its forelegs over the man’s shattered legs. It turned to Chris and spat a few clicks and a high whistle.
“Get away from him,” Chris shouted.
The creature looked from Chris, to Roderick, and then to the slumped form of its companion. It brushed some snow from itself, and scuttled a little way off between Roderick and the other’s body. It sat, eyes fixed on Chris, seemingly waiting.
Why did it let me go? He asked himself, edging towards Roderick, It had me, had both of us. Without taking his eyes off the creature, he grabbed Roderick’s stretcher and began to pull. It watched him inch away, clicking quietly.
“Chris, get away from it—the drone—” Carmen’s voice reached him.
“Carmen,” He turned, “No—”
There was a rising whistle followed by a crunching thud. A hair-raising shriek resounded, echoing across the straits. The creature writhed, propellers blades, and smouldering metal embedded in its shattered shell. It burned, legs scratching its body.
The falling drone had crushed it, almost cutting it in half. Large chunks of wreckage weighed upon it, pinning it in place. Each flailing movement was a circular lurch. Chris watched with rising guilt, it was letting me go.
The sound of approaching footfalls broke his train of thought. He looked to see Carmen approaching. Her face was bruised, scratched, and her right arm hung, limp, but she seemed otherwise unharmed.
“Carmen thank god,” he said, pulling her into a tight hug. “What happened to you.”
“Later,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s a long story,” she looked over to the prone form of Roderick. “Is he dead?”
“No, just unconscious.”
“That’s a shame,” she replied flatly. Carmen looked over at the still twitching form of the creature.
Should I tell her it was letting me go, Chris asked himself, no, that won’t help anything. It was, after all, only an animal. Still, they stood with it as it died, writhing at the edge of the straits. It clicked and shrieked, then slumped, still.