The nine survivors huddled cold and scared beneath the shade of the fallen tree and shivered. In the distance, they heard the cries of their captors boom through the valley. They knew it would not be long until they were found. The only question was, once they were found, would they be killed on the spot or would they be taken back to the compound?
The self-appointed sentry was named Alex Chester, but everyone back home called him “The Jester.” It was hard to believe that there was a time in his life when he had a sense of humor—that laughing was, to him, the most important thing in this life. “What are problems if you can’t laugh at them?” Shuddering now, afraid of losing his life or being responsible for the loss of life for others, he tried to forget the man that he used to be and the life that he used to live. The past was the past and it wasn’t just gone, it was completely obliterated in a holocaust of fire and death. The creatures that held him and the eight others captive showed them entire cities turned into ash, survivors crying out in pain and sorrow.
Chester leaned in close to Friedman, his arm braced on the bark of the dead tree. “When do we move out?” He asked.
She hadn’t thought that far ahead. She nodded her head and stood up with some struggle. “Now. We head out now.”
They assumed a formation with two abreast and Chester as lead point. They marched out opposite from where they had come. Chester observed the plant life on their trek to see if anything looked edible. Everything looked harsh, thorny and barren.
A smell hung in the air that smelled like rain. It smelled like a summer night on an evening in the past. It smelled like childhood and innocence, like the endless stream of possibilities that awaits youth. The deception in the scent was maddening. The truth was that everything would not be alright. It would be laden misery to come.
A twig snapped. Chester put his arm up with his hand balled into a fist. Everyone stopped and crouched. The sound was not far off. A brush began to shake, leaves and branches rustling. Something was inside.
Chester leaned forward and observed, his every sense on edge and ready to explode. From beneath the thicket was a small clearing and a rabbit emerged, twinkling its nose, ears stretched up high. It paused immediately and stood alert. Its small eyes darted on the side of its head, scanning its terrain nervously for any movement and braced itself, poised, ready to dart off at any moment.
The freed prisoners crouched motionless. A quiet wind blew and carried their scent to the rabbit’s nose and it twitched. In a moment, Vasquez reached beneath her feet and grabbed a stone. She aimed and threw and it hit the rabbit on the face, on the bridge of its nose and cut into its fur. Stunned, it flopped on its side. Chester rushed to it before it had a moment to react and dart off and he twisted its neck. It was dead.
The nine of them felt a sickening sadness creep in and overwhelm them. It was so bestial, so brutish and so similar to what they’d witnessed themselves go through. But, they determined–slowly–that it was necessary.
“It’s not much,” Chester said. “But we can eat.”
The rabbit divided into nine parts wasn’t much more than a mouthful and the leanness of the meat didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of caloric intake, but it was enough to feel that they’d accomplished something. The struck a small fire beneath the cover of trees and cooked it slowly and divided it amongst themselves and had the first refreshing break they’d had in weeks.
“What time is it do you think?” Friedman asked.
“I don’t know,” Chester replied. He peered at the sky through wincing eyes. “I’d swear it’d be at least five in the afternoon by now, but looking at the sun, I’d say it’s around noon. It’s March, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t feel right. It feels too warm. It feels like a summer day.”
“We’re all half-delusional,” Vasquez added. “It doesn’t feel right because we haven’t been outside in a long, long time.”
“She’s right,” Friedman said. “We don’t have any concept of time because we’re out of our elements. We need to keep moving.”
The survivors kicked the fire out and buried it and discarded the rabbit’s bones to cover their tracks. They knew they were being followed and it wouldn’t be too much longer before they were discovered. None of them were completely convinced that they were going to escape or find civilization, it’s that they didn’t want to die as prisoners. They’d all rather die fighting for their freedom.
Finally, as the sun began going down, they used it as a marker to designate directions. They decided to head west, toward the coast. Civilizations are attracted to water and if they made it to the beaches, there might be other camps of other survivors… maybe even the beginnings of a resistance against the extraterrestrial occupation.
Friedman could feel her legs begin to stiffen up and buckle around her knees. She was used to this degree of walking and endurance but it had been too long and she was too embarrassed to ask for a break if no one else was willing to say so for themselves. She stood at the front of formation and gritted her teeth together to distract herself from the discomfort that was soon becoming unbearable. She felt a blister on her toe that had formed earlier rupture and begin leaking. She felt a comforting hand grasp her shoulder. Chester leaned forward to her and said, “I think we should take a break. I know it hasn’t been too long, but I think we’re all starting to get a little punchy.”
“I know,” She said. “We need to stay sharp.”
She laid back against a hillside and bunched an armful of pine needles together as a makeshift pillow. Without realizing it, she had fallen asleep and woke with a start an hour later.
It was dark now.
When she scanned the area she was in, she saw the other eight survivors staring up at the sky, bickering amongst themselves. A young man she didn’t recognize, maybe 19 years old, was crying with his face tilted up toward the stars. She got up and began walking toward him and saw that he was inconsolable. She looked to her right and saw Chester and Vasquez looking similarly downtrodden. No one said a word. And no one had to.
Friedman looked toward the sky to get her bearings, using the North Star as her celestial landmark. She saw no such star in the sky. Okay, she figured. She’s somewhere she’s not used to and turned around. If she just uses another recognizable constellation, like the Big Dipper, she can find it from there. No Big Dipper, no Little Dipper, no Orion’s Belt and no Scorpio. The smattering of stars in the sky was a shapeless mass with no purpose. It was completely unrecognizable. And worst of all, it was dark… pitch black, without the warming glow of the moon.
There was nothing in the sky to remind them of home and there was nothing on the ground in front of them that didn’t now reek of artificiality.
A cruel howl of one of the creatures sounded out 100-some yards behind them and they ran, but they saw no purpose in it. They were on an alien planet, some nature preserve mocked up to like Earth, with no way of getting back home. And for what purpose? All Friedman could reason was so that they could be studied. The creatures understood their enemy a little bit better now and knew how they would react in an internment situation. The rest of the destroyed fleet launched… what kind of experiments were being performed on them?
She cried now and not just for the loneliness she felt swallow her and not for the inevitable death she knew was coming–if not now, tomorrow, next week, next year–but for what might happen now to Earth. What were they planning?
A particular star in the sky shone and it was a rich, blue color, like the color of water. It looked the way she’d always imagined Earth would look if you were on Mars. If Mars shines red on the face of the Earth, then would Earth look blue if you were looking up at it? She called it home and she felt a twitch of a smile pull at her lips and she closed her eyes.
And then there was silence.