"It's too dangerous, Amy."
Amy could see the underlying terror in the woman's face before her though she tried to act strong. Her friend's dark blue eyes were filled with worry. Amy watched as she lifted a finger to tuck back a mop of tangled red hair from her face. A quick squeeze of her friend's hand for reassurance was all Amy could offer. Both women knew it didn't matter that Amy's mission was dangerous, she had no other choice. The others in the cave were close to starvation. Amy was the strongest, pitiful as it seemed to her.
"It'll be fine, Meg," Amy reassured her. She cast a quick glance around to check the perimeters of her vision as was habit. Dangers always lurked in the shadows when they least expected it. "I'll be in and out of the men's camp before they know what hit them."
"If they catch you..."
"They won't," Amy was quick to say. She repressed a shudder of fear. Both women knew what would happen if Amy was caught. Death would be a pleasant alternative.
Amy looked up at the sky. It was a rare night to catch a glimpse of not only one star but two. The meteors burned so much of the Earth the atmosphere was cloudy with a constant smoky, polluted haze. With the eruption of so many volcanoes, sometimes ash would fall like snow to make them even more miserable. The fine layers of dust rose with each step taken. Amy likened it to a death march every time she emerged from their cave. Freezing rain at times dropped like gray paint. The water mixed with the ash on the ground to form puddles of filth.
Without the sun's ability to shine through the murky fog it grew colder each passing day. The Earth was there...and yet not. Like an open coffin displaying death. No one really had much time, Amy even less. The year before the world fell apart she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had been a devastating blow to the then twenty-four-year-old. Amy's mother had died of the same disease ten years previous. Her mother had found out too late.
With treatment, Amy would have had a good chance--but not enough to get her to Ulsy. Only the healthy, rich and young were given salvation on the new planet. Amy was deemed a lost cause. Only a handful of doctors remained on Earth for a short period of time. As fast as was possible all women of childbearing years had been tested and shipped to Ulsy. Those who didn't pass all the tests were turned away without any kind of treatment. Surprisingly, Amy was still alive and kicking. She assumed it was because of the six women and three children at her cave who had depended on her for the last few months.
The biggest surprise was how many men were left behind to die. Even the healthy and strong. To Amy it almost appeared those on Ulsy were harvesting women for the new planet. She knew it was an odd thought, but at the end the shuttles seemed only to be transporting women. Earth had been left with a very angry group of men. The men seemed as volatile as the meteors and just as explosive.
"It's dark already," Meg said. She too looked up at the stars. Her expression was mournful. "Pretty soon there won't be any daylight left at all. We'll be in perpetual darkness."
"I know," Amy said quietly, there was no use in denying the obviousness of their bleak situation. "I better go."
"Come back to us," Meg said and hugged her.
That was how they always said goodbye. There was no good in bye, just a sense of finality on a last journey, so they stopped using the term long ago. Their goodbyes were reserved for the dead. With a nod and a lopsided grin Amy made her way into the night. A backward glance and she saw Meg disappear into the well-camouflaged cave. The crevice to enter the cave was tight; it was hard for the women, all malnourished, to squeeze through. They had to enter standing, with their bellies squeezed taut, and breath held. No man would ever fit.
The forest before Amy was quiet. It always was. It wasn't in the beginning when Amy had first joined with the other women and children. For a while during the day, a few birds would chirp, now they were all gone. It had been well over a month since the last bird had flown overhead. Silence during the day was scary, but the darkness was far worse. At night in those first months there had been screaming and terror-filled howls as a fight for life ensued. Death was everywhere. Animals hunted people, men hunted the animals, and both man and beast hunted the vulnerable. Amy shuddered with the thought.
People banded in packs for safety. Unfortunately, it seemed to have turned into a gender war. Man against woman as the food became scarce. Large carnivorous zoo animals that roamed free were a constant threat. They never knew what waited around the next bend: man, polar bear, gorilla or enraged elephant. Amy had tried to teach herself to hunt. Most weapons were scarce; they had made their way to the new planet, Ulsy, with the survivors deemed important enough to keep. With the discovery of a planet that could sustain human life came the hope of salvation.
Shuttle after shuttle escaped the Earth's atmosphere in a race against time. Finally, time was up. Earthquakes shattered the foundation of the planet. Sinkholes devoured entire cities. Tsunamis hammered coast after coast claiming more land until half the planet was submerged. To say the situation was capricious was laughable. The last shuttles had ceased to travel back from their new home as Earth fell apart. Earth was on its own. Only a handful of survivors were left out of the billions. Because of her cancer, Amy wasn't given a shuttle pass. She had been sentenced to death on hell as far as she was concerned. It was almost laughable her cancer had become second to her worries. In a pool of new unforeseen lotteries there was a likelihood she could be consumed by a tiger first. Talk about your food for thought.
Amy had tried her best to learn to hunt. Her ability with a bow and arrow were pathetic. She couldn't throw a spear to save her life; her arms just weren't strong enough to penetrate a hide. She had been reduced to thievery. It was a dangerous game of survival stealing from desperate, cruel men. The women were given no choice. In the beginning, the men would offer food for sex. It was like a game to them. As the food dwindled and reality set in that things would never get better, the men offered nothing and took what they wanted. Vast cruelty roamed the Earth. No one stopped them.
Amy and the others hid in their cave during the day and roamed when they could at night. Lately the others had stopped roaming, stopped caring. They were a sad sorry lot, abandoned by their own race. Amy just couldn't give up, it wasn't in her nature.
Determinedly she made her way across the vast expanse of decaying foliage. The Earth had a new odor--decomposition--it reeked with it. Long gone were the sweet smells of the lilac bush. Amy hadn't seen a flower bloom in a year. Looking up into the withering height of the trees was a mistake. They looked like skeletons cast against a gray sky. Their long bone-like limbs were bare of leaves. They swayed eerily in a death dance as the wind moaned between them. A chill shook Amy's entire body and she wrapped her arms across her breasts. Her entire world was gray.
Around her feet were tied rags that made barely a sound on the crumbling forest floor. The rubber soles of sneakers burnt out long ago on the charred ground and left a telltale stench. With many layers of cloth she could add to it or replace it--no smell, and a lot quieter for thievery. Her body was layered in tattered clothes for warmth. Lately there had been no such thing as warmth. The fire at night in the cave took the chill off but no more. The brackish water found in puddles or muddy streams was forever boiling over the small flames for drinking in battered tin cans. When desperate, which was often enough, they hung many plastic bags on the bare limbs hoping the rain would fill at least a few.
Amy couldn't remember her last real bath. The streams that still ran were frigid. Dunking her head and becoming soaked was a sure road to pneumonia. Amy wondered why they bothered. Life was an empty shell. The perpetual glass wasn't half-full or half-empty; out here the glass didn't even exist. As her shoulders slouched she gave herself a good shake.
"Now none of that," she commanded herself aloud. "Don't go feeling sorry for yourself. Don't consider yourself smelly. Just look at it like blending in. A great camouflage. You will find food tonight and let tomorrow take care of itself."
The soft cloth on her feet felt the stones and sticks beneath but she trudged on. Her destination was soon in sight. The rocks were slick when she eased herself over to a pile of structured debris. The men's fortress was surrounded by a five-foot-high thick wall of timber and small boulders. It resembled organized chaos. Four fires burned brightly in the center of a well-defined circle. Amy could hear the men talking and laughing. They had no need to be unseen. They were the predators. Normally they posted a sentry, but not tonight. Tonight they seemed particularly rowdy. Amy hoped they didn't have a woman; she wasn't on a rescue mission. They couldn't afford to take in any more stragglers.
A gust of wind and Amy's nose tingled with the scent of cooking meat. Ah, that's why they're so happy. Amy shimmied over a log and then crawled under another. She pressed herself into the ground. It was a tight fit even though she was thin from lack of food. Her hands rested under her chin, with her head tilted to the side and for a moment she just lay there breathing in the smell of venison. If she closed her eyes she knew she would envision her father in their smokehouse making jerky. Amy kept her eyes open. She had no time for sentiment--her father had died too; he had perished in a landslide.
A large man near the first fire was on his haunches cutting a huge chunk off the hindquarters of the animal. Amy swallowed hard when his teeth sank into the portion he held and he groaned his delight with exaggerated chews. Juices dripped from his ratty beard-covered chin to splash against his grubby shirt collar.
Amy licked her lips; her mouth watered, filling with saliva. She wanted that meat. Her eyes darted around the area. She had been here before but never this close. Only lately was any attempt to steal from the men done near their domain. It couldn't be helped. The men had thought the women were weak and so they only traveled in pairs to hunt. They hadn't counted on desperate women in a group of seven knocking them on their asses and taking their kills. Soon enough the men had smartened up and though a blow to their egos, they hunted in larger packs of nine and ten.
Food for Amy and her cave had been almost nonexistent for three days now. It was dangerous to travel too far from the cave but the immediate area was expunged of edible items. She was starving, desperate and willing to risk her life for her sake as well as her companions. Amy scooted backwards and roamed carefully around to a darker side of the circle. She would need to get in and out in a hurry. A small round stone settled into her slingshot from her back left pocket. Once it flew, there would be no turning back.
Taking a deep breath and muttering a few words to herself for encouragement, Amy chose the largest man inside the circle. He strutted about like a cock and a blow to his ego would send everyone scattering. A thumb and forefinger pulled back on the thick rubber band and she let the rock sail. The large man howled in surprised pain when the stone struck him behind the ear. His food dropped to the ground. He was bellowing out orders. The men were in motion. Quick as a shadow in the night, Amy was back under the tight-fitting log, hiding. The men were scrambling over the high fence in their haste to get to where the shot had been fired. Amy held her breath. Her hiding spot was close to the food and the huge hunk the man had dropped was almost within her reach.
With steely determination Amy made her move. A quick roll, once, twice, then she grabbed the meat and rolled back. Her face buried into her prize the second she was undercover. Great mouthfuls disappeared past her lips and were barely chewed before she gulped it down. The men were still raging all around her while she stuffed her face as fast as she could. If she wasn't careful they would smell the food if they came too close to her. She choked it down her throat. The men's blundering fury-filled steps made it easy to keep track of them. When Amy finished her meal and licked her fingers clean, she inched her way out of her hiding spot. The men were shouting back and forth but were now listening and unmoving.
Feeling rejuvenated, Amy once again plucked her slingshot from her back pocket and took aim with a rock from her jacket. The man she was aiming for was farther than she wanted but she had to get them moving back in the other direction. She took aim. Her shot fell short but it rebounded off a tree and struck another man in the groin. Down he went with a howl gripping the family jewels as if someone was about to pluck them from him. Amy giggled at the sight then quickly covered her mouth. She dove back under her hiding place.
The men were again on another wild goose chase. Amy had her knife ready. She rolled out from under cover and was soon on her knees sawing into the haunch of meat. It was almost searing hot where she gripped it. She was fast. Two quick jagged cuts and she had enough to feed her group for two days. She dropped to her side and rolled. Before she made it to her hiding spot she was stopped. Amy screamed when she was hauled up by her short hair. The meat and her knife were ripped from her hands.
Amy sent her fist into her attacker's face, followed with an elbow to his ribs. He let go of her. She spun about to confront the rest of them. There were three. All three men were large. Their hair was long and matted as were their scraggly beards. Their clothes were as disgusting as her own. They stunk, their smell wafted to her assaulting her nose.
"You want meat, sweetheart, and I'll give you meat," one of the men said with a disgusting leer.
"Dinner and a show, boys," another said and guffawed.
A branch had rolled from one of the fires, only one end it smoldering. A quick twist of it under her ankle and Amy had tossed it up into her hand. She waved the smoldering tip in front of them. The men circled her and laughed. One of the men called to the others that they had found some entertainment. Amy groaned. Three men were bad enough, but to fight off all fifteen--she was doomed. Still she wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of seeing her fear.
"You," she said, pointing to the man who had grabbed her hair. "You're going to die first."
All three men howled with renewed laughter. Their derogatory words were beyond insulting. Amy felt her face flame. She pointed to another man.
"You'll die next," she said matter-of-fact.
"I always go last," the last man said and pouted.
"At least third tonight, Leon," said the first man.
"How about it, baby doll. You gonna kill me last?" Leon asked.
Amy sized him up and shook her head. The man named Leon couldn't have reached his twenties yet. Amy was again wondering why many of the shuttles only returned for women the better part of the last year. The three men before her were young, healthy and virile and they still weren't chosen. It was a mystery to them all. The youngest man before her was cute, tall and strong. What a shame. He should be out at parties, in college, driving to a movie with his girlfriend. Instead his baby face was covered in filth as he waited to die. Death was inevitable; how a person went was up to them--at least right now.
"Walk away and I'll let you live," Amy advised.
The young man chuckled. "No way, sweet thing."
Amy swung hard when the largest of the three made a grab for her. She connected soundly to his head with her weapon and he went down. The other two gaped in surprise until the man on the ground bellowed in rage that he was going to kill her when he finished with her. Once more, Amy swung hard. The second largest grabbed the branch and Amy went flying. She landed painfully on the ground on her side. The wind was knocked out of her. She crawled to her knees. They circled her like vultures. She was scared, and held her fingers splayed before her to ward off the inevitable attack.
The largest of the three stood towering over her, fists balled. "This is gonna hurt." He sneered, pulling back his fist.
Amy gasped when a black blur was suddenly before her. For an instant the blur touched her and Amy felt a jolt of surprise.
The man who was about to attack her was off the ground, his feet dangling by a foot. His mouth and eyes were open wide in shocked surprise.
A creature the likes of which Amy had never seen was standing mere inches from her. It was encased in black, with fangs protruding from its mouth. For feet it had claws, five thick ones up front and one at the back where its heel would be. On the side of the creature's face was a glowing green tattoo.
One-handed, the massive creature before her had the large man off the ground. Four of its five long talons were sunk into the man's belly. The creature growled showing more of its ivory-white, inch-long fangs. Amy was too terrified to scream. It was like the boogeyman meets the monster from the black lagoon all wrapped up in one eerie creature. In one fluid motion, her would-be attacker was flung like a rag doll into the wooden fencing. The toss had been so hard the body embedded into the wood with a solid crunch.
The other two men found their voices and the second man screamed when he was gored with the talons next. A vicious slice across the man's middle and cloth mixed with blood and flesh. The youngest, Leon, fled.
Amy watched in morbid fascination as her previous threats played out. They died in sequence.
As blood spewed from the second man's mouth, he was sent spiraling into the returning circle of men. Six were knocked to the ground when his lifeless body crashed into them.
That's when Amy found her feet--or rather her belly. She dropped, rolled and was back in her hiding place. She wiggled her way out and bolted.
Behind her Leon was scrambling over the fencing of debris. He raced to Amy, flung her backwards and almost ran over her in his haste to get away from the terrifying creature. Amy lay stunned on the ground. The beast-like thing jumped over the fence as though it were a mere trotting post. It landed on all fours inches from her. Amy swore the ground moved. A small spattering of dust rose then settled around it. The skin of the creature was ebony and shiny. It cocked its head to the side studying her. The thing was bald. Bumps were prominent where eyes should have been. It growled and Amy shook, unable to move.
Oh my God, it's huge.
"Run," the creature demanded.
The single word was a heavy growl and hissed as it passed its fangs. It was a male voice.
Amy scrambled up wondering if it wanted to play cat and mouse with her. She ran for all she was worth into the darkness. Her legs pumped madly beneath her. She chanced a quick glance behind her. The creature wasn't following her. To her left, she heard a scream of agony. The creature had found Leon. Amy raced until she thought her lungs would burst. When she fell, she remained motionless. Gasping sobbing breaths were dragged into tortured lungs. She rose to her knees and began to crawl.
What was she to do? She couldn't let the thing follow her back to the cave. If the men were defenseless from the beast, her sorry lot of malnourished women and children would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Bracing herself against a tree Amy found her footing--as unsteady as it was. The night was filled with agonized cries of fear. There was no doubt in Amy's mind that the creature was killing every single man back at the circle of men.
Amy moved faster. She practically bounced off each tree trunk in her haste to get away. The creature knew she was the most defenseless. It was saving her for last. She had to warn the others. She needed to protect the children. But how? The being had been at least six-and-a-half feet. Fangs like a vampire's protruded from its mouth. Just to look at it stopped her dead in her tracks.
The opening to her cave was closer. She was almost there. A sound high in the trees stopped her. Amy spun about and looked up. The gray cloud hanging overhead parted for a mere few seconds to allow the light of the stars to shine. Oh my God. It was up in the trees above her hanging upside down staring at her. Thick talons on its hands and feet clung to the bark of two trees side-by-side, embedding into the hard wood as easily as they had sunk into human flesh. One lone talon tapped the tree trunk as though counting down her remaining seconds of life. Both Amy and the creature remained frozen except for that single claw. Amy's heartbeat thumped, stopped, thumped, stopped. It consumed her--the need to hear her life drum continue.
The creature jumped from tree to ground to tree, eating up the distance between them, gaining momentum with each pounce. In seconds it would have her. Amy screamed. She had never been so terrified in her life. She bolted like a rabbit. The dark crevice was before her. She slipped inside, seeing then the fiery shimmer of light, hope. The pounding thunder of her heart hammered in her ears. Sweat covered her body and dripped down the back of her neck.
Amy felt something hook her shirt. She screamed when a huge talon embedded into her clothing. Amy was in the cave but it still had her. With its foot-long, sharp black talons the reach of the creature was phenomenal. The other women and children were screaming as Amy tried to struggle out of her coat. Her zipper was snagged on a corner of fabric. The creature pulled. The yanking motion ripped her clothing and jerked her backwards toward the crevice. Her scrambling feet skid across the dry dirt floor. The women and children pulled her back. Their game of tug-a-war was turning violent with both sides persistent.
Finally Craig, a young boy of almost twelve, grabbed a knife and cut Amy from her clothes. All of them went flying back in a heap onto the cave floor barely missing the fire pit. The creature's claw disappeared with its useless prize.
Amy did something she hadn't done in ages. She crumpled lower to the ground, with her face in her hands, feeling defeated with this new threat and sobbed in terror on the dirt. She remained there a long time as each individual wrapped their arms around her making a human ball of comfort. How could they ever hope for survival now?