A Working Chapter

            Ranae’s legs burned from overexertion. It was nearly sunrise on this dying planet, and if she and her team did not get to the caves soon, they would die. Since the great solar expansion, most living things on the surface have perished. Most things, that is, save her underground settlement and lurkers. These beasts used to be dogs of some kind, but radiation from the sun deformed them, expanding their size. 

The sled she dragged behind her was overloaded with precious material needed by her people. In what used to be an ocean floor are great trenches containing the relics of humanity. Around this trench, called Tonga by settlement elders, are scattered piles of ships and debris. Ferrous metal is a good find; any kind of cloth is better. fiberglass is the best. All are used to create things they need to survive, including the surface suit she wore.

            Maybe it was a bad idea to send my team ahead, she thought.

            Ranae glanced over her shoulder to see the dust trails getting closer. Lurkers are only on the surface when the sun is on the other side of the planet, what used to be nighttime This same sun that has been killing the planet for a hundred years was so close that even Earth’s dark side retained an eternal sunset.

            It must be as hungry as I am tired, Ranae thought as she scanned ahead for the entrance to the cave. When she saw a silhouette in the distance, arm raised and waving, she leaned forward, pumping her arms and legs harder against the weight of the overloaded sled.

            “Almost there,” she said to herself.

            As she drew closer to the cave and one of her team members, the sled drifted to one side in the slick sand and lodged behind a boulder, jerking her backwards with such force that her heels flew skyward. The soft sand absorbed the blow to her head. She struggled to stand, and through exhausted tears Ranae lost sight of the Lurker. She heard a distorted voice, a distant echo. 

            She pushed herself onto her knees, but the twisted straps from the sled prevented her from standing. These straps were thick and lashed around her shoulders. They were designed for use by two team members, and they could bear a great weight. Her small frame would not be able to rip free of their grasp. Ranae lurched as something touched her shoulder from behind. In a blink, she drew up a jagged, eight-inch blade from the sheath on her waist, pivoted towards the threat and stopped the blade just a breath away from the target’s face.

It was Aussie. 

            “It’s just me!”, he shouted as he stumbled back a step. “Let’s get you up,” Aussie said as he pulled up on her arm. “Ah. You’re stuck.”

            “Wait!”, Ranae exclaimed. She jerked away from him and started cutting the sled straps with the blade. “We have to go. Now!” 

            “What about the skid?”

            “Leave it! We have to get to the cave,” she said. “There’s a –”

            Aussie vanished under the body of the Lurker.

            Ranae leapt at the beast only to be thrown to the ground by the skid straps. She rolled to her side, grabbed the straps and hacked at them in a frenzy with her jagged, iron blade. She could see Aussie struggle, managing only to keep the lurker’s barbed teeth away from his face.

Her eyes remained fixed on the back of the beast until the last strap gave way. 

            Once free, Ranae sprinted and leapt onto the back of the creature. She formed a fist around the thick, bristled hair of the lurker’s nape and delivered one, two stabs into its side. The beast rose to its hind legs, roaring from the wound which oozed blood as dark as oil. As her weight shifted, she thrust her blade into the beast’s shoulder. 

The beast shrieked in pain, returning to all fours. One of its head-sized paws landed on Aussie and pushed his helmet further into the soft sand. The lurker hunched its back and drew its head to one side to snag Ranae in its fangs. She yanked on the embedded blade but could not free it. The large canine spun around, as if chasing its tail, and flung Ranae off with a roar. She landed on her back near the cave entrance, the blow knocking her breathless.

            As the lurker turned toward her, collapsing with every step from the blade in its shoulder. Ranae’s legs would barely move as she fought to remain conscious and only with great effort could she breathe. 

With every hobbled step taken by the lurker, Ranae forcefully exhaled. There were only a few breaths left before it was upon her. The beast, inches away from Ranae’s boot, raised its head and opened its mouth wide exposing cracked teeth entrenched in black gums. It lurched at her leg when an iron shaft pierced its neck, killing it instantly.

            “Ranae! Are you okay?” a voice shouted as someone knelt beside her. 

            Ranae drew herself up and eyed the person next to her.

            “Joson?” she asked.

            “Aye.”

            Ranae regained more of her vision and she saw others dragging Aussie toward the cave. She looked back at Joson as he lifted her to her feet.

            “Aussie?” she asked as she caught her balance on Joson’s shoulder.

            “Ah. He’s alright. Unconscious, some scrapes. Looks like he’s nappin if you ask me,” Joson quipped. He led Ranae to the cave and helped her sit against the wall a few yards inside.

            “You wait here. We’ll get your sled.”  She nodded as he turned and left.

            Aussie lay next to her. She noticed some damage to his surface suit, but there wasn’t any blood. His helmet seemed intact, maybe a little pushed in and dented. She wanted to remove Aussie’s helmet, and hers, but that wouldn’t happen until they descended further underground. 

            She reached out to Aussie’s chest with a limp right arm. His chest was rising and falling, so he wasn’t all the way dead. When he started coughing, Ranae withdrew her hand. As he regained consciousness, she helped him sit up. 

            “You’re safe,” she said. “Just sit for a few minutes. Rest.”

            “What happened?”

            “Lurker.” The word sounded surreal as it echoed off the walls of the cave.

            Aussie nodded with some difficulty and asked, “You okay?”

            “Better than you,” she shot back. “We owe our skins to Joson and his crew. They must have been starting their mission as we made our way back.”

            “Joson? Dammit,” Aussie said. “I’m never gonna live it down that I was knocked unconscious by a damn lurker. Stupid dogs.”

            Aussie looked around then asked, “Where’s the new girl? The lurker eat her?

            “I sent you two ahead together. You saw her last.” 

            “Right, but she wasn’t with me when I got to the cave,” he replied. “I thought she went back to help you with the skid.”

            Ranae stood and walked toward the cave entrance. Joson approached with the damaged skid, still intact.

            “Joson, have you seen Chia?”

            “Who’s that?”

            “The new girl on my team.” She sounded as helpless as the shrug she received in return. Great. Now I’ve lost another team member, she thought. It was just months before when one of her senior team members vanished while scavenging. 

            “Tell you what, kid,” Joson said. “Since you down one member, we’ll help you carry your haul back to the settlement. If Chia’s not down there, then my team will go look for her. You two are banged up and need to get below the surface.”

            Ranae nodded, grabbed the frayed straps of the sled and headed deeper into the cave. Joson lifted up Aussie by the nape of his suit, dusted off Aussies shoulders, and chuckled as they walked into the darkness.