She Dies by Jason Lairamore [sci-fi]
The roar of the nearby monster hurt Missy Welton’s ears and rattled the window above where she crouched. She gripped the pitiful feeling laser-gun she carried in both hands and cursed under her breath as she shimmied across the room to the door leading out to the cobbled street beyond.
She should have brought a more powerful weapon to battle the behemoth out there, but she hadn’t wanted to be burdened by the added bulk, and besides, she needed to practice her precision shooting anyway.
Another building crumbled into rubble, this one cater-corner to where she peeked around the edge of the open door. The debris spewed out in a spray that rained down on the office building where she hid. The window she had just left exploded. Glass shot out and scored a shallow groove along her shoulder blade. Warm blood ran down her back, soiling the pretty flower dress she wore.
She winced at the sharp pain and gritted her teeth as she looked toward where the building had stood. A cloud of yellow dust billowed out from the site. Now was her chance. The monster had ruined her dress and that couldn’t stand.
With the gun pointing out in front of her, she darted through the doorway and down the street toward the concealing fog. The creature roared again and she covered her ears. It was close, so close. If she could only get a clear line of sight, then she knew she could kill it.
At the corner of the street, she stopped and wedged herself against a couple of walls in the building opposite the ruin. She pointed her gun as the fog slowly cleared. There was movement. It looked like a shadowy building rocking from side to side. She trained her gun toward the top of the massive creature and waited for the air to show it clear.
The monster was white and shiny, like silver glass in a feathery pattern that covered its blocky body. Its arms were as broad as her dad’s SUV and ended in sharp, diamond-looking claws. Her gun wouldn’t do a thing to a body so heavily armored. It had to be an eye. She strained to make out the details of its head as the thing continued to swing its massive arms.
The building next to the one it had already destroyed crumbled into dust. Debris rained down as another yellow cloud erupted. She tried to find the things eyes, but couldn’t. Its head was nothing but a solid block with a large opening in the middle for its screaming mouth.
She grunted as a falling brick clipped her leg, tearing her dress and raking the skin underneath. There were no eyes on its head. As she shifted her weight off her injured side, she quickly scanned the creature before the new debris fog engulfed it.
The monster had eyes on its belly. They were little orb-shaped pinpricks depressed in its silvery feathers. She took aim and fired as the yellow mist blew out over the scene.
A scream of pain so loud that it rattled her bones was her reward. With a smile, she lowered her weapon and turned her head toward the street leading away from the creature. It was sure to flail about now and she didn’t want to be anywhere near while it underwent its death throes.
But her legs wouldn’t move. She jerked her upper half, but it was no use. Her feet had frozen in place. A sharp crack from above alerted her of danger. Looking up, she saw a piece of the building she was beside break free. It was falling straight toward her. She leaned with all her might, but still didn’t budge.
The world about her took on a washed out, gray tint as it began to fade. She looked up once more in time to see the chunk of building right before it crashed down on her.
She lay in a tumbled heap on the floor of her now clear-screened virtual reality orb. Everything hurt.
“Get unplugged from that contraption and come to the kitchen,” her dad called. She came to hands and knees and tried to will away the pain she knew wasn’t real.
“You let Jeff kill me Dad,” she called out. Oh, how her little brother was sure to gloat. He had never killed her before on the battlefield.
“Kitchen, young lady,” Dad said again and was gone from her room. She groaned at the lingering aches that covered her and got to her feet. Against one wall of the VR orb was a panel that placed and removed the adhesives patches it required up and down her spine. She leaned against the machine and it disconnected her from the system. After she was fully disengaged, the orb split open and she exited.
She dressed in her favorite flower dress, a white one with red roses, and headed to the kitchen to see what was so important as to interrupt her and Jeff’s battle.
“I killed you!” her brother Jeff yelled the moment she entered the kitchen. Jeff had just turned nine years old. He had put on his t-shirt inside-out so that the seams showed at the shoulder. A grin covered his chubby face and his cheeks were red with excitement.
“Wait until I tell everyone at school that I killed a twelve-year-old!” he crooned.
“Dad unplugged me or I wouldn’t have died,” she said and stuck her tongue out at him.
“Nuh uh, Dad unplugged me too, but I still saw the kill on my tally bar before the session stopped.”
“Missy, Jeff, quiet,” Dad said. He and Mom were sitting at the kitchen table. Dad’s jaw muscles were standing out and Mom’s face was chalky white.
“What?” she asked in the tone she used when she was trying to be as serious as an adult. She could tell Dad was upset, but that wasn’t all that unusual. He was always mad when she and Jeff played in the orb. Mom looked scared though, and that was new.
“Sit down,” he said. She did so immediately. Jeff, oblivious to everything that wasn’t directly related to what he cared about, skipped over with that stupid smile still on his face.
“I’ve enrolled us into colonization,” Dad said.
She frowned at him and glanced at Mom, whose face seemed to have gotten even whiter.
“Colonization?” she asked, shaking her head. She’d seen the vids on the news apps that popped up on her social feed, same as everybody else, but had never paid them much mind. The people moving away to jungles and deserts on other planets and living like cave people were just ads that added color to all her friends’ postings on her feed.
“That’s right,” Dad said. “We’re getting away before all this tech rots your minds to mush and wastes your bodies to jelly.”
He had said the words with the same edge to his voice that he always seemed to use lately.
Mom started to cry.
“People aren’t meant to live this way Bea,” Dad said to Mom in a softer voice.
“We’re leaving Earth?” Jeff asked. His eyes were wide as he stared at Dad.
All Missy could think about was her friends online at school. Tom had asked to meet her in real life only yesterday. And she had a math test coming up later in the week. Then there was the virtual track meet this weekend. All of her friends were going to be there.
“Dad, we can’t go,” she said. He couldn’t be serious. Their whole life was here. Everybody she knew was here, in VR.
Dad flexed his jaw muscles again as he nodded at her. “It’s time you learned what real life is about.”
Her body felt numb like it did every time she was shutting out of the net. She waited for the kitchen’s cream colored walls to fade away, but they never did.
She shook her head slightly. “But –,” she looked at Mom who was still crying and back to the hard, brown eyes of Dad.
“It’s for your own good, Missy,” he said. He looked over at Jeff. “And you too, Jeff. I want you guys to be strong, like people are supposed to be.”
“I’ll die if you make me go!” she yelled and jumped from her chair. She ran to her room so that she wouldn’t have to see them anymore. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
She didn’t even have time to say goodbye to her friends. Dad must have signed them up for the trip months ago, because no sooner had she shut her bedroom door and taken a step toward her VR orb, and he was there.
“We’re leaving Missy,” he said. “No need to pack. Everything has been taken care of.”
She turned from the open door of her orb with every intention of squaring up to Dad and telling him that he could not make her go. She even went so far as to stick her chest out and lift her chin before her eyes met his. That was when her resolve crumbled. The look on Dad’s face was made of stone. She knew that nothing she said would make the least bit of difference.
“I hate you,” she said and ran past him through her open bedroom door.
Mom and Jeff were in the living room by the front door. Mom was no longer crying, but her shoulders were slumped.
“Mom, talk to him,” she whispered. “Don’t let him take us.”
Mom wouldn’t look her in the eye. She glanced to Jeff’s chubby face and then looked down at the tiled floor.
“I agree with him, Miss. It’ll be good for us.”
Some small kernel of hope that she hadn’t even known was there burnt to a cinder in her stomach.
“It might be fun, Missy,” Jeff said.
What did he know.
They drove in silence through the busy streets of the light-filled metropolis, but she didn’t see any of it. It was like how she felt when the VR was downloading whatever world she was entering. She floated in limbo and waited to see where she ended up materializing. When they reached the public spaceport, Dad ushered them through the lobby and then past the front desk lady. They were led up a steep set of steps into an oval room by a man wearing a white uniform and made to secure themselves into soft reclining chairs.
“Good luck,” the man said and then he was gone.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she must have. She had a headache and her mouth was dry. Dad handed her a water bottle. She tried to focus her eyes on him, but they were all gummy and didn’t want to open right.
“That water will fix you right up,” he said. His voice, for the first time in what seemed like a long time, sounded excited.
“Where are we?” she croaked as she lifted the bottle to her lips.
“Our new home,” he said.
Dad left and she drank the water, which did make her feel better. She got out of her chair and nearly fell down. She felt heavy.
“Gravity is a bit more than you’re used to,” Mom said, coming up beside her. Missy looked around at the other people with them and noticed that everybody else seemed to be having the same problem that she was having.
“Mom -,” she began.
“Give it a try, okay Missy?” Mom asked, cutting her off.
She was going to ask Mom if she still thought this was a good idea, but she guessed that it didn’t really matter now. They were here.
Missy descended the steep steps and the door slid open to show the world beyond. The sky was bright green and the sun was white! What looked like purple-leaved trees covered everything.
The ship had landed in what looked like burnt off land. The dirt was black and the smell of ash lay heavy on the air.
“Was there a fire?” She asked Dad, who had come up beside her.
He laid a hand on her shoulder. “That’s just how this place smells, Miss.”
“Come on, let’s explore!” Jeff called and took off at a waddling jog away from the ship.
Dad laughed. “Go,” he said and pushed her after Jeff. “Keep an eye on your brother.”
There were squat, dull-gray buildings dotting the little area around the ship. She caught up to Jeff after passing the first circle of them.
“Jeff, wait,” she said, pulling him to a stop.
The short run already had her brother breathing hard.
“I feel heavy,” he said between gulps of ash-tinged air.
“You are heavy,” she said with a wicked grin.
She let her joke drop and looked around. “Jeff, remember the first rule of exploring?”
“Weapons!” he answered. “But what is there? It isn’t like we have an inventory tab to choose from like back home.”
The thought of the VR orb and her never being able to play it again made her chest ache, but she remembered Mom telling her to give this place a try. She frowned at the box-like buildings surround them.
“Maybe those are our inventory tabs,” she said and pointed toward the closest building.
Jeff caught on to the idea right away. “Let’s go see.”
The buildings were little houses it turned out, with a bunch of inset machines used for cooking and cleaning. Even the beds were inset. They started opening all the little doors along the walls in search for something to use as weapons.
“Look!” Jeff called.
He had found a closet full of tools.
“Perfect,” she said.
They argued over the best things and finally agreed that she should carry the machete and him the ax.
“Now we’re ready,” she said.
They left the house and continued in the direction away from the ship. After the second circular arrangement of houses, they saw what looked like a dull gray wall up ahead.
“What is that?” Jeff asked. She cursed under her breath as they got closer. No wonder Dad hadn’t been concerned when they had run off to explore. The entire area was surrounded by a big metal wall.
“That’s just great,” she said as they reached the wall.
One of the purple-leaved trees had fallen against the wall. Its top hung over.
“Looks like we can’t explore after all,” she continued. She bent and picked up a clod of the black dirt and threw it at the purple treetop. Jeff followed her lead. Before long they were racing to see who could hit the tree hard enough to make some of its leaves fall off.
“A purple leaf can be our first badge of accomplishment!” Jeff yelled. He was out of breath again.
Just then, the whole treetop shook and a rain of leaves fell to the ground. Jeff, who had been a couple of steps in front of her, dropped his ax and raced ahead with a cry of glee.
A hiss followed and a large, dark-green, snakelike creature fell to the ground right in front of him.
“Jeff! Come back!”
The monster’s head reminded her of a Venus flytrap. She instinctively tried to find its eyes, but she couldn’t see any.
The monster snatched Jeff up. She was running toward him even as the creature was coiling its long body around Jeff’s struggling form.
She threw the clod she still had in her hand at the thing and scored a hit right into its open mouth.
“Let him go!” she screamed.
The monster hissed at her and the smell of rotten eggs hit her in the face. She didn’t stop running, though. As soon as she was close enough, she swung the machete.
Its head was too high for her to reach, so instead she aimed for the coils surrounding Jeff. A foul stench like when mom had boiled cabbage one time erupted when her blade bit into the thing’s smooth, dark-green skin.
The creature jerked and threw Jeff away. Her eyes followed her brother’s flight. She had time to worry that he might be hurt when an agonizing pressure crushed her left side. She was lifted from the ground as her breath squeezed out of her.
She turned her head and saw the head of the monster up close. Now she could see its eyes. They were three flat little slits on top of its head. She would have to remember that if she ever got her hands on a gun.
A gun! She still, somehow, held her machete in her right hand. She twisted in the thing’s massive jaws and felt something rip. But she was nearly numb to the pain now. With everything she had, she swung the long knife at the things head.
Then she was falling.
She woke up groggy.
“Six broken ribs, three puncture wounds, and a collapsed lung,” a voice said. “Lucky it didn’t get her heart.”
Mom was crying beside her. Dad was there too, and Jeff. Another man, the one that had spoken, talked again.
“I’ll give you guys some privacy.”
“Thanks,” Dad said. The man nodded and left.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” Dad said. “They put up those barriers to keep the natural wildlife out. It was a freak thing that allowed that thing access to the settlement.”
She shook her head a little. “That’s okay. Jeff, are you alright?”
Jeff nodded. His face was so white.
“The ship has a return mission in two weeks for those who’ve changed their minds. I’ve already told the captain we plan on being on it,” Dad said. “I never should have brought us here. I’m so sorry, Miss.”
She shook her head as he finished. What she had been through was so much better than any of the orb games she had played. There were monsters here, real monsters, and they could really kill. She had never actually thought of the difference that would make. It changed everything.
“I want to stay,” she said. She didn’t need VR here.
“But you almost died, for real this time!” Jeff blurted.
“But I didn’t,” she said and smiled. “I saved you.” She had really saved him. That mattered so much more than doing it on a game.
Dad frowned. Mom ran a hand through her hair.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Mom said. “You just rest and get better.”
She nodded then a thought struck her.
“Where’s my flower dress?”
Dad half smiled. “Ruined, sweetie.”
She wanted to laugh but even trying hurt too much.
That couldn’t stand.
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