By: Amol Braich
Last Updated on: November 28, 2021
Image by: Corrine Yang
Digging her nails into the bucket, she sprinkled the dirt over their footprints as she continued to walk through the damp forest.
“Wow, you’re really, literally covering our tracks huh?”
“Knock it off, they’ll hear us.”
She took a glance behind her and kept walking.
The crickets chirped louder than ever, as if they were helping them hide from the monsters that followed them in search. You honestly couldn’t tell this was an artificial forest planted by men on an expedition a few years back. From ant hills to trees, everything was placed perfectly to replicate the forests they remembered.
This was actually the first time in years they had stepped outside. Johna couldn’t stop looking at the sky. A few moments ago she had slammed his face into a tree - his nose was still red. It was a mesmerizing sight to them, unlike anything they’d ever seen. The red sky peering behind the tall green trees was something Marla knew she would never forget.
Marla handed the bucket full of dirt over to Johna, and proceeded to wipe her face. The sweat made her feel like she had just taken off one of those sheet masks - and that slippery slimy residue rested on her face.
It seems like such a long time ago. The last time she used anything other than water for her personal hygiene was five years ago. When they left Earth.
“A better life awaits us,” said her parents when they first left. Who knew coming to this red planet would turn out to be such a nightmare.
Marla and Johna were the last to leave The Tunnel. The rest of the people had already left for Ether, the safe site which was used in previous expeditions on Mars by astronauts. The rest of the population who lived in The Tunnel had made it to the safe site a few days ago.
“They left us… How could they leave us there?!” Said Marla wiping the sweat, and now tears off her face. Johna looked at her with his blue, pitiful eyes. He was always a sympathetic friend.
“They didn’t leave us, they just forgot about us. Chancellor Taris must have given orders to evacuate as soon as the atmosphere cleared from the radiation.”
“But, even my parents. They forgot me. Left me here… with you, of all people.”
Although sad, she was always capable of lightening the mood with her jokes and taunts.
Johna nudged her shoulder and forcefully handed her back the bucket of dirt.
“Your turn to sprinkle.”
He pulled out the map they stole from the Chancellor's office before they escaped last night. He examined it with careful eyes; ensuring he read every detail carefully. They had to get the Ether as fast as they could. The sooner, the better.
Ever since they had gotten to Mars, Marla had drifted away. She drifted away from her hobbies, her routines, and even her parents. She started to rebel. After all, her parents had dragged her 315.32 million kilometers to another planet, all for them to stay trapped underground with no sunlight. For four, whole, years. Sometimes she wished she had been one of the people aboard Spaceflight X201. The people who hadn’t made it in time. They were infected with the radiation and turned into monsters, who fed off anything… and anyone they saw.
At least they got to be outside. At least they were not bound by the concrete grey walls of The Tunnel. At least they weren’t deprived of the sun underground for all those years.
The name developed for these outcasts in The Tunnel was “Hellions.” They haunted the outside of The Tunnel for the first few years but then slowly expanded their territory. But they're not far. Johna saw a few of them last night. When they escaped their cells.
Marla and Johna were the only two people in the punishment cells this month. Actually, that’s where they spent most of their time. Breaking rules of The Tunnel had become their routine - part of the reason why the troop left them there to rot. At least that's what Marla believed.
“Shh. Do you hear that?”
She put a hand out beside her to stop Johna. The Hellions made their snarling sound. It was loud, and scared Marla. They are faster than slow, smart, strong, and have very good hearing. The radiation had mutated them, turning them into monsters who wouldn’t die of normal human conditions like starvation or dehydration. People in The Tunnel said that they could only be killed with lethal force.
The leaves rustled a couple of meters behind Marla and Johna. The Hellions were near. She placed the bucket down, took Johna’s hand, and started running. The Hellions had good hearing, so Marla led Johna to a path where the dirt was damper to soften the sound of their footsteps.
Now panting, the two friends struggled to grasp a breath of oxygen. But, to their luck - a structure in the distance came into sight. It was Ether, the city they searched for years, waiting long months for the radiation to subside. They finally got the chance to start their better life. But wait.
“Don’t tell me,” Johna managed to speak through the heavy breaths.
“Oh god, is that the shield?”
The electric dome surrounded the city protecting it from Hellions. It was an emergency safety system placed by the people who once studied Mars a long time ago.
The Hellions were now seconds behind them, Johna and Marla had never seen one up close. They sure wished the day wasn’t today. They both screamed out loud. Hoping someone would see them and temporarily take down the shield. Marla could hear in her head:
T minus 16 seconds to impact
Suddenly she heard a machine. She glanced inside the city - it was the Chancellor. The same man who repeatedly told Johna and Marla how disappointed he was in them every time they committed a crime in The Tunnel. But, today he stood with a big smile on his face, relieved to see the two teenagers. Johna pulled Marla into the boundary of Ether and signaled to the Chancellor to put the dome back up. It was only a second of a difference. The dome shot back up, and several Hellions collided with the electricity and burnt up into flames.