Updated: Oct 23, 2022
This will be a PLATINUM LEVEL STORY but I'll put up a couple teaser chapters.
It's been nearly a decade since The Shimmer burnt out the world as we knew it. Now there's only two strands of humanity remaining.
Well, them and me. Because I don't fit in either category.
And the monster that tames us, The Serpent. Who is neither an Alabaster human or one of us. So what does that leave? He's surely nothing like me.
Our world has been fracturing for a long time now. But as the dangers increase, I learn that my desperate escape from the sort of slavery I was held in, is being challenged by the one monster that enjoys nothing more than a good chase.
The Serpent is perfectly designed to hunt. The chained beast of the Alabasters. Controlled by the bindings and regular injections. He's regularly sent out with the crews of tiny humans to forage for food and goods in what remains of the structures that once covered the land. His only amusement is found during the chase. When one of them grows bold enough to try to survive the dangers of a world no longer conducive to human life.
He's more than happy to chase the little vixen set on escaping those he serves.
He'll hunt her down. No matter what it takes.
01 Run from Me - After the Shimmer
We were all in the jumble. Trapped in the one metal warehouse. No windows, no walls. Support beams that had long ago been carved with messages for loved ones. People bumped into each other. Hardly seeing one another. The smell of sweat and body odor and a sun that was far too hot on metal burned our nostrils. Though we’d long ago grown accustomed to that. The closest one could come to a bath now was to rub the sweat off with the sand, if sent beyond these metal walls.
Which was generally avoided.
Even in times of great hunger.
I was no exception. My stomach was aching. I was wearing an oversized sweater. Worn through in several places. I kept the hood up. Pulled low over my face with my hair tucked in. I knew enough to keep my face and hair from view.
The murmur of voices rose to a steady din of sound. Words were unintelligible. Wind gusted and rattled the metal walls. Sending bits of dust sweeping into the cracks above us. Sifting through the beams of light that cast in. So hot that everyone avoided standing or sitting within it.
I was near the trash pile. As were so many others. I rattled another empty can. Rummaging through the pile trying to find any with a bit left.
The smell of rotting meat came from a few cans. Dune beetles were already crawling all over them. Their gangly legs making a horrible scraping sound that cut into my ears like scratching fingernails.
I moved another can and triumphantly collected one near the base of the pile.
I found one that had a few bits of corn in the bottom. I snatched it up and squirreled off to a far corner of the bundled people where there was a boy sitting. His knees drawn to his chest.
“Sheeri!” He said excitedly. Round face lighting up at the sight of me. Aside from his parents, I was about his only friend.
Most people in here didn’t count anyone their friends. Knowing that it only made things harder to try to care for anyone aside from yourself.
I put a finger to my lips. Reminding him to keep his voice down and not draw attention.
That was everyone’s goal.
Don’t draw attention.
I handed him the can. He hungrily gripped it and shoved the bits of corn in his mouth with dirty fingers.
It was still early morning and already it was cooking in the metal warehouse.
He dropped the can and put his head on my shoulder. His small, bald head seeming particularly tiny as he rested it there. “Tell me again.”
“Why it is?”
“The Shimmer, Alex.”
“Why didn’t we die like the rest?”
I sighed. Finding it hard to explain to him. He was only ten, he had a hard time understanding such things.
“Because we have genetic anomalies.”
“Why don’t we look like the basters?”
I took a long breath. “The Alabasters responded to it differently than we did. They didn’t just survive. Their cells were activated.”
Alex turned his face up to me. His dark brown eyes, so much like the others’, but still youthful.
I didn’t want him to lose that.
I sat against the wall with him. Wrapping my arm around his shoulders. “It made them bigger and stronger.”
“So what do they need us for?”
“To hunt for food.”
Or to be food.
We all dreaded each morning, when those would be selected to go out and forage for food.
“Why don’t they go out in the storms if they’re so much better?”
“Because they can make us.” I pulled at a thread on my huge sweater. Trying to get a bit of air moving under it. Tugging the hood down over my face. Something I probably did a hundred times a day.
“I’d never make it out there.” Alex said fearfully.
“If they try to send you, I’ll volunteer.” I promised him. Hugging him close and kissing the top of his dirty head.
He nodded against my shoulder. “Because you keep me safe, right?”
“Always, Little Buddy.”
“I found a bit more.” Andy, Alex’s dad came over with two more cans. He gave Andy one and me one. Kayla, Alex’s mom wasn’t far behind.
They sat on each side of us. We all scraped even the sticky dried bits from the edges of the cans.
“I’m going to have to volunteer again.” Andy said quietly. Looking over at Kayla.
We all knew that was the only real way to get the food. If you brought home food, you got to keep a small percentage of your take.
I looked at him.
He was still sunburnt from earlier this week.
I knew I should volunteer this time, but I was always scared. I wasn’t afraid of the storms. I wasn’t even afraid of the Alabasters making me go out there.
I’m always afraid of them finding me out. I swallowed hard.
It was why I worked so hard not to draw attention.
I was quiet. I didn’t volunteer. Not even now.
They didn’t expect me to.
Kayla nodded. They hugged us between them.
I had just turned twenty a couple months ago. At least that was my estimation.
Tracking time had become much harder when no one kept calendars, and no one had jobs or weekends.
The metal door rolled up with a grating sound and then a bang that made all of us jump. Everyone leapt to their feet.
Even Alex as they fearfully watched to see who they’d pick to go out today.
The Alabasters, or ‘basters’ as we liked to call them filled the doorway.
A few people were desperate enough to try to rush out.
Several of the larger, pale men caught them and muttered profanities as they threw them back. “Whoa, Tinies…Stay put.”
They were huge bald, pale-skinned things, with hollow eyes.
But they weren’t the threat.
The man at the front was. Made clear by the chains the Alabastars gripped, in a desperate attempt to keep their monster leashed.
02 The Serpent
He had the thin metal collar depicting two snakes biting each other at the base of his throat.
It was made of the indestructible gold-tinged ore, created when the water had solidified on the surface of the sand in the Shimmer. It had become metallic instead of glass, as it would’ve long before. When the heat was not so extreme.
That metal was now what separated us, from the brutality of that beast. He was held by two chains branching from that collar to the fists of the Alabasters. There were also large gantlets on his forearms with loops for them to attach additional chains to, if he became too feral.
He wore a light windbreaker material that shined like black leather for both his pants and his vest, the heavy hood down. He generally left that vest unzipped. Open down the front and revealing a long winding tattoo over his chest. It wasn’t the only one. His left arm had a sleeve of designs to his elbow but the one on his chest was the important one.
It symbolized what he was.
Even with the vest covering parts of it, we all knew what it was.
What he is.
It was a tattoo of a snake curling up over his torso and ending with an open mouth along one shoulder.
His name was Alder.
But we all just called him The Serpent.
He was the one charged with picking which of the Tinies, us, went out each morning. Who foraged, and possibly died, each day.
He was the monster we all feared the most. Charged with taming all of us. We would be sent out to the old hollow towns, long since stolen by dark vines and wild dunes. He would follow, while the rest of the Alabasters stayed safely behind, so none of the ‘Tinies’ tried to escape.
Alder wasn’t quite the eight foot or so of the Alabasters. He was lean and a full head over Andy which put him well over six foot, for sure. He wasn’t pale like them either. All those countless days in the searing sun had warmed him bronze as only a few of us could get.
The way the dark ink trailed over that dark torso, which was wound with the muscles of his abdomen and the lines of his ribs was nearly hypnotic. All of which was visible between those open vest flaps.
The Alabastars moved in to flank him. Blocking all bare space within the exit.
They were solid, bulging muscle whereas he was wound with sinew. The sort of muscle which meant he could still move entirely too fast.
Which was always what unsettled me the most.
There was the first dull thud of his boot and the grating of sand sliding under it as he examined us. Wandering the room to select those he’d take out to die today.
I kept my head ducked and my hood down. Careful not to make eye contact.
I heard the slow scrape of his heavy military-style boots drawing closer to me over the concrete floor. I saw the dark laces and the dusty toe of them step into my peripheral. I tipped my head away.
To my horror, he crouched before me. Making the chains on his collar rattle together.
He eyed me with interest. That gaze burning into me as I struggled to avoid it. “You always look away, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. Seeing no reason to acknowledge the obvious.
I doubted he even knew which one I was in the cluster of warm bodies crammed in the warehouse.
He rose. Turning away and murmured over his shoulder. “Take her up to the main house.”
The basters began moving toward me.
I leapt to my feet. “No!”
He had taken two steps away but stiffened and slowly turned.
I felt my stomach sink and knew I was challenging him.
No one challenges The Serpent.
“What did you say to me?”
My eyes narrowed on him.
His jaw tightened. A muscle ticking there.
I was silent.
He hooked a knuckle under my chin and lifted it so he could look at me. But he didn’t seem surprised by what he saw.
As if he knew.
Fortunately, the basters were far enough away, behind him with those chains, they couldn’t see me under the hood.
He leaned his face down to mine so I could see the shine of his slitted silver eyes. “You do what I tell you to, Tiny.”
I swallowed. Wanting to defy him but knowing that the consequences could be being whipped or, worse, exile.
“Sheeri…” Alex urged from behind me.
I glanced at him. Breaking the locked gaze, I had with the monster.
He dismissed me just that fast. Walking away, as if I’d never stalled him.
As if I’m entirely insignificant.
They dragged me up to the main house.
Which wasn’t a main house at all.
Two basters had my arms out. They’d lifted me off my feet and were carrying me up the dusty hill toward the concrete structure.
One of the few that had withstood the turbulence of the Shimmer.
It was an old asylum. Abandoned even before the world ended, I suspected. Either way, it was terrifying.
The double doors had large chains wrapping them to keep them closed.
One of the basters began unraveling them.
The other one held me by the back of my neck and my upper arm. Like he’d rip my arm off, if I tried to run.
That wasn’t mere speculation either.
I’d seen one do it to a guy my age, a year or so back. It was something that didn’t quickly leave one’s mind.
I had been brought up here with a crew to scrub the halls and Dining Room before, so I knew what it looked like inside. Still, it wasn’t anything like the warehouse which seemed cloying with heat and life. Though the Main House was a bit cooler, it felt dead. Hollow. That feeling always made me want out immediately.
I hated it.
It was sturdy enough to bide the storms.
Like a rock in the stream.
But I just imagined cruel nurses and dispassionate doctors wandering these halls in their clicking heels, back when the tiles had shined instead of being chipped and scraped. Still, I figured people had probably screamed and suffered. That’s a bit what it could be like now.
Sometimes the Tinies were brought to the Main House to cook or sing or play an instrument or to entertain the basters but I’d never been brought up here by myself.
Not like that.
I’d always done my best to fight my way to the back and keep my head down.
Like Kayla and Andy told me to.
03 The Main House
Kayla and Andy, Alex’s parents, would usually form a wall between Alex and me, and the basters. At least, when they saw them coming.
They didn’t have time today.
Not when the Serpent was just suddenly crouched before me.
But I suspected he already knew the secret I kept so carefully. Which wouldn’t really be surprising.
It’s his job to know everything.
And he was good at it.
We thought of him as the hunter. Because when he went out with us, his job was to hunt down anyone that might try to escape.
Now he was back in that warehouse with Alex.
Kayla and Andy are there. I reminded myself. But somewhere in my head I thought it was my job to keep all of them safe.
The Basters walked me past the Dining Room. That’s when I really started to lose it.
“Where are you taking me. I began bucking and kicking.”
They took me down one long corridor. I glanced to the side and saw small windows along the doors revealed padded rooms with beds inside. Shackles dangling off them.
“No.” I shouted. Tugging and fighting. But they were far too big to get away from.
Calm down. I reminded myself what my older sister would’ve told me.
She’d died in the Shimmer. But still, I tried to remember the things she’d taught me when we were little. You’re always so rash, Sheeri.
You and your red hair! She’d laugh.
My chest tightened at the thought of her. I knew that even now, her worn picture was in the pocked of my torn, worn jeans.
The only possession I have left.
She was the reason I worked so hard to look after Alex.
Like she always looked after me.
Carol would’ve told me now to slow down and think. So, I blew a few breaths and counted like she taught me to.
It was like the world opened up then. I could breathe again. My head didn’t feel so heavy with anger and frustration. Now I noticed the blocky blade in the back of the Baster’s belt.
It was big and it would be heavy.
But I can hide it.
Once we got to about the tenth cell down, they pulled a jingling key loose the size of my hand and stuffed it in a huge lock and turned it with a teeth-grinding metallic sound. Before pushing down a lever which made the door roll open.
They tossed me into the room. I skid over the tile, pushing my boot heels down to slide to stop. I launched back at one of them. Hugging his baggy shirt.
“Don’t leave me here!” I get claustrophobic. “I’m scared. Please don’t go.”
But even as I feigned hysteria, I kept my head low enough he couldn’t see my face.
He laughed so hard his big chest heaved. “Look at this Tiny, Jim. She scared to be alone. Poor lil babykin…” He shoved me backward and slammed the door. Sending me stumbling to the floor. Where I quickly hid that blade under the edge that big metal blade. Staring at the edge of the thick handle protruding out to memorize exactly where it was, so I could use it, if I had to.
I had no idea if I’d have to, yet.
I wondered if they were going to leave me here for Tild.
Tild was our ruler. An Alabaster I’d never seen. I’d been told he was entirely ruthless and more brutal then all the rest. But he never left the Main House.
I kicked the wall. Realizing that it made no sound. Though my boot wasn’t entirely reliable either. Those padded walls were thick enough to muffle any sound.
What did they do to people here? My eyes trailed up the high wall in horror. Noticing there were chains with handcuffs dangling from an ‘o’ bolt near the ceiling. I was figuring I could probably climb them. But they were too far from the door to really ambush anyone that came in. And if it was a Baster coming in, I’d still be within reach.
I noticed there was a key hanging high on the wall near the door.
Just out of reach of those cuffs. But I was guessing it probably went to them.
I considered pocketing it but figured that would be too obvious right off the bat. Whoever came in, would likely check for it.
Then I can steal it right after that.
I’ll just get them talking and swipe it. I was already loosely contriving some plans.
There was nothing on the ceiling I could climb through.
In the far corner across from the door was a thin chain with tiny bar links that strung above the padding from one wall to the other, across the corner. Moving through rubber washers and disappearing into the concrete.
It was high enough I couldn’t reach it.
But in the corner near the door was some god-awful looking chair, bolted to the floor, with bent leg holsters and ankle shackles. It looked like something you’d put someone in to force medication into their throat. Strapping each of their limbs independently. They wouldn’t be able to move in that thing.
I shuddered at the thought. I found myself pacing the room. Memorizing every nook and cranny. I tugged at the giant squares of padding, trying to find if one was loose.
Not that I knew what I’d do with that.
Get in a pillow fight with whomever came in next?
That would be intimidating. I frowned. Unhappy with that thought.
I had only inspected about a quarter of the pads when I grew bored of that. Deciding that inspecting the edges of the floor might be a bit quicker. Someone had clearly dug at the concrete until most of the floor appeared to be mostly dirt.
But unfortunately, they’d found what I now saw. The concrete foundation surrounding each cell cut deep into the ground.
Someone had put some serious work into getting out of this room.
That made my stomach sink.
What happened to them? I felt my mouth going dry.
I was standing in a back corner, turning my head to examine a leaking corner in the ceiling, wondering if it might be weaker there, around the dull flickering light. I felt eyes on me and slowly lowered my eyeline to look at the window. Meeting the silvery gaze of The Serpent. I ducked my head and adjusted my hood.
I heard the grating of the metal lock turning followed by the bang of the lever uncoiling in the metal door.
Suddenly I didn’t want out.
I wanted to be in, and I wanted him out.
I didn’t want that barrier between us to vanish.