Smoke and Mirrors
Jay was bummed out of his mind. Although, to be fair, the feeling was much more of a despairing variant than an annoying one.
When will his streak of bad luck end?!
At the moment, his group was caught in a stalemate in the middle of nowhere. All he could see around him was sand, so he had no way of telling how close they were to the Hope. What he could be certain of though was that the desert creatures were definitely closing in on them. He could even feel the occasional shifting of the ground below his feet, signifying their presence.
It was, to say the least, horrifying. These monsters looked like they had come out of his worst nightmares. They all had shell-like exoskeletons presumably to prevent the loss of bodily fluids through perspiration. They were also gigantic in size, looking very much unlike earth’s fauna. Therefore, the unlikely fact that they were a reality before them probably posed the biggest threat of all.
Comparatively, the two hundred soldiers that accompanied them were rather useless. Their weapons did no visible damage to the creatures, and that’s against creatures that had the audacity to emerge from the ground; they had no way of dealing with those that hid beneath the sand.
Of course, if they were accompanied by the Hope’s two thousand four hundred soldiers, things could have gone very differently. They probably wouldn’t be out here risking their lives but hidden inside the safety of the Hope while jet planes annihilated these creatures with airstrikes. They could even drop an atomic bomb and be done with this damnable planet.
In other words, this group of two hundred common soldiers and two thousand two hundred plus unarmed citizens was nothing but a feast waiting to be had.
When they saw the creatures closing in, the feeling of dread surrounding the group gradually grew.
Submerged in this shroud of gloom, Jay felt increasingly helpless. He expected a simple gathering mission, not a death trap! He stole a glance at Xiao Chen, who was tightly holding on to his hand, and despite his best intentions, he couldn’t help but wonder whether it was her who caused him all these troubles. After all, his tumble with misfortunes did start with his introduction to her…
Carefully and quietly, Jay pulled Xiao Chen from their original position to a place between the group’s center and outer perimeter. He knew that for a group of their size, in the event of an attack, the most vulnerable spots were the center and the outer perimeter. Naturally, the people on the outside were the ones most exposed to attacks, but most people forget that the people in the center usually get trampled to death because they are literally standing in the middle of everyone else.
Suddenly, a few soldiers cut through the crowd, and weirdly enough they were engaging people in conversation. When one walked before Jay, he stopped and asked, in a robotic tone that was honed from having to repeat the same question all too many times, “Do you have anything charged on you? Something like a walkman or battery?”
Both Jay and Xiao Chen shook their heads. Before the soldier could take his leave though, Xiao Chen grabbed hold of him and asked, “All of those paraphernalia were confiscated when we first boarded the Hope. We weren’t allowed to keep any of our stuff other than our tents… So could you tell us why we need these things now?”
The anxious soldier wanted to shrug Xiao Chen off, but perhaps due her young age, he replied somewhat cryptically as he retreated back into the crowd, “I too have no clue; it was an order from the Hope. They said that reinforcements are coming our way and that these alien creatures are afraid of batteries or something. Anyway, our safety can be guaranteed if we have enough batteries!”
When the soldier had retreated out of earshot, Xiao Chen groused, “What more do they still need? They have already taken my laptop, my MP4, my iPad, and my…”
Jay interrupted, “That’s your fault for bringing so many things in the first place. They stated before boarding that we are only allowed less than twenty kilograms worth of luggage. You should know this.”
Xiao Chen glared crossly at Jay and said pointedly, “What are you on about this time? I’m talking about the additional clause that was written specifically on electronic gadgets. Oops, I forgot, unlike myself, you can’t read chinese. Sucks to be you then…”
She does know how to push my buttons, thought a simmering Jay. Then again, ignoring her boastful nature, Xiao Chen was a good person, and she wasn’t issuing empty boasts. What Jay was most worried about then was his cover being blown, so sticking with Xiao Chen, who could be of help to him in the future, might not be a bad idea. Who knew what they would do if they found out he was a liar? He might even be thrown out of the Hope, and with these creatures around, that was a prospect he wouldn’t enjoy. And so, in spite of him already having gone through all sorts expletives in his mind, he merely laughed.
Then, sounds of gunfire came from the outer perimeter. Amidst the cacophony, Jay could even discern the unmistakable sound of people groaning. Stuck in the middle of the crowd, neither Jay nor Xiao Chen could tell what was happening.
As the sound of gunfire and screaming became more frequent, the crowd started to get increasingly hysterical. That combined with the continuous gliding of the sand beneath their feet had prompted a stampede. People jostled into one another and knocked each other down as they went about like heedless animals. Many were injured in the process.
In the meantime, the soldiers within the group tried to maintain order, but it was to no avail. Before long, even they were lost in the chaotic wave of human bodies.
Most of the other soldiers stationed themselves on the outer perimeter to battle the alien creatures. The incident that started this conflict was the appearance of a giant sea-urchin-like creature that ambushed and killed two soldiers. Luckily, it was shot down instantly by an electro magnetized bullet. The soldiers were already briefed about the explosion of acid after the creature’s death and thus, they evaded tactfully.
However, this didn’t mean that they were holding their ground. With the creature’s death, its acidic bodily fluids inadvertently set the other creatures on a frenzy!
About ten more monsters surfaced above ground. Among them were a few creatures that could only be described as bone dragons. Their size was so big that only the upper parts of their heads could be seen above ground. But what could be seen was terrifying enough. Their heads were made up entirely of bones and the place where there were supposed to be eyes had hollow holes instead. With a chomp, a great area of sand was engulfed and along with it went the people who were unfortunate enough to be standing in it.
After the initial encounter, the two hundred soldiers were almost wiped out within minutes. Of course, the civilians faced an even higher number of casualties. When people started getting picked off, all hell broke loose. More and more people broke off from the group, hoping to escape from the carnage, but that only made them easier targets. Within just a few steps, needles appeared from underneath the ground and they were shrunk into mummies in almost an instant. That deterred the rest from straying from the group, but that hardly helped the situation. People were continuously being trampled and the alien monsters even started appearing among them. It was a literal bloodbath!
“…energy, energy, energy…”
Jay was in absolute terror. His hand that was holding Xiao Chen was shaking uncontrollably.
“Right, how could I forget that I have energy on myself?!”
Jay immediately removed his helmet and shoved his hand into his space suit. After a few seconds of searching, he removed his hand and a pen appeared within his grasp. It was a gaudy pen with a small light bulb attached to its end. When a small button on its side was pressed, it gave off a weak glow.
His action gave Xiao Chen quite a shock. She immediately moved to close his helmet, then she yelled, “Have you lost your mind? These creatures are attracted to the water vapor in our breath!”
Suddenly, a violent tremor erupted underneath their feet. Before them, like a nightmarish freak show, a cavern of darkness slowly surfaced. It was the mouth of one of the bone dragons. It was so big that a few people had fallen to their deaths after being lifted up by it. Attracted by Jay’s breath, it was ready to chomp down on them.
“This is a source of energy! Aren’t you supposed to be afraid of this? There is a ton of energy in this!”
The roof of the creature’s mouth was ready to fall, and the anxiety of death had stunned everyone into a quiet submission. Jay, however, felt strangely at peace. Suddenly, the din around him melted away and only the echo of his last sentence could be heard reverberating all over the area… ‘There is a ton of energy in this!’
As if locked in time, the head suddenly stopped moving. Then, small, green buds started blooming in its bone crevices. In response, the creature started gyrating as if in extreme pain before retreating underground. At the same time, a tremor started emanating from underneath Jay.
All of the creatures in their vicinity were visibly affected by this as well. Abandoning their prey, they disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving behind only a series of sand trails…
Then, all around Jay, a cluster of dense vegetation grew. Their finger-like tendrils circled the air, as if searching for a target…
- Sometime later, the soldiers became useful again when they thought of using the electro-magnetized bullets they had bought.