From the Memoirs of Irwin Morrow
My mind exploded and my sweat flash froze. Every muscle in my body contracted at once and I went rigid for an eternity just listening to its sonorous hiss and watching its dripping reptilian tongue taste the air. A voice in my mind screamed something, something important, but it was too distant, too muffled underneath my booming pulse. Molasses stiff muscles pulled the rifle from my back and, with effort, trained the muzzle on the monstrous thing. The voice in my mind wailed a distant banshee’s call but my head was full of static and pounding blood. A finger found the saddle of the trigger and tunneled vision arranged the sights. A squeeze started in my palm.
And then a razor shriek scythed the moment from beyond the concrete wall between this room and the next. My heart skipped and, in the silence, I heard the screaming voice in my head clear as a noonday bell. DON’T SHOOT! The words hit like a bat and my terror narrowed senses burst their bonds. I remembered. The others. The sound of the shot will bring the others.
My finger relaxed away from the trigger and an inaudible exhale crawled from my lungs. I rolled over onto my back, obscured by the pallets at this elevation, and hugged the rifle to my chest. Below the creature’s claws tapped an asymmetric rhythm on the concrete floor.
Escape. The command slipped into my thoughts focused and formed. This was not a fight I could win. This complex belonged to these creatures. My only hope was to retreat to The Above. The Above. My greatest fear. The terrible unknown. The thought of it had chilled me to the very core only an hour ago and now I felt a strange numbness about it. Fear is a funny fluid. A sip will keep you sharp. A gulp will rob you of your rest. Chugging it will drown you. But if you bath in it, let it soak into you, it will carry away all pain, all stress, and leave only a cold certainty of what must be done.
Crawling back along the pallets, I arrived at the far end closest to the back door and slipped my arms through the straps of my pack. I left the hand light stowed safely in a pocket and closed my eyes, listening to the clicking of claws on concrete. They moved slowly but with confidence, the way I have seen mountain cats stalk their prey in the years since. It knows I’m here, I thought, my mind putting what my senses already knew into words.
It was farther off and to the left. There was no way to be certain how far, but I guessed at least a couple of aisles over. I forced my limbs to begin the climb slowly and quietly down the end of the shelving row. The clicking grew closer and the adrenaline made my muscles twitch. Still, I exerted control and kept my progress steady and stealthy. By the sound of it, the creature was stalking up and down the rows. The organized pattern suggested an uncomfortable level of intelligence but also that it had not yet located me. All I needed to do was keep quiet and keep an aisle between me and it. Then I could slip out the way I came and make a run for it. Easy day.
Somewhere while I was basking in my own cunning, the shelving’s reinforcement strut gave out. The thin metal burst beneath my feet with a clang and left me swinging in the pitch dark from a rapidly bowing rung. I swung my leg out to try to find purchase on a shelf and prevent myself from falling the last ten feet to the unforgiving concrete below. My boot heel found solid shelf but in the doing swiped clear a heavy box that smashed into the floor below. It must have been full of pots or pans or spanners or cymbals with all the noise from the impact and the clamor was a beacon through the gloom.
Stealth spent, I scrambled down the last ten feet as fast as my limbs could carry me. Over the din I heard the scuttling of crab-like claws dashing across the smooth cement. I could smell the musk of the thing like a rolling wave as it hurried down the aisle on the other side of the shelves. I tossed myself flat against the wall next to the back door, my mind rolling and pitching like a boat in a squall. Through the door I could hear the predatory chittering of dozens of creatures stalking closer and closer to the portal.
Sweat raining down my face, I stabbed a trembling hand into my jacket pocket and pulled out the torch light. With the other hand, I jabbed my code into the door’s keypad. The light flicked green just as the hunting creature rounded the end of the shelves. With all the speed and strength I could summon, I heaved on the door throwing it open against the wail of the hinges. Just as the stench of hundreds poured in from the other side, I flicked on the hand torch and chucked it through the door.
In the frozen moment while the hand light tumbled through the air, it lit up the horrors beyond. In that fractionated second, I saw a colossal hive of these creatures built of waxy spoor around a honeycomb of hundreds of amniotic sacks. Settlers. The epiphany was cutting shards of shattered glass across my psyche. They were my purpose in being and, while I had assumed them dead, this fate was somehow worse. I had been grown a soldier to protect those who would be born after. I felt this single truth in the very pit of my being just in time to see this brood of demons feeding off the unborn bodies of my people. The knowledge seared in my chest.
The wind of the creature’s speed rippled my hair as it chased the light and slammed into the others. A cacophony of horrible otherworldly shrieks and the sound of rending flesh splashed the musk thick air. I wasted not a moment of my precious distraction and forced all thoughts but survival from my mind. I ran. I ran towards the paltry light of the hall with all the haste that blinding adrenaline could provide.
There was nothing I could have done for them. They were all dead. I know that now but even still, on cold lonely nights around the ghostly embers of a fire, I feel shame for choosing to live instead of dying with my brothers and sisters. I doubt that feeling will ever completely leave me. In the moment though, those thoughts of guilt had not yet caught up with my flight. Only the echo of my pounding boots dogged my steps then.