by Justin Chasteen
Lake sensed carnivorous eyes examining her body from the damp, dark corner of the cell. It was just a rat. She hoped. But even a rat with eyes that size was worrisome—especially here. The last thing Lake of the Bluewings desired before death was chunks of her leg gnawed off each time she fell in and out of consciousness.
They had left her unchained this time, but she gently rubbed her aching wrists still crusted with blood. She was being tested. A failed escape meant they could consume her slowly and painfully through an array of flesh-piercing festivities from their tusk-like fangs. If she stayed put and awaited punishment for stepping foot on Their planet, she was doomed to an eternity of slavery in the Catacombs of Cryvelm Hollows. There was no human justice in the Shattered Galaxy. They lusted for nothing more than to gorge themselves on her flesh and her soul. Escape showed little success, and even if Lake managed to reach the Forest of Rust, she would be lost in the never-ending puzzle of sharp turns and even sharper trees, unless They found her first. She knew Planet Neurot well, studying the atmosphere and inhabitants ever since finishing her PhD in galactic anthropology, but soon realized not well enough to navigate that maze. Lake thought she knew the star-planet’s every terrain—a shocking discovery of how different the environment looked on a map and pixilated photos.
The rat sniffed forward from shadows blacker than ink, whiskers dancing with each cautious wiggle of its nose. She considered smashing its neck with the heel of her bare foot, but the size of the red-eyed rodent would be problematic. It was only slightly smaller than her Pomeranian, and she’d be lucky to end its life with several thumps of her heel. Instead, she held her hand out for the rat. Bite me, poison me, kill me, eat me—just don’t take my soul, she thought as the rat nosed closer.
The rat hacked and coughed as if something were stuck in its throat. Lake felt the sudden urge to pet the rodent—to aide its struggle. She reached trembling fingers to rub down its spine, and the rat violently vomited an object near her feet. Whatever it was thudded through a whisper as it hit the shit-stained stone floor. The rat, her only friend in this world retreated into the shadows that danced along the corroded walls. She probed the thick, sticky bile; poking at it to find what had made the noise. A key…
Lake of the Bluewings used her tattered sleeve to wipe away the hot phlegm, and then held it toward the dim torch that hung outside the rusted bars of her cell. She closed one eye and focused on the object. It really was a key. Not a typical key for unlocking cell doors—but a special key—with more than one home. It constantly changed shapes as if it might mold to any lock. She felt her broken heart crack more with each hopeful thump in her chest. Could this be her chance? Her chance to free herself? But… that wasn’t the plan.
She stood, knees popping as if they hadn’t unbent in ages. Her jumpsuit had several sneaky pockets—good places to hide secrets. One of the only advantages of being a woman of six foot four was that They had no prison garb that fit her. For such cannibalistic life forms, They certainly had a method to their madness. She expected to be stripped when she was first captured just outside of the gathering point, like the corpses of her fallen comrades that laid in a pile by the glowing, crimson portal, but Lake knew not to resist. Her years of study showed that They wouldn’t attack a non-aggressive intruder of any life form—at first. The pile of bones in the next cell over didn’t ease her fear.
Lake tucked the key in her pocket, and it wiggled like a scorpion lost against her thigh; she wanted to smash the seizing key each time it moved.
She scanned the halls splattered with blood and noticed they were empty. This was the first time in three, four, five days that no guards were perched on their hind legs outside of her cell, constantly dozing off as they leaned their serpentine heads against their bolt-axes. In her studies, she found that They were rarely lazy through the photos she’d obsessively studied, taken by their tranquil drone. Indoors, beyond the rock of the Poisoned Eye, They must have sanctuary for sloth.
The Bluewings had once before come to Planet Neurot, and failed that mission. Now, seventy years later, history was repeating itself. If Chris or Nikolai were somehow still alive, they’d surely be through the portal and back on Earth. They had a rule, although she never planned to follow it: if shit hits the fan, save yourself. They had all been comrades for a long time, but life on Earth was better than death in a different galaxy.
The hall was empty and quiet. Too quiet.
She reached into her pocket and gripped the key in her fist as if she were trying to squash a bug, then launched it against the stone wall. It exploded into a green flame, and left the wall stained a mushy olive color. A horned beetle fell from what had once been the key to her salvation and scurried through the barred wall.
“Nice try, you bastards!” she yelled, her knuckles whitening as she gripped the bars of her cell. She would wait for Them to come to her no matter how many times They tried to push her to escape.
Her forehead reddened beneath her matted black bangs. Her father said he could always tell when she was mad because of the little red bump that formed between her eyebrows. “A burning sun above two blue moons,” he’d say.
“You hear that?” she shrieked. Lake grabbed her waste pail—Their idea of a universal amenity, although They never emptied it—and flung the contents through the bars, painting the hallway.
Several loud screeches of hissing rage echoed down the hall. The illumination from the single orb-torch was blanketed by a mass of bodies, and all Lake could see was hundreds of hell-hungered eyes staring at her from the other side of the bars. Diamond-shaped pupils undressing her flesh; she stepped back to the far wall, slid down to the floor, hugged her knees to her chest, and mockingly stared back at her captors.
They would have to wait a little longer for their chance to swallow her soul.
Justin Chasteen is an emerging writer who will complete his degree in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University in January. He has completed the first draft of three separate novels and is now, regrettably and learnedly, editing three separate novels. “The Shattered Galaxy” is his first published work, but he plans to do more short and flash fiction in the future. His son, Owen, is a toddler model.