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Defiance rising, p.12
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       Defiance Rising, p.12

           Amy Miles

  I weave through the woods, struggling to maintain any semblance of a jog. The dense, low hanging clouds allow only a fleeting glimpse of moonlight to penetrate. The shadows blend into a gloomy, blackened void, making it nearly impossible to see five feet in front of me. The freezing rain has shifted into small pellets of ice, bouncing off the ground around me.

  I collapse against a fallen pine tree, panting. My fingers ache from the cold, from nail bed to my palms. A near constant shiver alerts me that I’m teetering on the verge of hypothermia. I need to build a fire, but I can’t risk it.

  It has been over an hour since I heard any shouts. The ground has remained still under my feet, but I worry what will happen if I draw attention to myself. I know they are out there, somewhere.

  I bend over and beat feeling back into my toes, stomping away the needles that prick my calves. I can’t keep going like this. Shelter has become a necessity I can no longer ignore.

  I try to stand, sinking into the unsettled earth running the length of the log. The soil gives way and spills into a space beyond. Dropping to my knees, I wiggle my fingers through the small hole, listening as clumps of soil patter as it lands below.

  Realizing there’s a small opening on the other side of the fallen pine tree, I throw my leg over and lower myself into the hollow below. A layer of ice pellets blanket a small section of the space, but the thick pile of leaves and fallen pine needles covering the ground is too inviting to pass up.

  I sink to my knees and brush away the snow, grateful for the evergreen canopy that covers some of the space, sheltering me from the bitter winds. I scoop big piles of the foliage over my feet and legs to provide insulation and camouflage should anyone stumble across me in the night. I cover my waist and much of my chest before stuffing my hands under my armpits and lean back against the dirt wall. My teeth chatter so hard my jaw aches. I clamp down as tight as I can and stare up through the boughs to the clouds above. I’ve never felt so alone before, so completely isolated from my friends and my home. I know I should be grateful to be alive, but I struggle to think beyond my fear for Eamon. Did he make it back to camp? Was he captured? I can’t bear to think of the alternative.

  Fear for his safety keeps my eyelids open as the moon begins its slow voyage across the sky, behind the ever-shifting veil of clouds.

  My eyes pop open and the sluggishness of sleep flees. I can hear the whispers still speaking to me. They haunt my dreams and now my waking moments too.

  The hairs on the back of my neck rise as footsteps crunch through the thin glaze of ice on the ground above. Adrenaline pumps through my veins, waking every nerve in my body as I crane my neck to see. Only darkness meets my gaze.

  I sink back and hold my breath as more footsteps approach. It’s hard to tell how many there are from within this small hovel but, judging by normal alien scouting parties there should be at least five, each armed with a laser gun.

  I press my fingers to the ground, silently waiting for the tremor of a spider drone. When none comes, I release a breath. At least they’re alone.

  A light flares nearby and the Caldonians’ voices drift toward me on the wind. I can hear dissent among the group, mostly bickering over who has to hunt for food. Apparently, I’m not the only one left weary because of the manhunt.

  “You two go collect firewood, but don’t go too far. I don’t like the look of this area. It’s too open for my liking.” The authoritative voice is gruff, but I detect a hint of distress in his tone. Perhaps tales of my exploits have spread quickly through the ranks.

  I grin, silently pumping my fists as the Squaddies set about creating a camp.

  Two figures pass by my den and I freeze. Even with the scant moonlight from above, a straight glance in my direction would probably betray my location. I silently lift prayers heavenward as the men stoop low and collect small branches for kindling.

  My heart thumps against my ribs as the aliens move on, lumbering loudly through the ankle high iced leaves that blanket the hillside. I slowly rise, wincing as the pine needles fall in a rustling cascade around me. I hold my breath, waiting for the hum of a laser gun pointed at me, but it never comes.

  Numbness steals feeling from my toes but I can’t risk stomping. I bend over and rub the tops of my boots, breathing out a slow sigh of relief as the stinging cold begins to fade and feeling returns.

  I duck low as the two aliens return, arms overloaded with firewood and kindling. My gaze flits about the forest, searching for the others. None appear as the two begin to make a fire.

  My stomach is attacked by nervous tension as I ponder my escape. I can’t stay here and risk being discovered, but my only chance of escape is to run parallel to them and head for a lake I know not too far from here. On my way back from the City I noticed a small hut perched near the shore as I passed. Maybe I can huddle down there for a while until the aliens move on.

  I wait ten agonizing minutes until three more aliens appear from the woods. Their arms are full and their gait hampered by the weight of whatever it is they carry. As the soldiers stoop to unload their kill, I scramble out of the hollow and swerve to the left, away from the flickering light of the fire. The worn soles of my shoes slip and slide on the icy leaves as I barrel through the woods. Moonlight falls over the forest in muffled gray tones, just enough to see and be seen.

  My heart plummets to my stomach as I hear a shout from behind me. “That’s the girl. Get her!”

  “Crap,” I growl as I urge my legs to move faster. I twist through the trees, gripping their trunks to throw myself around the next like a slalom skier. Up ahead I can see large patches of sparkling water appear as the clouds shift to allow beams of moonlight through. I don’t know if I can make it. The aliens saw me too soon.

  My lungs burn with each icy breath; I pump my arms and try to push through the pain. I don’t dare look over my shoulder for fear of slowing. I can hear their footsteps with agonizing clarity, spreading out to surround me.

  Nearly there, I chant as the water comes into full view. I nearly weep with relief as a small boathouse and dock come into view. I immediately shift course and run full out. My pursuers shout a warning as they fight to ensnare me in their narrowing trap.

  Heat singes the ends of my damp strands of hair as a red beam blazes past. The scent of burnt hair trails behind me as I leap onto the dock and race for the small boat at the end. My boots pound the weathered boards, unsettling the rusted nails as I pass. It’s a miracle that I don’t spill over into the frigid waters as I leap over a hole and land on the last remaining rickety board.

  I snatch the towrope from a post and leap into the fiberglass vessel. My arms pinwheel as I fight for balance, terrified of capsizing the small motor boat. The sky streaks with crimson laser fire as I wrestle with the starter cord of the engine. It sputters and smokes but fails to start, beginning to float away from the dock because of my momentum.

  “Come on!” I scream, beating the dented motor. My heads whips around as the first pair of boots hits the dock behind me. I’m running out of time. I kick the motor and then pull the cord. “Start!”

  Idiot! I silently berate myself. Of course it’s not going to start. The fuel is probably fifteen years old!

  A blast of heat rushes down my fingertips and into the motor. The metal glows red just before the engine turns over. I whip the motor around and steer the boat away from the dock.

  The small craft rocks wildly as an alien leaps from the end of the dock and crashes to his knees in the bow as the boat passes. Two more follow his lead but miss their landing and thump onto the side of the boat. One cries out as his ribs crack and he slips down into the wake of the boat. The other clings to the side with clenched fingers and awkwardly flips his leg over the side.

  I grit my teeth and race toward open water, desperately trying not to think of how bitterly cold the driving winds are. If I can get far enough away from
the dock, I might stand a chance against two Squaddies. Any more than that and I’m in big trouble.

  Several laser beams blast from the shoreline as I twist the throttle and speed toward the center of the lake. The alien on the side yanks himself into the boat, dropping like an anchor against the hull, while the other rises and plants his feet, shifting his weight to compensate with the bouncing boat. I stare at him, silently panicking as I note the murderous gleam in his eye. This man does not intend to take me back alive.

  His eyes are deep red velvet and his pupils are outlined with coal black. His fiery gaze, coupled with his freakishly large frame, is enough to make my blood run cold. There is no way I can take this man out on my own, not without a weapon.

  Red Eye dips low and helps the other to his feet. The second alien, tall and lanky, turns his honey-colored eyes on me, crouching to crawl forward over the two rows of metal benches. Each move is in perfect sync with the boat, despite my best attempts to rock them out.

  “I’m gonna have fun gutting you, little girl,” Red Eye taunts as he leers at me over his partner’s shoulder.

  “But Commander Drakon wants her alive.” The soldier looks back at Red Eye.

  “What the Commander doesn’t know won’t hurt him, now will it?” Red Eye crouches low in the boat, waiting for his turn.

  My skin begins to tingle as the soldier tosses rotted life vests overboard, clearing a straight path to me. The hairs on my arms stand upright as I meet Red Eye’s fierce gaze and shiver.

  The air crackles with energy as the clouds overhead begin to swirl, coiling like a venomous snake. I can feel power coursing through my veins in rhythmic waves, but I have no control over it. The winds seem to have a mind of their own.

  I release my hold on the motor and grip the edge of the boat as it rocks in the rising waves, careening out of control. The soldiers hesitate as they glance between me and the swirling vortex overhead.

  “What’s she doing?” The lanky alien cries.

  “Playing with your head,” Red Eye grunts and pushes his partner forward.

  A blast of wind hits the honey-eyed alien with the force a battering ram. I can hear his ribs crunch as he flies out of the boat and smacks into the choppy waves nearly twenty feet away. He sinks fast and without a fight.

  I stare down Red Eye. Instead of fear in his eyes, I see pure, unadulterated rage. My stomach begins to twist as violently as the clouds as a funnel dips to the water’s surface. With an explosion of mist, a waterspout forms. The winds beat against the hull of the boat as I huddle down low.

  Red Eye grunts as he’s tossed off his feet by the rising waves. I swipe my water-drenched hair back from my face as I wrench the motor around to steer directly toward the tornado. The alien’s head whips around and, for the first time, I detect fear in his dilated pupils. “You’re insane!”

  “Just figuring that out, huh?” I shout back, fighting to hold the boat steady. A stinging pain grows just above my heart and travels toward my shoulder. I grit my teeth and ignore the new tattoo carving its way into my flesh.

  “You’ll kill us both!”

  I nod. “Probably, but then again, I’ve got a feeling you’re not man enough to stick around and play chicken with a tornado.”

  With a menacing scowl, he swears and leaps over the side of the boat. He bounces twice, tossed like a ragdoll, and sinks beneath the waves. I watch for a second too long and scream out as the motor is ripped from my hands. The world careens around me as the boat slams into a wall of water and hurls me out.

  Pain envelopes my body as I slam into the lake’s surface. I gasp for breath, fighting the pull of the swirling water as the clouds retract, silencing the tornado. Everything hurts as I fight back to the surface. My arms feel heavy and intolerably weak.

  I dig and pull against the water, fighting to remain above the choppy surface. Glancing at the shoreline, I realize I’m out too far. I don’t have the strength to make it.

  I pump my arms, spinning in a circle in search of the boat, but it’s nowhere to be seen. It’s probably sinking to the depths of the lake by now.

  “Help!” I scream, choking as water laps over my face. I spit out the glacial water and scream again until my throat is raw.

  I can barely feel my feet or my fingers. The weight of my clothes is too much for me. I embrace the exhaustion and feel sweet relief, knowing that my struggle is about to be all over.

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