Sammy had been walking ages. She’d seen nothing to indicate that there was intelligent life on this jungle planet, so she took a break at an outcrop of rocks that loosely resembled the Sydney Opera House. As she sat down to rest her feet, a pack of crimson mice ran out from a bush in pursuit of a large, shiny beetle. They cornered it in front of a boulder and took it in turns to distract the insect while others attacked from behind.
Quite interesting, Sammy thought, but she left them to it and climbed the rocks. At the top, she was still well below the tallest mushroom canopies but at least it afforded her a better view. She turned in a slow circle, throwing her arms out every so often to keep her balance.
From her vantage point, she spied another pile of rocks through a gap in the mushrooms. No, not ordinary rocks, but blocks.
Civilisation! She climbed down and made her way towards them, pulling apart curtains of creepers as she went.
She found the blocks and, with them, a house. It had been completely obscured by vegetation and she’d almost walked past it.
Sammy walked around the side and into a long clearing where she found other houses lined up on either side of a dirt track. A village, but a deserted one.
All the buildings looked the same and were built from the same grey stone blocks. Their roofs had caved in and there were no doors or windows in any of the frames. No one had lived here in
a long time; unless there was someone camped out in one of the derelict houses. Sammy wasn’t about to call to find out. Drawing attention to herself might not be a good move. There could be other giant mouse-eating bears.
She walked further into the village. It was the first time she’d left the cover of the mushrooms, and it was darker out of their light. There were a few mushrooms in town; a couple in the village square and one or two had squeezed their way up by the sides of houses, but alone they didn’t produce much light. Yet despite the lack of mushrooms, the village wasn’t dark; it was purple.
Sammy had been unable to see the sky fully until that moment.
And what a sight it was.
A churning sea of purple cloud. Not a ‘red sky at night’ kind of purple – the kind that shepherds say brings fair weather – but a deep, royal purple and magenta mass of frothing foam. Fast-moving currents and vortexes spiralled into each other, both beautiful and menacing at the same time. It made her dizzy just watching it. Her balance was telling her she was right side up, but her eyes were telling her she was suspended upside-down above a raging ocean. She looked away, momentarily shaken.
This place was insane but she couldn’t spend too long thinking about it. She’d found houses, houses meant people, and people meant help.
She approached the doorway of a house and peered through the empty frame. The building was comprised of three small rooms. There was no furniture and the floor was littered with tiles from the collapsed roof.
She carried on up the dirt track towards a crumbling stone well in the village centre.
She picked up a pebble and dropped it into the well. Three seconds later, there was a pathetic little plip.
Twenty-three buildings that she could see and no one living in them. What now?
She stood, hands on hips, surveying the area. The street carried on through the town and led back out into the forest. She’d have a look around each house first, just in case she found supplies or something worth taking. Then she’d follow the trail out of town. Hopefully it would take her somewhere populated.
Sammy crossed the street and entered a house. A brief scout around revealed the same state of ruin as the first place. No door, no panes or shutters in the windows, and the floor littered with tiles. She picked up a tile and turned it over in her hands. It was smooth to the touch with two holes at the top. One of the holes still had the remains of a rusty nail sticking out. She looked up through the open ceiling where there’d once been a roof and stared into the swirling sky. It had the same effect as watching the fruit machine in her local pub, in that she’d often find herself captivated by its dancing lights while waiting for her dad to finish ‘one last pint.’
She dropped the tile, moved to the window, and ran a finger along the rusty brackets that had once supported shutters. A gust of warm air swept in through the opening, carrying dust into her face. She rubbed at her eyes.
The temperature was going up. She left the house and made her way back onto the street. The heat was worse outside than in. It was like stepping off the aeroplane that time her parents took her on holiday to Florida.
She smiled. Their last holiday together as a family. They’d been to all the big theme parks, eaten burgers, had cinnamon-flavoured sweets, and she’d stayed up late every night in the hotel room playing cards with her mum while her dad was downstairs in the bar. Sammy shook the memory from her head.
The sky was still dark, with no sign of daylight, yet it was getting warmer. She pulled at her pyjama top, flapping it up and down, wafting cool air inside. And stiffened. There was a figure sat on the edge of the well, right where she’d been a few minutes ago. A large
person, indistinct in the darkness and heat haze, but visible enough to see it was cloaked entirely in black.
The few small mushrooms in the village centre had shrivelled and were no longer glowing.
The figure turned its head in her direction.
Sammy checked over her shoulder. She had no idea why, there was no one around to help. No big deal. It was just a man. A very tall man, but still just a man. He would help her. So, then, why was she clenching her jaw so hard it was beginning to hurt?
The figure slowly rose to its feet and approached. It was tall, twice as tall as she was, but thin, with narrow shoulders. Its entire body was hidden beneath the cloak, the hood of which covered its face, and long sleeves covered its arms and hands.
“You look lost,” it said, in a monotonous, metallic tone.
The saliva in Sammy’s mouth dried up, forming a sticky paste that glued her tongue to the roof of her mouth, and she felt unable to answer.
“Well?” it asked. “Are you lost?”
“No, I … I’m fine. Thank you,” Sammy replied, doing her best not to stammer.
“I’m here to help you,” said the figure calmly, “and you’re lying to me!” It finished with sudden fury and took several steps closer. The heat intensified dramatically as it did so, as if it was the source of the heat. It took a few more paces and stopped.
Sammy held her hands together to stop them shaking. She shuffled one foot backwards. Should she run? Would that make it angrier?
“This forest is a treacherous place. Lots of unpleasant inhabitants,” the figure continued, calm now. “You’re alone, scared. We’d like to make your acquaintance, to help you.”
We? If its buddies were anything like it was, Sammy didn’t want to make their acquaintance. She should run, but couldn’t bring herself to take that first step.
The creature took another step closer and lunged. That was the trigger Sammy needed. She ducked under its arm as her legs came back to life. And she ran.
A metallic scream followed Sammy into the dark alley between two houses. The sound of a knife scraped across steel that made her teeth hurt. She clapped her hands over her ears and kept going.
She flew from the alley into the glittering light of the forest. She chanced a look over her shoulder to find the figure coming after her, floating along the forest floor as if on roller skates, moving without any outward appearance of effort. Its arms clenched at its sides and head slumped at its chest, like a man hanging from a noose. How could anything so horrific not mean her harm? And she’d made it angry, somehow.
Sammy kept pumping her legs. The running combined with the heat at her back was making her light-headed, but she couldn’t stop. She wasn’t getting away, but at least it wasn’t gaining. All she could do was keep going and hope the monster tired before she did.