Escape From Hell
I wondered what a blue sky looked like. Okay sure, I remembered it was blue, but considering I’d long ago forgotten what blue was, that didn’t help me much. You see, I lived in a world of nothing but darkness and stale, sour air. A place where not only could I forget simple things like colors, but I couldn’t even remember the details of my own hand.
Or how I got in that cell, or why.
I knew breathing hurt because the air was so dry it sucked the moisture straight out of my lungs, and that I could go one hundred and seven atmosphere cycles—about four days—without food before passing out.
Most times, though, I chose not to dwell on my circumstances, as long as I could help it. Sho’ful, the prison ship that floated around space, carrying untold numbers of souls and sucking the life out of each and every one of them, failed to torment me in one place alone—my dreams. And that’s because I didn’t have them. Ever.
So I closed my eyes again and hovered in that empty world between sleeping and waking. The world where I could ignore the silence and pretend it felt right, the world where darkness released me rather than tortured me. Alone because I wanted to be and not because it had been forced on me.
A sleep like a drug to the soul.
“Get up.” A voice in the darkness ripped me from the edge of slumber and pierced my ears with its sudden harshness. I gasped, clawing at my ears as the itch of newness burned at the base of my jaw. “Open the door and leave.”
The voice seeped away like a dream, or a memory of a dream.
And I burst out laughing for a precious split second before I clamped my mouth shut.
No one left Sho’ful, and only fools thought so. No light at the end of this tunnel. I lay there, refusing to get up. The voice had been nothing but my imagination. It could be nothing more than that.
A creaking sound broke the silence. And then something large, cold and hard pushed against me, sliding me across the rusted floor. When I stopped moving, I grabbed hold of the thing that had pushed me and ran my fingers along its exterior. Parts of it were rough and chipping away and all of it was ice cold.
I lay there running the probability that what I held in my hands was the open door over and over in my mind. Impossible. Yet…maybe. Something had pushed me. It could have been the door.
I reached my arms up and grasped the thing I was growing fairly certain was indeed the door, and pulled myself up. I moved my feet to find some purchase on the floor. They slid along its smooth surface, throbbing with pain. I groaned in frustration.
With my teeth clenched, I laid my feet flat against the floor and forced my shaking legs to lift me. I leaned my weight against the door and let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding in. Sweat poured from every pore.
It was time to walk out of there and leave Sho’ful, so I clenched my right leg and prepared for my first step out of my cell.
The guards’ precious little pets kept watch over the halls to instill terror in the prisoners and dare us to come out. A chill ran up my spine as I thought about all the times I’d pressed myself against the back corner of my cell, as far away from a hound that had come sniffing at my door as I could get. With perfect clarity, I could still recall the sound of his claws scraping against metal, sharp enough to gouge the hard exterior.
No one in their right mind would leave their cell, even if they could. That didn’t stop the guards from dragging inmates out once in a while to feed to the beasts.
I shuddered. They’d done that to the man in the cell next to mine just a few feeding sessions ago. I could still hear his screams, the sound of his flesh being ripped from bone, and the crunch of the hounds’ teeth gnawing him apart.
I shook my head in part to get the memory out and part in answer to my stupid plan. I couldn’t go out there. My heart hammered against my chest in warning. The smartest, the safest thing to do would be to close the door and go on living my life the way I’d been living it for the past ten or so years. A beating heart, safe inside my chest and drowning in depressive nothingness trumped a beating heart spilling my blood on the floor to be lapped up by those monsters.
Minutes passed slowly as I struggled to make up my mind. This glimmer, this phantom hope that warmed my chest was the first in living memory. I couldn’t just disregard it and lock it away to die like everything else in my life.
The cold truth of what I needed to do hit me then. I’d been dying long enough.
That’s when I took my first step.
Several hours and a few bone-bruising falls later, I’d crept through six levels and at least twenty corridors. My efforts had not been rewarded. I was no closer to getting out of this hell than when I’d taken my first step. I started to think I was an idiot for listening to a voice in my head. No, I knew I was an idiot.
I pressed the heels of my palms against my eyes and smacked my head against the wall. Things weren’t going so great. I needed to get out. The weight of the black nothingness crashed in around me, suffocating me. I needed to get out. I needed to get out!
Breathe, Ella. Breathe.
I couldn’t breathe. What had I done? An interstellar ship didn’t have a way off. Why did I ever think it did?
I took a deep breath and let it wash through me. My heartbeat slowed until I could barely feel it at all. The cold metal soothed my forehead. I just needed to stand there for a moment with my head pressed against the wall and my arms dangling at my sides. Things would work out. I’d be all right. Too bad telling myself that over and over didn’t actually help.
I turned my back against the wall and slid down to the floor, resting my head against my knees. Every cell in my body wanted to break down and cry. If I hadn’t been so terrified of making the littlest noise, I would have. I’d never felt so lost in my life. The hope I’d felt earlier had all but disappeared. If the hounds didn’t find me, the guards would, and they’d feed me to the hounds anyway. I was such a fool for leaving my cell. A tear burned its way down my cheek. I clamped my hands over my eyes to stop the rest from gushing out.
Okay, I needed to think through this. I lifted my head from my knees and wiped my tear-soaked hands onto the ragged shreds of my muslin prison uniform. I needed to make a plan, if only to keep my mind busy.
If I kept finding the stairs and followed them down, I’d get to the bottom. What then? Would there be a door to outside? Is that how space ships worked? Of course, even if that was how space ships worked, outside was nothing but vacuum space. I groaned. My plan sucked.
I rubbed the blood back into my legs and pulled myself up. A sucky plan beat no plan any day.
One, two, three. One, two, three. Step, step, step. Step, step, step. After my first initial steps, I found it easier to work in patterns and small groupings to keep track of distances. So far, I’d gone about thirty-eight sets of step, step, steps and most corridors were forty-three sets long before I hit the stairwell.
Step, step, holy crap!
My face collided with the floor in a sickening crunch. I clutched my head and moaned. Sho’ful shook and groaned as my body slammed into one wall and then the other. I tried to grab onto something to keep from rolling around and lose my place in the hallway. The smooth walls offered no handhold.
This had never happened before. Something was definitely different. During my whole ten years on the ship, it had been nothing but a smooth ride. Now, Sho’ful was shaking to pieces. The grinding and booming ripped through my skull and reverberated through my whole body.
Then the floor fell away from me. Or rather, we dropped so suddenly my body went airborne for a few seconds before crashing back down. Blood pooled in my mouth.
Oh no, not blood. Anything but blood. Please. I whipped my head around and strained my ears for any noise other than the rattling metal and booming gears. Though I didn’t have any way to know for sure, I suspected the hounds could pick up the smell of blood really well.
My pounding heart probably didn’t helping anything either. Even above all the mind-numbing noise, I could hear it racing away in my ears. I tried to breathe deeply to calm myself down.
The ship leveled out and settled. We had landed, somehow I knew. Unfortunately, now that all the shaking had stopped, my heartbeat thundered in the heavy silence.
I swallowed, waiting and listening. A leaky pipe drip, drip, dripped off somewhere in the distance. Even farther out, I heard the muffled voices of guards. In the vast and empty hallway where I sat, it was silent. I didn’t move. Something felt off—like it was too silent.
I strained my ears, forcing myself to hear more. Silence and the drip, drip, drip of the leaky pipe. Drip…drip…drip…
I pulled a breath down to my toes and moved to my knees to stand up. That’s when I heard it: a puff of exhaled breath. Blood chilled in my veins.
There wasn’t much I could do—I was just as blind in the dark corridor as I had always been—but now a hound stood somewhere close behind me. I rose to my feet, agonizingly cautious in my slow but steady movements. If the hound was blind too, then silence would be key.
I prayed the hound was blind too.
I straightened with my hands on the wall. Something scraped against the metal floor—a claw. I took one step forward. A muffled noise like bristling fur filled the silence. I bit back my terror.
Way, way off in the distant end of the hall, something caught my eye, which was odd because I hadn’t used my eyes in a very long time. I welcomed the strange sense. I needed all the help I could get. The thing that caught my eye wasn’t all that special, and yet to me, it meant everything. The end of the hall glowed with a weak light that threatened to be snuffed any moment it was so pale. But it was light.
The furry, bristling sound moved closer. I could imagine the hound’s maw spread wide to reveal rows of razor sharp teeth. My mind moved ridiculously slow while my body screamed at me to run. My muscles actually prickled with the need while my brain refused to give the order. And so I was trapped there waiting for the reality of the situation to settle in, my spastic body having already figured everything out light years ago.
It’s too far away, I kept telling myself. Even if there is something around the corner, you’ll never make it. But my body had enough, and I ran.
The hound’s reaction was immediate. The air rushed past me as he made his first lunge. I cringed, waiting for the blow. It didn’t come. I heard the increasing staccato of his claws on the floor as his feet padded toward me. He’d been farther away than I’d thought.
Not far enough, though.
Hot, musky breath blew across my head, whipping my thick and crinkly hair into my face. I spit the strands out of my mouth and ran harder. A razor sharp fang cut through my shoulder, snagging my shirt. I stumbled back and screamed. The hound’s breath moistened my cheeks, and so did my tears.
I twisted away and the sleeve ripped away from my shirt just as the hound’s jaws shut with an audible snap. Foamy slobber hit my arm and neck.
I don’t know what I was thinking—maybe I wasn’t—but my fist swung out and collided with the hound’s jaw, somehow making him stumble back. I took advantage of the opportunity and ran for the end of the hall and the glowing light.
The light, which I had at first thought a miracle, burned my eyes. Each lunge I took brought me closer to its warm promises, but my ill-used sense of sight protested. Actually, it flat out said no. My eyes and nose burned, tears and snot pouring down my face. To make matters worse, the hound had recovered and started chasing me again, and gaining. The light didn’t seem to phase him at all.
A room opened up at the end of the hall. I could tell because the light suddenly brightened in the corner of my left eye. I turned, slipping on the floor, but kept my balance. I felt the hound’s moist jaws hover just inches from my head. His claws scraped against the floor.
Hot, sticky warmth oozed from somewhere in the room. The cold, ship air battled valiantly with it, but lost. Somehow, I knew I wanted to go toward the warmth, just like I knew I needed to go toward the light. The light and the warmth were connected and they were the lifesavers I’d been looking for. I just had to get closer to them. Whatever the light was it was good and protective. It was life. I knew that, I just didn’t know how I knew that.
Something like a memory flitted across my mind and for a second I imagined sunshine breezes and wispy grass, and lying next to a boy. A boy with green eyes.
Then three things happened: I heard the hound’s wet chops open wide and felt his steamy breath closing the distance. A claw grazed my back, slicing my shirt and skin open. And I fell through a hole, screaming all the way down.