CutFreeze – Chapter 4
© 2022 – chapter 4 published on 24 September 2023 – Christine Duts
All rights reserved
A small crab crawled away from Canea’s face as she lay in the mud. She rose and found Chloé in the water. She was wading knee-deep through the murky lake with spatters of mud on her face. Her usually immaculate hairdo was a big mess and covered with some twigs. If the situation wasn’t so precarious, Canea would laugh. Chloé certainly deserved it, and her irritated face only called for mockery, but Canea was not like her. Instead, she stepped into the water and held out her right hand, but Chloé smacked it away and marched onto dry land.
The car was destroyed, utterly unusable. The windshield was broken and the front section was half compacted.
“You’re bleeding,” Chloé observed, pointing at her partner’s temple. “Not much, though. It’ll heal.”
Unconcerned, she stopped in front of the car.
“How are you going to explain that to Daddy?” Canea said.
This time, she finally managed to annoy her partner. Chloé gave her a look and walked away.
“Where are you going?”
“To the Squadron,” Chloé barked.
“Through the swamp?”
“It’s the quickest way.”
Canea hurried to catch up with her and said, “It’s also the most dangerous one. Let’s turn back and catch a ride on the highway.”
“I’m starving and I don’t want to make a detour to maybe catch a ride.”
“Someone will give us a lift. We’re from the Squadron.”
With a loud snort, Chloé said, “I’m in charge, and we’re going through the swamp. We will be back in less than half an hour.”
“Do you even know the way?”
Chloé looked at her as if she were slow in understanding. “It’s straight ahead, just like the flying.”
“There are no roads here, we can get lost.”
“Stop arguing and walk with me. I am your superior, for crying out loud!”
“No, you’re not. You’re my partner, and don’t give me this crap of you outranking me because you’re a High Dacarian.”
Ignoring her, Chloé marched on. Canea went with her, having a bad feeling about this but not wanting her to be on her own either.
It was late afternoon and the sun would set in less than half an hour. Canea hoped that they would indeed find the way. She didn’t want to get stuck here at night.
“Are you sure?” she tried one last time.
“It’s getting dark soon. What if we get lost here?”
“We won’t, you idiot!”
“I’m not the idiot here!”
Angered by her words, Canea balled her fists. She was risking her life for a stuck-up, arrogant member of the higher class who didn’t give a rat’s ass about her safety and had no respect for her. This was ridiculous. She wasn’t going to enter this swamp just because crazy Chloé said so.
Canea threw herself at her partner and tackled her on the ground.
“Hey! What the hell?” Chloé was in the dirt, pinned down between Canea’s knees.
“They didn’t teach you that at the Squadron? Did Daddy take care of it all, pay for your graduation?” Before her conceited partner could answer, she continued, “Listen, Chloé. Right now we need experience and training and not humoring a rich kid’s tantrum. I don’t know how much you know about this swamp but it is a dangerous place, even before the disappearances started. Especially now, we have to be careful. We are going back, ask for a lift, and then we go to the Squadron. I am not risking my life and safety for you. End of discussion.”
“You should remember your place. I will report this when we get back. You can be sure of that.”
“Well, at least I’ll be alive to deal with the report. Shall we go now?”
In response, Chloé kicked her hard in her belly and threw Canea off her, straddling her at once.
“I also learned at the Squadron,” she hissed, looking down at Canea’s astonished face. “I’m not without my skills. We are walking through the swamp, and that is my last word.”
“You don’t even know which way to go!”
“I am tired and hungry. We’re close to the Squadron. How hard can it be to get there?” She playfully hit the tip of Canea’s nose with her index finger. “Come on, now. Stop being so difficult. I’ve done this before.”
“Yes, trust me. I know the way.”
Canea wasn’t sure whether she should believe her, but with a defeated sigh, she resigned herself to accompanying her partner.
The swamp was indeed small, but not that small not to get lost here. Perhaps she had really been here before. Some teenage couples liked to hang out here to watch the sunset, but even they didn’t do anything as foolish as venturing deep inside.
“If you’re sure.”
Sergeant Garin combed her short ash blond hair in front of the mirror in her private bathroom. She placed her cap on her head, turned, and returned to her office. It was small, nothing fancy for a sergeant, but she was proud of it. Achieving this rank had not been an easy feat in the male-dominated Squadron. It had cost her much effort and time away from home, but in the end, it had been worth it.
The one thing she loved about her office was the large window that gave her a magnificent view. Some sarcastically called it the “parking lot vista” but behind the ugly slab of cement that housed the underground parking of their prestigious Mondaes, the road stretched endlessly and wound its way around the swamp. This was the closest to the marsh their engineers had dared to build their headquarters, at a small distance of 3 miles. Any closer and some buildings might sink 1/8 inch per year, according to their research.
The swamp provided some privacy from the public eye because as much as the Squadron served the public, some things had to be kept hidden. Their slogan read “To Serve, Protect, and Sacrifice for the Common Good.” The sacrifices were often personal but they could just as well affect the general population, especially the people in Terraria.
Garin had no sympathy for the plight of Terrarians. In her early teens, her father had taken her on a trip there to conduct some business in a dodgy pub. He had left her outside the bar while he went in, to buy whatever he couldn’t get in High Dacaria. It had taken him longer than expected and while she waited for him, two men approached her with drawn knives. She ran for her life and although she shook her pursuers off, she got lost in the maze of winding streets. It took her father three hours before he finally found her, hiding behind a garbage can, shivering in fear. She swore never to go back.
The incident happened twenty-one years ago, but it had marked her. She hadn’t forgotten the experience and it was what she related to Terraria.
During her training at the Squadron, a visit to Terraria was required. She hated all of it but being surrounded by her squad gave her confidence, and she finally realized the power she had over those Terrarians.
In her time as S-A Junior, she was sent to investigate crimes over there. She never went without her partner – except once – but even so, she was never afraid, despite her hatred of the place.
She made her last arrest a year and a half ago, possession of firearms. The guy had over 350 weapons hidden in his basement. That last bust propelled her towards a promotion. She never forgot the criminal’s name. Maihem Petejo. She even got him without her partner, held him at gunpoint; and when he resisted she smacked him to the ground and cuffed him, all this done in less than 10 seconds.
Pathetic shithead! she thought. When she arrested him he went to prison for the third time. She shook her head when she remembered that. A third time? Perhaps they should place a revolving door there just for him.
Garin was harsh with mistakes. Once was forgivable, twice was worrisome, but three times was downright foolish. After the first mistake, anyone could say goodbye to getting a second chance with her.
She gazed out over the swamp. Far behind it, the high rises of the city reached for the clouds. The buildings had hanging gardens and trees, and seeing the foliage so close to the clouds was always awe-inspiring. High Dacaria was a splendid place. The city was beautiful, modern, and exciting. Bars, restaurants, theaters, shopping, anything they wanted, it was all there. High Dacaria never lacked entertainment.
Middle Dacaria came right behind it, but it wasn’t visible from where she stood. High Dacaria stretched to the horizon. She had visited Middle Dacaria a few times and it was a charming town, quiet, provincial, and peaceful, the perfect getaway from the busy city life. Many High Dacarians owned beach houses in Middle Dacaria to spend weekends there.
The loud beeping of her electronic notepad on her desk woke her from her reveries. She turned and picked up the device, turning off the annoying tone.
A message from Canea Delu.
“56 Terrarians missing.” That was followed by a long list of names. Astonished, Garin stared at the names.
How had they overlooked this? Why had no one reported this to her before?
“In what timeframe?” she texted back, but there was only one checkmark behind her text, not two, which would have confirmed receipt of her message. For several minutes the message remained in “sent” status.
Garin frowned. That was unusual. Reception was excellent in all three regions, there shouldn’t be a problem sending and receiving messages.
She knew that she had to take action at once. Terraria or not, this could not be ignored. Quickly, she called dispatch and ordered units to the despised area. Next on the list was her report to the Director. She wasn’t looking forward to that …
Hours had gone by since Canea had found a signal and managed to send off her message to the sergeant. Hours of traipsing through this forsaken swamp. She had no idea where they were and she was pretty sure that Chloé didn’t either.
It was pitch dark now, and her partner still trotted along, assuring her over and over that “it wouldn’t be long now,” but they could hardly see two feet in front of them, and finally Canea rested her hand on Chloé’s left shoulder and said, “You don’t know where we are, do you?”
Chloé stopped, her usual arrogant demeanor gone, and her shoulders lowered in defeat.
Canea could have accused her of lying, asking her why she had lied, but there was no point. They were both lost in a treacherous swamp where untimely creatures lurked. Crocodiles were nothing compared to the giant snakes that slithered through the waters.
“Let’s stay here on dry ground,” Canea suggested. “We’ll continue in the morning, in daylight.”
“You mean, spend the night here? We can’t.”
“It’s the safest thing we can do. If we keep on walking we could end up in quicksand or fall into the water, and the snakes are active at night.”
“Morass eels, but don’t let the name fool you. They can reach up to 3 feet.”
Chloé was strangely quiet. Canea would love to see the expression on her face right now, one of disbelief or perhaps even guilt if she was lucky. She was the one who had insisted to walk through here, claiming she “knew the way.” Nonetheless, elation at another’s error was not her thing; it would have been for Chloé, though, if roles had been reversed.
Canea reached out her hand and felt for the trunk of a tree, hoping that she had judged the tall, dark shadows near them correctly. To her relief, the palm of her hand touched the rough bark of a tree. With her other hand still on Chloé’s shoulder, she pulled her with her.
“Let’s sit here.”
They sank to the wet ground and leaned against the tree, each lost in their thoughts. Chloé dreaded the night. She knew it would be humid, filled with ghastly noises she couldn’t fathom, rustling in the bushes, all of the things she hated. What had gotten into her, forcing Canea through the swamp? Now, the woman would see her for who she was, weak, useless, dumb …
She would be damned, though, if she apologized.
“Now what?” she asked, mustering her arrogant voice.
“We wait for the morning.”
An owl hooted. It sounded close, but Chloé knew that she had nothing to fear from an owl.
The water splashed behind them.
“Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” Canea whispered. It sounded like a large animal and it worried her. She had no idea if Morass eels hunted exclusively in the water or if they also sought out prey on land.
“Do you have your flashlight?”
“It got smashed in the accident.” She wasn’t even going to ask why Chloé didn’t have her flashlight on hand. Then she remembered her electronic notepad. Its battery was low but it might be enough to give off some brightness. She fished it out of her pants pocket and clicked the button. Her message board lit up, slightly illuminating her face.
Chloé glanced at her profile and realized how beautiful her partner was. She felt like reaching out her hand and touching that soft skin, her silken blond hair, …
“Good, Sergeant Garin received my message.”
Chloé awoke from her brief daydreaming and asked, “No response from her?”
“No, but I have no signal here.”
“Of course, the damn swamp has got to be the only place in this whole country with no signal.”
A vague clicking sounded ahead of them. It clicked for several seconds and then it stopped. Chloé’s eyes met Canea’s, both wondering what the source of that weird noise was. After a few seconds of silence, it ticked again, this time louder.
“What is this?” Chloé whispered, her voice edgy.
Slowly, Canea turned her notepad and with the little light that was left in it, she looked for the source of the disturbance. The light fell on a crab the size of her hand.
“It’s just a crab.”
Chloé now spotted it too and breathed a sigh of relief. Canea wasn’t sure, though, how common crabs had ended up in this swamp. Perhaps the wind had blown it here from the beach. Was that even possible? A year ago she had found a crab in her garden even though she lived 5 miles from the ocean. She had captured the little guy and returned it to the beach.
There was more clicking now, louder, threatening …
Canea moved her electronic notepad. Both women gasped in horror when the feeble light fell on a gigantic crab. It was as tall as a child and Canea calculated its width to be at least three feet. Chloé rose, not feeling safe on the ground anymore.
“I think we should leave,” she said.
When the crab launched itself towards them, Chloé and Canea ran for their lives, disappearing into the darkness.
Desperately, Canea reached for Chloé’s hand to avoid getting separated but she groped in the void of the night, and when she used the last remaining light of her notepad, she couldn’t see her partner anywhere. The clicking followed her with purpose. Terrified, she turned off the light and hurried away.
She didn’t know how far she ran but after several minutes the clicking sounded further away. She kept on running blindly, fervently hoping that she wouldn’t trip in this darkness. She couldn’t even see her feet on the ground.
In the distance, Chloé screamed.
To be continued …