CutFreeze – Chapter 5 and 6
© 2022 – chapters 5 and 6 published on 27 September 2023 – Christine Duts
All rights reserved
To read previous chapters, please click on the following link: CutFreeze
Chloé hid behind a thick tree, knowing that the pitch-black darkness that surrounded her did not encumber her pursuer. Its pincers clicked, sounding nearly patient as if it knew that eventually, it would get its prey. She could hear her rapid breathing and was aware of every motion her body made despite her best efforts to remain quiet. How could the body betray a human so in the darkest of times?
And where the hell was Canea? She had been right behind her. Without her partner she felt exposed, vulnerable …
Who had she been kidding? She was no real S-A Junior. Canea was right, it had all been her father’s doing; well, some of it. She had completed her training although he had not deemed it necessary, but she wanted to prove to him that she could earn her rank based on merit and not on connections. While she had not achieved a high score, she had passed her final exams, and that was enough to show him that she could do it. He had scoffed that women of high society did not belong in the Squadron.
Oh, dear old dad and his conservative beliefs … What a joy he could be …
He didn’t even know half of it, and she wasn’t going to tell him.
The pincers clicked nearby. She knew she had to move, but she couldn’t see anything in the darkness. There was no doubt in her mind that that giant crab would eat her once it got its claws on her. She shuddered at the thought of that thing gnawing at her.
She knew that there were outlandish creatures in the swamp, but she had always thought them to be figments of Terrarians’ imagination. Never before had she seen a crab that was even as big as her hand, and now there was one after her the size of a child?
Not knowing what else to do, she took a step backward and still felt solid ground. Good, it was safe to go. The last thing she wanted was to end up in the water. Crocodiles were real here, and between the crab and the crocodile, there was likely not much difference. Both animals would give her a cruel death. She turned and kept on going, away from the safety of the tree, away from the terrifying clacking of the pincers.
The ground began to feel a little mushier, and her feet sank a few inches. She veered to her right to run the other way, but she slipped and as much as she tried to remain standing, her body failed her again and she rolled down a slope, branches hitting her face, and moss dampening her clothes. Desperately, she tried to find purchase. Above her, the clicking sounded again. The damn thing was coming after her. She swore she could hear its feet hit the ground as it ran after her.
She rolled all the way down and landed with a loud splash in the water.
Her first instinct was to return to the shore, but the clicking sounded too close … the creature was there, waiting for her. She realized that it didn’t go into the water. Wasn’t that strange? As far as she knew, crabs were water creatures, but perhaps the human-eating sort was different.
She felt a movement behind her. Something was approaching her in the current.
Chloé froze, not knowing what to do. Death awaited her front and back. She had no weapons on her, not even a kitchen knife. Her Squadron-issued weapons were in the car and had been thrown around in the crash. She had no idea where they had fallen.
A large, scaly thing brushed her right hand. She held her breath, praying that – whatever it was – would go away, but it didn’t. A long, sleek body surrounded her and even seemed to sniff her underwater. It wound its way around each of her legs, trapping her.
This was it, wasn’t it? Those last moments before it would open its mouth and its fangs would rip her flesh. The few seconds she had left between life and death. So, this was what it felt like when you were about to die, when you knew that death was a certainty that toyed with you until it swallowed you with its wide jaws.
She wanted to weep and scream, but no sound came from her mouth and not a single tear escaped her eyes. Fear had muted her.
The long, sleek thing was a snake, she was sure of it, the kind of snake Canea had described, the one she hadn’t known existed.
Such an innocent name that evoked the image of a small, harmless eel instead of a giant, murderous snake … Whoever had invented that name was a moron.
The snake’s tail was still wound around her legs, and suddenly it pulled hard, nearly cutting off the blood flow in her legs, and it swam off, pulling Chloé with it.
“No!” she screamed, finally finding her voice again. “Nooooo!”
The morass eel dove and took her to the depths of the swamp.
The screaming stopped.
Sergeant Garin was one of the few who didn’t shrink back from looking the Director in the eyes. Most turned away, intimidated by the reptilian stare, but she wasn’t going to let a pair of cold eyes get the better of her. Even the stony skin around his eyes didn’t daunt her. It was known that he was half human, half reptilian. True, there weren’t many of his kind around anymore. When the government finally revealed their existence in 2049, mankind persecuted them with a passion, to take selfies, to trap them and keep them as pets, and even to mount a head in the living room.
Most of the reptilian humans were killed, and by the year 2051, less than a hundred were left in the world. Humans labeled them “protected species” but it still wasn’t enough to keep them safe. Several dozens more were murdered for their hides which were popular in the fashion industry. The illegal human-reptilian hides were aptly renamed “exotic leather” but connoisseurs knew what it meant. Before all of them were murdered, the government rounded up the remaining 36 human reptilians and sent them to Gough Island in the South Atlantic.
They lived there for the remainder of their days. The Director’s grandmother had been one of the survivors on Gough Island, and when the world finally became friendlier towards them and treated them as part human, the younger generations left the island and traveled to different continents.
The Director – the only reptilian human with telekinetic power – ended up in Dacaria, became a part of the Squadron, and worked his way up to the top. No one knew his real name. Everyone referred to him as “the Director.”
Glaring at Garin, he said, “This is a gross oversight. It’s negligence. What have you got to say for yourself?”
“We missed it, I’m sorry, but I already sent out investigators.”
“A little late, don’t you think? Who knows how long they’ve been gone? The trail might be cold.”
“Perhaps not.” She knew that the following news would irritate him too but she could use it to her advantage, to win some time. “It looks like Canea Delu and Chloé Zettanu found a clue. They are following up on it as we speak.”
His eyes finally showed some emotion.
“What’s the update?”
“No update so far, Sir. Their notepads have no signal.”
“That’s impossible. All of Dacaria has internet.”
“There are areas in Terraria where it might be failing.”
“Then fix that, and as soon as you hear from Chloé and Canea, inform me immediately!”
His gaze fell on her, scrutinizing her face. He appreciated that she didn’t look away like most humans did. Garin was a strong one. Her amber eyes met his, steady and confident. Nothing seems to unbalance this woman, he thought.
“You may go. If I’m not here by the time you hear from either Chloé or Canea, call me at home.”
She turned and left the room. Salutes were a thing of the past, in the squadron as well as in the military. Verbal confirmations and blind obedience were still expected as they always had been, but the salute had been abolished in 2054.
He watched her leave. When the door closed behind her, his scaly tail crouched out over his belt and fell softly on the floor, its scales and skin breathing in fresh air after having been compressed against his right leg for so long.
Although his kind was accepted now, he was still wary of showing his full self to humans. One could never know. He didn’t fear individuals, but when those people got together in groups and began chanting their slogans and acting upon calls from their self-proclaimed leaders, then it was time to hide. He didn’t trust human crowds, and he knew that even his high position was no guarantee to be spared if humans wielded their terrifying group mentality again and used it to destroy others. His grandmother and her friends had told him plenty of stories.
There was a reason he was pushing for equality in the Squadron and in all of Dacaria.
She hadn’t planned on writing Maihem when he was in prison. Although she liked him, she hardly knew him, and she also had her job to think of. Canea wasn’t impressed when she discovered in his rap sheet that he was in prison for the third time. All three times, for the same offense, possession of firearms.
When she first met him, she got a certain vibe from him, suspecting that his name was in the system, but she hadn’t run it to verify, considering it unnecessary. When she found out about his arrest, though, she wasn’t even shocked. It was as if she had expected it. Receiving his first letter from prison was more surprising. She hadn’t expected that and, at first, she wasn’t sure if she should write back. Nonetheless, in his letters, he was charming, nice, and respectful, so she responded to him. They wrote each other for a year and a half until he obtained an early release.
Despite the missed date before his arrest, during their correspondence, she never thought of him in a romantic way. He had always been a guy she knew who had turned into a pen pal, and she enjoyed their communication. She had been glad that she could be there for him. That was all.
After he got out, though, that changed. He called her every day and they talked on video chat for hours. She started to like him … a lot. She hadn’t seen that coming.
He told her that he had been imprisoned three times.
Although she already knew that, it still bothered her. He hadn’t just ended up in prison for one mistake, but he had chosen to repeat his bad choices or whatever they could be called and got himself arrested three times … Not the kind of man she had envisioned falling for …
You sure know how to pick’em, she thought.
Except that … she hadn’t picked him. He had wheedled himself into her life and when she finally accepted him as someone who mattered to her, someone she cared about, he launched his words as missiles at her, wounding her like few had done before.
Why the hell did you think you could come into my life and then hurt me like that? she often spoke to him in her mind.
As much as her feelings for him had taken her by surprise, so had his sudden aloofness and final cruelty. Every single word dripped with spitefulness and cut her like a knife. It had crushed her.
She had always been there for him. Didn’t it count for something? Didn’t they at least have some friendship? She didn’t understand his need to be so cruel to her. It took her a while to get over it. The freezing procedure had been a last resort and although it helped, he was still on her mind. Now, however, her sadness was replaced by anger whenever his name popped up in her thoughts.
It incensed her immensely that she thought of him tonight of all nights when she was lost in a swamp, had barely escaped a flesh-eating giant crab, and had heard Chloé’s terrified screams without having a clue where she was. This was no time for Maihem. It never was. He didn’t deserve her time anymore.
Where the hell was Chloé?
More importantly, why had she stopped screaming?
As much as she preferred for her not to cry out, the sudden silence carried even more of a sense of doom.
Caleb’s face was turned to the wall after witnessing more carnage. A Terrarian had just been devoured. The crabs were still chewing when they walked away, clicking their pincers, and leaving not a shred of flesh or even a drop of blood behind. It was as if the man had never existed.
Caleb had exchanged a few words with him during their time in this cave. His name had been Chad. The 28-year-old used to be a street sweeper, and had a wife and two sons. Only a few hours ago, Chad had told him how he worried about them. They needed him. Without him, they had no money for food. Caleb had proposed that surely there had to be a way for them to make ends meet but Chad had just smirked in derision.
“Yeah, as if,” he said.
Those had been his last words.
Yeah, as if
A last defiance against the privileged Middle and High Dacarians. Then the crabs had entered and ended the man’s life.
If Caleb ever made it out of this underground prison, he swore that he would find Chad’s family and take care of them. He simply HAD to get out of here. He didn’t want to end up getting eaten alive by those giant crustaceans. If only he could find something to cut the ropes with.
He turned and looked around the cave, seeing terrified faces everywhere. He knew what went through their minds. They were all in the same boat. In a corner, a woman was crying.
“Listen,” he said. No one paid him any attention, all lost in despair.
“Listen!” he repeated, a little louder now. He was certain that the crabs couldn’t understand them, but he still preferred to keep his voice down. One never knew what those animals could pick up on.
“What do ye want?” a man in his early fifties grumbled.
“We must find a way to escape.”
“How?” a girl in her late teens asked, glaring at him as if he had lost his mind.
“We can cut these ropes. Scan the cave for a sharp object, anything that does the job.”
“We can’t reach anything from here.”
“Never mind that. Once you see something, we’ll figure out a way to get to it.”
The man in his fifties shook his head slowly and said, “I don’t know what ye think ye can accomplish, but those crabs have moved all sharp objects out of the way.”
“I said, we’ll figure it out.”
“You’re from the Squadron,” the man said accusingly, glaring at his uniform.
“You’ll just leave us here to die,” the teen spat.
“Can we all move past our past differences and focus on getting out?” Caleb spoke impatiently. “Every day these crabs come to eat one of us. Who’s it going to be tomorrow? You?” He looked at the girl. “Or you?” He glanced at the middle-aged man. “Or you perhaps?” He now turned to a woman who sat next to the teen. “We have nothing to lose but our lives. The least we can do is try.”
No one argued with him.
“You heard what he said,” a young Middle Dacarian spoke up. “Let’s start looking.”
Caleb’s eyes were already scanning the cave, examining the walls, the ground, anything. Except for the stalactites, there was nothing nearby they could use and the stalactites were too far away. He had to forget about them. The crabs had removed his weapons.
He still remembered how their claws had reached for his guns. It stunned him how these animals who were supposed to have such small brains had thought of disarming him. They thought …! Perhaps these crabs had bigger brains due to their gigantic size.
And no one at the Squadron knew about this. He didn’t expect a rescue mission from them any time soon. If they wanted to make it out alive, they had to act now.
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