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Illumination

By @angelicomen

Chapter Two

Three weeks earlier

“Now welcoming–krkh–Jacklyn Ferris Amundsen of the 382nd colonist group.” 

The sleek doors slid open soundlessly to admit Jack into the main atrium of the colony.  After many years, it still took her breath away every time.  One of the largest Illumination Beacons in New Earth, a large, metallic cylinder rose up fifty feet into the air before projecting a blindingly white beam of Illumination through the glass ceiling and up into the night sky.  Colonists milled around its base, some dressed in navy, ythafone work uniforms, others wearing casual clothing.  The sound of their chatter hovered in the air, droning on and on like the whirring of gears.  Jack kept her head low as she weaved through the crowd and cut across the atrium towards the housing district.  A few people glanced at her as she hurried by, but nobody bothered her.  

Jack stopped at the door to her family’s apartment and pressed her wrist against the chip reader.  After a moment, the light flashed green and the door opened with a low hiss.  

After being sprayed with bitter-smelling sanitization mist, Jack stepped into the kitchen and saw that Robin was cooking something in a pot, whistling.  She wrinkled her nose and asked, “What are you setting on fire tonight?”  

“That was one time, Jackalope,” he replied, with a grin.  “Besides, I thought I’d do some cooking the old fashioned way–chili and rice in a pot!”

“Dana’s gonna freak,” Jack warned, remembering the last time their mother had found Robin cooking in the kitchen.  “But it’s your funeral.”  She shrugged and headed to her bedroom to unpack.

Sierra, Jack’s younger sister, was curled up  inside one of the sleep pods, her hair pooled around her like glossy, dark rivers.  She had earbuds in and was listening to some sort of radio broadcast.  From what Jack could tell, she was in “Don’t Kill Jack” mode, which was quite a relief after the long day.  Sometimes when Sierra was in a manic high, it was best to just ignore her.

Sierra glanced up as her sister approached and took out her earbuds, raising an eyebrow and grinning maniacally.  “Soooo…what’s the scoop?  Where are you going?!”

“Don’t get too excited, Sie.  It’s a routine maintenance trip to another one of the colonies with Liam and Bailey.  It’s in a couple of weeks, I think.  But still, my first real trip in a while!”

“Ooh, Liam?  You mean Robin’s hot British friend from flight school?” Jack’s sister elbowed her in the ribs playfully.  

“His petty, dull, and overly serious friend,” Jack retorted, staring up at the ceiling.  “I honestly can’t believe that I’m being sent out with those two.  They’re like the most boring people in the universe!  At least Robin’s gonna drive me, so it won’t be that bad.”

“Well, I’ll see both of them at the party tonight so I’ll make sure to tell them that,” Sierra joked, fidgeting with a lock of her hair.  “You coming with me?”

“Sure, just as long as I don’t have to talk to anyone.”

“Not a done deal, but I’ll do my best to protect you, even though I’ll probably get distracted.  On one condition.”  Sierra’s eyes lit up as she said this and Jack sighed.

“…okay, what is it?”

“You have to let me do your makeup.”

***

Two hours later, Jack sat at the refreshment table and sipped sour cranberry juice while Sierra chatted with some of her friends from the colony’s middle school program.  She had to admit that her little sister had done a really good job on the makeup.  Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Jack admired how her sister had loosely braided the short, tangled curls of light, sand-colored hair and framed them against her eyes.  While Sierra had gone all out on her own attire, a beautiful white slip-on with bows down the back and ivory flats to match, Jack had chosen to stay with a simple blouse and a black skirt, not liking how her old dress itched like one of Dana (her mother)’s sweaters.  

“You look nice tonight,” Bailey commented, filing her nails.  Jack sighed, having almost forgotten that she wasn’t alone.  “Better than usual.  Where’d you get that skirt?” 

“Eh, I made it.”  After a pause, Jack added, “I see you’re coming with me on the maintenance trip.”

“I heard from the General herself.  You know, it’s really a pity that you hate me so much.  I think we could get along otherwise!”  She tutted, continuing to buff  her nails down to stubs.  The shavings flitted to the ground where they lay on the navy blue carpet, disturbingly out of place.

“What?  After all the torture you put me through, you think that I’m the bad guy?!”  Jack snorted in disbelief, downing the rest of her bitter drink in one gulp.  “Yeah, right.”  

Bailey stopped filing her nails and folded her hands in her lap neatly.  She made a clicking noise with her tongue and said, “Well, we’re going to have to put our differences aside if we’re going to make it.”

Make it?

“Not like we’re in danger, or anything like that,” Bailey scoffed.  “My dad just told me that more Apexes are on the move.  They’re mobilizing in packs from the west.”

“More?  But we increased the patrols!” Jack remarked, her eyes going wide.  This was the third colony that she’d lived in and it seemed to be harder and harder to stay in one.  The Apexes had grown restless since the last time they’d successfully killed a colonist and had been on the move.  “Well, just send out more guards!” 

“We’ve mobilized pretty much every single unit we have.  Look, you know that I’d be an asset to you if you calmed your temper.  We could be friends, Jack.  Actual friends,” Bailey proposed.

“What does this have to do with the Apexes?  I don’t need help.”

“Say that to a hungry Apex as it tears you from limb to limb,” Bailey said, flipping her hair over her shoulder.  “All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be fighting when the Apexes come knocking on our door.  In times like these, no one should.”  She leaned in close as she whispered the last three words.

“I’ll…think about it,” Jack muttered, her spine tingling.  “Gonna go check on Sierra now.” She stood up and crossed the dance floor to where her sister was sitting with her friends.

“-hair is too long for your own good, Sie.  Really, you should cut it if you want to stay cool.  Short hair would look sooo good on you.  Like really short.  Take it from a friend,” one of the other girls was saying.

“Are you sure?” Sierra looked around at her friends, who smiled and nodded at her enthusiastically.  

Jack frowned and approached her from behind.  “Sierra, are these your friends?”  Her sister looked up with a hesitant grin, her eyes big.  She was clearly about to enter “Kill Jack” mode.

“Uh huh.”

“You doing alright?”

Yup.”  Sierra’s eyes widened even more and watered with withheld rage at the interruption.  

Jack backed up a couple of steps and glanced around her.  “Okay, then.  I’m going to head back,” she lied.  “I’m not feeling that great.  I think Robin’s over by the DJ booth if you need him.”

“Okay…have fun!” Sierra waved at her halfheartedly.  Jack nodded and dashed off through the crowd, heart pounding.  Her feet barely touched the ground until she was back in her bedroom and lying in her sleep pod.  

Be friends  with Bailey?  No way.  That girl will push me into a pit and leave me for dead the first chance she gets…but what if she was telling the truth?  What’ll happen if the Apexes attack?  The questions floated through Jack’s head, peppering her brain with problems that she didn’t want to face.  

***

It was the fourth day in the new colony.  Jack had just finished unpacking the last box with her adoptive father when the alarm went off, howling and moaning down the hall like a banshee.  Sierra, just four years old at the time, leaped up onto the bed and wailed with fright, burying her head in the pillows.  Robin, who had been working on homework, slammed the door tight and climbed up next to Jack and Sierra, eyes wide.

“Attention: there has been an Apex break-in at Sector 18G of the Dome.  All personnel are to stay calm and remain in their apartment rooms until this has been cleared up.  I repeat, do not leave your apartment for any reason until it is safe to do so.  Thank you for your understanding,” a reedy voice blared through the speakers, followed by the crackle of microphone feedback.  

Jack’s mind raced as she huddled with the rest of her family, half-buried underneath the covers.  Sector 18G was on the first floor–right below their apartment, in fact.  She leaped out of bed, throwing part of the covers to the ground, and looked out the open window at the courtyard.  

Shouts and screams drifted up from the main garden, which was bathed in the light of the Illumination Beacon.  Jack saw the Apex for the first time and couldn’t help but shiver.  It was everything she’d imagined in her nightmares–lupine, hairless, with multiple, spider-like limbs clicking on the ground and slavering jaws.  Its skin was thick and fleshy; it had a tuft of black fur on the top of its gargantuan head.  The Apex howled as it snapped its teeth at the guards trying to fight it off, greyish saliva flying everywhere.  There were at least a dozen guards surrounding the lone creature, but they were hesitant to attack–every time one of them got too close, the Apex would whirl around and growl a warning, showing off multiple rows of pointed, misshapen teeth. 

It was a stalemate so tense that it sent a shiver down Jack’s spine.  The guards had rods charged with electrical energy that they were prodding the Apex with, but the volt surges seemed only to make it angrier.  Jack saw that there were several burn marks down the side of the chest and legs, indicating that it’d gotten through the electrical security fence the hard way.  

“Get it down!” one of the men yelled, and the guards swarmed forward with their sticks out, ready to shock the Apex into submission.  The creature shrieked as dozens of volts surged through its body; yet somehow, it didn’t collapse.  Instead, it rose up to its full height and thrashed out with its legs, knocking the guards to the ground and pouncing on the nearest one.  The guard cried out as the Apex tore into his shoulder with two sets of gleaming fangs, ripping off a piece of his uniform and spattering blood onto the ground.

Jakob, no!” one of the guards yelled as his comrades struggled to their feet.  “Fall back!”  

“No, Jack whispered, almost inaudible to herself, as the men retreated.  Why aren’t they helping that man?  They need to get in there and fight off the Apex! she thought, clutching the windowsill so tightly that her knuckles turned white.  But Jack could only look on helplessly as the guards stood by and watched as the Apex dragged its screaming prey by the leg across the courtyard and into the darkness.

Jack numbly climbed back into bed with the rest of her family, who had chosen to stay behind and not watch the gruesome spectacle.  Her father kissed her gently on the forehead and pulled her tight against him, breathing heavily.  

Attention: the Apex has retreated.  The guards were able to fight it off and it is now safe to leave your apartments.  For further safety, please avoid exiting the main building for the next 24 hours without safety personnel accompanying you.  Thank you for your cooperation,” the monitor announced.  Liar, Jack thought, an image of the guard’s body flashing into her mind.  Why are they lying to us?  But she stayed quiet and hid with her family, breathing slowly until she finally managed to convince herself into a restless sleep. 

***

Jack woke up to the sound of a door slamming in the distance.  She yawned and buried herself deeper under the covers, as if to hide from the nightmare.  Her whole body felt as if it was on fire, vibrating with the heat of the sleep pod’s comforter.  After a moment, she gave up and pushed the covers to the side with her legs, rolling over to check the clock.  Ugh.  She’d only slept for three hours.  She kicked off her socks, sending them flying across the room, and sluggishly climbed out of the pod.  

Jack headed for the bathroom to find her sleep sensors, bare feet dragging against the carpet.  A light was shining from behind the closed door.  Sierra and Robin must be back from the party, she realized.  Stopping in front of the bathroom door, she leaned in and knocked twice, the family’s signature code.  No answer but a slight sniffling sound.

“Hello?” she whispered, her voice raspy and foggy.  Still no answer.  Jack reached forward and pressed her thumb against the verification pad for the door.  It flashed dark green and the door slid partially open with a low hiss.  She stepped up and peered through the crack into the room.

Sierra was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, hunched over.  Her shoulders were heaving up and down with concealed sobs and her back was to the door.  Jack gasped silently as she noticed piles and piles of silky, black hair lying scattered in fragments on the tiled floor.  Her sister’s one pride and joy, gone.  Just like that.

Jack opened her mouth to say something, but then shut it and stepped back.  Sierra looked up at the mirror but didn’t seem to notice her older sister standing behind her.  She fingered a lock of her now-short, dull, and uneven hair, which barely went down to her chin.  She looks like me, Jack realized, closing the door and pressing her forehead against the frame.  

An image of Sierra sitting with her friends just a few hours ago flashed into Jack’s mind as she tiptoed back to her sleep pod.  She didn’t bother asking her dad for the medicine.  She lay in her sleep pod, staring up at the ceiling and absentmindedly running a hand through her hair until the first rays of artificial light began to peek through the window.

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