She shrieks, a horrible keening sound that rips through my ears and wrenches at something deep inside me. Her eyes catch mine, wide and terrified. I try to move towards her, but only stumble for my feet are suddenly glued to the ground.
A tall shape rises behind her, shrouded in darkness so that I can't quite see it clearly. But that doesn't matter. I know what it is. I know what it can do. Panic surges, and I pull hard against the force that's holding my feet prisoner.
"Mom!" I yell, "Get out of there!"
But she doesn't move, doesn't turn and run, but only stares at me and opens her mouth for another wordless cry. She lifts a trembling hand, pointing at me – or something behind me. I whip my head around and catch sight of long, silver ropes made of woven metal. There are three, so close that I can feel the chill seeping from them.
Craning my head back, my eyes trail up the rope-like appendages, stopping only when I catch sight of the thing's head. It's vaguely conical, completely smooth, and lit with a soft orange glow.
The thing's head tilts down, the movement accompanied by a faint hum. Goosebumps rise as cold fingers of dread dance down my spine. It's watching me. I can feel it.
I tear my eyes away from the squid-thing, and spot my mother. Her arms are outstretched as she runs toward me, her eyes wild with fear. Not for herself, I suddenly realize, but for me.
Can't she see the thing moving behind her? Doesn't she know it's there? The darkness shifts, pressing in closer. Somewhere there's a deep, muffled sound, a steady thud-thump, thud-thump that has been here all long, but only just now I notice it. It starts to swell, filling the air with its unbearable weight.
Silvery tentacles flash through the gloom, briefly illuminated in eerie orange light before darting after her. My chest seizes in horror, the breath stolen from my lungs.
"Mom, no!" I lean forward, pulling with all my strength. My feet will not move. So I reach out with a hand, as if I can somehow will her to stop, to look, to run away. "Get out of here!"
She doesn't hear me. Or maybe she won't. I can feel the cold presence of the squid thing hanging over me, somehow holding me immobile while it observes with detached interest. I scream in frustration. "Let me go! Mom! Behind you!"
Her steps falter, just for a moment. Her eyes, fixed on me, begin to slide to the side. She doesn't get to look.
Her chest explodes.
I glimpse a three-fingered claw wiggling beneath her breasts before a tentacle rapidly coils around her body. I see wide, staring eyes and a gaping mouth, a face frozen in shock, pale skin splattered in red – and then it's gone, yanked into the darkness like she's never been there.
The heavy thud-thump fills the silence.
My legs shake badly. I cannot breathe.
My father emerges from the darkness. He's looking for me, calling my name. I jerk, my eyes automatically seeking him out, even as something sours and dies in my gut. He can't come here. He can't find me.
I open my mouth to shout, to warn him off, because even in the thick gloom behind him, I can see a tall shadow waiting. My mouth opens -
But my voice is gone.
The squid has taken it, along with my feet.
I watch as my dad draws closer. And when he finally spots me, the relief that fills his plain face tears at me in a way the sharpest blade cannot.
"Simon! There you are!" He runs. He doesn't notice the squid hanging over me. I shake my head frantically. No! Don't come!
But he doesn't stop, his black leather shoes easily stepping through the dark fog. A wide smile begins to spread across his face, his white teeth flashing as he nears. And then he's here, reaching out, throwing his arms around me in a tight embrace.
Coldness touches my back. It slithers across my shoulder blades, creeping upwards until it slips over my shoulder. My skin crawls and I gasp. . . Oh God, no. . .
My hands fly up to grip his shoulders, pushing, but it's too late.
His arms stiffen. They loosen. Then they drop to his sides. He slumps forward, his weight falling against me. It bears down on me, and I collapse, his body crushing me to the ground. My face is buried into the rough shoulder of his suit.
I cannot see anything.
He is still.
A hot wetness slowly seeps into my clothes.
Eyes widening, I cry out and explode into a flurry of motion. Wriggling madly, I manage to shove him off of me. He flops over, and I glimpse a face frozen into a white-toothed grin of relief. It's madness! I recoil, scraping backwards on my knees, a scream pushing at my throat.
"Simon?" It's my brother's voice. Soft and concerned. "Simon, are you all right?"
The squid behind me moves. It floats closer, then gently, carefully, drapes a tentacle over my shoulder. It falls against my chest, ending in a three-fingered claw that just touches the ground. Its silver sheen is tainted by a dark red that glistens wet.
"Simon, where are you?"
I press my hands against my ears. And the scream that's been building up finally bursts free.
I do not wake suddenly, like some people do when they dream a nightmare. The process is a slow one, a languid swim through a pool of dark while the fear and horror and anguish try to drown me. It's a struggle, but finally my eyes open and I realize that it was all just a dream.
My breath comes in shallow gasps as I struggle to take in enough oxygen to fill my lungs. I'm sitting on cold metal grating, my back propped up against a gray wall that is stained with both rust and something brown. The place is dark, but not as dark as my dream, because the back-up generators still have enough juice to illuminate the few lights that are not already broken.
Stale air fills my nose and mouth, and I shiver, goosebumps prickling across my flesh. My arms instinctively wrap around myself, trying to preserve what little warmth my tattered clothes can provide. As my hand moves, I see the gun.
And then it hits me.
My eyes start to burn with unshed tears. I squeeze them shut, struggling to grab hold of something, anything, for mental support.
My dream isn't the nightmare. It would've been a mercy if it was.
I clench my teeth together as they start to chatter. A muffled sob tries to break free as I fight to hold it together.
It's okay, I lie to myself, trying to get a grip on things. They're not dead, they're fine. They escaped. I repeat the words to myself over and over, clinging to them because they are a lifeline. The thought that they are all alive and well is all that keeps me going.
Yet even as I tried to convince myself that everything was all right, I remember. Brief images flash through my mind faster than I can push them away...
I saw my dad's face, smiling calmly even as he slammed the shuttle pod's door in our faces. I felt the stifling darkness of the pod's interior, only faintly comforted by the fact that my mother and Stephen sat beside me, their heads inches from mine in the enclosed space.
Then I saw my dad's face once again, and I had never been so glad to see him as I was then. He reached out, gripped our arms, and pulled us out one by one. It was like emerging into a brand new world, and at first, I could only see the wonders around me.
It was my first trip to a Refuge Station, and there was so much to see. Metal walkways, floating in the docking bay where both floor and ceiling were so far apart they seemed nearly non existential. Huge sliding doors and smooth alloy paneling, the craftsmanship of a quality that was rare back on Earth. The bomb-proof security booths, welded and bolted to the floor, with transpari-alloy for windows. All materials that were hardly used back home. . .
Then I started noticing things. The lights were dim, flickering and casting long eerie shadows across the entire bay. I remember seeing the emptiness, seeing that there were no other ships save for one other pod. I remember the silence, for there was not another soul in sight.
And from there, I remember, everything went wrong.
My dream isn't the nightmare. It's just a jumble of my worst fears thrown together, but it has gotten one thing right.
The squid are real.