Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
‘There are no such thing as monsters.” That’s what my mommy used to say. She would tuck me into bed, make sure that my favorite doll, Casey was in my arms and tell me, “There is nothing to be scared of; there are no monsters, no real monsters.”
She would whisper these words to me mostly at night because that’s when the monsters like to come out. At night when the walls would vibrate from machinery humming in the service tunnels and sub-basements below. I needed to hear those words when the wind would scream and howl from the unstable air currents and unpredictable weather patterns that came with an atmosphere being changed by a terraforming station. The turbines from dozens of filtration exchange towers ensured the sky was never still as it took in the cold, alien environment and infused hot oxygen-nitrogen gasses into the air. Just like the rhyme my daddy would sing with me, “Bad air goes in, good air comes out.”
I would need reminding one more time when the giant atmospheric processing station brought the rain by releasing electrical discharges into the clouds. That was when the monsters scared me the most. The lightning and thunder were the sound they made when they tried to get inside. The wind was the monster’s voice, and the rain was its nails, clicking and tapping at the windows of my living quarters. My mommy would come and make it all better and say, “There are no such thing as monsters.”
Monsters killed my mommy and daddy.
They were real. Monsters were real, and they were here. The grownups promised they would keep us safe. They told us everything would be all right, and help was on its way. They lied. Our little settlement was so far away; it would take up to two weeks for the nearest outpost to reach us. The monsters were smart and patient. When there was only a few of them, they quietly picked off the families living in the habitat modules on the outskirts of the colony. The ones whose disappearance wouldn’t be noticed right away. As their numbers increased, the monsters began to hunt in packs. It wasn’t long before there was enough of them and they didn’t need to hide anymore. The monsters were coming. They were coming for each and every last one of us.
The central air processing station was just outside the colony’s perimeter. It was the primary terraforming control center for the other automated terraforming substations spread across the small planet’s surface. The majority of the grown-ups spent most of their waking hours here, including my mommy. They were all doing their part to make this tiny world breathable. “Building Better Worlds,” like all the signs and videos say.
The monsters crashed through the ceiling and tore through the floor grating; catching everyone by surprise. Only a week ago, there was one hundred and fifty-eight of us. After the attack on the processing station, we had lost eighty-four people. Those of us left, gathered together for safety. We had to move quickly. We knew what the monsters did to you if they took you. We knew that for every one of us taken, their numbers would grow. We knew we didn’t have much time.
The monsters grew so fast. We learned that from my daddy. He was the first. They thought I couldn’t hear. They thought I wouldn’t know. But I saw it all. My daddy was still in the infirmary, and I would visit him often without him knowing. Hidden within the ventilation shaft, I would see him in the morning and whisper a “good night” before going to bed. He was just talking to the doctor when he cried out in pain, and they rushed him out of the room.
The grownups may have ruled the corridors and hallways, but the kids owned the vents and shafts. That was our playground! That was where we would play games like Monster Maze, and I was the best! The other kids were jealous because I could fit into places the others couldn’t. They couldn’t memorize the turns and corners like me. I could go anywhere in the complex and never be seen, not once. So finding my way to where they took my daddy was a breeze. I didn’t need to remember which shaft to take through the winding and turning tunnels—the screams echoed loud and clear.
I followed the sounds to the grilled screen that would allow me to peer into the medical compartment. I made myself look, but in the end, I closed my eyes to the horror. The screams hurt my ears. He was in so much pain. I covered my mouth to hold in a scream when a deep snap of bone startled everyone in the room. My daddy fell quiet and still. Suddenly, I could hear his body thrash and convulse violently, and the medical personnel began yelling in confusion and fear. They tried to hold him down, but the convulsions were too strong. People gasped and screamed at the sound of a loud crunch and snaps followed by what sounded like a bucket of water spilling to the ground and spraying the walls. My daddy’s screams were no more than wet gurgles by now and then I heard it. A loud and piercing screech came from something in the room, something that was angry, evil, and alien. It hissed loudly and scurried violently in the opposite direction, knocking over tools and equipment as it made its escape.
The last of us gathered in the safest place left, the Primary Operations Center. My daddy once told me it was the very first building in the colony. The original settlers had lived in here back when they couldn’t breathe the air and the Operations Center’s thick walls, and many pressurized doors protected them from the freezing temperatures and poisonous atmosphere.
The adults put the kids in the center of the complex on the top level. They said the Medical section was the safest place for us. We listened as the grown-ups did everything possible to block off entryways, weld shut each blast door and close off every service tunnel. All access points were barricaded, and all the main entry gates were sealed shut. When all was said and done, there was nothing left to do but wait in the silence and fear the approach of nighttime, because everyone knows that the monsters mostly come at night, mostly.
The planetoid rotates once every fifty-seven hours; that makes for a very long night. Here, when the darkness falls, it feels like it will never end. The monsters didn’t come the first night or the second night, but they were there. Their large bodies pressed and slid against the outer bulkheads. Powerful talons scraped against steel and drooling jaws extended and clenched. A piercing shriek would call out and echo in the distance now and then. The monster’s cries would startle us, causing screams of fright and tears from most of the children.
We continued to wait.
It started on the third day with a metallic “thunk,” “thunk,” “thunk,” from the North Gate. It echoed throughout the corridors. Anything not bolted down, rattled and shook. I could see relief wash over some of the adult’s faces. The waiting was finally over. The beating at the massive door, three levels down, grew louder in intensity. The children were gathered together and hurriedly rushed into medical isolation bays only used for storage. I didn’t like this room. Even though it housed many rows of containers and equipment and good places to hide, there was no vents or shaft in here; there was no way to escape.
We watched from the monitoring station that had been set up within the medical bay. The adults began readying themselves. Most had small handguns and charges used for geological excavation. There were even a few crude flame throwers. The strikes to the massive door became relentless.
The pounding grew louder from massive blows now coming from the West Gate.
The monsters were slamming into the steel door so hard and so fast, I could swear I felt the floor vibrate. They screamed with such anger from behind the barriers that blocked their way.
The sounds of pounds and bangs became deafening. Claws and talons were now beating at the East Gate.
The echoes of metal being hit with massive, inhuman force now came at us from all directions when impacts fell against the main, South Gate.
The bending and tearing of metal were heard throughout the complex and shrieks of victory roared out from alien lungs. We watched the blurry, dark shapes fill the monitor screens. Screams and hisses echoed from the lower levels as they tore down every barrier or obstacle. They filled the hallways, scurrying on the ceiling, walls, and floor. They were coming for us.
The monsters fell on the people defending our last and only defense like a wall of black water. The grown-ups opened fire, tossed their explosives and sprayed fire from flamethrowers. Smoke filled the room making it hard to see. Powerful arms shot out from the ceiling, and long fingers grabbed at anyone within their reach. The monsters poured into the cramped space, slamming into the people. Screams of terror and breaking of bone came over the speakers. Images of blood and flesh filled our eyes from the small video monitors. Despite the wounds and injuries inflicted on them, it was painfully obvious that none of the adults had been killed. Every last one of them was alive when they were dragged away screaming into the darkness.
It was over quickly. Soon, every last grown-up in Operations was gone. Dangling legs lifted into the air vents disappeared. The monsters gathered around those who struggled or were capable of fending them off. They were cornered and maimed by teeth and claws. Hands or feet were torn and severed from their body. Obviously, it was easier to manage and carry off their prey if it was crippled. Screams for help and pleas for death slowly faded into the distance.
The remaining grown-ups sealed the hatchway to the main access door for our section and stood between us and the approaching nightmares. They peeled away the hatch as if it was tin foil, and they were at the view ports and observation windows that lined the medical bay, hitting and scratching at the dura-glass. They shattered it in no time and began swarming into the medical bay. Gunshots rung loud and screams from adults and children came from all directions. Monsters were leaping through the air, pouncing on any victims within their sight. They crawled on the walls and ceiling, plucking running children off their feet by their hair or even by their entire head from large, six-fingered claws.
I cowered under an overturned medical bed when I locked eyes with a boy who couldn’t have been more than seven. His arms were locked in a death grip around a support beam. Two monsters pounced on him and began pulling and jerking him violently. Amazingly, he maintained his grip around the metal beam and would not let go. I screamed in horror when they broke his arms and pried him off of that beam. His face had no expression or emotion. His limp arms trailed loosely behind him when they carried him away. He never broke his stare on me. He did not scream—not once.
A woman flew across the room, smashing into a large fume hood to the right and rear of the large room. Her broken body lay over the destroyed workstation. The impact had toppled over the instrument and dislodged its upper panel, revealing a narrow ventilation duct within the wall. In a flash, I remembered the school day-trip last month to see the scientists. It was the same type of instrument. The one used for dangerous chemicals. It was a dura-glass enclosure with two access openings for the hands. They would stick their hands through the openings attached to thick gloves and pour their chemicals from the inside without breathing the fumes. The scientist said the fumes were then removed from the complex by the exhaust fans.
I got to my feet and dove for the tiny opening. Three monsters, hunched on all fours, charged from the destroyed viewport. I entered the duct only to discover it immediately went from ground level to a vent that went straight up the wall. I pressed my body as far as I could to avoid the claws that were reaching in for me. It pushed itself relentlessly into the small opening, wedging itself further into the duct. The slick coat of slime glistened on the claws that were inching closer. The tips of its nails were nicking my clothes. I could feel the pull of the fabric grow firmer each time before the threads would break.
I had one chance; I stood and placed one hand on each side of the vent, hopped off the ground and pressed my feet against the walls to hold me up. I shimmied up the shaft bit by bit. Carefully, but as quick as I could manage, I had made it more than halfway up the duct’s distance when the scraping and beating of claws filled my ears from below. When I lifted myself into the junction, I twisted myself into the opening and briefly my eyes fell on the monster beneath me.
I had never seen one this close. Its arm were extended and wedged under its massive head. The elongated head was cocked at an abnormal angle to face me. Transparent lips were quivering and curled over long and shiny fangs. Thick, clear drool poured out of its open mouth. It didn’t even struggle anymore; it just looked at me. It had no eyes, but it still looked at me. A low and deep hiss began to build from within its chest until it was a piercing shriek! It was speaking to me. It… it was trying to tell me something. It was screaming how much it hated me. I turned from the shrieks of rage and quickly made my way into the ventilation system. It wasn’t long before I knew exactly where I was. I disappeared into the network of ducts, shafts, and pipes—the maze I knew so well.
I have been all by myself for two weeks now. This tiny sub-compartment cradled in an entanglement of pipe and support strut beams of the environmental control system has become my home. The ventilation fan spins above me; the monsters keep their distance from its blades. The metal beams and large pipes keep me far out of the reach of any monster’s claws. I only leave my haven to scavenge for food. I avoid the main conduits in the ventilation system and stick to the smaller secondary shafts where the monster cannot fit.
The monsters rule the corridors and hallways, but I own the vents and shafts. That is my playground! That was where I used to play games like Monster Maze, and I was the best! The monsters are angry because I can fit into places they can’t. I have every turn and corner memorized. I can go anywhere in this complex and never be seen; not once.
The monsters can’t see me.
My mommy used to tell me there were no monsters, no real monsters; but there are.