First place story
By Stephen O'Pry
“Professor Simon, your theory was correct. The Earth’s core is hollow. You have truly pioneered a remarkable discovery. Once our stabilizer crews made the drill teams job safe, we were able to bore into a dark abyss. Previous calculations of our planets mass have been shattered with this great find,” one of the many assistants burst into the break room, nearly out of air. Instinctively, the senior scientist leading the expedition from the safety of the control center threw on his lab coat and rushed down the lackluster hall way void of nothing but white lights embedded into the ceiling. The assistant could barely could keep up with the balding scientist, many years his senior.
“Astounding,” Professor Simon gasped as you watched the various screens showing the different views from the subterranean vehicle being piloted by a twelve person team. The design looked like it was something from the future, the shuttle was fitted for any terrain or lack of terrain, the crew would come across. “Mr. Erickson, can you see anything on you end? All we see is your lights hitting some stalactites,” Professor Simon spoke into the microphone. Minutes passed with no answer, “Mr. Erickson?” Professor Simon tried to raise the pilot of the shuttle, STXV-1000 once again. “Sorry, professor I’m here, we had an issue with the pressure and gases down here. Fortunately you didn’t skimp on the funding for this project. We most certainly would have been toast. Even though it’s hollow down here, it’s still hot as Hades.” Erickson finally responded.
“Try switching to thermals,” one of the other assistants monitoring the diagnostics of the craft suggested. After a moment of static, one of the co-pilots announced they were switching to thermal vision. The screens soon switched to various hues of colors, but in the distance tiny humanoid looking signatures formed. “Are you seeing this?” Erickson’s voice interrupted the silence. The shuttle came within a few hundred meters from the creatures before they scattered in various directions, disappearing from sight completely. “There had to be thousands of them… Morgan, can you get any reads?” Erickson started to ask as a body crashed into the shuttle, jarring the whole ship.
The unknown creature rolled into one of the propellers, forcing the shuttle to careen into the cave wall, sending it plummeting deeper into the abyss. The screens go black, the control room scrambles to locate the shuttle with every instrument they have at their use. None of the crew respond, after hours of no communication or hope of locating the STXV-1000, the only other vessel fit for such a journey is prepared for the decent into the center of the Earth. “What was that thing?” One of the assistants think out loud what ever one else was silently asking the same thing. “If you look closely, at the transmission, these creatures are hunting each other down. Look here, it looks like an elephant carcass also… Maybe even a mammoth’s. Ladies and gentlemen, we have truly discovered some extraordinary creature on top of discovering the Earth is actually hollow. It seems as though… Their bile is oil,” Professor Simon surmises as he picks apart the recording, one assistant even spews coffee at his last statement.
“So professor, you are saying everything we thought we knew, is completely false? Oil is the waste from these creatures instead of fossil fuels as we thought they were?” the assistant asked as he hastily cleaned up the dark liquid from his work station and clothes. “Well in away they are still fossil fuels, but yes, what we thought we knew about our own world has been proven false. Is Beta Team nearly ready?” Professor Simon turned to the new arrival to the control center.
“Mr. Simon, we haven’t properly met,” the overweight man in a charcoal gray business suit reached his hand out, to shake the scientist’s hand. “It’s Professor, Mr. Haines I presume? Thank you for financing this operation, it is an honor to finally meet, but I must decline shaking your hand. I was mocked for years when I came up with the theory of the core being hollow, even blacklisted from doing anymore speaking arrangements. It truly is an honor you believed in my mission to discover the truth,” Professor Simon turned his attention back to the monitors, showing the replay of the STXV-1000’s feed.
“Well professor, I’m sure you are curious about why I am here?” Mr. Haines, fidgeted with loosening his tie, before his personal assistant had to step in and help. “Well as an investor, I’m sure you are here to make sure your money was well spent or as soon as you found out our crew was missing you cared about their well being. Unless you are just as enamored with this beautiful country of Georgia as I am,” the professor responded, with out turning his attention away from the screens. “There, freeze there,” he pointed to a light source peaking from what seemed to be a tiny hole in the ceiling of the dark abyss.
“What is so important about that?” The wealthy businessman scratched his head in confusion. “These creatures must have came up to the surface some how. Perhaps we can link sightings of peculiar animals to them, take a look at the one who attacked the STXV-1000,” Professor Simon went to the footage of the creature instantly. It was a large creature, nearly eight feet tall, patches of fur was missing all over it’s body, with what appeared to be scales where the fur should have been. The face looked similar to a bat along with the damaged wings it had spread out. It had long lanky arms with sharp talon like claws on very human like fingers. The feet were also very human like as well, but with what little footage they had to work with, it did seem like they also resembled a wolf’s hock.
“Sorry to interrupt Professor Simon, but my crew is nearly ready to depart, we are just running diagnostics to make sure the shuttle will is completely ready. I just wanted to scope out what we are dealing with, once we get down there,” a slender woman decked out in protective gear announced as she saluted the professor, with a thick but unrecognizable accent. “No need to apologize captain, you are doing what you were hired to do, make sure you get your crew back safely and as many as Alpha Team as possible. Now, Mr. Haines, if there is any particular reason for your visit, I really must continue dissecting this footage,” Professor Simon continued scrolling through all the footage with out even looking away from the screens for a second.
## weird Wednesday [make weird/intersting twist and turns for extra credit]
As the Beta Team finished preparing for their descent into the dark abyss, Mr. Haines watched over Professor Simon’s shoulder, while attempts to contact with Alpha Team were futile. “Even though you were correct in your crazy theory professor, your ‘B Team’ better recover my shuttle if nothing else. What are the chances of recovering it?” Mr Haines, tapped his meaty fingers on the table. “Sir, there was clearly major damage sustained. If all you care about is recovering your shuttle, I suggest you going ahead and starting to contact your insurance, might need to anyways since we more than likely are looking at a heft law suit. Surely there are casualties,” Professor Simon rubbed his blood shot eyes before ordering an assistant to bring him a coffee.
“I invested a lot into this, not because of the scientific breakthroughs, but because of the money to be made from the project. Quite frankly to acquire all the technology on board those shuttles was… Let’s just say, not on the up and up… If the United States, Chinese, and Russian governments find out we stole their technology, we are in a more trouble than some measly law suits,” Mr. Haines, struggled to get out of his seat and firmly gave the senior scientist a pat on the back, “If things do go sideways, I will be forced to shut down this project in down by some very, very, nasty means. Now excuse me, so I can go prepare myself for a press conference, as the sincere and worried employer I am,” Haines continued with a devilish smirk as his assistant aided his attempts to put on the clothing he shed.
Within the STXV-2000 most of the crew were all strapped into their seats, diagnostic readings covered the screens as the captain made her way to her seat, “Captain Simon, we are prepared to descend. Everything is running smoothly, are you ready to be the first woman to lead an expedition to the center of the Earth and hopefully save Alpha Team? Oh and are you related to the doc?” Her co-pilot nervously asked. “Malikov, I was born ready, my personal relations do not matter all that matters is success. Todds, keep your eyes peeled on our blind spots as we descend, I don’t want to run a careless mission like Alpha Team did. No one get distracted, mission control. We are prepared to descend,” Captain Simon stated without any expression on her face.
“How does it feel professor? Sending not one but two of your clones on a possibly suicide mission. That’s right, I know your deepest dark secret, I’m Special Agent Malcolm with the C.I.A. You are one slippery devil. Don’t worry, I’m not going to arrest you yet. Be difficult to do so anyway, since The President is also your clone. How did you manage to fake your death, change your identity, clone yourself at least a half dozen times, and discover the Earth is hallow?” The sharply dressed agent sat down next to the professor. “Well I suppose, when you are not human it is quite easy. The creature who took out the STXV-1000 was actually my cousin… You see. I am one of them,” the professors stated with a sheepish grin as he turned his attention away from the monitors for the first time since Beta Team was being dropped into the dark abyss.
“Hmm… I must admit I did not see that coming professor. I’m sure you are aware the United States government has been keeping a close eye on you since your boss stole nuclear engine for your shuttles from Area-51. Since you pretty much control the powers to be, I was only ordered to keep tabs on the operation,” Malcolm scanned the room of once bustling scientists and assistants, which was now empty besides the creature in disguise as a human and himself. “Have you figured everything out? Why I really led this operation in the first place? You seem to be a smart human, but do you really know what this is all about? Centuries ago your kind started to procreate at alarming rates, most of my species are imbeciles, quite frankly there are possibly only five of us with the intelligence to pull off what I have. We are unable to walk the surface of the planet thinks to the pollution humans have caused, it had made the great star very angry. We have been starving for ages, so my kind turned to only capturing animals near our caves, but even at night most could not survive the conditions. It was a long process but I developed away to do it. We are a prideful species and now my kind had turned solely to cannibalism, I will use you humans to either rid the world of my species or vice versa. By the way, Agent Malcolm, how did you like my acting? I was hoping news would spread about the truth of crude oil and maybe spark some outrage for your idiotic race using our filth as a fuel,” the professor chuckled at his last remark.
The Beta Team slowly lowered into the depths of the dark abyss, each one of the twelve crew members kept a close eye on their equipment at their station. Blurting out numbers and stats the whole time. The mounted lights showed the side of the hole that was dug, but everyone knew as soon as they hit the dark abyss visibility would be nearly non existent. After what seemed like hours of dropping, the mechanism connected to the shuttle to make the decent as safe as possible released as it started plummeting at nearly two hundred miles an hour, almost instantly. One wrong move and the decent alone would prove disastrous. Captain Simon held the the shuttle perfectly in place, while showing no signs of anxiety, even though the walls were only five feet away, any misjudgment would result in at least a two foot sway in any direction.
As soon as the hole reached the opening of the enormous caverns of the dark abyss, Captain Simon engaged the propellers to slow down their decent, “Captain, we aren’t slowing down,” her co-pilot stated the obvious. With in seconds the craft was hurtling towards what the crew’s calculation pointed as the exact center of the Earth. To make matters worse, two of the creatures with wings spread, were fighting with each other as they unknowingly headed straight for the path of the STXV-2000. The shuttle clipped one of the creature’s wings, “Captain, our propeller took some major damage. We aren’t going to be able to straighten up with that arm lodged in it, even if it is still operational!” One of the crew members yelled as the shuttle began to spiral out of control further into the dark abyss.
“That can’t be good,” Agent Malcolm states as assistants rush into the control room, either with lab coats half way on or folded in their arms. Alarms flash on the various monitors. “Engine three is down,” one of the assistants wipe sleep from their eyes. “The temperature stabilizer is down… Captain Simon, are you there?” The professor jumped on the microphone. Screams on the other end nearly drowned out the captain’s words as well as the static. “We… trying to stabilize… But the inertia is causing us to spin… …trol.”
The live video feed only showed blurs of figures surrounding the shuttle as it spun uncontrollable. Radio silence from the shuttle only could mean the mission was already a failure. Everyone stared at the final seconds of live feed as it cut to darkness. “Mr. Haines is not going to be happy about this at all… Aye professor?” Agent Malcolm folded his arms and stared at the elderly man.. Creature, looking for any sign of emotion.
“What the… What just happened?” The co-pilot managed to get out before vomiting. The lights illuminating the darkness, showing countless bodies surrounding the STXV-2000 flickered before finally exploding from the pressure. “We have hit the true center of the Earth,” Captain Simon coldly states glaring into the dark abyss. The shuttle began to creak as the pressure from outside started to compromise the damaged vessel.
“What now? Mission control is not answering,” one of the crew members announced as scratching and banging on the hull startled everyone. “Jenkins, see if you can reboot the system. Johnson, gear up with Timmons, Salazar, and Michaels, we are going to check out the damage and see if we can get this tin can moving before they get to us or the pressure crushes our ship.” Captain Simon began securing her helmet to the rest of her suit and grabbed a futuristic looking gun from a locker. “Daniels, if we don’t make it back in, be sure to initiate plan B,” she states as the crew members follow suit.
“Simon, shouldn’t you stay in here?” Daniels wiped his mouth. “What you think you can handle these demons? Look at you, you’re a mess. Make sure you get this thing ready to go by the time we get back in,” she smirks. “Salazar you have all your tools?” She asks the tan crew member, nervously glancing at the tool box in his hand. “Honestly Cap, I have no clue how to work half of this stuff so I don’t know if all the components of that really hi-tech thing is even in there,” Salazar replied.
After the air-lock finished it’s process, the crew exited the vessel. Immediately, the pressure felt like it would crush the crew. The creatures turned their attention to the crew instead of the shell of their craft, Simon initiated the attack, the gun emitted a bright blast, the shell released collided with the first creature sending it flying into the dark abyss. The others began to open fire, the deafening sound of the blast was muffled by their protective helmets. The straggler’s of the demon like creatures flee from the vessel, leaving Salazar free to open his toolbox unscathed. After attaching all the components and plugging into an input slot on the outside of the ship, the abstract device began to emit a light and the STXV-2000 began mending the damage to the exterior, itself.
“All systems at a hundred percent… What ever technology we acquired from the Chinese is astounding,” Daniels announce over the comm system. “Everybody in,” Captain Simon ordered. The crew scurried back into the shuttle without anymore incidents. “Mission control, if you can hear me, we are back on track,” Simon took her seat at the helm of the craft. With out an answer the crew continued to the last known location of Alpha Team.
Off in the distance a faint distress beacon could faintly be seen. On the complete opposite side of the world, Beta Team landed their vessel fifty meters away from the devastation. The crew disembarked and cautiously approached the wreckage. One of the creatures of the dark abyss exited what was left of the STXV-1000, the beast towered over the crew and extended it’s wings and let out a spine chilling sound. With their guns aimed at the creature, Captain Simon began speaking in an unknown tongue to the rest of the crew.
“Stand down,” Simon ordered her crew as she rested the barrel on her shoulder. The crew looked at each other with confusion. The creature bowed it’s head and crouched to one knee. With folding it’s leathery wings back behind it, the creature began speaking the same language as Simon, just in a more demonic tone. “Tesha, I would say it is an honor to see you, but father is not too happy with your father. He was supposed to come back centuries ago with better species to feast on, follow me,” the creature spoke in a broken dialect as he waved the crew in it’s direction.
“Tesha? Father? Mind explaining what is going on?” Daniels whispered as the crew followed the creature single file, keeping a close eye on the other creatures swarming above. Many were attacking each other, when one would become the obvious victor, it would begin to devour the loser. Daniels started to gag at the sight. “Long story short, Professor Simon is technically my father and he wants to challenge his brother for control of our native territory. Even though, father learned how to walk on the surface safely, the center is where we belong, but how humans have destroyed the air quality has caused the quality of food to also deteriorate and many of our species have turned to cannibalism,” Captain Simon stated while never turning her gaze from the creature in front of them.
The crew is lead into a steep cavern, they seem to walk for hours before coming to a doorway on their left. The door is unlike anything they have ever seen before, made of solid stone and a handle of what appears to be solid gold, and covered in ancient hieroglyphs of times before man ever walked the Earth. “Tesha! So glad to see you,” Morgan exclaims as Beta Team enters the faintly lit room. “The awakening can begin,” the demonic voice belonging to the creature who escorted them announced with what seemed like a smirk with sharp teeth glistening in the faint glow.
“Change of plans Morgan, Dollak and father were wrong, humans nor these creatures deserve to rule the Earth, we are gods among mortals,” Captain Simon coldly speaks before bring her gun to her hip and opening fire on the creature who led them there. Daniels darted out of the doorway just as she aimed her weapon at Beta Team. Daniels started to open fire as he sprinted back down towards the dark abyss, only to meet a wall of the abysmal creatures blocking his path.
Second place story
By Jill Ellis
They used to think we were the laziest generation that existed. Millennial became a term of disdain and synonymous with “entitled” and “snowflakes”. It’s true that we grew up differently than our parents who found some kind of sick perversion in celebrating the fact they had to go outside to play and their phones were connected to the walls. Technology and convenience doesn’t necessarily equate to evil or lazy; it’s just different.
I understand – or rather appreciate – their disdain, though. While we had our online friendships and dating apps, we still had to put in the effort to make actual connections ourselves. Generation Alpha has redefined “entitled” altogether. After the pandemic of 2035 and the loss of about sixty percent of the world’s population (some estimates were as high as eighty, but those are usually written off as alarmists), the governments of the world got together (like they did back in the days of the UN), and discussed how to best repopulate the planet. Their solution? A world-wide database of every person that uses an algorithm created by a super-genius to match people to their most compatible partner. This generation didn’t have to bother with dating apps; their future love life was handed to them on a silver platter.
“I, Ashley Garner, do swear to uphold the principles of this society, to follow the progress of my matches and insure they are thriving, and to never become personally or romantically involved in their lives.” Yeah, I was offered a position in the WWRI – the Worldwide Repopulation Initiative – after a routine checkup at the doctor showed that I’d be unable to have children. Since I and others like me weren’t able to be “productive” members of society, they found other uses for us, namely helping other people be reproductive.
The news of my infertility devastated me; I wanted nothing more than to fall deeply in love with a man and have a large family together. Simply put, I loved love. A friend of mine who was a clinician for a euthanasia spa (medically assisted suicide) prior to the disaster offered to help me end my life, but the government intervened before we had the chance and I was forced into a nine-month rehabilitation therapy process. Upon “graduation”, I was offered this position.
“Where is your first assignment?” Gregory asked me in the hall after our swearing in. He was ten years older than me and survived testicular cancer – not to mention the pandemic – but was not a breeder, so put to work, like me. We became friends in rehab.
“I’m flying to Dallas to meet a man and then traveling to Vancouver to introduce him to his bride-to-be,” I said. One of the perks – or so I thought – of the job was I’d get to travel the world. I wouldn’t even be leaving the continent with this assignment.
“Vancouver is beautiful,” Gregory said supportively. “I went there with my fiancée for summer vacation one year.” Gregory’s fiancée was one of the majority of people who perished. “I get to fly to Italy and take the bride to Tokyo.”
“Lucky,” I grumbled, but then shrugged with resignation, knowing that I’d get to travel more after I completed the foreign language modules.
“Viaggi sicuri, amico mio,” he replied in flawless Italian.
“Ciao,” I replied with the only Italian I knew.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon studying the case files before boarding the private jet the following morning. “Well, Mr. Travis Brown, I hope you’re ready to meet your destiny.”
Prior to taking my oath for WWRI and receiving my assignment, I had to pass a series of scenarios. In the virtual lab, I went through the entire process of meeting and introducing matches to each other. They threw at us all kinds of issues we’d encountered: hostile matches, language barriers (although I still have to pass this one to be assigned non-English speaking assignments), and even a very flirty contact. My brain was scanned before each test and the scenario was based on my fears and desires, which made the romantic interest one exceedingly difficult for me to pass. It was everything I wanted in a man from the sophisticated British accent down to deep blue eyes that could look into my soul. After barely passing that one, I joked with the testing supervisor that they should allow the agents time in those romantic virtual scenarios. She wasn’t amused, so I don’t think they’re working on creating virtual dates for us.
“Mr. Brown will be right out.” I was greeted by an older Mexican couple when I arrived to pick up the groom at his ranch, which seemed bustling with activity. The scarcity of people anywhere made it seem particularly odd that this ranch seemed to be fully staffed. When I was a child in BP time – before the pandemic – I would spend my summers at my grandpa’s ranch in Montana. I hated it then because there was no wifi, no malls, and I was put to work early every morning, but adult me living in AP times appreciates the simplicity of that life and the predictability of the days.
“Thank you,” I replied and casually walked the grounds. In Montana, I was always charged with feeding the animals, so my wandering took me to the corrals where the horses were eating hay. I rested my chin on the back of my hands on top of the fence and marveled at the beautiful creatures.
“Ever ridden?” a man with a southern drawl asked as he approached from behind me.
Startled, I quickly spun around and tried to compose myself. “I… umm… sorry. I should’ve waited for you by the car.” I blinked furiously as I tried to focus on the man standing in the direction of the sun.
“No need to ‘pologize,” he replied with a chuckle. “I s’pose you’re my escort?”
I cleared my throat and stepped towards him with my hand outstretched. “Mr. Brown, I’m Ms. Garner. And yes, I’ll be accompanying you to Vancouver to meet Ms. Osborn.” I was standing in the shadow he cast and could finally make out his features. He was a tall man with muscular arms from working on a ranch, medium brown hair, and a strong jaw line that drew my eyes straight to his smile.
“I’m not much for formalities. Call me Travis,” he insisted as his calloused hand took hold of mine and brought it to his lips. I recalled catching glimpses of movies my mom would watch where men would kiss the back of a woman’s hand, but didn’t think that happened outside of Hollywood.
I think I must’ve giggled because he withdrew his lips and released my hand, but smirked. “We should get going,” I said as I composed myself.
“I’m nearly ready,” Travis said. “But I need to know how to address you.”
“I’m Ms. -”
“I’m Travis, and you are?” he insisted.
“Ashley,” I resigned.
Travis smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet your acquaintance, Ashley.”
I practically swooned when he said my name.
“Now I’m ready,” Travis said, offering me his arm.
“So, what does yer fella think ‘bout you flyin’ all ov’r the world to bring matches together?” Travis wasn’t the quiet, contemplative type, and we hadn’t taxied to the runway yet before his questions began.
The oath I swore echoed in my mind, reminding me not to get involved with my matches on a personal level. “It’s just my job,” I said. I assumed that would put an end to his questioning, and did for a short while until the engines started accelerating in preparation for takeoff.
“He doesn’t mind?” Travis tried to grab hold of the armrests nonchalantly, but I was quite aware of the strong grip he’d formed and the tension in his body.
“Is this the first time you’ve flown?” I asked without answering his question again.
“Yes, ma’am,” Travis said, bracing himself as the plane accelerated.
I smiled and turned to face him. “It’s really quite safe. In a moment, the plane will start tipping upwards and then the back tires will leave the ground, too.” When I noticed he still wasn’t relaxing, I rested my hand on his arm. “Tell me about your ranch. How do you have so many people working there?”
“We have eighteen people workin’ on the ranch, includin’ my sister and nephews. Things didn’t change much after the catastrophe. We’re purdy isolated and all. Plus we’re of good stock out here. Not much can stop us from doin’ what we love.” I could hear the passion he had for his life and felt his tension slowly leaving him.
In the back of my mind, I knew the disease that wiped out most of the world didn’t discriminate, and people from all walks of life, from those who lived in big cities to the most rural locations on the planet were affected. But he was relaxing, so I didn’t bother to point out these facts. Honestly, I was fascinated that his life didn’t change much, or at least that’s how he made it sound. “I’m sure your wife and kids will love it there, too.”
“Yer fancy technology seems to think so,” Travis remarked.
“You don’t agree?” I asked and removed my hand from his forearm as the plane leveled out at altitude.
Travis looked down at his arm and then back to me, finally releasing his hold of the armrests. “Haven’t met many city folk that enjoy the country life. Ms. Osborn is a handsome woman, but I think she’ll have a tough time movin’ away from her fancy life.”
I chuckled. “I’m sure the matching program takes all that into consideration,” I said, although I really didn’t know if that was true. The matches were made based on genetic compatibility to create healthy children with strong genetic traits.
“Yer a city girl,” he said and turned in his seat to face me. “Would ya be happy if you were whisked away from that to live and work on a ranch in the middle of nowhere?”
A smile formed on my lips and I temporarily muted the voice in my head that warned me against offering personal information. “I spent my summers on a ranch and wished when I was on your ranch that I could go back there again. There’s something beautiful about the simplicity and hard work of that life.”
“I see,” Travis replied distantly. “Aside from yer name that I practically had to force outta ya, that’s the first real info you’ve given me.”
My eyes fell to my lap. I knew I shouldn’t have told him that, but a part of me wanted to tell him more.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” I muttered, still looking at my lap. I recalled the scenarios in my training and decided it was best to remove myself from the situation. Well, not that I could really go far while being confined in a small jet. After taking a deep breath, I looked at Travis again. “We’re safely in the air, now, so I’m going to go in the back and do some work.”
As I stood and turned to leave, Travis got up and grabbed my arm. “I didn’t mean to offend. I just got the jitters with all this ‘meet your future wife’ business.”
I looked down at his hand on my forearm and then back up into his blue eyes (where I was momentarily lost). I cleared my throat and was freed from his grasp, but continued to hold his gaze. “It’s normal to feel nervous and you didn’t offend me. Honestly, this is my first assignment and I’m not very good at this yet. There are some books and magazines available for you to read or you can select a movie to watch. We should arrive in Vancouver in -.”
I was cut off mid-sentence by a huge turbulence that shook the plane. I grabbed the seat back to steady myself, but the plane jolted again. Panic and adrenaline coursed through me, and I looked to make sure Travis was okay.
“That wasn’t normal, was it?” he asked, grasping another seat for balance.
As I shook my head, the plane started rapidly descending and I fell into Travis. “No,” I said. “Something’s wrong.” I glanced out the window and saw the ground getting closer. My ears were getting clogged by the pressure change and I couldn’t clear them fast enough. “Get to the back of the plane!” I yelled.
Loud beeping sounds came from the cockpit as Travis and I struggled to walk uphill to get to the back of the plummeting aircraft. We both scrambled to buckle ourselves into the seats. In a very human reaction, we grabbed hold of each other in a protective embrace seconds before the plane impacted the ground.
*Everything was eerily bright. I held my hand to my forehead to shade my eyes and try to see where I was. “Mom?” I yelled. “Grandpa?” I was on the ranch in Montana, but it was deserted. “Brent?” I called out for my brother, too. They were all long dead, but I looked for them anyway. Why was I so alone? I noticed my hands, how they were small and child-like, but in my mind I knew I was an adult. “Hello?” I shouted, but there was no reply. In fact, there was no sound at all.*
*How did I get here? Where was everyone? Flashes of the airplane trip streamed through my mind like a movie playing in fast forward. “Oh god,” I said aloud. “I’m dead.” I crumbled to the ground with a bewildered expression and continued to look around. This wasn’t what I imagined death to look like.*
“Ashley?” *I heard a voice calling for me.*
*“Daddy?” I called back, but he didn’t respond.*
“Ashley! C’mon. We gotta get out of here,” *the voice continued.*
*“Where are you?” I called out to the emptiness around me. “Where am I?” I asked more to myself than to the invisible person calling to me. “Where am I?” *
“Ashley, wake up.”
Before my eyes opened, I began coughing.
“Don’t move. You’re safe here,” Travis said.
“What… what happened?” My eyes finally opened. In the not-too-far distance, I could see a column of black smoke rising from evergreen trees. Blurry as my vision was, I focused on Travis and instantly recalled everything. “Your head… it’s bleeding,” I said, attempting to push myself off the ground. Instantly, I groaned.
“Don’t move,” Travis repeated. “I’m… okay.”
Ignoring him, I attempted to stand anyway. The dizziness I could’ve handled, but I instantly crumbled to the ground the moment I put pressure on my left foot. “I think it’s -“
“Broken, yeah,” Travis said sympathetically and sat beside me. “Where do you s’pose we are?”
I offered a shrug as I looked around. “I’d guess somewhere in Colorado.” We were in the thick of the trees and up on the side of a mountain, probably a couple hundred yards from the wreckage. “Did the pilot make it?”
Travis looked down at his burned hands and shook his head. “I tried, but I think he died on impact.”
I frowned darkly and reached for Travis’s hand. “I think we need to find some water for your hands. Hopefully we’ll come across a cabin or something nearby until they send a search party for us. Can you help me to my feet or rather foot?”
“I don’t think you should be walkin’ anywhere on that,” he said and remained sitting on the boulder beside me.
“If I had a stick, I could hop. We shouldn’t go far from here, but we need to find shelter and clean your wounds.”
I scanned the area from my spot on the ground while Travis wandered in the area to find a makeshift crutch. He returned empty handed. “I can carry you,” he said upon return.
I accidentally chuckled and then immediately blushed. “I didn’t mean to laugh, but you’re barely better off than I am. I’m not letting you carry me.”
Travis didn’t seem to take offense from my laugh. “Okay, how ‘bout you use me as a crutch. We’ll go slow.”
“That will have to work,” I said as he helped me up onto my good foot.
He immediately wrapped an arm around my waist and I leaned against him. Despite smelling of smoke from the fire – or perhaps that added to it – Travis smelled really good and his arm was strong and comforting around my waist.
It didn’t take long into our short walk before we were casually talking again.
“You never answered my question ‘bout your guy likin’ you travelin’ so much. Guess he’ll have a different opinion after this trip,” Travis said with a chuckle.
“Who said I have a ‘he’ waiting for me?” I asked, dodging directly answering him again.
Travis paused and looked at me with a quirked brow. “I didn’t think ‘they’ allowed same sex couples anymore.” He shrugged and added, “Good fer you, though.”
This time my laugh was more melodic. “They don’t and I don’t. Not a he or a she. I suppose I’m not allowed to have romantic partners anymore.”
Travis frowned darkly, but I urged him to continue walking. We were silent for about five minutes before he paused and turned to face me. “Because of your job you’re not allowed?”
My smile was sad as I gazed into his perfect blue eyes. “Yes and no. I was ‘given’ this job because I can’t have children of my own, and thus can’t be allowed to date.”
Without another word, we continued walking.
About an hour passed before we came across a stream. We hadn’t spoken much, only a few words here and there to decide on a direction and to check if we needed to stop and rest.
“You can prop me up here and go take care of your hands. I’m sure that water is plenty cold,” I said.
“You’re probably right,” Travis said and lifted me up to sit on top of a boulder.
While I should have been looking around for signs of rescue or shelter, I found myself watching him as he knelt beside the stream and plunged his burned hands in. “I’m sure they’ll send a helicopter to search the area soon,” I said, trying to bring hope to the situation.
“That’s horse shit,” Travis said suddenly and rose from the water.
Startled by his response, I blinked and watched him walk towards me. “They wouldn’t just let a crash go un-investigated. I know they’ll send someone out here.”
Travis’s brows furrowed together as he stood in front of me and he continued with his rant as if I hadn’t spoken. “What gives them the right to tell us who we’re allowed to be with?”
I shrugged. “They just want to repopulate the world and give the human race the best chance to survive and thrive.”
He paced in front of me, shaking his head. “The Black Death took ‘bout the same percentage of Europeans and they did just fine recoverin’ on their own without kings and queens tellin’ them who to be with or devaluin’ people just cuz you don’t fit into some plan.”
“I have value, it’s just not -“
Travis cut me off. “This world would be better off allowin’ people to love and grow without some damn computer tellin’ us who we should or shouldn’t be with.”
I smiled sadly at him. “Did you love someone back home?” I asked, never really considering what his life was like before WWRI intervened.
He stopped his pacing and looked at me like I asked him if the sky was purple. “I’ve only loved my ranch, but dreamed of findin’ a woman to share it with, to fall in love like people used to, and to create a life together.”
My heart ached for him. I didn’t know what it’d feel like to be matched, but what he said resonated with me; it was exactly what I wanted, too. I stared ahead at the water. “I can tell them that it wasn’t a good match. It’s rare, but there have been cases of that. You could go back to your ranch and do what you love.”
Travis picked up some small rocks from the ground and sat beside me, casually tossing them towards the stream. “What ‘bout you? Are you gonna go back and live the life they tell ya?”
I turned to look at him and sighed. “What other choice do I have?”
Silence fell between us again and we both watched the pebbles fly through the air towards the water. “You could come back with me,” he offered.
His gaze didn’t waver from the stream, while I continued to study his face. I felt butterflies in my stomach, but didn’t want to assume anything. “You don’t have to pity me,” I said softly.
Finally, Travis turned to look at me. His icy hand took hold of mine. “I’m offerin’ somethin’ I think we’d both want.”
As I stared into his eyes, I knew I wanted that. This was my first assignment and I managed to break every rule.