She ran through the snow, her badly bleeding leg dragging through a drift.
Her breath was stuck half-way up her throat, every pressured exhalation sending a new wave of pain and nausea washing through her broken body.
She kept moving.
She couldn't stop.
Above her, the twin suns of the planet slowly slipped behind the horizon. The purple and gold dusk shimmering in the star-studded sky quickly gave way to a dark night.
She pushed up a rise, foot catching on a rock hidden under the thick white blanket of snow. She shunted forward and had to shove her hands out to break her fall. Her face slammed against the snow, and she sucked in a breath of powder. Choking and spluttering, a few droplets of bright red blood splattering over the drift, she shoved to her feet and powered on.
Every few seconds, she checked behind her. Aching neck muscles sending spinning shafts of pain spiraling into her head, she ignored her agony and scanned the now dark horizon.
Dusk did not last on this planet.
... She couldn't see it.
Oh god, she couldn't discern it against the never-ending mountains of white.
By now she was so cold she couldn't feel her legs anymore, only the pain snaking up from the bad break in her left femur.
How she could still walk, let alone run, she didn't know.
She couldn't stop, though.
Stop, and that thing would tear her limb-from-limb, bone-from-bone, cell-from-cell.
She snapped her head around, every breath like fire burning in her chest. By now a diffuse tingling sensation had pushed down her chest and sunk deep into her stomach.
Clutching a hand over her middle, the ripped fabric of her snow jacket trailing over her wrist, she indulged in closing her eyes.
... Shit. She could hear it now.
As she shifted up a rise and paused, she picked up its even footfall.
Not hurried, not frantic.
Even. Steady. Always coming toward her.
Fear pumped through her blood, ricocheting around her mind like a mag bullet.
She shook her head desperately, several strands of bloody, sweaty, icy hair sticking to her flushed cheeks and neck.
“Come on,” she begged herself with another choked wheeze.
She snapped her head forward and stared down the drift.
It was steep, but she had no choice. She threw herself down it, her boots scampering through the fine snow. It was a battle to keep her balance. Her arms flailed at her sides as her boots sunk further into the drift with every treacherous step.
More and more blood oozed from the injury to her left leg. It splattered over the snow, sinking a few millimeters down before it was robbed of its natural warmth and frozen – like everything else on this hell hole of a planet.
Just as she heard its methodical footfall ascend the rise behind her, she stumbled. Again her foot snagged on something. This time, she couldn't regain her balance.
She fell to the side, her right arm plunging through the drift up to her elbow.
Though she madly tried to clutch onto something – anything – to slow her rapid descent, she couldn't.
She started to roll, her body tumbling down the hill with all the grace and speed of a boulder free-falling down a cliff.
Just as her heart threatened to slam out of her chest and plunge into the frozen snow, she reached the bottom of the rise.
For a second, she did nothing. She lay there, face pressed up against a sheet of ice, one wide eye pressing further open as she realized two things.
She was still alive.
And it was still after her.
She could hear the creaking of its joints. The pneumatic hiss of its breath.
“Oh god,” she cried, tears streaking down her cheeks as she screwed her eyes tightly shut.
Though her whole body felt like it was little more than a broken pane of glass, she grunted and somehow found the strength to push up. Her elbows shook as they tried to position her weight.
But she did it.
She staggered to her feet, more blood splattering from her wound and flicking over the white-blue snow and ice.
Clutching a hand on her stomach and groaning, she twisted her head all the way around and stared with wide eyes at the top of the rise.
She saw it.
The night sky was so clear she could see the colored swathe of gas clouds studded with constellations beyond.
That brilliant light was enough to outline her pursuer.
Large, white metal body glinting, it inclined its head toward her.
Then it moved.
Violent fear exploded in her gut, sending a spike of adrenaline striking her body like a flame thrown onto a bed of dry wood.
She found the last of her strength and powered to her feet.
She twisted and sprinted forward.
She ignored every stabbing pain, every wave of nausea.
She locked her gaze on the horizon until she could see it pulling up in the distance.
A shadow against the reflective snow and ice.
She would reach it. Then she'd find a weapon.
And then, Sarah Sinclair would kill the hunter.
Cadet Sarah Sinclair
She rocketed awake as if someone had attached a cruiser to her mind and pulled her out of sleep with all the speed of light.
It took her too long to realize she was in bed. In her quarters. In the Academy grounds on Earth.
Her hands were shaking, her body convulsing as sweat coated her brow and trailed down her back.
Her pillow and covers were a tangled mess on the ground.
At some point, she'd knocked most of the paraphernalia off her desk. Her lamp was broken, and her WD had popped its case.
“... It was... it was a dream.” She clutched a hand to her chest and let her sweaty fingers anchor against her rumpled PJ top.
She couldn't calm her breathing. It raked through her throat, just like it had in her dream.
She started to shake her head. She even closed her eyes.
As soon as she did, the vestiges of her nightmare climbed back into her consciousness. She saw vivid flashes of the snow below her, of her bright-red blood slicking down her body.
Instinctively she grabbed a hand to her left leg.
... It felt stiff.
But as she pushed her searching fingers into the muscle, she couldn't find a serious injury.
Just to convince herself, she ducked her head down, rolled up her trousers, and stared at her flesh.
No hole from a blaster.
Just her leg.
She clutched her face, her sweaty shaking fingers dragging and digging over her skin. Her hair was a tangle over her face and shoulders, so knotted it felt like a helmet.
A second later, an alarm blared from her wall unit on the far side of the room.
It was so sudden and unexpected she screamed.
“You will be late for class unless you leave in the next five minutes,” the programmed computer voice informed her in a toneless chirp.
“... Class,” she repeated with an empty tone.
“Today, you will have engineering in the morning, followed by combat training in the afternoon,” the computer informed her, erroneously thinking she'd asked a question.
... She couldn't push away her dream and snap back to reality.
It seemed locked in her body. She could feel the desperation still pumping in her heart, the fear locking her limbs, the blood slicking down her leg.
With a reverberating sigh, she clenched a shaking hand on her bed and pushed to her feet.
Instantly she had to shove a hand out and lock it on the wall to steady herself.
She hunched her shoulders, rounded her back, dropped her head, closed her eyes, and tried to wake up.
The computer beeped again, startling her so badly she jolted, collected her mess of blankets and pillows, and fell over.
Her left knee bashed into the floor, knocking against the lamp.
The sharp metal base easily cut through the thin fabric of her PJ bottoms and sliced through the flesh above her knee.
She stared at the injury in shock, mesmerized by the blood blossoming over her light blue trousers.
Before she could stare at it for the next several minutes, body still locked with the memory of her dream, her intercom beeped.
“You getting ready or what? You can't afford to be late anymore,” her roommate said over the intercom.
Sarah didn't answer. Couldn't. Instead, she shook her head and tried, but failed, to wake up.
“... Sarah, you okay in there?”
When Sarah didn't answer for a second time, her door beeped and opened.
In strode her roommate and best friend, Nora. She took one look at Sarah's disheveled room then locked her gaze on Sarah's injury.
Rather than lurch down and check Sarah's cut, Nora pressed her hands around her middle and shook her head. “Another nightmare?”
Sarah managed a nod.
Nora sighed. “You should get that cut checked out before class. It looks pretty deep.” Nora disappeared out into the main room beyond Sarah's bedroom. A few seconds later Nora came back with a med kit. She threw it at Sarah.
Sarah tried to catch it, but she was too slow, and the kit bounced off her chest and fell against her bleeding leg.
Nora sighed heavily. “Come on, Sarah, snap out of it.”
“Sorry,” Sarah said in a small voice as she hesitantly plucked up the kit, unlocked it, and began rifling through the contents. She tried extremely hard to hide the shake in her hands as she clasped hold of a vial of spray-on-skin.
Nora saw it and took it as a reason to shake her head once more. “You didn't take your meds last night, did you? In fact, you haven't been taking them all week. Believe it or not, I can hear when you're thrashing in your sleep. Even these double reinforced doors aren't enough to dampen that cacophony.” Nora reached out and rapped her knuckles against the wall. “Just do us a favor – do what the doctors keep telling you to do. Take your medication. It will suppress your dreams.”
Nora turned and walked out the door.
Just before the doors closed behind her, she appeared to change her mind.
She strode back in, leaned down, plucked the spray-on-skin from Sarah, and helped her apply it.
When she was done, Nora pushed to her feet and offered Sarah a hand. “Sorry to be so hard on you, kid, but—”
“But?” Sarah looked up at her.
“Never mind,” Nora insisted as she pushed forward, obviously tired of waiting, and plucked Sarah's hand up.
Nora was strong and agile, and it wasn't a trial to pull Sarah to her feet.
“Okay, now get to the med bay, and I'll cover for you in class. But whatever you do, be back in time for combat training. You can't afford to put Lieutenant Karax offside anymore. Not considering what you said to him last time.” Nora sighed heavily.
Sarah couldn't help but wince.
Now she was standing, her cut semi-healed, and her best friend at her side, her dream was starting to fade.
That's what other people called it.
Sarah knew they weren't dreams.
They were too real, too tangible. When she was experiencing them, they felt like reality. Like she was walking through some distant memory.
Maybe Nora could somehow guess what Sarah was thinking, because she leaned in close and shook her head, a warning look playing in her gaze. “Sarah, no. They're dreams. You're getting past this, remember? You've been going to a counselor for half a year now. You know they're dreams. Right?” Nora challenged.
Sarah looked at her best friend.
There was only one thing she could say, even if it was a lie. So she gave a stiff nod, hooking her messy hair behind her ears as she did. “Yeah, they're dreams,” she said in a dead, far-off voice. As soon as she said it, she winced. A violent, visceral memory of the hunt slammed into her mind.
She may not know much about the context of her dream – who was chasing her, where she was, how she'd gotten there. But she knew one thing.
It was called the hunt. And she was the quarry being hunted.
She gave a cold shiver as a dark, sick feeling pushed through her gut.
Rather than clutch a hand on her stomach and double over, she tried for a smile.
Nora let out a sharp chuckle. “You're not going to win any friends with a smile like that.”
“I don't need other friends – I've got you, right?”
Nora didn't answer. She moved toward the door, pulling her gaze off Sarah and locking it on the metal. “Get dressed and get to the med bay, I'll see you in class.” With that, she walked through the door, and it closed behind her.
There'd been a time when Nora had stood by her side relentlessly. Whenever anyone had made fun of Sarah's mad assertions about her dreams, Nora had been there.
But over the past few years, something had changed.
Nora was growing more distant every day.
Fair enough. She was sick of Sarah's stupid stories, wasn't she? She was sick of the fact she had to keep defending Sarah from the other cadets at the Academy, even from the teaching staff.
No one believed there was anything wrong with Sarah – other than her mind.
And that could be fixed with medication and counseling. If only Sarah would stick to her regime, her dreams would disappear and she'd finally become normal.
... Except she wouldn't become normal. She knew for a fact the dreams would not disappear, no matter how many drugs the med staff pumped into her.
They weren't dreams. They were something more.
She shivered instinctively, drawing a deep calming breath into her chest as she twisted on her foot to stare out of the window behind her bed.
It showed a view of the accommodation block next to her own. No ocean, no sprawling Academy grounds. She wasn't important enough for that.
Heck, if Sarah didn't stop insisting she was going through... something, she'd likely be kicked out of the Academy.
The threat was already on the table. Either Sarah properly engage with her counselor and take her medication, or she would be out on her ear.
No one wanted an unstable ensign aboard a Coalition ship.
Rather than madly dress and brush her hair, Sarah slowly gathered together the contents of the med kit and neatly packed them away. She methodically picked up her lamp, made her bed, and plucked up her wrist device – her WD.
She snatched up the metal back and clicked it into place. Then, with a thoughtful sigh, she hooked the device over her wrist.
Slowly she dressed, finally running a brush through her unruly hair.
Once she was done, she stopped and stared at herself in the mirror.
She was slightly larger than normal size. She had an athletic body, brown eyes, and attractive chestnut colored hair that ran down to the middle of her back.
She kept staring at herself as she looped her hair into a ponytail, a few strands cutting over her eyes.
She watched her reflection as she took one deep breath after another.
She was attractive. She knew that. And considering her athletic physique, she should be good at combat.
But Sarah was abysmal in combat, and despite her looks, had only one single friend.
Maybe that's what irritated people so much about her – they thought she was capable of so much more.
Her first week at the Academy, she'd been invited into E Club.
She'd never got past the application phase – as soon as everyone had found out about her little mental problems, they'd ditched her.
Why not? She believed she was somehow transported to a snowy planet every night to fight some strange creature.
Sometimes she'd make it into the facility, sometimes she'd find a weapon and start fighting back.
But every time – to everyone else – it was nothing more than a dream.
There was a name for people like her – spacecondriachs.
Disparaging and belittling, it was used to refer to people who made up wild reasons to explain quite normal medical conditions. You know, the kind of weirdos who think they get abducted by aliens every time they black out for a few minutes after drinking themselves stupid.
Spacecondriachs had a constellation of mental issues, according to the experts. From low self-esteem to a desperate need for attention.
Sarah had it all.
She curled her hands into fists and took a sharp step away from the mirror.
A part of her did have low self-esteem. She couldn't help but feel she was useless when everyone kept repeating that to her – from the medical staff, to the other cadets, to the teachers.
They wanted her to snap out of it and live up to her potential.
Sarah curled a hand into a fist and struck the wall next to her mirror.
Though pain sank hard into her hand and wrist, she didn't react.
She could compartmentalize pain, a part of her reminded herself.
She could push past any obstacle, that same part reminded her.
She could endure any hardship – whether it be a mad dash through the snow or social pressure.
She was a true survivor.
She let her hand drop and closed her eyes, trying to catch the elusive voice that kept saying that.
... She couldn't.
She opened her eyes and let out a frustrated grunt.
Sarah knew she was different, but she wasn't a spacecondriach. There was an aspect of her – a strong survivor who could endure anything, who was so powerful she could obliterate the hunter from her dreams.
Others didn't see that part.
But it was there.
It's what gave her the strength to turn, press a smile on her face, and head out of her apartment.
As she smiled, she felt her natural exuberance return. Despite everything that was wrong with her, she tried to combat it all with good humor.
It didn't always work. In fact, it made people think she was madder.
She didn't care.
She kept that smile on her face until she made it across the Academy grounds to the med bay.
As soon as she walked through the large white doors, her mood changed.
It cost all her effort to keep her smile locked on her lips.
The doctor in charge saw her and let out a loud and very obvious sigh. “What now?” Doctor Wallace asked. He was half human, half Bakarian.
“I, ah, injured my knee,” she said in a quiet, conciliatory tone as she shifted toward a medical bed.
“Don't sit there,” Wallace huffed. “That's for patients.”
Sarah didn't react.
She was a patient, right? Though she'd applied the spray-on-skin, she hadn't done a good enough job, and she could already feel blood slicking through her uniform.
Wallace would be able to see the blood dripping down her leg.
But that still didn't make her a patient.
Wallace gestured her forward. Without a word to her, he plucked a medical scanner off a floating tray, started manipulating the controls, and waved it near her.
She stood in the middle of the room, patients and staff walking around her – all watching her.
She wasn't even allowed the dignity to sit down.
... Some part of her wanted to react to that. A part of her wanted to point out to Wallace he was being a callous asshole. Even if he did think Sarah was a spacecondriach, he had a duty of care.
But no matter how much she wanted to snap, she didn't.
Because Sarah didn't snap.
Sarah kept her true feelings hidden behind a smile.
Wallace didn't say a word to her as he injected something into her neck and strapped a device around her leg. “This will fix the nerve damage.”
“So there's nerve damage, then?”
“Of course there's nerve damage – you sliced a good inch into your leg. I'm not even going to ask how you did it,” he said distractedly as he turned and began to walk away, “Just keep it on for the rest of the day. And don't exert yourself.”
“Will you make a note of that on my file? I have combat class this afternoon.”
Wallace had already walked away.
“Never mind,” she muttered under her breath.
She ignored all the stares she got as she walked through the med bay and headed toward the main doors.
As she reached them, they opened.
In strode Lieutenant Karax.
Broad, strapping, and handsome, he instantly drew attention as he marched in.
Dread plunged through Sarah's gut, and she darted to the side.
Before she realized what she was doing, she bumped into a med tech. They were carrying a tray of vials, and Sarah slammed into their elbow, upending the vials and sending them scattering over the floor.
“Oh my god, I'm so sorry.” Sarah leaned down to help them.
The med tech gave her a dark look. “Just leave it.”
Sarah's stomach sank even further as she stood.
When she turned, Karax was right behind her.
She had to suck in a breath as she looked up into his attractive face. It wasn't his looks that sucked her breath away – it was the dark promise playing in his deep brown eyes. It matched the dark chocolate hue of his skin, drawing you deeper into that penetrating stare.
“What are you doing, cadet? Making trouble again?” There was real vehemence behind his words.
And she knew why.
Karax was from the colony worlds along the Barbarian-Coalition border.
According to his file and the trillion stories repeating around campus about him, he'd had to fight to survive. As a teenager, he'd fought off wave after wave of Barbarian attacks, losing most of his family in the process.
He had real battle scars.
Sarah, she only thought she did.
It had all come to a head when Lieutenant Karax had been assigned to her class to give the new wave of Academy cadets “true survival training” as the top brass were calling it. In these trying times, the Coalition had to ensure their cadets were battle-ready before sending them out into space.
Lieutenant Karax was one of the best, precisely because he'd survived so much.
During one training session, Sarah had mentioned her past. The one she experienced in her dreams every night.
It was so real to her – how could it not be her past? It didn't matter that it didn't fit in with her biographical history – it was real.
Lieutenant Karax had taken it as an insult.
How could someone pretend to have survived such slaughter? How could someone dare trivialize such a thing?
“You want to stop wasting everyone's time?” he snapped, voice a harsh hiss.
It reminded her of the hunter's breath. From her dream, that thing always breathed with a pneumatic hush.
She shivered but hid it with a sniff. “I wasn't wasting everyone's time, I was—”
“Excuse me? Are you talking back to me?”
“I cut my leg,” she said in a tiny voice that could barely carry.
He gave an uncaring snort. “What was it this time? You deliberately cut yourself to get out of more combat training? Or is it the attention you crave?”
Sarah's hands were clutched behind her back. One of her hands curled into a fist. A tight fist, one that sent a stiff reassurance sinking hard into her wrist and arm.
She kept staring at the ground, but what she really wanted to do was snap at him that he was a goddamn bully.
Instead, she nodded and shifted forward.
“If you think that injury of yours is going to get you a free ticket out of my class, you're mistaken. I expect you to show up. And this time, you will not fail.” He turned and marched off.
Every eye was on her.
This was a show to them.
She clenched her teeth and walked out of the med bay.
No matter what she tried, she couldn't unclench her hand.
Something deep inside her wanted to push against this injustice, wanted to fight back.
It always wanted to fight back.
But Cadet Sarah Sinclair kept her anger in check with reason.
The rest of Fractured Mind Episode One is available from most ebook retailers.