Chapter 1:

This Cursed World

The Fight for Humanity

“Could you mine that ore any slower?”

Amber’s mocking tone was crystal clear through the headset of my hazard suit. I didn’t need to look at her to see the wide smirk on her face.

“This laser cutter can only work so fast you know.”

The handheld cutter was powerful, but slow. In order to cut through the strongest of ores, the laser had to hit the same spot for up to minutes at a time. Life as a Scavenger was an unforgiving one, but necessary.

“You two having any luck over there?“ Garnet, the leader of our Scavenger squad, spoke into my headset.

Amber was the first to respond. “We found some Dilithium ore! A pretty good haul of it too.”

She was, of course, referring to the ore I was currently mining, while she played the role of monitor. Some help she was.

“How full are your carriers?” Garnet’s voice came in over the headset again.

The electronic heads-up display on our face shields listed the capacity of our carriers in the bottom left corner. The HUD provided a quick and easy way to check the health and status of our hazard suits.

Hazard suits, the one piece of technology keeping us alive. Almost skin tight and constructed from tightly woven, advanced microfiber fabrics, these suits filtered external air for us to breathe and protected our bodies from the harsh elements. Without them, our job would be impossible. We wouldn’t even be able to survive.

“I’m at 62%. Amber?”

“37% for me!” Of course she hadn’t collected as much as me. If she spent more time working and less time mocking, she’d certainly be closer to my 62%.

I continued to chisel away slowly at the Dilithium ore with my laser cutter. I’d been at it for about five minutes now. This was a rather large chunk of ore, so the cutter was working through it slowly but surely.

“How are your vitals?”

That voice belonged to none other than Diamond, the cool beauty of the entire Scavenger unit. As second in command to Garnet in Squad Delta, she took it upon herself to track the vitals of everyone’s hazard suit. In this cruel and unforgiving environment, tracking vitals was a matter of life or death.

I glanced quickly at the top left and top right corners of my face shield. “My filter is at 52% capability and I still have full thrusters. Laser cutter at 38% charge.”

Looks like I’ve got you beat, Ray! I’m at 55% capability on my filter. Also reporting full thrusters.”

“And your laser cutter charge?” I quickly retorted.

“Oh yeah about that, good question!” Amber laughed cutely. She clearly had no intention of answering the question. With how little she mined, her cutter probably sat over 50% charge.

“I know you two have a lot of history,” Diamond interrupted. “But please try and focus on your job.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The monotonous drone of the laser cutter at work was the only sound across this desolate wasteland. The air was still, Amber was no longer taunting me and rather focused on the task at hand. It was easy to get lost in the monotony of the job, to zone out. I continued to mine various ore and rocks and toss them into my carrier. How much of it was useful? I couldn’t say. As a Scavenger, it wasn’t my job to determine what was useful or not. My job was to scavenge the land, collect what I thought could be useful, and bring it home. The engineers would take it from there.

I closely monitored my carrier status as I filled it with more and more ore. 65%, 68%, 70%. Slowly but surely, I was approaching capacity. As I continued to move across the land, I stumbled upon the opening to a cave. During our Scavenger training, great emphasis was placed on the importance of caves and other unique land masses. They frequently contained rich deposits of ore, a proverbial goldmine.

“Hey everyone, Ray here. Reporting in. I found the entrance to a cave. From what I can tell, it seems quite expansive. I am sending you all my location now.”

I tapped away at the haptic buttons on my wrist controls to ping my location to my fellow squad members. An arrow would appear on their HUDs, guiding them to my location.

“Amber here. I’ve been sticking close by Ray for most of this expedition, I’ll go into the cave with him.”

“This is Lapis. I’ll meet up with Amber and Ray as well. The three of us should be able to cover enough ground in the cave.”

“Copy that. Good luck, and make sure to keep monitoring your filters.” Diamond gave her approval, and a friendly reminder. “The last thing you want to do is run your filter to expiration while you’re stuck in a cave far from the Cube.”

I stood by at the mouth of the cave as I waited for my reinforcements to arrive.

What they said about caves in training was completely true. The ore deposits glistened and sparkled as our spotlights passed over them. It was a breathtaking sight. More importantly, it was exactly what we needed.

I tapped Lapis on the shoulder. “Hey man, how much space do you have in your carrier?”

“52% available. You?”

“Only 30%.” Lapis was about to do the heavy lifting. With over half capacity available in his carrier, he’d be taking most of the spoils from the cave.

“You two can start working here,” Lapis said. “I’m going to venture a bit deeper into the cave to look for bigger deposits.”

“Copy that. Let us know if you need our help.”

Lapis set off deeper into the cave, leaving Amber and I to mine the ore closest to the entrance.

Three loud siren blares rang through my headset. That could only mean one thing.

Attention. A storm has been spotted and is heading in your direction. Classification: Dust Storm. The storm will arrive in 15 minutes. Please return immediately to The Cube for decontamination procedure.

Our day's work was being cut short. Another dust storm. They seemed to be rolling through more frequently lately, but why?

Diamond’s voice came through the communication system. “Ray, Amber, I’m guessing you two heard the warning message?”

“Sure did. We’re going to head back to The Cube shortly.”

“Copy. Garnet and I are waiting at the Cube, just waiting for everyone to return so we can get a final headcount.”

My carrier was 93% full. I didn’t quite fill up, but it was still a considerable haul. My best outing in the last month. I holstered my laser cutter and set my HUD to navigate back to the Cube.

I started to make my way towards the entrance of the cave.

“Don’t you think we should wait for Lapis?” Amber asked.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” I responded without a second thought. “We all got the warning message. We have 15 minutes to get back to the Cube, he knows that.”

“I’m going to open a communication line with him just to be sure.”

The line between myself and Amber disconnected. I could see from her mouth movements that she was talking, now on a private communication line with Lapis. She really did worry too much. Lapis, like us, was a full grown adult capable of taking care of himself. He was even older than us. He was 24, or 25? In a world like this, his 24 years compared to our 18 years was a huge difference.

“Lapis said he found a really big ore deposit. He’s mining a couple more pieces before heading out. He said we don’t need to wait for him.”

I could hear the concern in Amber’s voice. Depending on how big the chunks of ore were, he could be pressing against the time constraint. In the end, experience wins out. Who was I to question a veteran Scavenger like Lapis.

“Alright then, let’s get out of here.”

Amber came to my side and we left the cave together, making our return home before the storm rolled through.

When Amber and I arrived below the Cube, most of our squadron was already back. Garnet and Diamond were at the front of the group conducting a headcount. In close proximity, we no longer needed to communicate through our headsets.

“Hey, has anyone seen Lapis?” Garnet asked, concern etched across his face.

“He was mining deeper in the cave I found,” I responded. “Amber and I weren’t with him, but he didn’t go much deeper than we were. I thought he would have come back by now.”

The clock in the bottom right corner of our displays continued to countdown. In just three minutes, the storm would arrive. After I placed my trust in Lapis, and didn’t force him to leave the ore behind, it seemed like he would run out of time. Could someone like Lapis really lose track of the time? Or had something else gone wrong?

“Let me go look for him!” I shouted at Garnet. There wasn’t much time, but if I used what remained of my thruster capacity, I stood a chance of returning in time.

Garnet shook his head. “I can’t let you do that, Ray. I know you want to help him, but it’s too risky now!”

As much as I wanted to help, I wasn’t going to defy my squad leader. If I were out there, in Lapis’ position, I know I wouldn’t want anyone risking their life coming after me. At this point, all we could do was wait and hope for the best.

Diamond dropped her head in sorrow. The storm was now one minute away, and Lapis was nowhere to be found. We had no choice, we had to extract ourselves now.

“Alright, everyone get on board.”

Diamond tapped away at her wrist controls, launching her retracting hook up towards the decontamination zone of the Cube. Once her cable was secure to the Cube, she retracted, lifting herself up through the air. The rest of Squad Delta, including myself and Amber, followed suit. I gazed out into the distance as I floated up towards the Cube, hoping I’d somehow spot Lapis in the distance. I saw nothing, except the dark dust clouds rolling in the distance.

Once we were all back on board the Cube, inside the decontamination zone, the exterior bay door closed. Through the large window, we could spot the dust starting to whirl violently in the air. The storm had arrived.

“Wait! Is that Lapis?” Amber shouted with her face pressed against the window. With dust stirring more and more by the second, visibility was quickly declining. But there was no mistake about it, that was a person out there, wearing standard issue hazard gear.

“Can we open the door?” I shouted back towards Garnet and Diamond. If anyone in this situation had the authority to make that call, it was one of them.

The looks on their faces said it all. The storm had arrived. At this point, it was too late. To open the bay doors now was to risk the life of every person still in the decontamination zone. Exposure to the extreme elements was a surefire ticket to a painful death. I turned back to look out the window. I should have averted my eyes, but I couldn’t. Even as the nightmare unfolded before me, I could not break my gaze.

Lapis collapsed to the ground, clutching at his chest. The hazard gear he wore was quickly disintegrating away. His skin, now exposed to the harsh climate of the storm, was next to burn away. That image was seared into my mind. The sight of a comrade, suffering alone on the harsh landscape of Earth, being melted alive. The dust storm grew so strong that we lost all visibility, that was our only saving grace. Without that, who knows how long I would have watched him suffer. This world was cruel, harsh, and unfair. To bravely rebel against this world was the only chance we had to survive. Lapis, like all of us, pledged to fight to the very end. I hope you found peace, comrade.

Following our chemical showers, Squad Delta left the decontamination zone and entered the deployment locker room. Amber removed her helmet and visor, revealing her long, elegant burnt orange hair. Her usual smile and joyous aura were nowhere to be found. I removed my helmet and visor as well, equally somber.

“How much do you think he suffered?” Amber asked depressingly.

“The dust kills you quickly,” I responded. “That stuff is really toxic.” As toxic as it was, that was a lie. I had no doubt that Lapis suffered a cruel, painful death.

Diamond threw her arms around me and Amber and pulled us into a gentle embrace. “I’m sorry you two had to see that. I know you’re both new to this. I wish I could say it gets easier, but it never does.”

Diamond, already back in her casual clothes, released us from her embrace and left the locker room. Even at the ripe age of 23, Diamond was a hardened veteran of the Scavenger unit. She carried the burden of being second in command for an entire 30 person squadron, at such a young age. Her perseverance and attitude were admirable. Even though her words of comfort were nice, at the end of the day, those admirable traits she had, I severely lacked.

Slowly but surely, the rest of the squad filed out of the locker room. After ten minutes, only Amber and I remained.

“This is such garbage.” I clenched my fist. “Lapis died for nothing!” The sound of hitting metal reverberated throughout the locker room. My knuckles turned red from the contact. My anger got the best of me.

“He didn’t die for nothing,” Amber said. “He died doing everything he could to try and help the Cube, and help all of us living on it.”

She was right. It was the job of a Scavenger to search the deadly surface of the Earth for anything useful to the Cube. It was a necessary evil to continue our way of life. Something forced upon us by the Dwellers, who betrayed humanity. Even so, we had no clear path to the future. Each and every day was a fight just to survive. There was no resting easy until the future of the Cube, and humanity, was secured. To die before then, seemed like such a waste.

“Those cursed Dwellers… we have to live a life of suffering because of them. And now that we know they’re still alive, I will get my revenge on them. No matter what.”

Amber knew my anger was boiling over. Lapis’ death hit me hard, he was a comrade, a mentor, and most importantly, a friend. But my anger was long growing. Those Dwellers took my family away from me. And for that, I was going to make them pay. No matter what life threw at me, that was my goal. To avenge my family, wipe out the Dwellers, and give humanity a fighting chance to save the world.