The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.
Shifting sunlight filtered through murky, soup-like gas clouds. The multitudinous colors created a mesmerizing effect over the blasted, lifeless earth. It was beautiful in a way, but Zori knew if she took one step out there she would choke on those colors.
“Zori, you have to be more careful,” Professor Wan chided as Zori turned to face him, “If they catch you, they will kill you. Or worse, they’ll set a hellhound on you.”
“I know,” Zori replied, “I couldn’t help it. I was so hungry, and it smelled so good. Who knew bread could taste like heaven, huh?”
“Anything can taste like heaven when you’re starving, but let me help you next time, okay? I don’t want to lose my best student.”
“I don’t want to be lost, Professor. I will try to control myself next time.”
“Yes, please do that,” Professor Wan’s deep, brown eyes softened, “You’d better go, the children will be waiting.”
“Ah yes, the children,” Zori rolled her eyes as she waved goodbye, “Thank you for the lecture. I’ll see you in class.”
Zori stopped in the doorway and felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. The noise had been soft–barely audible, possibly imagined. Hopefully imagined.
“What is it, Zori?”
“Did you hear that, Professor?”
“Hear what?” There was real concern written across the lines of Wan’s face.
“Nothing. See you later,” Zori said, shaking her head.
“Goodbye, Zori,” Professor Wan nodded as she left.
Zori’s mind wandered as she picked her way through the twisting, metallic landscape that made up The Factory. Even though she’d been born here on Earth, she hadn’t expected to remain here all her life. Her parents had been mechanical engineers who’d moved to one of the wealthy off-world colonies five years ago. Zori had stayed on Earth to finish school and complete her studies in anthropology when the meteor hit her parents’ colony. No one survived. Zori had hoped her parents might have left her some sort of inheritance to help her get off this broken planet. As it turned out, her father had a gambling addiction and her mother was a shopaholic, leaving Zori with a legacy of debt. For two incredibly intelligent people, it seemed they were abysmal with money. Of course, this society didn’t exactly teach money management or promote an affordable lifestyle.
Zori turned a corner and narrowly avoided a cart piled high with scrap metal.
“Watch where you’re going, Zor,” the metalsmith yelled, “I almost ran you over!”
“Sorry, Tim,” Zori replied, skirting the cart.
“No worries, just be careful,” Tim replied.
“Why does everyone keep telling me that,” Zori murmured, more to herself than to Tim.
She’d been careful all her life–some would even say overly cautious. With the loss of her parents, however, she’d become more reckless. The residents of The Factory hadn’t come here by choice, for the most part. Everyone here had either been born into poverty or was working off some sort of debt. Zori had come to study the lifestyle of the poor and downtrodden and found herself in their shoes. She’d appreciated the resilience and survivalism of the people who remained on Earth until she became one of them. The extra roll at dinner didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but management at The Factory took rationing very seriously. Maybe deadly serious.
Zori sighed when she arrived at The Lab. There were no natural births in The Factory, but sometimes they needed small hands to retrieve pieces of debris stuck in the gears or little fingers to perform the more delicate work. The clone children all looked the same, with bald heads and large, round eyes. They all appeared to be male and were bred to be sterile and obedient. Management had discovered early on that Zori was better with the children than anyone else in The Factory. Zori wasn’t great with her hands, she was too skinny to do much heavy labor, and she was too clumsy for detailed work. Giving tours to the newly-decanted clones worked in everyone’s favor. Besides, the tours gave Zori the chance to continue her studies of the population within The Factory, even if she wouldn’t be writing her thesis in luxury as originally planned.
Six pairs of identical eyes stared up expectantly at her. The clones creeped her out in an uncanny-valley kind of way, but she’d rather do this job than any others at The Factory.
“Okay, kids. Follow me,” Zori commanded.
The clone children followed.
She led them into a large room full of an assortment of gears, bars, bolts, and sheets. People sat on barstools picking through the pieces as they rolled by on a conveyor belt.
“This first room is where the incoming parts are sorted for either re-purpose or smelting. Everyone, meet Stella, the Head of Sort. Say hi, Stella.”
“Hi, Stella!” Sang a chorus of a half-dozen piping voices.
“Hello, children!” Stella, a stout, boisterous woman with flashing green eyes and perfect, full lips replied. The Sort room was Zori’s favorite, not so much because of what they did here but who presided with her calm, friendly energy.
“Hey, Stella,” Zori gave Stella an apologetic half-smile. She knew the clones set Stella on edge.
“Zori, we need to talk,” Stella’s eyes were full of concern.
“You gonna tell me to be careful? Because you’ll have to get in line,” Zori said.
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you,” Stella said, putting a calloused hand on Zori’s shoulder.
“I know, I will do my best, Stel,” Zori said with a shrug, “What’s done is done.”
“Meet me tonight?” Stella asked with a hopeful look.
“Absolutely,” Zori gave Stella a sly wink before continuing her tour with the clone children.
“See you soon,” Stella said, then blew Zori a kiss as she returned to her work.
“This room is where the usable parts are cleaned and polished. You may be asked to take care of some of the smaller parts in here,” Zori droned as they passed through the second room on her well-rehearsed tour. The conveyor belt from Sort continued into Clean/Polish, where workers dunked the scrap into buckets of alcohol and did their best to wipe off the residual oil and dirt, then rubbed them down with a fresh coat of oil. This was Zori’s least-favorite room. She held her breath and tried not to retch from the mixed smell of alcohol and oil.
“Ander is the Head of Clean/Polish. He’ll let you know if he ever needs help. Hi, Ander,” Zori gave the burly, strawberry-blond man a wave.
“What’s up Zori,” Ander waved back before returning to work, and Zori rushed the clones to the hallway.
She stopped in her tracks as they passed through the doorway.
The ever-present rumble of the conveyor belt and the accompanying cacophony of pieces clanging together was familiar enough to her. The noise she’d heard coming from the walls as they passed sent a chill down her spine. It sounded like sharp claws against metal. She braced herself against the doorway as her stomach churned and the smell of the Clean/Polish room mixed with an impending sense of dread caused a wave of dizziness.
“You okay, Zori?” Ander asked, cautiously.
“Yes. Fine. Thanks,” Zori pulled away from the wall and gave Ander a not-so-reassuring wave and half-smile as she continued into the corridor, “Let’s go, kids.”
The service elevator down to Smelt was enormous–it had to be large enough to drive a thermolift into. There were large doors on either side to accommodate easy entrance and exit for the lifts. Zori was relieved that the elevator had been unoccupied when they’d boarded. She leaned against the smooth, cool metal wall as they began their descent. Her restless sleep the night before was catching up to her, and she was glad the tour would soon be over. Maybe she could catch a nap before lunch. She hoped she’d see Stella in the cafeteria. The thought of Stella’s smile made Zori’s heart flutter.
Something heavy thudded against the roof of the elevator.
Zori gasped. She and the clones looked up in eerie unison. The thing was moving on top of the elevator. It sounded like it was walking on four legs…
Hellhounds are an original creation by The Factory’s Genetics department in partnership with Security, Zori recalled Professor Wan’s recent lecture, They are designed to stalk their prey until they can determine their best opportunity for capture. They are genetically engineered to hunt their target. They will not stop until they have killed their victim. They are physically and psychologically unable to stop. Their thick skins and dense muscles make them extraordinarily hard to kill. If you do manage to kill a hellhound, the penalty is an automatic death sentence. Either way, you’re dead.
Zori heard a low, rumbling growl. She and the children collectively retreated into the corner of the elevator farthest from the exit door. Clones may have a higher tolerance for fear, but they still had a healthy sense of self-preservation.
You’ll likely hear a hound before you see it. Their unique and terrifying bark serves as a warning for anyone who might try to come between them and their target. They will not attack a bystander unless provoked.
The thing on the roof began emitting a noise that seemed to be a cross between a snarl and a percussive roar. The children whimpered, and Zori stifled a scream. She had to come up with a plan, and she only had half a floor to do it.
Hellhounds are fast, but they are built more for endurance rather than speed. They are expert trackers and they will not rest until they have finished their duty. If you encounter one, or if The Factory finds your actions worthy of setting a hellhound on you, remember this: they can be outrun, but do not attempt to hide. They will find you.
The cheerful ding of the elevator as they arrived at Smelt contrasted sharply with the angry barking of the hound. Zori stumbled forward and slammed the Emergency Stop button before the door could open. She remembered the gap between the top of the elevator and the doorframe. The Factory had been promising to fix that gap for months, but she knew it was still there from her last tour. As soon as the doors opened, the hellhound would attack. If she moved fast enough, she might be able to escape. She didn’t know where she could go yet, but she’d have to figure that out as she went.
“YOU HAVE ENGAGED THE ELEVATOR EMERGENCY SYSTEM. PLEASE DETERMINE THE CAUSE OF YOUR EMERGENCY AND SOLVE IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. YOU ARE HOLDING UP PRODUCTION. THE FACTORY THANKS YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION,” Zori jumped as the elevator alarm started to blare, along with the computerized voice warning of the most heinous of crimes–holding up production. At the same time, the hound started to scratch at the hatch in the elevator ceiling. It was latched at the moment, but as the hatch began to shake she knew it wouldn’t take long for the beast to pry it open. She had to think fast.
“Can you find your way back to The Lab?” She shouted at the children. Their bald heads bobbed as one, “Okay, good! Stay against this back wall. Try not to move. Do not leave the elevator until you get back to the top floor. Push this button here once I’m out.”
“Yes, ma’am!” The children chimed simultaneously, and she turned away from them.
“Okay. Okay, okay. I can do this. And if I can’t, it’ll all be over soon,” Zori bounced on the balls of her feet, steeling herself against the blast of hot air she knew awaited her on the other side of the doors–not to mention the mad, desperate dash she faced if she had any hope of escape. The klaxon alarm that blared and bounced against the walls made it difficult to think, and the hatch wouldn’t last much longer against the demon dog’s steel-hard claws. The children would be at risk if it managed to break into the elevator. Despite their clone status, Zori didn’t want them to be ripped to shreds on her account. For a brief moment, she’d considered using them as a shield to buy her time to get as far away as possible, but she rejected the idea just as quickly as it came. Using the clones as a distraction would make her no better than the monsters who ran The Factory.
With one last burst of resolve, Zori pushed the emergency button again. There was a brief respite of silence as she scrambled through the opening doors and sprinted into the stifling heat of Smelt. She barely had time to register her surroundings–the conveyor belts, the furnaces, the precarious planks, and the glowing vats of molten liquid metal below–before she heard the hellhound burst out of the space between the elevator and the doorway. She had a tiny head start, but she had to move fast if she wanted to take advantage of it.
“Move! Out of the way, hellhound coming through!” Zori screamed at the few leather-clad workers. Fortunately, they'd already been alerted by the commotion from the elevator and were cowering by the furnaces away from the planks that led to the next room. Zori tried to think of a way to push the hound into one of the vats, but it was too risky. The creature was made of pure muscle–if she tried to fight it, she would be more likely to go over the edge of the meager railing. Her only chance was to outrun it. She glanced behind and saw the hideous monstrosity. It had a wide, square head, glowing red eyes, and mottled, black-and-pink skin covering its hulking, furless body. She realized the size of the hound was working in her favor for the moment–it was having difficulty navigating its muscular bulk through the narrow railing. Zori picked up her pace as she ducked through the passageway to the next room.
Zori didn’t stop as she lurched into Forge, glancing wildly around the space. She took the thick, concrete stairs in twos and threes, and her knees nearly buckled as she hit the floor.
“Zori, what in the–” Banner, the Head Blacksmith, cut his sentence short when he saw the hellhound in the doorway. It reared back and sprang from the top of the stairs to land on the cement ground.
“No time to explain, please don’t get in the way,” Zori screamed as she ran past the roaring forges that gave the room its name.
“Sorry, Zor, I can’t do that,” Banner lifted the giant steel tongs he’d been working with, the tips still glowing from the fires. He swung them at the hound as it ran by, hitting it square in its thick face. Zori was already halfway across the room when she saw the beast shake its head and turn on Banner.
“NO!” she screamed as she watched the dog launch itself at Banner’s huge frame. Despite his size, the beast’s sheer mass took Banner down in an instant. Banner shielded himself with a thick-gloved arm, but Zori saw a spurt of blood as the creature’s insanely strong jaws clamped down on the protective leather sleeve. She grabbed a long iron pipe from a nearby cooling rack and rushed to the hound.
“Zori, get out of here!” Banner yelled as he struggled with the beast.
“Get off of him!” Zori slammed the pipe down on the dog’s back, “I’m the one you want! I’m right here!”
The hellhound let go of Banner's bloody arm and growled at Zori. She smacked it across the face with the pipe, and it roared at her with anger.
“C’mon, come and get me!” She screamed. It lept at her, knocking her onto her back. She changed her grip on the pipe as she fell so that when the hound bit down, its jaw locked around solid iron. Behind the beast, Zori saw Banner clamber to his feet and grab the tongs he’d lost in the scuffle. The other blacksmiths (who’d seen the creature attacking their boss and friend) surrounded them and began to hit the beast repeatedly. Zori shimmied out from under the dog and ran between the smiths toward the exit at the far end of the room. She glanced back as the hound pushed out of the circle of smiths to chase after her. It was moving marginally slower from its injuries, but it would still catch up to her if she didn’t hurry.
Zori heard the uneven clatter of the hellhound’s footsteps as she raced down the corridor toward her goal. Her plan was far from perfect, but it was the only one she had left. At this point, she just wanted to get the animal out of The Factory without injuring any more of her friends.
Taking more than her fair share of rations was crime enough, but what Professor Wan didn’t know was that Zori had been pocketing pieces of scrap and selling them to an anonymous party for months. All of her paltry wages from taking care of the clone children went straight towards her parents’ debt, which would likely take her more than her lifetime to pay off. However, she’d been hoping to earn enough money through her extracurricular activities to buy a ticket off this dead planet (and maybe even one for Stella if she was clever about it). She’d met her contact in Disposal–the only room she knew of with a door that led to the outside world. He’d been waiting outside the window once when she was sifting through the trash and formulating a plan to free herself from the confines of The Factory. The door was normally locked tight, but she’d figured out a way to pry the door open for the exchange. He wore a gas mask to protect himself from the toxic air, so she’d never fully seen his face.
Zori yanked the door to Disposal open, the hound close on her heels. She tried to slam the door shut before the thing could get through, but it wedged its broad body between the door and the frame. She picked her way through piles of garbage to the back exit. She saw the empty, deserted landscape through the dingy window, the unbreathable air swirling with pollution and fumes.
She looked back, wishing she could say goodbye to Stella, to Professor Wan, to Banner. She was sure they would hear what happened to her soon enough–word traveled quickly through The Factory. She heard the hellhound’s limping footsteps as it made its way to her between the piles of rubbish, slow but steady. It was hurt, but Zori knew it wouldn’t stop until she was dead. She took a deep breath and tried to pry the door open…but it was stuck fast. There was a brand new lock on the door. Someone must have figured out how she’d been making the exchanges. She looked out the double-paned window with a sinking feeling of defeat. She could hear her death getting closer in the form of four genetically-mutated paws.
Zori looked down and discovered she was holding the iron pipe–she hadn’t even realized it was still in her hand. With what was left of her strength, she swung it once, twice, three times against the glass until the panes of the window shattered. The hound realized what she was doing and picked up its pace. Zori took one more gasp of air before she stepped outside.
She had never known the kind of quiet she experienced when she set foot on the earth for the first time in her life. Her skin tingled and her eyes began to burn as the smog enveloped her body. She wondered how long she could last as she walked away from the relative safety of The Factory. She wouldn’t be able to hold her breath for much longer. She dropped her pipe and pulled her shirt up over her mouth. It wasn’t much, but it might serve as a temporary filter until she figured out what she was doing–which was probably just dying. She couldn’t stay out here, she couldn’t go back inside, and the hellhound would likely be joining her very shortly.
Zori wondered if she was hallucinating as she squinted out at the swirling, miasmic haze. She thought she saw a ship breaking through the clouds and coming towards her. It was fairly small–a standard-issue hovercar, from what she could determine. She thought hovercars had been discontinued decades ago, but this one seemed to be jerry-rigged together with discarded pieces and parts. She smiled sadly and wished she could interview whoever had cobbled the car together. What a beautiful testament to human ingenuity. Too bad she was dying, she thought as her head began to spin.
As if on cue, she heard the hound break through the window behind her, smashing what remained of the glass. The hovercar opened, and three masked figures rushed out, holding vintage-style machine guns. Zori realized the guns were pointing directly at her, and she dropped to the ground, waiting for either bullets or teeth to tear into her and end her sorry existence.
A round of gunfire exploded around her, and Zori squeezed her hands over her ears. It’s amazing, she thought dazedly, I don’t feel a thing. Who knew death would be so easy?
The gunfire stopped, and all she could hear was a high-pitched ringing. Cautiously, she lifted her head and saw one of the masked figures standing over her, offering a hand to her.
“Zori? Are you Zori Rhys? Here, put this on,” the figure knelt down and handed Zori a mask. When she continued to stare at him in bewilderment, he put the mask over her face for her. A stream of clean, fresh oxygen filled her mouth, and she gulped it into her aching lungs.
“Who…” she coughed when she tried to speak, and she felt hands helping her to her feet. She hadn’t even noticed the other two masked figures moving to either side of her.
“What’s wrong with her? I thought she was supposed to be some sort of genius?” A female voice on her left sneered.
“She’s in shock. Probably breathed in too much of this toxic junk,” a male voice on her right said.
“Zori, Professor Wan told us about you. We’re here to get you out of this place, but we have to move fast,” the figure who’d put the mask on her explained.
“Who are you?” Zori finally managed to say.
“We’re with The Resistance. We’re going to bring down The Factory and every other hellhole like it. We need the help of people like you, though. Would you like to join us?” the first masked figure asked
“Yes,” Zori nodded weakly, although she wondered what choice she had. She glanced back towards The Factory as the figures led her to their hovercar. The hellhound was a pile of bloody flesh by the broken window. She almost felt sorry for it until she remembered Banner's ruined arm.
“What…what about Wan, and Stella, and Banner…” Zori asked as the figures loaded her into the hovercar.
“We’re going to get them out as soon as we can. For now, we have to go. We’ll come back for your friends,” the male figure explained.
The doors slammed shut, and the pilot–a fourth masked form who’d stayed with the car–steered around, away from The Factory, and sped off into the thick vapor. Zori watched from the back window as the colossal building disappeared into the mist.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content