The mine is dark.
It wasn’t before, but the scouts raised the alarm about what’s coming. They extinguish the lights and hold their breaths while they hide in the shadows and hope that it won’t see them, that it will travel on along the remnants of roads through their ruined world.
Today, it passes on, wagon travelling through the dust towards the fields to the east. They breathe out and relight the torches and set back to work, trying to extract the iron ore they’ll need to try and retake their world for their own. The miner wipes her face with the back of a hand, feeling cold sweat mix with the soot on her skin. She grabs her pick-axe and creeps out of the narrow tunnel they had used as a hiding place, clutching the handle tight to stop her hands from shaking.
She swings the axe and the chorus of miners following her lead is suddenly deafening. She keeps an eye on the passage to the surface, looking for scouts that would alert them to any danger attracted by the noise, but none appear and the miners set to work.
When the scouts eventually signal, it’s not to warn them of its approach, but to alert them to the sun travelling down towards the horizon. It has been a long time since clocks were any use - the light is what dictates their movements these days, as nobody dares step outside after sundown. The sun is already low in the sky, and the miners quickly gather up the day’s labour and set out towards the city that used to be their home. She breathes in deeply, smelling fire somewhere on the horizon. That’s okay, though. There’s always some place or other that’s burning these days. They must be other survivors, at least; it doesn’t seem to use fire to attack.
One of the other miners touches her hand; a child, really, can’t be older than thirteen or fourteen. He won’t remember what this world was like before it came; all he knows is ashes, and she’s not sure if remembering better times is better than not having anything to miss. She looks down and the child asks, “Do you really think we can win?”
No. Not if they come back. They fought with all they had, before the world fell, and it still wasn’t enough. The surviving rabble won’t stand a chance.
“Yes, of course. This is our home, it’ll feel like ours again eventually. We just have to keep working to fix things.”
No point scaring the child. The beasts do enough of a job of that; screams, and something leaps out from the edges of the forest. There’s a frantic blur of teeth and claws catching on pickaxes raised in panic. They’re lucky this time; the creature retreats, leaving behind a trail of torn trees and blood.
The remains of their home come into view some time later, still-standing buildings boarded up and covered with whatever scrap they could find. They have more than some; the well works, there’s some weapons, they still have enough space for a safe place to sleep even if refugees keep pouring in.
It tore through the remnants of another city, recently. She hopes the stories are exaggerated, that it’s panic and nightmares and hearsay, but she sees the results of what it does all around her. Every day there’s people running from it, prayers for loved ones who stayed behind to try and fight. Brave, but suicidal. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen a happy reunion; the faces of the younger refugees especially lose hope over time as they come to terms with what must’ve been a foregone conclusion.
They arrive in town, carting the iron ore to the makeshift smelter, and the miner leaves the metalworkers to it. She says goodbye to the child and goes to what passes for a home; there’s things to prepare for tonight.
The miner’s surrounded by voices, shouting and arguing over what course their little town should take. She cringes at the crackling coming from the radio - they’ve only just re-established communication with the remnants of the cities around them, but the audio quality isn’t anything to write home about. Just through the static, she hears a voice:
“- but we can’t be complacent, it’s looking for something and who knows when the others may be back?”
The crowd hushes. The older ones remember what happened last time.
A voice pipes up from the crowd. “Why don’t we surrender? It’s just putting people to work, and we’d be safer than here!”
A ruckus breaks out.
“So you’d let those things rule over us?”
“- die if we don’t -”
“Enough!”, the miner hears herself shout. To her surprise, they quiet down.
“We can’t trust it to leave any of us alive even if we do surrender.” Murmurs of agreement; this, at least, seems self-evident, they’ve all seen what it leaves in its wake. She continues, “So the decision we have to make is this. Do we try and cluster together to stand a better chance in case it attacks, or do we stay spread out to minimise risk?”
The voices over the radio crackle; there’s overlapping variations on “we will vote on this”. Their own chosen mayor says the same; they will make this decision as a town.
They hear arguments for and against travelling to one town and settling with the largest possible population. It’ll be easier to defend themselves in case of an attack. All their resources will be in one place. Together, they might even have enough firearms for a functioning militia. But: They’ll be a big target. Their stockpiles of food and weapons will be impossible for it to resist. Travelling anywhere would be dangerous; impossible to guard everyone. No place is perfect in terms of defensive position.
She looks towards the ceiling of the burnt-out hangar they use for meetings, and considers.
Safety in numbers will be an illusion; it could wipe out all of them in one attack, if it wished. Better to lower the risk by creating many possible targets; this way, it will not get them all, no matter the circumstance. There’s no way to keep every individual person safe, but they need to give humanity the best chance it’s got. That’s got to be more important.
They decide to remain scattered, and to work on their radio equipment. As far as they can tell, it does not track the signal; maybe it doesn’t even speak their language. She doesn’t think anyone’s tried talking to it, and has no intention of volunteering.
Decisions made, the miner leaves the hangar and walks through town towards the place where she sleeps. (Calling it “home” feels like a lie. She remembers home, long ago though it may be ; it was safe and peaceful and filled with family. This is just some place where there’s a bunk bed available for her. Every night she lies awake, listening to the growls and screeches of the beasts that prowl the perimeter of their settlement. She’s reaching for weapons whenever she hears the tear of metal that means something’s attacking the fence; it’s a matter of time before some monster gets through.)
There’ll be more work to do tomorrow, there’s always work if they want to have any chance at surviving, so she goes to bed early. She hears the scratch of claws along the fencing, but the barriers seem to hold up. Hearing the patrol guards talk outside settles her nerves enough for her to be able to sleep.
It’s a good day. They discover a new vein of iron ore, and it’s all hands on deck to try and collect as much as they can. They need all the iron they can get, so there’s a loud chorus of pickaxes and excited chatter between the miners. They’re all looking forward to getting back to town with the news and the haul; more resources means more weapons, more safety, more tools they can use to try and rebuild something of what they lost.
In all the excitement, they’re too slow to hear the alarm.
She doesn’t realize anything’s wrong until the screaming starts. There’s a clang of metal and a loud bang - could be their own explosives, or, please no, it’s started to use firearms - and people run past her, covered in soot, some bleeding. There’s a roaring noise, and a silhouette starts to creep around the corner from the distance. The miner catches a glimpse of too many arms holding gleaming metal and runs.
There’s another way out but they’ll never reach it in time; everyone’s scrambling through the tunnels, tripping over themselves and each other. It doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, but it’ll catch up to them well before they get to the surface. She looks around, looking for anything at all to help - another way out, better weapons - but there’s nothing but hard rock and pickaxes. She’s considering ways to try and kill it with a pickaxe when she spots the wires covering this part of the tunnel. It's the charges they were planning to use to collapse this tunnel after the iron vein was depleted, but maybe they'll be good for something else.
There's no timer on the explosives - they have to be set off with the attached switch, and either way, it'd be too risky. It may not be a person, but it's not stupid, they came here in their ships to raze their world to the ground and take what's theirs. Suddenly, she's furious, and she grabs onto the anger so that it drowns out the panic. She screams at the rest of the miners to keep running and has a look at the charges.
She won't be able to move them in time, and trying to stand behind the intended cave-in will just see her covered in rocks and rubble once the charge is set off. There's not enough space, and she scrambles for a way to block its route to the rest of the miners. She hears a noise, like metal dragging over rock getting closer and closer, and makes her decision.
The explosion knocks her back into the tunnel. She lands on her back, facing where the blast went off, and hears crashing rocks ahead of her. It's pitch black, so she scrapes a flare across the floor; a spark and a hissing sound, and the tunnel is covered by a flickering light. The path ahead is completely blocked, smoking rubble preventing anything from passing through, and she sighs in relief. The scraping noise, which she hadn’t paid attention to for a moment, stops, and she looks behind her into the gloom.
In the dim red light, all she sees at first is the reflection of a sword - two swords - held in two of its arms. Others hold weapons she doesn’t recognise, she guesses they’re what those things brought with them when they arrived. It looks down at her, the flickering of the flare reflected in its vaguely reptilian eyes. There’s nowhere she can go - with the tunnel caved in, the only exit is in front of her - and oddly, this seems to stifle the last of her panic. She grips her pick-axe in one hand and the flare in the other and looks at the creature.
“Go away,” she says, voice only shaking the slightest bit. “None of this is yours.”
It stares back at her, and then something shifts in its inhuman face - a mouth opens up and she sees sharp teeth, and she has no idea if this is a threat or a smile.
She can’t win this fight, but maybe she’ll be able to slow it down, keep it from digging or chasing her fleeing people. Even a few extra minutes will be worth it. She doesn’t know why it’s not attacking her yet, but she’s not about to give it time - with a defiant scream, she swings the pickaxe in the direction of its neck.
There’s a clanging noise, and it catches the pickaxe on a sword. The last thing she hears is the strange alien weapon making a high-pitched whining noise, before there’s a flash of light and the smell of fire, and everything goes dark.