As Riley stepped through the front doors her body felt as if it had been smothered in a thick woolen blanket. It was a stark contrast from the frigid air-conditioned environment in which she had just spent the last eight hours. Nearly every day she went from having to bundle up at her desk to keep warm, to then going outside where a moment of respite from the chilly air was replaced by an overwhelming urge to strip down to nothing before her sweat laminated her clothing to her skin.
Not only that, but her company’s parking lot offered very little in terms of shade. This meant that by the end of the day, her car was usually a sweltering inferno waiting to bake her during the drive home. Her car’s air conditioning worked of course, but by the time it actually started to pump out cool air, she was already pulling into her usual parking stall near the back entrance of her apartment building.. She almost never waited for the car to cool down completely before driving. After busy days like today, Riley just didn’t want to linger at the office any longer than she needed to. When she arrived home and took the key out of the ignition, her shirt had a sweat-darkened imprint in the shape of where her shoulders had been resting against the seat.
Drained from the long work day and feeling more or less like a boiled egg, the moment the front door of her apartment closed behind her, Riley stripped off her work shirt, slacks, socks - all but her underwear - tossing them to a heap on the floor, then collapsed face first into the couch for a little nap. Within seconds of her face touching the seat cushion, Riley was out cold. Oddly enough, shortly after closing her eyes - what seemed like only seconds- Riley felt her mind becoming alert again. Her little nap, having lasted at most a couple of minutes, was over.
Without opening her eyes, Riley sat up, grasping her hands together and stretched them as high as they would go to the ceiling while letting out a huge yawn. When she did finally open her eyes, she let out a startled gasp. She had no idea where she was. There had been nights in the past, especially after she’d moved into her apartment, where she would wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where she was, but after a few moments of confusion would eventually recall what room she was in and how she’d gotten there. This, however, was different. From the stray beams of sunlight that slipped through the cracks of the shades into the dim room, nothing around her looked familiar; she was in someone else’s house!
Stranger yet, it also felt like Riley wasn’t even in full control of her body. Her first reaction was to jump up, to look around the room and to check outside the door to see if she could make an exit without anyone seeing her. But she couldn’t move, at least not in the ways that she was wanting. It was as if she were behind the wheel of her own body, but someone else was somehow driving and Riley was just along for the ride.
Eventually she did stand up, though not quite as frantically as she was trying to will her legs to do. She walked casually, or maybe groggily, over to the window. Her hand lifted up and hovered flat in front of a silver crystal panel on the wall. Blue lights sparkled in the shape of her fingers on the panel. It was weird. In the dimly lit room, Riley could have sworn that her fingers looked a little wider than normal and that her fingernails were longer and narrower, almost resembling claws. Simultaneously as the blue lights sparkled, the thin white metal strips that shaded the window started to raise up like a garage door. As they rose, sunlight slowly burst into the room filling every corner.
Riley looked out the window hoping to get at least an idea of where she might be, but what she saw wasn’t any help at all. The view out the window appeared to be some sort of suburban sprawl, though the houses weren’t as tightly packed as they had been in the neighborhood where she’d grown up. She also didn’t recognize the architecture of the houses either. In some ways they resembled Native American adobes except that all of the corners were rounded out and instead of being earth-toned, the houses were all painted the same pale white. Even the wildlife gave little clue to her location. Riley didn’t know much about plants but some of them reminded her of the cacti, succulents and drought-resistant plants she remembered seeing on a trip through Arizona.
It was then that Riley got a look at the sun and had to stop and think for a moment. Perhaps she had never really looked at the sun before, or at the very least had never considered how big it appeared in the sky. But somehow at that moment it seemed larger, not by huge margins but certainly larger in the sky than she had ever remembered seeing it.
Suddenly, from beneath her feet, Riley could feel a slowly growing tremor, one that grew in intensity until there was a steady rumbling noise through out the house. Objects all over the room started to rattle against the walls. Books, papers and other objects were thrown off of the shelves of a recessed wall. The window shook so furiously that the glass shattered down onto the ground.
Riley was terrified. She had never been around during an earthquake before and didn’t know what to do. Her body, however, leapt immediately for the doorway to get out of the room. The rumbling had grown so fierce though, that it was difficult to stay on her feet. During one particularly strong tremor, Riley was thrown off balance and her head slammed down hard into the wall next to the door. The pain was excruciating and she could feel blood starting to creep down her forehead.
She sank down to her knees, wobbling from side to side. Riley was slowly losing consciousness, however before dropping completely to the ground she caught a quick glance at her reflection in the wall mounted mirror. The face that looked back at her was not her own. Its’ skin was gray and roughly textured like a shark’s and instead of a nose, there was a flat patch of skin with two slits for nostrils. Finally there were two little black beady eyes staring back at her, one on each side of its’ face, like a lizard. Then she was gone.
Moments later, Riley jolted awake. The living room was near pitch black except for a few stray glints of light that stole through her window from the floodlights that lit up the parking lot outside. Riley wasn’t sure how long she had been asleep, but it had been a little longer than she had meant to be. She rolled off of the couch onto the carpet and crawled her way over to the pile of clothes she had left on the floor to look for her pants. Digging her hand into her pocket, she pulled out her phone and tapped the screen. 9:45. Riley sighed. It was almost ten o’clock, which was usually when she started getting ready for bed. She’d managed to sleep through her entire evening.
Riley stood up, stretching her arms to the ceiling while yawning, then walked into the kitchen to make a quick dinner before going to bed. Despite her three hour-long nap, Riley still felt exhausted, and her head was starting to pang with the beginnings of a headache. Oddly enough, her head was throbbing the worst on the front part of her scalp, the place where she had slammed into the wall in the dream. It was crazy how real the dream had seemed to her.
“Lizard face” she thought, and chuckled. She grimaced and put her hand to her head. Laughing had caused her head to throb more.
Am I dehydrated? she wondered. Did I lay on my head at a weird angle or something?
After prepping a quick PB&J sandwich and a glass of almond milk, Riley carried her plate and glass into the bathroom and set them down on the counter. She reached into the cabinet and took out a bottle of Tylenol PM, tapping two clear blue tablets out onto her plate. After returning the bottle to the cabinet, she took up her plate and glass and walked back to the living room to eat on the couch. Riley flipped on the TV and watched a couple minutes of a home makeover show as she munched down the sandwich. When she finished her meal, she popped both pills into her mouth and used the remainder of the milk to swallow them down in one gulp.
Too tired to walk her dishes to the kitchen and eager to go back to sleep, she left the plate and glass on the coffee table for the morning and turned off the TV. She was starting to feel drowsy again. Riley went into the bathroom to brush her teeth, then turned off the lights and jumped into bed. Within minutes of her head hitting the pillow Riley was fast asleep.
But not for long. All of a sudden her sleep was interrupted by a tremor that shook the ground beneath her and a rumbling that sounded like a train passing by right outside her window. Her eyes whipped open only to find that she wasn’t in her room, her bed, or even her apartment anymore. She was back in the dream from earlier, only this time she was running along the street with a large bag slung over her shoulder and it was hot. The air around her smothered like an oppressive sauna and was rich with the acrid aroma of smoke and sulfur. Each breath she took burned her lungs, making her hack and cough. Tears were forming in her eyes and she didn’t need a mirror to know that they were red and swollen.
Up above her, the skies were angry with shuffling dark gray and yellow clouds and intermittent lightning strikes off in the distance. It wasn’t clear how she knew this, but somehow Riley understood that these weren’t regular rain clouds, but instead noxious blankets of smoke filled with carbon and sulphur dioxides. She also knew that these gases had been building up slowly ever since the mega eruption a month ago, choking off the once clear blue skies and initiating a runaway greenhouse effect. Temperatures soared, baking the inhabitants and killing off the flora and fauna. Soon, following a series of smaller volcanic eruptions all over the planet, there was nothing to be seen up above except for a dense sheet of yellowish gray. Even the sun had difficulty penetrating through the dark clouds, only managing a faint glimmer in the sky, a mirage.
There were others with her, all of them frantically running through the streets, trying to make it to the transport before it left the ground. The transport would never be able to carry all of the people racing towards it, not even a fraction of them, but they ran to it anyways, their last ditch hope to escape the planet. She could already see it from where she stood, though it was hazy off in the distance through the thick layers of smoke all around her. Hundreds of lizard faced people gathered around the outside gates that surrounded the launch site.
Riley was starting to think that whoever or whatever the creature was whose body she inhabited must be able to lend its’ knowledge to her somehow. She knew that the transport had not been intended to act as an emergency conveyance at all, but had originally been constructed to carry a select crew off into space to visit a nearby planet that had reached a level of habitability suited to their needs. It was this crew’s mission, if possible, to terraform the planet and one day, perhaps in the near future, make it suitable for colonization. This mission was intensified by the growing instability of their own planet.
Seismologists had been detecting growing pressure beneath the tectonic plates for years. Earthquakes of increasing magnitudes were sprouting up all over the planet devastating populated areas and destroying homes and buildings. They even had reason to believe that this recent seismic activity was a trend, one that was building up to something terrible, but could never have predicted the exact proportions of destruction that were to follow.
The explosion from the mega eruption had been so powerful that it had actually knocked the planet out of its’ tilt, altering its’ normal rotation. Tremors from the blast could be felt on the opposite side of the world. Whether from the initial explosion or the aftershocks that followed, anything within hundreds of miles of the blast radius was immediately decimated. Entire countries were wiped off of the surface of the planet, replaced by a massive pockmark that would soon to be an ocean of lava. And instead of relieving the massive pressure beneath the crust, it let loose the flood gates triggering a whole series of volcanic activity across the globe. It soon became clear that the colonization of the nearby planet would not be the salvation for those that still lived on their planet now, but was perhaps the last hope of continuing their species on another world.
Out of breath, Riley finally reached the swarms of people surrounding the launch area. She had to force her way through the crowds, often shoving people down or out of the way to get to the main gate. Guards, outnumbered ten to one, were on station manning the security gates to prevent people from over-rushing the launch pad and keeping the transport from leaving. The only people allowed through the main gate were those that were able to provide credentials proving their involvement in the terraforming team.
Riley pushed her way past the final row of people surrounding gate and dug into her pocket, pulling out a small laminated pass and presenting it to the guard. He studied it carefully, comparing the image on the card to her face, then allowed her to pass. As she did so, people shouted angrily from behind her demanding to be let through themselves. Someone must have tried to muscle their way past the guard because the next thing she heard beside the rapid discharge of a firearm was the sound of a body collapsing to the ground along with the discordant screams of terrified people.
Once through the gate, a guard guided her by the arm along a platform and seated her in the bed of a rover along with five other people. When all six passengers were secured the rover took off towards the launch site. Riley looked back at the mass of lizard faced people gathered along the gates and felt a crippling wave of guilt knowing that everyone of them would soon be dead while she and the members of her team would escape and start a brand new life on a new planet. The funny thing was that the science team wasn’t even entirely sure that the planet could be colonized; they could very well be on a one way trip towards a doom all their own.
The rover came to an abrupt stop beneath the transport and all six passengers stepped out onto the metal scaffolding. One crew member held his thick, lizard claw up to a crystal panel and a cargo door rotated down from the bottom of the transport to allow them entry. They each rushed into the vessel to take their positions. Riley sat down at a computer station just outside the cockpit area of the craft. Her claws started tapping furiously at buttons on the control panel bringing her computer screen to life as it displayed various data, all in a language completely foreign to Riley.
When her claw pushed another button, the data was replaced by an image that took Riley’s breath away. It was a color display of a terrestrial planet, one primarily filled with blue oceans that were broken up by several large green land masses, above which swirled white puffs of clouds. Beside this planet rotated a single moon roughly a fourth the size of the planet itself. Earth. The planet that these creatures intended to colonize was Earth. What Riley didn’t understand, or at least not yet, was what planet these creatures originated from.
The pilot shouted something to the crew, something Riley couldn’t understand but knew meant to prepare for liftoff. There was rumbling beneath the craft, a rumbling Riley really hoped was the engine preparing to liftoff and not the beginning of another earthquake. Suddenly the craft was propelling upwards. Riley was forced backwards into her seat and could really feel the g-force acting upon her, preventing her from even lifting her head. It almost made her feel sick.
Looking out the window, she could see the vessel piercing through the sky entering into the vacuum of space. Before they had successfully cleared the planet, however, Riley heard a distant explosion from the surface. Another mega eruption had spouted up close to their launch site and the shockwave was rushing quickly towards them. The impact was immediate and devastating. It slammed the craft, launching it spinning away from the planet. Riley’s head smashed into her computer screen, cracking it. Her crew-mates were all shouting. Out the window she caught a quick glimpse of the glowing yellow planet before passing out. When Riley woke that morning, she wondered if they had made it.