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Dragon's Back

by Ruthie 4 months ago in fantasy · updated 3 months ago
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home away from home

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Sound needs air to move in waves through the particles and molecules and dust floating in the air. Theia followed a few bits of dust floating through the beam of her headlamp, and then reached up to turn it off for a minute. She tried to breathe deeply in the cramped space, counting in and out, the way the old Skipper had taught her. Sound didn’t travel well underground, either, through the solid rock of the walls that pressed against her. It had always been quiet, though, and she had never felt anxious or trapped before. More often she felt.. held, by the cool, smooth rocks of the cave, with its familiar handholds and curves.

She didn’t have any real memories of being on Earth, of living above ground. She had been young when she’d come, on one of the last barges, to Mare Tranquillitatis, the underground colony that was established on the Moon. Mare was her home. The caves were her home. It wasn’t that they couldn’t go up top, as they called it - they could, but there wasn’t much to see. The shield only covered a few square kilometers, and the material that protected them from the weeks of 260 degree days and the -280 degree nights was mostly opaque. The light during the two- week long “days” was diffuse, but intense. It wasn’t hot, but it felt hot. It was just too bright. She went up top every now and then, mostly during the night to see the soft, fuzzy glow of the stars, and occasionally to greet the Skipper when he landed. But really, she was more comfortable underground.

Everything underground was comfortable. They had history books so Theia knew what Neanderthals were, knew what early cave men had lived like. Mare wasn’t like that. It had been designed and outfitted well before the Rupture, and the main portion of the colony was clean and cool and distinctly modern, with smooth adobe-like walls. The occasional stalactite was allowed to drop from the ceiling, for its aesthetic effect. Except for the Rising Star chamber - it had been designed completely around the dozens of one to two meter stalactites that hung from the top of the chamber, each one covered in tiny, white, glistening crystals that had taken millions of years to form. The lights along the wall were hidden, throwing their light up onto the ceiling which reflected it back down in shining rays.

It was a beautiful room, but Theia had always gravitated towards the outer reaches of the colony, where the smooth wall ran out and instead she was faced with cracks and crevices and tubes that led to unknown, and dark, places. She had been the youngest Lamplighter, at 10, carrying around a pack of torches and batteries that weighed almost as much as she did. Now she was the youngest of the Burrow crew. She cursed under her breath, wishing she hadn’t sent Rena, her Lamplighter this year, back ahead of her. She wanted a CO2 measurement, just to reassure herself that the tightness in her throat was just anxiety and not the result of a dwindling air supply. This was a new tube. It wasn’t far from an older and more stable chamber, but Theia still felt a small twinge of fear. The collapse last year of Tube Twelve was still fresh in her mind, and sometimes at night she thought she heard the faint echoes of voices. The voices of the Burrowers who had been in Twelve. Who were still there.

She cleared her throat and turned her headlamp back on, giving in to the need to see the small space around her, and picked up the rest of her tools and the samples. They’d be expecting her back soon for dinner, and the routine of packing her small bag and cinching it down on the front of her body calmed her. Once it was nestled in the natural concave space on the front of her body, between her hips and breasts, she turned around and began climbing back down the tube. Soon she’d be back at Base One, where she’d check in and punch out for the day. She liked her job, as most people at Mare did. They felt lucky to be there, rather than back on Earth. She’d overheard, when she was much too young, a Skipper once describe Earth as “torched.” She knew there were still some functioning colonies, some semblance of a global government, because they exchanged supplies for samples and the occasional large shipment of calcium carbonate. It used to be sulphur, but now they said that that was what had caused the Rupture in the atmosphere in the first place, and that calcium carbonate would be better for the ozone. Theia didn’t know a lot about the sun-dimming operations on Earth, but she heard the rumors. It didn’t sound like it was going well.

An hour later, she saw the light of Base One on the other side of the drop, and heard the soft murmur of voices - real voices - waiting for her. She climbed into the harness she’d left at the top of Dragon’s Back that morning, and began making her way down the underground ridge. A few years ago they’d changed the route, and now they climbed straight down the middle of the thin formation. She had to rest briefly about halfway down, her arms wrapping around Dragon’s Back, the pack now on her back. Instead of climbing in between the ridge and the wall of the cave, now she was straddling it, with nothing but empty air on either side of her. It was even more unsettling than the tube. What was wrong with her today, she thought to herself. She had been climbing in the caves since she was five years old. She could do this without the ropes, in fact when she was a Lamplighter they used to sneak past the check point and do it at night, for practice. The quiet just felt different now... it didn't seem as quiet as it used to be. That was impossible, she knew, but she couldn’t shake the feeling.

She clipped out of the top line and into the lower one, and quickly finished the last 30 meters of the drop. At the bottom, Rena hopped up from her seat against the wall to help her with her harness. She didn’t mention the wait, just glanced up at Theia’s face quickly with her eyebrows raised as she unclipped the rope. Theia looked away with a slight shake of her head, and Rena continued the conversation she’d been having before without pause. This was why Theia had chosen her to be her Lamplighter - they had an unspoken and natural chemistry, which had grown into a bond, and it couldn’t be forced or taught.

“The Skipper is here tonight,” Rena said, as she hung up the harness. Theia brightened a bit, some of the color coming back into her face. There were six Skippers right now, but she knew who Rena meant. Skippers did the small runs - special deliveries, messages, and very rarely, very important people - every few months back to Earth, and took sample material from the tunnels back with them. They also brought back seeds and the occasional flat pack, which were hydroponic grow systems that would unfold easily and meant they would have fresh vegetables for a few months. The Barges carried the large shipments of calcium carbonate, and it might take a year to excavate enough for a shipment. There were only two Bargers, and they didn’t spend much time at Mare. They were respected, but they weren’t a part of the community, not like the Skippers were.

Rena followed a few paces behind Theia, continuing to chat with the other crew, until they entered the dining hall. It felt very bright, and clean, and Theia wished she’d had time for a shower. She picked up a tray and smiled thanks at the server, and then headed towards the far side of the room. Royce was well settled in already, with a small audience of older Mare residents. Royce had been the Skipper on her transfer, and so they had a bond, as well. It had been three, maybe four months since he’d been back on Mare, and she had more questions now.

She had been thinking about Anam a lot lately, ever since Twelve had collapsed, which happened to be the day of his last run. She had found out just an hour after he left, and rushed up top, as if he might be able to see her from his skipper. It was a crazy idea, but she had stayed up there, alone, for the 6 hours the trip took. Just in case he might have heard, and turned around. She knew it wouldn’t happen, but she wanted to pretend he was on his way back, just for a few hours. But he was gone, and she felt very alone then, so alone that she didn’t know if she was real. She had gasped at the possibility and put a hand to her stomach over an imaginary wound, as she crumbled to one knee on the cold, dark ground.

Finally, she gathered herself and headed back down below to comfort her crew. For the next two months, she waited for a message from Anam, asking about her and Twelve and promising her he’d be back soon. But there was never any message, and when Royce came back the next time, she knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth. “No, no, no…” she’d said, backing away from him. “No, please don’t-” she lost her voice as he folded her in his arms. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. He’s gone. He just… there was an accident, when they docked. He’s gone,” Royce said softly into her hair.

Now, as she wound her way through the tables towards him, she noticed that Royce looked older than the last three months should have made him. His face was wrinkled and roughed, no more than she’d always known the landscape of his face to be, but there was something else there. He stood up to hug her, pulling her close despite the grime on her chest and neck, joking that he wouldn’t recognize her if she was clean. She settled in her seat and listened to the now familiar stories he told, about his first and most memorable runs. About what it had been like in the beginning at Mare, establishing the solar panels and airlocks and adjusting to life underground. The first lightwells had cracked and failed, because of the extreme temperature differentials over the course of the 28 day cycle of the moon. It was all touch and go, in the beginning.

The noise in the dining hall lessened as people finished up and trickled out towards their beds, or other people’s beds, or to Rising Star to hear the reading for tonight. Sometimes they had music, but tonight it was a chapter from a 20th century novel they were about halfway through. Theia didn’t have any interest in the reading, and she waited impatiently until she and Royce were the only ones left at the table. She reached for the carafe of water in the middle of the table, trying not to look at him so he wouldn’t see the question she knew was on her face.

“Theia,” he started, “I don’t know any more than I did last trip. I’m sorry. I’ve been asking around, but you know how it is..” he said, trailing off.

“No, I don’t know,” she said softly, trying to take the edge off her voice. “But I understand. It’s just… something is different now-” she started to try and explain.

“Of course,” Royce said softly, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I know it must be-” but Theia cut him off.

“No, no, it’s not about Anam,” she said, with a wave of her hand. As if she was done with that, with him. Like she could ever be done. That’s not how this worked. But she wanted to talk about the cave, and the tubes, and the quiet, now. “It’s about Mare. There’s… I don’t know how to explain it.” She faltered, trying to put into words the things she had felt today, and many days before, when she was moving through the cave with her hands and body on the walls and floors and formations of Mare. “It’s not as quiet as it used to be,” she finally said, with a sigh. “I can’t explain it more than that, right now, but Royce… something is different. I’ve lived here my whole life, nearly, and something is different.”

She raised her head quickly, and saw the look on his face before he could mask it. “Royce. Tell me what’s going on,” she said under her breath, looking around the dining hall. It was nearly empty, and they were alone on the far side. He wasn’t looking at her, and he started to gather his tray and stand up.

“Theia, everything is.. Fine. Everything is fine,” he said, still not meeting her eyes. “Things are difficult down there, you know that, and you know I can’t tell you more than that right now. But everything will be fine,” he said, finally looking at her.

“I have to get to bed now, I have an early turn around tomorrow. The deposits in Eighteen are looking good, and they want a small load next month to test above South America, if we can get them to agree to it.” He sighed, and stood up. “I’ll be back soon. I’m gone early tomorrow, so I won’t see you again -” he said, leaning down to half-embrace her, “- this trip,” he finished quietly.

“You keep alright up here, ok? Don’t get turned around, Theia? Ok? ” he said softly and earnestly in her ear, just before he pulled up and walked away with his tray. Theia watched him go, a dozen questions new questions swirling in her mind as she watched him leave the dining hall. She waited until he’d left, through the doors to the crew quarters, and then stood up to head towards her own bed. She was so tired today, more tired than she had been in a long time. Eighteen was the furthest tube they had sampled so far, and she winced at the thought of mining it for the test load Royce had mentioned. It would mean going up and down Dragon’s Back every day. It wouldn’t be easy. Theia concentrated on that, instead of the look on Royce’s face as he looked away from her, as she wound through the quiet hallways towards her room.

It was late by the time she got settled and showered, much later than she usually stayed up. Her room was small, but cozy, in one of the oldest portions of the Mare. She liked the feeling of being backed up against the infinite cool and quiet of rock, extending all the way around to the far side of the moon. She got into bed, and laid out straight to stretch out her back. The last thing she thought of before she fell asleep was the first time she’d met Anam. It had been so brief - she was dropping off some samples to the Skipper crew the night before they left, as they were loading. He was climbing down the stairs of the ship, and at first she simply noticed the way that he moved. As if he was a part of the air around them, held up by it and holding the darkness around them away, even though he was just climbing down a metal ladder. She was holding the box of samples in her arms, and when he reached the bottom and turned around towards her, instead of saying hello he said, “You. You’re here,” as if he had been expecting her.

“I - I am. I’m Theia,” she said haltingly, suddenly forgetting where she was and why she was here.

“I know,” Anam said with a slight smile and a dizzying tilt of his head. He waited a moment, then two. He was enjoying this, she realized. “I think you have something for me…?” he asked, keeping his voice too level. Theia realized he knew exactly what he was doing, and she did not think it was funny. Skippers were like this, she’d heard.

Theia held out the sample box, and smiled in what she hoped seemed like something sweet. He reached out for the box, his smile broadening as he settled into what must have been a familiar exercise for him. But a moment before he reached her, she let go of the box and watched it fall to the floor with a thick thud, just in front of his feet. She waited just a half second, just long enough to see his eyes widen and his smile change from smug to something more honest, before she turned around and headed for the door of the docking bay.

Then, his next trip. “They warned me about you,” he’d said, as his fingers moved over her exposed collarbone as they sat together, her in his lap, up top in the dim starlight. She had to resist bringing her hand up to her chest now, laying in bed. No one had told her about him, she thought, and it wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. She turned over to face the smooth, white wall of her room, and closed her eyes, to see him better.

___________________________________________________

Theia opened her eyes, but she still only saw darkness. But there was sound, too, that took a moment to register. There was a loud buzzing, and she heard someone saying her name - “Theia, Theia,” and reached out into the dark to find the source. Rena. She recognized her voice. She sat up in bed, and started to reach up for her headlight, but Rena caught her arm. “No, Theia, listen. Just listen.”

She was sitting up now, and could discern from the sound of her breathing that Rena was next to her bed, on the floor. Rena was talking more now, softly, but still too fast for her to comprehend. Theia woke up fully, finally, and asked her to slow down and repeat what she’d just said. It was something about Mare, and the shield - that was the buzzing. The shield was down, that was what that meant. They did drills, but they weren’t like this. There were drills for a breach in the airlocks or lightwells, but this was a different sound. Rena had kept talking, and finally her voice reached Theia’s consciousness- “... we were out by the dock, we were just messing around, but they closed it early and I don’t know what’s going on-” and Theia finally found her hand in the darkness and squeezed.

“It’s ok, Rena. It’s ok. We’re going to - thank you for getting me up, ok, we’re going to figure out what's happening. Do you have your pack?” Theia asked quickly, reaching out for her own kit, that she kept next to her bed. “I don’t think this a drill, Rena. We’re going to be ok, though. Just follow me,” Theia said softly, pulling her backpack on and lifting herself up off her bed. Her feet were much more steady than she thought they would be, and the darkness was comforting, somehow. She knew how to move in darkness, and seeing Mare in light and chaos would have been more unsettling. The sound pumping through the colony meant there was a breach in the shield, and by now everyone should be heading down to the lowest and oldest part of Mare - the original colony. There were triple airlocks down there, and the life support systems were old, but they should hold up. For a while, at least.

As she reached her door, Theia turned back and waved her hand around to find Rena. She caught her wrist, and moved down to clasp her hand. “Stay with me, ok?” she asked, and felt Rena grip her hand more tightly. Theia opened her door, and was immediately overwhelmed by the ribbons of light flashing every which way in front of her, as people left their rooms and tried to make their way further down. Theia brought her hand up to her headlamp, covering it, and the noise of the siren suddenly faded away.

Suddenly, she heard Royce’s voice in her head, saying, “Don’t get turned around, Theia, ok?”

“Rena,” she whispered fiercely, “Rena - turn off your light. Trust me, just do it, ok?” and they stepped out of the line of people moving and sunk themselves into the wall. When the crowd of people slowed, she tugged on Rena’s hand and took a left down the hallway, towards the eastern side of Mare. “Rena.. We're not going down - we’re going to Upside Down Turn Around, ok? It’s an old entrance to Mare -”

She didn’t have time to explain. She just had to trust Royce, trust the new lines on his face that he had tried but couldn’t explain. Theia held onto Rena's hand, not letting her go, just pulling her along through the darkness that they both knew by feel, by sound and smell. The noise of other people faded, and Theia faintly heard Rena’s small protests, but they kept moving. When they reached the first climb, Theia turned her headlamp on briefly so they could see the entrance to the small tunnel, and then turned it off again when they were inside. They wouldn’t need any light for this part. There wasn’t enough room for anything other than their bodies, crawling forward through the small tunnel, that hadn’t been used in decades.

Theia reached the end first, and flipped her body over to try and scoot her legs and torso up first ahead of the rest of her, an entirely unnatural motion that gave the entrance its name. She tried not to cry out as the rough rock tore through her clothes. There was a reason they had abandoned this route - it was too long, too small, and too difficult. And yet, now, she was dragging Rena through this, all because of something Royce had whispered to her the night before. Theia took her first full breath as she exited the tunnel, and on the next she reached down to help Rena through the last part. Just then, the walls around her brightened and came to life with someone else’s light. She raised her hand to her eyes, to dampen the light coming at her, and then it dimmed and she saw his silhoutte.

“You're back,” she said. “You’re.. here…” Theia said, gasping on the last word. Anam. He was here, right in front her, reaching out for her.

He took a step down towards them, and then looked quickly behind himself.

“Theia - I can - We just have to go. Right now,” he said, settling his jaw into that shape that she loved and hated, and remembering that right now sent a shock through her body.

“How are you here?” Theia asked, reaching up for his hand at the same time. He grabbed hold of her, and pulled her up out of the tunnel and then - she saw. She forgot about Rena, only vaguely remembered Anam pushing her aside to get Rena up and out. Because, when she looked around, she realized she wasn’t looking through a shield. Everything around her was crisp, and a violent red color she’d never seen before, one she didn’t even know how to comprehend. There were rocks and sand and even mountains, in the distance.

They had just come up from the underground, from Mare. Theia knew that they had, because she had lived there her whole life. She knew every inch of the colony, and she’d spent plenty of afternoons and nights off under the shield, looking out towards Earth and the heavens and everything in between. She'd grown up on Mare, and yet knew now, suddenly, that she wasn’t there.

Now there was color, and rocks - and were those.. trees? She turned around and saw the look on Rena’s face, as she tried to understand what was happening, too. Theia caught on before Rena did, and knew that her face was crumbling by the look she saw on Anam’s as their eyes met. They’d never left, she knew now. They had been playing pretend, for years underground, on this torched earth, and he had helped.

Theia straightened, standing up tall, and grasped Rena’s hand as she turned back to Anam.

“Please, I can explain, Theia - “ he said, softly. She knew what he would ask next, and already knew that she wouldn’t refuse him, if she let him go on. “Right now, we need to get out of here - we’ll get someplace we can -”

Theia cut him off with a motion of her hand. She never wanted to talk to Anam about anything again, but if he could help her get Rena someplace safe, she would tolerate him for the time being. She stooped down for a moment to redo the laces on one of her boots, and when she stood up, she faced him and the blood orange sky around her square on, and said,

“Well.. if we’re not in Mare, then where the hell are we?”

fantasy

About the author

Ruthie

Singer in storms.

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