I sought refuge in the silent caverns. I didn’t dare go back to my mother and grandmother. My mother would undoubtedly be happy. She’d lost a husband to the Krell, and dreaded seeing me suffer the same fate. Gran Gran, she would tell me to fight. But fight what? The military itself didn’t want me. I felt like a fool. All this time, telling myself I’d become a pilot, and in truth I’d never had a chance. My teachers must have spent these years laughing at me behind their hands. I walked through an unfamiliar cavern on the outer edge of what I’d explored, hours away from Igneous. And still the feelings of embarrassment and anger shadowed me. What an idiot I had been.
I reached the edge of the subterranean cliff and knelt, activating my father’s light-line by tapping two fingers against my palm. The bracelet glowed more brightly. Gran Gran said we’d brought these with us to Detritus, that they were pieces of equipment used by the explorers and warriors of the old human space fleet. I wasn’t supposed to have one of course, but everyone thought that it had been destroyed when my father crashed. I placed my wrist against the stone of the cliff, and again tapped my fingers against my palm, an action the bracelet could sense. This command made an energy line stick to the rock, connecting my bracelet to the stone.
A three-finger tap let out more slack. Using that I could climb over the ledge, rope in hand, and lower myself to the bottom. Once down, another tap made the rope let go of the rock above then snap back into the bracelet housing. I didn’t know how it worked, only that it needed to recharge it every month or two, something I did in secret by plugging it into the power lines outside the caverns.
I crept into a cavern filled with kurdi mushrooms. They tasted foul but were edible and rats loved them. This would be prime hunting ground. So I turned off my light and settled down to wait, listening intently. I had never feared the darkness. It reminded me of the exercise Gran Gran taught, where I floated up toward the singing stars. You couldn’t fear the dark when you were a fighter. And I was a fighter.
I was, I was going, I was going to be a pilot...
I looked upward, trying to push away those feelings of loss. Instead, I was soaring. Toward the stars. And again I thought I could hear something calling to me, a sound like a distant flute. A nearby scraping pulled me back. Rat nails on stone. I raised my speargun, familiar motions guiding me, and engaging a smidgen of light from my light-line.
The rat turned in a panic toward me. My finger trembled on the trigger but I didn’t fire as it scrambled away. Why did it matter? Was I really just going to go on with my life like nothing had happened? Usually exploring kept my mind off my problems. Today they kept intruding like a rock in my shoe. Remember? Remember that your dreams have just been stolen?
I felt like I had those first days following my father’s death. When every moment, every object, every word reminded me of him and of the sudden hole inside me. I sighed, then attached one end of my light-line to my spear and commanded it to stick to the next thing it touched. I took aim at the top of another cliff and fired, sticking the weightless glowing rope in place. I climbed up, my speargun rattling in its straps on my back.
As a child I’d imagined that my father had survived his crash, that he was being held captive in these endless uncharted tunnels. I imagined saving him, like a figure from Gran Gran’s stories. Gilgamesh, or Joan of Arc, or Tarzan of Greystoke, a hero. The cavern trembled as if in outrage, and dust fell from the ceiling. An impact up on the surface. That was close, I thought. Had I climbed so far? I took out my book of hand-drawn maps. I’d been out here quite a while by now; hours at least. I had taken a nap a few caverns back.
I checked the clock on my light-line. It had passed to the next day, the day of the test, which would happen in the evening. I probably should have headed back. Mom and Gran Gran would worry if I didn’t show up for the test. To hell with the test, I thought, imagining the indignation I’d feel at being turned away at the door. Instead I climbed up through a tight squeeze into another tunnel. Out here my size was, for once, an advantage.
Another impact rocked the caverns. With this much debris falling, climbing to the surface was definitely stupid. I didn’t care. I felt reckless. I felt, almost heard, something driving me forward. I kept climbing until I finally reached a crack in the ceiling. Light shone through it, of an even, sterile type; too white, not orange enough. Cool, dry air blew in also, which was a good sign. I pushed my pack ahead of me, then squirmed through the crack and out into the light.
The surface. I looked up and saw the sky again. It never failed to take my breath away. A distant skylight shone down on a section of the land, but I was mostly in shadow. Just overhead, the sky sparkled with a shower of falling debris. Radiant lines like slashes. A formation of three scout-class starfighters flew through it, watching. Falling debris was often broken pieces of ships or other space junk, and salvage from it could be valuable. It played havoc with our sensors though, and could mask a Krell incursion.
I stood in the grey-blue dust and let the awe of the sky wash over me, feeling a particular sensation of wind against my cheeks. I’d come up close to Alta Base, which I could see in the distance, maybe only a thirty-five minute walk or so away. Now that the Krell knew where we were, there was no reason to hide the base, so it had expanded from a hidden bunker to several large buildings and a walled perimeter, antiaircraft guns, and an invisible shield to protect it from debris.
Outside that wall, groups of people worked a small strip of something I always found strange: trees and fields. What were they even doing over there? Trying to grow food in this dusty ground? I didn’t dare get close. The guards would take me for a scavenger from the distant caverns. Still, there was something dramatic about that stark green of those fields and the stubborn walls of the base. Alta was a monument to our determination. For three generations, humankind had lived like rats and nomads on this planet, but we would hide no longer.
The flight of starships streaked toward Alta, and I took a step toward them. Set your sights on something higher, my father had said. Something more grand. And where had that gotten me?
I shouldered my pack and my speargun, then hiked the other direction. I had been to a nearby passage before, and I figured with more exploring, I could connect some of my maps. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found the passage’s mouth had collapsed completely.
I saw some debris hit the surface in the near distance, tossing up a spray of dust. I looked up and found a few smaller chunks streaking down overhead, fiery burning chunks of metal. Heading right toward me. Scud! I dashed back the way I had come. No! No! No! No! No! The air rumbled, and I could feel the heat of the approaching debris. There!
I spotted a small cavern opening in the surface, part crack, part cave mouth. I threw myself toward it, skidding and sliding inside. An enormous crash sounded behind me, and it seemed to shake the entire planet. Frantic, I engaged my light-line and slapped my hand against the stone as I fell into the churning chaos. I jerked up short, connected by the light-line to the wall, as rock chips and pebbles flew across me. The cavern trembled, then all grew still. I blinked dust from my eyes and found myself dangling by my light-line in the center of a small cavern, maybe thirty or forty feet high. I’d lost my pack somewhere, and I’d scraped up my arm pretty good.
Great, just great, Spensa. This is what throwing tantrums gets you. I groaned, my head throbbing, then tapped my fingers against my palm to let the light-line out, lowering myself to the floor. I flopped down, catching my breath. Other impacts sounded in the distance, but they dwindled. Finally, I wobbled to my feet and dusted myself off. I managed to locate the strap of my bag sticking out from some rubble nearby. I yanked it out, then checked the canteen and maps inside. They seemed okay.
My speargun was another matter. I found the handle but there was no sign of the rest. It was probably buried in that mound of rubble. I slumped down against the stone. I knew I shouldn’t go up to the surface during a debris fall. I had practically begged for this. A scrabbling sound came from nearby. A rat? I raised the handle of my gun immediately, and then felt doubly stupid. Still I forced myself to my feet, slung my pack over my shoulder, and increased the light of my bracelet. A shadow ducked away, and I followed, limping only a little. Maybe I could find another way out of here.
I raised my bracelet high, illuminating the small cavern, which had a high ceiling. My light reflected off something ahead of me. Metal? Maybe one of the water pipes? I walked toward it, and my brain took a moment to realize what I was seeing. There, nestled into the corner of the cavern, surrounded by rubble, was a starship.