by Iris Adams
She didn’t believe them when they first told her about it, not really.
Sure, Cara could wrap her head around the thought: Mother Stars and perfect planets caught in their pull, where you could stand and watch the ground end and light begin. All sorts of things existed in the universe- vast and unknown as it was. There must be planets where stars were close enough to feel soft against your cheek, taste warm in your mouth, and set your life to their movements.
But it wasn’t here, not on Anlok, not in any way that mattered.
Like most people on Anlok Cara hadn’t been born there, she had spent six years on a long journey. Back then she hadn’t been sure she’d make it past the Redshift Galaxy, there had been so much hacking, wailing babes, and the blinking eyes of robots reaching low battery.
Cara had had a cot on the lowest deck, tucked in between a family of five and a man who wore all black and spoke in mumbling prayers. It had been the man in black who shared his meager bread portions with her, bandaged her scrapes, and had her sound out letters from books on the floor.
They had said the Redshift Galaxy was cursed; the Pox broke out just as they passed. Fat yellow pustules, cloying coughs, and raging fevers, bodies had disappeared from their beds faster than she could count them. Her Monk, the one with voids in his eyes and praying to unnamed Gods of Entropy and Singular Truth, had told her this too would pass.
This would end and the dawn would come. The monk had read from great tomes of Entropy, droning on between coughs and slow blinks, she waited for him to disappear as well. He was right of course, it would pass- even if there was no dawn, or at least, not one she believed in.
But she was released from the giant holding bay, released from the belly of the ship and greeted by sharp, frigid air that made her head spin and vision blur. It was hard to register the strange white plains surrounding her in all directions and sudden touch of whipping winds outside. The blast stung Cara’s cheeks and made her eyes water.
She drew back into herself, shying away from the wall-less bounding space and strange white, white, white world. She was almost relieved when Bots shepherded her into a metal-box as cold as burning ice and bent from age. A group of them gathered on a large platform with walls filled with diamond-shaped holes; Cara’s teeth chattered, and her small body violently shook as they waited.
Metal scraped against metal as the doors eventually closed, the iron lattice walls rattling threateningly and grinding together. Cara was on the last lift down into the city. Her, along with a handful of other nascent war orphans, were given the exception to stay.
Many of the adults on the cargo ship would have to continue their journey to elsewhere, somewhere quieter and even farther from the hungry fingers of the conscription. She looked up once, through the crisscrossing ceiling, right into the above.
It was unsettling, nothing like the speckled black expanse she was used to, her mouth made a small ‘o,’ taking in the horizon like a thick drink. It was pale blue, on the cusp of something else, stirring with distant wispy clouds and a faint silvery yellow glow.
One of the older kids, one racked with wet coughs and wearing a threadbare coat, went to the side and put his fingers through the holes in the cage, head tilted up. “Sky,” he said softly, and nothing more.
The elevator gave a coarse screech and started rumbling gradually into the ground, taking the sky with it. At first, all Cara could do was wrap her arms around her body and clench her eyes shut, blocking out the journey. There might have been an announcement about all this, about the ice planet and the metal elevator- she didn’t know. She was never very good at paying attention to the ship announcements, at some point she assumed they were all the same.
She hadn’t been listening. Now, she was being fed into the fixed, unmoving earth, it could be anything, the mouth of a beast with a throat longer than black holes. The bottom of a silent ocean where she would be forgotten and pushed aside, like she had never existed at all.
This could even be some sort of sacrificial ceremony, like the stories of old. The monk’s face came back to her and Cara shivered with the thought of being passed to something more. Perhaps given to the teeth of angels or ancient beasts or entropy itself to please a decaying universe.
Her imagination ran absolutely wild.
Time slipped by with a maddening slowness, no one in the cage spoke, they were all well-versed in keeping to themselves and trusting the walls more than the bedraggled crowd. The rattling went on, it was only when she felt a faint warmth leech into her skin that Cara cracked her eyes open.
She stopped shivering, heat slowly soaked into the space, working its way through her layered clothes and pushing life back into her cheeks. She tried to look over the edge of the elevator, but there was only black stone walls and cankerous clanking there.
Balmy steam snaked past, little pockets of damp heat that smelled of sulfur and metal. She was still trying to peer over the edge when the wall itself opened up, giving way to an enormous cavern, colored in blacks, browns, and dewy amber light.
Cara sucked in a breath, muscles tightening on reflex. She had heard of cities before, of human structures and busy roadways, but this didn’t look like the picture books. Buildings stacked on top of each other all the way up to the ceiling, metal walls and flat roofs, square windows and dark brown metal doors. They were squashed together horizontally and vertically, connected by swinging bridges, rope ladders, pulley systems, and makeshift stone stairs.
Houses protruded from the walls, sat on flat dirt cliffs, and stood tall on clunky stilts; steam puffed up from deep below like breaths of a sleeping giant. If she looked down, past all the houses and winding bridges and moving parts, she could see the barest sliver of total darkness below. She looked away again.
Dim, hanging lights were fastened to the walls and ceiling, fancy torches sat on the handrails and softly blinking little fire lights floated aimlessly in space- like cotton fluff caught adrift. Maybe they were augmented small bugs or tiny drones, the light was much softer and more honeyed than any she had known before.
And there were people.
Cara’s eyes bulged. People, streets and porches and houses filled with figures in all directions. Chattering voices, busy feet, and even distant music flowed from below, and Cara took a step back, the cargo ship had always been crowded, but this was something else entirely.
How can they all live together like this?! It must be suffocating.
She looked down at her ill-fitting boots and told herself to never take her eyes off them- she had had to make quite a few trades of bread rolls for their thick soles. Who knows how many of these city people have fast fingers and bare feet? She’d have to be vigilant.
Cara and the other children eyed each other, unsure of this new development. The ground approached much more quickly than Cara would have liked, passing the stacks of messy city and then slowing.
The elevator lowered noisily toward a small pocket of waiting people and landed with a soft wheeze. Cara tried to situate herself at the back of the group, but so did all the others.
A tall figure stood behind the lattice walls, solid and towering, Cara held her breath for whatever possible new shock this could hold.
“Is this them?” A hushed voice asked outside the elevator.
“Yes, exactly on time.”
The doors opened noisily, revealing a tall man holding a clipboard and looking down at them. He had a thick mustache, sharp blue cap and buttoned jacket, and an ashen look to his skin- grey almost. Cara set her jaw and pressed her back up against the wall. He surveyed them mildly, if he was surprised by anything, he didn’t show it.
“I hope the trip down wasn’t too bad,” he said with a thin smile. “We’ve been meaning to upgrade this thing for ages.” He nodded at the elevator, no one said anything, keeping their eyes downcast and bodies tensed. Another moment passed, “well,” the man cleared his throat and stepped aside, “welcome to Pitch Springs then. We’re happy to have you.”
As expected, no one responded again, he gestured forward, “this way. I’ll get you set up here, I’m the second-tier Conductor, pleasure to meet you all.”
It took some prompting, but there was nothing for it, the group found themselves ushered out into the enormous cavern and toward the curious eyes of bystanders clumped together just past the elevator. They were wearing short sleeved tunics and yellow tights, loose dresses and baggy jumpsuits, every one of them observed the kids with intense curiosity. Cara shrank back.
Later, she would learn most of them were just there to learn some news on the war but weren’t expecting a half-dozen disease-pocked kids passing by. One of them wasn’t so taken aback by it all though.
“Did you see it?” A voice piped up, right next to Cara’s ear.
Cara turned slowly, nerves prickling at the loud voice. She faced a young girl with messy pigtails and a generous gap in her front teeth, she had a shaggy appearance, slightly upturned nose, and a similar ashen pallor. The girl held Cara’s gaze in a brazen, unflinching kind of way, almost caustic in its reach.
“Tell me you saw it.”
Cara stopped in place. “What?” It was her first word in a while, raspy and dry against her throat.
“Vega,” the girl said as if it was obvious. “She’s rising.”
Cara wrinkled her nose and turned back to man with the clipboard, looking for some clue or escape. His back was turned, and he was prompting the kids forward toward a squat building with a large plaque on the door. Cara followed quickly after her group, but the girl chased after as well, asking again, “did you see it? Did you see anything?”
Cara ignored her, pulling back and making a mental note, she’s probably the type I have to watch my boots around.
Cara ducked her head and left the girl, following the conductor off into her new future. That was the first year she was close to seeing the sun rise.
Cara adjusted her shift, making sure she hadn’t sweat through her undershirt already and ruined it for afternoon classes. Her bangs fell into her eyes as she moved, she was always told to grow her hair out, a proper ponytail was a lot easier for climbing than an uneven mess. She never could bear the feel of it on her neck though, every few months she woke up in the middle of the night and hacked it off again.
Cara pushed her bangs back, stared out over the Topaz District (no actual Topaz included), and then looked back up toward the jagged dark ceiling. She took a deep breath and nodded; her ruffled black bangs fell back into her eyes.
A bell rang in the distance. It was somewhat musical with a rusty undertone, producing three tones, one right after the other.
When Cara first arrived, she thought it sounded ominous and unnatural, a singing in the dark from all directions, there was no escaping the chimes of the bell. However, years later and after endless 25-hour cycles, she barely noticed it anymore.
It was almost past lunch. She would have at least an hour to herself, she slipped up a set of steep black rock stairs and toward one of the highest cat walks, a bridge swinging loosely across the expanse.
It had been one of the central footpaths back when Pitch Springs had been founded, now it was just a shortcut for the prickly and impatient. She picked her way across the boards swiftly, sure-footed and agile after four years of traversing the messy colony.
The bridge swung gently but she was used to that as well, she crossed like a shadow, a lithe girl that had never entirely recovered her weight from the trip over here. Another bridge connected to that one, tied sloppily to one of the rope handrails and then quietly forgotten. Cara hopped the rope and followed it toward the mouth of a small cave, a place just as quietly forgotten.
She slid into the low dark cave, its rock walls were smooth and solid black. Pitch Springs was painted in colors of ink and honey, black stone and yellow lanterns. Her clothes matched that now as well, a dark yellow shift and black leggings.
She had finally gotten proper boots with a grip on them after years of clinging to her old slippery ones, refusing any offers from her House Patron up until recently.
She used the sticky rubber bottoms of the boots to quickly dash down the tunnel, lit only by a few long-lasting bulbs and lost firebugs. The firebugs were friendly, warm insects that were augmented to release Vitamin D in their glow, both useful and frankly endearing creatures.
Cara made her way down a short tunnel and then turned into a warm pocket under the earth. She entered a round closet-sized room with various holes and a small pile of trash and rags in the corner, odds and ends left there over the years.
Cara knelt down and surveyed the walls, studying the uneven surface and craggy openings, she clicked her tongue and reached into her pocket. It only took a moment for a pair of eyes to appear in one of the holes in the wall, they were bright green and almost luminous.
She smiled, “I’ve brought you something.” She took out a little bit of dried meat from her pocket and offered it quietly. A lean creature stepped into the light, twitched its tail, and darted over to her. Cara beamed.
Two more small black creatures followed, they were fluffy, small creatures with long elegant tails and tufted upright ears. No animals had been found on Anlok when travelers first arrived, but the first settlers were loose about what they brought into the community, including furry stowaways hidden in grain deposits and the jackets of animal-lovers.
Cara scratched behind the ears of the first one, a patchwork mother with a limp and huge orange paws that reminded her of socks. Cara had named her Samara for a type of sweet orange fruit she had eaten once.
She smiled and emptied her pockets, presenting one bit of meat after the next, experimenting with trying to coax the creatures to eat out of her palm. She dangled a piece in front of one of the more skittish ones, a young male, prone to fluffing up to twice his size and hissing weakly.
“Come here boy,” she crooned, creeping closer and closer as he watched her intently, ears perked and body stiff, she made slow progress. Maybe the rest of the hour would have passed like that, waiting and watching, but it was not to be.
“Cara!” A booming voice called, echoing down the long passageways like a pebble dropped down a dry well, “what are you possibly doing?”
Cara sat all the way up and her animals scattered, startled by the noise and disappearing into the crevices as a new figure entered. “Trick question,” an older girl with pigtails came into view, putting her hands on her hips, “I knew you’d be here with your cats.”
“Summer,” Cara frowned deeply and dusted herself off, “they’re not cats.”
Summer clicked her tongue, “cat. Cat-thing. Same difference.” She shrugged, “are they bringing you dead rodents yet or anything? Have you tamed them? Are you a cat queen?”
Cara rolled her eyes, “no.” She sniffed loudly, “but thanks for your suggestions.”
Summer lifted her chin, gaze just as bold and fierce as it had been when they were younger. “Man, I don’t want to get a ransom note one night like: Dear Human-People, give us all your meat rations. And maybe fingers. And we’ll return Cara, maybe, sincerely, Catty Cat-Things.”
Cara sighed pointedly at Summer’s derisive tone, “they keep the caves clear. We should be praising them for taking care of the pests for us first of all.”
Summer just grinned widely, “everybody says they’re pests too you know,” she snorted, “but I'm not here for an argument.”
Cara crossed her arms over her chest, “why are you here? Did you want in on this?” She held up a piece of meat, “I can feed you out of my hand too, but no licking. I’m sure someone will thank me for taming you yet.”
“Ha. Ha.” She leered, “I can’t believe you forgot. I knew I’d have to come get you.” She shook her head, “you’re lucky I have eyes.”
Cara gave a sharp sneaking smile, “isn’t that all you have?”
Summer had been assigned to Cara’s Housing Detail since she first got there, the same girl that had harassed her the second Cara stepped off the elevator into Pitch. She had a bed across the hall from her and showed Cara how to climb the ladders and bargain for extra rations.
Summer was well-known for having eyes and ears on everyone’s business. It helped she had won an apprenticeship with the clock keepers and used the bell tower as a vantage point, it also helped she wanted everything from everyone all the time.
Eventually she got some of it.
“No,” she said smartly, “I also have a stunning personality too."
Cara took a deep breath, “is that a sales pitch? I don’t think that will flag down any passing ships.”
Summer pouted slightly, “I’m only here as a courtesy you know. A woman of her word if you will, a good Samaritan.”
Cara arched her eyebrows up, “oh?”
“Yes!” She said forcefully and stepped forward, “we’ll only have a few hours before they’ll start paging us and giving out more than a few demerits.”
Cara took a step backward, “I get enough of those on my own.”
She laughed, “what’s a few more?” She pointed, “it's not far from the entrance from here anyway.”
Cara furrowed her brow, “are we going to play twenty questions or …?”
Summer simultaneously held up a pocket watch and took Cara by the elbow, “you said you wanted to see the sun, didn’t you?”
Cara glanced at the ticking watch and then back to Summer's smiling face. She leaned away from her, “I said it could be interesting.”
“Well, now’s your chance!” She sang, leading Cara down the cave by the arm, “come on.”
Cara took a few steps with her, but dragged her heels, “the public elevator is still under maintenance.” She pointed out, “and it’s not like we have access to the vendor one.” No one really did.
Summer shook her head, pigtails bobbing in place. “I have something else up my sleeve. It might even knock the socks off a person like you.”
Cara just raised her eyebrows and let herself be led out of her Cat Cave. Summer turned them away from Pitch and toward the opposite direction. They faced a narrow tunnel she had never used before, leading up and away into the darkness. “Uh,” Cara just blinked at it.
Summer hurried Cara up the sloping path, and she tried not to slip on the rocky ground as they left the dimmest echoes of the city’s clamor behind. Only a few lights appeared up ahead.
“Your whole socks,” Summer muttered to herself. “Off.”
“I’m not wearing socks,” Cara commented dryly as she squinted ahead.
“Oh my God,” Summer sighed, “then I’ll put some on you. This is big!”
Cara couldn’t keep the small smile off her face, “everything is big to you.” She said softly as she watched her feet.
“Big to me?” Summer snorted, “look who’s talking.”
Cara stuck her tongue out, “I’m not done growing!” She turned away, “and I’m just saying. There’s no knowing it’s up there.”
Summer stopped just to wag a finger at her, “your skepticism is not welcome. Very unhelpful.”
Cara snorted, “noted. But,” she paused thoughtfully, “how do you know that this is even the right time? Right hour?”
“Caraaa,” she whined, “I know you own a calendar because I own a calendar up in the mess room. Did you not see today highlighted and circled? The stars? The stickers?”
“Sure,” she nodded, “but when was the last time someone confirmed the planets rotations? When’s the last time you’ve actually talked to someone who’s seen Vega?”
“Sun’s don’t just stop rising,” she said dismissively, “and why would they lie to us about this?”
Cara simply sighed. They took a gentle turn and a splash of weak light shone from up ahead, Summer bounced on her heels, “come on.” She towed Cara toward a mouth of the tunnel, an exit, and climbed up to jump out first. The other girl was all knees and elbows and bursting citrus energy.
Cara followed and stuck her head out tentatively, blinking a few times and then sliding down carefully into the new cavern. When she looked up there was a moment of awe. The area was huge and filled with powdery white light, filtered down from terribly high above, totally unlike the yellow lights that dominated the underground city itself.
In the very center of the room was a set of stairs, metal ones erected in a perfect square shape, zigzagging up back and forth over one another. They climbed up and up and up, clambering high above into the light with no visible end.
She tipped her head up at the touring free-standing construction, “huh.”
“Huh she says,” Summer made a face, “huh.”
“Hu-uhu?” She made an exaggerated sound, just for her.
Summer snorted, “come on.” She hurried over to the stairs, “we have to get this party on the road.”
Cara followed slowly, carefully behind. “How did you find this?” She frowned, “what is it?”
“It’s an old fire escape,” Summer explained simply. “A ‘just in case’ sort of thing.”
Cara stared up at it, head tilted completely back and thoughts churning. “We’ll need warm clothes.” She said with a scoff, “and robot legs.”
“Well,” Summer turned quickly, “your old pal Summer has come through for one of those things,” she hopped over some rocks to a little box that blended into the ground. She opened it carefully, “found these in the discard piles years ago.”
Cara cocked her head to the side, “you really want to do something like this?” She squinted, “climb forever so we can be both cold AND exhausted?”
Summer rolled her eyes, “duh.” She slung the coat around her shoulders, “this is important, like actually important.” She sounded insistent and abrasively certain of herself.
Cara just scowled softly at that, Summer didn’t pause to keep convincing her, she simply went to the gate and tugged on the aged metal. She grunted with the effort, but it swung free with a grating screech.
Cara stood in place; feet stubbornly glued to the spot. Summer only gave a glance over her shoulder, a grin, a wink, and then her footsteps echoed with a twang as she began to climb.
In a different world, Summer might have stayed and tried to convince Cara to join, Summer was known to hate doing things alone. If Cara had been Pip or Miramin or Ty-ji maybe she would have put up more of a meaningful fight, come up with some solid arguments about demerits and the dangers of old unstable architecture.
But Summer knew Cara too well. Cara looked up at the soaring contraption, at the possibility of a fiery ball in the sky and her insides clenched, stirred, pulsed. She sniffed loudly. I don’t have to. She reminded herself, it’s probably not real. Not really.
Cara remembered distant stars from her long journey, but no sun from her own birth planet. Of course, most her memories from her birth planet were a jumbled, scattered mess. They were things she actively strove to attach cement blocks to and sink to the bottom of her consciousness, a story best left forgotten.
Cara contemplated the sun for a second longer.
Then she was moving all on her own, racing toward the gaping entrance and her own foolish impulses. “Don’t waste all your energy on the first bit!” Cara called up, “we have to pace ourselves.”
Summer poked her head off the side of the railing and simply beamed down, a knowing look plastered on her face. Cara just groaned.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Sweat beaded down Cara’s forehead, warmth still surrounded them from the giant hot springs inside Anlok. Cara’s new coat was not helping the matter, but a distinct chill was whispering down from above nonetheless, just enough to tug at her awareness.
She took a gulp of air, “so you’re saying this is going to alter me as a person? A big life changer?”
“Oh yes,” Summer chirped, her spirits hadn’t flagged. “You will turn from a grouchy toad lady into a cheerful gentle princess after this.”
“Truly terrifying,” Cara said dryly, “I don’t think I want to see the sun.”
Summer snickered, “you’re probably right.” She said lightly, looking over her shoulder to hold Cara’s gaze. Summer’s looks were shrewd as any dare and perpetually hungry. She snorted, “I can’t imagine you being possibly any different than a grouchy toad. It’d be too shocking.”
“Are you really settling on ‘toad’?” Cara scrunched her nose up, “You’re a jackal then.” She grinned tartly, “a jackal and toad.”
Summer returned a wild, unconfined laugh, as big as it was abrasive. It seemed to be an answer unto itself. Neither of them had ever seen these animals, but nature documentaries from long ago were a favorite of the recreation area.
Numbers were printed on the landing of each stairwell, Cara started to count. They were on level ten.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
The girls traveled in silence for several minutes, nothing but their heavy breathing and clanking footsteps filling the space. Summer kept the pace urgent, always a couple steps ahead of Cara.
The scenery around them was unchanging: dark rocky walls on all sides of them, misty light filtering from up above, and grungy silver stairs underneath their clanging footsteps. It smelled of the sulfur from the springs and something rusty that Cara couldn’t place.
Summer only paused once as they reached the fifteenth floor, stopping in place and watching Cara intently. “What are you going to wish for?”
Cara blinked a couple times, “a shorter walk back?”
Summer frowned deeply, “I’m serious.” She looked up, “not that you have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Cara shrugged and climbed past her. “Nothing.” She said quietly, “it’s a sun. Hot plasma with a nuclear core and a thousand little explosions.”
Summer’s footsteps banged twice as loud as she followed her, “that’s the point.” She said hotly, “I swear Cara, I might be all eyes but you’ve got some blind spots.”
She blew air out of her nose, “I know you’ve never been above ground Summer,” Cara hurried up the steps, not looking back at her. “But that doesn’t make it anymore magical or special than down below.”
Summer went quiet for another several minutes.
“Vega is different,” she whispered, “she’ll hear us.”
Cara said nothing back, she didn’t have the energy to point out that suns couldn’t hear. And didn’t grant wishes. Something pricked under her skin, Cara’s real age had been lost on the journey over, doctors determined she was anywhere between 7 and 9. It had been years since then and they had both reached past 13.
Either way they were both too old for fairy tales.
“How is a plasma sphere made by explosions not the most magical thing in the universe?” Summer prompted; she never did know how to let things go. “It’s not all ships and black holes out there.”
Cara kept her mouth clamped; you don’t know. She thought softly, you haven’t seen it.
“I know what I’m wishing for at least.” Summer kept going and Cara thought: yeah, I know. I know you too.
They reached the twentieth level.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
They were both panting heavily, their breaths bursting into tiny white clouds and dissipating into starry nothingness. Cara was shivering now, shoulders vibrating and teeth clattering together, she was still too small for her own good.
She was considering crawling at this point, getting on her hands and knees and dragging herself up shamefully the rest of the way.
Cara wiped her brow, “that’s it.” She said with a wheeze, “this is our final resting place. I can tell, I’ll be stuck here forever, with damn stairs and you, of all people.”
Summer drew a breath to respond, but a musical sound interrupted her, letting out an almost comical jingle in the flat cool air. Cara heard a loud thunk behind her and she turned slowly.
Summer sat heavily on one of the cold metal steps, holding a pocket watch and looking off into nothing. She tilted her head back and held herself at several jagged angles, both boneless and taut all at once.
“Summer?” Cara asked carefully.
Summer glanced up in her general direction, “that’s it.” She said loudly, “that’s all.”
Cara frowned deeply, “so that was…?”
“We missed it,” she announced casually, eyes closing, “who knew stairs would take so long.”
They hadn’t made it.
Cara dropped down, her boots landing heavily and slipping on the metal, she collapsed gracelessly next to Summer.
“So that’s it.”
They both glanced over at each other, Summer opened her mouth, seemed to taste the frigid misty air and then pressed her lips together again. After a moment she tossed her head back, and let out that high-pitched jackal laugh- coarse and ruthless. She laughed and laughed until she started wiping tears out of her eyes.
“I’m sorry I dragged you all the way up here,” she said with another savage laugh.
Cara leaned in toward her, “nah.” She scratched the back of her neck, words flat and bloodless. “What’s life without a little suspense?”
Summer finally looked at Cara, eyes focusing and laughter withering. “Suspense?”
“Yeah,” she lifted her chin in a way she hoped was confident, “this way it’ll be all the more amazing when we do finally see it, a good suspense.”
Summer sighed, “think she’ll wait for me?” She said in a light tone, but something ached underneath the words. “My wish is kind of on a time schedule here.”
Cara knocked knees with her, and they leaned back on the towering construction, “what type of wish would it be if you didn’t have to work for it? Really.”
Summer gave a melting smile, something earnest buried under all that frantic energy. “Thanks,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Even if you don’t mean it.”
Cara made a face, “do you prefer I ribbit at you grouchily instead? I’m open to ribbiting.”
Summer chuckled, much less loudly, much less of anything.
“Plus,” Cara moved to get up, “we got to experience these awesome freezing stairs.”
“Ugh,” Summer sat back up, “I’m taking Pip on my next adventure.”
Cara put her hand out to help her up, “Pip will start crying before you even get to the adventure part.”
Summer took her hand and Cara heaved her up, steadying her as she rose to her feet.
“Right,” Summer said with a deep breath, “don’t bail on me then, Ship Girl. I’m expecting full commitment here. Sunrise or bust.”
They turned toward the way down, “I worked for this too.” Cara said indignantly, “even if the above ground is literally the most desolate cold boring thing ever, I’m committed.”
“Cold and desolate?” Summer shot her a cheeky look, “a rival for you then.”
Cara stuck her tongue out at her, Summer chuckled warmly, color returning to her ruddy cheeks as they moved.
“You’ll see,” Summer commented airily, “it’ll be beautiful.”
Cara scratched her chin, “which part? The big shiny thing in the sky or all the flat frozen ground?”
Summer clanked downward, “the part where you’re wrong about everything.” She laughed and dashed down the next flight of steps.
Cara chased after her, “yes, well,” She called loudly, “I’m sure I will get less demerits than you if I get back to the house first. We’ll see who’s right then.”
They ran, fumbling their way back down the dark steps and carrying their aching bodies to their Housing Unit, trying to forget as best they could what they missed that year.
Cara didn’t hesitate that morning, the bell had already rung eight times. She wiped her hands down on her smock and tore it off her waist, tossing it into the back closet. “I’m heading out now Mrs. Havershaw.”
She called loudly and hoped that would be enough.
It was a cramped back room with brown tiled floor and a grungy mop pushed into the corner, a massive silver sink covered the back wall next to an elaborate drying rack. It was already filled from the night shift, clean and ready for the day’s activity.
The place smelled like bleach and burnt things you were never fully going to scrub out.
Hooks sat in the very corner, holding the staff’s personal belongings and old aprons, next to that was large locker that someone lost the key to years ago, and a bench. Cara found her light jacket and knapsack there, slipping them on quickly and glancing at the door, escape was close enough to taste.
Mrs. Havershaw bustled around the corner, hair tied up in a tight grey bun, and eyes squinting fiercely. The main theory behind her eternally scrunched gaze was that she just needed glasses, but she was as stubborn as she was old.
She was an age Cara could only guess at and persisted to have enough energy for three people hopped up on Gladiator pills. She was portly and hunched from age, always wearing a knee-length pink dress made of material so thick it could have been a grain seed bag. Mrs. Havershaw’s withered hands hung at her chest like dinosaur claws, she spoke to Cara without looking.
“Have you restocked the back room? We have inventory next week.”
Cara took a step back, “Miramin is coming in thirty minutes, she’ll cover my shift.”
Mrs. Havershaw’s tight face became even tighter. “Miramin’s an idiot.” She said dourly, “can’t tell a fart from a yawn. Terrible at stocking.”
“I understand,” Cara said slowly, she was well-versed in appeasing the temperamental woman. “I’ll have a double-shift tomorrow if anything needs fixing. It’s all on the calendar.”
Mrs. Havershaw went over to the time schedule and ignored Cara for a moment. Cara considered slipping out the backdoor then and letting the pieces fall as they would. But disappearing on her would probably do Cara as much good as a splinter in an open wound.
Cara had been doing the morning shift at ‘Rail’s End Diner and Dive’ restaurant since she was shuffled out of General Studies a year and a half ago. She hadn’t shown much of a knack for engineering or mining, two very important Pitch career paths, and ended up here. Originally, she was worried she wouldn’t be picked up for any apprenticeships since they usually took quite a bit of networking to get.
Cara didn’t exactly have a knack for networking either. Luckily, Mrs. Havershaw had a sharp tongue and an alleged soft spot for tiny war orphans.
She auctioned for Cara’s education right away.
The old woman had her washing dishes and doing backroom work every morning and then sent her to classes at night. Cara never quite figured out the connection between it all, but it did ensure she didn’t completely give up on society and retreat into the depths of the planet to become a witchy cave woman.
Of course, Witchy Cave Woman was still on the table after her hands kept peeling completely raw and cracked like dried clay after a long shift, but that was beside the point.
She looked Mrs. Havershaw in the face, waiting for her response after she checked the calendar. Mrs. Havershaw just nodded, “knock some sense into Miramin on your way out, I won’t have her mixing up pickled radishes and pickled beets again.”
Cara just waved and slipped out the door, “bye Mrs. Havershaw.” She neatly escaped into the streets.
Cara forced herself to walk slowly at first, passing morning shoppers and youths without class bustling around. The Diner was situated on one of the busy shopping district ledges, busy and dusty, and a good place to get lost.
She forced herself to walk. And then Cara was speed walking. Then she was jogging quickly against her will- legs pumping like something tangible was nipping at her heels. She climbed, crossing the Fiora Lee bridge, and scaling a swinging ladder three stories up.
She heard the crowd before she saw it.
Buzzing voices, chattering, laughing, singing children. Cara poked her head up and saw a long line already snaking across the ground near the far side of Pitch.
The elevator was located right at the back. It was the same rickety metal cage it had always been, but reinforcements shone new on the bottom and a fresh chain attached to the top. A velvet rope hung right in front of the doors, people hovered closer and closer to it, some daring to try and touch the thing itself.
“Line up, line up,” A conductor shooed the masses, guiding them into proper weaving lines and then returning to the front to do the same thing again in an endless cycle.
Cara looked around quickly, scrambling over the ledge and dirtying her hands and the knees in the process. She perked up as she saw a bright red shirt. And then another one. And a third.
She quickly ran alongside the crowd, trying to see a tall dark head in a red robe. She almost considered yelling when someone else did it for her.
“Cara!” They called, “silly girl, over here.”
Cara swiftly turned around and found a bright tall girl waving at her. She exhaled and started jogging over. Summer had grown even taller over the years, shooting up as she hit fifteen and towering over as many heads as not.
Seventeen had filled her out, wide hips and round face that presented prettily straight teeth. She knew the dentist well, or maybe she had something on him, it didn’t really matter.
She wore her favorite red robe with matching worn red slippers and black tights, Cara had no idea who she knew in order to get those.
Cara was waving too as she approached, “how long have you been here?” Summer was situated smack dab in the middle of the growing line.
Summer puffed out her chest, “I staked out for the night.”
Cara’s eyes went wide, “you and,” she looked around, “all these people?”
Summer made a sour face at that, “some of them cheated while I was sleeping… but yeah.” She looked around, “kinda lame.”
Cara cocked her head to the side, “it’s been years since it’s been an option to go up to see Vega.”
“I know, I know,” she said dismissively, she grinned impishly, “but did any of them climb a thousand stairs to try and see it before? Tch. No devotion.”
Cara raised her eyebrows, “keep your voice down.” She snapped and glanced around, but no one was looking at them. It had taken a lot to explain where they had been for five hours to the House Patron all those years ago, youths were watched carefully under community authority.
Too many spirited kids had strayed too far from the city and fallen into the hot springs or narrow cave passages with no footholds back up. Cara had become a little more cautious over the years, she was all too aware she didn’t know how to swim.
They would have gotten enough demerits to last through their teen years if the community authority knew they were climbing ancient steps into the sky. The truth wouldn’t have gone over well.
Summer waved her hand through the air, “oh, they don’t care, the whole city just thought we were off getting in trouble.” She winked, “or making out.”
Cara rolled her eyes, “the only one you are interested in making out with that day was the sun.”
“Exactly right,” Summer bounced on her heels, “a star crossed lovers tale finally coming to fruition.”
Cara sighed, “Let’s just not lose our place in line.”
They faced forward, observing the conductor making a brief speech about “opportunities” and appreciating the world they are given. Then he made a metaphor about light and thanked the Legislative Council and engineers for making this all possible.
Cara only heard every other word of the speech, but Summer whispered the rest of it in her ear, adding a bit of exaggeration and an accent that was not his. Cara tried to cover her mouth and suppress any laughter.
The first batch of Pitch residents entered the elevator, cheering erupted all around as the doors rattled shut and the machine whirred to life, it slowly lifted into the air. The contraption was impressively less noisy than it had been for Cara’s first trip down.
The most affluent families were first, waving and beaming as they ascended, Summer’s eyes were huge and clouded with reverence as they left.
“How long do you think it takes?” She asked softly.
“Less than our first try at least,” Cara said flatly and then smirked, “maybe.”
Summer elbowed her in the ribs, “haven’t you been on it?”
Cara shook her head, “I wasn’t exactly watching the time back then,” she looked away, “also, you know… don’t get your hopes up for the view. I was there, it’s just tundra.”
Summer sighed so loudly it almost startled her, “I know for a fact your memory is crap.” She said abrasively, “I’m sure you’ll see it again and we’ll be in a love triangle with you, me, the sun, and Anlok itself.”
She tilted her chin up, “I think that’s a quadrangle.”
Summer made a face at her and started checking her pocket watch for how long it took the elevator to reach the top and then come back down again. It seemed to take approximately thirty minutes, they restlessly played cat’s cradle with some bits of string and read each other’s fortunes.
Summer had bought a book on how to read palms properly, but Cara stubbornly told her that the center line on her palm meant she was going to die in a canoeing accident. She almost got a noogie for that.
Time passed languidly, there was a surprising number of people in front of them, some that just showed up at the last second and got to cut in front of everyone else. There was some definite grumbling as the crowd grew increasingly fitful from that.
They played cards with the family behind them, the little girl flagrantly cheated, but they all let it slide. Summer threatened her with a story of the clock tower ghost at the end: a specter that saw all your sins and punished wrongdoers with songs of the past dead.
That ended up being a little much. They put the cards away.
At around twelve bells Summer looked up sharply, “I’m going to go get us some food.” She announced, not taking her eyes off the elevator. “We still have another thirty minutes.”
And then probably thirty more. Cara nodded slowly, “there’s still a couple hours before the main event anyway.” She guessed.
Summer sighed and jumped to her feet, “pita sandwich with spinach, yeah?” She said with great certainty, taking out her ration slips to count them.
The spinach crop had been doubled recently, though Cara swore the botanists were messing with the current batch- it was tasting a tad metallic. Cara at one point wanted to be a botanist, growing the colonies food under massive sun lamps in the lower caverns. She imagined spending her days combining and re-combining different chemicals and crossbreeding seed species.
She liked the idea of being useful, but Cara didn’t have the chemistry marks for it. She was considering this as Summer hurried off.
“Don’t forget the hummus!” Cara called after her, but Summer was already gone.
Cara settled down in the dirt and tried to busy herself with thoughts of her literature homework, there was a poem by the AI Lillian they had to analyze. She had only read half of it so far.
Cara was distracted by the chatter around her.
“Well I’m wishing for a personal butler Bot.” Children’s voices carried from behind.
“Oh yeah? Well I’m wishing for two Bots. And a dog!”
Cara frowned delicately at that, Anlok regularly took in those that needed to disappear from the big bright universe but most the residents had never been above ground. They didn’t know. It was popular mythos that the sun granted wishes.
There was a story, passed from the old to the young to the hopeful, about a great starry galaxy nymph that birthed the young sun, Vega. Around Vega came one wintery planet to keep it company, Anlok. The nymph made the waters boil deep in the planet and the springs grow mineral algae that oxidized the planet- gifting air, atmosphere, and a haven away from the endless Leviathan war.
And finally, she gave the sun the power to grant wishes.
Cara never knew how to respond to the talk of wishes that sometimes bubbled up around her, she turned away from the crowd and edged off to the side, waiting for Summer to return.
Cara was shrinking away when she heard a single woman loudly repeating something to herself nearby: “You may know truth. Truth is our path. Light is our birthright. The sun our guardian, dark our father.”
Cara’s brow folded in, she found herself turning toward the voice. A tall, gaunt looking woman stood in front of her, head bent down and voice ringing out.
“The truth is to know…”
Cara found herself speaking, “is that from the Text of Entropy?” For all those years, Cara had never forgotten the man in black on the cargo ship that shared his meals with her.
He too always spoke of the singular truth, the certainty of all cosmic things: entropy. We all burn to less than we were before, but in the burning there is purpose and truth above all things.
It wasn’t exactly comforting, but it did stay with her for all this time.
The woman wore a white handkerchief in her piles of brown curly hair, a loose peach dress, and raggedy black slippers. She turned slowly toward the sound of Cara’s voice, blinking rapidly, as if coming out of a trance. She was holding a crystal necklace between her fingertips with a glass prism at the very end.
“Yes?” She said in a loose, wind-swept voice, caught between the steam and her own thin red lips.
“Uh,” Cara realized her mistake, “nothing.”
“No I’m happy to share the word,” she grew a smile.
Cara pinched her lips together and pressed onward, “I was just wondering… I used to talk this monk who was part of the Church of Entropy. I was just thinking about… what happened to him. Or if you were one.”
The woman’s mouth twisted, but not in an unpleasant way. “I did my studies on the planet of Neribon.” She announced airily, “I read about the errant Monks of Entropy.” She shook her head, “no child,” she looked up to the space above, “I’m here for a pilgrimage of light, not decay.”
“Okay.” Cara took a step back.
“Have you heard of the Faith of the Spectrum?” The woman edged toward her, “it came to me in my lowest point, brought the greatest joy where I thought I’d lost all.” She smiled, eyes focusing for the first time, the irises were strikingly bright and maroon colored.
“Mmm,” Cara hummed, shifting back and forth in place. The woman looked Cara directly in the eye, waiting for a response. Cara cleared her throat, “Can’t say I’ve heard of them.”
“Then I have a story for you.” She smiled, “it’s a story you know, the story of all of us.” The woman’s face cast upward, stuck in some unseen veneration.
“Oh?” Cara furrowed her brow, listening warily.
The woman pointed to one of the bell towers, “if you run the clock all the way back.” Her voice became monotone and deep, a cavern unto itself. “If you go back to the beginning. It was hotter than all things, and just as dark. Darker even, the darkest thing. Light could not move, nor could anything else. Until…” She mimed an explosion with her hands, “the first gift.”
The woman nodded to herself, agreeing with some unseen figure. “That is the story of us. Light, the first gift, the only one that matters.” She smiled, a curl falling loose to her cheek. “It’s a story for you, too. I can tell.”
Cara looked the woman up and down. “I’m not much one for stories.” She said apprehensively, she had never met this woman before.
The woman cocked her head to the side, “we are alone, don’t you agree? People are terribly alone, the second we are born until death, dreaming, hoping, hurting, alone, alone, alone.” Here eyes darted around as she spoke, ghostly and gaunt, searching for something Cara couldn’t see.
“Uh,” Cara looked around, looking for someone who could better answer to this woman’s intensity.
“Cut off from each other, from ourselves, from the universe. There is only one thing that stops the endless separation… that is light, my child. Light is always with us: it connects across the universe without boundaries or barriers.” She closed her eyes, “it is the great truth, that we are not isolated, but connected, light our great thread.” The woman tipped her chin up, “that’s what kept me alive.”
Cara’s gut flipped over with something she could only call “regret,” she wasn’t one to engage with public displays of vulnerability or philosophy. “That’s. Good.” She replied stiltedly, torn between wishing she had better words and wishing she could just turn and leave. “Very good.”
The woman examined her for a long moment, “I am Pyra. You should find me again if you need anything.” She finished, “I must return to praying now, today is my pilgrimage.”
Cara nodded, the back of her neck still prickling.
Summer returned soon after that with their food, claiming that the line to the sandwich shop was entirely too long and she almost punched a nine-year-old for it. Cara tried to shake off her feelings and quickly took the sandwich, swallowing her unsettled thoughts with each bite.
She didn’t talk to the woman again, but many years later someone spoke of a nuclear physicist from the ravaged planet of Neribon, the only survivor of the whole thing. She retreated into the caves, taking a vow of silence and creating altars of light in the crevices of the planet.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Summer shook her leg up and down relentlessly, “there’s only fifteen minutes left!” She seethed through her teeth, “at this rate, we’ll only see the tail end of it.”
There were only eight people ahead of Cara and Summer, theoretically, they could all cram into the next elevator soon, but it hadn’t come back yet. And two other families were standing off to the side, arriving only a few minutes ago. Summer kept glaring at them with a truly bloodthirsty threat behind her expression.
Cara worried about them too; they were wearing thick white hats and yellow coats. They looked ready for the above ground.
Summer had her pocket watch out, Cara looked decidedly up at the wall, her frown growing long and pronounced. She glanced at the conductor’s booth off to the side and then frowned at that too.
There was a new conductor there, a magazine propped open on his knee and glasses perched on a nose that had been broken a noticeable number of times. Cara stood up, “I’m going to go see what’s up.”
Summer kept shaking her knee and staring at the elevator shaft, as if it might appear from sheer force of will alone. “Yeah, good.”
Cara jogged over to the conductor’s booth, “excuse me.” She came up to the booth and tried to catch the man’s eye.
He looked up slowly and put his magazine down equally slowly. “What can I do for you?” He was middle-aged, eyes crinkling around the corners and hair graying around the temples.
Cara drew herself up, she was good at keeping her tone business-like. “We were just wondering when the next lift was arriving. The sunrise is really soon, and we’d hate to miss it.”
He frowned with his large mouth and angular square jaw. The conductor glanced over to the two families in yellow gowns and thick hats. “Sorry ma’am,” he said, he didn’t sound happy either. “The last lift is for ticketed individuals only.”
Cara’s eyes went huge, “we didn’t know there were tickets.”
He looked away, “only for the last one. Went up real quick.”
She glanced at the other families, she had a hunch they were the only ones informed of the prospect of buying tickets this morning. She swallowed thickly.
“Sir,” she said sternly, “me and my friend have been waiting for years to see the sunrise. It’s terribly special, it’s,” she struggled, “it’s the most important thing. Not just a day trip.”
He looked her over with a discerning gaze, “I hear you.” He leaned back in his chair, a long beat passed, “I’ve seen you at Mrs. Havershaw’s, right? A smart woman.”
“Yes!” Cara lit up, “and my friend,” she pointed, “works for the bell master. We’ve both been with the community for years.”
The man found Summer in the crowd as Cara pointed, his expression pinched, and eyes narrowed. Cara realized she might have made a mistake. He rubbed his chin, “the bell man’s girl,” he sat back even further his chair,
Cara fidgeted in place, “we’ve both been looking forward to this for our whole lives.” Not entirely true, but she could play it up.
He took a long moment to respond, he looked her over again. “Tell you what, I’ll make an exception. You seem like a sweet girl and Mrs. Havershaw’s done right by me several times. One ticket, for…?”
Cara suddenly felt an itch in her veins she couldn’t scratch, the conductor’s words crawled over her. Sweet girl. Sweet girl. Sweet girl.
Cara had spent many years keeping her head down and voice low. She was also aware her face was doughy and girlish; many people mistook her for much younger than seventeen. Summer on the other hand was well-known, louder than light bulbs and vividly partnered with the well-known bell master.
A tall girl that never shrank or knew when to keep her mouth shut.
“Why not my friend? What’s wrong with you?” Cara wished she asked. But she didn’t. She was only a sweet girl.
Summer was the one that never really fit, ate the space up and forgot how to smooth out the rough edges. Cara had never doubted that they found each other for that fact, misfits on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Maybe that’s why Summer desperately wanted to find the sun and wish for a ship that would take her away from all this.
“Could I have… two?” Cara prodded delicately, “it’s something me and my friend have wanted to do together.”
The conductor shook his head, “I’ve only got one left.” She somehow doubted that, he reached into his desk. “I’ll jus’ put your name here, Mrs…?”
Cara quickly turned around. “I’m not really feeling well actually, I should go. Have a nice day, Conductor.”
Cara didn’t look back as she stomped back over to her friend, Summers eyes glowed, “what did he say?”
“Come on,” Cara took her arm and tried to pull her up, “I bet there’s some left over cake at the diner. I know like, two people who scheduled birthdays today.”
Summer’s face completely wrinkled inward, a rare collapse of her wide features, “Cara?”
It was probably fitting that the elevator clanked all the way down right then. The two families dressed in yellow gowns and large white hats got in. A dawning light of realization passed over Summer’s face, no one else was allowed to board.
Summer’s chin clenched and dimpled, she said nothing else as they left before a small protest could erupt from the others or the true disappointment of it all sunk in. They walked in silence back toward the market street.
“Suspense, right?” Summer said weakly as they bumped into each other and Cara just grunted.
“It’ll get sweeter with age.” Cara said without looking over at her.
They ate cake in the backroom and didn’t bring up their failure up. At least, not that night.