Page 2: Believer
Summer kept the date of the next sunrise pinned to her and Cara’s wall. They had moved in together out of convenience the year before and Summer was the main decorator for the house. She outlined the date in thick marker and surrounded it with bursting stars and glitter, writing in enormous red letters: GD 25TH!! 5050.
Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. She practically colored in the whole calendar the year of the sunrise itself, square after square: 300 days until sunrise, 233 days, 141 days.
The countdown was at 90 days.
By that time Cara was moved to her “tertiary” night classes, they still included general studies of math, science, history, and literature. But after that she’d actually have to choose a “Track” and apply for it.
The spots for Tracks weren’t exactly rationed out evenly. It took “need based” and translated it to “skill based” and whoever had the wallet for it. Not that Cara’s wallet mattered, she had no doubt she would fail the Tracking Test.
Cara had already decided on working at the diner from then on out.
Of course, Mrs. Havershaw had other plans. General Education 3 had taken Cara a lot longer than those who didn’t work, and she was well-aware of the graduation and following test days. However, it had been news to her when Secretary Lin called to confirm Cara’s Tracking Test date in two weeks. Mrs. Havershaw already paid the fees.
Cara suddenly needed to have a conversation with her boss that neither of them would be keen on, heart to hearts weren’t exactly their thing. Cara hid the paperwork in her knapsack and swore to herself each new day that she would take them out and confront the old woman. Cara never seemed to find the nerve.
She had been upgraded to waitress that year after a counselor’s son had dropped too many plates and a spot opened up. There were 90 days until the sunrise.
Cara’s shift that day went by quickly, she sped through orders, smiles, and filling up endless bubbly drinks. She watched the clock dutifully: three hours, two hours, one.
She wasn’t paying attention, not when customers’ heads suddenly leaned together, and they tensely whispered over their meals. Not when passing residents eyes flicked around uneasily on the streets and someone cried on the bench outside. Not even when the streets emptied along with the restaurant booths.
It wasn’t until she encountered an older gentleman, a regular who worked in mining and tipped her extra rations, said something. That’s when she stopped.
“Hey there Cara.” He was holding a newspaper open in front of him.
Cara nodded quickly, “how are you doing today, Mr. Crow?”
He only blinked, “oh well, I suppose not very well.”
Cara’s eyebrows skyrocketed, he was usually an equally amiable and private man. “Oh,” she stood up straight, “well let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
His gestured loosely, waving a hand back and forth. “Not unless you have some magic powers over turn of events.”
Cara’s froze completely, her thoughts grinding to a halt, “what?”
“You haven’t you heard?” He shook his head, “terrible, terrible news.” He heaved a sigh, “but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“What?” She took a step back.
Mr. Crow mumbled something else, “I’ll have a chocolate milkshake I think, large. Figure it’s time.”
She opened her mouth to continue to prompt him, but his dark eyes were drooping and she somehow lost heart. “Of course.”
She hurried into the back to put his order in, but she stopped when she heard the buzz of a large radio the moment she entered.
Two of the other wait staff, one busser, and a cook were standing around a Stellar Radio. The radio and several other gadgets had arrived with the newest batch of refugees (for all of its faults, Pitch Springs was still taking in as many fleeing people as it could). The Stellar Radio was allegedly one of the strongest radios invented in the last couple decades.
Every face in the back room angled toward the transmission, expression’s stiff and dark, one of the waitresses was covering her mouth with both hands.
“What is it?” Cara felt like she was outside of her body, distant and dreamlike.
They glance up at her, the cook turned the radio up, but someone else answered her lowly. “An armed frigate has passed the Redshift galaxy.” A busgirl, only fifteen Cara guessed, answered hollowly. “Less than a light year away.”
Cara held her breath, “who?”
The cook shrugged, “does it really matter?”
The oldest of them, a fellow waiter, shook his head. “The Polypheme Band I heard,” he responded without feeling, “not that it matters.”
Cara’s arms fell to her side and looked unseeingly ahead. The Leviathan War was encroaching on their doorstep.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
The Leviathan War, also known as the “Many-Headed War,” and “The War of a Thousand Sovereigns,” described as “The Great Wildfire” and “Final Hand.” But those last two were used more for speeches and dramatizations.
It had been raging for as long as she had been alive, and for all her parents’ lives too- back when they were alive. People in Anlok disagreed on how it started.
Some people blamed alliances, too many complex attachments between too many great powers. A good majority blamed the advancement of wormhole tech, making it so armies could show up anywhere with greater speed and accuracy. Some blamed the media and lack of communication between the sprawl of Goldilocks Planets with all their resources and all their empty time.
Cara had no concept of the Goldilocks Planets, of what they were and what they used to be. But the combustion of their union was felt in crushing wave after wave across the known universe.
The emerged warlords were ravenous, angry, bloody, always looking for new warm bodies to conscript into their ranks. In the beginning AIs and robots were foot soldiers on the endless march, but technology bit back, broke down, advancement stalled, people were soon considered easier and preferable.
The perpetual conscription started with the Penny Brigade and spread to all other factions, all eager to not lose their footing and add new energy to their ranks. Righteous and justified, almost none of them took “no” for an answer. Soon, there was nowhere to hide for those who didn’t wish to serve, people spread farther and farther away from the known hospitable planets.
The warlords followed as far as they dare, into the dead-lands of the universe where people hunkered down in the cold and the dark. But any colony that got too big or noisy could be found, sucked in.
Cara had heard of all this before; her history professor was a talker and invited her to meals to fill her ear with the past- and Cara enjoyed the free food and perhaps her mind was a little greedier than she let on.
Cara had always assumed that Pitch Springs was too quiet, too hidden, too useless, an icy ball in a solar system with only one planet and one weak sun. She thought they would never bother to come. A part of her could hear the politicians’ voices in her head: we expanded trade too far, we became too flagrant, too bold with our interactions with passing merchant ships.
Cara didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
The war was coming.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
The emergency drills became constant, urgent and then mundane, rote, but somehow, they filled her chest cavity with suffocating weight each and every time. She made sure the feeling didn’t show on her face.
She went to work, she went to class, the Tracking Test was canceled for the time being. She picked up the Holy Doctrine of the Spectrum and then the Text of Entropy. She put them all back down again.
Summer filled her ear with chatter, telling of the latest gossip and any news from the retreating merchant ships that fed them any tips at all. Cara hid with the others during the drills, assigned to underground bunkers so deep that no army would take the effort to find them.
Summer hid as well, but Cara suspected she wasn’t as afraid as the rest of them, that she was built more fearless and foolhardy, a granite to their sand.
Summer pointed at the calendar several times, “they better not ruin the Sunrise Trip this year, I swear to God, I will destroy them myself if they ruin my chances of seeing it.”
Cara gave a wane smile, “lucky you,” she ate her lentil soup, barely tasting it. “The sun will still be there when it’s all said and done. Vega isn’t going anywhere.” Unlike us.
Summer made a face at her, “she’ll be there, sure, but what if I can’t show up? AGAIN.” She gave a dramatic sigh, “it’s a one-sided romance right now. She’s waiting at the restaurant booth, thinking I stood her up, that I’m some sort of huge jerk who skips out on every date.”
Cara leaned on her hand, “I’m sure she’ll understand,” she looked up at the ceiling, responding sardonically, “suns have very long lives, this wait is nothing.”
Summer whined, “it will just have to be a brief but sensational romance.” She shook her head, “even if she ignores me for so very, very long.”
Cara made a face, “eat your soup.” She prompted her, “you can pine when I’m not around to watch it.”
Summer just sighed again.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
The sunrise date was highlighted on the calendar, bold and starred in all directions, however they weren’t looking at it when the day finally arrived. When Cara woke up that morning all the lights were out. She had never known total darkness in Pitch Springs before, it was deafening.
She woke to the darkness, complete and terrible, and then the blaring sirens, crowing round and round in an insistent blare. Cara rolled to her feet, stuffing her feet into her boots by feel alone and grabbing for her pre-packed bag.
I know what do to, I know what to do. She repeated to herself, Pitch Springs was built for this, it trained me for this. They wouldn’t just take me in, feed me, educate me, just to let me be stolen back to the war all this time later.
She felt her way toward the door, and then out into the kitchen, outside her bedroom there very distant and dim emergency lights glowing through the windows.
It was barely enough to see by, but she supposed that was the point. It was made for this.
The first High Councilor wrote in her final speech, etched into the stone wall above the capitol building itself: We Will Know Shelter. We Will Know Refuge. Sanctuary Not for the Few, but for the Many.
I will know shelter. Cara repeated it, but she didn’t believe it.
Cara’s legs felt like jelly, an incomprehensible numbness spread from her nose to her fingertips and the room itself seemed to tip back and forth like an ocean. She chastised herself, fool, why are you breathing so hard? Fool.
The floor itself seesawed, blurry and nonsensical as she tried to move forward, she found herself falling.
Cara never made it to her designated cave bunker. She never even made it out of her house. She collapsed on the floor and crawled under her rickety table, dragging her body along and cursing herself with every trembling thought.
Fool, fool, she gritted her teeth, what are you doing?
Her body had no response for her, only devastating, rapid breathing that smashed everything else inside her, every rational thought drowned out by the sirens and her own pounding heart.
She kept glancing at the door, but she couldn’t get to it, no matter how hard she begged herself to move. She clenched her eyes shut, just as she had all those years ago on the cargo ship, she never prayed, but she did turn off.
She snuffed out the noise, the light, and curled up there on the floor in the tightest ball she could muster, retracting into her closest version of “nothing.” She wasn’t sure how long passed, maybe an hour, maybe the rest of her life.
A voice whispered in the dark, “Cara?”
Cara jumped violently, “ah!” She screamed.
“Hey, hey, it’s just me,” a figure materialized out of the grey darkness, just enough for Cara to make out a face.
“Summer?” She croaked.
The girl nodded, kneeling slowly next to the table, “what’s going on?” She looked Cara up and down, “what are you doing here?”
She balled up into herself, knees tucked to her chin. She shook, “what are you doing here?”
“You didn’t show up at the bunker,” Summer said simply, “I snuck away to find you.” She felt a soft touch on her shoulder, Cara retreated from it, but Summer didn’t let go.
“You… snuck away? You’re so bad.” Cara sniffed, chest heaving as another siren went off.
The warm hand held Cara’s shoulder more firmly, “the very worst.” She whispered, huddling closer to her. “But I couldn’t let my favorite toady-companion disappear on us.”
The siren abruptly cut off, its voice withering away and leaving them only with echoes, and then nothing at all.
Cara couldn’t help it, the sirens turning off could only mean one thing. “No, no, no, no,” she clenched her eyes shut and turned off, but it wasn’t going off, none of it was going off. Hot, sticky, terrible tears burst down her cheeks and heaving sobs robbed her of breath and dignity. “No!”
“Hey, hey, look at me,” Summer wrapped her arms around Cara’s trembling shoulders, pulling her close, holding on tight. “The sirens are meant to go off like that, it’s okay.”
Cara didn’t feel the warmth, she barely heard the words, only the pounding in her ears. Stop this Cara, stop it, it was so long ago, her own thoughts fought back, you can barely remember the war.
Her breath crescendoed into a shallow frantic thing, a feral animal caught in her chest. “I can’t go back.” She cried, “I can’t let them get me, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
“They’re not going to get you, I won’t let them.” Summer hushed her. “We’re all going to be right here. I’m right here.”
Cara shook her head violently, “they know we’re here. They know we’re weak. That’s why they’re coming on the day of the sun, so they can see our entrance hatch! They planned this.” She tore at her hair, trying to tear out chunks, she shrieked, “they’re coming!”
Summer took Cara’s hands and roughly pinned them down so she would stop yanking at her hair. “Listen to me Cara,” She hissed, “I’m not going to let them take you. The Council won’t let them take you. Fucking Vega won’t let them take you!”
“Vega is fake,” she sobbed, “you don’t know. You’ve never been up there, you’re a fool, an ignorant willful fool and don’t know anything of the world. I know. I know what it is.” She paused for a long bruising second, her eyes went empty and listless. “I should have known,” her voice broke, “I should have known it would go like this, what else is there? I knew, I knew.”
The ugly weeping felt like it would never stop, her face stained with stickiness and body spent from a sickness so deep it felt like it would rip her spine out and leave only a pile of jelly and fear behind.
You know the world, she repeated, you should have known.
The dark and the silence consumed them from all sides. Summer didn’t comment on Cara’s nasty words, and she didn’t let go either; Cara didn’t push her away. The tears wouldn’t stop, but she did manage to make them silent and small, waiting for the world above to come crashing in.
Summer only moved once, to kiss her on the side of the head, directly on the temple. “It’s going to be alright.” She whispered into her skin, “you’ll see.”
She waited. And waited.
Cara waited until she was a brittle husk, more nerves than person, and waited so long she almost wished they’d get it over with and smash the ceiling down on them already.
Her eyes were almost drooping shut from the exertion of her grief, the one she buried so tightly it flavored every bit of soil she grew from.
“Cara,” someone shook her, she hadn’t realized her eyes were squeezed shut again. “Cara,” Summer said so gently it hurt, “the lights are back on.”
She squinted, empty and raw. The lights were faintly glowing once more, little honey things, with fire bugs floating around the cavern of the buried hot springs. Cara could barely register it.
Summer sniffed messily, wiping at her own grubby face. “We made it.” Summer rose, picking Cara up with her, the lights blooming golden around her head, “fuck.” She laughed like a newborn dawn, “we made it!”
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Cara didn’t know how it happened, some people told the tale over and over again across the diner counters, shouting it across the streets and bursting, but Cara didn’t dwell. All she knew was that one of the Leviathan warlords passed overhead and they somehow missed them.
They had looked, and they had lost.
It has hard to make sense of.
The following weeks all felt like nonsense. Cara feared she might never fit together right again, that all her pieces were shaken loose and scattered for good. Even if the war hadn’t found her, all those bygone fragments- formally fused together in cold iron and wrenching defiance, were cracked. She wasn’t sure she could go back.
Her control wavered; other things floated to the surface.
She looked at Summer more, just a look, and she made a wish like she never had before. It wasn’t something she permitted in the past, Cara kept her head down, her heart swallowed, and her vision clear. She wasn’t one for flights of fancy, Cara knew who Summer was, and she knew who she was.
She permitted herself to look though, just for a few indulgent moments. When Summer was telling a story to a recreation room crowd, hair flying in all directions and voice so big it could make cats yowl. When she tried to stuff seventeen grapes in her mouth and say gibberish for the benefit of a crying baby. When she complained of bellyaches, sang off-key, fell asleep with ink from the paper staining her cheek, clapped for joy, talked of the sun.
Cara let herself look, for just that moment.
Sometimes she even peered up at the bell tower and let her mind wander to the dimple on the other girl’s chin and light scar across the knuckles of her right hand. The bell tower sat stoically above, and Cara wondered if Summer could see her from the up there, if she was looking too.
Cara went straight back to work, her feet and back ached from the extra hours, but she needed to keep her hands busy and mind occupied. She forgot about all the other little things. It was only after Mrs. Havershaw stopped her at the very tail end of a long shift that she paused.
Her classes had taken a two-week hiatus, so she was covering new night shifts. Technically, classes never had to start again for her, it could be like this forever. It was closing time, Cara and Mrs. Havershaw were both counting the ration cards from the day and locking up.
Mrs. Havershaw didn’t move to leave when they finished, instead, she sat heavily down on a stockroom stool and her expression soured. It was prone to doing that.
Cara looked in both directions and then hovered closer, “is there anything else I can help with?” She offered, though she wasn’t sure she meant it.
Mrs. Havershaw got out a pair of half-moon glasses and balanced them on her long thin nose, lips peeling back to reveal her yellowing teeth. She had only been convinced to get glasses that very year, though she rarely wore them.
She sniffed loudly and her eyes landed heavily on Cara. “Sit,” she said sternly and gestured to a bench across from her against the wall, “there’s no more avoiding it.” She sighed with an exasperated edge, there was always a certain air about her of someone constantly disappointed.
Cara fidgeted, shifting in place and creeping up toward her, eyeing the floor and taking her time settling on the edge of the seat. “What’s up?”
Mrs. Havershaw smiled thinly at Cara’s nervous, casual language. She reached into her apron and took out a sheet of paper. “I was a little too forward about this the first time.” She passed the Tracking Test dates toward her.
Cara didn’t take it. “I really appreciate your efforts Mrs. Havershaw,” she said in a perfectly controlled tone, “and I am so grateful for everything you’ve done for me, it’s above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. But,” she took a deep steadying breath, “I don’t think…” She struggled, voice fading out as she continued. “I don’t think the test is worth either of our times. Or your rations.”
Mrs. Havershaw humphed loudly, “I didn’t ask if you thought it was worth my rations.”
Cara opened and closed her mouth, her cheeks flared. “It’s just not worth it, I won’t pass.” The words felt almost venomous in her mouth, but they needed to be said.
“Isn’t that perfect bullshit,” Mrs. Havershaw continued, “You haven’t even taken it yet. How would you know? You can take it more than once.”
Cara drew back, “With all due respect,” she tried to hold herself up tall, Mrs. Havershaw had to know. “But I only ever get average marks. I’m not even good at testing, I’ll fail. It’ll be a waste.”
Something stirred in Cara, doesn’t she know? Her hands clenched, how can she ask me to do this? I’ve already accepted how it is. The restaurant is all there is for me.
“What’re you even saying,” Mrs. Havershaw spat, “do you even know yourself?”
“Yes.” She crossed arms over her chest. “And that’s why I’m telling you this.”
“Do you know why I auctioned for your instruction?” Mrs. Havershaw continued unperturbed.
Cara’s face clouded over with confusion, “Because I’m a war orphan?” She offered, “Because you needed someone to work the dishwasher?”
Mrs. Havershaw snorted loudly, “Yes. But also, no, of course not.” The woman lifted her chin proudly, they were around the same size at this point, but it somehow looked more impressive on the old woman. “You don’t see yourself. You lack confidence.”
Cara’s blood started to run hot, “thanks.”
“But that doesn’t mean you should stop here. All those other jackasses Tracked children have tutors and time for studying.” She shook her head in distaste, “you work hard. And even if you didn’t, I wouldn’t deny you this chance.”
Cara blinked a couple times, “shouldn’t that chance go to,” she struggled, “people in the community who will be of more use?”
“I hate that word. Use.” Mrs. Havershaw seemed to be working herself up, that couldn’t be good, but Cara would really have to draw the line here. “Use!”
“I mean…” Cara said hesitantly, “the professors were only recommending me for the humanities track. My engineering marks weren’t, um… anything encouraging."
“I know,” Mrs. Havershaw exhaled greatly, “Cara,” she said steadily, “when you first came you children were given an assessment test, to see your levels, you all were supposed to write a sentence or two.”
She flinched, “yes?”
“I read all of them.”
“I- I see,” Cara looked down at her lap, she had been old enough to write basic sentences by then, she didn’t remember if any of them had been coherent.
“You wrote about the war. Pages of it.”
Cara bit her bottom lip, she remembered writing those pages in large frantic sprawl. Back when she hadn’t been hellbent on forgetting those piecemeal tattered strips of memories.
“It wasn’t anything important.” She assured, “it probably barely even made sense.”
Mrs. Havershaw caught her gaze in her half-moon glasses. “You remember,” she said softly, “we need people to remember.” Mrs. Havershaw straightened her hunched shoulders, “I talked to Professor Kelly. She said you could excel in her history program, that your interest surpasses any of the others... And even if you were at the very damn bottom, you think you’re not worth my time? Rations?” She snorted like a raging bull, “what absolute bunk.”
Cara pinched her lips together, “I’m,” she fidgeted in place, “what would I even do for the community?” She asked softly, “there’s already enough scholars, more than enough among the old families.”
Mrs. Havershaw smiled like a jagged crack in the wall, “there’s more universe out there than just Pitch Springs,” she said the name coarsely. “You’ll see.”
Cara shrank back, “the places outside Pitch Springs aren’t easily traversed right now. Or ever, Mrs. Havershaw.”
Mrs. Havershaw tossed her head back, “ever?” She said hotly, “ever?!” She laughed, mighty and wheezing. “Bastards don’t win. Not with guns and ships and all their bloody tantrums.”
Cara made a face, “they don’t lose either from what I’ve seen…”
“Your friend is trying to get off planet, right?” Mrs. Havershaw cut to the chase.
“I’m not going with her.” Cara said quickly, how could I?
“Well then, if you go. After you pass the Tracking Test and get all learned up.” Mrs. Havershaw nodded, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t let any of them forget, don’t give them luxury. You see what’s happened out there and scream it across this blasted universe. I know you’ve got some lungs on you yet girl.”
Cara brow furrowed, “Mrs. Havershaw…”
“When we can leave this planet. You remember this stinking time for us, write it down, don't let them sanitize the rough parts, keep our humanity. Tell them we didn’t all just roll over and climb into the war machine, that there were still good and decent people,” she grinned, and it was impenetrable. “Even if they had to live in a dank pit for it.”
Cara was bundled up into herself, a deep and red place. How is she like this? Color rose in Cara’s cheeks, how can she think they'll lose? That I could even do any of that?
Her chin tucked down, “how do you know it ends?” Her voice set like cold steel. “You can’t see the future. No one knows if we’re getting out of here, if the war ends. No one knows if being ‘decent and good’ even matters. How do you know? How do you know any of that?!”
“I don’t,” She said, perfectly calm in the face of Cara’s rage. “But they can’t take it away from me. I don’t know, there’s no knowing, but I believe in my bones that evil loses and wars end and that one day we will throw stupid parades with streamers and ugly hats and their bombs turned into party poppers. And I won’t stop believing it,” She laughed, a red flag erected on scorched earth, “because they don't get that too. Because fuck ‘em.”
Cara examined her, growing silent and still.
Slowly, with her cracking skin and withered hands, Mrs. Havershaw touched Cara’s shoulder gently, she leaned in like it was secret. “And I’ll tell you what else,” She rasped, “I’ve seen you... And I have faith in you.”
Cara gave a watery smile, “you shouldn’t.”
“You have no choice in the matter,” she said lightly, “the rest is up to you, take the test or don’t, leave or don’t. But I’m going to be sitting here like a bitter old crone telling you how it is. I have faith in you Cara, always have, always will. You have no choice in the matter.”
Cara’s eyes went wide. She wished like she didn’t feel like crying again.
Cara’s exact age had been lost a long time ago, she had hit puberty, hit back, and then become barely taller than some of the larger 12-year-olds. She probably should have learned to eat more vegetables instead of watching her boots for thievery all that time ago.
It didn’t matter, she was sitting in a classroom now, tiny, smelling like cooking oil, and with hacked-off hair and the yellow smock of a waitress peeking out of her book bag. Seven other students sat in large wooden desks near the front, they were all roughly younger than her, and knew from birth they were bound for this. Around the time of Pitch Spring’s founding, the wealthy founder herself set-up a “higher education” establishment.
We Will Know Shelter. We will know refuge.
Cara didn’t know about all that, but she did know she was the only one in the class who was not the daughter or son of a Council Legislator or top business manager.
Dr. Kelly wrote on the board, “now, let’s review the reading, who established the first agricultural exchange across the nine Goldilocks planets?” Dr. Kelly was a slender woman with dark hair braided down her back, heavy-lidded eyes, and a prominent bone structure.
She lost her left forearm in the flight from her university, carrying over a hundred of texts with her and a group of other escapees. Cara never understood why she didn’t just run for it, abandon the book caravan and make her own way, only five professors survived the trek.
Pitch Springs took them in just as Dr. Kelly herself almost died of a blood infection, she was beautiful in the way people are beautiful for themselves.
“It was Teller Gregor,” Jace, one of the top three students, answered. “Descendant of the Kinderland’s first leadership.”
“Correct, how would this influence the rise of the first alleged ‘Golden Age of the Nine’?” Someone else answered.
Cara’s eyes itched, her blood thick with exhaustion and a well-known sluggishness. The Highest Tracking wasn’t for the fainthearted, and most people usually didn’t keep a job alongside their studies. It didn’t help that Mrs. Havershaw insisted she was the only one worth a damn in the program, and that would make anyone work harder.
“How did the initial Spy Network formed from trade networks function to entrench power?”
Cara’s hand shot up; she knew this one. “It didn’t.” She said roughly, the class’s eyes flew to her, she steeled herself. “Power was already entrenched…” She mumbled. “It eventually counterbalanced the entrenched power by letting information flow in from different sources, the first Counter-Union was fed information from the spy networks. They were a counterweight, not a single tool for the Leadership.”
Dr. Kelly just smiled, “good. Very good,” she turned, “now, who has a counterargument for Cara?” All seven hands shot up for the first time that lesson.
The class continued, it was longer and demanded more of her than she had expected. But she scratched out every single word in wobbling notes and splashed it with yellow highlighters.
She didn’t call it a wish in those movements, in every question she answered, and every time her words flew across keyboards or notebooks- frantic and feverish. She’d call it a duty maybe, or simply something to do.
But that wasn’t true either.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Samara’s sons and daughters had grown, matured and had kitten-like creatures of their own, Cara kept feeding them and eventually coaxing them into her lap. She was busy petting one she named "Zoink" behind the ears and repeating facts of the first Interstellar War for her next test.
“1151 ED,” she whispered, “the first soldier is augmented using hummingbird code, dies in transit. 1152, second test subject is augmented with hyena code, dies within the first hour. 1153, second battle of the Belt.”
She was mumbling and humming to herself when she heard voices carrying, she would have ignored them if one of them wasn’t quite so familiar. Cara perked up and stopped petting Zoink, he started mewing pathetically as her hand froze.
Cara left her last piece of dried meat for him and crawled toward the jumbled voices. They were loud and arguing heatedly, she crawled into the next cave and toward an opening in the black wall.
She poked her head out just as she saw a merchant cart and a figure throwing his hands up in the air. Most of the passing merchants simply dropped off their goods, payed remotely, and were quickly on their way again.
Few lingered near Pitch, even fewer were allowed to. Nonetheless, a young man she had never seen before stood before his cart and gestured around wildly.
“Look girly, unless you have rhodium, zinc, or some damn potable water in your pockets, I can’t do lick for you.”
The girl Cara knew very well growled, “I can work. I’m good for it. I’m healthy, I’m strong-”
“The more people I carry the more the Blood Brothers wanna take a bite.” He shivered, “me and the dog are enough risk as it is.”
Summer rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll find you some rhodium and you drop me off at the nearest Free Outpost and we’ll call it even.”
They continued arguing, Cara simply raised her eyebrows at her friend’s newest attempts to leave the planet, it was going as well as any of the attempts before. Cara should have stuffed her head back in the wall then and stopped prying.
But she let herself look, for just another second. Summer was as boundless as the steam itself, shaggy brown hair tied back at the nape of her neck and long red tunic secured in place. Her face flushed from the exertion of her argument and voice carrying across the caves.
“Fine, fine,” she waved her hand dismissively, “I’m getting off this planet with or without your help. You’ll just be a poorer man for it.” She stuck her tongue out.
“Yeah, yeah,” he turned, “this is what I get for mingling with the locals.”
Cara took that moment to dart back up down the hall, her face hidden before Summer could look up and spot her. Meeting eyes with her old friend wouldn’t mean anything, even if Cara was spying on her from above- it’s not like Summer didn’t spy on her.
But Cara had been avoiding Summer’s gaze a lot more recently. She liked to think nothing had changed, but maybe Cara had.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
It was well past the dinner time bell when Cara and Summer sat down together for the first time in a long time around their rickety old plywood table. Neither had felt like cooking that night so they had a few rolls and a bag of oranges between them.
Cara didn’t look up as she tore off a soft piece of bread and stuffed it in her mouth.
Summer hunched over, “can you believe them?” She seethed quietly, “they won’t even let me get a tiny look at the flight charts. This is censorship, right? This is what censorship from the public is.”
Cara flicked a tiny smile, “I’m pretty sure it’s just a clearance thing.”
Summer shook her head violently, “and how am I supposed to get clearance? The bell tower doesn’t exactly come with a lot of ration bonuses,” the tore at her bread, “clearance my ass. If it’s not available to everyone that’s censorship!”
Cara reached for her juice, late-night clamor and voices of the Springs surrounded them. “I’m sure you can bring an Admonishment to the Low Counsel for it.”
Summer just humphed loudly, “and wait another nine months?” She groaned in the back of her throat, “I’ve waited long enough! They’re doing this on purpose. They don’t want anyone to leave, they believe this funky pit is ‘paradise.’”
Cara raised her eyebrows, asking lowly. “How do you know it isn’t?”
Summer snorted gently, “paradise would come with better air fresheners.”
Cara gave a brief laugh, “maybe the rest of the universe smells a lot worse than this,” she spoke lightly, carefully, “maybe it’s all sweaty socks and curdled milk from here.”
Summer leaned on the table, “there’s only one way to find out,” Cara looked up just in time to see Summer wet her lips. “And they aren’t making it damn easy.”
Cara shrugged loosely, “I guess the only thing for it is your wish then.” She teased, mouth twisting to the side.
Summer looked away bemusedly. “You up for that? There’s still a month left.”
Cara made a small motion, noncommittal, “I'll ask Dr. Kelly for the day off class.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said softly, eyes burning into the side of Cara’s face. “I was serious when I asked.”
Cara looked dejectedly down at her feet; lips pressed together. She didn’t respond for a long moment, Summer seemed to take that as the answer and rose to her feet. She turned to go to her own room.
“What happens,” Cara’s shoulders tensed, and she bit the inside of her mouth. “If… we don’t?”
Summer gave a lilting, almost cruel, laugh. A rakish jackal still, “then nothing changes.” She said bitterly, “then we’re stuck like this forever.”
Cara looked up, she couldn’t help it, there was so much heaviness caught in her tone. She met Summer’s bright brown eyes, knitted together and bruising- sorrowful with all their might and lightning.
“Would that really be so bad?” Cara whispered, trying to make herself known.
Summer just shook her head, “I can’t live like this Cara,” her voice broke, “my parents left. They knew they couldn’t live like this, and I can’t either. It’s all walls, and fear, and, and, nothing!”
Cara drew herself up, “you have me here. You have the community. There are things for you in Pitch,” she drew herself up, “and we’re safe, that’s not nothing.”
Some light went out of Summer, her shoulders falling and head crumbling under some unknown weight. “I know. But I’ll have you all with me.” She said hesitantly, wetly. “Even if I leave, it’ll all be in here.” She pointed to her chest, “it’s not like I’ll forget.”
Cara nibbled on her last slice of orange. She clenched and unclenched her toes in her socks, “I know I can’t convince you to stay…”
Summer took a step toward her, “I’m still offering.” She whispered, “come with me. We could do it together.”
Cara sadly lifted her chin, trying to smile. “It’s your adventure.” She looked away, “you don’t need me. And I’ll be… fine.”
“You’re satisfied?” Summer’s arms flew out, encompassing the whole area. “You’re satisfied with this?!” She stomped her foot, “Cara…”
Their eyes collided like a strike across the face, in the way Cara had been trying to avoid for years now, sensations raced down her spine. Things have to stay the same, they have to, I’m not who you think I am.
She shook her head bitterly, “I don’t have an answer for you.”
Summer turned on her heel and slammed the door loudly behind her as she went to bed.
She’ll never find a way off planet anyway, Cara consoled herself, it’s for the best.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
The elevator had a maintenance day. The counsel canceled the sun viewing, the rickety machine just couldn’t handle the constant trips for the day.
Cara wasn’t sure if she was relieved or uneasy. She told herself she saw this coming, that this was how it had always been, and would be.
She was in her third year of the history Track; she would be done in another year. And then she’d have another choice and question of the future.
She rejected five new "Family Housing" proposals from some gentlemen and one lady in the area, she let Mrs. Havershaw chastise her for not even humoring any of them. Cara wrote her final paper on the great Leviathan war, and then she erased it and wrote about trade route development instead.
She watched the day of the sunrise creep toward her. She slept fitfully and the house was quiet, empty, as it all came together. She barely slept at all the night before.
“Crap!” Cara heard someone cursing early in the morning, Cara screwed her eyes shut against the noise and curled up tighter in bed. And then she remembered the date.
Cara untucked herself slowly as she heard a series of footsteps from the other room, she cracked her eyes open and fumbled toward the door. “Summer?” She called thinly.
She didn’t hear a reply. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and found her way to the next room. “Summer,” she said slowly, “they’re not doing trips above ground today.” She yawned widely.
Summer’s door was propped open, she darted back and forth inside. “Don’t need it.” She said with a boom, “do you remember that cave lady?”
“What?” Cara rubbed her eyes again.
“The cave lady. She calls herself a priestess, she makes those freaky pedestals in the caves-”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said airily, “well I told her about my problem like months ago. Last night she handed me this paper about a passing cruiser. Said that it used to make rounds here during sunrises to pick up ice- and hitchhikers sometimes.”
Cara wrinkled her brow together, “you’re…?”
“I got a friend to open the stairs again, you know, after they put that bolt on the door.” She was talking so fast it looked like her tongue might fall off. She broke into a terrifyingly huge smile, “it’s happening.”
Cara took a step back, “you’re listening to Pyra?” She wrapped her arms around her frame, “how do you know she’s telling the truth? Or that this ship will still be coming?”
Summer shrugged, “I don’t.” She put the pack over her shoulder. “What do you say Cara?” Her monstrous grin widened, “you want it?”
Cara frowned so heavily it felt like a new set of gravity was applied to her face, “you really want to do something like this?” She squinted, “climb forever just to maybe-maybe leave the planet for God knows where?”
Summer rolled her eyes, “duh.” She stood tall, taller than she had in years, “this is the only important thing.”
Cara just scowled softly at that, Summer didn’t pause to convince her further, she simply went to the door and looked over her shoulder, grinning, eyes shining. She winked, “I’ll be at the stairs.”
In a different world, maybe Summer would have stayed and tried to convince Cara to come, Summer was known to hate doing things alone. If Cara had been someone else maybe she would have put up a fight, come up with some solid arguments about wars and dangers and a whole of slew good reasons not to leave your childhood planet.
But Summer knew Cara too well, even after all this time. Cara looked at the door of her house as it swung shut and her insides clenched, stirred, pulsed. She sniffed loudly, I don’t have to. She reminded herself, a ship probably isn’t coming. Not really.
And then she was moving all on her own, racing back to her room on her own foolish impulses and tore a bag away from her closet. She started stuffing it with her shirts and shoes and notebooks, any of her texts she could find, and her tiny class computer.
She couldn’t believe herself, but neither could she stop herself.
She jotted down a note to her professor, and another very simple one to Mrs. Havershaw: Thanks for everything. I’ll be back. I’m going to go find out if you’re right.
Promise I’ll see what’s out there and remember. I’ll be yelling the entire time.
She added one last part before she fled, something she didn’t bother to read over twice, words she never said, but were worth saying all the same.
“Wait for me!” She was out the door. “Don’t waste all your energy on the walk over there, wait!”
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
They were quiet on the first few flights upward, weighed down by their bags and new coats, their steps echoed cold and empty in the hollow space. Cara watched the back of Summer’s neck, her hair tied up in a bobbing uneven ponytail and just a sliver of skin visible. Cara let herself look.
It was on the fifth flight of stairs that Summer began to sing.
Her voice was light and silvery, a mist in the wind, so much crispier and more fragile than anything else about her.
“They’ll be bluebirds,
Over the shores of the sky,
Just you wait and see,
When the bombs have all fallen
And the dawn was sunk
The bravest people I ever met
Braving those angry skies
They’ll be bluebirds,
Over shores of the sky,
Cara joined her, just for the last lines, adding her shaky uncertain voice to the song haunting the great and terrible steps. “They’ll sleep again, the valleys will bloom again, we’ll be home. They’ll be bluebirds, tomorrow…”
The last notes carried and sank all around them, the girls were somewhere far above the ground now, a new feather-light cold descended. Summer looked over her shoulder and gave a victorious smile, “think they’ll pay us to sing for them? That’s gotta be worth a free ride.”
Cara gave her a threadbare smile. “Maybe they’ll simply pay us to shut up. That’s gotta be worth a free ride.”
Summer chuckled and turned straight head, “does that apply to this trip too?” She pointed to the stairs, “I’ll stop singing if you promise to carry me. I’m feeling very charitable you see.”
Cara rolled her eyes, “sing away little birdie.”
Summer took a deep breath and burst into a jaunty tune, “and she pulled up her skirts and tore down her shirt, said to the farmer: look here, I’ve got two-”
“I’m not carrying you!”
They kept climbing.
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Chill sank down around her with little nippy pinprick teeth and frozen hands down her neck. She had forgotten how cold felt, how it snagged and cut, how the little vibrations of the first shivers felt.
Cara wished she could say she minded, but she didn’t really, everything was deliciously new again.
“What if they want to sell us?” Cara asked grimly.
“What if they want to crown us?” Summer countered, “or rename us minor Gods?”
Cara grumbled, “I’m the only one about to keep us alive on this trip, aren’t I?”
Summer glanced back and winked, “tell you what, I’ll keep you alive and you keep me alive. It’s a foolproof system.”
Cara pushed her bangs back, trying to control the chattering of her teeth, “is that what you’ll finally wish on Vega for?”
“Oh no,” Summer sang, “I have a much better wish now.”
Cara sighed, “good.” She hummed, “we are going to need every bit of impossible magic we can muster.”
“God,” Summer’s ponytail bobbed as she looked up, “I love proving you wrong. The look on your face is going to be priceless when my wish comes true.”
“When have you ever proven me wrong?” Cara grumbled, disliking the taunting tone to Summer’s words.
The other girl stopped in place, forcing Cara to almost bump into her. Cara blinked, examining Summer’s profile, it was oddly serious. “Summer?” She asked softly.
Summer reached out her hand, Cara almost jumped out of her skin as their fingers brushed. “I said the war wouldn’t get us, right?” She clamped down, squeezing Cara’s hand tightly. “And they didn’t. I was right then.”
Cara tensed, “not yet they haven’t.”
Summer shook her head, squeezing tighter, “come on,” she tugged her up, “we both of have more things to be wrong about.”
≿————- ❈ ————-≾
Cara thought that she would never see the top. That maybe that was fake too, along with everything else.
The stairs never ended, the sun never rose, the sky was rock and metal and nothing more, it didn’t matter that she saw it all those years ago. But maybe the things Cara told herself didn’t matter either.
“Cara,” Summer looked upward at the glass in pure delight. “Look.”
Cara followed her, slowly, thoughtfully, looking up at the wintery white light falling from above. “Ah.” She exhaled the word, and there was a sheet of thick, heavy, glass above them, and above that was something else. “Summer…”
They were very close. Through the glass was blue, kissed blue, soft and frightfully pale blue, it seemed like a deep pool that fell forever.
Summer bounced in place, she turned to Cara, a fire in her face all her own. “Come on.” She grabbed Cara’s hand again.
“Woah!” Cara’s heart thudded painfully, but she didn’t have time to crash and burn in her own sweaty palms, Summer yanked them forward, insistent and bursting. They ran and ran, “pace yourself!”
It was too late. After their hours long trek there was only three more staircases to conquer, only three more to stop them- they sprinted. Knees banging together, feet rattling against aged metal, and hearts pounding.
They ran, sweating through their coats and breaths freezing in puffs of white ash in the air, she looked up just as a hatch came into view. “Summer!” Her voice split, they lurched to a stop.
The hatch was solid metal with a huge round wheel in the middle, it was situated in the center of a dull silver square, and around that was glass. A little rusted sign hung off the sheet of glass between them and the sky, she read it briefly, Caution: Hot.
They both pulled on their gloves in quick movements, making sure their hands were covered before grabbing the freezing handle. Summer’s hands were first on the silver wheel, tugging viciously on it, the metal gave a truly fantastical screech but refused to budge.
“This thing is ancient!” Cara noted, “let’s be careful.”
“Ugh,” Summer strained, mittens slipping across the material. “Help me!”
Cara grabbed the other side of it and heaved, they pulled on the wheel together. What am I doing? A part of her asked, but the other part strained and growled and shoved.
“It won’t budge!” Cara panted, looking up through the glass as a new color breached the sky- something blooming egg yolks and autumn leaves. “Whoa…”
“There it is,” Summer tugged off her gloves with her teeth, “just the motivation I needed.”
Before Cara could do anything Summer put her bare hands on the wheel and gave a ferocious yank, “ah!” Her fingers went red and puffy on the cold metal, the wheel itself gave an angry howl- metal grinding against metal.
“Stop that,” Cara shoved her aside to stop her from ripping the skin off her hands, “are you bleeding?”
Summer shook her head and shoved her hands beneath her underarms, “no,” she said through gritted teeth, “but that did smart a bit.”
“No,” she grumbled flatly and started turning the wheel. Her muscles complained as the wheel groaned, now free to move beneath her hands. Cara gave the final yank, letting metal hatch fall free, a soft release followed- sounding like a great sigh or hushed whimper.
They stood back as a truly wicked gust of fresh air blew in from above, Cara took a deep shuddering breath of it in through her nose. A full minute passed as she tried to process it all. The air was sharp and clear and something she barely recognized.
The hatch led to a tube with handholds leading upward, past the thick glass and into the above. Cara steadied herself, fingers shaking, thoughts aching, Summer reached up first and hauled herself up.
Cara didn’t know what to say, how to frame any of this or mark the occasion. So, she didn’t say anything and simply followed. She tugged the hatch closed behind them, sealing off the stairs from them, closing off the rest of Pitch.
She didn’t think about that either.
“Woo!” Cara heard the whoop and the cry from above, “awwwwhh!”
It was a scream, a reckless, heartless, fight of a thing. Cara pulled herself up one rung of the ladder at a time, and then her head was right beneath the exit, hovering under the pale blue sky.
The tundra was waiting.
“Cara!” Summer shouted, cheered, screamed, her feet pounding. “Cara, it’s beautiful.”
She lifted herself up and blinked into the endless white, her eyes went wide, wind whipping around her head and heart clinching together, tight and electric. Summer was spinning in place, arms raised up and framed by the whole of the icy landscape.
It was white, glittery and almost perfectly smooth in all directions, limitless.
Grey rocks peppered the white and snowy mountains rose in the distance, just where the slimmest bit of frayed yellow light sat, cradled against the planet’s horizon. Cara couldn’t stop looking, it was all so huge.
How did I forget this? Her eyes were slightly damp, what is this?
She did a slow spin in place as well, the atmosphere was thin, and barely there, they wouldn’t be able to breath out here for long until they got light-headed and ready to faint. Then they’d be frozen by nightfall- a night that would last several years.
She inhaled another cutting edge of raw air and then threw her head back. “Oh.”
Summer crashed toward her, “‘oh’ she says,” Summer slung her arm over Cara’s shoulder and shook, “she just says ‘oh.’”
“Oh-uh-ah,” she made an exaggerated sound just for her and then pointed, everything in her building to this, “it’s here.”
The edge of the sky was dripping with runny watercolors, the wisps of yellow and kiss of pink in the distance. Summer squeezed her shoulder, “there.” She said softly, “there it is!” She shook Cara more vigorously, “it’s really happening!” There was no stopping her smile.
They shuffled off the side of the heated glass panel, and fumbled for a seat on the hard ice, sitting heavily down and tilting their heads back to watch.
The sun rose with all the ease and grace of a dream. First the tendrils of white and yellow, snaking and impossible, and then the body of a star, glorious and huge, white, yellow, orange. She breathed it in, and barely registered the cold or pulsing hollow place in her chest.
She heard the distinct sound of sniffling and soft whimpering besides her, Cara glanced over, Summer’s face was in her hands. Her shoulders were quacking, and little sobs escaped from between her fingers.
Cara reached out to rub her back, “you’ll miss it.”
Summer peaked between her fingers, eyes red and glistening. “Did you make your wish?”
Cara shook her head, “did you?”
Summer took her hands off her face and blinked, her cheeks were puffy, and water streaked. She sniffed loudly. “Not yet.”
They both focused silently, prayerfully, on the rising light, a warmth softly pet Cara’s brow and she could feel her eyes filling too. Even if the ship never came, she certainly didn’t regret this.
“Cara?” Summer leaned into her, “I’ve made my wish.” There was something small about the way she said it, shy even.
Cara turned slowly, gradually, a stone bending to the winds of time. She faced her, their shoulders brushing and eyes barely meeting. “What was it?”
Summer gave her a miserable look, “for things to change.”
Cara shrank down into herself; a deep pleading was in Summer’s gaze. “Why?” She gulped the word, swallowed it whole. “It could be much worse than this.”
“Or better.” She said softly, “if you’d let it.”
Cara held her gaze, “I dunno,” she clutched her hands together, “things don’t always work, don’t usually. Not really.”
Summer reached for her, crossing the endless bleak expanse. She put her hand on Cara’s cheek, cradling it. “Would you let me try?” She said with a clear weakness, straining. “Just for a second. That’s my wish.”
Cara gave the smallest of smiles, “what about my wish?”
Summer tilted her chin down, holding Cara’s gaze boldly in her shining eyes. You can ask me, Cara thought to herself, you know I’d do anything for you. And Summer was finally asking.
The hand on her cheek drew back, barely touching her now. “Cara,” She said quietly, eyes downcast, “I always, I wish… a lot. I wished for a long time. But I would never force it.”
Cara closed her eyes, she reached for Summer’s hand up and put it back against her cheek, securing her touch over the axis of her jawline. She opened her eyes slowly, “you know I don’t believe in this sort of thing,” she whispered, “but you do.”
She leaned forward, closing the gap between them, eyes fluttering shut, and mouth finding hers. It was cold. And then warm as the daybreak, coursing through her, painful and blazing, leaving nothing behind.
Cara’s world shrank to one single moment and her mind filled with the horrors of bright light and soft lips. She kissed her in the whipping winds of the tundra and the whole world tumbled together and ascended up, up, up, for her, just once.
She told herself this would never happen. She would never let it.
Cara could look, maybe, wish, maybe. But she wasn’t built for this or anything else, she knew she was built to curl into herself and never come out. But maybe that didn’t have to be true.
They kissed deeply, soundly, Cara’s skin warm and radiating and when they parted, they were laughing, roughly, rashly, dawn prickling across their skin and the hollows of their throats.
They tapped their heads together and Vega bloomed all around them.
“Can I say it?” Summer vibrated, “I’ve meant to, I always meant to. And I don’t want to be scared anymore.”
“You? Scared?” Cara laughed, her breath licking Summer’s cheek. “Never.”
Summer gave an uncertain, wobbly smile, “terrified.” She whispered, “you’re the scariest thing in the universe you know, the war is a far second.”
Cara shook, her whole body lighting up like fireworks were set off, she uncurled. “Scarier than war, huh…” She grinned, “Promise?”
She nodded, “promise.”
Cara inhaled, deeply, the sun warm in her mouth and brimming in her chest. “I might not believe you.”
Summer wrapped her arms around her neck, “then you’ll be wrong. And I’ll have to keep saying it.”
Something snapped within Cara, snapped so hard it hurt. “Okay.”
She dove forward, quick and sweeping, she kissed Summer again. It was deep and raw and red. It coursed through her in waves, reaching into her chest and planting itself there. She kissed until there was nothing left, stealing all the air in the universe and filling her up with everything else.
It was like flying or drowning or breaking into a thousand little pieces all over again.
They blinked slowly at each other when they are forced to surface, giggling at their puffy, flushed lips, and messy expressions.
“Hey,” it rolled off Cara’s tongue, there were some words she would never say, but were worth saying all the same. “I love you.”
Summer fell into her, breathing like she just ran a marathon. She gulped, voice quacking like a blender on high. “You took my line.”
Cara gave a crooked smile, “are you mad?”
Summer brought her fingertip delicately to Cara’s chin and tipped it up, “furious.”
“Good,” she chuckled, face flushing. “You can say it next. Even if I don’t agree… I’ve heard I am a good learner.”
Summer closed her eyes and leaned in, yellow light bright on her skin, she pressed her lips into the nape of Cara’s neck and spoke into her skin, vibrating there. “I love you.”
And then it was over, it was all over. The sun began tumbling down toward the horizon again, setting just as quickly as it had risen in a perfect arch. They watch, softly, hand in hand, waiting for it all to change.
The sound of an engine came from overhead and they looked up to see a turquoise ship entering the atmosphere. They both stood up together, eyes filled with the last of the sunrise and flushed with each other.
They waved it down, “hey!” Summer shouted, “hey you! Give us a lift!”
Cara never believed in the sunrise on Anlok, not really, not here, she also didn’t believe in passing ships that would pick up strangers either.
But there were worse things in the universe than being wrong. She chased Summer down toward the ship and the ice and the bright pale sky.
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