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Last Rocket from Planet Longday
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ocket fuel stank up the air. Amazing it didn’t explode in the boiling heat. It evaporated too fast. I couldn’t smell the chemicals but I knew they were there. I observed the scintillation of vapor near the rocket fuel tankers. My metallic sun-suit processed cool-air inside preserving me from sizzling death and poisons. My suit reflected a brilliant glare from an enormous, sky-born fireball. It filled the sky. The killer sun.
Planet Solstice – or Longday – to former inhabitants. It slowly slid into the deadly gravitational pull of it’s blazing sun. It took eons, of course. But now heat and poisonous gas on the planet surface were unlivable. The ground once fertile and covered by vegetation now baked dry and cracked. Every visible thing cooked dark brown or black. Except for white reflections glinting off sun suits and metal – and the last rocket. Drab and lifeless planet, I thought.
Automated robot loaders were lumbering. The squat, heavy robots appeared more like military tanks than any intelligence. The last rocket’s robot crew struggled conveying salvage cargo preparing to remove us from this inferno. It’s like hell I imagined. Former lakes and rivers evaporated. Bony skeletons of large fish. Their flesh decayed with shriveled scales. Smaller fish mere dust marks of discoloration in the cracked orange powder. There were no birds, no ground creatures, no plants. Scientists claimed primitive life dwelt deep beneath the surface. But no one ever measured or saw anything. It was theoretical. Hard to believe a creature might survive. Perhaps there existed liquid – somewhere. Perhaps.
The last survivors drilled in vain for water. None located. The drills could go no deeper. The project abandoned and planetary evacuation commenced. I am a driller. Millennium from now, when this cursed planet eventually explodes, will shrieking buried life cry out in desperation? Never heard in the quiet of burning space. I felt sad for them, if they existed. All life precious. Even if suffering in pain.
There were only a half dozen passengers. We all knew each other. But I didn’t recognize a new individual – a female. Hard to distinguish gender in these bulky suits. But her smaller size and frame with a tight belt around the waist revealed the fact. I couldn’t make out her flight suit’s name tag. But it was military colors. Still some military personnel left on this space lump? Odd. She must’ve landed aboard the rocket. Trained military occupied the first rockets out of here. Well workers – like me – left last to disconnect the final power systems for loading. My mind persisted; curious. She must be in Intelligence, I thought. Final witness for the last moments of this doomed planet’s occupied history?
I’d been on Longday three years. I was single. Three years. I was lonely. Is she alone? Don’t be stupid. You can’t even see through the reflecting glare on her visor. Does she see me? The sun was roasting. Normal rocket takeoffs were in the dark of night. But this was the last one, no ground power to light the area. All salvageable equipment removed. It must occur during the daytime.
Daytime departure meant a more dangerous leaving. Anything could explode – including my suit. Suit accidents happen. One minute your buddy’s there. The next minute, he’s pink vapor. I looked over the small band examining for sun-suit leaks. A leak was death. My eye caught something. The new young woman’s suit – small puffs of vapor were out-gassing from her suit. Where was the point of origin?
She sensed it now. The air heating up in her suit. The suit showed a slight swelling. She twisted and bent frantic to find the small slash. Like a pinhole in foil. That’s all it took. She’d be dead in moments. I reached in my refrigerated side pack and pulled out a roll of adhesive. I snapped off a hands-length piece and slapped it against her inner left thigh. The leak stopped and the adhesive instantly cured hard in the heat. I knelt for a moment in her shadow. I looked up through the visor glass and saw her warm brown eyes. They weren’t fearful. I saw kindness. I hadn’t seen that expression in – well – over three years.
Her communication link came on. “Cowboy, watch the hands,” she said. I smiled. I saved her life – and she made a joke.
“This cowboy’s name is Jackson,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you Jackson. Is that your first name – or your last?”
I hadn’t used my first name for over three years!
“Sorry. My name’s Guy Jackson. Please, call me Guy.”
Others in the small group were now attentive as they stepped back a few paces. A sun-suit explosion could ignite someone else’s suit.
“All your friends are giving us privacy,” she joked again.
“All passengers must board now,” barked a mechanical robot voice through the comm-link. Everyone hustled forward anxious to escape this planet. There I still knelt – her shadow gone.
I didn’t even know her name yet. She saw the life-threatening danger – with no panic. But she didn’t stick around to make conversation. Why was she here? Yes. I grew more curious. Three years instilled a burning curiosity in a man.
I stood and glanced one last time around the dying planet. I wished I could save it – but it was too late. I turned and boarded the shining rocket. Goodbye and farewell.
The windowless rocket interior was a cylindrical cigar-like tube. Some odd music played through the comm-link. I’d never heard it before. Three years away from popular music? Of course.
Seats for twenty people on each side ran lengthwise attached to the outer curved walls. Too many seats for this small passenger list. The dim lights flickered. The humming main engine was hot. There were six of us. Myself; the driller. Ramirez; the mechanic. Winkler; the cook. Fisher; the toxicologist. And Schmidt, the scientist – and of course, the mysterious brown-eyed young woman. Robots sealed lifeless in the back cargo area. There were no pilots. Everything was computer controlled. Automated flight plan.
I noticed the new young woman strapped into the farthest most seat. About 5 times the length of my sleeping bunk on Longday. Twelve paces away. Alone time was what she wanted? Not approachable on this trip. Lonely, I plunked into the seat nearest the heavy boarding door and locked my shoulder straps. The door slammed shut. The remaining four others were milling around in the center floor of the rocket. It lurched forward. And jerked again. The unexpected motion threw those standing to the floor. Without warning, the engine roared to life and we sailed off in a fast spinning spiral. Bodies and gear flew outward from wild G-force. Winkler’s helmet cracked open and he gasped struggling for his last air. The cabin hadn’t pressurized.
Impaled on the ceiling sensor shaft, Ramirez swore some crude Spanish in the comm-link. He bled copious amounts. The red fluid spread outward against the curved ceiling – like puke in a spinning carnival ride. Pinned in place like a butterfly.
The rocket soared vertical now. And – bad news – the power snuffed out. Everything. Lights, engines, life support. All off. The instant drop made my stomach jump in my throat. Overbearing G-force pulling me into my seat. We plummeted nose down spinning again toward Longday’s rock-hard surface. I fought blackout.
Ramirez and Winkler were dead. Fisher and Schmidt’s bodies tossed like rolling limp rag dolls. Blood covered the inside of their visors. Endless slamming back and forth from wall to wall. Rotating like wet flesh bags of slurry in a wild cement mixer. I braced for impact. Counting the seconds. Soon I’d be dead.
The rocket collided upside down. The crashed tube distorted and the doors blew out like explosives. The mangled rocket bounced upward for the height of a well tower. Then fell lifeless shuddering against stone. Sliding in loose sand and rock. The surface heat blast and toxic atmosphere roared inside. Death!
Upside down, I snapped loose the harness straps. I dropped and slid in blood. I sprawled dizzy – sliding across the former ceiling toward what I sought – the young woman. Was she alive – or dead? My suit was still intact. Was hers? Her helmet hung down limp but attached. She slumped against the straps. I popped loose the belts and lowered her to the former-ceiling now an upside-down floor. Her suit held together. I hefted her unconscious over one shoulder and inched toward the door – and the blazing light. Not much time until we expired. But – I grimaced – dying together was better.
Ironic. So close to it’s own sun and still freezing as the planet rotated. Night was only made bearable by the residual heat radiating from rock and sand. Our desperate situation: nowhere near shelter, power, or water. I lay the brown-eyed young woman gently in coarse red sand. Her eyes remained closed but she was still breathing. She’d live.
I returned to the ship to scavenge supplies. The four crumpled bodies were motionless. But I checked for life signs to be sure. All dead. I found a supply of water bottles – and stole Fisher’s candy. He didn’t need it.
Back in the cargo hold, I started one of the boxy robots. They were more like clunky vehicles than human form. Strapped upside down in the rocket, the problem was dropping the massive robot. It could cause robot damage – or crush me. I pulled a knife from my sidepack and flicked it open. A few slices and the robot crashed upside down and rolled on it’s side. It was too heavy to upright. “Right yourself!” I commanded. It flopped and struggled. I kicked it and finally strained levering it right-side up with a broken support beam.
I crawled inside a small panel to an opening inside the robot and commanded it again, “Forward!” This time it lunged through the damaged rocket wall like a sharp bottle opener. It teetered and then stabilized on the steep slope. “Stop and remain,” I said. “Acknowledged,” it replied in a smooth female voice. It shocked me. Never heard a female robot before. New experience.
I went back through the ragged hole and came crashing back with the other robot. They both still worked. It was a miracle. These two could provide metal muscle to cross some distance. To where? I had no idea. But it was reassuring. How long their power cells lasted? I returned to the wreck and got as many spares as I could locate. I piled them on top of the robots.
I examined my companion on the ground. She moved an arm. I scrutinized her name tag: Thomas. That’s a start, I thought. “Thomas, can you hear me?” I said through the comm-link. Her eyes fluttered open. The previous kindness was gone. She squinted at me and scowled, “What’s happening?”
“We’ve crashed. Everyone’s dead. But you and I – and two lucky cargo robots,” I said.
She was silent.
“Did you hear me? Is your comm working OK?”
“My comm is fine. Where are we?” Our mutual desperate situation was soaking in.
“No clue. Surface of Longday. But I couldn’t tell you where.”
I noticed the radioactive detector flash on her suit. But, odd, not mine.
“What’s up with your suit?” I asked. Pointing at the blinking red light.
She glanced at it, puzzled. And nodded as if connecting the mental dots.
“I must have sat closest to the bomb,” she said.
“Bomb? Radiation?” I asked.
“Yes. We weren’t supposed to leave this floating rock. Not alive anyway.”
It was my turn to be silent.
“That’s right,” she said. “Sabotage.”
“Four of my friends are dead. You and I may not make it. Who’d do something so evil? And, why?”
“No time to explain. We need to find a cave or crevice. I’ll explain more details then. We’re in danger here in the open. They’re looking for wreckage – and any survivors,” she said.
“You mean – whoever they are – will hunt us and kill us. Because there’s something were not supposed to know.”
“You’re smarter than you look,” she said. I tried not to smile.
We found a canyon crevice with a cave inside the rock wall. There we hid and also concealed our robots.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Thomas, the young woman, sent by Military Intelligence explained. And get this, she’s a captain. Just my luck. Fortunately, drillers don’t have to salute. But the real shock was the myth of something living deep in the planet’s core was true. At least, according to Thomas it’s true. And not one solitary thing – but millions. The military interest? Weapon potential.
“But how can creatures be weapons? Especially on a dying planet?” I asked.
She was silent looking at me – assessing my trustworthiness. “I don’t know everything … yet. But anyone who knows the truth about the story is gone.”
“You mean gone as in … dead?”
She didn’t say anything. “I think so,” she replied.
“How much of a role do you have in this conspiracy? Did you know they’d kill me?” I asked.
“I knew they’d try to kill me. Remember that hole in my suit? I doubt they had interest in killing you. I had found out too much. As for the rest of your friends, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Sorry? You might have warned us. You suspected danger.”
“I didn’t know they’d crash the rocket. But it all makes sense now.”
I thought for a moment.
“I didn’t sign on for any military operation. I’m a low-class driller. I’m no warrior.”
She looked into my eyes. It seemed like forever. It felt – uncomfortable.
“The only way were getting off this planet is if you become a warrior. We have to fight or die.”
For the first time in three years, I thought I was raving mad. I’d experienced many hardships. They were nothing by comparison to this. I’m just a driller, I thought hoping that title would release me. But, we had to find the secret of the underground life forms. Then we’d know how to save ourselves.
“OK. I’ll think about it,” I said, “But, listen, I haven’t had a woman friend for over three years. Could you at least tell me your first name – so I don’t have to call you Thomas?”
“Thomas, is what I’m called. It bothers you?” she said.
“Well, sort of. It’s a man’s name. I’d rather not think of you as a – man.”
“Very well. My name is Cahira. It’s an Irish warrior name – for women. But not women friends.”
“Cahira,” I repeated. Testing it’s sound from my mouth. It echoed in my helmet.
“Now you know why they call me Thomas,” she said.
“Cahira, I like your name. It’s unique,” I said.
“Fine. But knowing my name doesn’t make me your woman friend. I don’t care if it’s been 5 years.”
“Three years,” I corrected. As if it mattered any more.
“What do you propose we do?”
“There’s an entrance. We have to get there. It’ll take us below the surface to a military base.”
“Is it occupied?” I asked.
“We’ll find out,” she said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Nothing – practicing your name.”
“You’re a desperate idiot,” she said. And gave me a look that stirred my hope.
“We can travel inside the robots while we sleep. But they will need planetary coordinates. You got anything?” I asked.
She winked. I knew it. This woman was special. Bless her and her self-reliant spirit. We would survive I hope.
“Here’s how you get inside these robots,” I instructed Cahira. She smirked.
“I know that. I’ve had survival training,” she said.
“OK. Once inside, you can recharge your suit through this cable,” I pointed at it.
She gave me a look like I was a dunce.
“Got it. You know that too” I said. “Do you know how to load the planetary coordinates to get us to this entrance?”
Now she was glaring at me. Either I was a lousy teacher or she was a lousy student. Or both. She plainly didn’t like being told stuff she already understood. I’d best assume she knew everything imaginable and proceed with another approach.
“Fine. Show me you know all this stuff by doing it right now.”
She hesitated and stiffened. Oops! I thought, that sounded too command like. I added, “… please.”
She slipped inside the robot and connected the charger. She programmed the coordinates as if she did this everyday. I was impressed.
“Sorry to have doubted your abilities,” I said. “One last thing, here is a flare gun. I have no other possible weapon – but it might do. And if we get separated you can use it to help me identify your location.”
She nodded and accepted the flare.
“You’re forgiven. We better get moving,” she said. And, I was surprised by her smile. She closed the metal hatch. I loaded myself in the other robot and we began our journey.
We traveled inside the mechanical robots that night. I in one. She in the other. We communicated through our comm-links.
“How long do you estimate it’ll take to get to our destination?” I asked. I wondered if I needed to say, “Please.” Her voice crackled over the link.
“A long time. Hours most likely. I recommend getting some sleep,” she said.
The ride was rough. I was rattling and bouncing against the robots inner panel. It made a hammering sound resonating inside my helmet. Sleeping would be difficult.
“Can we talk?” I shouted above the rattling.
“No. Sleep,” she replied. And she silenced her comm-link.
I was disappointed. In the din, I reflected upon the last three years on this forsaken planet. Somewhere on another planet was a fat bank account waiting as compensation for my labors. A lot of good it did me now. The stuff I wanted to buy was meaningless. My dreams evaporated in the crash. Survival was all that mattered now. There was no one in my disposable life – except Cahira. And we were strangers thrown together by fate – not choice. I thought of the tragedy of my dead friends. Left in the arid desert, their bodies would turn to dust by morning. It wasn’t right. Some of them had suffered on this hellish planet longer than I.
For what? Death? That was their reward? Senseless. Wasteful. Evil.
My head bounced and nodded to the mechanical aboriginal-like drumming surrounding me. I was beginning to either dream or hallucinate. I couldn’t decide which – it didn’t matter. My pounded body let go and finally relaxed from exhaustion. I dreamed of a beautiful place. Lots of water. Well diggers dream of water. It’s like gold and rubies. Water is treasure. Precious wealth. Cahira was there. Her suit was gone and she wore a loose-weave colorful fabric wrapped around her body. She was standing in water up to her waist. “Join me,” she said. I’d never wanted something so bad before.
The robot suddenly stopped. That’s when I awoke. I shook myself and clicked on the comm. “Cahira? Your comm on?” I asked. Silence. “Cahira, you there?”
I struggled to get out of the robot. I was stiff and sore from the torture of being slammed around in the rocket and then all night in the robot. I dropped down to the red sand and slowly walked over the rocks around the robots huge body. I stood speechless. I was alone. The other robot nowhere in sight. Not even tracks as evidence it arrived. I dropped to a sitting position and scanned the horizon. Nothing. Not even a little dust cloud or glint of metal.
It was the loneliest of moments. All I had were questions and more questions. But no answers.
Nearby was a large cement box or shelter of human origin. That would be the entrance to the hidden military base, I thought. How long should I wait? Would she arrive before I was discovered?
After several hours, there was still no sign of her. I decided the only choice was descending below the surface.
Into the dark pit, I descended. The military-transport elevator – for heavy equipment and vehicles – was easy starting. I figured it’d stop when I arrived at the bottom. How far that might be? I had no idea. The solid rock walls were glassy smooth. Fired by natural, intense volcanic heat – or by man-made rocket fuel. It was difficult to tell. The smooth traveling elevator descended as if well maintained. But no creature life existed. I grew tired of standing during this lonely and hollow experience. I couldn’t sit comfortably – so I lay on my back and stared up at the shrinking sliver of surface light. How far would this rock tunnel go into the belly of Longday?
I dropped into a deep sleep. And I dreamed.
I awoke gasping for air. The elevator stopped surrounded by unseen light sources. I was suffocating. In desperation, I yanked at my helmet. The seal wouldn’t release. There was atmosphere pushing outside locking my helmet in place. I rolled over, lifted my head, and pounded the helmet visor against the metal platform. No luck. I did it again and again until tiny cracks formed. Finally, it broke and breathable air poured into my lungs. I lay there gasping – face down – scratched by the visor’s sharp remains.
The air was fragrant. Rich plant life and moisture – the real stuff – not artificial. In my enthusiasm, I sprang forward and fell from the platform into soft grass, weeds, and flowers. Vegetation! I must still be dreaming, I thought. How could this be? Small birds sang and a furry tiny animal scurried into a wooded brushy clump. Life. Here was life? How? The surface was dying and dead. The inside alive?
I couldn’t see the distant light source I’d stared at for so long from above. It was as if the surface world disappeared. There was no “above” – only this wonderful place. In this space, real clouds floated full of water vapor. How could there be sky in the middle of a planet? I hadn’t seen clouds … for three years. Three long years. Then I remembered: the crash, my missing Cahira, my dead friends. The temporary wonder lulled me into false safety. Was I in any danger? I saw none. Only the sounds of nature. I released the remnants of the broken helmet and dropped it to the ground. There’s normal gravity here, I thought. I pulled and struggled to get out of my metallic sun suit.
And that’s when I noticed the most heavenly lullaby: the babbling of water. It called to me like magic and I ran a short distance discovering a rocky brook. The banks were lush and verdant. Green plant life dropping down over the banks. The tips touching the slow wandering clear water. In spite of it’s shallowness, I threw myself into the water. What a feeling – buoyed up floating in water. Precious surface water so fiercely rationed we bathed with a damp sponge. Drinking water – tasteless, distilled, and ionic to remove toxins. I slurped this sweet brook water. Holding it in my mouth, I finally swallowed. It tasted of minerals and a hint of salt. It was beyond belief. Natural clean water. Untouched by poisons.
How could this place even exist? I wondered, bathing myself in the warm pool.
That’s when I heard the elevator engine whir and it began again to rise back to the surface. Was it on a timer? Or was this Cahira descending? Or enemies sent to kill me? Whoever it was, I had time to prepare for their arrival. I’d be ready. But first, I’d float a few more amazing minutes.
When the elevator platform again reached bottom, I’d fashioned some “combat” clothes from the cloth-like linings of my sun suit. The metallic suit I disposed of in a convenient hole and hid myself in thick vegetation. There were five figures in shiny sun suits on the platform. I recognized Cahira. It was the first time I’d seen her without a helmet. She had long, dark hair tied in a ponytail. Same as my dream. Why did I like her? I couldn’t tell if she was the leader or a captive. She had no restraints. I wondered, was she friend or foe? There was no clue from her regal stance. They’d removed their helmets previously and conversed freely. But even straining, I couldn’t make out any precise words.
Surely, they’d seen broken visor shards on the platform. The debris was cleaned off. Could Cahira have done that before the others arrived? That might mean she covered my trail. Still the robot sitting at the top indicated I was here. Did she hide it?
Once off the platform, they walked single file on a secluded path. I missed seeing that ribbon-like path. They knew the direction well. But I didn’t. There were no signs they suspected I was present. No searching or calling for me. Perhaps Cahira played a quick deception and protected me? There was no way to know. So I remained silent and waited. As they advanced, I slowly followed through the trees and brush. My well-workers knife my only weapon. It felt puny drawn in my fist.
One thing was certain, the others knew Cahira’s identity and her rank.
The group of five walked a long distance with me stalking. The trees became more sparse. I could hear a distant hum like machinery or ground vehicles. We approached a large city – I realized this remarkable city remained concealed from the universe. For fear of discovery, I couldn’t enter the city. I watched as they prepared to enter via a roadway. Then an odd thing, they removed the sun suits and dawned civilian clothing. What was going on? The little path long gone. The group hid their suits and entered the city. I wasn’t sure what to do next. How did the city inhabitants look and dress? How could I camouflage or disguise myself?
I sat behind a tree watching and waiting. A man staggered out and began urinating on a wall. Luck was on my side. I approached behind him and knocked his head against the wall. He went unconscious. I traded clothes and entered the city. The clothes were ill fitting and the owner low in station. But no one noticed me as I milled among people in the street. I wonder if it’ll get dark? I thought. They must simulate night and day. But I hadn’t noticed any change in light since my arrival. My question was answered. The city went pitch black. It was as if someone flipped a switch. There was no gentle dimming as a natural sunset. No gradual change in coloration. One moment bright white. Next second, darkness. Unnerving. But no one paid attention to this abrupt change – a common daily occurrence.
Small artificial lights twinkled in windows and open doorways. No open flames from candles. No illumination on the streets or walls. Rationed energy like precious water on the surface. Darkness was my advantage, I could explore in stealth.
Buildings were rough masonry brick. No wooden components. Not even for window or door frames. Roofs were dark tiles. Windows were glassless and unshuttered. Open air passed in freely. There was no glass or metal doors. They must not have bad weather or extreme temperature changes, I thought. Forever mild and temperate. A storm-less tropical island inside a sea of planetary rock. Houses were plain but businesses were painted natural color pigments.
There must be no crime or violence, I thought, anyone can enter any building or room at anytime. Could such a society be so completely safe? How did Cahira fit in this peaceful community? The warrior woman. Wasn’t she from off planet? Was she even military? Why her secret entry to the city?
I followed the sound of music. Not recorded music but real musicians playing in harmony. Voices singing an old Earth tune. Were these lost colonists? I recognized the rhythm. It took me back to happier times. Good memories. The lights unexpectedly switched to bright again. I heard a commotion outside the city. The unconscious man! He was discovered. An alarm sounded.
I was soon surrounded by angry people grabbing and holding me. Pushing me to the ground and dragging me through the street. I was captured.
They held me in an interrogation room. The chairs, the light, the table, the bars on the open window. It was plain I’d soon be questioned. They weren’t happy with my hurting a citizen and stealing his clothes. Bad actions weren’t tolerated. At least, I understood the words they spoke. They hadn’t lost their language to gradual corruption. That meant the existence of a library and books somewhere. Maybe even schools and children. Intelligence. Where there are books – there is recorded history. I wish I could read them. Perhaps those books even spoke of mercy. I prayed there would be mercy.
My interrogator finally entered the room. He carried no weapon. I thought of the knife in my boot and decided to let it rest.
“Who are you?” the interrogator asked.
“My name is Guy Jackson. I’m a well driller from the surface,” I said.
He scowled. “The surface? Absurd. Nothing lives there.”
I found this interesting. Did he know everyone was dead?
“Have you ever seen the surface?” I asked.
“I do the questioning. Not you,” he replied. “I’ve seen the Great Death above.”
He was pompous and lying. He’d never even seen the elevator.
“That’s where I come from,” I said. “Up there.”
“Don’t waste my time. No one exists above. It’s poison. Stranger, why are you here?”
“Why don’t you ask Thomas?” I said exploring the interrogator’s knowledge.
“Thomas? Thomas who? Who’s he?” he snapped.
OK, I thought, he doesn’t know Captain Cahira Thomas. Nor that he’s a “she.” Is that good or bad?
“Thomas, was on my crashed rocket. He must be dead,” I bluffed.
“What’s a rocket? Speak clearly,” he commanded.
“ A rocket is for space traveling from planet to planet,” I said.
“You’re mad as a rock mole,” he muttered. “These things aren’t possible. Stories to entertain children.” I was tempted to ask what a rock mole was. But provoking him deliberately would make things worse.
“Take me to your leader,” I said. I’d always wanted to say that. But drillers didn’t get those opportunities often. I smiled.
“You smile?” he eyed me with suspicion.
I burst out laughing.
“Why do you laugh? Well digger, you’re strange,. For what do you dig?”
“I drill,” I said, catching my breath. “I drill for water.”
With this comment, the guard stood and pointed a threatening finger in my face.
“Water thief!” he shouted it as if he decreed my death sentence. His chair tipped over backwards and clattered noisily on the stone floor. He stumbled over it – and fell. The sound reverberated sharp and clear in the tiny cell. Guards burst into the room. I saw opportunity in the mayhem and bolted past the guards – and through the door. I ran to the left corridor. Dashing fast as drillers do when towers come loose – and explode in all directions. You run. Your life depends upon speed and shelter. And I was the last driller. That meant I was without question the absolute fastest.
I ran until I outdistanced the guards and was winded. I gasped for air. Frantic, I searched for a hiding place. The lights were off again outside. I could chance the darkness again. Or I could stay in this building. This was where the action was happening. I sensed it and slipped into a doorless room.
Crouched in a dark corner, my eyes grew accustomed to the dark. Someone was asleep in the deep center of the room occupying a huge bed. I heard the lumbered breathing of a heavyset man. The slumberer’s presence reduced my chance of discovery. No one would disturb us. I took a moment to think.
The authorities questioning me: they don’t know Cahira or at least they don’t know her by the name Thomas. Nor do they know Thomas is a woman’s last name. That was interesting. Did she have an alias here? Or was Thomas her surface alias? Was she a spy? Why did they discard their sun suits before entering the city? Maybe sun suits are evidence the surface exists. Were her elevator comrades friends or enemies? Was she forced to play a role of deceit? She knew about the surface but these city men didn’t. Not the truth anyway. They thought the surface mythical. As we did about their hidden abode. And drilling for water was definitely a crime here. Why? Again I asked questions clouded in mystery.
And why was Cahira even in the doomed rocket?
I needed a library and some history. Knowledge is power especially if your life depends upon it. Was I in mortal danger? For some reason, I didn’t think so. The worst they could do was send me back to where I came from – or kill me. They were the same.
My jumbled mind spun in confusion. The sensation overwhelmed me. Life seemed paradoxically slow and fast. In the still darkness, the quiet made me conscious of my every breath. My breathing was too fast. I focused to slow it. I exhaled and took a long deep breath. I held it a moment and released it.
I felt I could hear my every thought. My old life erased – gone. I was in a new land – even a new inner world. It was mysterious and beautiful but frightening. So many things I thought false were now proven true. There was life still in this planet. With enough time – several millennium – planet Longday must burn up and perish. But these people didn’t know that. They lived unaware. They didn’t know the dead surface was a foreboding to their own fate. And not knowing allowed them blissful existence. They lived without fear.
On Longday’s surface, we only knew fear. Survival was our daily goal. Life exploded with the mere hissing sound of escaping oxygen. I wished to belong to these carefree people. How could I integrate into their strange society? I must learn their ways.
“We have a tradition of not lingering long in the dark.”
I startled at the voice so close to me. “Their ways?” I thought, “Traditions.”
“Yes. Our ways are not your ways,” the unseen voice said.
I recognized her voice. It was Cahira.
“Are you reading my mind?” I whispered.
“Obviously. And without a machine!” she voiced in my inner mind.
They can read minds with – machines? And without? I marveled.
I felt her touch. But it was not her hand. It was the barrel of a weapon jabbing my side.
“Are you friend or enemy?” she asked with her natural voice.
She was inside my head. Listening. For how long?
I decided to test her mental prowess and thought my answer.
I am your ally.
She lowered the weapon. I heard it holstered in a clothsheath – a hidden pocket in her clothing.
How did you find me? I thought.
“You have a noisy mind,” she whispered.
I nodded and smiled.
The dark lump of sleeping man snorted – I startled awake. My chin rested on my chest. My throat dry. When did I fall asleep? Was Cahira’s voice a dream? I touched my side where she jabbed me with the weapon. It was still tender. It was real. She was here and left. I was holding my breath. I let it out slow. Elusive woman. Blessing — or curse? I was more curious than ever.
I stood up from my sitting position. Something scraped against my chest inside my shirt. I smiled. A crude map. She hadn’t left me without hope.
I was losing track of time. I couldn’t remember how many days or nights I wandered. I followed her map as best I could. The surroundings – once lush and green – turned brown and dry. Water was not prevalent away from the city. Was the city water supply unnatural after all? Or this inner earth possessing varying climate? The loamy soil underfoot was sandy and loose. The vegetation was sparse and coarse. I saw a few lizards and snakes but no mammals. Everything screamed “thirst!” Ahead I imagined there were only cactus and sage brush. Where was she sending me? To a frying death in the desert?
Without warning, it was dark. No rising dawn or gentle dusk. No temperature change. The abrupt light changes still unnerved me. My eyes grew used to the dark. I saw small lights on the horizon. Little beacons of expectation. That must be my goal. I trudged on stumbling and swaying in the dark path. It seemed to take forever.
There are moments in life altering your course for eternity. When rockets explode, when sun suits leak, when water surrounds you. There are other moments completely insignificant. You never know which until you pass through the moment and step into the future. Then you are aware of the gravity of choice and consequence. You accept your fate and play the game hoping to end well.
This is where I am. Trapped in a brutal game. I can’t return to the world I came from and yet I slowly walk daily towards a future of death or life. No clue which. I was hating Cahira for playing with my life. Torturing me. Not telling me where and why I suffered these deprivations. Was she my ally – or not?
“I am with you always,” she said in my inner mind.
It spun me around as I searched for the source of her voice. There was no one but tumble weed and grasshoppers.
“I hate it when you do that,” I said, “Where have you been? Where are you now?”
“I’m in the encampment ahead of you – the lights you follow at night.”
“What do you want with me?!” I shouted to the dead wind.
There was a silence. A long pause.
“I don’t want anything. I need,” she replied.
“What is it you need?” I asked.
She was quiet. “I need – you to rescue me.”
“Rescue? Is this another trick?” I said.
The silence was longer than before.
“No trick. I’m held captive.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m bait,” she said.
“You can’t be serious. For what purpose?”
“Bait for you. They want you. They know you’ll come for me.”
“Why would I come for you?” I asked.
“Because – you love me.”
“What??!” I sputtered.
Now it was my turn to be silent. It was true. How could this be? How could I love someone I didn’t know. I sensed she was smiling at my delayed response.
“Why do they need me?” I asked.
“You’re the last driller. They need water. They’re desperate for water – more than they need my life.”
“You’re mad. These people have the technology to drill for water.”
“Guy, this world is backwards.”
Hearing her say my name felt weird. Sickness grew in my gut.
“Were you sent to trap me and sacrifice the others on the rocket?”
“I don’t know. I only know they want your capture,” she said.
“I’m insignificant. Nobody. Why would they kill my friends to grab me!?”
“Water. That’s all I know. They believe you can provide them water.”
“But there is so much water back at the underground city,” I said. “Why not take that?”
“It’s not the same. It’s not genuine.”
“What do you mean not genuine? It can’t be fake. I floated in the stuff.”
“It feels real. Tastes real. But it can’t assimilate by the body. Not enough to sustain life.”
“But the people in the city seem healthy enough.”
“Seemed. Yes. They appear fine. But they aren’t. They all must die.”
I thought for a moment.
“Are you saying they’re expecting me, Mister Nobody, to save this dying world. Boy they made a big mistake.”
She was silent again.
“They will sacrifice me. You must arrive soon. Then they’ll force you to find water – if you don’t – we’ll both die.”
“Cheery news. Thanks. There’s no water from the planet surface. It’s dead. Baked to cinders.”
“There must exist pockets of water between the world surface and here. There must be something.”
“Not a drop,” I said.
“But you didn’t think there was life beneath the surface either. You’re wrong about the water.”
“I hope I am,” I said as I began running as best I could.
And then her thoughts were gone from my mind. And I still ran. Thinking of her words.
Soon the lights were visible in the darkness again. They were closer now and I wondered what I should do. I had no machinery or engineering tools. Drilling for water would be impossible. It was preposterous I should save a dying world. It was not of my making. But I could save Cahira from death. Or I could die trying. That seemed worthwhile. These people sealed their own fate when colonizing into this inner space. It was not my calling to save their nation. They made a wrong assumption. One driller is insufficient.
In the dark, I now saw mud and clay huts. Small fires inside made the openings in the walls glow bright. One of these huts held Cahira.
“Where are you?” I thought. Trying to contact her.
“I’m in the third hut. The one with the guard outside. There’s another guard inside.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m OK.”
“Is there a way out of this place? Do they have a rocket hidden down here somewhere with a launching silo?”
There was silence.
“Yes. But how did you know? No one knows but a few.”
“Why do you know?” I asked.
“I was the ruler of this people,” she said.
“Was?” I asked.
“Overthrown. Exiled. That’s why I was at the surface. I’m exiled and was making my escape – or deportment. Didn’t work out so well.”
“Understatement!” I said. “Total disaster.”
“Someone sabotaged the attempt. I’m sorry,” she said.
I detected remorse in her voice. It surprised me for some reason. I thought her tough. I was wrong about a lot of things.
“Can you distract the inner guard and get him outside?”
“Sure. What do you have in mind?”
“They’ll take a long nap – while you and I find that rocket.”
“We don’t have to look for the rocket. It’s here.”
“Is it fueled?”
“Then we’re taking a trip tonight.”
There was a silence.
“But these are my people. You must save them,” she said.
“I can’t. It’s beyond my capabilities. I’m only a driller. I don’t have super powers. It’s you and me and that’s it.”
I could tell she was thinking. It was a big change. It was one of those not-going-back moments.
“OK. I’m ready,” she said.
I ran unseen into position and when the second guard emerged, I clubbed them both into dreamtime.
Cahira stood before me dressed in fine materials.
“You look beautiful,” I said.
“You look – horrible,” she said. I looked down at my ragged clothes and dirty skin. I was a mess.
“I don’t travel as well as you,” I said.
She led me to the rocket launch area and we donned sun suits for the flight.
“I can’t believe you’ll leave with me,” I said.
“These people betrayed me. You saved me. Why would I do anything else?” she said.
“Because I’m a nobody,” I said. “- a silly driller.”
“That’s good enough for me,” she replied. And she kissed me.
Three years was worth it.
We entered the rocket awaiting all the automatic checks – the last rocket.
The surface survivors drilled in vain for water. None located. The same happened here. The drills could go no deeper. The project abandoned but planetary evacuation didn’t start. Left to die.
I am a driller. Millennia from now, this cursed planet will explode. The shrieking buried life will cry out in desperation. Never heard in the quiet of burning space. I felt sad for them, because they exist. All life precious. Even if suffering in pain.
The dim lights flickered. The humming main engine was hot. There were only the two of us. Myself; the driller – and of course, the mysterious brown-eyed young woman, Cahira. Robots sealed lifeless in the back cargo area. There were no pilots. Everything was computer controlled. Automated flight plan.
I sunk into the seat nearest the heavy boarding door and locked my shoulder straps. The door slammed shut. Cahira strapped into the seat nearest me.
We looked through our visors at each other. There was sadness in our eyes. The engine roared to life and the vertical ascent began. Shaking up and up through the rocky shaft. We punctured our way to the surface and into space beyond – and our new life.
Like a burst bubble, water began rushing down the rocket’s earth conduit. The rocket’s metal shell pierced a huge pocket of subterranean fresh water. It descended in a torrent toward the planet’s center.
I’m only a driller, I thought, the most famous and beloved driller on this cursed planet.
I’m the luckiest driller alive.