Kerit lay in his bunk, staring at the photo on the wall. The curling wave, with the sunlight glinting off it, was the perfect reminder of all he’d left behind. It almost seemed to be taunting him, yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away.
It had been three weeks since he’d heard the sea. Three weeks since he’d ridden a wave, perfect or otherwise.
What was he doing here? This ship had been named ‘Resolution’, because all the people here had a resolve to find a new home. But in all his twenty-seven years, he’d never been interested in exploring or settling new planets. Yet here he was.
Heaving a sigh, he rolled to the edge of the bed and sat up. He was just feeling cooped up after so long in space. Once Tyris went down to the planet tomorrow and started the terraforming reaction, it would only be a matter of days before they were settling in on Semala and settling in to their new home.
And he’d be able to find the ocean. It wasn’t far from the old city.
It’s not like you can make your living surfing here, his mind taunted him. He ignored it. He’d find something to do. Maybe fishing.
Had any of the ocean life survived the meteor blast that had decimated the planet?
He needed something to eat. It was nearly dinner time and he was hungry. Tyris had been setting the time back by an hour each day to get them all adjusted to the day/night cycle on Semala and it was playing havoc with his body clock. That was all. Things would seem much better after he’d eaten.
He stood up and exited his room, then headed down the empty corridor, his footsteps echoing hollowly. The stale smell of too many people squeezing into this space for too long filled his nose. He tried not to compare it to the fresh, salty smell of the ocean.
Somewhere down the corridor, a baby’s cry pierced the metal walls. He wasn’t the only one sick of being stuck on this ship. The sound stopped suddenly, and the silence pressed in around him.
In the stillness, he heard a quieter sound nearby—a more adult sobbing. Kerit frowned. He was only a few steps from his brother, Tyris’s room. The door was slightly ajar and the sobbing came from inside.
He strode the last few steps and pushed open the door without thinking to knock. “Is everything okay?”
Marlee, his sister-in-law, looked up in surprise, her eyes red from crying. She quickly swiped at her eyes and gave a shaky laugh. “Of course it is. I’m just having a pregnancy hormones moment.” She patted her swollen belly.
Kerit hesitated, but Tyris was absent, and he couldn’t leave Marlee alone here crying. He crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. “Anything I can help with?”
When his brother had married the first time, Kerit had felt like he lost him. When he’d married Marlee, he’d felt like he gained a sister. He’d spent so much time with her when Tyris was away that he felt almost as close to her as he did to his brother—and a lot more protective.
“No, it’s nothing really. I’m just going to miss Tyris tomorrow when he goes down to the planet, that’s all.” She fiddled with the handkerchief in her lap.
Kerit didn’t argue. If there was one thing he’d learned in the last three weeks on board a ship full of pregnant women, it was not to argue with them. Nor did he try to comfort her with the fact that Tyris wouldn’t be gone for more than a day. There was obviously something more bothering her. But what?
As he pondered the question, her face tightened and the hand that had been rubbing her belly paused. Her breathing changed to almost panting.
Panic filled Kerit. “The baby isn’t coming now is it?” Not the best timing, with Tyris leaving first thing in the morning.
For a few moments, Marlee didn’t say anything, then the lines on her face eased, and she relaxed. “No, not now. It’s just Braxton Hicks.”
The confusion on his face must have told her he had no idea what she was talking about, so she explained. “False contractions. Practice, I guess. I’ve been having them on and off for a couple of months now.” She grinned and he was glad to see her expression lighten, even though he still wasn’t convinced. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to have the baby right now.”
He stared at her one more time, but she was definitely smiling, so he relaxed a little. “Well, don’t worry. If you did, I would rise to the occasion. I’d run as fast as I could to bring Tyris.”
She gave a little laugh. But her hands scrunched at the handkerchief in her lap. “As long as he’s here.”
That was the issue. “You’re worried the baby will come tomorrow, while he’s down on the planet?” he guessed.
She shook her head, but her hands didn’t relax. “It’s really not likely. Dr Benton said she thinks it will be another week. But babies are never predictable. Especially first ones.”
Kerit patted her leg absently and stared off into space. His brother should be here, with his wife. She was putting on a brave face, but he could tell she was nervous. This could be their only child, Tyris shouldn’t miss the birth.
But the mission he was going on down to the surface tomorrow was important too. The baby could be born tomorrow, or it could wait for weeks. They couldn’t put the mission off.
Someone had to go. But if it wasn’t Tyris, who then?
He stood up abruptly. “Tyris should be here,” he told Marlee.
She grasped his hand. “No, he has to do this mission. I’m sure it will be fine, and everything will be better when we get down to the planet. I’m okay, really.”
“I know you’re okay. But you’d be better if Ty was here with you. I’m surprised he’s going, knowing you’re worried about the baby coming.”
“He doesn’t know. I said I’d be fine, and Dr Benton said the baby wouldn’t come tomorrow. And I’m sure she’s right.”
Kerit patted her hand. “I’ll sort it out,” he repeated.
“Don’t tell him,” Marlee begged. “Please. He’ll just worry. But he has to go anyway, I know that.”
Kerit looked down at her. It was just like Marlee to try to protect Tyris. She always thought of everyone else’s needs before hers. “I won’t tell him,” he promised.
She relaxed a little. “See, I’m feeling better already. I just needed to remind myself that everything will be fine. You know how everything always seems worse when you’re all alone.”
Kerit gave a wry grin. “I know exactly what you mean. I was just going down to the mess for some dinner because I’d had enough of being alone myself. Do you want to come?” He could talk to Tyris later. After he was sure Marlee was okay on her own.
She shook her head. “I’m okay now. Tyris and I are going to have dinner here later, just the two of us. I might have a nap instead.”
Kerit hesitated, but she genuinely seemed to be feeling better and more relaxed, so he squeezed her hand once and let it go. “If you’re sure? I am rather hungry.”
“Sure. Thanks, Kerit, I feel much better now.”
When he left the room, closing the door softly behind him, it wasn’t in the direction of the mess that Kerit headed. Instead, he walked the opposite way down the hall to the hanger bay where Tyris would be loading his shuttle for tomorrow.
His brother wasn’t alone. “Here, this jacket should protect you from most of the UV rays,” said Imyne Bekkert, head scientist on this project, and also their mother.
Dr Benton was packing lots of smaller packets into a drawstring bag. “I’ve packed a first aid kit for you with lots of burn cream and a couple of extra bottles of water.”
None of them noticed Kerit, standing in the doorway. He cleared his throat and everyone looked in his direction.
“Hi, Ker,” his brother greeted him. “Come to help me pack?”
“No,” Kerit said. “I’ve come to say I don’t think you should go.”
Everyone stopped and stared at him.
His mother’s lips pressed together. “What are you talking about? We’ve come all this way to terraform this planet, this is no time for your jokes.”
“I’m not joking,” Kerit said quietly. He’d promised Marlee he wouldn’t mention that she was worried, but he had the perfect reason to use instead. “I’ve been thinking about it, and it doesn’t make sense for Ty to go. You’ve all said it’s dangerous, with the UV and stuff, and there’s always a risk to climbing, even if this mountain does look easy. And Ty is the only one who can fly the Resolution.”
“Well someone has to go,” his mother said. “If not Tyris, who? You’re not offering, are you?”
“What’s so strange about that?” Kerit said. “I’m as good a climber as Tyris. Better probably. Why not me?”
Everyone was silent for a moment.
“You can’t fly the shuttle for one thing,” Tyris said finally. “There will be plenty of things you can do to help out once we’re down there.”
“He has a point though,” Dr Benton spoke up. “It doesn’t make sense for the only person who can fly the ship to put himself at risk.”
“I’m not going let Kerit put himself at risk either,” Tyris objected. “And anyway, being the only person who can fly is the reason I’m going. The only way to get down to the surface is by shuttle, remember?”
“Flying a shuttle is easier than flying the Resolution though, right?” Kerit said.
“Of course. This type of shuttle practically flies itself, but…” Tyris began.
“Then show me. I’m a quick learner.”
“It’s not that…” Tyris seemed at a loss. “It’s just… It's my responsibility.”
When did his brother get all sensible and responsible? An image of Marlee, her hand resting on her belly, came to him. Probably about the time he found out he was going to be a father.
“Your responsibilities are here, Ty,” Kerit said softly. “To the people that followed you and are trusting in you. I can handle this.”
He met and held his brother’s eyes. Tyris nodded slowly. “I know.” Then with more certainty. “I’m sure you can.”
Dr Benton and his mother were still just staring at both of them. Tyris turned to them and said with a smile. “Change of plans. Better fill Kerit in on all the details.”
His mother sighed. “Lucky you’re both about the same size.” She looked Kerit up and down. “The jeans will do, and Tyris’s jacket will fit you.” She held out her hand, and Tyris passed it to her.
Kerit tried it on, flexing his arms, checking to see that the jacket didn’t impede his movement. The baggy, slightly reflective material was comfortable enough and shouldn’t hinder his climbing ability. When his mother handed him a full face plexiglass mask though, he stared at her. “Can’t I just wear sunscreen?”
She looked at him over her glasses.
“Fine,” Kerit agreed with a sigh.
When she handed him a pair of leather gloves though, he couldn’t believe it. She might know a lot about the conditions on the planet, but it was plain she’d never climbed a mountain in her life. “The sun isn’t even going to be up. That’s why I’m going so early, isn’t it?”
“It won’t be up when you start the climb, but by the time you get to the top, then back down, it will be mid-morning—and if it rains…” She shuddered.
“If it rains, you need to put up the umbrella immediately,” Dr Benton added picking it up to show him. “The plastic coating on your clothes will protect you to some extent, but if it gets into creases or gaps between layers, then it can burn your skin badly. The umbrella is specifically designed to be able to withstand it.”
Kerit was diverted. “Seriously? You think I can stop on the side of a cliff and put up an umbrella?”
Dr Benton smiled a little. “It may be a little tricky, but do the best you can. Luckily the weather patterns make rain in the next day-night cycle unlikely. Just keep it in mind.”
Kerit nodded. He’d keep it in mind, even if it was pointless. None of them had any idea of what climbing was like. Especially not his mother. Sunburn would be the least of his worries if his handhold slipped. “I can't climb in gloves though,” he said. “Not thick ones like this at least. I won’t be able to feel the rock, or get a firm grip. Falling to my death is going to be worse than a sunburn.”
His mother frowned, turning to Tyris and raising her eyebrow questioningly. “Surely gloves won’t make that much difference?”
Kerit waited, sure his brother would back him up. Tyris frowned. “Climbing in gloves isn’t ideal,” he agreed. He turned to Kerit. “But neither is the risk of getting burnt. It’s serious, Ker. This isn’t just a regular sunburn.”
“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” his mother said. “If Kerit doesn’t think he can climb in the gloves, maybe it’s better that you go.”
“It’ll be fine,” Dr Benton interjected. “Kerit has all the equipment he needs to stay safe. He just needs to use it.”
Tyris didn’t let it go that easily. “Mum’s right. This isn’t going to work. This climb is dangerous. I should be the one taking the risks, not Kerit.”
“This climb’s a cinch,” Kerit said. The climb wasn’t the problem. He’d climbed far higher mountains back on Urslat. And that was just for fun. “I could do it in my sleep. No vertical faces and plenty of decent sized ledges.”
“How about in gloves then?” His mother raised an eyebrow.
Kerit stared at them, and sighed. “Do you have any thinner ones?”
They searched through the supplies they’d bought, but the rest of the options were even worse. Thick, heavy gardening gloves, or slippery plastic ones. The leather ones really were the best of a bad bunch.
Kerit sighed and pulled them on, flexing his fingers. Oh well, if it turned out his mother was exaggerating the danger from the sun, he could always ‘lose’ them once he was down on the planet. “Okay then. But give me some sunscreen, just in case.”
His mother sighed, but Dr Benton added a tube of thick sunscreen to his backpack. “Don't rely on this to protect you for more than five minutes at a time,” the doctor warned. “It will cut down on UV exposure, but we don't have anything that’s strong enough to block it completely.”
Kerit nodded. “I'll remember,” he said, mostly in the hopes of getting everyone off his back.
Tyris thumped him on the shoulder, dislodging his headgear so that it fell in front of his face. “Don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
Kerit straightened it. “That leaves me a fair bit of leeway,” he teased.
His brother gave a mock frown. “Come on, Ker. I'm a sensible married man now, I don't do crazy things anymore.”
“Well, it's not like I'm going down there to meet girls.”
His mother frowned. “No, you're going down there to place this beacon, and if you don't get it high enough then the whole reaction could fail. You need to take things seriously for once, Kerit. This isn't a game, like your surfing.”
Of course she’d found a way to disparage his chosen career. “You think there’s no precision in riding a wave?” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he wondered why he bothered. Nothing she said was going to change him.
His parents had waited patiently when he started surfing at fourteen, sure it was just a passing craze. They were convinced he would give it up and devote himself to study and ‘become something’ once he got it out of his system. It didn’t matter that he’d been surfing for twelve years now and supporting himself comfortably with sponsorship money for the last seven.
He’d never measured up to Tyris and his prestigious Space Force career, but that had never really bothered him. Until now. There wasn’t much need for a surfer on a space ship. He could have stayed comfortably where he was if his whole damn family hadn’t packed up and left.
“You’ll need more than precision and balance for this task. It will take several hours to climb that mountain and you need to focus to keep yourself safe.” His mother’s voice wavered on the last word.
Kerit frowned. When he’d told her about the shark he’d seen out in the ocean, she hadn’t batted an eyelid. In fact, she’d said that if he was going to let a shark stop him surfing, then he wasn’t that dedicated. What was up with her now?
He looked around the cavernous landing bay, and the shiny shuttle he would have to learn how to fly. He had to admit, this was a little different. They were cut off from the Colonies and their technology and medical care. Forever.
It was different for all of them. Every little thing was more serious now. Of course she was worried.
He wrapped his arms around her, awkward in the jacket and mask. “Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll be careful, okay? This mountain is an easy climb. I’ll be back here lounging around before you know it.”
“You’d better be.” Kerit wasn’t bothered by his mother’s firm tone this time, he knew she used it to cover up her concern. She took a step back and nodded her head firmly. “Because we can’t start this reaction until you do, and since we only have one shuttle, no one can come down there and rescue you.”
“I should have bought a second shuttle. Having only one is a liability.” Tyris’s voice was strained.
“You did the best you could,” Kerit reminded him. “There was no point in spending money on a second shuttle we won’t even use after this. Supplies were more important.”
Kerit turned towards the shuttle. “You’d better show me how this thing works, bro.” A familiar feeling of nerves bubbled up in his stomach and ran through his arms and legs. He felt the same every time he was about to go out on the waves in a major tournament.
Then though, the worst thing that could happen was that he could be dumped by a huge wave. Or hit in the head with his board. Or eaten by a shark.
If he flunked this task, he’d not only embarrass himself and let down his brother, but he’d be stuck on the planet. And none of the thousand people on the Resolution would have anywhere to live.
No pressure then.
“Sure. I’ll set the autopilot to control the entry, all you’ll have to do is find a flat space to land.”
“That shouldn’t be hard,” his mother said dryly. “It’s not like there’s any vegetation left down there. Just don’t crash it into the mountain. Because it’s the only shuttle we have.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging,” Tyris thumped him on the back. “If it comes down to it, I’ll land the Resolution on the planet. It may take a while, since I’ll have to wait for a suitable window, but we’d make it down there. I won’t need to though. You’ll do fine. Now let’s do this quickly, so you can get some sleep. You have an early start in the morning.”
Sleep was the last thing he felt like, especially since he had to be up in what felt like only a few hours. Trying to summon up the feeling of confidence he’d had earlier, he followed Tyris into the shuttle and tried to pay attention to the vast array of controls. No matter how much his mother tried to make this task seem insurmountable, most of it really wasn’t anything he hadn’t done before.
Fly down to the planet, climb a mountain, and place the beacon.
Simple. He’d be done in a few hours.
Folly ran her hands over the faded labels of the tins standing on a wooden shelf jammed into the cave wall. Her mouth watered at the thought of tinned spaghetti or chicken soup, and she made a face at the thought of tinned spinach. Not today. She moved past the labelled cans to the naked ones.
They were exciting. A gamble. You never knew what you were going to get. That's why they were her favourite.
Her hand hovered over the row. This was the moment it all rested on.
Folly felt her pocket wriggle. Chicken uncurled her tail from her body, and ran down Folly’s arm to sniff at one of the cans. Folly ruffled her silky, white fur. “Okay, girl, we’ll have that one.”
Sliding the edge of the can under the rotating blade she’d rigged up to take the lids off more easily, she hit the switch that started gears grinding with a jangle. As soon as the noise started, Chicken scurried down her pants leg, and across the room to hide behind a box. Folly chuckled. Silly skuttle. It wasn’t as if she’d never heard the noise before.
A small click told her that the lid had separated from the can. She paused for a moment, imagining all the delights that could be inside the can. Maybe it would be rice pudding, tomato soup, or her favourite: tinned peaches.
Lured by something only she could smell, Chicken was back, her pink noise sniffing at the air. She clawed her way back up Folly’s leg, rose up on her hind legs and scratched at the edge of the can.
Folly laughed. Capturing the lid with a magnet on a small handle, she pulled it off. Beef stew. Nice. Anything with meat was always a welcome sight. She tossed the lid into the scrap metal box, and carefully sat the tin on the aluminium plate which covered the steam vent in the corner of the bench. Even after travelling all the way up from caverns deep in the cave system, the steam was still hot enough to burn.
Hovering far enough away to be out of the heat and the occasional burst of steam that escaped, Chicken gave her a mournful look.
“No, I don’t eat my meat cold. You’ll just have to wait,” Folly told her. Ignoring the pitiful look in Chicken’s big red albino eyes, she leaned her hip against the bench, pulled the novel she’d been reading out of her pocket and flicked through until she found the page she was up to.
There were only a few pages left, and Folly intended to savour each one. This book was the last new one she had, picked up on her last trip. She’d only been able to find three books that time, even though she'd searched all the abandoned houses. The truth was, there was nothing left to find.
Despite the thrill of the story though, she couldn't concentrate. She didn't want to accept the idea that she'd searched everywhere. There must be somewhere she’d missed.
She put the book down, unread, and her eyes roamed the maps pinned to an old door leaning against the cave wall above her work bench. Ignoring the furiously bubbling stew, she crossed the room and ran her hands over them. She'd collected each one, unable to let any clue pass her by, no matter whether they were torn or dirty. Each one was a hint, possibly a critical one.
The large map of the planet’s surface covered most of the door, a large tear down the middle mended with the last of her sticky tape. Smaller maps of Prioris, overlapping each other, were pinned to the left side of the map.
Lying covered in dust just three kilometres from where she stood, she’d explored every corner of the abandoned city that once housed five thousand people. She’d collected every book, tin of food, and tech device she thought she might be able to use and searched every building. It was possible she’d missed something, maybe even a few books, but not something as large as a spaceship.
Pulling a key and its ribbon over her head, she reached for the locked wooden box sitting under the maps. She didn’t pause to look at the faded photos or the picture book her mother had read to her as a child, reaching past them to lift up her mother’s diary. The once bright colours of the floral covering were faded now, and the book automatically fell open to the pages she sought.
The book was mostly a record of her mother’s days with toddler Folly, growing up on the crowded planet of Urslat. Right now though, Folly wasn’t interested in reading about trips to the museum, or about the time she reprogrammed the vacuum cleaner to chase the cat. She was looking for details about her dad’s work, which were few and far between. Folly wasn’t sure if that was because he had kept most of the details from his wife, or because her mother hadn’t been interested, but there were only a few little hints sprinkled throughout the writing. Folly had read them over and over.
Her father had worried that someone would find out about his ship, and steal the ideas before he could patent them, so he’d chosen to stay in Prioris. She and her mother had waited there while he went to Tadig to talk to some engineer who he thought would help him protect his discovery. It might have worked too, if the asteroid hadn’t smashed into the planet while he was gone.
He’d never returned, so Folly had no way of knowing if he’d found the engineer. She’d always assumed that his fear would have led him to leaving his ship somewhere here, where it would be safe. But what if he’d taken it with him as proof?
Below and to the left, the single half map of Tadig taunted her. She knew so little about what had been the main settlement on Semala. Just half a map and the knowledge that the meteor had impacted somewhere nearby.
The answer had to be there. There was nowhere else it could be.
She traced the marked road with her finger as it skirted around the mountain range in her way. Tadig lay near the coast, almost a hundred kilometres away. It would take over a week to walk there by road, if she could even find it. Dust storms would have buried the road even more thoroughly than it had buried Prioris. Going over the mountains would halve the distance, but there was no path there. And no matter which way she went, if a dust storm blew up, she could kiss finding her way home goodbye.
Chicken’s small grunts gave her a hint someone was coming, even before the voice in the doorway.
“You’re burning that slop.”
She didn't have to turn around to recognise Aleck’s voice, or the fact that he was right—her precious stew was burning. Not that she was going to give him the satisfaction of knowing she cared.
She placed the diary carefully back in the box and locked it, slipping the key back around her neck before turning around slowly. Ignoring the acrid burning smell that filled her nostrils, she stared at her foster brother. “Even burnt it’s better than flavoured soy.” Chicken’s claws dug into her back, but she didn’t move as the skuttle settled into the back of her neck, under her hair. Tiny vibrations from its shivers tickled the back of her neck.
She and Aleck glared at each other in mutual stubbornness for a few moments before Aleck cracked a grin. “Probably,” he agreed, “but Ma sent me to ask if you wanted to come to dinner anyway.”
Folly glanced back over at the book, then the map. “I have work to do.”
“Ma’s having trouble with the garbage disposal again.”
Of course, they wanted her mechanical skills, not her company. Folly sighed. Using a tea towel to lift the can of burnt stew off the cooker, she emptied the contents into her own, perfectly working, garbage disposal, ignoring Chicken’s indignant squeak. Then she added the empty can to her scrap metal pile. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Aleck didn’t move. He just looked at her. “You’re not coming like that, are you?”
Folly glanced down at her clothes. Pockets covered her heavy cargo pants, most of them full. They had a few grease stains, but there was no way she was going to change them, she would need the tools they contained to fix the garbage disposal. Her shirt though, she had to admit, had seen better days. She’d been pulling apart old radios all afternoon, trying to make at least one working one out of the dozen broken ones, and she’d wiped most of the dust that stuffed their interiors on the closest piece of fabric—her shirt.
She heaved a sigh. “I’ll be right back.” Ducking behind the curtain into her bedroom, she transferred Chicken to one of the pockets in her cargo pants and pulled the shirt off over her head, dislodging the head lamp she’d forgotten she wore in the process. She grinned. Aleck had probably been more bothered by that than the dusty shirt. Grabbing out an almost clean shirt, she sniffed it, decided it was wearable, and pulled it on. She felt in her pockets to be sure she had her screwdriver and pliers, then ducked back through the curtain and nodded to Aleck. “Can we go now?”
He looked her up and down a couple of times, then nodded.
As if she needed his approval.
Seething silently, she followed him out of her home, pausing to lock the door behind her.
“Why do you always lock your door? It’s not like anyone is going to steal anything, much less all that old rubbish.”
Anger bubbled up in her. “That old rubbish is what is going to fix your garbage disposal. Half the machines here wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for my rubbish.”
Aleck held up his hands. “Hey, no need to snap, I didn’t mean anything. It’s just that no one locks their doors. Most doors don’t even have locks. It’s weird, that’s all.”
Weird. Folly tried to ignore the cutting word. “At least my rubbish doesn’t insult me when I fix it,” she snapped.
She liked her home. Tucked in a small cave off the larger cavern, she was far enough away that people only visited her when they wanted help, and close enough to the entrance that she could climb out to explore the ruins of Prioris when she wanted to without having to answer any questions first.
The treasures she brought back with her, broken electronic devices, books, tinned food, were far more fascinating than any of the cave’s residents and their constant concerns about protecting the wildlife that had survived the meteor blast in the shelter of the cave.
Aleck opened his mouth to protest, and she could almost hear their mother’s voice berating him, ‘Stop fighting you two, can’t you just get along for once?’ She still made the comment frequently, even though they were both twenty-five. His mouth snapped shut. “Come on, Ma’s waiting,” he said instead.
Folly bit back a sigh and followed him. She let the sense of awe she always felt when she walked out into the main cave distract her from his negativity. She may scorn the biologists’ fascination with the minute bugs, insects and small mammals in the cave, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be amazed by the structure as a whole.
The roof loomed nearly a hundred metres over her head. A creaking sound told her the flaps were being closed for the night in case of a surprise dust storm or rare downpouring of acid rain. Six o’clock. Despite their protection, a light layer of dust covered the trees and vegetation that filled the cave floor.
A grunting sound filled the air, and the serrated, dark green leaves of a nearby tree rustled.
“Eww.” Aleck held his nose.
The pungent, acidic smell was familiar to Folly, and not offensive. Chicken’s head popped out of Folly’s pocket, sniffing the air. “Do you want to go join your friends?” Folly asked, scratching the skuttle under the chin.
She wasn’t surprised when Chicken disappeared back inside her pocket. Ever since the little critter had scurried up her leg, pursued by one of its larger relatives, Chicken hadn’t left Folly’s side. Secretly, she was rather happy that the shy little creature, who avoided all the biologists, had chosen her to be a friend.
“You should send her back out into the wild. It’s not right to keep a wild creature as a pet.” Aleck’s voice and words repeated what Ma had said often.
“I don’t keep her at all. She’s free to go whenever she wants. I can’t help it if she prefers me to her own kind. Sometimes, people just don’t fit where others try to shove them.”
Aleck stared at her, but didn’t say anything further. Folly was glad of his silence as they continued on.
Above her head ran a tangle of metal and plastic pipes with colourful cables twisted them. Fluorescent lights hung on chains at regular intervals. Several of them were lacking tubes, or hanging at odd angles. It was lucky they weren’t needed as much now as they had been in the first few years, when dust had blocked out the sun almost completely.
Faintly glowing lights in the stonework of the path lit their way, even when the lights above were missing or switched off to conserve electricity. Similar paths split off in different directions through the undergrowth, with little remnants of the painted bricks that had once helped people find their way through the maze. After living like this for twenty years, they were no longer needed.
As they neared the home Folly had lived in for eleven of those twenty years, the area became even more familiar. The memories though, were not happy ones. Echoes of being the odd one out, the sideways glances, the whispers, her awareness of Ma watching her, looking for any signs that she might be as mad as her mother, washed over her.
Aleck opened the door and stepped aside, waiting for her to enter, and even that polite gesture annoyed Folly. She made herself ignore it and stepped into the cheerful din. The twins, Ema and Kalie, practised a clapping rhyme in one corner, and there was a spirited game of cards at the dining room table. Kyle and Binny helped Ma cutting up vegetables at the sink.
“Tata…” A toddler’s chubby arms wrapped themselves around Folly’s shins, almost tripping her up.
She couldn’t help an involuntary smile as she bent down and scooped the child into her arms. “Hey, Trouble. What have you been up to lately?”
Issy stared up at her solemnly. “Me no trouble.”
Her twinkling eyes betrayed her.
“She tried to push a whole pineapple into the garbage disposal,” Ma said with a frown.
“A whole pineapple, hey?” Folly tickled her under the chin. “That must have been heavy.”
Issy’s face lit up. “It was, but I wifted it all by mwyself.”
“Stop encouraging her, Tahlia,” Ma scolded. “She’s old enough to know better.”
The name grated. But Folly was more concerned with the pride on Issy’s face evaporating. She knew the feeling well—that knowledge that no one else understood what you’d been trying to do, and that it had all suddenly gone wrong.
“Don’t worry. I can fix it. And Issy can help.”
Ma frowned, but for once, didn’t comment. Folly felt like she’d achieved a small victory as she lifted the flap and bent over the chute in the wall that mulched the waste before sending it under the house to the compost bin.
The blockage was surprisingly easy to remove. She didn’t even need to unscrew the cover to get to it. Folly frowned as Issy hauled on the pineapple top, falling over with a plop as it came free suddenly.
She glanced back at Ma standing at the table cutting up potatoes. She could have removed it herself easily. Why had she sent Aleck to drag her away from her work for something so simple?
Because they wanted her to be like them.
She was supposed to like getting together and talking, even though none of them talked about anything that interested her. If she ever tried to discuss Prioris, and the things she found there, they were dismissive. Her treasures were ‘rubbish’. And even those that were useful, someone else took credit for. They were the ones who put them there—she was just uncovering them from the dust.
What point was talking when no one wanted to listen to what you had to say?
She heaved a sigh as she pulled herself to her feet. She wouldn’t get away without sitting down to the dinner Ma was cooking. Any hope she had of finishing her book faded, overpowered by the unpleasant smell of cooking soy sausages.
“It’s done,” she announced.
“Thanks, Tahlia,” Ma said cheerfully.
“Don’t call me that!”
The words were out before she could stop them. Everyone in the room, Ma, Da, Aleck, Issy, and all her other siblings, stared at her. She took a deep breath. “Folly, please.”
A mutinous look crossed Ma’s face. “That’s not a proper name, it’s an insult. Why would you want to call yourself something like that?”
As if she had to ask. Or was she daring Folly to say it? “If it was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for me.”
The room was silent. Pitying faces stared at her from around the table. Pity because her dad was dead. Pity because they thought he hadn’t been much of a man anyway.
No one had believed her mum when she’d told them that he had a spaceship that could travel even faster than the anysogen engine would—a spaceship that might be able to get them off this planet and back to real civilisation. They’d scoffed, and said it was impossible.
She’d show them.
Folly whirled around and ran from the room, running through the trees and back to her cave. When she got there, Chicken fled down her leg to watch her from the middle of the bed, chuttering loudly, mimicking Folly’s muttering as she stuffed some clothes and the leftover tins of food into her bag and grabbed her toolbox.
She then took a deep breath as she stared at the maps on the wall.
It had to be in Tadig. There was nowhere else. And it made sense too. The only people who lived in Prioris were biologists and zoologists, studying the wildlife in the cave. The important people, those who worked on the anysogen project, had all been in Tadig. That would have been where the engineer her dad had wanted to talk to would have lived. Maybe he’d taken the ship with him, to prove that his project was a success.
If she wanted to prove that her mum hadn’t been crazy, that her dad had been a brilliant scientist, then she was going to have to go there and find it. No matter what the risks were.
She carefully unpinned the maps, folded them along the crease lines, and then tucked them into her bag. Picking up the compass that sat on the shelf, she added that too.
The clock on the wall showed six thirty. It would be dark outside soon. If she’d been going to Tadig, where she knew her way, now would be the perfect time, safe from the UV radiation that would slow her down during the daylight. But she didn’t know her way.
Sighing, she sat down on the edge of the bed. Better to wait until morning.
After a moment, Chicken crawled over to Folly, and put her tiny paws on her knee. Folly ruffled her fur. “We’re going on an adventure tomorrow, Chicken. Are you sure you don’t want to run off and join your family? You’d be much safer there?”
Her monologue was interrupted by a knock at the door, and she swore. Of course, they couldn’t just leave her alone, could they? She ignored it, not wanting to talk. Not wanting to hear an apology, even if they offered it.
“Folly, are you in there?” Da called out.
She softened just a little. At least he hadn’t called her Tahlia. “I don’t want to talk.”
“Then don’t talk. Just come back and have dinner with us.”
As if that would happen. “If I come back, Ma will insist on talking, you know that.”
Da didn’t argue, no point really. “Issy was upset that you left. She cried.”
Turning on the guilt trip, of course. She should have left tonight, then she wouldn’t have to deal with this.
Folly sighed and scooped up Chicken. Stashing her packed bag under the bed, she stood up and opened the door.
Da smiled at her, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile back. They got what they wanted. They always did.
Kerit squinted through the perspiration fogging his visor, evaluating the possible handholds above him. He tested the hold of his left hand, but it was strong and solid. Picking the largest handhold, he carefully shifted his weight to his left hand and reached with his right. His hand closed around the rock, and the sweat in his glove that made the leather stick to his skin chose that moment to become slippery.
He’d fully intended to ditch the gloves and climb bare handed. Right up until he’d stepped out of the shuttle and into the searing heat. At that moment, he’d decided his mother might have had a point. This wouldn’t be any ordinary sunburn.
Now, as he readjusted his grip several times, trying to gain a firm purchase, he wondered which would be worse—slipping to his death, or having burnt hands.
He put some weight on the rock, then a little more. He couldn’t feel a thing through the gloves, but the rock seemed to be holding, so he attempted to pull up.
Even as he began the move, he knew he’d made a mistake. His full weight made the rock shift, and the handhold crumbled away in his hand, bouncing down the cliff below him, the sound echoing loudly in the silence. Kerit scrambled for a handhold, but everything he touched came away under his fingers. Blood rushed in his ears, his heart thudding. His right foot slipped off the rock, and he felt his weight begin to shift away from the cliff. He hung on with his left hand, and swung his right leg in the gap between his left leg and the cliff, hoping the shift in his balance would be enough and wishing it hadn’t been quite so long since he’d placed his last piton.
His own breath echoed inside the visor. Time froze for a moment, before his body swung back towards the cliff. He scrambled to find a handhold, the light reflective jacket either splitting a seam, or tearing off some of his skin that was glued to it with sweat. Several more holds broke away easily, before he found one that was stable.
He hung there for a moment, breathing heavily, fogging up his visor even more. But there was no way he could clean it now, or reach for the water bottle that hung at his waist for the drink he desperately wanted. Damn that asteroid impact, which had loosened a lot of the rock face.
And Dr Benton had thought he could just stop and put up an umbrella if it started to rain. He gave a breathless laugh and looked up ahead, searching for the next handhold.
The sun still hadn’t even risen over the ridge to bathe where he hung now. In another half hour, it was going to get far worse.
He stared up at the towering cliff, squinting through the fogged up visor. Could he make the height he needed before he was climbing in full sunlight? Probably not. But he’d come this far now, no point in going back down. The heat wouldn’t kill him.
He reached automatically for the chalk bag that usually hung on his belt. Half way through the movement, he remembered. Even if he’d brought it, the chalk would be useless. Although pouring some inside the gloves to soak up the perspiration might make him feel better.
Slowly, carefully, one handhold at a time, he continued up the rock face, until he reached a sizeable ledge. Using the last of his energy, he hauled himself over and rested with his back against the rock for a few moments, breathing heavily.
As soon as he could take a breath without his head spinning, he popped up the straw on his water bottle, and lifted the visor to gulp at some water. He wiped his forehead, then tried to remove some of the fog from the inside of the visor. The leather gloves were just as useless for this task as they were for climbing.
As he raised his hand, he noticed that the cuff of his jacket had split from the arm. Well, at least that meant it hadn’t been his skin tearing. He pulled it down to cover the gap, then glanced up the mountain. A third of it still towered above him. Kerit groaned. How had he ever thought this task was going to be easy?
Well, every moment he waited meant another moment in the sun. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and picked up his radio. “I’m about two thirds up, on a pretty stable ledge,” he said, trying to keep his breathing steady and quiet.
“Good job. How are you going?” Tyris returned, his brother’s voice sounding hollow in the confined space.
“Oh, not bad. Only nearly fallen to my death half a dozen times thanks to these stupid gloves. Oh, and it’s like a sauna down here.”
“Stop exaggerating, Kerit. It shouldn’t be humid, there’s no vegetation to hold in the moisture,” his mother corrected.
“No, all the humidity is coming directly from my body and trapped inside this damned jacket and gloves.”
He waited for his mother to berate him again for exaggerating. What had happened to the concern for his life she’d shown earlier?
But Tyris was the one who spoke. “Just take your time and stay safe. There’s no hurry.”
No hurry for Tyris maybe, all nice and cool up there in space.
“I will. My next call should be from the top, with the beacon placed,” Kerit said, with more confidence than he felt.
“We’ll be waiting.”
The conversation over, Kerit couldn’t put off the rest of the climb for any longer. He pulled himself to his feet and steeled his nerves.