Life happens, or so the saying goes, as does work and writing and finding time to exercise. Organizing parties. Dozing off in the middle of the day. And so on.
I’ve certainly kept busy, and sometimes I am kept busy. Sometimes I find myself time to simply be, and sometimes I am reminded to simply be (or, with a gentle nudge and much love from my wife, I am told to simply be). It’s during the downtime of being that I find myself thinking about what I should be doing and what I could be doing, and how I’ve not necessarily gotten any closer to accomplishing those things. On the plus side, I’ve gotten no farther from doing so either. Instead, I’m enjoying the adventure of being a father to two fantastic children, navigating the adventures of marriage with my entirely remarkable wife (who supports my writing far more than I do at times), and so on.
So what’s next, then? What misadventures wait ahead?
There will certainly be more Follow the Ashes sooner than later. Still plenty of distance to travel before we reach our destination with that story.
Introductions to Amira, and her Quest, are probably in order. We’ll see.
Then, of course, there’s a small matter of things to do with ducks, and if that’s confusing to read I promise it was just as perplexing to type.
Those, however, are misadventures for other days. Today, instead, I’m choosing again to simply be and remember to breathe.
“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”
Cas was surrounded, an island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything, that would act as a saving grace.
A hand closed around her wrist, and she heard only one word.
Without other options present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the crowd with improbable ease.
Cas started to glance back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance away.
“Don’t,” commanded her rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.
Cas realized, as their pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden stop or along drop.
“This is some sort of trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.
“I said,” Cas began to repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.
The darkness was absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls, each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.
“Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the land.
“Don’t thank me yet,” the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”
Cas placed her hands on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.
“This isn’t a good start,” the woman replied.
Cas removed the helmet, tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.
“Kaye,” the woman who rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”
“The Speaker?” Cas asked.
Kaye shook her head, the short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.
“Someone from on high in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”
Kaye frowned for only a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,” Kaye said.
A panel in the wall between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.
“Brought home a stray, did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough food,” the man snarled.
“She’s not staying long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”
Rel narrowed his eyes at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about that so freely?”
Kaye shot a glare over her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who had that happen still lives here.”
Rel furrowed his brow. “I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”
“That’s not what I said in the least,” Kaye shot back.
Cas cleared her throat, and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by Cas.”
Rel raised an eyebrow, an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.
Cas nodded. “I have a number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”
Kaye smiled, looking back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”
“We’ve worked on one such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the Speaker’s command over the others.”
“That sounds simple enough,” Cas conceded.
Kaye shook her head. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be difficult.”
Cas stroked her chin, lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”
Rel and Kaye exchanged glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.
“Truthfully, we don’t know,” Rel conceded.
“We’ve been holed up in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something to make living in the open safe again.”
Cas clapped her hands together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly, responsible for righting.
Rel turned and disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.
“I’ll trade you,” Rel said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it on, but was stopped by Kaye.
“Don’t,” Kaye ordered. “Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs right to us.”
Cas nodded. “Any words of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.
“Don’t die,” Rel offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.
“I don’t have anything I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you have.”
Cas smiled. “I’ll see you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary button on the panel, and the doors slid open.
As Cas stepped out into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision, scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.
The interior of the helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered, and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.
She trudged through the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.
A small image of a book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.
The fans shuddered to a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored the expression.
“Curious,” Cas muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been shown to her.
“Best keep moving,” Cas reminded herself.
A crowd had formed at the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke through text.
Enter, and present yourself, the words read.
Cas blinked, but maintained a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”
The cursor blinked again. The name you speak of is a familiar one, but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much more.
Cas felt herself compelled forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable. She found herself approaching the dais in the center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like seat.
Join us, won’t you? Join our happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness. All it takes is just letting go.
The inside of Cas’s helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.
“No,” Cas spat back.
The villagers moved in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.
My family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into a matching expression of glee.
“No!” Cas shouted, her voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.
Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own now.
A blackness crept into the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to realize, where she belonged. She was home.
Home, she thought again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted to process this.
Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his words seemed to come across as slick as oil.
The faces turned placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.
No, she thought. This is wrong, she told herself.
If she couldn’t convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen earlier. She picked one and focused.
There was a series of confused looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.
Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I offer.
The Speakers words seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.
Suddenly, without warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then another still.
No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!
“You fear it,” Cas replied.
You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s helmet covered his face.
And a gentle breeze blew the smoke away.
One by one, the other helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next command.
Cas inhaled deeply, holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew breath.
“It’s safe now, I suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”
One by one, the villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.
“I told you I wasn’t making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards the dais with Rel in tow.
“You got lucky,” Rel barked back. “Admit it.”
Kaye leapt up onto the dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the moment.
“Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”
Kaye reached over towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.
“Whatever was in this,” Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”
Cas frowned. “I’ll have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said. “More answers to seek.” She sighed.
The villagers had begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant and awkward, but gradually grew less so.
Kaye clapped a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously. It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center, adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.
“There’s not likely much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I reckon you’d best be on your way now.”
Cas felt a brief pang of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift off.
“I suppose you’re right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for the door to snap shut behind her.
The room she had entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.
Cas sighed, a battle between uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she approached the door.
“Suppose all I can do for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”
[Data transmission incoming…Receiving…Please wait…]
[Encryption detected. Reviewing codex library. Stand by…]
[Error. Decryption protocols have failed to decode the message. Please stand by – rerouting through decryption sub-routine Foxtrot Tango Alpha. Stand by…]
[Decryption Complete. Message received.]
[…Don’t forget to Follow the Ashes.]
[Follow the Ashes returns 3/1/2019]
Disclaimer: this post is about to go down a few rabbit holes that involve the endless stream of nonsense I live with running through my head like the news ticker at the bottom of most cable news networks. Shit’s about to get weird. Turn back, or forever regret pressing onward.
At the age of 30, which is apparently just old enough for people slightly younger than me to now make me feel older than I should feel just yet, I have come to terms with the fact that the inside of my head is a much louder place than I am always comfortable with it being. My inner monologue is often actually a rather argumentative dialogue, and as of late it has been particularly distracting. It likes to remind me that the plausibility of becoming an accomplished, published author isn’t very high. That I am disappointing people who should, under no circumstances, be disappointed. Sometimes it likes to tell me I’m fat, but also suggest I eat an entire bag of popcorn with extra butter and then chase it with some ice cream, because reasonably I should balance hot and cold foods. Continue reading
I wanted to start this with some clever parallel between the storm raging outside and my want to really dive into a new project, but nope. Not happening.
I’ve officially, with a necessary nudge from my wife’s wisdom, put Joshua Harkin’s Return to Nightmares on the backburner. I’m at this point where the lack of progress has become an overall headache with regards to getting *any* writing done at all. Not helpful.
So I thought it would be neat to maybe revisit a project from before, starting it fresh. I dug up the file, transferred from a previous laptop, only to discover two curious things.
Curious thing one – the last time I had worked on it was exactly two years ago to the day. Curious thing two – I actually really like how the draft started off, so I can’t bring myself to just scrap it and start fresh. However! I now feel less interested in working on it because there is so much groundwork in place.
That all constitutes more progress than I’ve made in the past three months combined (because I’m still getting the hang of being a father to two wee beasties).
I’ll chalk that up as an overall win and try to use it to propel me forward.
“Put on a Happy Face, Part One: No Frowns in This Town”
The door swung open with only a gentle shove, giving way to a long, gunmetal hallway lined with windows. It offered nowhere to hide, which Cas considered both a blessing and a curse. No one could sneak up on her, but she would be spotted easily by anyone near the windows. She looked back to the artificial lake. The shore she had climbed onto was the only land she could see. Sheer metal walls flanked the water, and there were no visible doors.
Cas stepped across the threshold and into the hallway. The door at the opposite end was translucent gray, betraying nothing of what stood beyond it. Cas crouched down and made her way to the first set of windows. Slowly, with calculated speed and caution, she stood up and glanced out the window. The grass was sparse and patchy, islands of dull green amidst a sea of dry, cracked soil. The occasional tree slumped sadly. Their trunks were a uniform gray, giving them more the look of stone than wood.
It was the first slice of nature Cas felt certain wasn’t a trick of technology.
Cas saw no other signs of life outside and decided to continue. She crossed the hallway at a brisk pace, still wary someone could be watching her. The translucent gray door revealed little detail of what was beyond it. There was a row of doors visible on the opposite wall, each one with a light set at the top of its frame.
Smudges of ashes at the door’s edges compelled Cas to press on. She placed a hand against the door’s cold, metal surface and gave a gentle push. It swung inwards slowly, its hinges groaning as rust flaked away. Save for one, the lights above the doors were off. The solitary bulb that was lit shined a soft green.
Without a second thought, Cas crossed the small room and prepared to open another door.
“Stop! What are you doing?” demanded a raspy voice from behind Cas. She spun around, fists raised and wishing she still had the knife she’d taken from Maeve. An old man stood there, an alarmed look in his eyes. He held his hands out as if to show he wasn’t a threat.
“You can’t go out there without protective gear on,” the old man continued. “You got some kind of death-wish, lady? Two breaths of the air out there will leave you deader than a doornail.”
Cas breathe a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said.
The old man shook his head. “Been longer than I can remember since we had a new arrival,” he muttered. He eyed Cas for a moment. His gaze seemed to be free of judgment and apprehension. He turned and shuffled to the wall next to the door Cas had entered. Several lockers lined the wall, each marked with a numeric code. The old man considered each of them before selecting one. He tinkered with its combination lock, then stepped back as the door popped open. A dull gray uniform, much like the one Cas was wearing albeit much dryer, sat folded on a shelf in the locker. A gray spacesuit was held above the clothes by a hanger. It was slightly less plain, bearing a small insignia on its chest that looked like a flame. Bands of red fabric circled the elbow and knee joints, with two parallel rings around the suit’s midsection.
The old man picked up the clothes, shuffled back over to Cas, and handed them to her. He waved to the other side of the boxish room. “Privacy curtain over there,” he said. “You’ll catch your death if you stay in those soaked rags.”
“Thank you,” Cas said. She took the clothes from the old man and stepped behind the privacy curtain.
“I’m sorry,” Cas added. “I don’t believe I asked your name.” She changed out of her soaking clothes and into the ones she had been given, appreciating the warmth they held.
“Not to worry,” the old man said. “I’m a second-generation Epsilon colonist, so I was given a number. Long. Not easy to remember. The youngsters call me Old Grim when they think I’m not listening, so I think that will do just fine.”
“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Old Grim,” Cas said. “I go by Cas.” She stepped out from behind the curtain, pleased to have found the outfit fit her well.
Old Grim had returned to the locker and was shuffling back towards her with the spacesuit. “Cas, hm?” he said. “I knew a nice young lady named Jocasta. You look a little like her. She had some dense curls on her head, though, and I think you’re a little taller.” He considered Cas for a moment before shrugging the thought off.
Cas took the suit and stepped in. As she pulled it on, it seemed far too large for her. It seemed to adjust, however, as Cas zipped the suit up. She paused, glancing towards the doors. “Are you the only one here?” she asked. “Forgive my ignorance.”
Old Grim shrugged. “Best you see for yourself,” he said, frowning. “This used to be a state-of-the-art habitation unit, back when I first got here.” He returned to the lockers, opening another one. He shuffled back to Cas with a helmet in hand.
“This one’s outdated, no doubt,” Old Grim said. He held the helmet out to Cas, and she took it. It fit loosely on her. The visor, she noted, allowed no light through. She could see nothing.
“There’s a small power button situated around where the helmet covers your left ear,” Old Grim said. “Press it.”
Cas placed her hand against the helmet and slowly guider her fingers to the area Old Grim had mentioned. She found a small, round depression, and pressed at it gently. The inside of the helmet flashed to life, full of brilliant color. A progress bar appeared momentarily, sped to 100%, then disappeared. The helmet’s interior display then switched to showing the world around Cas. Faint outlines of icons were overlaid on the world. Cas shifted her focus to one—a smiley face—and it gained clarity.
Old Grim offered a thumbs-up. “Looks to be working well enough,” he said. “Try looking at another.” Cas complied, shifting her gaze from the smiley face. It dulled, again a faint impression against the helmet’s visualization of the world around Cas. She shifted her gaze to the right, stopping on another dulled icon that turned out to be a frown.
“Excellent,” Old Grim said. “I think that should do it. I should explain the point of this little exercise, I suspect.”
Cas nodded, suddenly aware the gesture didn’t necessarily register with the helmet and spacesuit on. She offered, instead, a thumbs-up.
“The habitat’s atmospheric cycling hasn’t been working right for years, but this habitation zone has been deemed a failure,” Old Grim explained. “No help from above, so to speak. These suits, previously a novelty item, became our only hope. You communicate by way of guiding your eyes to an icon. It presents on the helmet’s outer display.”
Cas nodded. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it so you can simply speak to one another?” she asked.
Old Grim shook his head. “You’ll want to be cautious with questions like that out there,” he said. “Nowhere to go but forward at this point, and I suspect you’ve got plenty of forward-moving to do.”
Cas considered Old Grim’s words. “Thank you,” she said. “Why are you helping me?”
“I think you’ll end up helping us,” Old Grim replied. “First visitor shows up fifty years to the day from when this habitation zone was established? Maybe I’m just foolin’ myself. You stay safe out there, now. Not everyone you encounter is going to be so welcoming.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Cas said.
Old Grim gestured towards the solitary door with a green light above it. “Out that way,” he said. “Follow the dirt path along a ways and you’ll find yourself at the edge of town.”
Cas nodded. She placed a hand against the door and prepared to push, only to pause. “Will you be safe if I open this?” she asked. She turned her attention back to Old Grim. He had shuffled back to the lockers and was holding what looked to be a breathing mask to his face. He nodded to Cas, who nodded in return. She turned back to the door and pressed.
There was a soft popping sound as the seal broke, and the door swung open. The sunlight’s warmth, though artificial, made its way through the spacesuit. It was strong, but not unpleasantly so. Sickly flowers swayed, drooped over, in the few patches of surviving grass. Cas closed the door behind herself and stepped forward. The trail stood out, despite being a dirt path in a landscape dominated by dried earth.
Cas followed the path along its few small hills and valleys. She took in the scenery as she walked, finding herself wondering what this placed had looked like in its early years. How beautiful, she thought, it must have been.
Small cottages became visible in the distance. Cas walked faster, spurred on by her curiosity. As she reduced the distance between her and the buildings, she saw the paint on their exteriors was cracked and worn, stained by dust and soot. She could see people here and there in the distance, each wearing a spacesuit identical to hers. Something, however, seemed different. She noticed how they all looked down as they shuffled about, clearly avoiding meeting one another’s gaze. She continued along the road, careful to imitate the shuffling gait and downward gaze of the locals.
The path grew into a street, then a cobblestone road as it continued. Cas hazarded a glance upwards. The cottages were closer, forming a manmade wall circling what looked to be the town’s center. Fragmented remains of a marble fountain stood at odd angles. What was once a man and woman pouring water from ornate pottery had been reduced to a collection of shattered limbs and leaking pipes. To the statue’s left, off-center by comparison, was a small, circular stage. Stone steps, pristine compared to the statue and the surrounding cobblestones, wound around the stage from the ground to its plateau.
There was a loud, tinny sound, unpleasant and jarring. Cas took a moment to identify what it was—an old recording of a bell ringing.
The townsfolk appeared one or two at a time at first. Then groups of four or so. The town center filled quickly, Cas suddenly stuck amidst the crowd. She focused her gaze downwards still, hoping to continue to blend in until she had time to observe more. The crowd parted, but Cas couldn’t see why. Gradually, two large figures carried a platform, its handles straddled on their shoulders as one walked ahead of the other.
There was a smaller person atop the platform. Diminutive, Cas thought. Perhaps even withered. The person’s limbs seemed loose within the confines of the same suit that fit snugly on everyone else
Without a word, the two carried the figure to the top of the stage, set the platform down at its center, and stepped away. Even the slight breeze seemed to fall silent.
The screen on the small figure’s helmet lit up bright green, then was replaced by a banana-yellow smiley face. There was a soft clicking sound all around Cas. She looked around and saw images cycling on the other helmets until, one by one, they all mirrored the figure on the stage. Thinking quickly, Cas shifted her gaze to the corresponding symbol on her helmet’s internal screen. The smiley face came into view as internal processes caused her helmet to hum and chirp. There was a sudden snapping sound, and the internal display flickered. The world around Cas had become pixelated.
On the stage, the withered figure’s helmet switched to a look of puzzlement surrounded by question marks. Others in the crowd had shifted their focus to Cas, their helmets displaying a variety of expressions from quizzical to concerned to, to Cas’s dismay as she found herself surrounded, anger. She looked frantically for a way out as the crowd began to close in around her.