Letting Life Lead
The cavern yawned an infinite darkness and my sonance-pressure suit emitted an almost imperceptible vibration. The edge approached. I stopped the delvee, a small delving vehicle, at the point called the Vast. We hadn’t the resources, equipment, or incentive to explore it properly. The navigation map was from the first landing generations ago before the time of even the Elders. I pressed my palm over our division insignia on my breast pocket, a half red hot air balloon with the solar symbol. The Hoth XLII Milkyway colonizing group on the first caravan ships were ribbed about the image emblazoned on the back of their coveralls. I shut off my suit’s feedback system and closed my eyes. Input zero.
“Did you know why the first Hoth XLII group on the caravan ship named their camp Luft 99?” Great-grandmother Primm, had said one day when I was fifteen and prone to turning off my sound assists to escape to muffled ambiguity. “Because they called the firstlanders lufters — party balloons. They turned insult into a fu–”
“Nana!” Mom had put a hand over nana’s mouth but the old lady shot up her middle finger instead. My younger siblings opened their mouths in laughter and held their stomachs. Nana had my attention.
She’d continued after a quippy verbal exchange with my mother I didn’t quite catch. “Back on Sol III, long generations before the unification, a bricklayer and an electrician sewed with their wives to make a fifteen by twenty meter hot air balloon of taffeta and bed linens.” Nana Primm’s arthritis restricted her hand movements, but her posture straightened and excitement crinkled her eyes. “They smuggled materials bit by bit, repurposed hoses and nozzles, and crafted a gondola from scrap metal and cotton clothesline rope. They were pursued, their vehicles were slow, and their balloon caught fire. Yet, they and their families escaped.”
My sleepy head bobbed and startled me. Adrenaline hurt and shook my hands and legs. I reactivated my suit, frightened that I’d done such a thing. What if the stories were true about the beasts lurking in the Vast? We were not the only creatures living deep in the warmer caverns far below the frigid surface. A tale to scare each other didn’t necessarily make it untrue.
Perhaps another colony had dug a tunnel and stopped, too. Maybe they had stories about what lay beyond.
The small delvee was roomy enough for me to stoop in the back. It didn’t hurt to reinoculate my skin with the protective bacteria growing on the delvee’s inner organic surfaces. They protected against rapid temperature changes, though I didn’t know for how much longer they’d survive if the organics died off. They weren’t meant to live in this particular vehicle, but I had to make do with what I had. Even if I could operate the bigger machines, they used more energy and were stuck under ice and rubble from the quake.
I shouldn’t have been in the outer caverns during festiva.
Thick-headedness can be useful sometimes, Nana would say. Of all the sounds I missed, her voice was the top. Incriminating fart blasts were second.
Two weeks I waited for a signal or communication. A total collapse? I didn’t want to think about it. Ours ancestors were not the only pioneers, but we’d lost touch with others. Hoth LVII wasn’t kind to signals or surface travel. We produced all that we needed to survive. Tunnels were made in safe zones to gather raw materials and find geothermal oases.
I didn’t know how much time I had or needed. I shot out a tow line for a breadcrumb trail. Three spools wasn’t enough but better than nothing. My mind ran the checklist: environmental controls at threshold levels, temperature to the range the bacteria could counter, organic air filtration, water recovery and recycling, and ration control.
My suit vibrated with a crushing force and warmed as it converted sound waves to heat. My heart pounded. It must’ve been loud; I felt it in my bones. A monster from the Vast? A bit planet crushing my family? I cried and shook even as I urged the delvee toward darkness.
The computer blinked the cabin alert lights and relayed text showing calculations for energy consumption and rations based upon round trip figures. I input new parameters. A hot air balloon escape meant one thing: returning was never part of the plan. If I was to die at twenty, then I’d die with both fingers up.
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