Not all of us are lucky enough to meet our life partners while we are still learning who we are and who we want to be. Without my other half, I would be truly incomplete and this work would not exist. Without her patience and support, I would be a lesser person. To her, I dedicate this novel and any happiness and enjoyment it might bring.
For my greatest love and ally, C.
’Society demands sacrifice, everyone must give,
Mothers and Fathers, kith and kin
We teach and build that all may better live.’
-Retainer’s chant, Heritage Day
It was quiet here, places like this always were. Even in the forests above, it was hard to find somewhere this soundless.
Hanging silently from her harness, tinkering with her illuminator, this is what she lived for. Shifting her weight slightly, she let herself fall backward. She hung upside down now, suspended from the ceiling of a cavern by a thick rope. It pulled tightly against the small, waist-harness she wore over her dark brown pants. She ignored the pressure as she dangled above the foreboding darkness.
Her frizzy brown hair dangled in long curly strands, now blessedly out of her face as her hands worked with a small metallic rectangular contraption. A thick rubber balloon hung limply from the top of the machine as she fiddled with the tiny gauges set into its sides.
The city was not any better, there was always someone making noise, or bothering her for one thing or another. Hanging in dark caves was the only real alone time she ever got. And she planned to savor every minute of it. She could feel the slight buzz coming from the headset around her neck, but she ignored it. Her friends above were always impatient, she knew they meant well but she was not going to let herself be rushed.
80-HD likely did not care how long she took, she was not sure he cared about anything, except her father and herself. It was most likely Kitani, her father’s apprentice who was worried. He would throw himself down this hole before he would go back and tell her father something had happened to her on their outing. She chuckled to herself as the thought occurred to her. She felt a little sorry for him, they had known each other since they were children, and he has never once been able to say no to her. She was fine with that for the most part, she never got him into anything too dangerous.
There was a concentrated effort from everyone she knew to keep her from endangering herself in any way. She was simply too important to risk they would say, not without fulfilling her duty to society. Women of birthing age were always in high demand, they would continue; she could have her pick of partners. Thankfully, she was blessed with a doting father so there was not much trouble she could get into that she could not get out of. And she was fine with that for the most part too.
She was only eighteen, Plenty of time to start pumping out babies, she thought.
For now, she was content going on scavenging trips and digging through old ruins. The engineer’s council always needed some piece of old tech, and if not them, the market would always appreciate the trade. Old Fennec has been asking around for some bulbs for his lamps.
Keeping his small hydroponics lab running was an essential component of community morale, at least that is what Fennec always says. She had been repairing the lab since she was a young girl, having always been a handy tinkerer. She had been building assorted machines with her father since an early age and had grown fond of both the odd old Fennec and his plants.
Satisfied with her work she took a slow look at the dark cavern around herself before turning back to her device. Holding it carefully in both hands, she pressed her lips against the cool metal and whispered inaudibly into the machine. She then waited patiently as the device began to tick and hum in her hands, growing warmer by the moment. The balloon attached to the top began to swell as it filled with air, shaping itself into an elongated ruddy-brown ovoid.
She smiled to herself as she released the machine, it hovered in front of her momentarily before beginning a slow spiraling descent into the darkness below, rhythmically ticking as it went.
The girl held her arms out wide, spinning herself in tandem with the tiny airship, watching it slowly arc away from her in the cool gloom of the cavern. This was her favorite part, watching her inventions execute their functions.
A small hatch popped open from the rear of the machine with an audible clink, and the device began dispensing orbs of phosphorus light that hung in the air, casting their smoldering white hue over the void. The incandescent bulbs of light floated gently, kept hanging in the air by an unseen force. The floor of the cavern below her came into view as the obfuscating shadows were banished, highlighting her dusky features in their bright white light.
Swinging herself back upright, she rode out the head rush as she pulled the headset from around her neck.
Placing them on her ears, she keyed the mic and spoke softly, “Illuminator away, 80. Starting descent.”
Not waiting for a reply, she placed her hands on her harness and began lowering herself to the cavern floor. Now she could see the familiar interior of the cave, nothing seemed out of place. Even the footprints from her last visit here were still visible in the dirt below her.
“How does it look, Zoe?” a bright voice crackled impatiently into her headset.
Her feet clopped loudly as they met the floor, “I don’t know, Tani, it’s pretty spooky down here. Maybe you should stay topside.”
She slid the rope out of her harness and touched her right hand to a small flashlight on her chest, causing it to flicker to life. Shining the light around herself, her eyes fell on a tall obelisk that stood a few feet from her.
Scrawled across the top in large, evenly spaced letters were the words, Brighton Hills Shopping Center. A favorite scavenging spot for her as it had an electronic supply and repair store in it. Hopefully, she could find some radio parts for the council there. Something to boost their signal further into the mountains, they have been getting spotty coverage for their more outlying posts.
“Okay, enough, I’m coming down,” Kitani said into the headset. Moments later he came sliding down the rope beside her.
Disconnecting his harness from the rope, he dropped his pack to the ground at his feet, clearly in a huff.
Turning to look at her friend, she smiled sweetly and waited for him to compose himself. Kitani was a handsome young man, at nearly six feet tall he outmatched her own height by a handful of inches. With a wild mane of shoulder-length blonde hair and the promising beginnings of a beard on his handsome angular face.
He was currently glaring balefully at her through his hair as he brushed the dust off himself. He was wearing a faded, well-tailored brown jacket, his favorite as it accented his slender, but athletic, frame of which he was very proud. The jacket sat atop a dark green tunic which he fussed over and patted to clear of dirt and dust.
“You all set, Champ?” she asked, stifling her amusement at her friend’s discomfort.
“Shut up, let’s grab the stuff on the list and get back to the city. You know I hate coming down here. These places are so creepy, Zenobia,” Kitani said, making an unhappy face as he activated his own flashlight.
“This way,” she called back to him, setting off into the ancient shopping center.
Unless buried beneath rock and soil like this strip mall, the old-world places were long gone. These ruins were as dangerous as any other, of course, but they also have not been picked clean or succumbed to the elements yet.
It only took a few minutes of walking for them to reach their destination. The large rose-colored building was partially buried underneath a layer of stone and earth; a damaged, once-white sign was visible over the entrance reading BART’.
Without pausing the girl walked through the entrance, making her way to the back of the store. Kitani followed cautiously behind her, glancing suspiciously at the ceiling overhead as he picked his way past rows of collapsed, barren shelves and scattered trash that filled the large building.
Several faded signs clung precariously to the tops of the shelves, half-covered in rust and ancient grime, their labels long past any sense of legibility. The pair had long since picked this space over, stripping it of its useful bits of wire and metal. Though some still remained amongst the more hard-to-reach portions of the ancient, decaying store.
“Give me a hand,” the girl said, standing beside a particularly decrepit-looking metal shelf.
Kitani moved beside her and placed his hands against the shelf. Together they began pushing the heavy piece of metal aside and it slid away with a great scraping screech, exposing a small hollow leading further into the store.
The girl went ahead, dropping into a crouch and making her way through the short tunnel and out the other side. With a determined breath, Kitani scrambled after her, not wanting to spend any longer than necessary inside the short, narrow tunnel.
Kitani the Kineticist, crushed by rocks over radio parts, he thought to himself sourly as he emerged from the far side of the tunnel.
Here the store was in total disarray as the building was slowly returning to the earth, in another decade even this place would be lost. Much of the ceiling was entirely earthen, with long trailing roots that dangled down throughout the murky storeroom. Large steel storage racks had long since fallen and strewn their wares across the floor, forming piles of dirty electronics amongst the long-rotted boxes they had once been stored inside.
Ahead of him, Zenobia was already hunched over a pile of debris, sorting the piles of scrap by usefulness by the light of her flashlight. Kitani dropped his pack to the ground, knelt beside her, and began following suit. Though he moved more slowly through the piles as he lacked the girl's seemingly innate sense for viable old-world tech.
After working for several minutes in silence, Kitani finally spoke, “Have you talked to your dad yet?”
“About what?” the girl replied without looking up from her work.
“Only a few months left, Zoe,” he said, pausing to open his pack, “The festival is coming, then what?”
“I don’t know, Tani,” she said with a heavy sigh, “I’m not ready for all that.”
She turned to her friend and began helping him store the components they had sorted.
“Your dad will understand, it is not unheard of for women to remain unpartnered well into their twenties.”
“Dad’s not the problem.” she sighed, rising to her feet while Kitani resealed his pack and shouldered it, “I just don’t want to be stuck in town all day, I don’t want to stop going on supply runs.”
Kitani gave his friend a knowing smirk, “You just do not like being told what to do.”
“That too,” she said, smiling and shoving him lightly, “There’s just still so much to see, trade with southern tribes, Fort Galatine. Even the peak outposts have reported sightings of smoke east of the mountains. Why would I want to stay here forever?”
She turned without waiting for a reply and walked away from him, heading back toward the tunnel they had crawled through.
“No one has met with the southern tribes in two decades, Galatine is under siege, and crossing the mountains is impossible. Besides, who said you have to stay forever?”
He caught up to her at the tunnel's mouth, touching her shoulder gently and turning her around to face him.
“There are many people who would love to care for a child,” he offered gently.
“Assuming I can even bear children,” she returned bitterly, “I do not wish to live with the pain of losing a child, and that is exactly why there are so many eager to care for one. And maybe we could be the first to make contact with the Southerners again, we could be heroes.”
They made their way back through the tunnel and pushed the metal rack back into place with another piercing shriek. Kitani felt sorry for his friend, even when they were young, she had wanted to leave town to go exploring. They would often stay up late into the night telling each other stories about the magical and wonderous places they would discover and the grand adventures they would go on. Wandering the expansive forests beneath Chelan for days and weeks at a time.
But inevitably age turned his mind to reality, while it seems to have done nothing but stoke Zenobia's attachments to fantasy to even greater heights.
“So what is the plan then?” he said finally, causing the girl to stop short and him with her.
She stood with her back to him for a moment before slowly turning to meet his eyes, “I can’t stay here forever, Tani, I’m sorry. I know it’s important to partner, but it’s important to me that my life means something more than that.”
They both stood quietly in the dark for a few more moments, each not knowing what to say to comfort the other.
In a quiet voice, Kitani broke the silence, “No one said having children is the end of your life, Zoe. For what it is worth, we all support you whatever your choice, but the matchmakers will not relent until you give them an answer. It is not like they can force you. And do not just disappear before that happens. At least tell me first so I will not have to hunt you down,” he reached his hand out and placed it on her shoulder again, smiling kindly at her, “Where you go, I go.”
Zenobia returned her friend’s comforting smile, “Where you go, I go.”
“Illuminator will cease function in 10 minutes,” a sharp, nearly monotone voice crackled into both of their headsets.
“Got it, 80,” Zenobia said, keying her mic, “On our way back now.”
“Yes, let’s get out of this place already, thank you,” Kitani said, moving past her and setting off at a quick pace, clearly happy to be leaving this dirty, shadowy place.;/