Awake (Chapter 16)
Si had made Iris promise that she would stay on the hill with the Samsara, but her thoughts continually drifted to the kids in the cave. They were in desperate need of help, and she knew that Geoffrey would be more of a hindrance than a solution to that need. The first day passed with her pacing back and forth, worry imprinted every dusty footprint into the dirt just outside the Samsara’s vine curtained doorway.
Peter had taken to pulling vines from the side of the ship and braiding them, it seemed like a much healthier form of stress relief to Iris, and she was a little embarrassed of her own lack of control.
“I’m going to explore the inside,” she said, for perhaps the tenth time since Si left them. Each time, however, she had shouldered the pack and gotten maybe twenty feet down the corridor before turning back. Torch or not, the inside of the ghost ship felt terribly heavy as if a giant placed a boulder on her shoulders with each tenuous step that she took into the dark. Peter had never said anything each time she returned, chagrined and silent, and she was grateful for that. Perhaps he couldn’t blame her. Perhaps he too was scared to be alone.
“Uh, huh,” he said, completely unconvinced, lost in his rope braiding.
“Are you going to be okay here?” she asked. She had done this before as well, and Peter said his lines.
“Alright.” She shouldered her pack and put the shotgun’s sling over her neck as Si had shown her. Peter had his own leaning against the wall next to him and he was to fire a shot if there was trouble. “Be safe,” she bent awkwardly and kissed the top of his head.
“You too,” he didn’t even look at her, sure that she would be back in a few minutes anyway.
She sighed, lit a torch in the small fire that Peter took pride in keeping alight, and pushed through the curtain. She would go farther this time.
She walked down the corridor until the point that she’d always reached, an intersection where the cool air’s stillness seemed to stir ever-so-slightly with the whispered moans of her father’s ghost. This time she turned left and imagined that Si was with her on one of their trips to the room where they practiced shooting the guns, but she had reached the room’s open doorway and passed by within a minute's walk. Now she was far past where familiarity lent an air of comfort to her exploration. She was afraid, but as she walked she kept her mind occupied with thoughts of her father, her brother, and oddly, Si.
Despite her anxiety over their new struggle for survival on this alien world, she had begun to feel almost excited. This was what she had been looking forward when they’d left earth after all, maybe not as dramatic as this perhaps, but she had been looking forward to a new life. A life where they could build, where they’d have to build, a new…everything. Civilization itself would need to be formed, and she would be here to help make it.
A flutter of wings from a dark corner brought her back hard and fast. Without thought she dropped the torch, lifted the shotgun and blasted a dragon’s breath shot at the sound. Fire erupted from the barrel, and in the near total darkness that her eyes had become accustomed to, the flash was blinding. The impact of the gun against her shoulder was painful and the force of the explosion almost spun her around, but she managed to keep a hold of the UTS 15 and raised it to her cheek again, ready to send a second blast if it was needed. It wasn’t.
Her torch petered out, but it didn’t matter, the three bats that burned in a writhing pile on the ground gave more than enough light, and the shotgun blast had seemed to scare anymore in the area away. She smiled darkly at their agonized hisses and screeches. With each scream she was assured a measure of safety from the rest of the creatures close enough to hear.
She felt like a mob boss in one of those old movies.
“Go ahead, tell your friends,” she said in her best Vito Corleone accent. She laughed at herself. It was a terrible accent. She lit the torch off the burning corpses and looked around. This place was unfamiliar of course, she had come farther than she ever had after all, but what was more disconcerting was that she wasn’t entirely sure which corridor she had come down.
Iris stood in the middle of another intersection. Ghostly moans whispered past her. It wasn’t a breeze. It wasn’t even a stirring of the air, but more a touch. A coolness that caressed one side of her face more than another.
Trying to remember just how many times she’d turned or gone straight and in what order quickly proved that she wasn’t sure of anything.
“Bloody Si,” she swore. It was his fault…probably. She wasn’t entirely sure how, but it didn’t matter right now. If she hadn’t been daydreaming… Iris put the three dead bats in her pack. There was no need to waste protein.
She made a decision and started walking. Si would probably say something like, ‘how did you get lost. There are signs everywhere,’ and the hypothetical him was right, but Iris didn’t know what those signs meant.
She wiped the dust from one and read it.
“Crew Mess” with an arrow. ‘Mess’ That was military for ‘cafeteria’ wasn’t it? She was certain she hadn’t passed one of those, although it could have been behind a closed hatch. She sighed. The first hatch was open and she entered a large room. Yep. A cafeteria. She was about to turn around and head back to the intersection, sure now that this was the wrong way back to Peter, but a thought struck her.
Iris walked deeper into the room, passing empty benches and tables. On the far side of the room, a window in the wall looked into a kitchen. Even though the tops of everything looked dusty, light reflected brightly off of still-shiny surfaces. A few pots and pans hung from the ceiling and their shadows were ominous on the far wall. She was surprised that the things had survived the crash still hanging from the rack, but then she noticed that they had been clipped in place.
She propped the torch in a prep sink with the handle in the drain so that it would stay upright while she climbed onto the metal counter. She wasn’t what she’d call short, but the pan rack was well out of reach so she scrambled up and fiddled with the clip of a saucepan until it came free. She swung the pack around her and slipped the thing inside. She did the same with a large butcher's knife and a composite cutting board. There was another counter across the kitchen and something hanging from the wall above it intrigued her. She lowered herself to the floor and crossed to it. Pulling it down, she identified it as a collapsible water jug. Several more were hanging from the same hook and she detached all of them then clipped them to the outside of her pack.
She grabbed a few other things that still looked like they were in good condition, a small paring knife, and a sealed container that said ‘seasonings’ on the outside. She wondered if any of them would still have flavor. She went to grab the torch, lost in the thought of how much better the bats would taste with a little salt and pepper, and burned herself on a runnel of hot grease that had slid down the handle. She cursed and jerked, upsetting the torch. Its weak flame flickered and went out before she could right it.
Dark swallowed her.
She felt for the torch and found it, burning herself again. The end of the torch had developed a ring of glowing embers and she lifted it up carefully. She found one of her spare torches sticking out of one of the straps on her pack and pulled it free. In the dark she did everything by feel. She found the bulky end of the new torch and put it gently against the old one and blew on them. The embers brightened a little but that was it. She cursed and blew harder, but nothing happened.
Iris worked her lungs like a bellows until she grew faint and had to take a break, but the embers only seemed to diminish rather than brighten now. Frustrated, she shook the torches and a zig-zag of light traced the path and then faded. She did it again and it brightened slightly. Was that the flap of wings? She focused on the path of light that her efforts created. Wings suddenly flapped at her head and something stung her shoulder. She screamed and swung the torch at the bat and was rewarded with a puff of flame. She cooed at the thing and pushed the new torches freshly greased end into the weak flame. It caught and once again the kitchen was visible, but the sight almost made her wish to be blind once more. The large black creatures stuck to almost every surface around her, pale eyes staring. At the sudden flame they’d begun to scurry back, shrieking and some jumped into the air.
Iris stumbled back against something while trying to raise the shotgun one handed and suddenly her back was wet. She spun, screaming. Half a dozen equally terrifying reasons for the wetness flashed through her head
The last of the bats escaped through the far door and window into the cafeteria, but she didn’t watch them go, instead her eyes were fixed on the water. It was pouring out of the faucet affixed to the prep sink where she’d propped the torch earlier. She lowered the gun and slowly pushed the lever on the faucet. The water cut off. She felt like a crazy person when she laughed. She had just been terrified beyond belief and now she was ridiculously happy at seeing the water. She found a safe spot for the torch and passed her cupped hands into the waterfall. It smelled okay, well, like water. What did water smell like? She didn’t have anything to test it with, and she supposed it wouldn’t really matter if she did. The biology on this planet might be so different from what we’re used to on earth that the standard tests would no longer be of any use.
She shrugged and tasted a mouthful. It tasted great. Far better than the water in the little bags. She splashed her face and scrubbed, then smiling, took off her pack and disrobed. She washed herself there in the kitchen, uncaring if the water pooled at her feet. When she was done, she felt amazing and was a little sad to put her old clothes back on. They seemed too dirty for her new standard of living.
She didn’t know how there was water. Maybe the ship had a cistern. That made sense right? She filled the water jugs and hung them along the old torch's length and shouldered it, then took up the new torch and headed for the door. Her mood had improved considerably and she began working her way back to Peter as best she could. After several backtracks and a whole lot of sighing, she finally reached a familiar corridor.
Peter was still braiding when she pushed through the curtain of vines. Iris was covered in sweat from her hike back, and her shoulder yelled at her when she lowered the water jugs to the ground.
“Hey,” Peter said, as if she hadn’t been gone for several hours.
“Hey,” she responded, and sat down next to him. He finally looked at her, and Iris could see streaks in the dirt of his face where tears had been. Peter was acting tough now that the fear had run its course, but there had been a moment there where he was probably just as afraid as she had been.
“What happened to your shoulder?” He asked. A note of concern tinted his voice. She put her chin down and pulled on her shirt with one hand, trying to see the wound.
“One of the bats scratched me. It’s not serious,” she assured him. Iris shrugged out of the pack and unclipped the shotgun.
“I shot the gun a couple times, but you didn’t come,” his tone was accusatory.
“I know, Peter,” she gripped him around the shoulder. “I got lost.” She smiled at him, trying to hide just how scary the experience had been for her behind it.
“Cato wouldn’t have let you get lost.” Peter said, matter-of-factly. She tousled his oily hair.