The drop-hangar ceiling closes above us, and the plane’s engine finally goes silent.
Out of the cargo bay I quickly walk, with my lieutenant pursuing me readily. The rest of the planes have followed us down below the crust of the earth, and the pilots and soldiers emerge slowly. I don’t give them any orders – they know where to go and what to do until the next mission. I don’t want to talk to anyone now. I just want to leave the hangar, and find a place to be alone.
“And another successful heist,” the woman behind me chirps, a bit too happy for my liking. Cracking her neck, she sends me something resembling a smile and says, “You know, you’re welcome to come with me instead of moping alone. Vipra would love to see you. She loves her ‘uncle Kitchener’.”
My lip twitches. Were I in a better mood, I would find Piper’s words sweet, and I might even consider taking her up on the offer. But right now my brain can only cling to the words ‘uncle Kitchener’ and my fists clench at mys sides in tired anger. Family isn’t something I’m comfortable with. I let Piper’s daughter call me what she wants – she’s only a child, after all. But beyond that, I don’t want to think about it.
Piper’s voice sounds again. “Okay,” she says, in response to my silence. “Want to move the generator down to the chamber?”
I shake my head. “Just leave it in the hangar for now. I’ll inspect it later.”
She gives a curt nod. “Will do.” She about-faces and strides off down the hall, back in the direction of the hangar to instruct the lackeys that they shouldn’t move the generator just yet. Normally I would get it over with as soon as possible and move the generator to a more secure place, but at the moment the energy to do so eludes me. I watch Piper disappear. Not once does she look back at me.
I find myself alone in the corridor, laminated lights crackling overhead. I finally release a breath, and my shoulder sag. My feet turn slowly, carrying me away from the hangar. Step by stilted step, I make my way past doors, past windows that catch a somber reflection as I walk by. In my peripheral vision, the image of my face is marred by distant lights in the massive chamber that rests below my feet. Like the rest of the world, it falls away from view very soon.
I reach the door, and my hand lingers on the knob. A sign on the metal halts trespassers, but I ignore it. Fingers trapped in a glove seize upon the doorknob and twist. Leaning heavily against the door, I push inwards, and the hinges relinquish with a barely-audible sigh. I let go of the knob and leave a residue in the shape of my fingers behind. A sound catches on my teeth as I glare at my hand. Disgust curdles in my stomach, but I force it down.
The door whispers shut behind me, and darkness descends for only a moment. One, two, three heartbeats pass before the lights come on. Newborn shadows fling themselves against the walls, and the soft sound of water dripping reaches my ears. The air is warm, much warmer than it is on the surface of the world, or in the sky. Here I do not feel the prickle of the cold, or the hear the warning hiss of respirators. Again, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to breathe. Breathe.
I slowly pull the gloves from my fingers, feeling for the first time in many hours a stickiness on my skin. My lip curls back, and a low scoff meets my tongue. I move quickly through the pillars and fringes of green that inhabit this room. Beads of mist condense on their fronds, just as sweat condenses on my skin. The temptation to throw my gloves away is strong, but I keep myself in check. I wait until I pass by the plants.
Now I find myself in a smaller room, an offshoot of the larger one separated by a screen. Careful not to let my hands touch, I use my elbow to nudge the screen door open. Only now do I place my gloves down on the dresser built into the wall. Making a mental note to wash the gloves of the putrid stain later, I make haste for the sink.
There, a soft stream of water cascades over the creased landscape of my hands. Soon enough the stickiness is gone, and I let out a relieved sigh. The sensation of things clinging to my skin sends an itch into my brain, makes my eyelids squeeze and nostrils flare. Here, I am safe. I don’t need things to cling.
Outside, the very air hugs the skin, digs into your muscles… and every time I’m out there, I ache to return here. Where nothing clings but memories. Tilting my head back, I force back a lump that has settled into my throat, and I turn my head halfway to the side.
In the middle of the room, far away from the poisonous air outside, far from unworthy eyes. It stands in its tray, sheltered in dirt and little smooth stones. The plant is small, fragile – it almost seems to shrivel when the light touches it, bleed when felt by human hands. But in the dim light, or in the darkness… the little one glows. It glows and makes itself stronger, as if feeding on the darkness and the warmth from the distant generators, and the warmth of my skin.
I go to the edge of the bed where it sits on a metal board. Exhaling softly, I brush my fingers over the delicate leaves, feeling the striations in its bark and the dampness of the dirt. “I’m home,” I murmur. There is no one around to here, and more than anything in the world, this brings me peace. People… they aren’t worthy. They just aren’t.
Even Piper, for all her loyalty, doesn’t deserve to be here, to watch this tiny life grow. She has grown a life of her own, and she understands. She understands what it feels like to love something.
As I look over the plant and trace my fingers down ever branch, I see something. A tiny bud, struggling to live. It has only the faintest trace of color. A hint of red, almost drowning in the green. A smile finds its way to my lips after long since being absent. Red… his favorite color.
A heaviness pulls at my stomach as I imagine him seeing this little thing, this tiny life I’ve grown. He would love it. He would be able to shape it better than I ever could – he would be able to make this plant sing. All the plants sang for him. They told him things – gave him so many ways to see. They were able to resist the very thing that killed so many people. He learned from them how to stave off the radiation. He told me once, he had hopes that one day he could use the plants to give humankind a renewed existence.
In a world like this one – sheltered in a dark, cold sky – hope only leads to ignorance, and ignorance leads to death.
People die every day, but his… was worse. So much worse. He was so close to completing the project he’d devoted half his life to fulfilling. My agenda is a pale imitation, an almost desperate attempt to do what he couldn’t. I swore to him I would succeed, even with odds stacked against me. I promised him – the world won’t end like he did.
I held him as he died, and I promised him.
Then I gave his body to fire, and carved from my heart all other people who ever once held meaning. It hurt me then. But now I can ignore things that distract other people, and put my goal above temptations. Above stale concepts like legality and morality. Even if this mission destroys me in the process, at least my mind is clear, and so long as my legs work well enough, I can always carry myself back here.
I take a leaf between two fingers and rub the texture gently. For a moment I think I hear a whisper from the little tree, and for a moment, it sounds just like him. But then it ends, and the smile escapes from my face once again. A tiny drop of wetness chases gravity, winding down my cheek.
It lands on the tree, and the tree replies with a soft red glow, leaking out from underneath its bark. The glow pulses like a heartbeat, in tune with mine. Kneeling at the bedside, I do not move. I only watch the pulses fade and return. Fade… and return. If only humans worked the same way.
Every bioluminescent pulse, every shiver of the infant branches, they echo my thoughts. The tree I brought to life, and kept alive… why couldn’t I do that with him? No one is allowed to know. No one is worthy of knowing. But… I miss him. The tiny tree reminds me every time I see it. But it will not die like he did. I will not let it.
I will not let this precious life die, and I will not let my husband’s work go to waste. But that does not change the way this world hurts me. The way it has hurt me since the day I lost him, and the day I lost all love for the bitter, broken world.
“I miss you,” I murmur to the tree and to the cremated ashes nestled underneath its roots. “I miss you, love.”
Another part of my novel Cold Broken Sky… why is it that I can never write happy, upbeat things? Oh, well. Please enjoy the main character’s bitterness. As a bonus note, I wrote this during a writing camp I attended at Plymouth State University. Exercise in indirect characterization, if I recall. I think I did well with that. I don’t think I did well with the title. At all. It just sounds so… sappy, cliche, take your pick. I don’t really like it.