Challenge Five

Rodney crouched with his infrared cloak wrapped tightly about him, the rocky wall behind him jutting uncomfortably into his back. The darkness pressed against his eyeballs like thick, black paint and the silence was so complete that he felt as though he were in a vacuum. The only sound was the occasional scratching of a tunnel crab as it shifted about somewhere in the dark.

Rodney checked his handheld. It was just a little before 22:00 hours. Vanessa had promised to meet him at these coordinates at 21:00. Rodney pocketed the handheld once more and wrapped his arms around his shoulders, rocking backward and forward on his heels. Where was she? Had she decided to hand him in? Was there an Enforcement recovery squad closing in to apprehend him at this very moment?

Suddenly there was a distant clatter of displaced stones that echoed through the black abyss. Rodney got stealthily to his feet, both hands clenched tightly. He had nothing to defend himself with. If it really was a recovery squad, there was little he could do, but the thought of giving in without a fight rankled him. He had not trekked through the dark for five days to give up now, so close to the surface.

The far-off noises solidified into a regular pattern: the crunching of footsteps. And then a light emerged from around a corner, a glaring white circle that illuminated the entire tunnel. Rodney shaded his eyes as they acclimated to the sudden brightness and squinted to try to make out the identity of the silhouette that was making its way toward him.

"Rodney?" called a voice.

The light angled away from his face and there stood Vanessa in her Enforcer uniform, her red-gold hair framing her face like a glowing halo.

"You made it!" exclaimed Rodney, relief spreading through him like a gulp of hot coffee. "I was scared that you wouldn't come."

"I almost didn't," said Vanessa, crossing the last few yards to him. "I got held up by an emergency video conference. It's finally going to happen."

"What's going to happen?" asked Rodney quizzically.

"I'll tell you while we walk. You're going to need to hurry to make it to the launchpad in time now . . . and I want to put some more distance between us and the outpost."

Still feeling puzzled, but with little choice but to trust her, Rodney followed Vanessa as she started up the gently sloping tunnel. The walls slid by in a wash of gray and brown, a strange mix of natural rock and reinforced steel that had been erected over the years to keep the ceiling from caving in.

"So what's going on?" Rodney asked after a minute. Even though he spoke softly, his voice was magnified several times by the echoey space. Vanessa cringed at the noise and responded in an even quieter tone.

"I wouldn't be telling you this, but you're supposed to be leaving the planet . . . although I've probably gotten myself into enough trouble by helping you that it scarcely matters anyway. Rodney, Enforcement's been keeping a big secret."

"I already know about the Dark Shadows."

"I know, but that's only part of it. The tunnel crabs — what you call Dark Shadows — are adapted to the high radiation levels on Amber. That's why Enforcement cared about them. They wanted to know how they did it. Well, they finally figured it out. Don't ask me how, but now they're using the crab DNA to genetically modify us without us even realizing it."

"They're what?" said Rodney.

"We're going to be the last generation to live below ground," said Vanessa. "The human race is being engineered to survive on the surface."

They walked in silence for a few moments, Rodney dwelling on the implications of this statement. Ahead of them, Vanessa's beam slashed through the darkness, illuminating the end of the tunnel which was marked by a heavy titanium door.

"I only just found out," said Vanessa. "Apparently, Enforcement's been building a settlement on the surface with robots for a while now. It's going to be announced sometime next week. Of course, the public will never know that another intelligent species has been exploited for their benefit."

"Which means I'm still a fugitive," sighed Rodney, who had felt his hopes gradually rising in spite of himself.

Vanessa nodded.

"You're on a clock now, too. If you don't get to the launch pad before next week, there's going to be nothing for you to escape on — the supply ship leaves in eight days."

They had reached the door. Vanessa set down her plasma lamp so she could shrug off her backpack and zip it open. From it, she took two dark bundles, one of which she handed to Rodney.

"A radsuit," she said as she started punching various codes into the door's control panel. "It's not perfect, but it'll give you at least some radiation shielding."

Rodney suited up and was puzzled to see Vanessa doing the same.

"What are you doing?"

"I want to see the surface," said Vanessa. "It may shave a couple months off my life, but it's the only chance I'll ever have."

Rodney almost argued with her but she gave him a quelling glance and he shut his mouth. He realized she was probably right anyway.

A minute later, the huge door ground aside. Rodney glimpsed several more such doors sliding away behind it before a brilliant starry sky came into view. He heard Vanessa gasp beside him and the two of them walked the last few paces out of the tunnel to gaze at the beautiful scene that was Amber's surface. A vast, rocky desert, punctuated by the occasional canyon or plateau, rolled out before them. But unlike Telluria, everything was lit not by a hundred plasma lights, but by a breathtaking, luminous sky. For stretched across the curtain of scintillating stars above was an iridescent ribbon of light, bathing the barren world with a shower of greens and blues.

"An aurora," Rodney said automatically, but he could tell Vanessa wasn't listening and he didn't much care himself. He reached up and removed the visor of his radsuit. Although he was probably taking in triple the rads now, the air felt wonderful: fresh like nothing he had ever breathed, and bitingly cold.

Rodney turned to Vanessa. "Thank you. I've given you no reason to want to help me."

"I know . . . but you're my brother." Vanessa smiled. "I'll miss you, Rodney. I have missed you."

Rodney hugged her. He blinked away tears as he released her.

"I'd better get going," he said. "I have a lot of ground to cover."

Vanessa nodded. "Good luck. You know I don't pray, but I'll be praying for you."

Rodney turned and looked out over the sea of rocks. Then he started out across it, under the glowing banner of the aurora.

*   *   *

". . . this is footage of the surface we're seeing here, streaming live from Enforcement drones. Last week, Tellurian officials released an unexpected statement announcing the building of a city on Amber's surface — a city that officials say will one day be populated by humans. As impossible as it sounds, officials say that radiation shielding technology has become sufficiently advanced to house and protect a surface-dwelling society . . ."

The news report rattled on, repeating the same things over and over as it had for the past five hours since the story had broken. Vanessa leaned back in her swivel chair and gazed at the screen. It showed the craggy landscape of Amber's surface, lit by the eternal sunset of a tidally locked world. Nestled between two hills was an unfinished jumble of steel and glass and concrete, black against the bloody glow of the horizon. There was no aurora, though. Only she and Rodney had seen that.

"It's going to be a lot different now, isn't it?" said Carla, who was sitting cross-legged on the chair next to her. She, like Vanessa, had neglected her crab monitoring duties to watch the news.

"Not for us," said Vanessa. "The city won't be finished for years and our generation doesn't have enough radiation tolerance to survive it. It's our children that'll live up there, that'll know what it's like to breathe fresh air."

"I wonder what it's like?" said Carla.

Vanessa hid a smile. She didn't have to wonder. She had seen it, felt it, tasted the air. She cast her eyes back to the viewscreen. In the distance, a few miles from the construction site, the launchpad could be seen, a black speck against the stony backdrop. And perched upon it, slim as a needle at this distance, was the rocket ship that she knew Rodney was on. Vanessa had been waiting to see it take off all day and finally the reporter commented on it.

"In the background there you might be able to see the launchpad and rocket. That's the supply ship bound for Alpha Centauri B once more. It'll be taking off in a minute or so now . . ."

Vanessa counted down the seconds. Finally she saw a cloud of smoke envelope the launchpad; a few moments later, the ship was soaring into the sky, leaving nothing but a trail of exhaust behind it.

Goodbye, Rodney, thought Vanessa as the ship disappeared into the atmosphere.

She sighed. Despite what she had told Carla, things were going to be different. She was sure of it. Telluria's population would slowly dwindle as the old died and the young went to the surface. The few that remained would grow old all alone in the dark underworld. The thought made Vanessa shudder. Perhaps she was still afraid of the dark. Or perhaps she was afraid of being alone.

An idea suddenly struck her. Maybe she could jump planet like Rodney in a few years on another supply ship. She could reach Centauri B before she turned forty. After all, a decade or so in space had to be better than an eternity in the lonely dark.

Maybe. She'd see.

For now, though, she would stay — for a few more years at least. Vanessa closed her eyes. She smiled. In her mind, she could still see the surface, a world of fresh air and rocky expanses, and a sky lit by the aurora.

The End

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