The Sunrise Planetside

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
“Used the job to get here, then the job got in the way. I know the feeling.”
Cheryl is torn between her responsibilities to her friends and as an engineer aboard a space station and her dream: to explore the galaxy.

Submitted: March 19, 2014

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Submitted: March 19, 2014

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Sae-won was born into a world of endless night, and in that darkness demons roamed. They saw the tiny candlelight Sae-won bore within her heart and flocked to her, hating her, envying her, desiring her destruction. Sae-won covered herself with layers and layers of cloth but still her light was seen.

Thai-ta-awin, the auntie, made Sae-won wings from feathers of the white yae bird. She strapped them to Sae-won’s arms and she flew, her candlelight showing bright as a firefly against the black sky.

The layers of cloth weighed her down and she tired, but she could hear her pursuers howling, racing after her from the ground below.

#

My earbud played a tone in my ear, pulling me away from the collection of Baeli myths. I rolled out of bed. It was 0400 and I had barely slept at all.

Dan was eating in the mess hall when I arrived. “Morning, Cheryl.”

“Morning.” The deck was quiet this early so we took the best seats in the place, in front of the sprawling wall-sized window. The station continued its revolution around Bael-9 as we ate and the sun came out from hiding: it lit up the planet’s atmosphere, transforming it into a blue rainbow arching over the surface before unveiling the green planet below with light. Dan appeared impassive but it took him a full five minutes before he went back to reading his book.

I continued gazing until my earbud played another alarm. “It’s time for our shift,” I said, and Dan was already gathering our dishes and rising from his seat.

The engineering room door slid open to reveal a dark six by six feet room filled with floor-to-ceiling machinery, two holomonitors, and two very tired engineers hunched over in their seats. A low hum emanated from the engine room adjacent. “Hey Cheryl, Dan,” said Joel, logging out with a flick of his fingers. “Welcome back to the cave.” Erin saluted us and hurried to finish her system checks.

“Is that your new name for it?” I laughed. “I thought you’d settled on ‘death pit.’”

“Too dreary.” Joel’s knees cracked as he stood. “All yours.”

I slid down into the seat Joel had vacated. “Connect.” A connection request popped up on the holomonitor and I logged in, then started first system checks. Normal, normal, normal. All within acceptable range. Dan scrolled through the checks as well, but as soon as he was finished, he pointed his book at the holomonitor and, with a swipe, sent the book to the larger screen to read while keeping the system information open in another window on his right.

“Go do manual checks, will you?” Dan broke the silence. I ignored him until he added a reluctant, “Please.”

“Why, certainly.” I grabbed the checklist and touched my ID bracelet to the scanner. The heavy engine room door slid open, filling the engineering closet with light. I gave my eyes a second to adjust.

Check, check, check, I ticked off the boxes one by one. Nothing out of the ordinary. Outside, no debris, according to the sensors: nothing but the darkness of space. Ahh, if only this station had a Baeli shadow-demon to haunt it perhaps I wouldn’t be so bored.

I locked the engine room door behind me and looked down at the man staring at the text projected in front of him. “Why are you here, Dan?”

Dan shrugged. “It’s a job. Good view of B9, quiet… usually.” He gave me a look.

I ignored it. “But the hours are so long... I came here to explore. I wanted to see the galaxy! What better way to do that than to be a ship engineer! Or so I thought.”

“Used the job to get here, then the job got in the way. I know the feeling.”

“I came all the way here just to get stuck on a space station.”

“That’s life, I guess.” He went back to his book.

I slid back down into my chair and passed the hours away skimming the system information constantly fed to my screen.

1700. Joel and Erin came in to switch. Joel was slouching more than usual. His uniform was untucked and his face pale white. “Are you hungover?”

He smiled weakly. “You got me.” He tore open a bag of quavi beans and popped five into his mouth. Erin snatched them from him.

“Not so many at once, you’ll just get jittery!” She looked tired, too, and chewed a quavi bean herself. “Hey, you’ve got a day off tomorrow, right?” she said to me. “Excited?”

“Yeah. I think I’ll go to the surface for a day.”

“Have fun.” She waved, dismissing me.

Dan groaned as the door closed behind us. I squinted in the light of the hallway. “Looks like I’ve got a shift with Sierra tomorrow.”

“Aw, she won’t kill you.”

“No. I’ve got a new playlist loaded on my earbud. I can tune her out. She won’t even notice.”

“Heh. No, she won’t. And besides, she’s always what, three hours late? You’ll be fine.”

The mess hall was crowded when we finished our shift, and we ate dinner in the back corner, staring at the window. We caught the tail end of another sunrise: one every hour and a half; but no matter how many sunrises I saw, the warmth never reached my face through the heat shields of the ship.

I didn’t set my alarm that morning and I woke late, a little after 0700. I rushed to make the 0800 shuttle to the surface. It took about an hour for the shuttle to touch down so I took out my book of myths.

#

Exhausted, unable to fly any farther, Sae-won alit in the mountains of Aqi. She heard inhuman cries behind her and dove into a cave. But her light shone through the mouth and the demons found her. There were thousands of them, covering the mountainside below her and laughing. They were afraid of coming too close to her light, and they threw rocks at her from afar. They struck her again and again until she fled deep into the cave, leaving the demons’ jeers behind her.

She waited for days and days, drinking only cave water and eating nothing. When it was quiet she returned to the mouth of the cave, only to find herself trapped by thousands of pounds of rocks.

#

My head, I thought, felt full of rocks. I had slept late that morning but I was still tired. My eyes drooped so I stuffed my book in my satchel and dozed until the pilot announced our arrival. I touched my ID bracelet to the turnstile and payment was withdrawn from my account.

The terminal was noisy, busy, with people coming and going and pushing and shoving. I pushed my way over to a tourist information holomonitor in a long line of holomonitors standing against the wall and said, “Sae-won Aqi Shrine.” My earbud asked me if I would like to download a file from Baeli-9 White Yae Ground Station Tourist Booth 23. “Yes. Open download.”

My earbud told me I should go to Gate 1530 and the moving walkway I needed was to my left. I headed farther and farther from the center of the station. The people began to thin out and by the time I had arrived at Gate 1530 there was nobody around but an elderly couple, sitting on a bench as they waited for the bus. My earbud told me to take Bus 1670 toward Sae-won Aqi Shrine and that it would arrive in thirty-two minutes. I smiled at the couple, “Hello,” and sat down at the other end of the bench.

“Oh, a faq-wi!” said the woman. She spoke haltingly, with a heavy Baeli accent. “Where are you going?”

“The Sae-won Shrine,” I told her. “I hear it’s beautiful.”

She grinned with delight.  “It is, it is! But faq-wi don’t go there. It’s far!”

I nodded. “Well, I like shrines and things a lot, so…” There was a whoosh sound as a bus lowered onto the landing pad outside.

“Good, good! Please enjoy,” she said and rose, helping her husband to her feet. “Take care!” she waved and the two hobbled over to the bus, off to some adventure or another.

There were old-fashioned, tactile paper tourist pamphlets on display against the wall. Mountains, lakes, deserts, plains, places far-away and untouched. I grabbed a few, dusting them off, and leafed through, stuffing them in my satchel when my bus arrived.

I touched my bracelet to the gate and stepped inside. The bus was not entirely empty: a few passengers, native Baeli, were dozing in their seats. I looked outside the window at the bright world below me and we took off into the sky toward the Aqi Mountains.

We passed over trees, rivers and lakes, but we flew quickly, almost too fast for me to catch anything. I took out my book: I wanted to finish reading the myth before I saw the shrine.

#

Sae-won was weak from starvation and her light was dim. But the demons had done all in their power and had failed: she was still alive. She wasn’t scared any longer. She removed her layers and layers of cloth and gathered her strength. One by one, she cleared away the rocks.  As she worked her light grew brighter and brighter until when she had finally made an opening her light cleaved the darkness. She emerged from the cave as a chick from the egg. Her hands and arms were battered and her head and stomach hurt but she was free and she would not be trapped any longer.

Below her, she saw the world for the first time as it was: fresh, green, and filled with life. The birds, every type and breed and shape, gathered around the cave. “The demons are gone,” they sang to her. “Your light scared them away.”

They brought her food and water and praised her. But they said, “There are still dark parts of the world where demons lurk and shadows kill. What will you do?”

So she strapped the wings Auntie Thai-ta-awin had made for her to her arms and Sae-won took off into the sky, shedding her light on all the world as she flew unendingly.

#

“Last stop. Sae-won Aqi Shrine, Sae-won Aqi Shrine. Last stop. Passengers are advised to take care in the high altitude. Bottled air is available at the visitor's center.” I stretched and braced myself for the soft landing on the pad. The five of us filed out.

It was windy and for a moment I was afraid I would be blown off the landing pad, but there are guardrails and I grabbed onto one. I held a lead rope as I climbed up the stairs into the visitor’s center. The hinged door squeaked shut behind us. The cabin was quiet and wooden; the insulation was not very good and I shivered with a mountain chill. For a second I thought I was going to topple over and I realized I was lightheaded. I found a bottle of air. They also sold coin offerings and I picked one out. I paid with my bracelet before stepping outside to join the other tourists. I smiled at them and they said a hello but that was the only non-Baeli word they knew.

In a group we climbed the long stairway to the shrine, holding on to the lead rope on the side. We stuck close together, even with me, the foreigner, either out of fear of falling or the companionship of a shared experience I wasn’t sure. The man in front of me slipped once, but I behind him and the person in front of him caught him immediately. I sipped a breath from the bottle and climbed on.

It was not until I reached the the top of the stairs that I had a chance to look down. A steep ravine was below me; in the distance, a blue ocean. It was rocky on top of the mountain but I could see trees below and on the side of the mountain across from us. The leaves were beginning to change to oranges, reds, and purples.

I turned back to the path in front of me. It winded around a ledge. I kept a good grip on the rope and followed the others further into the mountain. On the other side of the ledge, I saw it. I took a deep breath of bottled air.

Ahead of us, it shined in glory; the mountain shadow did not reach it. The rays of the sun blinded us as they reflected off a round dais in front of a gate resembling the shape of a large empty doorway. The gate was covered in golden sculptures of thousands of birds. Lanterns hung from the top of the gate. We hurriedly made the rest of the way down the path, shielding our eyes.

At first I was reluctant to stand on the hallowed dais but the Baeli did so I followed them. I saw, now that I was closer, that the dais was not pure gold, but tiled with paintings illustrating the story of Sae-won. A dark land; Demons in black, chasing her from her home; a tiny light, flying through a dark sky; the cave, surrounded by angry demons. Finally, a triumphant Sae-won bursting out to illuminate the world and force the darkness into the farthest corners.

We were sheltered from the wind here by the sides of the mountain; free from fear and eager to explore, we dispersed. I climbed seven steps to the gate and admired the intricacies of the bird sculptures. Looking at them, for a moment I thought they were about to burst out of their hard stone enclosure and fly away.

It was dark inside the cave, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust from the brightness of the world outside. I saw a statue of gold: a girl with wings on her arms, sitting cross-legged in meditation. Her eyes were closed. In front of her was a bowl, with a prayer engraved in stone beside it. There was a translation on paper covered in plastic: “May we all escape to light the worlds.”

I tossed my offering inside and it was already time for me to head back.

0400. I had returned to the station too late the night before and hadn’t gotten enough sleep. 0430, I met Dan in the mess hall. There was Sae-won, peeking out from behind B-9 to bring light and warmth to the world below. I shivered in the cold of the temperature-controlled room. It was time for our shifts and we switched with Erin and Joel.

“So I went to the Sae-won shrine in the Aqi mountains yesterday,” I said to Dan once we had settled in our seats.

“Good?” He didn’t look up.

“Yeah. It was really nice. I snapped some pictures if you want to see.”

“That’s okay. I’ve seen it.”

“Do you know the story of Sae-won?”

“Yeah.”

“I liked it. Just like that, she escaped…”

“I know.”

“I wish I could go to the surface every day. Or even just once every week. I don’t have the time or energy for that though…”

“Mm.”

“I’m making a phone call.”

“Okay.”

I said to my earbud, “Call Sierra.”

“Hello? Cheryl, what is it?”

“Sierra, look. I wanted to talk about our working hours…”

“This again? If you’re so concerned, we’ll call a meeting. After your shift. See you then!”

“But—” Click.

“Didn’t go well, did it,” Dan said. “Good job for trying.”

2300. Joel’s chair squeaked as he swiveled side to side impatiently. “How can she always be this late,” Joel whined. “I mean, it’s my shift anyway, but you guys should be sleeping!” I yawned and leaned against the console. Erin, in the other seat, dutifully scrolled through the system readings on her holoscreen. Dan flipped through his book.

The door slid open. Sierra was short, a little wide around the middle, and wore a constant frown. I guessed she was around her late thirties but the bags under her eyes made her look much older. She pushed into the center of the cramped room. “How’s the family, Joel?”

“They’re good,” Joel said with a nod.

“That’s good. So. What’s going on at Bael-9-3? What’s this I hear about long hours? You know we’re all pulling as hard as we can.”

The others looked at me. What? I didn’t want her here, either. “I am concerned that the hours we have been working are a bit… illegal.”

She looked me right in the eyes. “No. They’re not illegal. We had your contracts reviewed by a lawyer. They’re fine.”

“Well, I’m tired. I can’t work this much.”

“You don’t like to work? That’s the problem? You don’t want to work.”

“No, no,” I defended, the guilt striking me in the gut. “I like machines and computers. I like engines. I like the work. I just…”

“We can’t do it twelve hours a day,” Dan chimed in. “I’m tired, too. We’re all tired. We can’t keep doing this.”

“All the other stations do it. I don’t see why this station seems to have a problem when everyone else is doing their best. Not only do I have paperwork to do, but Neal or I have to come all the way here to cover for you when you take a day off! Because that’s what this company needs.” She looked straight at me. “I think you’re just lazy.”

“It’s not right! I came here to see the galaxy, not gaze at it through a window.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way but there’s nothing I can do. If that’s all, I’ve got to get back to Bael-3. Erin, I’m covering for Joel’s day off in a few days, so I’ll see you then.” She smiled and the door slid closed behind her.

I sighed. “We could strike.”

“They’ll just find new workers,” said Joel.

“I guess it’s not really that bad,” Erin said, “Is it?”

“Thanks anyway,” I said. “And sorry she made you sit through that too. I’m going to bed.” It was after midnight.

0400, wake up. Hygiene, then breakfast at 0430 with Dan. He was chewing quavi beans. I stole one from his plate. For a second I thought he was going to growl at me. Instead he looked back at his plate. No book today.

The sun rose, filling the mess hall with light. I forced my eyes to stay open. We shuffled over to the engineering cave.

“Hey,” Erin said. “You guys look like hell.”

“Do what I do when I go out after work,” Joel suggested. “Take turns napping during the shift. We won’t tell, right, Erin?”

Erin nodded. “Joel and I do it all the time.”

“Not a bad plan. Get some sleep,” Dan told me as Joel and Erin left. “I’ll watch the monitors.”

I shook my head. It didn’t feel right.

“Suit yourself.” He logged in.

“Earbud, call Sierra,” I said. No answer. I left a message. “This is my two week notice. Day… 21 is my last day. End call.”

“You’re abandoning us?” Dan blinked at me.

“You three are the ones who decided not to strike.”

His eyes glued to the screen and his jaw clenched.

“I’ll go do manual checks,” I said, and grabbed the clipboard.

My earbud rang while I was in the engine room. Sierra. “What are you doing, quitting on me all of a sudden!” Her voice was exasperated.

“I came here to see the galaxy. Obviously I can’t here. Sorry.”

“That’s all you have to say? Sorry? How can you do this to us?”

“I have to take care of myself, Sierra.”

“If you’re going to be pig-headed about this there’s no point in trying,” she snapped. “End call.” She hung up.

I finished manual checks. Dan pouted in his chair. I didn’t like the silence so I played soft music in my earbud, not loud enough to distract me. I chewed more quavi beans to stay awake.

1653. Joel burst into the room, disheveled as ever. “I just heard from Sierra.” I stifled a yawn. “You don’t get it. With you gone, the rest of us are going to have to work even longer until Sierra finds a replacement. Which she won’t. Ever.”

“Then maybe all of you should leave too.”

“I have responsibilities! Some of us are adults, Cheryl. I can’t just—”

“Call Sierra,” Dan said to his earbud, cutting off Joel. “Hi Sierra. My last day is the 21st.” Pause. “I act of my own free will.” Pause. “That’s nice. Bye. End call.” Dan stretched. “Forward all calls from Sierra to messages.” He smiled a little. “That did feel good.”

I grinned. “High five!”

He lifted an eyebrow and turned back to his computer.

Joel stared at the two of us. “That’s great. That’s just great.”

Erin filed in. “Morning,” she said, stretching. “So, you escaping, Cheryl?”

“Dan is too,” Joel said.

“Well, what can you expect from lazy people?”

Dan logged out of his holomonitor.

“See you at 0500,” I said.

“Why wait for the 21st? Why don’t you just leave now?” Joel hollered after me.

The door shut behind us. “Thanks,” I said to Dan.

Dan shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about quitting for a while now. And I guess if things are going to get busy with you gone, it had better be now.”

“Oh.” I didn’t look at him, a sickening feeling in my stomach. I didn’t feel like dealing with the mess hall crowds so I ate my dinner in my room.

2300. My earbud was ringing. Sierra. “What?”

“Cheryl, I’ve been meaning to give you a piece of my mind. You made Dan quit, didn’t you?”

“End call. Forward all calls from Sierra to messages.” I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. I couldn’t. I re-read the Sae-won myth and lay in bed until I drifted off, dreaming of wings on my arms and the wind in my hair. The wind felt nice but my arms were tired.

Erin and Joel said nothing when we arrived, and nothing at the end of the shift when we left. They didn’t say more than ten words to me during those two weeks. They brushed past me as if I weren’t there at the beginning and end of every day. Dan must have seen how lonely I looked. “Don’t let them get to you.”

The 21st, 1700. “Hey,” Joel said as he came into the room, “Time’s up. Get out.”

“Good luck.” Erin forced a smile. We shook hands and that was it.

The door slid shut for the final time behind me. “They still blame me,” I said to Dan.

“Well it is your fault.”

“How is it my fault? How am I supposed to put up with that treatment any longer?”

“No, no, not that. It’s your fault they remembered they hate their life. They think they blame you for making their jobs a little more difficult, but really they’re angry that you reminded them there’s a life outside of the Bael-9-3 engineering room.”

“Oh.” I smiled. “Thanks. You’re a good friend, Dan.”

“I’m a horrible friend. I just have brief moments of insight, that’s all.” I laughed, and he continued. “The shuttle leaves in less than an hour. Hurry up.”

I gathered my backpack, the few belongings I hadn’t mailed, sold, or tossed, and stood in front of the window of the mess hall to watch one last sunrise. Sae-won reached her fingertips across the planet below me and touched my face with her rays. How good it would feel sitting in the cool undergrowth as the sun peeked over the mountains to warm my face: the birds would come to life around me, filling my ears with sound; Sae-won would cleanse my mind of my dark memories of this place. I felt a twinge in my chest. Would Joel and Erin notice I was gone?

I felt eyes on my back. “It’s pretty, but I’ve never been completely sure it’s real.” Dan had come to see the sunrise as well. “It would be easy to project an image of the sunrise and we wouldn’t even know the difference. It’s not like you can feel it.”

“Yeah.”

“You mentioned the tale of Sae-won before. Which version did you read? How does it end?”

“With Sae-won flying forever through the sky.”

“Ah. Doesn’t that sound tiring to you?”

“A bit,” I said. I felt my eyes droop; I realized I’d been so stressed I hadn’t slept much the past few weeks. “Why, how do the other versions end?”

He took out his book and flipped through. When he found the passage he wanted he read it aloud, his deep voice carrying through the crowded mess hall.

#

The multitude of birds, crowding around Sae-won as she stood outside the cave, saw the wings strapped to her arms. The feathers had been torn and bent. “This is what you were flying with?” said the yae bird. “Borrowed feathers?”

“It’s all I have,” said Sae-won.

“You can fly with those tired feathers, if you want, but why? You be the light. We will be your wings.” The birds held her in their claws, gently, as the cat holds her kitten, and lifted her into the sky.

Together, they fly around the world eternally, Sae-won bringing illumination, the birds lending their flight.

#

“But can’t she fly on her own?” I protested. “She’s the sun! She’s strong.”

“Of course she can. But she doesn’t have to. That’s the point. Why do everything yourself when you can make others do it for you?” He grinned.

“Hah. You mean, when your friends are there to help.” I returned his smile.

It lasted barely a moment before he turned from me to wade through the crowd. “The shuttle will be here any minute. I’m not waiting a whole hour for the next one just because you’re being emotional. Move it!”

“Move it please, your lordship!” I caught up with him and pushed him out of the way. “Now who’s the slowpoke?” We raced to the shuttle through the crowded hallways, dodging irritated crewmembers.

The shuttle’s trajectory took us halfway around Bael-9, against the planet’s rotation, before we landed at the ground station. For a little while, we were flying with Sae-won.


© Copyright 2019 RuthW. All rights reserved.

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