Cameron sat stunned in the Main Exit Tunnle. They should’ve never come here. They’d tried to read their fortune before they left, but their gemmes hadn’t warned them that they’d run into trouble, much less an Autrean.
Said Autrean continued staring at them, shining that frightful light in their face. She’d finally placed it down like Cameron had been begging her to do, but the light bouncing off the rocks still hurt. It felt like a thousand firebug lanterns lit at once. They thought bringing one lantern with them was enough, but this was blinding. And if they went blind, what good would they be to the Community?
They tried to ask again, “Can you stand? Can you move?” but like they guessed, she didn’t understand. Very few Autrean words mirrored Arkeh:nen ones, and it wasn’t like they could just bring her back to the surface. Their job since childhood was and would forever be an excavator, a simple folk who gathered gemmes for the psychics to use in their practices. They weren’t a scavenger. They weren’t allowed outside.
The girl asked something. Cameron shook their head, totally lost. Finally gaining back their sight, they found her to be in worse shape than they thought. Her knees were scraped and her palms, a little lighter than her skin, were bleeding.
So dark, this girl. They knew Autreans as dark, like Basil, but this girl had skin and hair as black as a cave.
With simple gestures and smiles, Cameron brought her to her feet. She was definitely the tallest person they’d ever met, but they knew Autreans grew like trees on the surface. Something to do with all that sunlight.
When they turned to go home, the girl didn’t follow. Being patient, they took her hand and led her through the tunnle somewhat blind.
Not that they needed sight to see. They could’ve easily found their way home blindfolded. They spent hours in these tunnles at a time. The kaart etched into their forearm had become obsolete as a navigation map. Now they only looked at it whenever they were excavating a new tunnle. Then they’d take a knife and scar a new line down their arm.
The Autrean, however, had difficulties. She’d hurt her leg and needed to palm the tunnle walls for guidance. Cameron warned her about incoming stalactites, but she somehow hit each and every one.
The tunnle ended with a beautifully decorated blanket stitched by a beautifully aged Grandmoeder. It draped over the entrance hole and welcomed back scavengers who braved the outside world. Symbols of nature and rocks were sewn into the precious fabric, illustrating their history of digging back into the Earth.
Cameron carefully parted the blanket to reveal their world of Arkeh:na.
Since they left, more of the ville shoppes had opened up for the day. The owners of each little shack dusted off their quilts and trinkets they’d trade for squirrel meat or gemmes. Cameron had woken up earlier than usual to avoid being hounded down by shoppekeeps for being where they weren’t supposed to be. They just had an inkling to come to the Main Exit Tunnle, and now, evidently, they knew why. They just wished their gemmes had better prepared them. They would’ve brought some healing ointments with them.
Behind the ville shacks were the stairs and ladders leading down into the layers of Arkeh:na. Cutting through it flowed the Rivière, the winding river that split the ville in half, and the Centrum, the main pavilion where people lounged about and gossiped.
To the right of the Rivière was the washing pond and its waterfalls, the psychics’ underground reading dens, and the artisan huts. There, seamstresses, pottery makers, and cooks prepared for the day. A few early birds had started the day right, calling out orders from inside the sweaty mud huts and sewing up new outfits for their friends and family. As Cameron trotted over the tiny bridge across the Rivière, they saw neither Basil nor Maywood anywhere. Strange. Maywood usually stayed close to Basil to keep him from running away from his duties.
They lost the girl’s hand. She fell back on the bridge, her jaw slowly dropping. She took in the height of the Centrum’s pillars and the noise from the artisan huts. The more she experienced, the wider her mouth opened.
When she started rubbing her arms up and down in shock, Cameron took back her limp hand and led her to the seamstress’ huts. They avoided looking down at the ladder leading to the psychics’ dens. The energy from down there radiated through the bridge into their moccasins.
They never spent too much time on this side of the Rivière. Their lack of technical skills had no place with so many talented people. Cameron had been gifted with the rare sense to locate and extract gemmes in the caves, but nobody cared, and they understood that. Their Moeder was the most powerful psychic in the Community. Everyone came to her when their lives became too heavy to bear alone. When Cameron had been born, everyone was ready to welcome another equally talented psychic to the family.
Instead, Cameron had become a jinx, one who caused frequent cave-ins and zapped the energy from every gemme they touched. They tried to make up for this by hunting down the best gemmes, but all they came back with were dead rocks and lost Autreans.
Seamstresses were working hard inside the mud huts. Their silkworms buzzed as balls of thread were fished from their cages.
Maywood, sitting at her usual spinning wheel, looked up to greet Cameron. Then she noticed the Autrean girl and took her foot off the pedal.
“It’s okay,” Cameron said. Before she sat up and used most of her strength for the day, they leaned down and held her hands. She was Basil’s older sister, the more dependable one of the family. “I found her at the Main Exit. I think she fell, but I can’t understand her.”
The Autrean girl said something in an exasperated tone. She started wandering around the kilns and the pottery left out to dry. She went to touch an unfinished bowl, then thought better of herself and pulled back to admire the craft without touching it.
“You shouldn’t have brought her down here,” Maywood warned. “They’re not allowed here. You know that.”
“I know, but she’s hurt. I was wondering if you could mend her clothes. Then I was going to bring her to a healer.”
A few artisans pulled back from their work and whispered about the newcomer. Cameron’s Moeder had often told them not to worry about how people thought of them, but that was impossible. They wanted to do good by everyone, Arkeh:nen and Autrean alike, but what could they say to the adults? That they were wrong for being distrustful of Autreans? Most kids Cameron’s age were intrigued by Autreans and wanted to learn more about them, but they knew the older generations had their reservations. Their ancestors had buried themselves away for a reason.
Maywood scratched her thinning hairline. “When’s the last time an Autrean came here? I can’t remember.”
Cameron shrugged. They’d never seen one personally, but they heard the rumors. They rode on loud machines called “cars,” took up more space than they could fit in. They were so close to being Arkeh:nen, but that thick layer of sediment made enough of a difference to them.
“This’s serious, isn’t it?” Maywood asked. “Should we tell the Grandmoeders about this?”
“No,” Cameron said promptly. “I can’t worry them with something like this. She just needs help, then we can send her on her way. Are there any healers awake yet?”
As Maywood went to answer, someone slammed into the doorless archway of the mud hut.
Basil snapped upright. Balls of silk clung to his bear-skin dress. It looked like he’d tried to transfer the cocoons to the boilers for processing, but had accidentally fallen into one of the nests.
He ripped off the sticky cocoons as he gawked at the Autrean. “Who the heck is this?”
It sounded like he asked the same question to the Autrean in her native tongue. He knew how to speak basic Autrean from his time as a scavenger, but the girl still didn’t answer.
“I brought her,” Cameron told him.
“Why? Cameron, you know they’re dangerous. Were you at the exit tunnles again?”
“Lower your voice,” Maywood hushed. “It’s too early to argue.”
“I found her at the Main Exit,” Cameron explained. “She’s hurt.”
“The Main—That’s the closest one to the Autreans! She needs to go back. I’m taking her back.”
“She’s hurt,” they insisted. “We have to help her.”
“And we’re Arkeh:nen, and Arkeh:nen help anyone who needs it.”
Basil bit his cheek, battling a truth they’d been taught since birth. Ever since the early times, Arkeh:nen had a duty to protect those seeking help. Whether you were running from bears or hateful talk, a cave was a place to hide from your worries until you felt safe enough to leave.
The girl backed away. She kept shaking her head and repeating a phrase over and over again. Then, from the build-up of her fall, from Arkeh:na, and from not being acknowledged, she screamed. She hollered and let out everything trapped inside of her. She pointed at Cameron, then at Maywood, then took it upon herself to explore Arkeh:na alone. Tripping over a spinning wheel, she pushed past Basil and disappeared.