céline taillefer

Paucity

Original portal fantasy with dystopian elements. A conscripted water miner finds herself transported to a land overflowing with water and magic. (1041 words)

I found Rose’s body mid-afternoon while clearing rocks and debris from a minor shaft collapse. My mind was on the hollow grumble of my stomach when my hand fell on something smooth and artificial, an alien sensation against the gritty reality of the mine shaft. I drew in a deep breath, felt the cool whoosh of the oxygen tube tickle my tongue and blow away the dust.

Her hair was a tangled dark smear in the headlamp’s glow, her face turned down towards the dirt, but I knew it was Rose. She hadn’t been at dinner last night. When she failed to show up at the dormitory for lights out, we all joked about heading to the men’s barracks to find out who her tryst was. I crept forward and turned her head slightly. Dust and foam flecked her lips, and her eyes were slitted against sand that would never trouble her again. Damnit. No gear, no light. She’d died alone and in the dark.

My dowsing suit was one of the newer models, equipped with a radio and GPS tracker. In theory, this was so the guards could retrieve the valuable suits after a rockfall, and good luck to the poor kid wearing the suit. Kids were cheap. Despite our long hours in the water mines, we didn’t produce nearly enough of the precious resource to justify large scale rescue missions. I pressed a gloved hand to the comm button on my shoulder. “Zeta to Base. Over.”

“10-4, Zeta. Status? Over.”

“Reinforcement of entry shaft H3 delayed. Corpse retrieval required. Zeta out.” I said the word “corpse” without a hitch from the growing lump in my throat, but I felt hollow and unhappy.

“Roger that. Base out.”

Rose had flung a hand to the side when the rocks began to fall. On an impulse, I took off one of my gloves, picked up her hand and squeezed it gently. “I wish I’d been with you. I’m sorry.” It was a small collapse, no different than any of the dozen the mines experienced on a weekly basis. Maybe together, we could have protected one another – maybe we both would have died. Who can know? As I put her hand down, something glittered in the light. I reached out to pick it up and –

Hst!”

The thing, hard and smooth, flared at my touch like a struck match. It filled the shaft with blue-green light and scorching my fingers, smelling like ozone and cooked meat. I drew my hand away but the skin seemed smooth and unburnt. Whatever I’d seen, it was nowhere in sight now.

I scooted back up the shaft, my bulky suit scraping dust from the walls, until the body was out of sight around a corner. Even if the operator reported my call right away, the medic team would finish up their lunch, leisurely don their suits with jokes, or grumbling about stupid kids clogging up the mines again with their dumb bodies. They’d come though – at the very least, the suit I was wearing would be worth retrieving. I let the smooth, hard plastic of the suit cradle me against the roughness of the mine shaft and closed my eyes.

When your life was pared down to work and recovery from work, you rested when you could. All the same, I didn’t think I would fall asleep, waiting for my jailers with only a dead friend for company, but I must have. There was the disorienting sensation of being chased through tall grass, slapping green and wet against my bare legs. My heart hammered at my ribs. Not the steady grind of unbearable endurance, but the breathless exertion of running at top speed. Beneath it, the fluttering hope she would catch me. My huntress closed the gap to grab my hand, and crushed it, bones grinding in her iron grip.

I jerked awake to find myself face to face with someone wearing a dowsing suit, peering at me like an overgrown carrion beetle. A bright cross gleamed through sand on their helmet. My hand creaked under the pressure of their boot.

“Get off!” I said, my voice hoarse from dust and disuse. The medic stepped back, and blood rushed into my left hand, tingling with pain. I curled it close to my chest.

“Is this the body?”

It’s not like there were a ton of bodies to choose from down here, but I bit my tongue and said only, “Yes, sir.”

One of them lifted Rose’s head and tilted it this way and that, gently. “Did you find her exactly like this?” she asked. The electrolyte ball bearing rattles through Rose’s teeth and falls to the ground, sending up a tiny pof of dust.

“Yes. I mean—“ My throat was dry, making it difficult to speak. It was always dry. That’s why we didn’t speak up. My pulse hammered, like in my dream, but it flooded my heart with fear rather than exhilaration. “I moved her head slightly to confirm the identity.”

The woman grunted. “You knew her?”

“She was in the same dorm as me, yes.” Dizziness and pain overwhelmed me. I sucked on the oxygen tube, which only made the light-headedness worse. The medic who had stepped on me was still nearby, radiating intense focus despite the face-covering mask he wore. “It’s standard for a miner to receive medical attention after finding a corpse, sir.”

He barely spared me a glance. “You know where the exit is, Zeta.” A small vibration goes through the squad, some communication I’m not privy to. “Wait. Mallard will escort you.”

Well, this was new! “Yes, sir.”

I levered myself to my feet awkwardly, hissing with pain when I bumped my injured knuckles on the wall. Mallard reached for my left arm, and I smothered the temptation to jerk it away from his grasp. My eyes burned with frustration and contempt. I turned my face away before I could see the carrion beetle guards converge on Rose’s body again. Goodbye, I offered, knowing she’d gone beyond hearing me.