The big cat had been chasing Pren for heart-rending minutes when she managed to skid into a cave she’d never seen before. She shimmied through a hole that was barely big enough for her and scooted up into a little ledge area. The cat might wait for hours for her, so she made herself comfortably before she pulled out the flint and steel and lit her torch.
The walls of the cave glittered and shone the way that sometimes a small piece of rock would. The whole area was smooth, rounded, like she had scooted up from the cave into something even less natural than her tree-house.
On the far side of the room was a lever. Pren looked at the lever. At least, it was a stick poking out of the wall at an angle. Her mother had shown her how to use things like that to set traps for animals, when she had been small. When her mother had been around. It might dump her into a net or drop something on her, although both the floor and ceiling looked sturdy enough in the torchlight. It might drop something on the cat.
The cat was trying to get up the hole she had slipped through. One clawed paw batted upwards, bigger than Pren’s foot.
She scooted backwards and pulled the lever. Even a trap was better than being eaten by a cat.
She fell backwards as the wall opened up, into a brightly and smooth room full of strangers and shining lights.
There were people, people everywhere. Pren had not known there were so many people in the world – certainly not in her jungle. In her jungle, there had been Mother, and there was her. There had been the occasional interloper, whom she had hidden from, although sometimes she had lured the big cats and the other nasty animals off from the travellers. They frightened her; her mother had told her to alway beware the strangers in red. But they did not frighten her enough to let them die.
Everyone in this room was wearing blue and they were all talking at once. Pren scooted back towards the wall she’d come in. She could get back to the jungle. She could –
-there was a big cat waiting in that entrance.
“The river.” She knew words. Her mother had taught her many words. But she had spoken only to herself for years. “I need the river.”
Everyone stopped and stared.
Pren scooted back further. The cat might be less frightening. “The river,” she repeated, because that was how she found her way home. “The cliff falls? Should be about a twenty-minute walk that way?” She pointed, although there was a blue-shirted man between her and the proper route.
“Where did you come from?” The woman was very tall and very imposing. Pren tilted her head and looked up at her, refusing to be intimidated.
“I came from the cave, there,” she gestured without looking away. “I’d like to go back but there’s a big cat in the way.”
“There aren’t any people in there right now! There hasn’t been a mission in two cycles!”
She didn’t know a cycle. “Nine days,” she corrected the man who was telling her she wasn’t there.
“Nine – no, you’re mistaken, it’s been at least twenty days. Who are you?”
“I am Pren.” She looked between them in growing confusion. “I live there,” she gestured not quite at her house, because you never led people back to your home, “and I always have. I lived there with my mother,” she added, “until she died.”
Everyone went quiet. “Saralie Redmane,” whispered someone who hadn’t yet spoken.
“That is my mother,” Pren agreed. “Why are you people in a cave? Why are you – can you get me to the river?”
“Nobody said she had a child.”
“She didn’t. She vanished alone. She was there – she was in the habitat?”
“She didn’t vanish.” Pren was confused. “She died.”
“Pren – Pren, will you come with me? Perhaps I can show you better than I can explain.”
“Will you get me to the river afterwards?”
“I will, ah. I will take you to the river afterwards, yes.” The tall woman cleared her throat. “This way, please.”
Pren looked around the room. Everyone was staring at her. If there were this many of any other animal around, she would back up slowly until she could climb a tree or run away.
People were different, her mother had told her. People were no less dangerous, but if they talked, it was good to listen to their words. Not always heed them, but listen to them.
She followed the tall women through a doorway. This was the strangest cave she had ever seen. She hadn’t known people lived here. So close to her, and yet so different. “Where do you sleep?” She asked, curious. There were too many people unless they slept like snakes or kittens, all piled on top of one another.
“Oh! I don’t sleep in there, my room is up three levels and – here, let me show you. Not my room, but maybe a little bit of an explanation.” Outside the door was a long stretch of the same shiny as the top of the cave. But it went on longer than any cave.
The woman paused. To one side, Pren’s forest was visible. She reached out to touch a leaf and her hand bumped into metal. To the other side, a stunning expanse of yellow sand stretched out as far as the eye could see.
“This is your forest, and there’s the river you were looking for. And over here is the desert habitat. I don’t know how, Pren, but it sounds like you’ve been living in our mountain habitat for hundreds of cycles without being found. There’s a whole world – well a whole arcology, that’s an architect-generated interior ecology – a really, really big house, big enough to house five thousand people and four habitats. People everywhere. And you could -” the woman smiled at Pren as if she was being helpful. “-you could explore it all.”Want more?
My Arcologies prompt call is still open here.