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The buggy rumbled through the night, headlights piercing through the blackness like knives into butter. Jack stared out the frosted window, her face illuminated by the dim blue light of her wrist monitor. Her heart rate was high, but her older brother, Robin, had told her that was normal.
Jack balled up her fists and pressed tight into the ythafone-lined seats of the buggy. Even beneath the layers of padding that made up her insulation suit, she felt numb all over, like icy spiderwebs were clinging to her skin.
“Hey, Jackie, how’s it goin’ back there?” Robin called, turning around to face her from the driver’s seat. His eyes sparkled from behind the foggy glass visor of his helmet like white diamonds.
“Don’t call me that,” Jack answered stiffly, but she couldn’t help but smirk as he turned back to the road. After a moment of silence, she added, “Fine. I don’t know how you drive through this mess, even with the Illumination.” She glanced out through the steamy windshield at the road ahead. The two bright headlights, powered by solar Illumination, were almost completely white. Jack could only distinguish faint, blue streaks of the icy cliffside they were driving up.
“Well, maybe when you’re older you can go to buggy school like me and get to ferry awesome mechanics like you to places like this,” Robin teased her. He laughed but it sounded hollow and unusually quiet.
“I’m sorry that you failed flight school,” Jack muttered, doing her best to sound sad as she leaned against the side of the buggy.
“It’s okay. It wasn’t like I was expecting anything,” he replied dismissively, avoiding her gaze. “Hey, why has everyone stopped?” Jack gulped and looked out the window. Coils of dark fog wrapped around the buggy in a gentle embrace. Ice crystals flurried past the Illuminated headlights, lacerating the air. Ahead, she could see the beams of the other buggy hovering in mid-air, facing ahead.
Robin pulled down the radio comm and turned it on. “Codename Bird calling in from buggy 2X-Y; what is going on?”
A crackle came from the radio, then, “This is Victory to Bird from buggy 2X-T; it appears we’ve arrived at the summit, but the path down is blocked.”
Robin blanched as he peered out the window. “That’s not possible. Why can’t we see the Illumination Beacon from the colony’s main atrium then?”
A pause. Jack’s heart began to beat faster as the silence overwhelmed the two of them. Then Victory answered, “That’s probably why we’re coming in the first place.”
“Victory, you’re joking. They really expect three mechanics and a buggy driver to fix an Illumination Beacon?” Robin sputtered. Jack couldn’t help but bite her lip in agreement. She’d only just graduated from the mandatory engineering program. Fixing something as big as an Illuminator–the giant beacons that provided light and energy to large colonies of survivors–seemed like an impossibly large task for three new recruits.
“Look, you know I don’t make the decisions here. You have a problem, you talk to Falcon about it.” The microphone went dead for a moment, then sputtered to life. “We need to find another way down this cliffside or we’re going around.”
“I’ll head out and look,” Jack announced, glad to get out of the cramped buggy and into the air.
“Be careful, Jackie,” Robin warned, nodding at her as the buggy side doors opened with a hiss. Jack shivered, unbuckled her seatbelt, and swung her legs out over the side.
Steamy fog collected at her feet as she stepped out and switched on the Illumination feature on her visor. A powerful beam of white light parted the darkness in front of her to reveal that she was standing at the top of an icy cliff that dropped swiftly down into misty darkness. Jack bent down and shakily touched the ground for the first time with her hands. The ice felt crusty and crystalline under her grasp, and she couldn’t help but wince at the chill, even with her insulated gloves on.
“Look down to the right. There should be a steep path leading down that curves around the front of the cliff. Liam–sorry, Victory, says it’s blocked.” Robin’s voice came crackling over her helmet’s comm link.
Jack crept to the edge of the cliffside and bent down, looking around for a path. “I see the path,” she radioed back. “Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of debris scattered around here. Looks like a small landslide or something that’s blocking part of the path. I think we could move the debris aside and drive down, but let me get a closer look.”
“Well let us know when you’ve stopped sightseeing,” another voice radioed in. It was Strikeout, otherwise known as Bailey Katadolo, the strangest, most mysterious girl in the entire colony. “We’re all waiting on you.”
Jack, somewhat miffed, shrugged her pack off her shoulders and opened it up, pulling out the thick coil of climbing rope that was stashed inside. The rough fibers of the coil chafed her cold knuckles as she removed her safety gloves and looped one end of the rope around a nearby rock. Her heart beat rapidly and it felt like the clattering of tiny hooves on her chest. Don’t sweat; it’ll make your hands slippery, she told herself, backing up to the edge of the cliff and gripping tightly to the end of the rope.
She slowly let out her rope and lowered herself down. The tips of her boots just touched the cliffside. Sweeping the beam of her helmet’s Illuminator across the path, Jack was just about to climb back up to report when she saw a flash of red light among the debris. What was that? She blinked and there it was again, blinking on and off.
“Hold on, I think I see something,” she radioed the others, lowering her line even more. The rope groaned as it stretched taut. Jack held her breath and reached down to grab the flashing object.
It was a flare, smoking crimson coils as it sputtered and struggled to stay alight. The number 298 was etched on the side of the flare using some crude instrument and there was a wad of paper stuffed into the other end. 298…that’s the number of the colony we’re going to! Jack thought frantically. This came from the colony…but why would someone hike out to the mountain to try and warn us?
Jack let go of the rope with one hand and pulled out the paper that was stuffed inside the flare. The line wobbled but held as she shakily brought the note up into the light of her Illuminator.
There were only two words written on the paper in unsteady, red ink.
That’s when the rope snapped and Jack plummeted into the abyss of darkness.
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