Sanctuary: Chapter One: It’s Not Smoke

Here, as promised, is Antiquity’s Gate: Sanctuary’s first chapter for your reading pleasure.  I hope you enjoy!

 

History would not remember Ripley Prior.

His footsteps echoed hollowly down the brilliant white corridor as he made his way further into Sigil’s North Wing.  He didn’t come down here often.  Had he passed it?  He wished there were signs.

Reaching, tentative, toward the keypad nearest him—he was only moderately certain that this was the right room—he was relieved when the door slid open to reveal a glowing bank of monitors and the back of a familiar, curly-haired head.  Felix sat up straighter, attempting to look busy, but when he recognized Ripley he slouched back down in his chair again.

“Oh,” he offered, flicking a small silver toggle back and forth between his forefinger and thumb.   “I thought it was someone important.”

Ripley gave a wry smile.  “Sorry to disappoint.”

He glanced around, taking in the mess.  The room was shabby, a stark contrast from the pristine hallway outside.  The air of neglect was magnified by Felix’s lack of any semblance of organization.  Stacks of paper, overstuffed boxes, bits of wiring and insulation sticking out of crates at odd angles. Like a fungus, thought Ripley, amused. There was a cot shoved into one corner, littered with empty dining trays.  “You know those aren’t supposed to leave the commissary.”

Felix gave a half-hearted shrug.  “If they don’t want me to take the trays, they should give us longer mealtimes.  I don’t want to inhale food and race back here.  I’ll get cramps.”

“Well, you could at least bring them back eventually,” Ripley suggested, clearing away what looked to be log reports from the only other chair in the room.  He glanced down at the top sheet, skimming over it quickly.

 

1498/7 No activity.

1499/1 No activity.

1499/2 No activity.

1499/3 No activity.

1499/4 No activity.

 

He flipped a few pages back, skimmed again.  All the same.  He placed the stack on a nearby pile of boxes.  “I don’t even know what it is you do here.  Looks like a whole lot of…” he glanced around, “no activity.”

Felix’s shoulders jerked as he snickered.

“What’s that do?”

“Huh?” Felix’s gaze flitted from Ripley to the toggle.  “Oh,” he replied with a shrug, “well, it’s a science facility, you know.  It does science-y type stuff.”

“Seriously?”  Ripley groaned.  “Are you supposed to be fiddling with it?”

“Meh. It’s broken. I requisitioned parts for it.”  Felix hooked his thumb over his shoulder without looking, pointing toward a particularly precarious tower of crates.  “But no one’s come to fix it.  The Anniversary is in two days, and everything has to be running smoothly.  Except for the Observatory.  Nobody cares about Felix and his Observatory.  I could be dead down here and no one would discover my body for months!”

“That’s not true,” Ripley replied gravely.  “I doubt they’d find the body at all, given the state of this place.  It’s likely they’d assume you’d just up and left one day, like the last guy.”

Felix pushed his heels against the panel in front of him, tipping his chair back and rocking slightly, so that the legs creaked alarmingly.  “Fair enough,” he said at last, gazing around the room.  Sigil normally did personnel reviews every three years, moving people to different positions depending on ability and need, but the odd disappearance of the prior Observatory Attendant had caused an unexpected vacancy that Felix had jumped at the chance to fill.  The position had its pros and cons.  For instance, Felix now held the great honor of being a department head.  Unfortunately, he was also the department gopher, as the Observatory had no other employees.  The mysterious nature of the position also held appeal, since no one really knew much about the Observatory.  Its purpose was to surveil the area around Sanctuary, assessing potential threats.  The reality, however, was that there had been no activity outside of Sanctuary since its construction, coming up on one hundred twenty-five years now.  As such, Felix’s job was mostly just a title.  He watched, listened, reported “No Activity,” and then ‘filed’ his reports for future reference.  Given his predisposition for laziness, the job suited Felix.  What Ripley didn’t understand was why it was even a job at all.

“I could take a look at it,” Ripley suggested.

“Be my guest.  But the whole damn panel is shot.”  As proof, Felix slammed a fist down amidst the controls, which offered no protest.  “It was broken when I got here.  Not that any of the working ones are much more exciting, mind.”

“If it’s so dull, you should request a transfer.”

“Yeah right, like they’d honor a request from a Halfsie.”

Ripley frowned.  “I bet they’d at least give you back your old job.”

Felix let out a little huff that showed his disdain.  “I don’t want to go back to Pod Manufacturing.  What do we need stasis pods for anyway?  Research, they say.  If you ask me, they do too much research and not enough of anything else.”  He paused.  “Anyway, it’s not like this job is hard or anything.  No one bothers me.  And there’s the mystique, you know?”   He had returned to the rhythmic click, click, click of his toggle.  “Ladies love mystique.”

Ripley chuckled.  “Well, it would help if all of your equipment functioned, at least.  And you just have to impress one lady with your ‘mystique.’  You know, your wife?”  He slid out of the chair onto his knees.  A sharp pain in his side made him wince, but he ignored it and began sizing up the station’s access panel.  “Where are your tools?”

“I don’t have any.”

Ripley sighed and pulled his faithful multi-tool from his back pocket.  “Did you try unplugging it, and plugging it back in again?”  he suggested with a slight smile as he began working on the screws.

“Not really my job,” replied Felix.

Ripley’s smile faded.  Felix was right, this was a job for the Engineering Corps.  Growing up, he’d always dreamed of being an engineer.  He had a penchant for mechanical things.  But those coveted positions had always been awarded to Therans, who had greater longevity and more time to learn about the workings of Sanctuary than Humans.  Still, he hadn’t given up hope of being the first Human engineer until his assignment day, when he’d found himself at a registration desk staring down at a manual entitled Vital Systems and You, and being pointed toward orientation.

He slid the heavy panel away to expose a nest of wiring.  The color-coded insulation was faded and somewhat brittle, yet another reminder that beneath its shiny exterior, Sanctuary was falling apart.  Theran technology seemed to hold up much better against age than any of the Human components.  Unfortunately, the Human components made up a large part of the inner workings of most of their systems.  “Where are the parts they sent?”

Felix walked away, and Ripley heard the sounds of scraping and a mildly concerning crunch before his friend returned, dropping a box beside him with an unceremonious thunk.  “In there somewhere.  I think.”

“Thanks a bunch,” came Ripley’s sarcastic reply, muffled by the metal housing into which his dark, tousled head had disappeared.

“Anytime, buddy.”

“If you don’t know what’s wrong with it, how’d you even order parts?”

“I just got one of those requisition slips at the front desk and checked off one of everything.  Not sure what they actually sent, though.  I didn’t really check.”

He traced the pathway of the wiring with his eyes, checking connections at critical junctures.  Working on a puzzle took his mind off of his own mundane existence, if just for a moment.  It had been twelve years since he began working at Sigil, the heart and soul of Sanctuary.  With each year he had grown less and less hopeful that he’d ever be transferred.  He was good at his job.  But anyone could be good at Ripley’s job, which he’d long suspected could easily have been automated to begin with.  Sometimes it felt like they were all just trying to look busy.  At least Felix was honest about it.

Ripley’s aptitude for mechanics had landed him in Core Operations.  Day after day, Ripley dutifully kept track of Sanctuary’s vital systems, recording numbers off of water reclamation gauges, checking geothermal readings, ensuring proper coolant levels.

It was tedium.  Unadulterated tedium.

He’d been told, during orientation this was a prestigious position.  He should be proud.  Keeping Sanctuary running was dependent on him and his teammates, they’d said.  It was a great honor to have been chosen, they’d said.  It was also, unfortunately, incredibly dull.

That, they had failed to mention.

The most exciting thing that had happened in recent memory was a slight imbalance in the air filtration system that had failed to self-correct.  Heightened nitrogen levels had left the population of Dome Five, or D5 as they called it, slightly light-headed for the space of about an hour before engineering could repair it.  Ripley could have fixed it on his own, but tinkering with life support systems by unauthorized personnel was strictly forbidden.

At this moment, however, Ripley felt free to tinker to his heart’s content.

That Felix was unconcerned about the malfunctioning hardware was no big surprise.  It wasn’t like anything was happening outside.  Sanctuary was, after all, located in Antarctica.  It had been incredibly difficult to reach at the height of civilization.  Now, though…well, now it didn’t matter.  Ripley shuddered.  Thinking about the vast, empty world outside was something he tried not to do.  But with the Anniversary of the city’s founding approaching, it was hard to avoid.

He reached his hand deeper, feeling along a thick, braided wire which he suspected would lead him to the console’s power supply.  His forehead creased as he frowned.

“What’s up?” Felix inquired, a hint of excitement in his shimmering emerald eyes.  Felix’s eyes were an open book.  They had the characteristic mother-of-pearl opulence that all those of Theran descent shared, but lacked the stuffy, superior attitude so common to purebloods.  They were awash in curiosity now, sparkling at the hint of intrigue in the air.  Ripley remembered joking how Felix was thirty going on three.  No boring Observatory position could dull his childlike exuberance when something piqued his interest.

“Well, I think I’ve got the power here.  But—ow!”  Ripley smacked his head against the top of the housing as a sudden shock surged through him.  He backed out, carefully pulling the offending wire with him.  “This is live!”  he exclaimed, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand.  “And it’s been cut.”

Felix leaned back in his chair, disappointed.  “That’s impossible.  It probably just fell off.  This stuff is pretty old, you know.”

“No,” Ripley insisted, matter-of-factly.  “It was cut.  The other end is still connected to the system.”  He reached in again and gently pulled the small remnant of braided wire away from the circuitry.  He handed it to Felix.  “See?”

Felix examined it briefly.  “Rats,” he concluded, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Ripley pressed himself back into the workstation.  He was blocking the light, so he used his hands to explore, more cautiously this time.  He reached backward and felt the toe of Felix’s boot as his friend pushed the multitool within reach.  “Thanks.”  He popped it in his mouth, depressing the flashlight button with his teeth and working within its tiny beam of light.  It wasn’t ideal, but he could at least see a small circle of what he was doing.  “Shut down power to this unit,” he mumbled through clenched teeth.  “I don’t want any more nasty surprises.”  He heard Felix rise and move away.

“Okay, she’s down,” Felix said.  “Or, you know.  More down, I guess.”

He pulled the light out of his mouth, using the knife to strip the wire’s coating.  He reconnected it with deft fingers and a gentle touch.  He didn’t have the soldering equipment needed to do the job right, but it would be good enough for now.  Certainly no worse off than having a live wire dangling free, he reasoned.  “Done!  You can hit the power again now.”

Something hummed to life above his head as he backed himself out and began replacing the screws.  “It’s alive!” exclaimed Felix with a victorious whoop.

But Ripley had a strange feeling.  “Why would anyone want to sabotage the Observatory?”

Felix scoffed.  “Sabotage, really?  You actually believe that?”  He looked at the machine with mock surprise.  “Well, what do you know?  It’s another monitor! I did not see that coming.”

Ripley ignored him, pulling his chair closer to his friend to examine the panel.  “Looks just like the others, to be honest.  Camera controls here,” he pointed, “atmospheric readings over here…still not sure what that is, though.”  He indicated the toggle that Felix had been playing with before.  When Felix made no move to check, Ripley leaned over him and gave it a flick.  A roar filled his ears—wind—moaning as it blasted from the speakers.  Ripley cringed and switched it off, and the room was once more enveloped in quiet.  “Okay, so now we know what that does!” he uttered, ears ringing.  “Hey, do all your monitors have sound?  You could’ve warned me.”

Felix didn’t supply an answer.  His shining eyes were narrowed, staring intently at the monitor.  Ripley followed his gaze to the black and white view of rocks and snow that filled the screen. “What are we looking at?” he asked, after a moment.

Felix shrugged.  “It’s not windy out there.”

Ripley realized his friend was right.  When he’d flipped on the microphone, it had sounded like a raging storm out there.  But the scene before them was peaceful, motionless.

Reaching in front of Felix to move the camera, Ripley discovered that the controls weren’t functioning.  Instead of panning smoothly across the landscape, it jerked slightly and went still again.  “Weird.  Where is this camera?”

Both of them jumped, startled, as they heard the whoosh of the door sliding open behind them.  Felix took the opportunity to smirk at Ripley.  “See?” he muttered softly.  “You do it, too.”

But Ripley didn’t smile back.  He recognized Captain Lub, Head of Security, as the door closed once more.  His large, slightly rounded silhouette was framed against the gleaming white of the hall.  As he stepped inside, Lub gave Felix a quick once over, jowls quivering, then turned to Ripley with an accusatory frown.  “What’s your business here?”

Ripley opened his mouth to reply, but Felix, who was more adept with excuse making, spoke first.  “Ripley just came down to see if I wanted anything to eat.  He’s not on the clock, Captain.”

Lub’s face remained expressionless.  “Where is your station?”

“Core Operations, sir,” replied Ripley quickly.  “They’ve sent us all home for the day.  I wasn’t keeping Felix from his work, though, I swear.”

Something about Lub’s sudden appearance made Ripley uncomfortable, though he couldn’t put his finger on it.  The old Theran was hardly intimidating.  He had the air of someone who had let himself go to seed.  In fact, he was the only Theran Ripley had ever known that had somehow managed to end up a bit on the tubby side.  He suspected that, as Head of Security, Lub didn’t actually do much himself anymore, merely delegating responsibilities to others.  Ripley wasn’t fond of most of Lub’s department, if truth be told.  He supposed, especially given his most recent interactions with Security, it made sense that he would find their presence a little unnerving.  “I’ll, uh, get out of your way now, Felix.  See you around.”

Before Lub could ask any more questions, Ripley skirted around him and into the hall.  He paused for a moment, heart still racing, feeling a little guilty for leaving Felix behind with the Captain.  A moment later he heard the door again and whirled, expecting Lub, and surprised to find Felix instead.

“They’re letting me go, too!” he said with a grin, a large stack of trays balanced in his arms.  “Systems check!  Nice.  Let’s get outta here.”

“What are you doing with those trays?”

“Oh, these?” Felix said with a shrug.  “Lub said to take them with me.  Did you know they aren’t supposed to leave the commissary?”

When they reached the main lobby, they passed the Information desk, where a slight woman in a sharp uniform was shouting into her comm.  “No, no, no, that won’t work either!” she was saying, offering them a curt nod before returning to the obviously heated discussion.

“Think I should tell her about the rats?” suggested Felix in a whisper.

Ripley looked at the woman, who seemed close to tears, clutching a large handful of her chestnut ringlets as if preparing to rip them out.  “I don’t think you should bother her, no.”

They exited the building and entered a sea of people bustling about, helping with preparations for the Anniversary celebration, the bulk of which took place here, in D1.  The lack of housing in this dome left a lot of open space, which formed what was quaintly referred to as the city square.  Two men were configuring a speaking platform to the right of Sigil’s steps, and an Theran woman was festooning the podium with strings of garland and flowers.  The pleasant floral scent permeated the air, the rarity of them adding an exotic appeal, and their vibrant colors were a welcome change from the otherwise bleak, grey concrete expanse.  Flowers for flowers’ sake were not deemed important enough to grow in their limited space.  But once a year, several varieties of medicinal flowering plants were used for decoration.  After the ceremonies, they would be carefully collected, properly dried, and used for something more practical.  In Sanctuary, nothing was wasted.  They had reclamation facilities for everything from paper to electronics.  In a closed society, waste was something that could not be tolerated.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, taking in the preparations.  Everyone looked cheerful, excited.  For many, this was the best time of the year.  There would be speeches, games, and a whole feast that all the citizens of Sanctuary were invited to enjoy, which was a big deal, since the rest of the year, food was strictly rationed.  There was always enough, but just barely.  A little bit of overindulgence once a year was just the thing to warm the hearts and bellies of the people.

Ripley wondered why he, too, couldn’t just enjoy the celebration.  Everyone in Sanctuary had been born here, after all.  Whole generations had lived and died here.   He’d never known the outside world, before Sanctuary.  So, what was it that made him feel depressed about something that had never been his to miss in the first place?

“I’m going to catch the Tube and head home,” he said, thinking about a shower and a nap.  Nothing made the time go by faster than good old-fashioned unconsciousness.

Felix looked crestfallen.  “Wish we could hang out, like we used to.  Living at Sigil six days a week has really put a damper on my social life, you know?  Do you want to come have dinner with me and Willow?”

Ripley shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  Soon, though.”

He had to smile thinking back on the last time all three of them had been together.  Willow had insisted on preparing a traditional Human dish that she had learned about during her studies on ancient Human culture.  It had been Ripley’s thirtieth birthday, and she’d wanted it to be a special occasion.  She had spent days agonizing over the meal, which she had called “Mac and Cheese.”  Unfortunately, the result had been—quite literally—hard to swallow.  She had been so nervous about getting it right that she had forgotten to take into account the fact that almost none of the ingredients existed within Sanctuary’s culinary means. In a stubborn, but panicked, determination, she had made what she deemed to be suitable substitutes.  The macaroni, which existed only in history books, had been replaced by cauliflower.  They did have several types of cheese, but when Willow tried to melt it into a sauce, it had resulted in a lumpy, fragmented goop with bits of burnt crust on the bottom.   Apparently, the cheese of yonder days had not been made from the milk of goats fed on a synthetically prepared fodder of nutrients and vitamins.

Ripley and Felix had been unable to hide their revulsion, though he had made a valiant effort to do so.  He remembered how she had burst into tears at the table, and then, almost immediately, how they had all begun laughing together over the absurdity of her reaction.

Ripley cherished those times with his friends.  Willow was a joy to be around, a free spirit with a gentle soul, always both wise and comforting.  Felix exuded a light-heartedness that Ripley could never dream of duplicating, though he always felt more relaxed when his friend was around.  He added something to Ripley’s life, something intangible and hard to describe.  Felix and Willow had overcome quite a bit on their quest for happiness, and he admired their ability to laugh so freely and love so deeply.   But he was not sure that laughter was what he needed right now, or what he wanted.  Mostly, he just wanted to be alone.

Felix looked sulky now, scuffing his feet and slouching.  A head taller than Ripley, with long legs and a lithe figure, Felix could easily pass for a full-blooded Theran at first glance.  His pointed ears peeked out from beneath his curly hair.  It was this feature, so reminiscent of ancient fairytales, that had led to the widespread adoption of the nickname Elves in reference to the Theran people.  Too bad, Ripley thought with a pang, that his looks don’t matter to the Council.  It was hard to look at Felix without thinking about the harsh reality he faced on a daily basis.  The Council did not care if Felix looked like an Elf, it was only what’s inside that counted.  Literally.  Felix and the hundred or so Halfsies like him would never be considered more than second-class citizens.  The only thing the Council likely hated worse than a Halfsie were the Elves that bore them.  Blood traitors.

Ripley realized he was sinking himself into a fouler mood by the second, and tried to focus on their surroundings.  They had just reached Sigil Station and placed their wrists under the chip scanner.  All Sanctuary citizens received a microchip at birth.  They were updated as necessary and functioned as both identification and to streamline transactions.  The Sigil insignia flashed on the Gate guard’s monitor and he waved them through to the platform.

The Tube was Sanctuary’s only mechanical transportation system, connecting each of the six biospheres that made up Sanctuary.  The domes were arranged in a ring, and the Tube system ran through the heart of each, branching out in wide loops to several smaller stations located on the outskirts of the domes. There was D1—it housed Sigil, which functioned as both the governing body of Sanctuary and its operations center.  Sigil employees handled everything from security to education and research.  D2 housed all agriculture and was where all food was grown and stored.  This was the only dome that had only the one, central Tube station.  Because food was so strictly rationed, Sigil deemed it very important that no unauthorized personnel should have unfettered access to the Agridome.  Besides school field trips, where the students were flanked by Security guards, few people outside of the Agricultural employees were ever allowed entry.

D3, D4, and D5 housed most of the populace, one for Therans, and two for Humans. Mixed families, like Felix’s, had carved out a small community for themselves in D4, one of the Human domes.  The Elves frowned on intermarriage with Humans, and Humans resented the lack of opportunities afforded them to acquire important positions.  Halfsies, the common term for people like Felix, were the byproduct of this taboo union. They bore the brunt of the prejudice from both sides, and for the most part just tried to keep their heads down.  Felix had never seemed to let his status bother him, though, beyond the occasional self-deprecating joke.  Ripley admired that.

The last dome, D6, was inaccessible.  It had suffered some kind of catastrophic failure during the building stage and sat, unfinished and forgotten.  Ripley would often stare at the windowless hull of the Tube as they travelled the slightly longer distance between D1 and D5, wondering what the wreckage of D6 would look like if he could see it.  He imagined it was quite similar to the rest of the city, except perhaps that it wouldn’t have many buildings.  All six domes had been built to identical specifications, one of mankind’s most impressive endeavors—especially considering the circumstances that surrounded their construction.  It was only what was in each dome that was different.  D1 had always been Ripley’s favorite.  It wasn’t so much because of Sigil, as Ripley had never had particularly strong feelings towards Sigil.  Rather, it was the openness of the layout.  D1 contained neither market nor housing.  It only held Sigil’s sprawling campus.  And although that campus was home to over one hundred separate departments, there was still plenty of room to spare.  The rest of the dome was used for special occasions, like the Anniversary each year.  On an average day, people from all over Sanctuary could be seen there, strolling along the long, meandering pathways.

Of course, there wasn’t much in the way of scenery.  Because of the unique location of Sanctuary in the Antarctic region, it had been built directly on solid ground, not atop the thick layer of ice that covered most of the continent.  Theoretically, Ripley knew that this meant they might have given the domes real earthen ground.  It might have taken more energy to maintain the temperature, but it would have been possible.  And besides, their energy reserves were virtually unlimited.  The city sat in the shadow of Mount Erebus, an active volcano from which they drew the heat that powered the underground Geothermal Plant.  But the domes had needed to be sealed, so instead of dirt and trees and grass, the people of Sanctuary had only endless slabs of concrete and steel.  Even D2, where their food was grown, utilized an aquaponics system rather than soil.  The grey landscape was dull, but familiar.  Five generations of citizens separated Ripley from the last time anyone ran in a field or climbed a tree.

A thick cloud rolled into his vision, disrupting his train of thought.  He cast a sidelong glance at Felix and raised an eyebrow.  “You aren’t supposed to be doing that on the Tube.  You’re going to get us in trouble.”

Felix took another long draw off the mouthpiece of a small, pen-like device, blowing out another sweet-smelling cloud.  “It’s fine,” he said, even as he drew the disapproving stares of some of the other passengers.

“It’s not fine, you’re going to set off the sensors with all that smoke in this tiny space.”

“It’s not smoke,” Felix retorted. “It’s vapor.  Lighten up.  Oh, hey, that reminds me, I heard this great joke the other day.  A Human, an Elf, and a Halfsie walk into a bar.  The Human says, ‘Give me something with a little zip to it.’  The Elf says, ‘Is this place certified by the Sigil Committee on Food and Drink?’ And the Halfsie, he looks right at the bartender and says—”

He was interrupted by a red light at the front of the car which had begun flashing.  “Please be aware,” droned a cool female voice from the speakers.  “There is smoke in car three.  Remain calm.  A Tube Official has been dispatched.”

Felix made a frantic attempt to dissipate the clouds by waving his hands around, and Ripley rolled his eyes.  “I told you,” he muttered, shrinking down in his chair as an angry-looking Tube Official strode through the door connecting the cars.

“But it’s vapor!”  Felix insisted weakly, still flailing his arms.

 

 

Thank you for reading!  Want to keep going?  You can grab a copy of Antiquity’s Gate: Sanctuary on Amazon!

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