Prompt: “Write a short character sketch (it may be from life), focusing on how your character makes a living. Put your character in a working situation and let us know by a combination of direct and indirect methods what that work is, how well he or she does it, what it looks like, smells like, and [how] the character feels about it.”–Janet Burroway, Imaginative Writing
Peter received his task from Max on a slip of paper pushed across the flat stone they used for a table in the Labor & Commission tent. “Be careful,” the extensively freckled man warned him, before gesturing for the next in line to come forward. Peter thanked him and wished him a good day before turning away, chipper than he had been when he woke up this morning. If Max was issuing caution, the assignment must be something good. He inspected the parchment as he walked down the dirt path, lantern in one hand, paying only enough attention to the rest of the world to evade collision as the town woke up and attended to their duties.
Co-ordinates and the order, “Fix it,” were his only clue. It was plenty. He adjusted his direction, making for the supply building, nodding and exchanging hellos with those he passed.
Jenna greeted him with the barest nod of acknowledgement, more concerned with snapping her gum and the latest news, which she spread across the wooden counter, following the words on the paper with a slow-moving finger.
“Anything new,” he asked, sidling up opposite her.
She flicked the page at him, picked it up. “Get your own.”
Peter tsked, giving her half a smile and a wink. “Don’t be cruel to the heart that’s true, pretty girl.” He propped an elbow on the counter and gave her the widest, most innocent eyes he could make around the newspaper she held up like a barrier. “Why’s it all the pretty ones can get away with bein’ so mean to the boys that fancy their sweet, soft hearts?”
Jenna dropped the paper with a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes, but a smile peeked about the corners of her mouth. “Oh, shut it, you. What you want, Petey,” she drawled.
His grin was broad, but soon exchanged for a frown of concentration as they got down to business. Despite Jenna’s frequently brusque attitude, she was a mother hen to the people she took a liking to, and rarely let someone go into the field without a good argument to take far more than they reasonably needed in precautionary items. It was worth any extra flattery to get the most recent tech Research & Development shipped to her but she held onto like a badger with a brick of honey.
He strapped on a utility belt, slung a tech pack loaded with instruments he may or may not need but Jenna wouldn’t let him leave without onto his back, set the co-ordinates into the navigator and headed out into the darkness the swallowed up the world beyond his town.
To live beneath the Atlas City Plate was to live in a world of darkness and ruin and servitude. Peter knew this as clearly as he knew his dirty, unwashed face in the mirror above his washbasin. He didn’t know this simply because he had been told as much by his elders and betters. Waking up morning after morning in the same darkness he went to sleep with, watching his parents labor in the ether factories, bending in subservience to the Altanian patrols–it was enough. When he’d come of age and went with the others to the top…
Peter still remembered climbing, endless climbing, to reach the surface of the Plate. It was entirely forbidden for any of them to go to Atlas itself, a caveat he’d not understood until climbing out of their sewer system and into the street of the Ether City. The moonlight blinded him. The buildings were tall, reaching toward a topless sky, not squat and ruined. The air had been fresh, and when he descended to the place he’d been born, it was like stepping into a prisoner’s cage. They had not been able to stay long, out of fear of discovery, but Peter knew the experience would be impossible to forget.
“Ether pumps the blood of this city, and we work the ether factories. That’s why we can’t go to Atlas. If all of us knew the truth, that would be the end of them,” Max had said. No one would work beneath the Plate if they knew what the moon looked like.
“Why don’t they bring the factories up top?” He’d asked.
Max had shaken his head. “The ether is down deep in the earth, thousands of times deeper than the deepest hole you could ever dig, even if you spent your lifetime doing it. They don’t know any other way to get it. Remember, there was ether before there was Atlas. No one knows how it was originally discovered. We don’t even understand the technology in the factories. They were created long before us, and remain as mysterious.”
Standing here, miles away from town, Peter wondered what the Atlanians would do if they knew about the natural reserves of ether, like the one he’d been tasked to fix. It loomed, a beacon in the darkness, hidden by the empty buildings surrounding it. Rare, beautiful, luminous: An Ether Tree.
The trunk was a mix of rotted, wasting wood and a heavy complement of plastic-sheathed metal; once it had stood perfectly perpendicular, suspending wires from one of its kind to the next. Now it was wrapped in a serpentine network of translucent tubing containing natural, nonmanufactured ether, and leaned precariously to one side. The wires hung limp, or not at all; some had long since broken off and fallen to the ground. They belonged to a rusted past. Peter was here to fix the present.
“What’s wrong with you, huh? You look pretty enough for a party to me,” he said. He approached it with caution at first, aware that the situation might be a trap set by Atlanians who had finally discovered his people’s secrets, but soon arrived at the Ether Tree’s control box without incident. Peter sighed as he opened the box’s back panel, where a mass of wires confronted him. At least it wasn’t covered in dust or dirt, a sure sign of neglect by their engineering patrols. Peter squatted and pulled the tech pack over his shoulders and in front of him. Time to get to work.