Chasing Moons: Part One
Katie sat on the lip of the crater and stared into space. It seemed to stare back at her, with its curtain of glittering stars and floating celestial bodies. Galaxies swirled, novas flared. The space station danced over the horizon, twirling in time to the silent waltz of orbit.
The universe was so infinite, and Katie felt impossibly tiny, dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of the world around her. It was overwhelming to think that you were nothing but a tiny being in a little crater on a mostly-barren planet in orbit around a small-sized sun and that that, all together, was less than a trillionth of the matter that existed. So it was all she could do to stare into the void, tracking every possible movement, absorbing every image she could find.
And every time it was different. Some nights certain stars were closer and shone brightly, like halogen bulbs compared to the other innumerable stars, which were just imitations, diamonds reflecting their version of the real light. Other times, strange objects in dazzling colours drifted across the panorama: comets, tails flaring out behind them as they soared; nebulae, with their tangling threads of pure, vivid colour in wild shapes; distant circles of fire flared in the darkness.
The purple Grundo had been coming to the crater fields ever since she was a little girl. She and the other Grundos in her village had discovered it years ago. It made a great battlefield, secret base, and a challenging hide and seek area, provided you didn't get yourself lost among the craters. They stretched as far as the eye could see, past the horizon, into the dark side of Kreludor.
Katie, though, preferred to stare at a sky that wasn't shielded by the dingy streetlights of her village. Out here, everything was sharp and clear, like the cloud of crystals her breath formed, or the jagged boulders that littered the fields. Even though the girl felt tiny among the stars, she still felt different out here. Defined. She would have given anything to have that feeling amplified, to feel real, a part of a place, not just another child in a poor little village. But until she found a way to do that, she would sit here, trying to pretend she belonged among the stars.
She checked her timepiece necklace, in which little coloured meteors were suspended in a thick gel. She was more than an hour late. Leaping off the crater, she drifted through the low gravity to the planet's surface. She was about to glide home--it could take about a half an hour at most--when something on the edge of the horizon caught the corner of her eye. She slowly turned around, and gasped.
Something was rising over the horizon. It was huge, that was for sure. No, huger than huge. Katie fell back against a crater and watched in awe as the object rose.
It was an orb. As it cleared half of its shape over the edge of her sight, she could see that clearly. But what an orb! Colours swirled all over it, like a marble: streaks of green, great patches of blues, and dancing ribbons of white all rendered its surface beautiful. It was all the Grundo could do to stare at the great ball in the sky, take in every inch, absorb what she was seeing.
She watched for what felt like ages, her breathing the only sound in the entire crater fields. Eventually, somehow, she managed to tear her gaze away from the spectacle in her sky and make the long, cold way home through the dark. But she couldn't resist the occasional glance back at the mysterious object dancing in the sky.
"What kept you, Katie?"
The purple Grundo froze. Dung. She could have sworn she had gotten in without waking her parents up. But she turned around and grinned broadly at her mother, a Grundo of lemony-yellow colouring. "Oh. Hey, Mom. I didn't see you there."
Katie's mother pointed at the little table dimly lit by a flickering bulb. "Sit."
She did so, and her mother joined her. Katie idly scratched her antenna. Her punishment wouldn't be too bad, she knew. She had stayed out late before--though never to this hour--and her mother had always just groaned about how she was more interested in flashing lights than going to school and getting a good job somewhere in the metropolis of Kreludor like her brother.
"So, what constellation did you disobey me for tonight?" Her mother had a slight smile on her lips.
Katie couldn't keep her excitement from spilling forth. "I didn't see a constellation. I saw this thing. It was like another planet. It was all blue and green and white and it was huge, Mom! I've never seen it before. It was so amazing. And it was really beautiful. What was it, Mom?"
The yellow Grundo looked at her daughter thoughtfully. "That was Neopia, Katie."
Katie blinked. "Well, what is Neopia?"
The girl's mother hesitated, now stuck with the job of explaining an entire world to a small child. She glanced out the crooked window at the neverending landscape of Kreludor. "Neopia," she said slowly, testing the white lie's plausibility with each word, "is Kreludor's moon."
"I didn't know Kreludor had a moon!"
"Yes. Well, um. It's very infrequent. In fact, not many people have seen it. Scientists haven't even plotted out its course. You should consider yourself lucky that you managed to see it once." She looked at her daughter. "You should also consider yourself lucky that I don't ground you this instant. Now get to bed."
The next day, Katie went to the library. If it could be called that. It was, more aptly, the place where villagers put books that weren't about cooking or gardening or some other useful skill. As a result, its selection was limited, but it was haunted by the few Grundos--Katie included--who enjoyed reading things that delved into the realm of leisure activities or fiction.
She pushed open the heavy glass door. The library was pretty empty, and a fine layer of dust covered most of the shelves. Her footsteps were loud in the silence of the building, but it wasn't the good, library kind of silence. It was the bad, abandoned building sort of silence. She hurried past the unmanned help table.
At least, sunk into some oversized armchairs, were familiar faces. Lily and Ralph, the sponge and mallow Grundos, tossed murmured greetings and waves her way as Katie headed for the nonfiction section. A few wayward shelves held a couple dozen books, which she began to sort through, painstakingly, though she had already searched the shelves a thousand times for a book on astronomy.
Then, her fingers fumbled over a small paperback tucked into a much larger book. She pulled it out and stared at the flash of faded yellow at the top, which read Your Guide to Neopia! The picture on the front was not like what she had seen in the sky, though. It was closer up, and showed huge buildings and mountains and a city sitting on a patch of the white stuff she had seen. If the pyramid in the bottom corner was to scale, it was larger than her entire village!
The book was frustrating. It seemed to be written for someone her age, but not her reading level. The layout was choppy at best, always cut off by some picture or another. But the pictures themselves were amazing. They were chock full of bright, vivid colours that made Katie's eyes water. Her entire life--her home, her town, her world--consisted of a dark, dim palette coated in dust. But there were rainbows on the moon.
And there were creatures who weren't Grundos, or Fuzzles, or robotic creatures who wandered into town sometimes. But the book was woefully inadequate, failing to provide a list of species or even a decent map. No mention of Kreludor, either. Still, she swallowed every bit of new information, noting the large, rocky plains and the mountain city and even the things she couldn't identify, like a mountain covered in white or the large, barren garden that went on for miles.
She read the entire book, checked the shelves, and read the book again. Then she tucked it into the pocket of her jacket and left. She couldn't have it falling into the wrong hands which were, at this point, any but hers. She had also taken another book, the one that the guide to Neopia had been sandwiched in.
The book about building spaceships.
Fourteen year old Katie looked back to make sure the edge of the crater fields were no longer visible. Good. The edge of the pockmarked plains were well out of sight. She turned to face the large heap that stood in front of her. For almost a year now she had collected the bits of scrap metal and junk parts that littered her village. Now, she thought, she might have enough parts to start her construction.
She pulled the weathered old book out of her pack. The pull-out blueprints were thickly coated with technical specifications, as well as her own jotted notes accumulated from a year of reading about physics and space. She had finally settled on a simple, single chamber design. She had to oversize it as well, as she had no idea when she'd finish or what she was bringing. She had a few good dozen wall plates, though, scavenged from the abandoned houses in the village--it would be big enough. Katie just hoped the bits and pieces she had found could work together to create an entirely new machine, a patchwork of parts solidifying into a way off of Kreludor.
Eyes glued to the blueprints, she began to build.
Fifteen year old Katie stepped back to take a good look at the skeleton before her.
The beams had fit together pretty well, and they had bent slightly, so the ship had a nice, blimplike shape. She had already attached three wall plates to the back of the ship, and they looked like they would hold fairly well. She hadn't put in the floor, yet, or the engines, but the craft seemed to be coming along. She ran her fingers along the hull, rapping at any possible pressure points, checking the tightness of the rivets. Everything fit together well.
The parts she had collected over the years, as well as the two books were now stashed in a little hollow bottom of the crater. Katie hadn't realized that the spaceship's frame would be so big, and so she needed to keep this operation as stealthy as possible. While the crater fields did extend as far as she could see, she wasn't sure if the children from the village played here anymore. She knew all too well that children of all ages took great pleasure in destroying things that looked abandoned.
And she didn't have all the necessary equipment yet. And the book said very little about making journeys through space. And she had no idea what she was doing. And. And. And. With a sigh, she flung the tarp over the frame and stopped. Painted crudely on the tarp by thirteen-and-a-half-year-old Katie was a picture of Neopia. The colours were flat and cracking, but the beauty of the planet was unmistakable. And it was somewhere that was real and wasn't Kreludor and was a place to go. There was nowhere to go on Kreludor. There was only more Kreludor. But Neopia... was a destination. A fixed goal in mind. She ran her fingers over the paint and left.
Sixteen year old Katie was pleased with how things were going.
The exterior of the spaceship was completed. It was painted a smooth blue, with white accents on the nose and windows. The engines were firmly affixed to the back, and the interior was starting to take shape, starting with the cramped quarters, which consisted of a hammock and about a square metre of floor space, separated from the rest of the ship by a sliding door. The entire ship was hers alone, though, and so it wasn't that bad.
Next up was a storage area. Thankfully, Kreludor's advancement in dehydrated food was so great that even the village had meal packets. She had felt a bit guilty about filching food from the pantry of her house, as well as the diner, but she figured that if there was money on the moon, she would find a way to repay her home. Not just for the food, but for everything: for raising her and teaching her and helping her grow...
There was the softest of thumps behind her. Katie wheeled around to see her mother tramping across the crater fields, rising clouds of dust behind her. She peered at her necklace. This was the latest she had stayed out in the fields. What should she do? Her mother was getting closer. She could make out the faint blur of her yellow antennae.
On the spur of the moment, the purple Grundo sprinted forward, fighting the low gravity to meet her mother as far away from the ship as she possibly could. She put her entire body into it, coaxing as much momentum from the atmosphere as she could, hurtling towards her mother like a wayward meteor.
She bounded into her arms. Katie's mother stumbled back, smiling at her daughter's exuberance. "Did you miss me or something?"
Katie laughed. "What's up, Mom?"
"It's extremely late, that's what's up. Why do you wear that necklace if you never use it?" Katie's mother gave her a mock scowl and peered into the night behind her, towards the ship that was just a lump on the horizon from here. She reached for the glasses she wore on a chain around her neck.
Katie, in a panic, twirled her mother around, stomping about to stir up more dust and cloud her mother's spectacles. The yellow Grundo stared at her daughter as if she had grown another antenna. "Are you alright, Katie?"
"I'm fine, Mom." Katie smiled and led her mother away from the crater. "It is pretty late. Let's go home." Katie pulled her mother towards the village, and made small talk about how she was doing and maybe if she was going to look for a job soon, and who she was hanging out with these days. But Katie's mind was gone, stuck back in the crater, checking over the blueprints and worrying about the compression coil she needed to get for the ship to be complete.
Katie woke up on her seventeenth birthday to the sound of her mother calling her from downstairs. Shaking herself awake, she dressed and padded down the staircase into the kitchen. Her mother had made chocolate chip pancakes, and Katie slid into her seat with a smile, inhaling deeply. A small box with bright wrapping paper sat on the counter.
Piling a stack of pancakes onto the plate, her mother lightly tossed the gift over to her. Katie caught it and jerked back in surprise--it was rather heavy. She rattled it up by her ear, hearing a dull thump of metal hitting plastic.
"Oh, open it already!" her mother cried, setting plates down before both of them. Katie clawed the wrapping off what turned out to be a cardboard box, and ripped that open to find--
"A compression coil."
Katie looked up at her mother, clutching the piece of machinery in her arms. "Mom. I... you knew?"
Katie's mother was smiling through her tears. "Uh-huh. You know I'm too much of a snoop for you to keep anything from me. S-silly." The smile slipped from her face for a brief second. Katie scrambled out of her chair and embraced her mother, tears dripping from her eyes too as she buried her face in her mother's hair.
"When are you leaving?" Katie's mother murmured into her ear.
Reluctantly, the purple Grundo pulled away from her mother. "Today, I think. I have everything I need. I... I'm going to miss you, mom." Her thoughts were disconnected, but she had to spit them out. Slowly, she walked towards the door, putting an abnormal amount of effort in examining the compression coil.
"Katie?" her mother called softly, and she paused. "...Can I just know? Why, that is? Was it the town, or me...?"
Katie couldn't turn around, because she knew that if she did, she would see her mother crying and she would cry too and they would hug and she would never leave, never find her place, never be real, would just be another piece of dust on Kreludor for her entire life. She needed to be something more. "I don't know, Mom. It's just--a calling. Something telling me to do it. I need to see the moon."
"The moon?" her mother repeated. She didn't honestly think... did she? "Katie, Neopia isn't--" But the door was already swinging shut, and the Purple Grundo was striding down the path towards the crater fields.
To be continued...