by Mary Ruth Pursselley -
Celeste dropped to her seat on the loose rock and pulled the sweaty bandanna from her head. It was hot out today, but nothing compared to the sweltering suffocation inside the tunnel. Spreading her feet, she unscrewed the lid of her steel water bottle, leaned forward, and drizzled lukewarm water across the back of her neck. It trickled down her shirt and onto the ground in front of her, creating black ash mud in both places.
She swished a mouthful of water through her teeth to rinse out the acrid dust. Then she spat it out and watched it trail down the hill towards Adagio. From here the settlement looked peaceful; beyond it, the sea looked even more so. She thought of her little sister Celia, down deep beneath those waves, in Zirconia. Don’t wish she was here, she reminded herself before she could start on the familiar thought path. She’s safe there—safer than with you.
Celeste glanced at the sky. She had time for another trip down the tunnel before starset. She retied the bandanna around her frizzed, tangled hair, and clipped her water bottle to her belt. A few feet to her left gaped the tunnel’s opening. From Adagio it would look like a crater or black rock, if it was visible at all.
The tunnel’s floor angled downward through meters of volcanic ash and gravel. Decades of being compressed by gravity had made it relatively solid, but there was always the risk of a cave-in. Celeste took short steps, careful not to slip, as she made her way back to her work site. The farther she walked, the hotter it became. She was moving closer to the volcano’s heart—a thought that always made her edgy—but she was moving towards the treasure, too.
Nearly twenty meters down, Celeste’s lithium lamp revealed the first wall. Beyond that stretched a labyrinth of buildings, rooms, stairs, and passages. No one knew what the city had been called before the pyroclastic flow buried it; all anyone knew was that it dated back to the earliest Eclectian colonies.
It was a dangerous place to work, and Celeste didn’t pretend to enjoy it—though it beat a lot of alternatives. But smugglers paid well for the artifacts she brought up, and their money kept Celia safe. The boarding school in Zirconia would give her a shot at a decent, respectable life Celeste had no chance of achieving.
That was what mattered.