Prompt: extraterrestrially; gilded cage
Yro hardly noticed the maid serving dinner until the woman said, “I thought soup would be best after your scare today.”
Yro jerked to attention, elbows making bumped silverware clatter. “What?”
The maid, just another moving face to which Yro was never allowed to attach a name, hardly paused. “Your little ‘sighting’ at the observatory. What a funny thing to think.”
Yro smiled and straighten the napkin in her lap. “I had already put it from my mind. I almost wonder if I just fell asleep at my post.”
The maid looked with pleased by this and left Yro in peace for the rest of the meal. It was, as ever, lavish to the point of excess and almost painfully delicious. Yro barely noticed. Her mind raced with calculations. By her observations, a person of her rank could afford one minor infraction every seven to nine months. Major infractions cost up to twenty-eight months of good behavior. The real question remained: would an unauthorized trip into the forest constitute a major or minor infraction?
Yro let herself be swept off to the library after dessert. In her preferred chair, the leather wingback large enough for two people, she pretended to read. She had five years of practice at it–she knew how to fake every look and gesture of genuine reading. Inside, she considered how she could spin the story to minimize her punishment if caught. Looming huge and unavoidable was the possibility of an involuntary trip to the medical ward. Careful inquiries made it clear that no one knew what happened on such a trip because no one remembered them. That was the open secret, of course – the masters of the observatory and college controlled not your thoughts, but what you remembered thinking.
Yro could picture clearly the look on the dean’s face when she told him what she had seen in the telescopes. She had insisted, unwisely, that the object had come from beyond their atmosphere. In the library, her hands stuttered to a stop as she lost track of her fake reading. There had been such cold menace in his face, but also pity. She knew why. After five years of excellent work and flawless obedience, she had risen to a position of great respect at the college. She backpedaled quickly enough to save herself for the moment. In that piteous look, though, she saw the threat of starting over, shatter-brained and lost on the lowest levels of the structure. Had she been any lower, afforded any less leeway, she would’ve been there already.
Yro rose to put the book away and shuffle, sleepy-eyed, to her room. The threat should have been a deterrent, but she found herself consumed with curiosity. The little anomalies and dropped hints had never moved her before that day. She had been intent on mastering the system under which she lived. Not this time.
Yro kept her room purposefully messy and so she had no difficulty finding a spare set of day clothes untouched by the cleaning staff. She had any number of useful things tucked away in piles of unsorted books and discarded paperwork. What she did not have was a source of light and so, as she made her way down familiar corridors, she did so in darkness.
Getting outside did not pose a problem. The masters wanted Yro and the others to feel contented, not confined. Of course, midnight jaunts would have attracted unwanted attention, so she used one of the loading bays near the servants’ quarters to enter the garden. That…was where things got trickier.
She knew the patterns of the searchlights and the way they swept the interior of the grounds and the exterior in alternating passes. The lights reinforced the fiction that the security protected them and kept outside threats at bay. Yro was not fooled, nor was she dissuaded. She waited for the right moment and, in a rush that left her panting and flushed, crossed the no man’s land of trenches and fencing.
She found cover among the trees and stopped. She leaned against the trunk of a tree and felt the rough bark dig into her back. She had never, according to her untrustworthy memory, made an escape attempt this successful. At least five years had passed for her in the college and who knew what time before that had been wiped from her mind? She had hoped, had imagined, it would feel different or better or something. It did not. Still, she had a mission and no time to waste on disappointed idealism.
It took longer to reach the crash site than she expected. Her estimations, based on her shocked and delighted observations in the telescopes, had made it seem like it landed right in their garden. Instead, by the time she reached the first signs of the crash, her back ached and her legs felt quivery. Walks around the garden and campus had not prepared her for a hike through dense forest, tangled underbrush, and treacherous darkness. The sight of charred and bent trees, however, put new energy in her step.
She thought the light at the crash site came from fire or even something from the object itself. She did not anticipate, as she mounted the ridge of the crater, to see college staff working in teams under artificial lights to explore the wreckage. Generators hummed around the perimeter and moving people sent flickering shadows pass the lights. The site buzzed with work and talk and, under it all, tightly reined-in hostility. Maybe even panic.
Yro realized what a mistake it had been to go there. How had she convinced herself the crash would go unexplored? Just because they told her it never happened did not mean they would ignore it. She spun on her heel. She could not get back to the confines of the college fast enough to assuage her newly-found fear.
She had not gone more than a few steps away from the crater’s edge when she slammed headlong into something hidden in the darkness. It took her a moment to realize the things keeping her from falling were arms and what she had collided with was a person.
All her wild tales and excuses flew from her mind when the person grabbed her shoulders and said, in a voice shaky with shock and injury and anger, “What the hell is this place and what are you doing to my ship?”