The Morning When Pelstic, our town, Shuddered!
At first it was a single quick and violent quake that rocked my bedroom, but it was followed by a long series of powerful thuds — shuddering thuds. Pieces of my stone ceiling and walls crashed down onto my bed, and the dust was so thick I could taste it. Struggling to take in what was happening, I rolled out from under my blankets to the floor and crawled under my bed. The shuddering continued, as well as the crumbling of my bedroom walls and ceiling. My mind was a jumble of rapid-fire thoughts. Was I dreaming? Was my life ending? Did our planet collide with something else speeding through space? Confused and dazed, I screamed out to my father, but I wasn’t sure he could hear me over the terrifying roar coming from beneath my underground world.
In the next room, Prowdesh, my older sister, shrieked, and shrieked again. Father’s voice could be heard, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. He too was coughing. The tiny light stone that was my nightlight was all but buried by the debris, but it offered enough glow to allow me to orient myself in the swirl of thick dust.
The shuddering continued but it was decreasing. I was fully awake by then, and I ran out into our living room, stumbling over bits of stone from our ceiling. Father stood in the middle of the room holding his night shirt to his face with one hand, and his glow-stone lamp with the other. We could hear Mother in Prowdesh’s room, trying to calm my sister down.
I held onto Father with my eyes shut tight until the shuddering stopped. I was trembling and whimpering. When everything grew quiet again, I opened my eyes and blinked to see through the dust. Several large stones had fallen from our ceiling, and some from the walls. Everything that was upright the night before, now lay on the littered and dusty floor. Father put his lamp on the floor and quickly ran his hands over my head and shoulders. His voice sounded steady, but his hands trembled, if just a little. “Nahroe, are you all right? Are you injured?”
I coughed and gagged from the choking dust, and tried to sound brave. “No. I’m ok. Really.” I held back that my feet hurt from racing across the sharp stones that littered the floors. At fifteen I was trying desperately not to disappoint my Father. But the truth was, inside, I still felt like a scared little boy.
Father called out. “Feinta! Prowdy!” Mother and my sister appeared from the bedroom, tripping over stony rubble. Both of them clutched a piece of clothing over their nose and mouth. Like Father, she too checked and found that her daughter was safe. I’ve seen Mother tired, even a little angry before. But this was the first time I’d ever seen her terrified.
Mother’s voice trembled. “Yes, Clell. I think we’re both uninjured.”
I fought against the urge to start crying from all that was happening, but it was Father’s coolness in the face of the nightmarish event that helped me compose myself. The dust began settling, but it was still thick enough to keep us all coughing. Father got down on his knees and gently touched Mother’s foot. “You’re bleeding, Feinta.” He coughed, then turned to me and calmly ordered, “Nahroe, get me some clean cloth, and some water.”
I didn’t get halfway back with the cloth and water when Pelstic shuddered with another single, but even stronger thud. Prowdesh began screaming again. By now, the air was again a maelstrom of dust. Nearly all of the handmade landscape pictures that served as “windows” now lay on the floor. A bed-size piece of rock, once a part of our ceiling, crashed to the floor, blocking the lower half of the door that lead to the town’s Chamber Way outside.
Prowdesh buried her face in Mother’s arms and held on tight. We all nervously waited in the cloud of choking dust, desperately hoping there would be no more jolting. A long minute passed, then several smaller thuds followed, but each one was smaller than the one before. Father drew us all together in his strong arms, and we continued waiting.
The wait seemed to last forever, but before long all became quiet again — as quiet as it had been before the world-rocking shuddering thuds invaded our once peaceful home only moments ago.
Prowdesh coughed several times and held out her trembling hands. Her eyes were large and wild-like. Father stroked her face. “What is it, Prowdy?”
When she managed to speak, her voice was faint, and quivering. “I yold tou.” She corrected herself. “I told you, that I felt little thuddings. I’ve been yelling tou for months, but no one believed me. But these, these were the worst ones of all. And I’ve been trying to tell you about the humming, too, Father. For years I’ve heard a strange hum sound coming from below. But mou and Yother — You and Mother never believed me. I told you I could hear them. I could feel them. I told you tany mimes — many times. Everyone thinks I made it all up, that it jas wust my imagination!”
Father brushed her feathery hair with his hand. “I’m so sorry, my daughter. I’m really sorry I didn’t listen to you. I — Well, I certainly believe you now.”
Mother hugged her tightly. “I’m sorry too, love. I never wanted to hurt you. And like your father, I will take you more seriously from now on.” A faint cry from the Chamber outside stopped her from continuing. Mother blurted, “The others! I must check on the others.” She broke from Father’s embrace, took Prowdesh by the hand, and clambered over the great stone blocking the door, and out into the Chamber Way.
I cleared my throat. “Father, what has happened? Does what Sister said have something to do with all this? Is our world breaking up because we’re getting close to the Star? Is our world being hit by interstellar debris? Is Pelstic going to be destroyed?”
“I simply don’t know what happened Roe, but what she said got me thinking. I also now wonder if this might turn out to be connected to the Star we’re nearing.” He righted the table, chairs, and a few other overturned things. He looked at the dust and rubble, taking a swipe at the table top with his hand. “I really need to go up to the surface and see what I can learn. Mostly I want to check the Star and the snow fields.” He looked at me and added, “We’ll have to go up and make the sighting earlier than usual. I suspect that I’ll find the Star’s position will be changed — maybe a lot.” He straightened himself and began picking up the rubble. “But first, we have to clear this mess up. Go get a broom, please.”
For the next hour, Father and I move all the smaller chunks of stone into baskets, along with the dust I swept up from every room. Then I righted the “windows” and leaned them against the walls. Finally, I picked up and dusted my collection of valuable books The books that some of our neighbors make fun of me for reading.
Mother and Sister eventually returned with the sad news that there were many injuries, some severe. Worse, no one had heard from many of the neighbors living further down the Way. She said that a deep fissure now runs nearly the length of the Way. At one end of the crack a faint scent of gas was rising. And rumors had already begun, leading many to believe that as many as 30 homes were completely destroyed. That would mean that upwards of 60 or more of our friends and neighbors may have died. Sixty, or more — buried while they slept! Mother’s voice was shaking. “And our Prowdy’s boy friend, Thorpin, was one of them.” Prowdy’s eyes were red from crying.
There were no further shudderings that I could feel, but Prowdesh insisted that she could sense, or was it hear, much smaller ones from time to time. As she became busy with more of the final cleanup she grew much calmer. With the house cleaned up as much as possible, the huge stone blocking the door remained. Father said we can deal with it later. Mother and Prowdesh made it clear that they hated having to climb over the thing.
Only a few hours after the first terrifying jolt, we were all exhausted, but we were also hungry. Mother, Father, Prowdesh and I, worked together and fixed a simple meal. And tired or not, after we ate, Father got up, went into our storage room. We kept four surface suits there, along with patching materials. He pulled out two surface suits — mine and his.
He coughed and handed my surface suit and helmet to me. His voice was still strong and steady. “Check your suit, Nahroe. Check for cracks in the glass. Check the sealing surfaces. Prowdy, please gather the materials.” She understood what he meant, dutifully grabbed some rags, and left the house for the supply chamber a few minutes away.
Father let me bring the rock cutter tool. I hoped we could actually get a chance to use it for once. The tool was made in the Long Ago Time, and Pelstic was assigned a number of them. But this one was passed down in our family from generation to generation. I’d seen grown-ups effortlessly carve rooms from bare rock by simply aiming it and pressing the actuator. The silent bright blue beam seamed to melt or evaporate rock, making only a faint sizzling sound as the rock… simply disappeared. Father calls it “deconstructing” beyond the atomic level. Rock cutter made much more sense.
I stopped fussing with my suit. “Do you think it’s safe to go up today, Father? What if the Above World is all… fallen down? We have at least another week before we’re scheduled to take the sightings — maybe we could go then.” Father gave me a glancing look, but said nothing.
Father was the only one in town, authorized to climb to the Above World to record any changes in the terrain, and in the positions of the stars — especially the Hope Star. Three years ago, when I turned 12, I was allowed to go begin going with him on each trip. One day each month, we suited up and left our tunnels and caves for the surface. From the beginning I had mixed feelings about the “privilege”. The trip to the surface was always very scary to me because we had to climb the long tunnel leading up to the outside door. I hated that tunnel. Just being out on the surface was dangerous too, of course. But for me being out of the mountain was also — exciting. Even the suiting up and checking our gear part was fun. I was the youngest one to ever go outside for as long as anyone could remember.
The seals and lenses of my helmet were in good order, as I knew they would be. My insulated gloves, fuel hoses, and air tubing also passed my inspection. I held the gear up for him to check. “Everything’s good, Father.” We wouldn’t put them on until we reached the door to the surface.
Mother stood in the doorway. Her feather-hair was disheveled and discolored from all the dust. She looked worn out, but she gave us a thin smile. “You two are the bravest men I know.” Her smile faded a little as she approached me. She reached out to straighten some errant flap of my suit material. “And do be very careful, Son. I need both of you to come back down safely.” She then hugged Father. “And I hope you find answers to this. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to deal with this nightmare. We all want to know what happened, and why.”
Prowdesh came into the room wearing thick insulated gloves as she carried air ice pieces wrapped in a heavy cloth bundle. A gentle fog of vapor billowed from the wrapping. In the crook of her arm was a basket of fuel stones, and catalyst.
She wiped her feather-hair from her face with the back of her hand and set about deftly filling our fuel and air system containers. First she filled the fuel chambers with the fuel stones, then she filled the air ice chambers. I always loved to watch the cold fog boil out from the frozen air, and fall to the floor. But after this morning, I really didn’t feel it was all that interesting.
Father reminded me to be extra careful not to tear the suit on the sharp edges of the rock blocking the door. We carefully carried out suits over the rough boulder, and entered the Chamber Way.
The Chamber Way
The Chamber Way was the largest room in our subterranean town. It was long, wide, and high vaulted. The Chamber was so long that, from where we lived, you could barely make out the ends in either direction. Its full length was eleven stories tall. The expanse of our much loved Chamber Way always gave us a relief from what would be an otherwise suffocating, and claustrophobic existence…