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by Steph Bennion

HOLLOW MOON is a story of the future, a time when human ingenuity has bridged the vast cosmos and many millions have staked their claims where distant suns burn fierce in the sky...

Falling down the end of the world

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RAVANA REACHED for the next hand-hold and pulled herself higher, annoyed beyond belief at how easily she had once again let her wayward electric cat lure her into such an idiotic predicament. The cliff was scarily high; below her was a ten-storey drop to the rocky shelf left by a previous collapse, which itself formed the top of a nasty slope of rubble that tumbled a further three hundred metres to the ground. Her right leg was doubled up with her knee against her chest, held there by bare toes wedged in a crevice just centimetres wide. Her other foot was at full stretch and precariously poised upon the narrow ledge that seemed to be the last decent foothold to the shallow cave above.

“Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow,” she muttered tunelessly, inadvertently adding her father’s Australian twang to the Indian tones inherited from her mother. It was an odd combination at the best of times, which this definitely was not. “Why didn’t he buy me a bow-wow? I’ve got a stupid cat, that’s acting like a...”

She cursed as her foot slipped and sent a cascade of rock fragments rattling down the cliff. Trying not to panic, she forced herself higher, then gave a brief grimace of triumph as her head finally appeared above the floor of the cave.

Something small and furry slunk from the rocky shadows and greeted her with a pathetic meow. Ravana blew out of the corner of her mouth to dislodge an annoying strand of hair and glared at the cat with ill-concealed contempt.

“Electric pets are not supposed to lure their humans into risking life and limb!” she scolded, feeling a headache coming on. “What do you say to that, cat?”

The black bundle of fur looked at her and meowed again. With one last determined effort, Ravana heaved herself into the shallow cave and sat back against the cliff wall, breathing heavily. She was no athlete and her slim body was not used to this sort of strenuous exercise. Her sweat felt clammy upon the scar on the side of her face and her weak right arm ached badly. Trembling, the cat jumped onto her lap, its pitiful whining subsiding as she stroked its fake fur. It was impossible to stay mad at it for long, even if Ravana did often wish the cat had an ‘off’ switch. Yet even electric pets had rights these days.

She had first discovered the shallow cave just weeks before; or rather, her cat had found it after a previous solo wander cross-country. This was the second time it had homed in on this almost inaccessible cliff-side perch. Whatever it was that lured her cat to this place was also making it act very oddly. She had never seen her pet so agitated.

The cave was roughly a third of the way up the huge, partially-collapsed cliff face at the end of the inside-out world that was the colony ship Dandridge Cole. From this high vantage point the whole interior of the hollow moon was laid before her. It was a world hewn deep inside a spinning asteroid: a vast cylindrical cavern five kilometres long and a kilometre wide, where the fields and the trees and the stone buildings clung limpet-like to the rocky cavern wall. The position of the sun was the strangest thing of all, for at this height she was almost level with the tiny yet immensely-bright golden globe that sat suspended between three radial pylons at the centre of the long cavern. The air was clear and looking down she could see the tops of the trees dotting nearby grazing land, a view that became increasingly dizzy as she followed the foot of the cliff with her gaze until finally she was staring straight up. Directly above her, nestled against the cliff face on the far side, was the Maharani’s palace, a place strictly off-limits to people like herself.

Ravana’s gaze lingered upon the distant palace. Her perspective shifted and now she was looking down upon the house and gardens, to where a movement in the grounds had caught her eye. Two figures made their way towards the main building; even from this distance, she was struck by the odd way in which they moved. With a start, she realised they were wearing what looked like lightweight spacesuits, albeit without helmets. This was unusual enough within the hollow moon but more so here. It was said that the Maharani had exiled herself from the modern world for good and looked down upon the space-age trappings of the twenty-third century as she would something nasty on the sole of her shoe.

Ravana frowned, wondering how her own life had ended up like this, where watching two distant strangers had become the height of excitement and adventure.

“Two spacemen,” she told her purring cat. “I wonder what they’re doing? And why am I asking you? You only care about leading me astray!”

* * *

Unaware they were being watched, the two spacesuit-clad figures continued their furtive progress through the palace grounds. Their faces were pale and haggard, betraying a world-weariness echoed by their patched grey survival suits.

Inari, the shorter and fatter of the two, moved with a clumsy and hesitant air of bemusement. He was aware his slow progress annoyed his colleague, who had crept ahead through the secluded undergrowth with a sly, cat-like confidence, only to double back again upon finding Inari had fallen behind. The palace ahead was an impressive building of carved stone, wooden verandas and domed turrets, but as Inari stopped to stare it was something else entirely that captivated his attention.

“Hey, Namtar!” he called. He gave a noisy sniff, wiped his nose with a hand and used his sticky digits to tap the taller man on the shoulder. “Funny, huh?”

With a sigh, Namtar turned to look at what his accomplice had found so amusing. One of the Maharani’s gardeners, unhappy with his lot, had planted the flower beds so that a rude word was spelt out in scarlet blooms.

“My dear Inari, could you please keep your feeble utterances to a minimum?” whispered Namtar irritably. Like his colleague he spoke English, albeit with a cultured Russian accent rather than Inari’s coarse Greek tones. Neither man sounded entirely trustworthy. “It would greatly aid our illicit enterprise if you could endeavour to concentrate what few brain cells you own upon the task in hand!”

“Just looking,” Inari mumbled. “This place is weird.”

“It is as comfortable as any burrow could hope to be,” said Namtar, urging Inari forward. “Perhaps you do not recall the squalid conditions we tolerated in Lanka before the dome was removed. That this strange hollow moon has succeeded as an independent colony more than makes up for any superficial shortcomings, though I admit as a place of exile it is a somewhat eccentric choice, given the Maharani’s rather exuberant tastes.”

Inari frowned as he deciphered the lengthy sentence, wondering which bit he was expected to comment on. “I thought this was a Commonwealth system,” he said at last.

“This rock has somehow escaped the attentions of the government on Ascension,” Namtar told him. “Breathe this air, my friend, for it is the same sweet taste of freedom we are fighting for on Yuanshi. Today, you and I bring liberation one step closer!”

“Smells funny to me,” Inari observed, wrinkling his nose. “If you ask me, living on all these different worlds is making people loopy.”

“Colonising the five systems has not changed humanity one iota,” Namtar snapped tartly. “It merely brought us new lands to fight over, new populations to enslave and new arenas in which to spread the same old lies and deceit.”

“Speak for yourself!” Inari snorted.

“I do,” Namtar replied coolly.

* * *

High above, sitting on the ledge of the cave, Ravana knew she should be heading home but found her gaze reluctant to leave the distant mysterious spacemen. All of a sudden she heard the flutter of wings and felt the furry lump in her lap twitch nervously. Startled, she turned to see a large white gull staring at her from where it had landed on the far side of the cave. Its wings rested stiffly at its side and there was something unnatural about the way its head moved. There were real birds which flew the skies of the hollow moon but she suspected this was not one of them.

“Go away!” she said, waving a hand irritably.

The gull regarded her solemnly. “I am friend! Require assistance?”

The bird’s squawk had a definite metallic ring. It eyed the electric cat warily, making Ravana wonder just how much assistance a robot gull could hope to provide.

“Are you spying on me?” she demanded defensively. “I am sixteen, you know. I don’t need my father’s permission every time I leave Dockside.”

The gull did not move. Its blank mechanical gaze did little to help Ravana’s growing unease. Spacemen and talking birds aside, she had got herself into a tricky situation. What passed for gravity within the hollow moon, the result of the centrifugal force generated by the Dandridge Cole spinning on its axis, was barely half that of Earth but still enough to make falling down the cliff an extremely painful experience, if not terminal. Even the pleasant sensation of weighing less in the cave than at ground level had lost its appeal, for it meant going back down the cliff and into higher gravity was much harder than climbing up. The descent could only get more complicated with an irritable cat.

Her headache was getting worse. Ignoring the stare of the electric bird, she lifted her pet from her lap, rose to her feet and peered over the cave ledge. She was not looking forward to the climb back down. She had done it before and lived to tell the tale, but that did not stop her inwardly cursing her cat for making her have to do it again.

“Require assistance?” the gull asked again.

The bird seemed to have picked up on her concerns. Its presence was disconcerting and Ravana wondered if it was some sort of automated surveillance device, which worryingly suggested she had entered a restricted area. However, such sentries were not in the habit of declaring friendship. A new thought popped into her mind.

“A flying robot sentinel,” she mused. “Zotz? Is that you?”

“Affirmative!” the gull confirmed. “Bird syntax limited. Require assistance?”

Ravana smiled. Fifteen-year-old Zotz was the only friend she had close to her own age in Dockside and a wizard at building gadgets. She knew he had a crush on her and could imagine him putting together something like this gull to follow her around. It was a sweet thing to do, but also a little weird.

“It’s nice of you to offer,” Ravana admitted, looking down at the vertical obstacle course between her and the ground below. “But unless your feathered friend has a ladder tucked under its wing I don’t think you can.”

The gull, or Zotz, considered this. “Ladder not found in inventory.”

“A jet pack?” she suggested, hopefully.

“Jet pack not fou...”

“Yeah, yeah, I guessed,” said Ravana. She wondered whether to ask it about the strange spacemen. Her cat had evidently decided the winged robot was worth further investigation and was licking its lips. “All I want is an easy way off this cliff.”

“Proceed upwards to ground,” the bird told her.

“I want to go down, not up! Have you flipped your diodes?”

It was not easy for a robot bird to look disdainful but the gull somehow managed it. Puzzled, Ravana looked up at the landscape curving high above her head. It was then she noticed a rough flight of steps cut into the cliff, leading up from the palace gardens; steps that therefore from her perspective led down towards her cave. Looking closer, she realised the crude footholds must have originally spanned the entire diameter of the cliff, right across the end of the cavern, but a rock slide had taken away the section below where she now stood. The vertical flight reached the ground on the opposite side of the hollow moon to where she had parked the monocycle, but she was ready to accept a long walk in exchange for an easy descent. Meanwhile, her wayward pet had evidently decided the cave had one electric creature too many and was flexing its talons ready to pounce.

“Isn’t it forbidden to enter the palace grounds?” she asked, not that this would stop her. The constraints of the hollow moon were frustrating and her solitary wanderings to counter boredom became longer by the day.

The gull was busy trying to avoid the attentions of her cat and did not reply. Ravana knew of the palace guard, yet the thought of entering forbidden territory had a certain allure. She was suddenly intrigued, not only by the prospect of finding out where the mysterious spacemen had come from, but also of experiencing the zone of zero gravity she knew she would find less than two hundred metres up from where she perched. Having proper steps to follow back to ground level was a bonus. Being arrested by the Maharani’s guards when she got there less so. On the plus side, her headache had eased a little.

A strangled squawk made her jump in alarm. She looked around just in time to see her pet claw a chunk out of the gull’s scrawny neck, leaving the poor bird’s head hanging loosely from an extraordinary variety of brightly-coloured wires and tubes. For a machine, the gull was surprisingly messy inside. Green hydraulic fluid bubbled from its neck and pooled upon the floor, where it seeped into a large mould-covered crack in the cave wall. Unperturbed, her electric cat cornered the damaged bird as it tried to escape, growling with a mechanical vigour not unlike the waste disposal unit in the communal kitchens back home.

“Reboot me!” burbled the gull.

“Bad kitty!” Ravana said reprovingly. Feeling guilty, she gingerly reached for the gull and tried to wedge its head back into position, but to no avail. “Sorry about that, Zotz.”

With a resigned sigh, she decided it was time to head home. Separating her cat from the remains of the gull, she scooped her pet under an arm, stepped up to the cliff and gingerly began a one-handed ascent of the stone steps.

It was more like climbing a ladder than negotiating a flight of stairs, but even with a wriggling ball of fur-wrapped electronics to contend with it was easier than she anticipated. The pseudo-gravity of the hollow moon lessened with every step and soon she was almost flying up the cliff, the mystery of the spacemen forgotten. After a particularly vigorous leap, Ravana found herself drifting to a halt in mid air, an arm’s length from the rock face. She had reached the exact centre of the cliff, on the imaginary axis upon which the hollow moon spun. She was weightless.

Ravana had been in free-fall many times before but floating above the concave countryside of the hollow moon was a whole new experience. With her feet wedged in the gap between two steps she found she could float horizontally outwards from the cliff. The tiny sun was now above her, with the distant trees and houses rising around her on all sides, stuck to the surface of a vast cylinder wall. This change in orientation was made yet more disconcerting when she spied the distant shapes of people as they moved about the Dandridge Cole, looking like slow-motion ants scurrying around a huge drainpipe.

As an experiment she put herself into a slow spin and tried to visualise the asteroid rotating upon its axis as it drifted around Barnard’s Star, much to the annoyance of the cat under her arm, which did not like zero gravity at all and wriggled more than ever. Ravana was just pulling herself back towards the stone steps when her cat, mistaking the cliff face for a floor, dug its claws into her arm and made a sudden leap for freedom.

“Ow!” cried Ravana, caught by surprise. Her pet’s diamond-tipped talons were pretty to look at but extremely sharp.

The cat gave an anguished howl, bounced off the stone steps and back towards Ravana’s face, claws outstretched. In a panic, she raised her hands and tried to twist away, then yelped as her feet slipped from where they were wedged. Her floundering pet landed heavily on her shoulder. She tried desperately to hook a foot back under the step but it was too late. A split second later, the momentum of the cat’s ill-timed leap sent them both reeling away from the cliff.

[...continued on page two]

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All content is copyright Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2017.