Charlie ran faster, then tripped, fell, and skidded on the unforgiving grated floor of the Liberator. After regaining her balance, she scrambled onto her feet and bolted without looking back to see if anyone was following her through the halls and corridors. Coming around a turn, she slammed into a Liberatine, a soldier from the new military force that was formed from the United States Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force.
“Wooo.” Melissa Hoyt grabbed Charlie’s shoulders and held her there. “Are you all right, Larson?”
“S-Sorry.” Charlie peered around Melissa, searching for anyone coming after her.
“Are you okay?” Melissa asked again, then looked behind herself before lifting an eyebrow at Charlie. “Is someone chasing you?”
“No.” Charlie shook her head and bit her lip. “But I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?” Melissa watched Charlie and narrowed her eyes.
Charlie nodded and offered a smile. “I’m sure.” Melissa released her but still kept an eye on her. “Thanks though.”
“Okay.” Melissa gave a nod and headed back to her shift but warned, “Be careful coming around the corners next time.”
“I will,” Charlie said, then said good-bye. She jogged to the next intersection, then made a right and recognized the Engine Department. Halfway down the hall, she found her favorite closet and slipped into it. With careful technique, she stepped on an upside-down bucket, gripped a rack, and hauled herself up. She grabbed the next supply rack and lifted herself higher. Her dirty sneaker precariously balanced the whole of her weight on the first rack as she climbed up onto the next one with the help of the overhead ledge. After a deep breath, she hefted her body over the ledge and onto the flat metal surface.
The space was small but enough room for a child of Charlie’s age. Above her were conduits full of wiring that ran throughout the ship. To her left were two blankets, two unopened silver wraps of snack food, an iPhone with headphones, and a leather jacket that was still too large for her. Charlie sat cross legged, picked up the iPhone, and started it. Her sister had recently recharged it for her.
The device’s cracked screen flashed, then revealed the lock screen requesting a PIN. Charlie tapped in the security code, her mother’s birth year. Once on the home screen, she opened the image gallery and tapped on the first picture, which was a selfie of herself and her mother. She studied it for a moment, then flipped to the next picture. Charlie hurried through the pictures until she came to the grouping from her final birthday on Earth. With a turn of the phone, the large panoramic image of her family expanded and displayed everyone’s smiling faces.
Last year, Charlie had cried when she saw the picture. But not this year.
A soft squeak of the closet door caught Charlie off guard. She locked the screen and then sneaked a peek over the ledge and confirmed it was Raine, who started climbing up. Charlie offered a hand when Raine hit the second rack and helped pull her up onto their secret hiding spot. She and Raine had found the tiny alcove after they came into the supply closet several times for cleaning stuff.
“Hey. Are you okay?” Raine asked, settling into her usual spot and pulling a holey blanket over her lap. She was a couple years older and considered herself the big sister, always looking after Charlie.
Charlie fiddled with the iPhone and kept her head down. “I’m okay.”
“You ran from the mess deck.” Raine touched her sister’s knee and squeezed it. “I saw Silva kiss you. Did it freak you out?”
Staring at the iPhone, Charlie remained quiet, not wanting to respond.
“Charlie.” Raine grabbed her sister’s cheeks and lifted her head. “He didn’t mean to upset you. He’s confused and going through difficult things.”
“I know.” Charlie had heard the conversation about Silva’s gender issues. There was a complicated word everyone kept using, but Charlie didn’t understand it. She’d learned that Silva was confused about whether he was a male or female. At first, it seemed like a simple concept to Charlie whether someone was a boy or girl, like a dog versus a cat. You were either one or the other, not both, and a person certainly couldn’t change their type… That was until Raine explained it to Charlie. Silva felt as if he was born in the wrong gendered body and knew early on that something wasn’t right.
“Are you mad at him?” Raine asked and touched Charlie’s ankle.
“No.” Charlie shook her head, then lowered her eyes again. “I’ve just never kissed a boy.” She faltered, then sighed and whispered, “Or…” She was distraught about Silva’s gender confusion, even though he looked like a boy but didn’t feel like one. The topic was difficult for Charlie to grasp at her age and made her question herself.
Raine squeezed Charlie’s ankle and said, “It’s okay.” When Charlie peered up at her, Raine asked, “You didn’t like it?”
Charlie shrugged and played with the cell phone again. “He just pecked me on the lips. It was nothing.”
Raine shook her head. “It wasn’t nothing, Charlie.” She wiggled closer until their knees pressed together. She set the iPhone to the side, then gathered their hands together. “Did it bother you?”
Charlie continued to stare at their hands as she replayed the quick kiss on the mess deck. It happened fast, and it was an accident. Silva had been just as shocked as Charlie, who ran away after she realized what had happened between them. Silva had been Raine’s friend first, and then Charlie started to befriend him. She liked his adventurous spirit. After the kiss, everything felt messy.
“Charlie?” Raine urged again, as if in a last attempt.
“I kissed my friend Tiffany a few times.” Charlie stared at their locked hands, but her mind drifted back to her neighbor friend back on Earth. “Like we were Netossa and Spinnerella from She-Ra.”
Raine bit her lower lip, but her eyes were bright with amusement. She cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and said, “You liked kissing Tiffany?”
“Yeah. She was pretty cute.” Charlie shrugged and looked away from Raine. “You think Adora and Catra would have been friends again?” Her heart felt heavy at the thought of the two characters who were best friends then became mortal enemies by the end of Season One.
Raine nodded and said, “Yeah, I think so. Maybe more than friends.”
Charlie perked up at the idea and smiled some, but then it slipped. “Maybe I’ll find my Catra someday.”
Raine chuckled and clutched her sister’s hands. “I hope I find mine, too, but till then you got me.” Charlie mirrored Raine’s smile.
“The kiss didn’t bother me,” Charlie whispered. “I just don’t want Silva doing it again.” She crinkled her nose at Raine. “I don’t like Silva like that. I mean I think he’s sweet, but he’s not cute.”
Raine snickered and nodded, then said, “It’s okay to tell him that you don’t want to kiss. He’ll understand.”
Charlie was quiet again, her head lowered and mulling over Raine’s suggestion.
“If you don’t want to, I can tell him for you.” Raine grinned and said, “Big sis got yer back.”
Shaking her head, Charlie said, “I’ll tell him. Just maybe not today.” She wanted space from Silva at the moment.
“When you’re ready,” Raine whispered, then separated their hands. She dug out her tablet, which was assigned to her by the Engine Department. Even though Raine was a kid like Charlie, she shouldered many more responsibilities. Back on Earth, Raine had been considered a prodigy, and a lot had been expected of her. Her future potential gave her a spot on the Liberator, and now she was practically running Station Twelve. Officer Novak continued to monitor and maintain control, but Raine handled many of Novak’s duties on Station Twelve.
“We have shift in half an hour,” Raine said and continued checking things on the screen.
Charlie sighed and turned on her mother’s iPhone again. “I know. I really don’t want to go.” She hated working in Station Twelve with the fuel recycling.
Raine ruffled Charlie’s hair and grinned at her. “We can’t piss off Novak.”
“You mean I can’t piss her off,” Charlie said and rolled her eyes. She fell backward into the waiting blanket and held the device over her head. “Can we just stay here till shift?”
“Sure.” Raine lay down next to her sister and used the tablet to check on Station Twelve and the Engine Department.
Charlie sighed at her sister’s dedication, but she secretly admired how Raine ran Station Twelve, understood the crazy systems, and managed the six people assigned there. However, the pressure and strain it brought to her sister was disconcerting. Ever since they left Earth, no one had a break from their duties. The mission to find a new home was the Liberator‘s sole priority.
Eventually Raine lowered the tablet to her stomach, closed her eyes, and rested beside Charlie, who listened to music. Charlie handed one earbud to her sister; they always found an escape together in the music that Charlie’s mother had left on the iPhone. But their solace was disrupted by the harsh blare of an alarm. Charlie ripped the headphone free, then sat up like Raine.
“It’s an alarm from the ED,” Raine hollered over the piercing noise. Her hands danced over the tablet in her lap, and then she jerked her attention to Charlie. “It’s with Station Twelve.” For a second, they stared at each other, then they both scrambled to leave their alcove.
“Let me go first!” Charlie hopped down, then spread her legs and held up her arms. She helped her sister get down next. They both burst from the supply closet, slamming the door shut behind them.
Using the tablet to open the sealed door, Raine sprinted toward the entrance of the Engine Department. “Come on!” She and Charlie ran inside the department, which was even louder with the addition of the shouting. They raced past the fuel tower that sat at the center of the Engine Department. The hurried trip down to Station Twelve left them breathless, but there was no time to rest.
“Ramos!” Novak was at the control center for Station Twelve. “What in bloody hell is going on?”
Raine joined Novak at the console and helped her navigate the system. “There seems to be a valve failure on line twenty-three.”
Charlie danced on her feet, then peered over her shoulder when another motorman of Station Twelve joined them. A motorman was responsible for assisting a fourth engineer, who was technically Novak, even though Raine handled the position. After another minute, the alarm ended, but Raine and Novak’s expressions were tight with worry.
“It’s not responding,” Raine said and shook her head. “It needs maintenance or replacement.” She looked over at Novak. “I’ll get down there and take care of it.”
Novak folded her arms. “Send one of your motormen. I don’t want you down there.”
Raine frowned and argued, “I’m better qualified to—”
“Ramos, I said send a motorman.”
Charlie stepped closer to the console and said, “I’ll go.” She shrugged when both turned to her. “How hard can it be?” From Raine’s pointed look, she was going to hear about it later, but it didn’t matter as long as Novak was off Raine’s back. Beside her, the other motorman, Don, stood slacked-jawed.
Novak gave a firm nod and ordered, “Get it done, Larson.” She turned to Raine and added, “Be sure to guide her. Report to me when it’s done.” She marched off, her back ramrod straight.
Once Novak was gone, Raine slapped the console and turned her ire onto her sister. “What were you thinking, Charlie?”
Don took one step back, almost hiding behind Charlie. He was older than Charlie but scrawny and small. He was a perfect motorman, who could get into tight spaces.
“I’m just trying to help,” Charlie replied and folded her arms with an indigent expression. “Besides, I can handle it.”
Raine scrubbed her face, then leaned against the console. “Do you know how dangerous line twenty-three is? The fumes alone play with your head and could kill you.”
Charlie frowned at the news, then her heartbeat picked up. “So? I got this.” She shrugged with a nonchalant attitude, even though her knees felt a little weak. Leaving the console, she started toward the side door where they kept equipment for their various jobs. Raine was on her heels along with Don.
“Maybe we should get a suit from Engineering?” Don asked and stood beside a locker. He fidgeted while Charlie put together a pack for her adventure into line twenty-three.
Raine groused and shifted on her feet, but her attention remained on Charlie. “The suits are too big for you or any of us.” The space suits were designed for adults, who used them for emergency repairs to the starship’s hull.
“What else do I need?” Charlie asked and showed the contents of her repair bag to Raine.
“Charlie….” Raine covered her sister’s hands that held open the bag. They were quiet for a while and stared at each other. No matter what Raine said, there was nothing they could do to stop what had to be done. If the valve was left unrepaired or not replaced, then the weakened flow of fuel would damage the engines. Their window to make the repair was short. They didn’t have time to argue, and Raine didn’t have time to find someone other than Charlie. Don was a good motorman, but he tended to mentally scramble wires, controls, and switches. With the fumes from the line, it would make it even worse for him.
“Rae, please,” Charlie whispered. She could handle this. In the past, she had crawled through some of the other lines without any problem. Over the past year, she’d learned quite a bit from Raine about the Engine Department, the systems, tools, and equipment. She was confident that the issue with the line was something she could fix. Plus, Novak was right. She was expendable, unlike Raine.
After a sigh, Raine whispered, “You need a few tools and the valve.” She continued through the locker room that transitioned into the tool room. Charlie followed her, and Raine placed a few tools into the repair bag. Next door, they entered the parts room, which had a greasy odor to it. Again, she deposited a few items into the bag, giving it some weight. “You might want to put some of the tools on your utility belt.”
Charlie nodded, hurried back to the locker, and pulled out her work belt. She clipped it around her waist, then attached several of the tools to the back half of the belt.
“Here.” Raine handed over an earpiece and a blue hard hat with a camera attached to it. “I’ll walk you through how to troubleshoot the valve.” Together they left the locker room, returning to Station Twelve’s main artery. Don continued to follow them, even though he was almost done with his shift. They arrived at one of the hatches to line twenty-three, the one closest to the failed valve.
Charlie put on the hard hat, which was oversized but had been modified to fit her and other kids. She tightened down the strap under her chin, then slung on the repair pack, clipping it across her chest. Already the air was permeated by the fuel systems. It was a smell that had lingered on her skin ever since she came on the Liberator. She hated it.
Raine was touching her tablet’s screen and pulled up the feed for Charlie’s camera. “All right. You’re live on here.” She reached up and switched on the hard hat’s light. “Get up there as fast as you can, okay? If you feel like you can’t last any longer, come back.”
Charlie nodded, then went over to the metal ladder attached the underside of the sealed hatch. Before she could put one foot on the first ring, she was yanked back into a hug.
“Be careful,” Raine murmured into Charlie’s ear. She bear-hugged her sister for another second, then released her.
“Be back soon,” Charlie said and winked at the pair. She climbed the ladder and heard the hatch hiss, then release. Raine had used the tablet to unlock the hatch. The heavy metal lid lifted and allowed Charlie to climb into the tunnel.
“Be careful, Charlie!” Don called from down in the corridor.
Before Charlie could respond, the hatch was already resealing itself. She crawled forward, then pulled herself onto one of the two creepers that were attached to a set of rails inside the tunnel. Once settled on the creeper, Charlie used her hands and feet to propel herself up the tunnel, which turned and snaked in different directions.
“You read me, Charlie?” Raine called over the radio frequency.
“Yeah.” Charlie continued moving as fast as possible, already working up a sweat. She gulped more and more harsh air.
“I’m looking at your location,” Raine said. “You have about a half a mile to go before you’re there.”
Under the dim blue light, Charlie watched the overhead fuel line but had yet to see the flashing yellow light that indicated the failure area. If she still had half a mile, then it was at least five more minutes.
“How you feel?” Raine asked.
“I’m okay.” Charlie paused mid-motion and wiped the sweat from her brow. “I hate how hot these lines are.” The fuel had to remain at a high temperature, giving it faster flow and providing extra energy. The return lines from the engines weren’t quite as bad.
Raine gave a soft curse and muttered, “You should have taken water with you.”
Charlie half shrugged even though Raine couldn’t see it. “I won’t be in here long.” She concentrated on the job and put power behind her arms. The exercise would make her sore tomorrow, but it was better than getting docked food rations if they failed to fix the valve. Part of her wished she’d brought her mother’s iPhone so she could listen to music. But the smartphone was a precious item that she kept hidden in her secret alcove. Otherwise, the Engineering Department would confiscate it for ship resources.
“Raine, do you have any—”
“Got it,” Raine cut off. A few seconds later, the earpiece filled with the lead singer of Texas. The British band was one of Amelia Larson’s favorites after spending time overseas.
Charlie sang a few lyrics from the upbeat song “The Conversation”, giving her more drive to go faster. The speed of the creeper provided some air movement around Charlie’s sticky skin. Toward the end of the song, Raine’s voice cut off the music.
“You’re almost there.”
Slowing down, Charlie kept her eyes on the overhead line and continued crawling forward. Just a little farther, a yellow light flashed in the distance. She picked up speed, then hit the creeper’s hand brake. With her feet, she scooted forward until she was under the flashing valve. “I’m here, Rae.”
The failed valve was located at a split where the main line separated into two smaller lines that supplied two engines. The valve was a regulator style and controlled the amount of fuel flowing from the larger main line to the two sub lines. A failed regulator valve was rather serious.
“I see that,” Raine said. “Let me know when you’re ready to get to work.”
Charlie pulled off the tools from her back, set them down, and rolled onto her back. She placed the tools back on her magnetized belt, then studied the strobing alarm. Reaching up, Charlie switched off the alarm. “Okay. What do I need to do?” Sweat was rolling off her brow and some went into her eyes, stinging a bit. She held back a whimper and wiped her eyes.
“First we need to test it. Can you manually turn it?”
Charlie frowned and considered Raine’s idea. “Won’t that affect the flow?”
“Yes, but the flow is already compromised because of the regulator. You don’t need turn it all the way until it shuts off. I just need you to test it.”
“Okay.” Charlie gabbed onto the red knob with one hand, but it didn’t budge, not even a fraction. With a scowl, she latched both hands around either end of the knob and attempted to twist it in the direction of the shut-off arrow. “Fuck!”
“That’s not good,” Raine said over the radio channel.
Charlie dropped her arms, panting, and tears formed at the corner of her eyes. Why did everything have to be so difficult in the Engine Department? She sniffed once, then wiped the tears from her cheeks. After a deep breath, she grabbed the knob again and made a second attempt.
“Charlie, I think it’s safe to say it’s busted.”
If Charlie’s dad were here, he’d be able to turn the valve’s stupid knob. But instead, Charlie was useless against its strength.
“Charlie, stop,” Raine ordered. “You’re wasting your energy and time. It’s seized.”
Gulping for air, Charlie lowered her hands to her stomach again. “Okay. So now what?” She continued glaring at the valve. “Do I have to replace the dumb thing?”
“Yup.” In the background, Raine was tapping something. “I’m going to shut down the fuel flow, but I have to call the Chief Engineer first so we can shut down the two engines tied to this line.”
“Roger that.” Charlie reached for the repair bag that she’d unhooked earlier. It was to the right of her head on the creeper’s small shelf. She retrieved the valve and tested the knob, finding it easy to move. Toying with the valve, she waited for her sister to give her the go-ahead to remove the valve. As she lay there, her mind wandered in different directions, then settled on her parents.
Her birthday was a couple of months ago. She’d turned six but felt more like a teenager. Similar to Raine, she had a lot of ridiculous responsibilities in the Engine Department. They had to keep the fuel systems operating correctly, day in and day out. Raine handled it better than Charlie, who would rather curl up into a ball some days.
Her birthday had been the hardest day of late. Last year, she had been back on Earth with her mother and father. Her aunt, uncle, and grandparents came over to celebrate. Several of Charlie’s friends came too. It had been so much fun!
But this year, Charlie spent it cramped in a hell hole and performed annual maintenance on several fuel systems. It was an easier duty than processing the fuel recycling, which she did more often than the other motormen. A break from the fuel recycling duties had been Station Twelve’s birthday gift to her.
“Charlie, we got the go-ahead to shut down line twenty-three,” Raine said over the radio. “It’ll just be another minute. You should hear things getting quieter.”
Charlie muttered something incoherent, then used a clean rag from the repair kit to wipe her face. She closed her eyes and waited to hear from Raine. Gradually the rushing sound above her head faded away until there was nothing but her breathing. For a moment, her mother’s soft features floated through her mind. Amelia smiled at her daughter and whispered something in a tender voice. Charlie tried touching her mother’s face.
Jumping, Charlie covered her pounding heart and asked, “What?” A bite was behind her voice.
“You can start removal of the valve.”
“Okay.” With a sigh, Charlie grabbed a tool from her utility belt, then reached up. She hesitated and stared at the tool in her hand, considering how it was going to help.
“That’s the wrong tool,” Raine said. “First you need to cool the fuel lines on each side to get them to shrink.”
“Right,” Charlie murmured, returning the wrench to her belt. She retrieved the cryogun from the repair bag. She switched it on and pointed the end against the larger main line. Even though it took all of a minute, the strain on her arms was noticeable.
“Now take your hammer and tap gently on the valve’s three necks. It should loosen things up.”
Charlie swallowed and searched through the bag again after putting the cryogun back. She raised the hammer, which was heavier than the gun. The first strike was easy, but the subsequent ones became harder. Charlie groaned, closed her eyes, and shook her head. “It’s so hot in here, Rae.”
“I know. You’re almost there,” Raine said, but a hint of panic laced her tone. “Give each line another tap, then try to remove the valve.”
Charlie bit her lip and repeated the strikes. There was a little play in the valve this time. She lowered the hammer to her stomach, grabbed the valve, and pulled on it. A cry broke from her lips when the valve remained stuck in the lines.
“Just take a breather, then try again,” Raine coached. “You got this.”
Snatching the rag, Charlie wiped the sweat from her face and closed her eyes. She wanted to rest longer, but Raine’s insistent voice came over the radio again.
“If you can’t get it this time, then you should come back.”
“I’ll get the stupid thing off.” Charlie wrapped her hands around both ends of the valve, then jerked on it. She fought and struggled, but the regulating valve stayed fast. With a yell, Charlie slapped her palm against the large main line. “I hate this!” She sobbed a few times.
“Just come back. We’ll figure out something else, Charlie.” In the background, Don was volunteering to try, but Raine ignored him. “You’ve already been in the line for over twenty minutes.”
Charlie frowned and whispered, “Twenty?” Somehow it only felt like ten minutes. She shook her head and growled at the stupid valve. “I’m going to get this fucking thing off.” With her feet, she nudged the creeper farther up the line until her feet were under the valve.
“Charlie, what are you doing?”
“Getting this fucker off!” Charlie planted her hands against the sides of the tunnel. She raised her head and gauged where she needed to put her feet.
“N-No. Don’t do that!”
Ignoring her sister’s pleas, Charlie lowered her head, lifted her feet, and brought her knees to her chest.
With a deep inhale, Charlie thrust her legs up and slammed the heels of her sneakers into the damn valve. The impact was harsh and sent white fire rippling down her thighs, but the valve snapped off, hit the tunnel wall, and landed just past the creeper. There was a moment of dead silence.
“Please tell me you’re okay!” Raine sounded close to a breaking point.
Charlie whimpered and rolled to her side while she rested her legs on the creeper. She took deep breaths of the stale, fuel-infused air. Her thighs started to calm, but her head felt dizzy now. The job wasn’t done.
“Charlie!” Raine hissed and said, “Respond to me now!”
Still whimpering, Charlie suspected Raine heard her soft sounds. “I’m fine.” She rolled onto her back, scooted the creeper back into the earlier spot, and assessed the open gap between the main line and two split lines.
Raine sighed and said, “It looks like you got it. Why don’t you come back and take a break?”
“No.” Charlie grabbed the valve. “I don’t wanna come back in here.” She raised the new valve in place to make sure it fit.
“You’ve been in there for too long,” Raine argued.
“I’m almost done.” Charlie fished around in the kit for another rag, then dried the three lines before any droplets fell on her. Now the tunnel reeked of the fuel that was going straight to Charlie’s head. Raine was barking in her ear, but she ignored her sister’s demands. “Just tell me what to do so I don’t do it wrong.”
Raine growled and slapped something, then was silent for a few seconds. She took a deep breath before saying, “The new valve is a better design. It has teeth inside it that will clamp down on the lines. Once you clamp all three lines, there’re tiny buttons on each neck that you need to push that’ll release a chemical to fuse everything together.”
Swallowing, Charlie started with the main line, but the damn thing was too large to fit into the neck.
“Charlie, flip it around. That end goes toward the two smaller lines.”
“I know!” Charlie grumbled and turned the valve one hundred and eighty degrees. This time, the main line slid perfectly into the valve. She pushed the line all the way in, then pulled it back until the teeth sank into the line. The two smaller lines did the same thing.
“Okay, good. Now find the chemical release buttons on the sides and push them.” Raine was tapping on something again, probably preparing to connect the new valve.
With nimble fingers, Charlie hit two of the buttons, but the last one was missing or something. She kept searching, her small hands scrambling.
“It’s on the right side,” Raine said. “No, down… back farther.”
Charlie groaned and dropped her burning arms for a second. She needed another breather so she closed her eyes and rested.
“Charlie? Come on, Charlie. You’re almost done. Just hit that last button and get back here.”
“I need a minute.”
“You don’t have any more time!” Even though Raine was yelling, she sounded distant and a bit garbled.
Charlie lifted and twisted her head, then called, “Momma?” But the hard hat’s light didn’t reveal anyone farther up the tunnel.
“Charlie, your mom isn’t in there. It’s not real,” Raine said, imploring and breathless. “Just hit the last button and come back here.”
“No, I heard my mom,” Charlie whispered and rolled onto her stomach, ignoring how the tools dug into her gut.
“Charlene, where are you? Your father is waiting on us. We can’t be late,” Amelia said, her voice impatient but still affectionate too.
“I don’t wanna be late,” Charlie muttered.
“Charlie!” Raine cursed, then a lot more noise filled the radio channel. “Get on your back, hit the button, and come back. Your mom isn’t there!”
“But she told me she was right behind me,” Charlie said. “Both her and Poppa. Maybe th-they’re here.”
After a soft slam came over the channel, Raine hissed and said, “Your parents are dead, Charlie! I’m sorry, but they’re dead.” Raine was huffing, and rustling followed her next words. “It’s just us now.”
“But w-what if she made it?” Charlie asked, wonder in her voice. She stretched out her arm, flattened her hand against the tunnel, and crept farther up the line.
“Shit! Don’t move, Charlie. Stay right there. I’m coming!” Raine was huffing and gasping now. “Wait for me!”
Charlie blinked against the dark patches in her vision. “S’okay, Rae. Gonna look, then come ‘ack.” She dragged the creeper inch by inch, but it was difficult. The stupid creeper was a pain. Whoever came up with the idea was an idiot anyway. Using her feet, Charlie pushed her upper body off the creeper.
“Charlene, hurry now!” Amelia said. “We’re waiting for you.”
“I’m trying, Mom!” Charlie gasped but slumped against the tunnel, halfway off the creeper. “I’m t-trying.” She closed her eyes.
“Charlie, stay put!” Raine gasped and said, “I’m almost there.”
Charlie swallowed against the harsh dryness in her mouth. The ridiculous tools hurt even more now that the creeper pressed them deeper into her stomach. With the last of her strength, she rolled onto her back and the light from the hard hat shone on the valve. “Raine, how do I replace the valve?”
“Don’t move!” Raine snapped.
“Charlene,” Amelia called, but her voice was distant and lost. “Charlene?”
“Mom?” Charlene whimpered and closed her eyes. She wanted to get to her mother, but she was so weak and exhausted. The tunnel was stifling, and every piece of clothing clung to Charlie’s sticky skin. “I’m sorry, Momma.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Her limbs were weightless, and the dark dots behind her eyelids had widened, matching the blackness of outer space. “I’m s-sorry I’m late.”
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