Waystation VII squatted near the middle of the Deadlands, its metal walls sealing out the poisonous fogs that clung to the earth outside. A dozen souls made Waystation VII their home, moving through short, narrow halls, breathing in the sour smell of stale air and grease, and serving the travelers who passed through the station to escape the clinging hold of the Deadlands.
Cotee liked to imagine the world beyond the Deadlands. She’d heard that the sun shone through clear to the ground and that the sky shimmered in blue hues. Travelers said the air outside tasted sweet and did not sting bare skin. It sounded like a dream. In the Deadlands, breathing without care brought poison into your lungs and your blood. Venturing outside without an enviro-suit resulted in rashes and bloody sores that would not heal, if you survived the suffocation.
Cotee woke every day and sealed up her suit, old and patched carefully to strengthen weak spots. It covered her from throat to feet, bulky and heavy. She clipped her helmet to her belt, in easy reach for the event of a hull breach, like the one in Waystation II three years back that killed a dozen souls. She pulled her brown hair back into a tight bun and rubbed at her face before eating a protein supplement and marching the well-worn path to her duty station for the day.
The inhabitants of VII worked twelve-hour shifts, alternating between the scrubbers and the service stations, where they had to deal directly with the travelers there to buy the station’s wares. Cotee liked handling sales, seeing new faces, each one of them unique and beautiful. She sketched them when her shifts ended. There was little else to do besides sleep, and years of experience had honed her skills.
She did not remember life before Waystation VII, though she must have had one. No one in the station could remember her parents. She had just turned up one day, a wide-eyed child, by all accounts too skinny and terribly afraid. Cotee didn’t remember that, either. Just the hum of the station’s scrubbers, and the constant heat in the metal walls, and that she needed to leave, that she had stayed within the metal walls for too long.
Cotee hoarded her wages, miniscule though they were. Crossing the entirety of the Deadlands would take a small fortune, but it had been managed by others who worked their way from one station to the next. Cotee had almost left a dozen times to do just that.
She knew nothing about the world outside of VII and the immediate vicinity. Anything could be out there. She had to be prepared before she left. So she set aside her wages, drew pictures of the plants and animals she heard about in stories, and waited.
Cotee shook away the thoughts, stepping into VII’s large central room. The space was crowded with canisters ready to be filled with fuel, water, or air from the valves along the walls. Crates holding rations and other supplies stood in careful stacks. The floor vibrated constantly from the huge scrubbers below, stripping poisons from the harvested gases and liquids. Cotee walked to her station, nodding a greeting at Ermie, an old man who had been in VII forever. Half of his face looked melted, the result of a long ago trip out into the Deadlands when his mask had cracked.
J.S. has been writing since she could get her hands on a pencil and paper. These days, she writes as a freelancer for her day job and pens fiction by night. Her fiction has appeared in print and around the web.