Earthcore: Just One Day
Fronds of silver fern whispered across Alena’s face as she crashed downhill through the undergrowth. I have to get out of here. She ran as fast as her feet would carry her; in this trackless jungle, that wasn’t nearly as fast as she would have liked. The near-vertical trajectory felt almost like freefall. Like flying. Branches whipped her outstretched arms as she careened towards what she hoped was a valley with a little creek that she could follow. She paused, grabbed the slender bole of a mānuka tree, and glanced back up the slope. Beyond her ragged breaths and the blood that pumped in her ears, all was quiet except for the birdcalls and the shushing of the canopy above. The forest air pressed in on her, humid, timeless, as if she’d been here forever instead of just a few hours.
Had she gotten away, just like that? She grinned to herself and continued on her way. With any luck, a creek would lead her to a road and she’d be able to flag down a motorist to get back to civilisation. Her twin sister and her grandmother would be worried sick.
Guilt stung the back of her mind. Returning would mean she’d have to face the debris of what she’d caused last night. Messing with powers you don’t know how to control. What had she been thinking? She’d fallen in the geyser. And then that—that creature had brought her here somehow. Through the air? The taniwha. Spirit. Whatever.
She peered behind her again, uneasy despite the bright daylight. All things considered, she didn’t think the taniwha would be pleased at her leaving. And sure, there was unfinished business between them, but couldn’t they hang out somewhere less isolated—since when was it all right for a thirteen-year-old to be alone in the bush? The taniwha wouldn’t be concerned about that, she supposed.
Taniwha. Her lips formed the word silently, almost unconsciously.
The wind picked up, whooshing in the treetops. Alena stared at the forest around her. Was that…something moving in the corner of her eye? A flick of a branch here, a disturbed bird winging away there. She couldn’t get a fix on it. Hairs rose on her arms as the atmosphere became close, the sounds around her muffled.
“Kao,” said a voice, in a mildly amused, strict-grandmother tone that reminded her of Nana. The taniwha was here! So much for getting clean away.
Kao—that was the Māori word for no. It was almost the only Māori word Alena knew, and she’d only happened to guess its meaning because the taniwha had said it to her a lot in the past few hours. She sighed, but took another step. “You aren’t the boss of me.”
The air around her grew heavy. An image dropped into Alena’s head, of the remote cabin where she’d woken this morning, the place the taniwha had chosen to bring her. Clearly, it wanted her to stay there.
“Kao yourself,” Alena muttered. Why…why did she feel like she’d spent far too long in this forest already?
The greenery whirled around her. In an instant, in the spin of sky and trees and leaf-scented forest air, her last thought vanished.
Alena found herself tucked up in the bed in the cabin, waking from a pleasant nap. She shot upright, clutching her head. That was weird. Her glance took in the small room. It felt familiar, almost homey—but why should it? She’d been here barely a few hours at most. Hadn’t she?
Flickers of memories tugged at her thoughts. The taniwha…it had brought her here from the underground crevice in that same dizzying way, not long ago. Like flying, but in such a spin that she couldn’t make out anything but blurs along the way. She squinted at the morning light that fell into the room around the rough canvas curtain. Something seemed off about the sun’s angle, as if it were earlier than it should be. Something was very wrong…
Yeah, you idiot, you destroyed those houses and nearly killed your twin while you were at it.
Alena gulped and threw off the cosy wool blankets. I have to get out of here—! She swung her legs out over the side of the mattress and shivered a little in the chill morning air, frowning at the clothes she wore, which appeared to be clean. Hadn’t she been filthy with crusted mud from the geyser, last time she’d seen them? Well, she wasn’t about to complain.
She tottered to her feet just as her stomach gave an enormous rumble. Her attention turned to the little stash of sardine tins in the corner, so kindly provided by her invisible benefactor.
I’ve been kidnapped by a dragon spirit. Heh. No one would ever believe her. Well, except Laura.
Might as well eat something before she tried to bushwhack her way off this mountain. She fossicked through the pile and found a tin of sardines in tomato sauce. Too bad the rest were in oil. She pulled the tab and grimaced at the smell, but food was food and she was hungry.
As she stepped outside the hut, the sound of water called to her straight away and she followed it a small distance to where a creek flowed down over some rocks. Alena knelt and plunged her hands into the cool freshness, splashing it on her face, and after a moment’s hesitation, into her mouth as well. Really it should be boiled before drinking, but it was crystal clear and fast-moving, less likely to harbour the sorts of nasties that might inhabit still waters.
“So…what now?” she said to the taniwha. It had to be around here somewhere. She and Laura had been so thrilled at being able to call forth fumaroles that they’d ignored the mythical creatures, focusing instead on investigating the unruly geothermal phenomenon as the springs reacted to their DNA. Or so they thought. For science, their battle cry. They’d laughed off tales of the guardians who ruled the geysers.
Taniwha were real, she knew that now, and she wanted this one to talk to her. But there was no answer.
Alena examined the surroundings as best she could. The slope was fairly steep without being impassable. Upwards, the trees appeared to thin, but she wouldn’t go that way. Perhaps she could follow this stream down to wherever it was going.
She set out at an easy stride, gravity aiding her descent. For a while it was simple enough to follow the waterway, but then it vanished down a little steep-sided gully she preferred not to climb into. She pressed on into the bush, catching her feet on fallen branches and blinking as ferns whispered across her face.
She’d heard of déjà vu, but this was extreme. She sat down suddenly in the bracken, sucking in air, breathing harder than the exertion would seem to warrant. Something shifted in the corner of her eye.
I’ve done this before.
The air pressed close, warmer now as the sun rose higher—not that she could see it with all these trees. She wiped sweat from her eyes. This was ridiculous.
Alena hauled herself upright with a firm grip on a mānuka trunk. Her breath came in sharp bursts. She rubbed at sudden goosebumps, then took off running, crashing through the undergrowth…
“Kao,” said the taniwha. It sounded close by.
She yelped but kept on running. “You can’t trick me this time! We’ve done this before, you and I.”
That means yes.
Wait, how do I know that?
Still she forced her way forward through the dense ferns that spread beneath taller trees. Bright sunlight ahead hinted at a clearing. Maybe then she could figure out where she was and get out of this wilderness at last.
At last? I’ve only been here a couple of hours. Just enough for a little nap…but it felt much longer than that, as if she’d been running through these trees for days and days.
The light ahead drew her on with a longing to get back to her family, such as it was for the moment. I have to get out of here. Anger flashed through her.
The sun shone in her eyes and her ankles tangled in the scrub, sending her flying. Alena winced, clenching her face in anticipation of the impact as she hit the ground.
It didn’t come. There was only the caress of air, a soft breeze that raised the hairs on her arms to stand on end.
She dared a peek and swallowed a strangled yell. A chasm yawned below her—a deep vertical rift in the mountain.
Well done you, you’ve gone and tripped over a cliff.
This must be the moment that goes so slowly because your whole life flashes before your eyes. Except it didn’t. She focused her gaze with morbid fascination on the boulders some distance below, clearly about to shatter every bone in her body. Breathe. In, out, that’s it. Air and blood roared in her ears while impending death tingled her fingers and toes.
“Me nohotahi tāua i te wā nei.” Let’s us two stay here today. The motherly voice spoke close beside her. She jerked her head around, but saw nothing, of course.
Stay here today. She blinked, shook her head in midair. How do I know what she’s saying?
There was silence.
“Are you saying you want me to stay just one day?”
“Ae. I will catch you.”
Alena considered the deal while she fell. Time was short, if strangely expanded. She didn’t want to die splattered on those rocks. “You’ll catch me? Well, okay, I guess. You’d better let me leave tomorrow, though.”
The world spun around her, the boulders and the mānuka and the sky.
She woke with a start in the cabin, sobbing aloud. What just happened? I was falling! Was I dreaming? I made a promise, I think…
Her mind grasped at fragments of memory that evaporated to nothing in the sun’s early light. She frowned at the curtained window. Something really weird is going on here.
The rumbling of her stomach forced her to consider eating some of that horrible tinned fish. She took hold of a can in both hands and stared at it. It was unremarkable. It was also the only one with tomato sauce. A slightly better option than the plain oily ones.
Her fingers trembled as she opened it. She wrinkled her nose. She ate, then left the cabin and found her way to the stream, where she drank and washed the fishy smell from her face.
Alena’s eyes traced the downhill course of the stream. She didn’t even have to think about it; she would go that way.
“Kia āta haere,” said the taniwha.
Alena jumped. “Go slowly. Okay.” But I can’t understand Māori.
She paced through the forest, aware of the taniwha’s presence around her. Movement here and there drew her attention, but each time she looked, she saw nothing except a gently bouncing fern branch or a swiftly disappearing bird. The legends said the taniwha took the forms of animals or even dragons, except they were invisible. She’d thought them only a myth.
“Kia tūpato,” came the voice again. Be careful.
Okay. She slowed, squinting as the light grew brighter ahead.
Pushing by a ponga tree, she gasped and grabbed at its knuckled trunk, all but swinging out over an abyss.
She caught her breath and stared down into the rift that ran across the mountain’s slope. Jagged boulders piled at the foot of the cliff, and she gulped. I would have fallen on those.
“Ki tōku whakaaro pono, ka nohotaha tāua me tēnei rā kotahi.” I understood you would stay with me this one day.
I said that? All of a sudden, she remembered agreeing to it. “I suppose I did promise something like that. But what do you want with me?” Even as she spoke, she searched for a way to cross the ravine.
The voice rumbled again, like a distant wind, and she wondered a little less that she understood. It was a natural thing. “Me hiahia ako koe.” You need to learn.
Gulp. Learn what? Her mouth spoke it differently. “Ka puta mai te hua o te akoranga?”
“Nā te mōhiotanga o tōku mana.” Understanding of my power.
Of course. Memories flooded her again, images from when she and Laura had played around with the hot aquifers under Nana’s back lawn. How the earth had opened up. Thoughts became confused as the faces of strangers mixed in with increasing geyser activity that moved to the neighbour’s yard.
“Pipes. We were trying to lay pipes, to shift it permanently.” In her mind she viewed from far above as the ground collapsed, swallowing houses, swallowing people.
Laura and Nana were okay though, watching from a safe distance. Alena observed as they trudged towards a nearby hotel for refuge, with only the clothes on their backs. She tried to reach for them, to see closer, but the mental image wouldn’t move.
She blinked and found herself clutching the ponga tree on the edge of the precipice. The pictures dissipated, the breeze faded to nothing. The taniwha was here, holding her.
Tears? No. But she thought there had been, recently, although she was hazy on when that could have been, since all she’d done this morning was wake up and wander down through the forest.
“Ko wai tō ingoa?” She asked the taniwha’s name, barely aware that she now spoke in Māori. When had she learned it? She’d find that out too.
“Ko ahau te kaitiaki ō te pahūtanga.” I am the guardian of the eruption.
“Fine, be vague. I’m just going to call you Pahū.”
The invisible-hug sensation moved away, and branches jostled in the distance. “Come this way, daughter, and we will begin.”
Alena glanced out once more across the ravine to the trees on the other side. In that direction lay freedom—on another day. “I’m coming back to you, Laura. I promise.” She’d never longed more for actual twin-telepathy. Their sibling relationship was more along the lines of understanding the other one and predicting what she would think in a given situation. They’d only been parted since last night, but Alena had a strange nagging feeling that it could have been much longer. Well, she’d been through a lot. Trauma could do strange things to subjective time. Right? Right.
The things she’d lived through had done strange things to her beliefs, as well. Taniwha were real. Now that one of them had rescued her, and she’d almost seen its shape there in the belly of the earth, lit only by the reflected orange glow from some river of lava…she knew it had really happened. All of it. Even if she thought its shadow looked more like a dinosaur than a dragon. Out here in the daylight, her night underground had more in common with dreams than reality.
Yet she turned away from the gully and followed Pahū’s sounds as she rustled through the bush ahead of her. In a few minutes, Alena topped a gentle ridge and descended the other side, all blanketed in mānuka and fern growth. Of the sky she saw only little, but guessed she was rounding the flank of the mountain.
A familiar scent reached her nostrils. Her heart hammered. It was sulphur gas, as from a hot spring, as from the geyser she’d provoked to destruction. She stopped and leaned on a tree.
Ahead, a ponga branch waved. The touch of Pahū. “It’s just here.”
Against all her better judgment, Alena edged her way to the tree and peered around its trunk. A tiny geyser sprayed hot water only a foot in the air, surrounded by a bright-white silica buildup where jewel-green algae grew like hanks of hair. Steam rose from the basin, thickening the air with the minerals she smelled. “It doesn’t even look real,” she muttered. “More like a school art project where they didn’t get the colours right at all.”
“Hei aha koa,” said Pahū. Nevertheless. “You must touch it. Drink of its power, and learn to control it.”
“No. No, that really isn’t on my list of favourite things.” Alena backed away, grabbing at branches. Already the steam followed her, sprang up around her feet as it recognised her magnetic presence.
She stumbled, falling to hands and knees. The ground emitted a sharp hiss where her fingers landed. “It’s touching me!” She scrabbled away, but couldn’t move fast enough, and the baby geyser came with her. Just when she thought the earth was about to explode beneath her, there was a so-familiar whirling sensation. A glimpse of wide-open sky and empty air. She screamed.
Alena shot upright in her bed in the cabin, her cry fading as she took in the wooden walls, the canvas curtain, the early morning angle of the light, the stack of food with one tin of sardines in tomato sauce. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at it, as solid and unused as ever. She touched her tongue to the roof of her mouth, remembering its taste. Remembering a thing she had not eaten yet.
“Pahū!” Her voice came out in a growl. “When were you going to tell me this is what you meant by just one day?”
Memories shredded and began to waft away. She gripped them with her entire willpower. “Kao! You’re not taking this from me again.” How did one resist an invisible creature?
With insults, of course. “You—you’re nothing but air.”
For a moment longer they battled in her mind, head to head, the taniwha and the child.
Then the pressure eased. “Perhaps you can handle this already, after all,” said Pahū.
Alena’s mind searched for the tendrils of knowledge, barely within reach. Recollections thudded into place, day after day after day of life here on the mountain.
Days of learning to speak Māori. Days of weeping as she processed the aftermath of the hydrothermal eruption. Days of headlong running to get away, only to fall over a cliff and end with a spin that landed her right back here in the cabin. Her breath hitched as she drew it in. “You are the absolute worst! I must have been here a month at least.”
Pahū laughed, her rumbly voice strangely comforting. No, familiar. “I asked for just one day of yours, and that is all I will take.”
But that’s impossible. Alena breathed deeply, stared around at the room she was sure she had spent more than one night in. Her eye fell again on the stack of sardine cans.
One with tomato sauce. The one she now remembered eating each new morning. And yet, there it was.
“One day, multiple repeats. All different.” Weeks and weeks, if she counted them up. She blinked, considering. “Ha! That means, subjectively, I’m older than Laura now. That’s something at least.” Can’t wait to tell her… “But…why?”
“You were not ready. You could not control your power over the geysers. You would destroy again.”
“Oh.” The truth thudded into her heart like a rock. “I still can’t control it.”
Pahū was silent for a moment. “You see how it is. I want to teach you, but each time you panic. You run away.”
“I didn’t know how many times we tried!” Her fists clenched in her lap. “Or how necessary it is. But I do now. Now that you’ve let me remember our many todays.”
“I am sorry. I underestimated you. Now that you understand, how can I help you see I mean you no harm?”
Alena stared daggers at the sorry stock of tins. “Can you at least get me some better food? I can’t believe I put that vile stuff in my face voluntarily. Although, technically, I suppose I haven’t yet, except I remember it.” She paused, cringing. “Tell you what, I sure could murder a good pie right now.”
The air twisted in the middle of the room. A brown paper bag appeared out of the vortex and plopped onto the floor. The scent of hot pastry and gravy wafted up and Alena smiled for the first time since she’d arrived here. She reached for the bag. “That’s more like it. Why didn’t you do that sooner?”
“I couldn’t vary the environment without risking temporal damage to you. But now that you know this is the same day, it is safe.”
“That’s…fair, I guess.” Alena spoke around the pie, then bit into it and closed her eyes for a moment. “Mmm, steak and cheese, excellent choice.”
“By the way, I am much more than just air, you know. I am spirit.”
“If you say so. I still haven’t seen you properly.” Alena glanced around. “Sure feels like I’m talking with thin air.”
“I am born of air, of Ranginui. The sky is my father. That is how I control wind and time, and it is why you cannot see me.”
Pahū waited for her to finish eating, but Alena sensed the taniwha’s excitement. She swallowed the last morsel and stood to head to the creek to wash up. The cabin door creaked open at her touch. So familiar, and now she knew why. Sunshine and birdsong awaited outside.
Alena strode through the stretch of bush that she knew like the back of her hand. Washed her face, drank some water.
She stood and stretched. “Pahū, show me the geyser. We’ve got today—let’s make it count.”