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art by Justine McGreevy

The Vault

Leslie Claire Walker lives among the lush bayous of southeast Texas with a cast of rowdy characters, including two harps. Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Chiaroscuro, and DAW Books anthologies. She is delighted and excited for "The Vault" to appear in Daily Science Fiction. In her very spare, spare time, she reads voraciously, plays the aforementioned harps, studies herbalism, and indulges in messy baking adventures. When she is not in Texas, she frequents the Pacific Northwest and, it seems, Ireland.

This godforsaken rock has one thing to recommend it. That one thing is also the most terrible I could imagine. My daughter is here. My daughter is trapped here with me.
Z-1293-QV-A. That's the official name on the chart in the Monsignor's office. He actually calls it that. All of the proper church does, too. But the rest of us disgraced once-upon-a-priests call it Wasteland. It's the first planet in its solar system, the one closest to its sun, but far enough from the fire to be livable. Not that anyone lives here.
The air? Fine, at least with the addition of Portable Atmosphere Converters--referred to by the acronym-happy as PACs. The climate? Rainy. Lush. Voluptuous, even. Warm light on the skin during the days and cool breezes after dark. Best not to explore, regardless. No telling what you might find.
Wasteland has a soul. A demon soul. They say that's why all the things we lose and don't ever want to find again end up here. Like my daughter, Reya Lynn. Lost once, now found.
She gazes up at me from the ruined vault we sheltered in from last night's rain. Steel vault. Heavy-duty protection.
Her baby browns--not at all like her mother's but plenty like mine--shine through the face mask of her PAC. Even through the polymer, I can see the irritation brimming in them. A bruise blackens her forehead. Scratches bloom on her cheek. She smells like dirt and oil and blood.
Until yesterday, I hadn't seen her in a year. I never thought I'd see her again. I hadn't counted on her ingenuity.
"Are they here yet, Dad?" she asks.
I hunker down. "They've got our distress signal. It'll take a little bit before they can make a run out here to pick us up."
"I'm hungry."
"There's rations."
"They're freeze-dried."
"It may not be first-class, but it's food."
"That's what I get for stowing away," she says. "What's it look like out there?"
"Like you'd expect."
The sun shining orange in the cloudless sky. Vine-covered, dew-soaked earth cradling my feet. To the east, easy to make out the clear blue of a lake. In the north and west, rainforest. South, what remains of the ship in a kaleidoscope of broken branches and toppled trees.
The landing gear had sheared off on impact, the compound hull shredded to the base. The rest of her is sprawled cattywompus, hatch blown for our escape.
She reaches a hand through the door. "Help me out."
"I don't think it's a good idea."
"I'm not going to break, Dad."
"You're well on your way."
"Whose fault is that?"
"Yours, Reya."
"Who's vault is this anyway?"
I sigh. "The writing on the side says Bolt Labs."
"I wonder what they used to keep in here, how come they didn't want it anymore. How this kind of stuff actually gets here."
We can wonder all day. Or we can talk about why Reya seems intent on stalling. I know it when I hear it. She'd done plenty of it both on the ship and after the crash, and last night I could only think about her being hurt and how badly, how it made my stomach want to crawl up my throat. The time for all that has passed.
I hold her gaze. "Tell me again why you're here?"
"I had to get out of there. I couldn't stand it one more minute."
"You're fifteen. You can't stand anything."
She shows me her best you-don't-get-it sneer. "Frank's driving me crazy."
"He's eight. He's supposed to."
"He's an evil stepbrother. Like in fairy tales."
I don't have the heart to tell her she has it all wrong. That evil steps are always mothers and sisters. And I know she's still not telling me the truth.
I help her out of the vault. Black pants, black jacket, black hair as long as mine and tied into a knot. She holds her shoulders like me, too, straight and proud. The way she shuffles her feet, though, that's her mother.
She shoves her hands in her pockets and starts walking. Into the canopy.
I jog to catch her and cut her off. "Whoa. Wait a minute."
"Why wait? The rescue party will be here soon, you said. We only have so much time."
"To what?"
"To get what you came for," she says.
"I didn't come here looking for anything."
"There's no other reason to be here, John."
"I guess you gave up on calling me Dad?"
"You're a smart guy." She taps a finger to her temple. "How come you didn't come to visit in all this time?"
"Your mother didn't want me to."
She talks fast, words like bullets. "She have a judge's order?"
"Threaten to get one?"
"Then you have no excuse."
"It's more complicated than that, Reya."
"No such thing. I'm your kid. That should count for more than a message a couple of times a year."
"You're right," I say.
"So why didn't you come?"
She wants the truth from me, she can give a little herself. We'll trade. "One for one?"
She shrugs.
"It's not your fault I went away."
"I know that," she says. "Tell me something I don't."
Her mother had threatened me. If she couldn't keep me gone through legal means, she'd resort to the extra-legal kind. Starting with getting me fired from my pilot's job. I don't know how she did it. Probably all it took was telling the boss that I'd left the priesthood to marry her. Men of God aren't supposed to renounce the rules, not for anything.
I can't tell Reya all that. I can't turn her against Be-Be no matter how angry I am. Regardless of how I feel about the church and its laws, that's the kind of law I can't live without.
I reach out to touch her shoulder.
She backs away from my comfort. When she speaks, her voice shakes. "Fair enough. Here's my one: I was worried about you."
The words hit me like a gut punch. No child should have to do that. To worry. No child of mine.
"One for one," she says.
I take a deep breath and blow it out slow. "You want to try for two?"
"Not really." She angles around me and heads into the trees.
I follow fast, my feet tripping over the down-slope, boots sinking into soft ground, snapping twigs and skipping small rocks. Thick reeds with long leaves brush my cheeks, the smell of their rich green intoxicating. Even they had been thrown away. Tossed aside to end up here.
Reya picks up speed--vanishes from my sight for an instant. Only a second. A second too long.
"Hey!" she yells. "Isn't this your pocket watch?"
I rush toward the sound of her voice. Push fronds out of the way so I can see. Come on her so fast I almost fall over her.
I lose my balance. Put down a hand in the loam to keep upright.
She holds a glinty gold thing up to my face. "This is yours."
Scratches mar the finish. A crack zigzags across the glass face. Water beads inside. The hands stand still. It looks like a million other watches. "I don't remember it."
"Mom gave it to you for Christmas. You know, gold with a chain, missing link?" She stretches out the chain so I can see the link she accidentally broke. How old had she been then? Younger than her wicked stepbrother. She'd replaced the broken part with a shiny silver paper clip.
The one on the chain she holds has tarnished. Even so, it marks the watch as undeniably mine.
"Did you throw it away?" she asks.
"I wouldn't do that. I just forgot I had it."
"Like you forgot about me?"
"That's not fair, Reya."
"No, it's not." She pushes to her feet. "I wonder what else of yours ended up here?"
"One for one?" I stand and brush the dirt from my hands.
She stares at me.
"A ship and a girl."
She smirks. "That's cheating."
"It's still the truth."
"Do you want me to play or not?" she asks.
I fold my arms across my chest. "Tell me why you worried."
I expect her to give me a line about how, technically, I should go first because I'm the grownup. But she only says, "You don't call. You don't write. You don't show up. I went looking for you and found you at that café. You didn't know I was there, did you?"
I shake my head. I know which café she means, too. I eat there every day--or at least I did.
"They have really great sandwiches," she says. "But I never saw you with any of them. Your eyes are all hollowed out and so are your cheeks and you look like you're trying to kill yourself."
Those last four words. Shattered me like glass.
"Am I wrong?" she asks.
I want to tell her yes. But the game is on, and it's not a game after all. "No."
She breathes that in. "Two for two?"
Stupid game. Stupid idea. All my fault for starting down this road. "Are you sure you want to know?"
She nods. "What did you come here to find?"
"Wrong question," I say.
Light filters through the branches, slides across her face. She lowers her voice. "What did you come here to lose?"
Isn't it obvious? "Myself."
"Did you wreck the ship on purpose?"
"There was an instrument failure."
"Stop stalling," she says.
"I didn't care."
"If you'd have known I was on board before you did that, would it have made a difference?"
How can she ask me that? Doesn't she know that she matters above all else?
No, she doesn't. How could she possibly know?
She squares her shoulders against my answer. Her face closes a little, too. Clearly, she expects me to say the worst.
Whose fault is that, John?
"I wouldn't have taken off in the first place if I'd known," I say.
"Is there even a rescue party coming?"
"There's no way to disable either a locator or an SOS. They're on the way."
"You just planned to be long gone by the time they arrive."
I can't deny it.
"You didn't call out on the radio," she says.
"It's busted."
"On purpose." She dangles the watch by its chain.
I don't understand what she wants.
She looks pointedly at my hand. After a minute, I hold it open.
"You carry that," she says, depositing it in my palm, its chain coiling around the broken face. "It's yours."
Whether I want it or not. She doesn't say that, but she's thinking it. I can tell. And I don't want the stinking watch. It feels too much like a home I no longer have, like belly laughs and good times and people who understand me.
But I can't throw it away either. She won't let me.
She turns her back on me (and watches me with the eyes she has in the back of her head--inheritance from her mother, again) and moves on through the trees. In a heartbeat, she disappears. The soft sound of her footfalls and the crush of fallen leaves wallow in her wake.
A quick look around tells me I have no idea where we are. Maybe a vague notion of how to get back to the ship, to the shelter of the vault. To where the people will come looking for us. Had Reya been paying as poor attention as I had? Or worse?
I take off after her.
A minute. Two minutes. No sign. I can't make out footprints. I shout her name.
A bump on my shoulder catapults me half a foot off the ground. I spin on my heel and there she is.
"Scaring the shit out of me is not allowed," I say.
Point taken. Hard like a sledgehammer, but taken. "We need to get back."
"Not yet. You gotta see this." She takes my arm and pulls.
I don't want to go, so I dig in my heels. "It's not another pocket watch, is it?"
"It's better."
Somehow, I don't believe that. I thought Reya would lose patience the longer I mull it over, but she just waits. No glancing around. No foot tapping. No heavy sighs.
If I go, I'll see what she has in store for me. If I don't, I'll prove myself a coward in front of my kid.
I let her lead me in the direction I saw her go before, through the trees and down a steeper slope. Running water burbles nearby. A creek? Yes. Water rimmed with reeds. Water so clear every grain of sand and pebble sparkles.
Reya points to the far bank. There, on the ground among the shoots, a red leather collar.
She doesn't have to remind me this time what it is I'm looking at. This memory is ingrained in me deep, in space and time before she was born.
I run the creek, heedless of soaking my boots and pants hems and splashing halfway up my calves. I wrap my fingers around the collar and pull it close to my chest. I can still smell him on it.
"He was a good dog," she says.
Of course she knows that. Michael (after the archangel, of course) grew from gangly yellow puppy to a giant of a retriever as she'd grown from toddler to gymnast. That dog had taken the best care of her, too. Better than I did.
"You forget you had him?" Reya asks.
"Most days." He's been dead and gone almost as long as my marriage.
"How do you think he'd feel about that?"
I blink at her. "Never thought about it."
"How do you feel about it?"
"One for one?"
She nods.
"Like an ass."
"That's not the point."
"Well, what is?"
She stares at me.
I realize my grip on the collar is so tight, my fingers have bleached white. Try as I might, I can't get them to relax.
Reya says softly, "To know how you feel."
"Is that some kind of riddle?"
"No, John."
"Where's my one?"
She thinks a minute. "I've been where you are before."
She doesn't mean Wasteland.
"When it hurts too much," she adds.
She'd come all this way because she worried about me. She found things that belong to me. Important things.
"Did you bring those things with you when you stowed away?"
She blanks her expression. Faux-innocent. "Is this two for two?"
"Don't mess around, Reya."
"Why would I keep this stuff? The watch, sure, I could've got a hold of that and hid it in my room. But Michael's collar? Dad, you took him with you when you went away."
He was all I had left.
Then it hit me. She'd slipped up. Called me Dad. I could call her on it. Or I could let her realize it in her own time and be properly mortified.
I take the high road. And the path away from the creek. I'm not going to wait on her to go ahead of me. To find my things and stroll me down memory lane and spout pointless wisdom. If anyone is going to find pieces of me, I'll do it myself.
And damned glad I am, because down the rocky way where the stones clack underfoot and around a bend rioting with bright and heady-scented purple and orange flowers, I come across it.
A photo. An actual printed picture on paper, the corners crinkled from where Be-Be and I had put it in the actual cardboard and paper album. It had been an heirloom, that book. Dark brown with a gilded border on the front and back covers. The pages inside, once cream-colored, yellowed and stained except in the places where family had tacked mementos of love.
Be-Be held my hand tight when I brought the album out from storage. She'd traced the edges of it with one dirt-rimmed nail still flush with soil from the garden. She could hardly believe I'd printed a photo of baby Reya, newborn and ugly-beautiful, wrapped in her blanket with her stocking feet poking out, the winter sun warming her face. We put the picture inside, right next to the one of Be-Be's mom.
I bend to pick up the photo from where it lies near the flowers. It feels as solid to me, as real--no, realer--than the crunch of gravel or the blooms' perfume or the way Reya will freak out when she sees this picture. She hates looking at those kinds of things. Hates reminders that she wasn't always so grown up.
I swivel on my heels to show her. To catch the look on her face. But she's not there.
"Hey," I call. "You'll never guess what I found."
No answer. I guess she doesn't want to know. Well, turnabout is fair play on that count.
"It's way better than a watch or a collar. And this time it's not even about me."
No sound but a breeze picking up, lifting the hair from the nape of my neck.
I start back toward the water, looking out of the corners of both eyes because she has to be hiding, waiting to jump out and ambush me. But she doesn't leap out of nowhere. And she's not at the water's edge. Or anywhere on the other side that I can see. Not in any copse of trees I search through, my heart beating faster until it feels like it will explode. Not anywhere along the trail I find of footsteps and broken twigs in the loam. Or any place I can find at a dead-out run.
I break from the canopy as the sun sinks below the horizon, its red fire streaking the sky like blood. Wreckage crouches in shadow. The vault is empty. The rations we stored in it last night remain untouched.
I duck inside the ship. She has to be hiding there. Other possibilities ram at the doors of my mind. I won't let them in. I can't.
She's not forward. Or in mess. Or in the compartment I found her in when I went to get my stowed gear. There's only the extra PAC hanging by its strap from a hook. A spare sleeping bag. Spare med supplies. And a half-disintegrated paperback book that probably belonged to the joker who rented me this godforsaken transport.
I can't accept that she's not here. Because if she's not here--and there's no evidence she ever was--what does that mean?
I came here to forget. Instead, I found things I'd forgotten. The watch. The collar. The photo of my daughter.
Why would that picture be here? Did something happened to her? Something awful?
I have no way to know. No way to contact anyone. Nothing to do but wait for rescue. For a way to make a call.
Long hours pass before I hear the far-away roar of the ship. The moon is high in the sky and pregnant with possibility. With demons racing, racing in my mind. And they are mine, my demons. They don't belong to this planet any more than I do.
I don't say much when the hatch opens and I glimpse the sandy hair and the glad eyes of my rescuer. I barely shake his hand or feel the deck, whole and solid under my feet as I make my way forward.
The call. That's all that matters. Holding myself up while my legs turn to rubber at the sound of my daughter's voice. Feeling the steel I'd put up between us crumble. I won't ever wish her out of my heart again.
"I was worried about you," she says.
"You don't have to do that," I say. "Not anymore."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 18th, 2012

Author Comments

"The Vault" came about as part of a challenge to write a science fiction story set on a remote planet, which is what I did, though the heart of the story turned out to be a man living his deepest fears and hopes in an utterly foreign place with no one to rely on but himself. That was his challenge. I found mine while immersing myself in his nightmare and delving mercilessly into all of the places in which his hopes and fears and my own intersect. For me, the story’s power lives in those dark crevices.

- Leslie Claire Walker
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