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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

One of the books at home is about animals and plants. Not the nature of the Void; these are species driven to extinction by humans. Some were wiped out by centuries of global warming; others clung on, only to disappear when the climate swung back and Earth froze over. It’s simultaneously the most fascinating and the most heart-rending book I’ve seen.

There was one creature in particular that I recalled, a kind of dolphin called an orca. I can only describe its sketch as a bloated, black torpedo with a knife-like fin sticking out of its back. Orcas hunted seals and other mammals in the high Arctic, where there was ice even in prehistoric times. If they came across a seal sitting on a piece of sea ice, they’d swim underneath and flip the ice over, plunging the seal to its doom. It would never have seen the orcas coming.

After the coilguns were stolen, that image got firmly stuck in my head. We had become the seals being hunted.

To my surprise, the next few days weren’t dominated by panic and mass hysteria. Father had waited for his blood pressure to go down, then called another emergency meeting of the Guild of Engineers. Vicar Duval quickly stepped in and gathered the rest of us by the ruined church. It turned out he had known about the weapons too; in his calmest tone, he explained their existence and their purpose.

Nobody cried out or shouted at him. Nobody asked for the engineers, who had kept the secret for so long, to be strung up by their bootlaces. That didn’t surprise me. As Duval himself put it, “I can always count on your understanding. We must all work in the best interests of the community, for peace needs maintenance, but it only takes an errant spark to bring about chaos. Let me say this, brothers and sisters. For as long as we are united, for as long as we can count on each other, we will have peace.”

The same couldn’t be said for everybody. New Honolulu was free of trouble, for the next few days at least. Trouble had started brewing elsewhere. Mid-week is when we first heard of it.

It was another unassuming afternoon. I was engaged in just the sort of thing Voidese children like to do – scuttling around the eroded dish on the north side of the mountain. Smoothed edges of the exposed rock columns made great hand- and foot-holds. Right below me, Gafra clambered up and down the stone, right at the edge of the giant bowl. Nothing but blue lay underneath her. One slip would send her plummeting into the sky.

Of course, we both wore our flight gear; jetpacks, headsets and all. We were practically scraping our noses along the basalt, scouring its cracks and pores for pyrolite. I know that sounds like a cooking product, or something to be kept from youngsters at all costs. Pyrolite is actually a type of greenish crystal formed when basalt reacts with water. It’s suitably rare that folks make competitions out of finding the stuff.

Gafra and I weren’t competing. At least, I wasn’t. Pyrolite crystals weren’t useful for much, but they looked pretty, so I wanted to collect some and show Chiara.

“Hey hey!” My companion’s voice exploded in my headset. “Look what we got here!”

I lifted my head and aimed my goggles at her. Sure enough, between Gafra’s fingers was a cluster of yellow-green prisms, scintillating like cut diamonds. She said, “Can’t get over how pretty these are!”

“Shame you can’t trade them for anything, though.”

“I’ll convince some sucker one day, don’t worry! You found any yet?”

When I tried to reply, there was a burst of static. For a second, I thought I’d broken my headset. Had I smacked it on a rock without even noticing? But no, the equipment wasn’t to blame. Two words flashed up before my eyes: “NEW AUCKLAND.” When I glanced at Gafra again, I could see her goggles were similarly affected. We were both getting a long-range transmission.

From behind the static emerged a voice. Despite the interference that comes with long-distance calls, I managed to place it immediately. Bikral was on the other end. He didn’t sound happy to be there, though. “I am speaking to you from New Auckland.” This much I’d ascertained. “And I regret to inform you that we are in Lockdown mode.”

Once again, I looked at Gafra. She looked back and I could see her eyebrows drifting up into the forehead realm. I shared her surprise – New Auckland had never been put into Lockdown. Ever. What was going on?

We quickly found out. In a far less confident tone than normal, Bikral continued, “We are being held captive by a terrorist organisation who call themselves the Order of Silence. They have obtained electromagnetic weapons“ – no doubt he meant the coilguns – “and are extremely dangerous. Their leader wishes me to tell you that, in a manner of enforcing the Lockdown protocol…” He’d been quite composed until that point, like he was reading off a script. However, at this point his voice faltered and trailed off, leaving just the background static for a moment.

Suddenly, the bad news got worse. “As I was saying, the Order of Silence have stated they will shoot and… and kill anybody who tries to enter or leave New Auckland airspace. This is not a bluff; their numbers are great and they are completely mobile.” Talk about unfriendly neighbours. I could have sworn I heard a gasp through my headset, from the depths of whatever room Bikral was speaking from. At least he wasn’t alone.

“I therefore ask you all not to come to help us. You will only add to the casualties.” Did that mean there were casualties already? All my brain burned with questions, but I forced them back to try and focus on the end of the message. It went like this: “I am sorry this awful situation has arisen and hope we can resolve it without significant loss of life. When I can, I will send further updates.” There was a profound sigh, then, “End of broadcast.”

My headset returned to its inert state. All those questions came rushing back, making a sort of after-buzz in my head. Chief among them: What in the name of all holiness was going on? Who were these Order of Silence rebels? Why were they holding all of New Auckland as their hostages? What could they possibly want?

And most important of all, what were we going to do about it?

I’d almost booted up my jetpack and taken off before I remembered Gafra was with me. She mumbled something through the radio, along the lines of “Welp… dang.” There wasn’t time for polysyllabic discussion. Together we pushed off from the worn stone and made vapour trails. It was a short flight; within a minute we were firing retrograde to avoid flattening ourselves against the ‘Chayon & Alika Flight Tech’ sign. By good fortune, the Alika in question was just leaving the shop, so she received a fine spray from our exhaust.

“Just what I needed!” Mother shook the moisture off her blazer with the look of a meerkat that jumped in the wrong puddle. It turned to wustration as she looked up at our faces. “What’s wrong, dears? Has somebody died?” I took it Gafra and I had gained the ghost-sighted aspect.

“It’s entirely possible. We got a message from New Auckland. They’ve gone into Lockdown mode!”

“Whoever stole those coilguns has got them jacked up. Some crowd called the Order of Shadows, or-“

“Silence,” I cut in. “Bikral said they were called the Order of Silence. Apart from that and the fact they’re armed, he didn’t say anything about them.”

“Oh, we’re in a right mess now,” Mother muttered. “You said Bikral sent the message? I better get your Father, then please, tell us everything.”

While she fetched Father, I had a look around and saw other folks in flight suits zooming around, spreading the tidings. It was a relieving thing to see, but also concerning. There was relief because Gafra and I hadn’t been the only ones to hear the transmission. It was real. The concern was for the same reason: This was real. Our enemies, the orcas, had ensnared the seals floating on New Auckland. Again I asked myself, what could we possibly do?

Chiara accompanied my parents into the open. This was one of her better days, as evidenced by the warm glow of her skin and the way she practically skipped out to greet us. She hadn’t thrown up once that week. I had a bad feeling I was about to break the streak, but I recounted anyway. With Gafra chipping in at times, I did my best to describe what we’d heard, down to the details of the background gasp.

Nobody spoke at first. Mother and Chiara just stared, their eyes flicking between myself and Gafra. Perhaps they were waiting for us to burst into laughter and say it was some cruel joke. Father’s reaction was quite different. Balancing on his stick, he looked at the ground and stroked his beard, the way he does when he’s trying to solve a hairy calculus problem.

He was the first to speak up. “This isn’t entirely surprising,” he said.

Gafra replied, “What do you mean? It’s bloody shocking!”

“Please, let’s not fall to profanity. Shocking and surprising are different things, sister. This is deeply disturbing, to be sure! But I’m not surprised.” His mouth almost cracked into a smirk upon seeing our four mouths gaping at him. “We had some nasty weapons and they were stolen. Why steal weapons if you don’t plan to use them? The question is… why New Auckland?”

“I would have thought the important question was, how do we help them?” I’d been waiting for a chance to verbalise that one.

“Help them? Bikral has made it quite clear we can’t help them. Not unless the Lockdown state is lifted, but even then, there’s the threat of being shot out of the sky.” His expression engloomed. “We should have been more careful with those blasted guns. I should have scrapped the engineers’ vote and ordered them melted down!”

“It wasn’t your fault, sweetheart,” said Mother. “There’s no point blaming yourself.”

“Nevertheless, I must go to the Guild again. No doubt there will be harsh words this time. Wish me luck!” With that, he was away. At his usual glacial pace, he climbed the path to the peak of New Honolulu.

Mother retreated inside without a word. That left Gafra, Chiara and I huddled quietly in the doorway. We couldn’t think of anything to say, so we just stood there, scratching our heads and giving each other uncomfortable looks. Cries of surprise – or perhaps shock – were periodically heard in the distance. Eventually, my attention was drawn to Gafra’s hand, which she held clenched in a fist. Her knuckles were turning crimson before my eyes.

“Gafra, you’re bleeding!”

“Huh? Oh, right.” She uncurled her fingers, revealing the sharp pyrolite crystals she’d collected. Several of them were cutting into her palm. “Better go home and check in with my parents. Then wash this up before it starts to sting. Well… take care, you two!” She rocketed away, taking care not to blast us with the vapour from her jetpack.

When Gafra was out of sight, Chiara finally piped up. “Hey… you said there was a Lockdown in progress. What normally happens in a Lockdown?”

A sensible enough question. For some reason, I always felt great relief when Chiara delivered one of those. “Usually it’s just like a quarantine state. If something damaging is found on one of the mountains, it’s put into Lockdown and folks aren’t allowed to fly to or out of the place. For example, they once discovered some kind of virus on New Bristol, and travel there was banned until the virus was wiped out. It only affected cornplants, but you know… we need to eat.”

“That’s about what I thought. Seems like everything’s going to hell at the moment.”

“I’m afraid so. Definitely isn’t like this all the time! You know… you’re taking it pretty well, I must say.”

“Were you expecting me to vomit again?”

“Erm…”

Chiara slowly rubbed her face in her hands, so I couldn’t see her eyes. She mumbled, “You must think I’m weak.”

My first instinct said “Yes.” Before I spoke on instinct, however, my brain butted in. It reminded me that this girl was much stronger than she appeared – she’d grown up on Earth, after all! She had braved the frozen planet for years, watched her family die, then survived being pulled into the Void. I remembered what Father had said, that her illness meant she lived in some kind of self-sustaining nightmare. By all accounts, Chiara was a tough lady.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to articulate any of this. She dematerialised before I could say anything, drifting into the darkness downstairs. I called out, but she gave no response. Immediately I wanted to kick myself. How did Father expect me to keep Chiara comfortable if I kept insulting her like this?

Somebody on the gravel behind me exclaimed, “Why so many flying about like scared birds? You’d think the world was coming to an end…”

***

Day Two of the Lockdown period. We didn’t get any further broadcasts from Bikral, or from anybody else. No news is good news, I’m told, but the folks manning the radio tower weren’t content. They had been trying to get in touch with New Rakiura and various other places, with no success. More than once, I heard a passing technician say something like, “That station is a hundred years old, it’s about time we had an upgrade!”

I suspected that was one of Father’s priorities, but never found the chance to ask him about it. Indeed, none of the engineers were sighted that day. They were all tucked away in their subterranean workshop, hopefully figuring out what to do about the Order of Silence, or looking for short-term solutions to the copper shortage. Those clever men were the closest we had to a council of war, but as usual in the Void, they had little more to work with than their own brains.

Despite the evident tension, folks still passed through our shop, so my priority remained serving them. Rutalis, Duval and plenty of other regulars flowed in and out the door. We all did our best to “act natural,” as they say in old books, but conversations were strained. We were still seals floating on thin ice.

Around lunch time there came a pleasant surprise. Once I entered the storeroom, expecting to see Father swooning over newly acquired polishables. Instead, I found Mother and Chiara. The latter had sheets of fabric draped over her body, the former measuring her limbs with a crude metre tape.

“Ah… you’re getting your own flight suit?” I asked.

“About time, don’t you think? Wow, this stuff is light!” Chiara tried to move one of her arms, but Mother held it down and gave a stern tug on the tape.

“Please don’t dear, this is the delicate part.” I knew what Mother meant. The top half of the suit had to be precisely measured up and sewn together, otherwise the fins that attached to it wouldn’t align properly. In other words, if here was a mistake now, Chiara wouldn’t be able to balance in mid-air.

“Hey,” I said, “I’m sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t have-“

“It’s okay, Kopra. Really.” Another sheet of fabric was pressed against her shoulder – the precursor to a wing-like scapular stabiliser. “We figured it’s a good time for me to learn how to fly. How exactly do you do that?”

“I could teach you!”

“Would you? Really?”

“It would be a pleasure,” I said, almost bowing to her. I’d taught kids to use jetpacks before – it was best done with a makeshift obstacle course and a lot of patience. How hard could teaching an adult be?

She beamed back at me. Chiara, excited about the prospect of flying. These were strange times indeed. Meanwhile, Mother was going around her shoulders, chest and back, sticking all the sheets together with pins. Finally she said, “Okay, that will do. Can I ask how old you are, dear?”

“Twenty-eight years,” Chiara replied. I was gobsmacked – she was older than me! Never would have guessed.

“So you’re not likely to have a growth spurt any time soon? Great. I’ll just get this off now, then we’ll move onto your legs.” With that, Mother lifted the whole assembly over her head, carefully placing it on a bench adorned with loose circuit components. “Before I forget, is there a particular colour you’d like for the highlights? Kopra has yellow ones, but you could have silver, if you like, or blue…”

“Blue will be fine, thanks.” Free for a moment, Chiara took the opportunity to stretch her arms out and give her hands a shake. Then she returned her attention to me. “I think I hear customers.”

“Righto, thank you! I’ll just grab this,” the this in question being a full hydrogen canister. “See you later!”

“If anybody offers copper, haggle. We need it,” Mother said nonchalantly. With that, I got back to business. For just a moment, I forgot all about the crisis holding down New Auckland. Seeing Chiara happy about something tended to have that effect.

Unfortunately, the next irate customer was quick to bring me back to ground, and a good deal of brooding filled the rest of the day.

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