By THOMAS STEVENSON
“COURSE UPDATED. MAINTAIN THIRTY METRES PER SECOND HORIZONTAL VELOCITY.”
I silently thanked the computer as those blue letters disappeared from view. Thirty metres per second is just over a hundred kilometres per hour, the kind of speed where opening your mouth gets uncomfortable. Behind me, the floating forest of New Rakiura zoomed into the distance. If I’d looked back, I would have seen a speckled green expanse punctuated by the icy blue of the luminous breloom trees. It was a great place for a walk, but on this trip I had no time for sightseeing.
Through my goggles, I could see my destination, the last pit stop of the trip. I’d already visited four smaller mountains, all just to refill my gas tanks. Such was travel in our world. Individual mountains were separated by at least several kilometres, and our jetpacks could only get us so far.
This last outpost was so small it didn’t have a formal name. There was only enough room for a fuel station and places for people and two hydrogen harvesters to land. We just referred to it as The Doorstep, for looming above it was the jagged form of New Auckland.
The largest mountain in the known Void, New Auckland was truly spectacular to see from the side. From my angle, I could see massive columns of pale rock hanging down like fingers, each tens of metres in diameter. Huge clusters of iridescent minerals appeared to reach out from serpentine fissures. It was hard to ignore this mass filling the sky, but I had to tear my eyes away in order to land on its Doorstep.
“Thanks, computer.” I’d landed on a circular patch of grass next to the fuel station. No matter which boulder you found yourself scuttling on, you could always find grass-bearing soil on it. There were no animals adapted to feeding on it, but we maintained it for the simple reason that it was much softer than immovable basalt. From above, this patch resembled a target for aerial visitors.
Inside the station, I found only one person, a boy no more than twelve years old. He sat cross-legged on the floor, facing away from me. Around him was a ring of empty gas tanks that he was busy loading onto a wheeled trolley. Their casings were colour-coded – green bottles for hydrogen, orange for oxygen. They made loud clinking noises as they were set down, so the boy didn’t hear my entrance. It took much polite throat-clearing to steal his attention.
“Ah, sorry sir, didn’t hear you!” Quick as a hiccup, he leapt to his feet and came to my aid. Unlike in my parents’ shop, there was no counter to trade upon. In fact, there wasn’t much at all in the room, save the pipes snaking along the walls, leading to two labelled gas taps.
I crouched down to speak to the boy, as I was almost twice his height. Then I realised I was still wearing my flying headset, which muffled ordinary speech somewhat. After taking it off, I said, “It’s not a problem. Are your parents around?”
“No sir, parents are away. I’m the manager today! Can I help you?”
That was hardly surprising; kids in the Void were often expected to be independent from a young age. I asked, “Yes, could you please give me one of each?” I pointed to the taps on the wall.
“Yes sir, right away!” He skipped over to where the full tanks were kept, stacked up like logs. While he lifted two of them up, I reached around to my jetpack and detached the empty bottles on my back. More for Junior to add to his workload.
“Where have you come from, sir?”
“New Honolulu,” I replied.
“Ah, cool! We’ve had lots of people going to New Honolulu lately. I saw many miners in the last few weeks.” He passed me the tanks of fresh gas.
“Well I’m going to talk to their boss about the copper shortage. I guess I’ll see you on the way back.” Through my goggles, I could see the boy’s eyes had inflated. His expression was suddenly of alarm, perhaps even fear. “Is something wrong?”
“You’re going to Mr. Bikral?”
“Yeah. Do you know him?”
“Father says he is a greedy man. You should be careful of greedy men.”
“I will be careful.” Folks hadn’t been saying many good things about Bikral. Was he really that scary? “Thank you for the fuel. See you later, okay?”
“Good luck, sir! Bye!” An innocent grin appeared on his face and he waved me out of the station. I wondered whether he was secretly praying for my safe return.
A minute later, I was back in the air and approaching terminal velocity. The Doorstep was already a speck lost in the heights above. Although New Auckland was well within sight, it was too far away to fly to directly. Going in a straight line between the two mountains, you’d run out of fuel before you got halfway. Therefore I had to take a jump, falling and gliding all the way through the Void in order to reach my final destination.
That’s why it was half an hour before I finally landed in the mining district, looking like a bird of prey with all my fins unfurled. From up here, my view of New Auckland was very different. I found myself on a ridge at its western edge, near a gigantic stepped pit. At the bottom of the pit was a shallow lake, stained royal blue by copper compounds. From it came the sounds of all kinds of machinery whirring, buzzing and boring into the rock.
Beyond was a wide crescent of farmland that stretched away for kilometres. In the distance, I could make out shops, homes and a church with a magnificent, pentagonal spire. There was no peak of basalt, but the ground was stained cayenne brown with the soil made when that rock weathers. My particular interest was a circle of buildings overlooking the mine. One of them was Bikral’s base of operations.
By now, you’re probably asking why I had to come all this way. After all, we had a radio tower on New Honolulu, and a similar tower was located on the other side of New Auckland. However, transmissions between mountains were only allowed in an emergency. They weren’t very reliable anyway, since the mountains actually moved over time and occasionally sank through the hydrogen clouds, which produced biblical levels of interference. No, it was much better for Bikral and I to have our chat face-to-face.
The man himself was introduced to me as the “Director of Extraction.” I took that to mean he bossed around the folks driving the digging machines. We were in a sort of above-ground common room, accompanied by three miners enjoying their lunch. Half the ceiling was open to the sky and there were more windows than walls, so we had plenty of light. Bikral stood before a very large, sloped window offering a view of the copper mine. Just outside, the rusting arm of a crane lurched past.
“Hello traveller! I take it Chayon sent you?” Bikral asked. As he spoke, he turned slowly toward me, keeping his hands clasped behind his back.
“That’s right. I’m his son, Kopra.” My words came out somewhat quieter than usual. Perhaps I was more afraid of this man than I realised. He looked ordinary enough, no more lean or rugged than any other Voidese man. Nevertheless, my view of him was tainted by that warning from the boy on The Doorstep.
Bikral stepped toward me, his hands still behind his back. “Good to meet you, Kopra. I’ve been very anxious to speak with you. I imagine concerns are growing at home?” He both walked and talked at a deliberately slow pace. Although he spoke loudly, attracting the attention of the relaxing miners, his manner wasn’t strictly authoritative. It was like he was an actor in some kind of stage-based theatre, addressing an audience in which I was the special guest. Perhaps he viewed his own life as a film, writing the script as he went along.
I realised I’d only answered his question with silence. Bikral continued to close in as I replied, “Yes. Folks on New Honolulu are starting to get edgy. They’re putting some pressure on Father and the rest of the engineers, you know. So if you need our help to, you know, get things back on track…“
“You seem rather tense. Won’t you take a seat?” He gestured to an empty chair made of bamboo. However, the details of the chair weren’t what interested me. I could see why Bikral normally kept his hands out of sight. The one I could see was missing two fingers and had a horrible, fork-shaped scar across the palm. It didn’t look like an ordinary cheese grater accident. I tried not to imagine what his other hand looked like.
“Um… thank you.” I hastily sat down and forced my gaze elsewhere.
There was an identical chair opposite me and Bikral lowered himself into it. With a smile, he just said, “Rock crusher.”
“That’s what happened to my hands! I got them caught in a rock crusher when I was starting out here. They aren’t pretty to look at, I know, but we have a saying in this business. You are born a boy, then scars make the man.”
“I’m sorry, it was rude of me to stare.”
“Think nothing of it, Kopra!” He slapped his knees with his hands, which meant I could see the other one. It was in no better shape. “Tell me, how much do you know about copper mining?”
I had to pause for a moment. To be honest, I tended to phase out every time Father tried explaining the intricacies of mining. Flying was more my area of expertise. Still, there were a few factoids I could remember.
“You extract an ore mineral called covellite,” said I. “It’s the same mineral that’s found in blue clusters inside New Auckland. Once it’s out of the ground, you feed it through rock crushers, then an ultrabaric furnace to isolate the copper metal inside. That’s… the overall process, right?” Despite my nerves, I always liked a chance to show off my jargon. By the way, ‘ultrabaric’ means ‘very high pressure.’
“Yes, that’s a great outline of what we do. But each step has its own unique complications. Take a look out there,” waving to the sloped window, “and you can truly appreciate the scale of our operation. It’s larger than some mines on Earth, but we have to keep it running using only the natural materials available in the Void!”
“It really is incredible,” I replied. My head turned briefly to the window; that crane arm swung past again like it was eavesdropping on us.
“All these machines we run were designed by your Guild of Engineers. They are extraordinary pieces of design – but they will break down. Every system moves toward collapse. It’s a tough job to make sure our diggers, crushers and everything else can keep working at maximum efficiency. We also need to be careful with how we use electricity. On top of that, making sure our furnace doesn’t explode.”
“Is that… something it’s prone to?” For some reason, asking this question steered my mind to Chiara. She was meant to be having her own flight suit fitted while I was away. Hopefully she could keep her lunch in long enough to have her measurements taken.
“I’ll put it this way,” said Bikral. “Have you ever tried making a battery out of a whiskerbean? You can easily get one Volt out of it and it lasts for weeks. But if you try to draw one and a half Volts out, it bursts.” This principle was very familiar to me. It was the reason Father did all the electronics work at home. “The ultrabaric furnace has a similar temperament. It doesn’t tolerate being pushed very hard.”
“Is that why your output has decreased?”
“‘Decreased’ is an understatement. I’m afraid our copper production has plummeted in the last few weeks. It’s not only because of the furnace. As I said, how we distribute and use electricity is also a major part of the process. To do that, we need transformers. Unfortunately, when the furnace broke down it caused a massive electrical surge and overloaded two of our transformers! As a result, the mine has been running on half its normal power.”
Once again, he gestured to the window. His sleeve slipped down a bit, so I could see the scar continued down his forearm. “We are still digging and drilling, as you can see. However, only half the covellite we could be extracting is coming out of the pit. It’s just sitting there, piling up, waiting for all the machines to be repaired. Until that happens, I’m sorry, but we can’t provide you with any more copper metal.”
“So you need the engineers’ help.”
“I’m afraid so. When you go back home, please tell Chayon I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“I don’t personally see it as an inconvenience. That’s how we live in the Void, right? Folks help each other out.”
“Very true, Kopra. Very true.” Bikral nodded slowly, stroking his chin with a relatively normal finger. Suddenly his tone changed and he became more animated. “Cheer up, it’s not the end of the world! Working together, we can get through this.”
I forced my facial muscles to make what I imagined to be a smile. In truth, Bikral wasn’t very scary to talk to. His overall tone was a bit unusual, to be sure. The other miners had left the room, yet he still spoke as if to an audience. There was a grisly story in his hands, but then, my friend Rutalis had an even grislier one. Why was I so nervous?
I asked him, “What else needs to be done?”
“Honestly, not much. Repairs to the transformers and the ultrabaric furnace are the only urgent priority. If you can spare the parts, some updates to our computers would be very helpful, they seem to have developed a software virus.”
“Is it a serious virus?”
“So far its only effect has been to make our short-range radio play some awful tune from last millennium. I suspect hacking children are at fault, but no matter. An upgrade to the computers has been on our wishlist for… some time.” That was something of a passive-aggressive thing to say, but I took it as a casual observation. Everybody needed a new computer at some point.
That was when another miner entered the common room, a woman wearing five shades of rock dust. Despite the soot covering her face, I recognised her straight away. It was the same woman I’d served in the shop a few days before, she who had presented me with a wrecked pair of goggles. My eyes were drawn to her bare feet, which stuck out like marble from under the dark mud solidifying on her trousers. Bikral had to turn around to see who had entered. When he saw the woman, he snorted.
“Good to see you left your boots outside this time, Crita. How are things out there?”
Crita wiped her mouth on her exposed forearm – the sleeve sparkled with bluish covellite particles. “Bikral, I was hoping you could spare a few minutes to talk with us all. Jura and the others are restless. They want action now.”
“You all know the strategy, we must stick with it until the furnace and the transformers are repaired.”
“I meant action with the Suppressors. Cou-“
“Excuse me, Crita. We are not supposed to discuss those openly.” He jerked his head in my direction. Until then his tone had been gentle, but there was a sudden flare of vitriol. For a moment, Crita stared at me, blinking. Finally she recognised my face.
“Oh,” said she.
“Hello there. How’re the new goggles working out?”
“They are… very functional. Thank you.” She looked back to Bikral. “I’m very sorry to disturb you, I should-“
“I strongly suggest you get back to work and tell Jura to keep his yapper shut. We have a plan of action and it will be adhered to. Understand?” Bikral had become a different person. He pointed at Crita furiously and scowled as if he looked upon vermin. No longer did I see a regular man trying to help his people out. I saw the father nobody wanted to have, telling off his daughter for saying what he didn’t want to hear. It seemed my earlier nervousness was justified.
All the poor woman could manage was, “Understood.” She turned on her heel and made a hasty exit. Once again, Bikral and I were alone. With a loud sigh, he ran a hand up his face and through his hair. When he turned his attention back to me, I saw that his face had reddened, but he did his best to put on a smile.
“I’m sorry about that. Times are stressful… it gets to you.”
Stress was hardly a reasonable excuse for treating your employees like detritus. There was no apparent reason for it, so I decided to push him with a tough question. “May I ask what a Suppressor is?”
Bikral answered straight away. “A Suppressor is a backup system we have been working on. It’s like… a miniature copper refinery. However, it can’t do anything about the power losses.”
“What does it suppress?”
“Melting.” His smile had gone and I could no longer read his expression. You might say he was poker-faced. “It raises the melting point of the ore, so it remains solid as the copper inside liquefies and becomes pure. But I think we are done with our meeting. Thank you again for coming, Kopra.” He reached out for a handshake. “I look forward to a fruitful collaboration.”
I hesitated before taking his hand. There was still no explanation for the burst of hostility toward Crita. Nevertheless, a dire need for copper was developing, so when I shook his hand, I was thinking beyond the room we sat in. I thought of all the computer systems and other electronics that could be built. I thought of the hundreds of folks we would help, including Chiara, assuming she ever built up enough courage to fly.
Six pit stops later, I returned to New Honolulu. It was the day after church and folks were toiling away as usual. Gafra would have been away from her farms, helping with the start of the great cornplant harvest. There was a distinctive symphony of sickles and other blades in the distance. My parents’ shop was also open for business, so when I arrived there I found the regular bunch of Regulars.
Father was in the storeroom as usual, and he looked very pleased to see me. “Good afternoon! I trust you have plenty to share. Tell me, did the meeting work out? Does Bikral need anything from us?”
As best I could, I outlined what Bikral had told me. Although it burned in my mind, I chose not to speak of his behaviour toward Crita, but it felt worthwhile bringing up the ‘Suppressors.’ As I talked, Father waited patiently, one hand on his walking stick and the other stroking his silvery beard. When I finished, he nodded slowly and asked, “This backup mechanism, the Suppressor. What does it suppress, exactly?”
“The melting point of the ore rock, so it can be heated until the copper melts and, I guess, flows out.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means the man lied to you. Even with a cryoscopic circulator, that would be physically impossible. Don’t take it personally,” he said upon seeing my jaw drop. “Bikral is in a position of power. People with power always lie to protect that position. What is clear is that we must co-operate with him to resolve this shortage.”
“But lying is a sin, Father!”
“Then may the Lord have mercy on his soul.” He leaned over to look back inside the shop. “Looks like your Mother needs my help. Get out of that flight gear, it needs a wash. And please, go easy with Chiara. She had a few stomach upsets this morning.”
“I can read to her, if that would help.”
“Lovely! You’re a credit to our species, son. See you later!” With that, he shuffled off to the counter, humming in tune to the increasingly loud knocks Mother was delivering to the wall.
Once downstairs, I tore off my jetpack and dumped it in my hammock. Then I peeked inside the adjacent chamber. Chiara was fast asleep, with François the Ferocious Catsnake lying on her chest. She’d used a piece of flax leaf for a bookmark and I could see she was making rapid progress on the novel. I left her to her dreams.
My thoughts returned to my meeting with Bikral. Sure, he had power over others; a rare thing in the Void. Power alone didn’t mean much to me. Certainly, it was no excuse for deception in my mind. Something else was going on at New Auckland, something he wanted to keep from outsiders. Was there more to this copper shortage than we’d realised? The question perplexed me for much of the afternoon, until the sound of Chiara retching brought me back to the real world.
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