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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Okay dears, are you both ready? Got your hymn sheet, Kopra?”

“Right here!” I joined Father and Mother in the main chamber. We were about to head off to church, so Father had put on his best faded shirt and Mother’s shoes had a blinding sparkle. It was the same deal every weekend, that is to say, every sixth day. Along with everybody else on New Honolulu, we would attend a ceremony at the Church of the Infinite Cloud. Everybody except…

“Hang on, folks. Aren’t we forgetting something?” I’d only just become awake enough to remember Chiara.

“Oh… she doesn’t need to come this time,” Mother replied. “The Lord knows she needs to rest. Void life takes a long time to get used to if you weren’t born here, believe me!”

All I could do was shrug. I always struggled to imagine any other life. Unlike my parents, I’d never breathed the frigid air of Earth. As they climbed up through the trapdoor, I thought about all the diagrams I’d seen in books. They showed me that Earth was more of a snowball than a planet, with an entire hemisphere buried under the ice. But no book could tell me what it was actually like to live there.

Then I remembered something Chiara had said. A way to cheer her up. “I’ll be with you in a moment… is Chiara awake?”

“She was when I last looked. Try not to be late!” Father’s feet disappeared into the space above.

Upon reaching the sleeping chamber, I saw that Chiara was indeed awake, lying in her hammock and staring at the ceiling. A metal bucket still lay within reach; she had only needed it once the previous night. When I entered her field of vision, she raised one of her hands in an absent-minded wave.

I asked, “How are you feeling today?”

“Oh… just the usual. I don’t really want to got church, if that’s what you’re about to ask. Hope that’s okay.”

“Yeah, fine! The vicar won’t complain.” I was being hopeful; Vicar Duval was apparently very anxious to baptise the new girl. “I have to get going, but first there’s something I wanted to show you. You said you were a writer?”

“Yes. Don’t feel like writing now though.”

“Not a problem! I just thought you might like these.” On the far side of the room were two wooden panels, sticking subtly out of the wall. Taking care not to kick Chiara’s bucket over, I walked past her and slid the panels apart. There was a deep niche carved into the earth, containing the items I sought.

When I took one of them over to Chiara, she gasped. “Is that… a book? With pages?”

“It sure is!”

She took the book and held it up to her face, with her mouth gaping like she was going to eat the thing. After turning it around in her hands, she looked back to me and said, “I’ve never seen a book this old before! Don’t you have any digital ones here?”

“We used to, but Father needed the electronic bits for our flight suits. So paper books are all we have. There are some classics in here, like Guide to the Galaxy, Doofus and Ralts, François the Ferocious Catsnake… anyway, enjoy!”

“Thank you so much!” It might have just been the dim lighting, but it looked like she had tears in her eyes. Yet she smiled, a radiant smile that sliced through the gloom like a knife through a boiled whiskerbean. “Have fun at church. How long will you be away?”

“Do you see that thing?” I pointed to the shiny brass chronometer in the corner. “Each black tick is a Void hour. We’ll be back in about two hours, so that should give you enough time to read at least the first chapter of Doofus and Ralts! Also, help yourself to some vitamin biscuits, they’re on the kitchen bench.”

“Great. See you later!” It was almost unsettling seeing her so lit up. As I crawled upstairs and out of the shop, I wondered if she’d smiled like that on Earth. Probably not, I reasoned. I’m told that extreme cold makes it hard to operate one’s happy muscles.

My parents were waiting for me on the gravel, so we hopped down the hill together. This was a special day. I took a moment, as I always do, to look at the sky around us. Instead of the usual light azure, it was much darker in colour, almost purple. We were emerging from the hours of natural night. Every six days, the light of the Void just disappeared. The day after, we would all congregate to thank God for its return. It involved a sermon, a sing-along and the undisputed highlight, breakfast!

Our walk to the Church of the Infinite Cloud took no more than three minutes. When we arrived, we were greeted by the seismic sound from that massive bell. It echoed off the bare peak of the mountain, ringing out to the heavens. Luckily it stopped just before any headaches were induced.

The building itself was, in a word, splendificent. Like all churches in the Void, it was constructed entirely out of local rock and painted crystalline white. Its octagonal spire glowed in contrast to the green hills around it and the black, triangular crown of basalt towering above everything. Twin entrance halls stuck out at right angles, defined by the compass directions on New Honolulu. We walked in through the north door; the other door faced west.

We were slightly later than usual, so upon entering the church we had to take the last unoccupied pew. Several people turned and waved to us, Gafra among them. No words were exchanged: talking wasn’t forbidden, but it was discouraged because of the almighty echoes you would produce. I just waved back and sat down between Father and Mother. As I mentioned earlier, even the pews were made of stone, but that didn’t bother any of us. Stone was sacred to the human posterior.

The vicar himself materialised just a moment later. As always, he appeared without warning from behind a wide, bare wall to approach his wooden lectern. All he wore was a blue robe, the same colour as the normal daytime sky. His setup was extremely plain and simple to the untrained eye. To the trained eye, or rather the patient one, it would be revealed that the bare wall was a screen and the lectern had a projector inside. It was also worth noting the electronic tablet atop the lectern, which was our only remaining digital copy of The Bible.

“Good morning,” said Duval. His voice was deliberately slow and soothing. It required some effort to maintain. In normal conversation, he tended to speak so fast he mashed even his sentences together. “Before we begin today’s sermon, I must remind you all that it is strictly forbidden to attempt to fly through our beloved spire.”

Gossip spread like warm butter on the mountain. I knew that all of the hundred or so people gathered there would be up to date with Jovumi’s exploits. My thoughts drifted to her for a moment. She wouldn’t be allowed to fly for ten weeks. For kids like us, being grounded for so long was an unbearable thought, about as bad as the idea of missing church. I’d been out of action for just one week and found it miserable. Jovumi must have been kicking herself that day.

Duval’s voice resonated through the church again, which had the effect of anchoring me in the present. “I trust nobody else will be… daring enough to follow young Jovumi’s example.” My impression was that he’d been about to say ‘stupid’ instead of ‘daring.’ “Fortunately, our sister is in good health and our prayers shall help her on the way to a satisfactory recovery. To start off today’s ceremony, let us send our praise to the Lord, not only for providing the light that sustains us, but for protecting those of noble spirit, even if their actions are questionable.” Yes, the effort to suppress less kind words was visible in the veins on his face.

Together, we said a brief prayer, then Duval began his weekly sermon. Sometimes he read passages directly from one of the 72 books of The Bible, but other times he spoke freely. This was one of those other times. It was less like a speech and more like he was presenting some kind of documentary. His projector cast photographs of the Void onto the stone screen and he used them to illustrate aspects of our life. There was always a common theme: discovery. We had stumbled across this strange hole in space and, by God’s bidding, it was our duty to explore it.

“We all know that the clouds appear both above and below us, yet they are the same clouds.” He was showing us a rare photo taken from aboard a hydrogen harvester. “Thanks to the engineer’s analysis, we also know what they are made of. The gas is ordinary hydrogen, but that is itself extraordinary! You see, on Earth it is a highly inflammable gas, prone to reacting violently with oxygen to create water.”

Duval pointed to a bright flash at the top of the photo. I suppose it must have looked like the Sun as seen from Earth. “And yet,” he continued, “the hydrogen here is host to lightning strikes. There are untold quantities of static electricity, yet the clouds do not combust. They do not burn. Extraordinary! It is possible we will find out why this is the case very soon. Perhaps tomorrow, Chayon or one of his men will discover the secret of the infinite cloud.” Although he mentioned Father by name, he didn’t look over or gesture to us. We earned just a wink from Gafra.

“Or perhaps it is not for us to know,” said Duval. “After all, God may not want us to know everything about the universe. There shall always be mysteries within His grand design! That being said, there is much to know about why the clouds are red. On this next image…”

The next image was a familiar diagram of a hydrogen molecule: two red balls within an egg-shaped envelope called the Rudi wavefunction. This was all familiar science to me, but I listened regardless. If you didn’t pay attention to Vicar Duval, it felt like sinning. It wasn’t until after the sermon, which he concluded by citing the non-combustible clouds as an example of God’s foresight, that my thoughts drifted to my stomach. Luckily, breakfast came just a couple of joyful hymns later.

Some young volunteers from the front row marched off to fetch the food, while the rest of us relocated to the two entrance halls. There we could mingle and talk freely. Gafra was waiting for me by the west door. Her long, red hair blazed in contrast to the profound blueness outside. It was like a hydrogen cloud had settled on her head.

“Hey, falcon! How’s it going?”

“Just the usual,” I replied. “Lovely day, nothing’s exploded yet. How about you?”

“I’m great! Hungry, though. They’re taking their time bringing the toast out here…” Gafra raised herself up on her toes to peek around my head. Her heel springs made a distinctive clink when they returned to the floor. “Would you like to come for a jump after this? If you’re not busy, I mean.”

“Why would I be busy? It’s the weekend, the shop’s closed!”

“I meant with Chiara.”

“Oh, right. Well…” I wasn’t sure how to respond. Had it become my full-time duty to look after the girl? Would we have to stay in the same shelter indefinitely? That was something I hadn’t considered. Most Earthlings were capable of supporting themselves and bringing up families in the Void. But with Chiara, I couldn’t picture it. What if she was incapable of living without our support?

A tray laden with toast appeared between Gafra and I. We thanked the boy holding it and grabbed a few bits each. Each piece of toast was circular, about ten centimetres in diameter and stuffed with multi-coloured grains. Gafra herself had contributed some of the wheat for the bread. Jovumi’s job, when she wasn’t in the infirmary, was to bust grains open and enrich their protein content. Maybe that would be Chiara’s job in the future – a toastbuster.

“I really think Father’s more well-equipped than me to take care of her,” I said to Gafra. “Besides, he won’t be working today either. So I’d be keen to come for a jump with you!”

A mouthful of toast replied, “Awesome!” She swallowed, looked behind me and shouted, “Hey, Rutalis! You keen for a jump with Kopra and me?”

“Coon’ me in, lass!” Despite his grievous injuries in the past, Rutalis would still accompany us on dives into the bottomless wormhole. He was standing there with a toast kebab for a left hand, chatting away with Duval and some other old folks. Very few things could ever darken his mood. Once again, I thought of Chiara. She’d probably freak out if she saw how Rutalis had been mutilated by his crash.

Gafra mumbled something about going to find her parents, then gave me a pat on the back and walked off. It sounded like she’d stuffed a whole loaf in her mouth. That left me alone in the doorway, munching quietly and thinking pleasant thoughts about our next jump. After singing another hymn of gratitude together, we’d be free to fall. Standard weekend, really.

What wasn’t standard was what happened next. I heard the clacking of Father’s walking stick on the floor as he approached. By the time I’d picked him out from all the others in the hall, I saw that he had been stopped by somebody. That somebody was a distressed-looking man who I knew to be one of the other engineers. He too carried a walking stick and his back was hunched like a balloon.

I edged closer so I could hear the conversation. People on all sides were listening in, which didn’t seem to annoy either engineer. Indeed, they spoke without restraint, but also with little optimism.

“…simply distressing, to say the least,” was the first I caught from the hunchbacked man. “We simply need new copper. What is holding up the miners? Why has Bikral slowed down production?”

“I’m sure there is a perfectly good reason for it,” Father replied, “but I’m also well aware of the shortage. Our projects can’t continue without more copper for the wiring.”

“Then perhaps it is time to consider alternatives.”

“The only alternatives we have would be depleted as soon as we even looked at them! They aren’t sustainable. New Rakiura is known to host a body of platinum ore, but we couldn’t possibly mine it without endangering the forest. As for-“

The other engineer cut him off. “I did not mean alternatives to copper, Chayon, I meant alternative sources of copper. You know what I’m talking about.”

I, for one, had no idea what he meant. Fresh copper only came from the ground of New Auckland, didn’t it? There was only one source. However, Father had a very pronounced reaction. He scowled at his colleague and even backed away a step. His beard appeared to curl as if recoiling in fear. For a very tense moment he stood like that. Then he looked around at the others gathered in the church, all of whom were listening attentively. They waited for their unofficial leader to respond.

To the other man he said, “That is not something to bring up in public. I suggest you call a meeting of the other engineers this afternoon. Together, you must discuss how we can bypass this shortage.”

“And where will you be, if not in our company?”

“I’ll fly to New Auckland and speak with Bikral. Then I can tell all of you exactly what’s going on!” Father regarded the folks around him again. His dark expression disappeared, to be replaced by the usual welcoming look.

“You cannot go, Chayon. You’re the leader of the Guild, we need you at the meeting. This is now a crisis. What happens when a computer chip needs to be repaired, or a fuel cell, or the prehistoric circuitry in the radio tower? We can’t do it! Our functionality is compromised!” His walking stick was tracing figure-eights in the air.

Instead of waving his stick back, as a lesser man might be inclined to do, Father just looked upon the man patiently, thinking to himself. Then he looked right at me. “In that case… Kopra, would you be interested in a trip to the mine?”

“As long as I don’t have to leave right now,” I replied. I had plans, after all.

“No, I wouldn’t force that on you! Just when you’re ready. Tomorrow, perhaps.” Father beamed at me. The other engineer had obviously decided their conversation was over, so he retreated from the hall, probably to grumble to somebody else. More toast and various fruits were passed around by the church boys. As they permeated through the crowd, folks stopped paying attention to Father and resumed their normal chattering.

I’d been given jobs like this before, flying to other mountains on Father’s behalf. This time it was more serious. I’d never met Bikral before, but I knew what he was in charge of. He operated the Void’s only copper mine, which provided the raw material for all our electronics. If we didn’t get to the bottom of this shortage, the consequences would be many and varied. Mostly they’d be bad.

That could wait until later, though. My mind was still on the jump, so by the time church was over and I’d suited up, I had basically forgotten about anything else. Gafra and Rutalis were waiting for me in some flax bushes on New Honolulu’s northern edge. This was a particularly fun place to jump from. The rocks beneath us had been eroded long ago, creating a smooth dish in the side of the mountain. It was like somebody had taken a colossal bite out of the basalt.

From the start, we communicated only through our headsets. “You guys ready to jam?” Gafra asked.

“You bet,” I replied. My mind briefly flicked back to when the Thing happened and I crash-landed. Father was still working on some new system to replace the faulty ignition coils. Until then, I was using an older model of jetpack, one that some people might call “rusty.” But I trusted it. Nothing could break my confidence.

Rutalis said, “Aye lass,” which was how people from his corner of Earth actually spoke. Sometimes I wondered if his ancestors were the same pirates depicted in history books.

Anyway, there were only the briefest of pre-flight checks to carry out, then we took off. As we accelerated down, we passed by the erosional dish I mentioned. It really was dish-shaped from the side. To start off, we could see individual hexagons on its surface, each one showing a cross-section through a natural column of rock. As we fell faster, the hexagons blurred together into a dark grey curtain, then we passed the bottom level of the mountain and found ourselves in empty air.

Pirate talk came over the radio. “So Kopra, how’s yer Earthlin’ pal doin’?” I shouldn’t have been surprised that everybody wanted to know about Chiara.

“She’s, um… I’ll put it this way. She needs more time than most folks to acclimatise.” In truth, I still didn’t understood what Chiara’s problem was. Never had I heard of anxiety treated as a medical illness. How bad could it get?

Luckily, Gafra was there to spell it out. “She’s been pretty miserable most of the time. Barfs a lot. Gets the shakes very easily. You’ll want to go easy on her, Rutalis.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but I was struck by a sudden image of Rutalis’ hook hand turning the page in a book Chiara was reading.

We soon changed the subject and kept talking via radio as we plunged toward the hydrogen clouds. They were mysterious, as Duval had said, but his photos had failed to capture their true beauty. Photographs were static, unless you had a computer good enough to stitch them into a movie. They couldn’t show the magnificent swirls, vortices and changing contours we were zooming into. The best they could do was catch sight of a lightning flash, of which we spotted none on this jump.

There’s a reason they call it the Church of the Infinite Cloud. Actually, two reasons. The first was that, as far as Voidese folks knew, the clouds stretched on horizontally forever. However, the more important reason was the fact that you can’t escape the Void. It is bottomless. We zipped right through the red and reappeared in the space far above New Honolulu. No matter how many times you jumped and how long you spent falling, you would always end up where you started. So the hydrogen clouds were infinite in terms of time as well. That was the underlying theme of our religion: eternity.

Fortunately, we weren’t scheduled to fall for eternity. That would get tiring after a while. Together we slowed from terminal velocity, landed in Gafra’s farm and switched off our flight computers. It had been a good run. There’s nothing like being blasted by fresh weekend air, without having to worry about falling Earthlings.

“I’ll be seein’ ye ‘round, lass!” Rutalis shook hands with Gafra, then turned to me. “An’ Kopra, good luck in New Ockland. Wit’ Bikral, I mean. I ‘ear ‘e ain’t the easiest chap to get ‘long wit’.” I interpreted that as meaning I’d be negotiating with some kind of dragon in a suit. We’d had worse customers in the shop before.

“Thank you,” I said back. “Have a great afternoon and all!”

The three of us waved goodbye to each other, then sauntered off to our respective shelters. I was feeling pretty good at that point. An excuse to fly to New Auckland wasn’t to be scoffed at, even if it was a business trip requiring six fuel stops. Apart from that one engineer, everybody in the neighbourhood was in high spirits. Even Chiara wasn’t doing too badly. When I got home, it was to find her fast asleep with François the Ferocious Catsnake balanced on her chest. Yep, I thought to myself, everything was going to be okay.

Then I woke her up by banging my jetpack on the chronometer. Void problems, eh?

 

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