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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

There’s a diverse range of folks living in the Void. I guess it’s because people only arrive here by chance. The Void is a wormhole, a tear in space-time with one end pointed at the Earth. Where the other end points, nobody knows. Once you’re inside the Void, they say, you cannot get out. Not that I’m complaining; it’s amazing here.

In the town where I live, New Honolulu, you can find teenagers who speak a hundred languages mingling with scientists who were sucked off the face of Earth right before retirement. People who were millionaires there are now the equals of those who were homeless. It’s that fantastic mix that allowed the first settlers to not only survive, but build a whole new society.

However, there is one notable exception, the Guild of Engineers. Their headquarters aren’t in a building, as such, but in a natural cave that leads down into the floating mountain that supports us. Our engineers are the most prominent occupants of New Honolulu, maybe even the entire Void. Without their expertise in agriculture, mining, physics and chemistry, our life would not be possible.

They also consist entirely of old, crusty men. One of the oldest, and perhaps crustiest, is my father, Chayon. After every meeting of the Guild, I see him leading them out of the dark cave like a shepherd. His beard and walking stick really sell that impression. On this particular day, he emerged from the mountain with a grin on his face, a trail of enthusiastic engineers behind him.

The path between the Guild of Engineers and the shop owned by Chayon was straight and gravelly. On either side, the ground was hummocky and supported grass and a small variety of crops. The people working in these fields didn’t stop for much. However, when they saw the engineers approaching, they all turned and smiled, waved or even bowed. Everybody respected these men and their craft.

“Today is a good day, Kopra!” My father beamed as I greeted him outside his shop. “Do you know what’s so special about today?”

I joked, “I’m old enough to enter that cave?”

Father chuckled and said, “Sorry, you know the rules: Engies only. Besides, it’s stuffy down there! No, it’s a good day because you are coming back to work!”

It had been a week since my jetpack failed and I crash-landed in the nearest vegetable patch. Father had put that incident down to a worn-out ignition coil. It was a tiny device, smaller than my thumb, but its failure left me with a concussion, a ruined flight suit and a few days out of the shop.

“You are ready to come back, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said, “If you need my help, I will be here.”

He clapped me on the back, then we turned to our business. From the outside, it looked like a barn you’d keep farm animals in. There were no animals; only my parents and I lived there. It had wooden walls of the same colour as the crimson hydrogen clouds above and below us. Its sloping iron roof reflected the brilliant blue of the Void sky. There was no risk of it rusting: The phenomenon you call rain was extremely rare.

Below the carved sign reading ‘Chayon and Alika, Best Flight Tech in New Honolulu,’ there was a wheel-operated door. I grabbed the wheel with both hands and turned it smoothly clockwise. Then the door swung open and we entered. Waiting for us was my mother, Alika.

They were certainly the odd couple, my parents. While Father pulled off the shepherd look convincingly, Mother was sharply dressed in what Earthlings would call a suit. Their shop led the FBFL (flight between floating landmasses) profession, so professional was how she preferred to be seen. Ironically, her main contribution was metal and wood working, which traditionally required overalls and fullerite gloves. She actually built the whole shop with her own hands.

“Good to see you, Kopra!” Mother’s voice was as sharp as her attire, but warm nonetheless. “We don’t have any customers yet, but I have a feeling it’s about to get busy. Come with me and we’ll see if there’s anything that needs tidying.”

“Sure thing,” I said. “What have you done with all those ignition coils?”

“They’re in here,” Father said, tapping a large bucket with his walking stick. “Until I can figure out what the defect is. It’s twice now your coil hasn’t worked properly and it’s bizarre. Dangerous, even. But nothing the Guild of Engineers can’t fix!”

I gave him a half-smile over my shoulder as I followed Mother into the storeroom. Illuminated by strips of LEDs, the place shone like a disco ball. Great stacks of metallic apparatus formed a maze of gleaming chrome. Lots of it was complex machinery and computer systems. I’d worked with my parents for so long that I could name every piece of equipment, even if it was twenty years old.

Shiny new jetpacks sat in niches in the walls like cats in a pet store, waiting to be bought. Many of them had red stickers slapped on, indicating that Father had removed their ignition coils for inspection. The fuel cells designed to power them were carefully stacked  in one corner, each one the size of a lunchbox. Also visible in great amounts were emergency gas tanks, electronic parts for flight suits and radio headsets.

If you wanted to get anywhere in the Void, you needed all that stuff. We lived on floating pieces of rock and the only way to get between them was to fly. Our job was to provide working equipment to folks and make good use of whatever they traded with it.

“Well, it’s business time,” Mother said after putting a few more red stickers on things. “Do we have any customers yet?”

Still smiling, Father pulled the door open and held it against the wall. He had a peek outside, then turned to me and said, “Now I’m really glad you’re back!”

About a dozen people surged into the shop, all carrying bags of tradeables. Mother and I took our places at a high workbench that served as the sales counter. We greeted our customers, most of whom I recognised. They were all in the category we called Regulars – folks who enjoyed skydiving and came to see us for monthly equipment check-ups. Sometimes we saw people in the other category, people who bought flight suits only because they had to. We called those folks the Puddle-makers.

While Mother and I served both types of customers, Father would rush around the storeroom, gathering up whatever they asked for. I first tended to a woman called Jovumi. On most of her visits, she’d just trade for some fresh gas and be on her way. On this occasion, she looked nervous, perhaps even a bit embarrassed.

“Hey, Kopra… how are you feeling?”

“I’m great, thank you. Are you well? What can we get for you today?”

“The thing is, I had a bit of an accident yesterday and… I busted a valve.” Jovumi pointed a thumb behind her back, indicating the valve in question was the one that controlled oxygen flow in her jetpack. Without that working properly, her next flight could have been an explosive one. “Do you think you could fix me up with a new one?”

“Of course! Fixing a valve isn’t rocket science, we should have it done this afternoon. Well actually, it is rocket science, but… you know.”

“Old Earth sayings.”

“Yeah.”

“I miss Earth.”

“Never knew the place,” I said. My subject’s expression hadn’t changed, so I had to ask the awkward question. “How did you, as you say, bust your valve?”

“Well, the thing is… see, I um… it’s…”

She didn’t need to stammer any more. We had both lowered our voices so Mother couldn’t hear us. “Jovumi, did you try flying through the spire again?”

The spire in question adorned the nearby Church of the Infinite Cloud, which was entirely carved from stone, even the frigid pews inside. At the top of the spire was an octagonal room housing the church bell. Each of the eight walls had a rectangular window about four metres high by two across. A person in flight could pass right through the room, underneath the brass bell – in theory.

“I nearly made it this time! I want to do it, Kopra, just once! Then maybe those kids will stop laughing at me.”

“Do you really think smashing your head in is worth the risk?”

“It’s not that dangerous, is it?”

“You’re kidding, right? I’m surprised nobody’s been killed trying to fly through the spire. Diving headfirst into a colander would be safer. Anywho, guess I better get that valve sorted out. Father, are you around?”

Alas, Father was in the storeroom, momentarily distracted by some new shiny thing. Mother was tapping her fingers and smiling awkwardly, as if it would make him come back any sooner. The disadvantage of having Father manage things in the back was that he was, at heart, a magpie. Whenever somebody brought in a rare piece of electronics to trade, he’d forget his work and admire it in private for just a moment longer than the average human is prepared to wait.

After we gave the storeroom door some not even slightly subtle knocks, he returned, beaming as he handed a fresh gas tank to the man Mother was serving. Then he turned to Jovumi and took her jetpack in his arms saying, “It’ll be good as new in a few hours, but if you’d like to wait until tomorrow, I can make it better than new!”

Jovumi chuckled at that. “There’s no rush, I see you have a lot of other customers with more urgent needs. Bye now! See you later, Kopra!”

She waved at me as she exited the shop and a pirate stepped up to the counter. At least, that was how my friends and I referred to him. His name was Rutalis and he’d had his fair share of midair mishaps. The scars on his right hand told an interesting story. The lack of a left hand told an even more disturbing one – a pair of steel hooks protruded from his sleeve instead. He also had an eyepatch covering his left eye, with a thick strap to hide the chunk missing from his ear.

“‘Ello lad! Couldn’t fix me up with some gas cans, could ya?” The skin around his eyepatch twitched, since Rutalis had a habit of blinking with his blind eye.

“Do you need oxygen, hydrogen or both this time?” I asked.

“Both of ‘em, if that ain’t too much bother. And ‘ow are you, lad? I ‘eard ya had a bit o’ bother with yer jetpack last week.”

“I’m okay, thanks for asking. Father thinks it was a faulty ignition coil. Let’s pray it doesn’t happen to anybody else!”

“‘E’s a good man, yer father. Bless those clever engineers!” It was Father who had saved Rutalis’ life a few years earlier, by scraping him off the rocks along the edge of New Honolulu. This man wasn’t the type to go dashing through church spires. He’d been skydiving when he collided with somebody else in midair. That somebody else had a soft landing. Rutalis had a very hard landing. I don’t wish to go into detail here.

We fixed Rutalis up with some fresh gas and he went on his way. The rest of the morning progressed at a steady pace, and by lunch time we had run out of customers. Father was taking his sweet time examining the things they’d traded with us. With no established currency in the Void, any offer was judged solely by the person it was being made to. It meant that Father could trade his services for components he didn’t have time to forage for himself – copper from the New Auckland mines, circuit boards from old computers, even old clothes that might find a place in a flight suit.

“Okay then, who wants lunch?” asked Mother.

Before Father or I could respond, the shop door swung open again. I had yet to uninstall myself from the counter, so it was up to me to greet the visitor. To my delight, it was the farmer Gafra, a chirpy woman who I considered one of my closest friends. You could always count on her wit and charm to brighten up the day. Thanks to her bubbly personality, and the implants in her ankles, she literally had a spring in her step.

“Hey hey! How’re you doing, Kopra? You okay?” After barely giving me enough time to nod, she asked, “Are you guys busy right now?”

“No, we were just about to have lunch,” Mother answered.

“Well… I just came in to let you know that your water tank is leaking. I think the fuel cell is blown. But on the bright side, it’s only leaking into your neighbour’s tank!” The neighbour in question was Gafra herself.

“In that case, I better install a new one! I’ll bet my teeth it’s the ignition coil that’s broken,” said Father. From out of the storeroom he came, a toolbox in one hand and his walking stick in the other. “Would you bring me a new fuel cell please, Kopra? Not any of the ones with stickers, obviously.” With that, he left the shop.

“Oh goody, now you get to play the game!” Gafra whispered as I passed her.

“Oh yeah? What game would that be?”

“How many engineers does it take to change a fuel cell?”

***

Remember how I said it doesn’t rain much in the Void? You may have already wondered how we get enough water to drink. It actually depends on the same technology used in our jetpacks: the humble hydrogen fuel cell. On the roof of every household is a closed tank with one of these cells inside it. It takes oxygen from the air and hydrogen from our cloud harvesters, then forces them to combust and make pure water. The combustion part is what you need a working ignition coil for.

While Gafra stayed inside, chatting away to Mother, Father and I climbed up onto the shop’s roof. Our water tank had a new piercing where the oxygen intake was supposed to be. It became obvious very quickly what had happened. The cursed coil had failed, caused an explosion and torn the fuel cell out of the side of the tank.

“This shouldn’t take long at all, with the two of us,” Father said. “Might even be able to salvage bits from the old cell.”

“Great. Maybe I can go for a jump when we’re done!” It had been a whole week since my last jump and I was itching to get back in the air. Seeing all those Regulars in the shop was great, but I wouldn’t feel rejuvenated again until it happened.

Just five minutes later, we had replaced the fuel cell and our water tank stopped donating its contents to Gafra’s gutter. No more customers had entered the shop, so I was free to take my jump. A sense of excitement rose within me as I ducked inside, seeking out my newly repaired flight suit.

“Not so fast, falcon boy!” Gafra pounced on me before I’d made it to the staff room. “Your mother thinks I should come with you.”

“In that case, let’s make this a race, shall we?”

“You’re on! I’ll meet you outside in ten minutes.”

Eleven minutes later, we were both suited up and ready to take the plunge. Each of us had an array of folded-up fins, a chunky headset, a pair of unglamorous goggles and a sleek, silvery jetpack. Gafra’s suit was decorated with lime green stripes, while my own had streaks and patches of yellow. We felt like the king and queen of the sky, even if we looked like bootleg Power Rangers.

When we spoke next, it was via radio. My headset picked up my words and sent them wirelessly to that of Gafra. “Ready when you are.”

Her reply came through almost instantly. “Let’s rock!”

We walked together along the gravelled path, the same one that led into the Guild of Engineers’ cave. Instead of heading toward the stony peak of New Honolulu, we went the other way, to its outer rim. The journey to the edge of the mountain took less than ten minutes and it was downhill all the way.

Our path wound around the white walls of the Church of the Infinite Cloud, with its elegant, octagonal spire. It led us past the wheat field where Gafra worked to provide the rest of us with our daily bread. As we continued walking, we came across many familiar residents of the Void. Most of them ignored us as we approached, but those who knew us better gave a wave and a smile. Nobody stopped to chat – you don’t hold up somebody in a flight suit.

Once we got away from the fields filled with crops (and imprints of my own body), the ground became steeper and the gravel path ended. We continued along a dirt track, following a line of harakeke flax bushes. Close to the edge of New Honolulu, it was too rocky underfoot for farming. Instead, small houses and sheds were strategically placed in the flatter pockets of terrain. Many of the sheds housed water tanks of the same type Father and I had just repaired.

Gafra and I stopped at a wooden fence, tastefully adorned with red warning signs. Their meaning was clear enough without reading them: “Puddle-makers turn back.” We had arrived.

“Now just to be clear, I don’t need you as a babysitter.” I could see a light blinking inside Gafra’s goggles, which meant she was hearing me loud and clear. “But if anything does happen, catch me, will you?”

“You got it, falcon boy. Are you ready?”

“Ready to win!” I grinned. “Computer, count us down from five please.” You might think it strange to be polite to a computer. I just had a funny superstition, like not doing it would bring bad luck.

Big, blue numbers flashed up before my eyes and counted down for us. For five seconds, I stood beside Gafra, ready to leap over the fence and into the sky. There were no nerves, only the thrill of the race. My faith in Father’s work restoring my flight suit far outweighed any fear of another crash-landing. For me, this was just another regular lunch break.

When a blue “0” flashed up on my goggles, I hopped over the fence with a little boost from my jetpack. Gafra let out an excited whoop as she pursued me. I’d gained an early lead, but I had to switch my jetpack off again. It only held enough fuel to manage a landing – but that was all it needed. The really weird thing about the Void isn’t the lack of rain, or the floating mountains, or even the red clouds of hydrogen. No, the weirdest thing of all is that you can get to the top of the Void by falling through the bottom.

I cleared the very edge of New Honolulu and began the plunge. Dark pillars of exposed rock streaked past me as I gained speed. Then all I could see was endless blue, with the exception of the swirling red mass far below. Using a couple of the fins on my flight suit, I spun myself around so I could see Gafra above me. She was right on my tail and loving it. The mountain was already just a black blot in our wake.

“You’re not gonna be in the lead for long, Kopra!”

“Oh yeah? Come and catch me!”

“You’re going down!”

The irony of that statement wasn’t lost on me, for I knew that winning the race depended on falling as fast as possible. I turned my head down again and clamped my arms to my sides, so I looked like a giant pencil. Before long, I hit terminal velocity, meaning I couldn’t fall any faster. The fact Gafra wasn’t zooming past told me she’d hit her terminal velocity as well.

For a good few minutes we plummeted like this. It provided plenty of time to enjoy the rush of wind past my goggles and the roar that hammered my headset. This was what I’d been missing for a week. Finally, I was back in my element, with one of my best friends enjoying it with me. There was even a light show awaiting us.

“We got sparks down there!” I said over the radio.

“Oh goody,” came the reply. “Maybe you’ll get hit by lightning and then I’ll win!”

Not likely. On occasions like this, the hydrogen clouds sparked spontaneously and flashed with multi-coloured lightning. However, the chance of being electrocuted was vanishingly small, at least according to the engineers. I knew that even if a spark hit my chunky, metallic jetpack, it would be dissipated across the casing and never reach my body.

Without even considering the pronunciation of the word ‘hesitate,’ I dove headfirst into the cloud layer. It was very red and very light, like the helium you might have inhaled from a party balloon. The hydrogen in these clouds happens to be the lightest element in the universe. You may have already decided this is impossible. Hydrogen floats on top of everything else, so how can it form a layer under the air? You’re quite right. We hadn’t fallen into the clouds; we’d fallen out the bottom of the Void.

It’s like that old Asteroid computer game, where you reach one side of the screen and come out the opposite side. As Gafra and I reached the bottom of the Void, we passed back up to its top. There’s no real-life equivalent for this on Earth. I imagine it doesn’t make any sense according to the physics you may have learned at school. But here, in a wormhole, nothing is impossible!

Anyway, after emerging from those clouds, we were back above New Honolulu, which soon appeared as one of a myriad specks underneath us. To my delight, I was still ahead of Gafra. I asked her, “Where are you, slowpoke?”

“Almost tickling your toes!”

“Doubt it. You sound like you’re way behind.”

“Not for long!” Her voice crackled a bit, like the hydrogen sparks that were clearly interfering with her headset. We were at terminal velocity the whole time. The only way to go faster would be to use our jetpacks, but then we wouldn’t have enough fuel to land safely. That was a gamble even Jovumi never took.

When I next heard from Gafra, the crackle was gone, replaced by an unexpected tone. She sounded very alert, all of a sudden. “Hang on… there’s something over there!”

Since pointing would cost her a tiny bit of speed, she sent me a digital signal instead. It came up as a green arrow on my display, pointing to the left. When I looked, I saw an irregularly shaped object tumbling through the air. For a moment I studied it, then its identity dawned on me. Our casual jump had taken a serious turn.

“That’s not something, Gafra. It’s somebody.”

“Oh no. From Earth?”

“Must be. They’re definitely not wearing a flight suit. Must have just been pulled into the Void,” I said.

“So on the bright side, we have a new guy in the neighbourhood!”

“On the less bright side,” I grimaced, “they’re falling straight toward the mountain.”

New Honolulu had taken on a more distinct shape by now, the centre of which presented little hope for the Earthling. We had no choice but to try a rescue. In a few seconds, my computer told me how far away they were and how much time was left until impact. The numbers looked grim. Gafra was too far behind, which meant it was all up to me.

“I’m going in. Let’s hope the thing doesn’t happen again.”

“Good luck, falcon boy.”

At this point, my jetpack was the only hope for the Earthling. It exploded into life with a burst of flame and a sudden, savage thrust. Warning lights flicked on as I broke my terminal velocity and tore through the sky. I could imagine the trail of vapour I was leaving behind. Its white ribbon would serve as a signal to expect visitors to the mountain – hopefully in one piece.

Details of my target became discernible as I blasted toward it. The Earthling was falling face-down with sprawled limbs. A curtain of black hair waved behind her. As I approached, I realised she was a woman. Close now… I deployed all my fins and stabilisers to bring myself alongside. The woman’s eyes were closed. I grabbed her tightly in my arms, then glanced down. New Honolulu was also alarmingly close.

We had to slow down. I flipped over so my jetpack pointed down, then told the computer to unleash maximum power. In all my hundreds of jumps into the Void, I’d never had a landing like this. Still I held back the nerves. My grip on the Earthling woman was tight. My voice didn’t waver as I gave my commands to the computer. There was nonetheless an intense feeling of relief when we touched down, unharmed and somehow with fuel to spare.

By a remarkable coincidence, we landed in the same field where I had previously crashed. This time, there was no cloud of earth, but a crowd gathered all the same. I took a closer look at the woman I’d rescued. Her eyes were still tight shut, her mouth open in a silent scream. I doubted she even realised she was safe.

Hoping she could hear me, I took off my headset and whispered to her, “It’s okay now. You’re okay. Welcome.”

 

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