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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Aliens! Aliens in New Honolulu!”

“But they can’t be aliens, it’s just not possible…”

“Anything’s possible, I mean if there are aliens out there, they could fly right into the Void, couldn’t they?”

“Well yes, I suppose it’s possible, but we don’t have any real evidence…”

“You saw the spaceship just as clearly as I did!”

“That wasn’t a spaceship, looked like a hunk of scrap to me.”

This kind of conversation was repeated throughout the next day. The events of the night had divided us into two camps. Some folks were convinced we’d been attacked by creatures not of Earth origin, perhaps hoping to exterminate us and ‘sterilise’ the floating mountains. All sorts of wild theories developed concerning where they originally came from, what their plans were and how many appendages they had. Others saw the attack as a deliberate attempt to panic us, a very human prankster trying to sow chaos.

I sat on the proverbial fence at first. All I knew for sure was that something had attacked. For me, the important question wasn’t whether it was alien or human. The question was, why did it bomb the church?

Chiara’s first church ceremony had to be held outdoors. Whatever had been dropped on the spire, it wasn’t any ordinary party popper. There was so much rubble it filled the two entrance halls, so nobody could even get inside to where the brass bell had fallen. I’d been there at dawn, when marble dust still trickled down the outer walls, to see Vicar Duval inspect the damage for himself. His disbelief showed in his furious head-shaking and hand-flailing. He could only manage two spoken words before his sermon: “Bloody hell.”

I sat next to Chiara on the cool grass, surrounded by the other shell-shocked residents of New Honolulu. Together, we listened to Duval, who had refused to deviate from his carefully planned sermon. This time his talk focussed on the origin of the mountains themselves. They were made of volcanic rocks like basalt and phonolite, created by very hot volcanoes. It seemed the Lord had steered debris from a massive Earth-based eruption into space, so it could form the unique landmasses we called home.

There were no hymns or communal breakfast this time around. Duval let us all go as early as he could – he was impatient to start planning a restoration effort. Chiara and I therefore plodded back up the hill together. Just before we got to the shop, she asked, “What happens now, Kopra?”

“I don’t know.” It was true; I had very little idea of what to do with myself. Caring for Chiara had become my sole responsibility, but I wasn’t sure of how to do that, either. After the chaos of the night, nobody seemed to know anything. So I contented myself by saying, “Is there anything you want to do?”

“Umm… I finished reading all your books already. We could go for a walk, I guess.”

“Sure thing.” At that precise moment I felt a tap on my shoulder. Upon turning my head, I discovered that it was actually a hand with a distinct pattern of varicose veins. Father was there, panting like he’d been jogging after us.

“Kopra… mind if I join you?”

“Are you alright, Father?”

“Not entirely. Nobody is alright at the moment.” He took a deep breath, then paused and looked down at the ground for a moment. “I sent a radio message to New Auckland an hour ago. The feedback was not encouraging.”

Chiara asked, “What did you tell them?”

“That we’re under attack from an unknown force. I described the, uh, the vessel and the bomb. Then I warned them to look out for any more of these things and watch for unwanted activity near the mine. Heaven forbid they should make the copper shortage worse!”

“What did they say?”

“Nothing helpful. There’s something else bothering me too.” I could tell: Father wasn’t exactly a monument to happiness. Even the frown lines on his forehead were getting frown lines of their own. He hadn’t slept at all – none of us had. His beard desperately needed grooming and his silvery hair stood out like it had been electrocuted. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him so stressed.

I could even guess what the additional bother was. “The engineers you sent to New Auckland,” I said. “Weren’t they meant to come back here for church?”

“Yes, they were.”

“But you haven’t seen them?”

“No, Kopra. Not a word from them on the radio, either. No matter how busy they may be over there, they’re not the type to miss church or forget an order from me!”

“You… boss them around?” Chiara raised her eyebrows.

“I’m cursed with status, my dear. I can give orders, but I also have the darkest responsibilities of the Guild of Engineers. This is where I need some help. I’d prefer if just Kopra came with me, but if you’re okay with keeping it secret, Chiara…”

“What do you mean, Father? Sorry, but I don’t follow you.”

Father glanced around him to make sure nobody else was listening. I couldn’t see any other folks on the hill. Below us, on the gravel path winding to the west, a small crowd headed back home. They were surely too far away to hear us. Nevertheless, Father wouldn’t say much more until we had privacy.

“Follow me if you want to help,” he said. With that, he marched toward the black peak towering over us, where the Guild itself was tucked away.

For a moment, Chiara and I stood there, watching him walk away in confusion. Then I regained my senses. “Hey,” I said, “you can go back to the shop if you want, Mother will be there by now.”

“Uh, I think I’d rather go with you, if that’s okay.” She bit her lip and looked at her shoes, which had disappeared into the crisp grass. “You and your dad are the only people I feel safe around. I know that sounds crazy, but-“

“Don’t worry, I said I’d look after you, and I will. Just don’t expect too much if a blazing red spaceship shows up. By the way,” I continued as we set off after Father, “what does ‘dad’ mean?”

“Oh. It’s just another term for ‘Father.’”

“Hmm. Maybe I should use it. Less syllables.” It didn’t take long to catch up to the dad in question. I called out to him. “Are you taking us into the Guild?”

With his free hand, he ushered us closer so he didn’t have to shout the response. Again he scanned the surroundings, checking for eavesdroppers. Then he replied, “No, not the Guild of Engineers. There’s another tunnel inside the mountain, usually forbidden.”

“Another tunnel?”

“Kopra, do you remember, when you were twelve years old, you were out here playing with Gafra and the two of you stumbled upon a locked door in a cave? I told you that behind the door was the most excruciatingly painful death you could imagine.”

That rang a sufficient number of bells. “Yeah, I remember.”

“Great, that’s where we’re going!” For just a second, a smile appeared on Father’s face. Then he resumed his march. Chiara and I followed in silence. Before long we’d left the grassy expanse behind and our boots crunched through gravel. A couple of minutes later, we were tiptoe-ing over chunks of basalt eroded from the peak. Sure enough, we didn’t go down to the golden portal of the Guild of Engineers. Instead we were led up a narrow track that curved up and around the northern side, like a spiral staircase cluttered with boulders.

A few times, Chiara stumbled and sent pieces of rock tumbling down the slope below us. It was a gentle enough gradient and we weren’t very high above the homes of New Honolulu. However, I suspected my definition of “not very high” was different from hers, so I took her hand and helped her clamber upward. Father had no such troubles. Even though he needed a staff to get around, he easily matched our speed.

It didn’t take long to reach this mysterious tunnel. When Chiara and I reached Father on a ledge near the very tip of the mountain, he wasn’t even out of breath. We took a minute to check on each other. Chiara’s face was a little redder than usual, but she wasn’t trembling or showing any other signs of an anxiety attack. So far, so good.

“Mind your heads please, it’s a tight fit.” He wasn’t kidding; the aperture before us was barely higher than a standing child. It was definitely the same one I’d crawled into in my own childhood. I recognised the deep shadows that appeared to suck all light in like a black hole. The more I looked, the more I became convinced I was staring into the mouth of a hungry carnivore. Why did I ever go in there in the first place?

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked Chiara.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She gestured to the mouth. “After you?”

The three of us crawled through the darkness on our hands and knees. Something I hadn’t expected to feel was a polished floor. Instead of the stone-strewn path outside, it reminded me of the marble floor of the church. Somebody had put a lot of effort into this place. My curiosity exploded. Suddenly, I had a very tangible urge to see what was behind that door.

“Ow!” My curiosity had literally driven me right into the door. In the gloom, I hadn’t picked it out.

“Did you never find the light globe when you came down here?” Father’s voice asked. There was a click and harsh, yellow light flooded the tunnel. It came from a sphere mounted on the wall above me.

While I sat there, rubbing my nose and making faces at Chiara, Father ran his hands across the door. It was metal and covered with the rounded tops of rivets. From its centre protruded a simple wheel fixed to a thick rod. There was a single hole in the top of the door, through which an electrical cable snaked and ran up to the light globe. That told me there was a power source beyond. The mystery grew deeper.

“We’re about to enter the engineers’ dirty secret,” said Father. “This vault is sealed with a spherigear lock. I just need to get this wheel into the right orientation…” As he spoke, he took the wheel in his hands and yanked it to the right, making the whole rod pivot. Then he pushed it up and finally turned it a small angle clockwise. We heard the clunk of a counterweight falling and a bolt being retracted. “The vault is open.”

“Dad… why are we here?”

“Whatever blew up our church might come back, son. The only facts we have are that it’s dangerous and it’s mobile. Until we learn more, I’m afraid we have no choice but to defend ourselves.”

“You mean fight the thing? How?”

“With weapons.”

“But you said there are no weapons in the Void!”

“Dirty secret.” He placed his palms on the door and pushed. It swung open and more yellow light shone from within. “I lied because I wanted to protect our people. You could build an army with the things we have hidden in here.” Then he looked at Chiara and added, “Brace yourselves.”

We found ourselves in a chamber filled with… I didn’t know what. Brick-lined walls stretched away on all sides, studded with light globes and decorated with blue cables. A single screen flashed with the words ‘Vault Open.’ However, the main attraction was the assortment of objects systematically arranged on the cold stone floor. Several dozen crude frames lined the walls, each one about the height of my shoulders. A series of smaller cage-like assemblies held rows of cylindrical objects the size of water cups.

My perplexment grew by the second. When I looked more closely at the larger frames, I found that each one held six identical objects. They were made of chrome metal and black plastic, with some sort of brown padding at one end. Their function wasn’t obvious, but I guessed they were the weapons Father had mentioned. As I peered very close, I discovered an enigmatic label that read, ‘EMPL-12.’

Eventually, Chiara broke the silence. “What are these things?”

“Ugly, aren’t they?” Like me, Father was inspecting one of the large frames. “These are electromagnetic projectile launchers. I just call them coilguns. They use an electrical charge to shoot pellets at some ridiculous speed, about six times the speed of sound.”

“They look military-grade! How did they end up here?”

“Interesting question. These guns fell into the Void as part of a shipment of military supplies. They were sucked right out of the ocean in an area that used to be called the Bermuda Triangle. I’m afraid nobody on the ship survived, but we managed to recycle their equipment. All except this stuff.” He cautiously prodded one of the coilguns, as if it might burn him.

I asked, “Why did you keep weapons here?”

“In case this exact kind of situation arose! When I first joined the Guild of Engineers, I wanted them scrapped immediately, but we had a vote and it was decided to keep the guns in this vault. Just in case somebody – or something – decided to make us shooting targets. Naturally, we also had to keep it secret from everybody else.”

This was a lot to take in. For Chiara, who was still adjusting to the concept of a floating mountain, it must have been a real headache. Thousands of questions bubbled in my mind. In the end, I only managed to articulate one of them: “What are we going to do with them?”

“Nothing… yet. But if another of those vessels appears, we must get the guns ready and arm ourselves as quickly as possible. You would be a great help with that, son. Us engineers aren’t young and fast, after all!”

“In that case, why not hand them out now? Ready the folks in advance?”

“Ah.” Father sighed heavily. When he next spoke, it was with gravity in his voice. “I’m still hoping we won’t have to use them.”

***

Chiara and I spent the following day trying to think of anything but the coilgun vault. As we emerged from the dark cave, we’d been given a stern reminder not to tell anybody about it, unless another bomb fell on New Honolulu. We ended up lying on the grass, staring up at the infinite blue sky, praying that no spaceships would materialise. I wanted to visit Gafra, or check up on Jovumi and fill her in on what she’d missed during the natural night. She would have heard the explosion from the infirmary – had anybody told her what caused it?

However, that could wait. Keeping Chiara company was top priority, so I wouldn’t budge until she was ready. Her head tilted from side-to-side like a curious bird. She seemed to be searching for something, so I gave her a poke.

“On Earth, you can see all the stars in space,” she said. “They make these funny patterns called constellations. I got really good at spotting constellations – you can actually use them to navigate.” Her left hand pointed up. “But here you don’t see anything. Not even the Sun. It’s weird.”

“The idea of lots of stars hanging above me sounds weird.”

“Oh, they’re very far away. Do you… know much astronomy?”

“As you pointed out, we can’t see any stars here. I’m afraid astronomy isn’t much good for me.”

“Oh well. It’s quite interesting, really, being able to look way out into space. Gives you a sense of how small you really are.” Her whole body rolled over so she was facing me. “I don’t think those were aliens we saw the other night. Nobody’s ever found evidence of living things that didn’t come from Earth.”

I rolled onto my side too. “Welcome to the Void, my friend. Anything can happen here.”

“Oh, come on. You must have seen it too.”

“Seen what?”

“That thing people think is a spaceship? It had jetpacks sticking out of it. Just like the ones in your shop.”

I was staggered, which is very hard when you’re lying down. Father hadn’t mentioned this, nor anybody with better eyesight. Thinking back, I couldn’t believe I’d missed it. Ordinary hydrogen-powered jetpacks holding up a vehicle? But of course! What I’d spotted was eight of them arranged in four pods. It was deceptively simple.

“You are a very perceptive young woman, Chiara.”

“Huh… Thought it would have been obvious.”

“Well, we should go and tell some folks. This is disturbing though. Why would people attack us?!”

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. Hey, there’s your dad again. God, he really should not be running!”

Yet running he was, if you could call it that. I’d say he was using his walking stick to vault along the path toward us. His boots kicked up a cloud of dust that reached to his already filthy beard. The few folks standing around, who had been chatting idly to each other, all spun to watch Father. I leapt to my feet and sprinted over to him, hearing the hammering of Chiara’s shoes on the soil behind me.

“They’re… gone. Gone!” Short of breath, Father doubled over for a moment, his chest heaving.

“What are gone?” I asked as soon as he’d regained his breath. I already suspected the answer.

“The coilguns! I went back to the vault… they’ve all been taken… somebody blasted the vault door open. Lord curse their black soul!” His fist shook at the heavens. Suddenly he looked very angry, scowling and showing his cavity-ridden canine through a primal snarl.

Once again, I heard the distinctive sound of Chiara retching. This time I didn’t blame her. I felt sick too, deep in my stomach. Those folk watching us wore expressions of shock and impending panic. None of them knew about the coilguns, but our display was obviously enough to give them the right impression. We were in real trouble. Somebody wanted to cause chaos in our piece of paradise. They had just stolen our only defense and could come back at any time to… I shuddered at the possibilities.

On the bright side, we still had chocolate. Always count your blessings, folks.

P123456 – 7 – 891011121314151617181920

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