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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

 

The rest of the week was quite ordinary. At least, ordinary for us. Every day I got a chance to jump with my pals. Chiara spent most of her time reading or exploring the tracks winding across New Honolulu. Once she came running home in tears, babbling about walking too close to the edge of the mountain, but a hug and a chat seemed to calm her.

Folks continued to flow through the shop and those who asked about the copper shortage were in high spirits. Everybody knew about my visit to New Auckland and, shortly after, two engineers had been sent back to repair the broken machines. All in all, the mood was cheerful. Nobody dared to harass Father in public again – except Mother, every time she caught him fondling things in the storeroom! Everything was back to normal, or so we thought.

Of course, I also made time to see Jovumi as often as I could. On the last day of the week, just before the natural night set in, I dropped into the infirmary at lunch time. The poor girl was staring up at the ceiling with a plate of untouched vitamin biscuits lying beside her. She wore a frown so deep it almost formed a perfect circle.

“Dear God, I’m bored,” she mumbled. “Nine more weeks… just nine more…”

I couldn’t remember ever seeing her so depressed. There were three other patients within earshot, in various stages of recovery. For their benefit I replied to Jovumi with a whisper. “Hopefully this will brighten things up.” Then I produced a tin about the size of my fist, wrapped in insulating fabric.

When I opened the tin, Jovumi gasped and her eyeballs appeared to inflate. “Is that… chocolate?”

“Yep! Traded a flax basket for it. You know, I think it would go great with these crackers.” As I said it, I picked up one of the vitamin biscuits and dropped a cube of dusty, brown chocolate atop it.

Jovumi’s eyes lit up like torches. She took the biscuit and stared at it like it was a work of art, worthy of the ponciest Earthling museums. Chocolate was as rare and prized in the Void as the cacaoid trees it was made from. Said trees weren’t particularly hard to grow, their seeds just hadn’t entered the Void as early as those of other species.

“Don’t hold back, Jovumi. You want it to melt in your mouth, not your hand!” Already I could see the brown cube liquefying.

She popped the biscuit in her mouth and made some noise I interpreted as a “Thank you.” Then she closed her eyes and chewed it slowly and deliberately. Just like that, her frown vanished.

“You’re very welcome,” said I. “Do you know what Mother used to say when I was feeling down about something?”

Jovumi swallowed the biscuit and looked back at me, her body always unmoving. “What did she say, Falcon?”

“Forget the past and don’t worry about the future. Focus on the present. When you’re unhappy, just take a look at what’s happening right now and find the good bits. Savour those bits. The good stuff is all that matters.” I had to pause to clear my throat. “Excuse me… she also wanted me to tell you that we’re getting you a new flight suit. You’ve grown lately, haven’t you?”

“Yeah… how could you tell?”

“Last time you were hospitalised, they put you in this same bed. Your feet weren’t dangling off the end the whole time! Anywho, do you have a preference for the colour of your new suit?”

“Hmmm… can you do silver?”

“Certainly!” I was pleased to see Jovumi’s face gradually brighten and her tone become more animated. We were forcing ourselves to keep our voices low to avoid disturbing the patients around us. However, when I peeked over at one of them, he was smiling at Jovumi through an alarming volume of head bandages. Her joy was contagious.

“You know,” she said a moment later, “I’ve been thinking about things.”

“What things?” I asked as I laid some more chocolate cubes onto the vitamin biscuits.

“Everything, really.”

“That sure narrows it down.”

She smirked at me. “You’re so witty, Kopra. You know how Duval talks about how the Void works in church? How we’re inside some kind of tunnel through space? Well… tunnels have two ends, right?”

“Yeah. A wormhole should have two ends as well.”

“Right. So do we know where the other end of the tunnel is? One end is near Earth, obviously. But does the Void reach anywhere else?”

“We have no idea, really. Father and I used to discuss this a lot!” I passed her another biscuit and watched her eat it with as much relish as the first. Then I said, “When I was young, I thought there might be aliens living here.”

“You mean people from a different planet?”

“People, plants, anything. I was convinced that if we flew far enough from New Honolulu, we would find them. But no, the only living things in here all came from Earth at some time in the past.”

“If there are aliens out there though, they could still come into the Void, right?”

“I suppose. But they’d have to find it first. Remember, our parents only ended up here by accident.” It was then that I dared to raise my voice and address the other folks in the room. “Please forgive me. Would anyone else like some chocolate?”

Four satisfied customers later (the nurse had chosen that moment to appear), Jovumi returned to the subject of flight gear. She asked, “How expensive will this new suit be? I might not be able to-“

“It’s free,” I cut in. “As long as you can make me an honest promise. Okay?”

“What promise?”

“Promise me you’ll never try that crazy stunt again.”

“I promise, Kopra.” We shook left hands, then said our goodbyes. Time for me to head home. Already the hue of the sky was fading; natural night was upon us. I knew that Vicar Duval would be proofreading his sermon for the next day. Gafra and her parents would be cleaning up after a week’s harvest. As for my own parents, they’d probably be having a drink and going over the highlights of their day.

Sure enough, I found them in the underground kitchen, chatting away like meerkats. The surprising part was that Chiara was there too, listening intently to whatever Mother was saying. I hadn’t yet seen her social side. Normally, Chiara confined herself to the sleeping quarters when she was down here. Yet there she was, sipping whiskerbean juice and gossiping like she was part of the family. Something heavy dropped inside me. Had Chiara become my sister?

Mother addressed me as I proceeded to fill a cup of water. “How is Jovumi doing, dear?”

“She’s okay, but she’s really getting bored in there. Considering her arm, I guess there isn’t a lot she can do. How many ways can you entertain yourself with just one hand?”

“As long as the nurses are taking good care of her, that’s all that matters. Did you tell her about the new flight suit?”

“Oh yeah,” I said as I took a sip of water. “She would like silver. That’s doable, right?”

“Of course! I’m surprised people don’t ask for silver suits more often.”

“Fluoro pink seems to be in fashion at the moment,” Father commented. “Have you noticed?”

“So… you customise your flight gear?” Chiara asked. It was the first time I’d heard her speak that night and she had a wonderfully warm tone. For once, she wasn’t whispering or mumbling. I started to think my parents had drugged her with something from the infirmary.

“Naturally,” said Father. “Everybody needs flight gear, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick your own style! I’ve even got engineer decals painted on my jetpack.”

“You’re welcome for those,” said Mother in a sarcastically bitter voice. She turned to Chiara and added, “He wanted a diode symbol, don’t ask why, but apparently what I painted was an NAFD!”

“What’s an NAFD?” Chiara asked.

“Stands for Nitrous-Aspirated Fluid Distributor,” I said.

Father grinned like the elderly child he was. “Or if you want to get technical, Not A Freakin’ Diode!”

All four of us burst out laughing, even Chiara. I didn’t know how savvy she was with electronics, but she was almost in tears. Tears of joy. Yes, I decided, she was definitely high.

After our sides had stopped burning, Father took up his walking stick, which he’d been leaning on casually the whole time. “Kopra, there’s something I wanted to ask you. Could we have a moment in private, please?”

“Sure thing,” I replied. “Chiara… it’s really nice to see you smile.” I meant that. She blushed as I said it and hid the aforementioned smile in her cup of juice. Father and I retreated into the sleeping quarters, where the earthen walls would muffle our voices.

There was a moment of silence while Father composed himself. He stroked his beard and twisted his hand across the stick. I asked him, “Am I in trouble?”

“No, Kopra. This is just… delicate. It’s about Chiara.”

Again, a lead weight fell somewhere in my intestinal tract. Gafra had already warned me that whispers were going around. All week, they’d been circulating. Until then, I’d found it easy to ignore them, but Father had clearly caught the scent. It was time to dispel the rumours once and for all. With a deep breath and a calm voice, I said:

“I don’t want Chiara as my girlfriend.”

Father’s reaction wasn’t what I expected. In my head, I had pictured him breathing a sweet sigh of relief. Instead, he looked very perplexed, like I’d told him I didn’t like skydiving any more. Then it dawned on me: I’d jumped the gun completely.

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about,” he said very slowly, “but good to know nonetheless.” He cleared his throat and continued. “Now Kopra, I think it’s fantastic how well you and Chiara get along. I guess it was inevitable – you two have more in common than you realise! More than that, when you caught her after falling into the Void, she immediately saw you as a saviour. A protector. On that day you, in a way, imprinted yourself on Chiara.”

“Uh… cool.“ Imprinting was a term I’d learned to associate with baby birds working out who their mother was.

“I’m afraid I must ask something of you, son. Chiara needs the kind of support you have given her. I’d go so far as to say her life depends on it.”

This chat got weirder by the second. I’d often said I couldn’t live without my friends, but never meant it literally. “How would her life depend on me?”

“Trust me. I know where that girl has been.” Now Father sighed, but it wasn’t in relief. His eyes drifted from mine and I knew he was reminiscing. From the frown that formed on his face, the memories weren’t cheerful ones. “Anxiety is an illness that has afflicted her for her entire adult life. I too had anxiety – until after your mother and I arrived in the Void.”

“You… were like Chiara?”

“No. I was worse. Alika – your mother, I mean to say – built this shelter all by herself. For weeks, I was useless to her. We had taken refuge in the church and I couldn’t leave it. I couldn’t eat or sleep in that time. Anxiety crippled me.” Father swallowed and looked me right in the eye. “Your mother kept me going. She made me see the true wonder of this world and how we could make our home here. She even convinced me to join the Guild of Engineers – I became their leader within five years!”

“Okay, but you’re fine now, aren’t you?”

“Oh yes. Never felt better!” He then attempted to prove it by twirling his walking stick around his head. It smacked against a wooden beam in the ceiling, inducing a cry of surprise from the kitchen. “But if I may continue,” as he returned his stick to the floor, “I understand exactly what Chiara is going through. You don’t – you can’t. You’ve always been a brave young man, never afraid to throw yourself into the open. You haven’t been forced to live in constant fear of a nightmare inside your own head. That’s exactly how I used to live.”

“Kopra, I need you to keep looking after Chiara. Until she gets used to life in the Void, she will count on you for support, and you alone. Will you help her to adjust? Am I asking too much?”

“It’s not a problem at all! We’ll be best buddies, no trouble! I’m just thinking, how can I be around all the time if I’m working in the shop?”

“Oh, don’t worry about the shop. We can mind it on our own!”

“Are you sure about that? With all these miners visiting from New Auckland?”

“As far as we’re concerned, looking after the new girl is more important than… than…”

As Father trailed off, his expression changed. He was no longer looking at me, but at something behind and above me. His mouth hung open and his eyebrows could have knitted a glove. Then I noticed a more significant change. Father’s skin was suddenly tinted red, which made his wrinkles stand out even more than usual. To my relief, the reddish hue had been applied to everything, not just his head. I finally turned to look up at the ceiling.

Through the portals that usually let blue light illuminate our home, all I could see was red. What’s more, this light appeared to move, like it was coming from an object outside. It was at its brightest the moment I turned to look, then became steadily dimmer. “Well,” I said, “that’s interesting.”

“I think we better take a look,” said Mother from around the corner. Father and I rejoined her and we stared at the outside for a good minute.

It was Chiara’s voice that spurred us on. “So… I take it that’s not normal?”

“If you see red in the Void, it’s usually hydrogen. But we’re nowhere near the clouds,” said Mother. “Let’s go!”

“I’m coming too,” Chiara replied.

Father’s words ran through my mind again. I’d just sworn to protect Chiara and some unknown force had materialised in the space above us. Whatever it was, I figured she might have needed protecting from it. So I said, “Are you sure? No harm in staying here.”

She replied, “I’ll be okay, Kopra. But thanks.”

With that, the four of us dashed outside and followed the light westward. Its source had stopped moving and appeared to hover right above the Church of the Infinite Cloud. We sprinted down the hillside and joined a good portion of the locals. During most natural nights, it was too dark to make out other peoples’ faces. On this night, the mysterious source bathed us all in crimson.

By shielding my eyes and looking up, I spotted a definite shape a few metres above the tip of the spire. There was something solid and metallic up there. I could make out a neat geometric outline, a body composed of many triangular faces. Six pods stuck out from the bottom like feet. Four of them seemed to be engines that kept the thing aloft. The other two pods emitted the bright light.

Chiara breathed in my ear. “What the heck is it?”

“No idea.” In all my years spent around machines, I’d never seen any vehicle like this. By the way Father’s jaw hung agape, I guessed it was just as familiar to him.

Chiara said, “What if it’s… you know…”

“Please, don’t say it.”

“But it must be…”

“Don’t say it!”

“Aliens.” No sooner had Chiara said the word than a terrific bang came from above. The people around us screamed and flailed their arms – with good reason. When I looked up again, there was a distinctive lack of roof to the spire.

The sound of crumbling marble struck my ears. I could feel the ground shake as it fell inside the church. Then came an even more horrible noise. It was a deafening clang and the rending of metal against stone. Our beloved brass bell had also taken a hit from whatever bomb the vehicle had dropped.

“I have another word for you,” I shouted. “RUN!”

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