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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

As the bells of the Church of the Infinite Cloud rang out, resonating inside the rocky crevices of New Honolulu, the crowd dispersed and folks resumed their normal routines. They left only myself, the Earthling woman I’d rescued and Gafra, who had landed safely, sitting in the vegetable patch.

For a while, none of us said anything. The Earthling kept her eyes tight shut and her arms wrapped around her legs. Occasionally she’d emit a sob or a sniffle, but no words came out. Gafra and I patted her back to try and comfort her. The only response we got was shivering and more sniffling. She’d just fallen a distance of many kilometres down a wormhole – how could she not be shaken?

Then Father arrived, moving as fast as his stick would permit (not very fast). His feet sank into the patch of soil where I’d concussed myself a week prior, but he hobbled on, the leaves of cornplants brushing against his legs. When he reached us, he placed a hand on my shoulder, gave me one of his half-smiles and said, “You’ve done very well, Kopra. You saved a woman’s life today. May I take things from here?”

I nodded as I tried to think of the best way to respond. I’d seen rescues like this before, but never pulled one off myself. Only then did the gravity of the situation sink in. If I hadn’t been there, the folks would have witnessed a tragedy rather than a heroism. Possibly a double tragedy, since Gafra might have wasted all her fuel trying to make the catch herself.

Father knelt down before the woman and placed his weathered hand on hers. “You’re safe now, sister. My name is Chayon,” he said. Our subject still maintained the foetal aspect. “What’s your name?”

Her head lifted from her knees and I saw her face clearly for the first time. Tears were rolling down it and through the strands of her windblasted hair. Hints of colour were just making a comeback to her cheeks. Slowly, trembling, she opened her mouth and whispered a single word: “Chiara.” Then she blinked, ejecting another tear, before returning her head to her knees.

“Okay, Chiara.” Father’s voice was unnaturally soothing, which made me wonder how many times he’d done this before. “We’re going to take you inside, okay?”

No response.

“Take your time. I know the fear you feel… it’s difficult to get through. But take your time.” He then gestured to Gafra and I, wordlessly asking us to head back to the shop. We got the idea. It would be easier for Chiara if there were less strangers around her.

“See you later,” said Gafra as we departed. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to Father or the new girl. We left them in the middle of the field, heading for the gate that led back onto the gravel path.

For a minute or so, we walked in silence between rows of cornplants. The only sound to be heard was their thin leaves brushing against our flight gear. By the time we reached the gate, the usual ambient noise of the Void had returned to our ears. It was the murmur of people toiling away, building and harvesting, in order to keep the whole community going. There was no birdsong, like you might hear on Earth, only the slightest of breezes whistling through the rocky peak.

Gafra waited until we’d left the field to speak up. “Well then… that was interesting!”

“Yeah. Good thing we were there to catch her!”

“You mean good thing you were there. I was way too far behind. Guess that means you won the race, falcon boy.”

“Won a race and saved a girl’s life. What a day! I don’t suppose it can get any more eventful than this.”

“Here? Anything could happen.”

“Yep. Father’s going to have to explain this place to Chiara. Give her The Talk. I wonder how she’ll take it. I never really thought about it, but… must be strange, falling off the face of the Earth like that.”

“I’d hate to be her.” Like me, Gafra was born in the Void and had never seen Earth. That was one reason we got along so well. Diving off a giant, floating rock into the crimson clouds was second nature to us. I’d go so far as to say it was first nature. Point being, we were used to the strange.

Upon our return to the shop, we found Mother waiting in the open doorway. Sweat had broken out on her face and grey dust from the road had masked the shine of her shoes. She embraced me when I arrived, her hands barely reaching around my jetpack.

“I came running,” she said. “Your father and I saw what happened. We were so worried! Are you okay? How about you, Gafra?”

Mother’s speech was normal, but she hugged me so tightly I could barely breathe. I managed to pull away from her long enough to say, “We’re fine. So is the girl, Father is taking care of her. There’s nothing to worry about!”

“Except maybe that,” said Gafra, pointing inside the shop. “You have customers!”

Mother forced a smile, then turned back to her work. We followed her, already unbuckling the various components of our flight suits. Apparently the folks waiting inside had heard about the rescue. They spoke to us and, while I couldn’t make out their words, the general tone was one of praise. A couple of people shook my hand as I walked past. One young girl gave Gafra a timid high-five. Then we were out of sight, vanishing into my family’s living quarters.

Very few people in the Void owned more than one building – Mother would call that extravagant, or even a waste of space. We lived in subterranean chambers below the shop. To enter them, we hopped down through a trapdoor and into a large, well-lit kitchen. Despite being under the surface, it didn’t feel too different from a normal house on Earth.

Transparent panels in the ground acted as skylights, permitting light to illuminate the chamber. It bathed the whole room in blue, making my home look as though it were under water. While it wasn’t as bright as the brilliant sky outside, we could see everything clearly enough. The earthen walls were protected by wooden boards from the floating forest of New Rakiura. They had been put together by Mother, before she built the barn-shaped shop on top of us. Father was responsible for the simple plumbing and other essential things we couldn’t see.

There was ample space for us to stand up without whacking our heads on the ceiling support beams. Gafra and I made our way into the next room, where we stripped out of our flight suits. I went to stash my jetpack in its special niche in the wall, between those of my parents, when she decided to speak up.

“I hope you don’t mind if I crash here for a while…”

“Not a problem,” I replied. When I looked back at her, I added, “Are you comfy?”

Gafra had settled into the lowest of three hammocks that stretched between the two far walls. Light from one of the skylights shone down on her body, giving her skin the colour of an ice sculpture. She looked up and me and said, “That was amazing, what you did up there.”

“I just did what I had to do.”

“And Chiara’s alive because of it. You’re a hero, falcon boy!”

That produced a strange sensation. I’d never been called a hero before and I wasn’t sure I liked it. Before I could reflect any further, my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the trapdoor opening. It occurred to me that I probably should have been upstairs, helping Mother, but when I turned around I realised my priorities were about to be altered.

Father was there, Chiara leaning on his shoulder. Even in the blue light, she looked as pale as a spectre, like she was on the verge of fainting. As for Father, he was working hard to regain his breath. I rushed over and took hold of Chiara, letting her reach around my shoulders for support.

“Thank you, Kopra. I have a favour to ask of you.”

“I figured. Do you need me to look after her?” I gave Chiara a casual pat on the back, to which she didn’t react.

“I’m afraid so. I must go to New Auckland, the other engineers tell me we’ve been hit by un unforeseen shortage of copper. Hopefully Bikral can sort us out!”

“When will you be back?”

“I’m not sure, it might not be until tomorrow. We’ve sunk so far below New Auckland that it will take six re-fuels to get up there. Six! If only a monocopter or two would fall into the Void for us… Are you sure you’ll be alright with her?”

“Yes… I think.”

“You’re a credit to all Voidese. I should warn you though… she’s very nauseous. See you all later!” He waved to Gafra as he departed, clambering up a short ladder to get back through the trapdoor. His walking stick hung from his belt and it knocked rhythmically against the wall as he rose. The sound made Chiara wince and I turned my full attention to her.

A thick, copper-coloured column rose from the middle of the floor, holding up the ceiling. Attached to it was a simple plastic seat, which I helped Chiara into. Meanwhile, Gafra sprang out of the hammock and started ferreting around the kitchen. A moment later, she returned with a cup of water, delivered by pipe from the tank on the shop’s roof.

Chiara took the cup in both hands. As she reached out, I noticed her arms were still trembling. There were no longer tears on her face, but I detected a wavering of her voice when she said, “Th-th-thank you.”

“Is there anything else you need?” I asked in the most paternal voice I could manage. Gafra’s raised eyebrows told me I’d overdone it.

“Please… s-s-stay with me.” She looked at each of us in turn, then took a sip of the water.

“Of course. We’re not going anywhere,” said my daddy voice.

Like a pet introduced to a new enclosure, Chiara regarded her surroundings with wide eyes. Father had warned us she was nauseous and I wasn’t sure whether the submarinesque lighting would help with that. For a good minute she just stared, taking in the features of a household alien to her. Then she asked, “Where am I?”

“You’re in my home,” I replied. “My name is Kopra. This lady is my friend, Gafra.” I gestured to the hammock.

Chiara took a gulp of water, then said, “Okay. Y-y-you live underground?”

“Yes. Most people in the Void live underground. Means there’s more space for growing crops!”

“The Void?”

“Yeah. That’s where we are.” Suddenly I grasped the problem. I’d expected father to give her The Talk, but he had not. It was up to Gafra and I to explain this weird new world to the new girl. We’d often joked that explaining quantum mechanics to a baby would be easier.

Before I could say any more, I noticed Chiara’s eyes were watering again. She shivered again when she said, “I was falling… I was so scared…”

“Please, try not to think about it. You’re safe now. There’s nothing to be afraid of, we will look after you.”

“I saw… a mountain…”

Gafra spoke up. “The mountain is called New Honolulu. It’s named after the capital city of a territory called Oahu, which was part of the Atlantic Federation.”

“But I didn’t see anything else… just the mountain… and the sky…” Chiara’s face was once again concealed by her hands, but she still spoke to us. “I was so scared, Kopra. Thank you for saving me.”

“It was no trouble-”

“He always says that,” Gafra sneered.

“Chiara, I need to tell you some things about the Void. The mountain we live on… it’s floating.”

“Floating?” Chiara looked up at me again.

“Well, technically it’s falling. Everything falls in the Void, but large objects fall much more slowly than small objects. There are the mountains and there’s the air and the clouds, nothing else. That’s the world you’re in now and… I’m really sorry, but there’s no way we can get you back to Earth.”

“So… I’m not on Earth any more? I can’t go home?”

“No, at least, not with the technology we have.” That was Gafra, who had crept out of the hammock and was now sitting down beside Chiara, placing a tender hand on her shoulder.

“The Void exists in a time and space separate from Earth. It’s called a wormhole. My father leads the engineers, they’re very clever people, but even they don’t know how to leave the wormhole. Gravity is really strange here, it locks everything in.” I noticed Chiara’s throat was developing a distinct botanical hue, so I changed my tone. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll like it here. There’s no conflict like on Earth. Everything is peaceful.”

“And there are four generations of people like us to help you out!” Gafra added.

Chiara lifted the cup to her mouth and drained it. As soon as she finished the water, she started coughing. It was a hoarse cough, like she had something lodged in her throat. “I need…” she began, her voice hardly a whisper.

“Do you want a refill?” Gafra said, reaching for the now empty cup.

“I need… ugh… b-b-bucket.”

Having lived in a flight tech shop for my whole life, I wasn’t used to being asked for things as mundane as a bucket. For a moment, I wondered why Chiara would request such a thing. Then it hit me like a lightning bolt. The mixture of fear, nausea and utter confusion was too much for the poor girl. She needed a bucket to be sick into.

I zoomed into the kitchen so fast, you’d think I was still wearing a jetpack. My hands nearly tore off the pantry door. Then I seized the nearest washable container and flew back to Chiara. I plonked the container on the floor beneath her with a femtosecond to spare. Gafra and I had no choice but to watch as her last meal made its untimely escape.

When her stomach finally finished evacuating, Chiara leaned back, gasping for breath. Gafra went to refill her water. Everything was silent for a few minutes. Then Chiara looked at me with a frown deeper than the Void itself. She asked, “Are you s-s-sure you can look after me?”

“Positive. It would be my honour.”

“Never thought I’d say this, but… I miss Earth already.” The girl began retching again. Next minute, she had her head in the bowl again for an encore performance.

 

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