By THOMAS STEVENSON
Life is a matter of perspective. Consider the vast expanse of the Void, for instance. If one could peer into this world from outside, let’s say from a complex observatory on Earth, they would notice very little. Their instruments would probably see nothing more than a collection of gases, so similar to those in the terrestrial atmosphere that one would conclude their instruments were contaminated. If they were lucky, they might pick up on the rocky masses drifting calmly through this space, but fine details would be obscured by temporal effects. Time in the Void is not equivalent to time on Earth.
Those who live inside the Void, undetectable and unknown to the homeworld, see a very different picture. They know the air around them extends for astonishing distances, but they can never see further than a tank of jetpack fuel. Most of the time they scuttle atop the drifting islands of rock and tend to their young crops and thin fields. Sometimes they skydive for sport, or travel to other islands to trade. They feel they are safe and happy. They see the Void as a haven.
Now is an especially busy time on New Honolulu, seat of the esteemed Engineers whose technology has kept the Voided alive – and mobile – for nearly a century. Recently a terrible battle wiped out most of the “engies,” so a younger and more creative group have been elected. Opalis is on his way to see one of them. He is only waiting for his helper.
Opalis sees precious little of anything. He was born down on the ice and arrived here by chance, as everybody does. His expression is blank as he stares at the wall of his shared residence, looking not at it but through it. Circular lumps run in rows down his face like spores on a fern frond. These curious marks, which draw the attention of so many youngsters on the road, serve to hint at his remarkable identity. His bloodline is the result of a ridiculous wartime experiment many generations ago. Sadly, his parents were unable to explain it before they passed away, but Opalis has found his new life in the Void illuminating.
“I’m ready! Sorry to keep ya waiting,” Gafra calls out. She steps out from behind the invisible wooden wall, her clothes stirring up the air as they swoosh about. Opalis does not move. His head does not turn. His unseeing eyes do not blink.
He replies, “There’s no need to apologise. You look great.” His face contorts into what he imagines a smile looks like. Gafra has seen similar expressions from the anxious meerkats on New Kuala Lumpur. She knows Opalis is just trying to be polite.
What he really sees is not Gafra’s body, as such. Nothing of her crimson hair, the jagged scar across her cheek or the chip in her incisor is visible to him. These features are physical and chemical, but Opalis can only see the electrical. His vision is of charges flowing, jumping, flashing all along her nervous system. His view of Gafra, and of everybody else, is a network of fibres surrounded by a faint mass of cellular jelly. It is, in fact, the subtle magnetic fields projected by these charges that he detects. Thanks to those who engineered his ancestors, he will forever be classed as a Magnoceptor.
“Let’s go,” Opalis says as he picks up a wooden cane and hoists himself onto his feet. His voice is crystal clear, but very quiet, almost a whisper. Gafra suspects that he went years without speaking on Earth. It had helped him to evade the famished scavengers who prowled the ice, ready to kill and pillage anyone who fell into their path. He’d only ever known those desperates by the sharp buzzing of their cranial centres.
Gafra asks, “You need some help with yer boots?”
“You’ve got ‘em on the wrong feet.”
Opalis does not look down. He just sighs and sits back down on the plastic chair, letting his friend detach the boots and swap them around. They are going to visit a man who will hopefully be able to end predicaments like this. The Magnoceptor feels Gafra’s hair brush against his face as she kneels down to tie his laces. Yet again, he tries to imagine what it would be like to see her skin, not just touch it. All he comes up with is jelly.
“There ya go! Now we’re ready,” she chirps. Gafra has never been to Earth. Opalis never had to ask her. He knows simply because she is far too happy.
Together they step out of her impermeable home and Opalis feels the warm, open air. As they begin tramping uphill, he starts to pick out the signals from everyone else in the area. Their neural patterns create a glittering starfield in his mind. Some of the stars move. Those who are fastest display the erratic, still-developing ticking of the youngsters. They dart about and chase each other through the fields. Closer by is somebody hammering at a wall. Opalis focuses on her and recognises the conflicting cortical impulses of Chiara, an ice-born like him.
Gafra leads him on, keeping a hold on his shoulder, as his boots scuff and his cane digs into the loose gravel. Although he can barely get anywhere on his own, he takes comfort in the fact he can perceive things she cannot. Amongst the network of synapses he has learned to call his friends, Opalis picks out the regular, lifeless bubbling of the hydrogen fuel cells they rely on for power. He can almost hear the sparks that snake along wires and cables in the more technological parts of New Honolulu. Beneath it all, he can even feel the mysterious telluric currents that trickle through solid rock like streams into a crevasse.
“Here we are,” Gafra finally announces, but Opalis already knows. Plutonium reactors create an obvious electromagnetic signature and only the Engineers are permitted to have them.
He says, “Thank you.”
The next person to speak is Wallish, a native of New Rakiura, the floating forest. Gafra keeps saying it’s beautiful there, with incredible luminescent trees and iridescent flowers. Opalis is not sure a trip would be worth his while.
“Heya!” Wallish calls. “Is Kopra expecting you? I’ll go and fetch him, he’s probably distracted by some new piece of kit…”
Gafra thanks him and he departs, his boots first swishing through grass and then clomping on plate metal. Opalis stands with his head bowed, one hand on his cane and the other probing for Gafra’s shoulder. He finds it and gives her a squeeze. Her serotonin influx improves marginally.
More boots come clomping toward them and the voice of Kopra welcomes the duo. “Gafra! Opalis! It’s great to see you two. Would either of you like some water? No? We better get straight to it, then.” He chuckles to himself. Like Gafra, he is far too cheerful to be an ice-born.
“I appreciate you taking time out to help me,” Opalis tells him. “With the rebuild still in progress. It means much.”
“Not a problem at all, my friend! That’s how things work here – we help each other out and we keep on living. If there’s ever a way I can help you, I will.”
“You are a hero.”
“I’m just following what my parents did. Not really a hero.”
“Vicaress Alika told me otherwise.”
“Yeah, well, Mother does like to tell stories.” Kopra the Engineer turns to Gafra and says, “Why don’t we sit down? Might as well be comfortable while we do this.”
A moment later, they are sitting on metal. It carries magnetic impulses from elsewhere in the engies’ sanctum and sends tingles along Opalis’ spine. He considers it pleasant compared to the rough, imperceptible grass and grit that covers most of the surroundings.
Kopra explains, “The mask I have designed can’t help you to see the same way we do. All it does is work with your natural magneto-reception abilities. Think of it like a tuning mechanism. Right now you’re picking up signals from all over the place, aren’t you?”
Opalis nods. Feeling too many different magnetic fields in the same place has become irritating.
“Well, your main problem is navigation. By tuning into certain electromagnetic frequencies and enhancing the signal, this mask should help you to ‘see’ using magnetic fields. You will be able to tell where objects are because their internal magnetic fluxes will be different. With some practice, you won’t even need your cane! Would you like to try it on?”
“Yes please,” Opalis replies.
“Ooooh, exciting!” Gafra remains by his side, patting him encouragingly on the shoulder.
Without further introduction, Kopra reveals the mask in question. It is placed on Opalis’ face with great care and makes for a perfect fit. There are no holes for the eyes, but two rectangular wings curve down his cheeks, leaving his nose and mouth exposed. The wings press gently into the bumps on his face and a strap runs around the back of his head. Two cables hang down and bump against his chin.
“We will need to power it with a fuel cell, of course,” says Kopra. “I’m connecting one now.” There is a click as he connects the first cable. “Are you ready?”
“Ready,” Opalis responds.
The second cable goes in and the mask powers up. A surge of energy comes from the fuel cell and Opalis can feel the hydrogen and oxygen being smashed together inside it. With all his willpower he focuses on the cell. Something new is materialising in his mind’s eye. A small box unmoving on the floor, its edges becoming sharp and its surface smooth, obscuring the electrochemical activity within.
He looks sideways at Gafra and is unprepared for what he sees. Her outline grows clearer as the seconds pass. There is her face; two eyes peering at him, a ridge he interprets as a nose, a pair of crescent lips. This wonderful assemblage stands out from a backdrop of keratinous tangles. It is a new and strange vision for Opalis, but he quickly decides that he likes it. For the first time in his life, he sees a face.
Kopra says, “There are two dials on the right side, can you feel them? Try them out. The top one is coarse focus, the bottom is fine focus. You can turn them to tune the mask into different sources and see different things.”
“I can see Gafra,” Opalis replies. “She is beautiful.” He notices the crescent mouth bend further.
“Can you see me?” Kopra asks.
He searches for the Engineer and finds a man encased in a bulky jacket. At first there appears to be nothing around Kopra. Floating there with his legs crossed, he seems to be sitting in empty space. Opalis reaches for the upper dial and rotates it a quarter-turn. Kopra’s outline blurs but a bench appears beneath him, very crisp and tangible-looking. Another quarter-turn. The conductive floor comes into focus. Round, parallel corrugations run across it and up the walls that now block his view of the fields outside. Another quarter-turn. The walls fade as well and he picks up the spinning of an electric saw being used to cut steel.
Another few turns. Back to the familiar starfield of neural impulses, but they are fainter now, mere pinpoints in the darkness. Opalis looks down and holds his breath. Seething far below him are rivers of electricity, the serpentine telluric currents, snaking through the stony basement of New Honolulu. If he had normal vision, he would say they glowed like fire.
“It is amazing,” he exclaims. “Amazing!”
“How do you feel?” Kopra asks.
Opalis re-tunes the mask so he can focus on his friends again. They have not moved. “I feel great,” he says. “Maybe a bit sore up here.” He rubs his forehead with his left hand, for the right hand doesn’t stray from the dials.
The Engineer nods. “That’s to be expected. For the first few days, prolonged use will probably give you a headache. Once you’re past that, however, you’ll be able to use it all the time with no harm!” Kopra claps his hands together. “That’s about it, my friend.”
“Thank you so much,” Opalis whispers.
Gafra nudges him. “You have any questions?”
“Just one.” The Magnoceptor fiddles with the fine focus knob so he can get the clearest possible view. Where before he would have seen only vague jelly, he is now astounded by the details visible on Kopra’s face, the scars and scabs conveyed through simple spinning electrons. It is testament to the extraordinary battle the Voidese have lived through. Opalis asks, “What can I do for you?”
“You said we survive by helping each other out. Do I not owe you now?”
“Oh… no, no, there is no debt. You’re good to go, Opalis.”
“All the same… I have heard of what you plan to do after the rebuild is complete. You’re going to Earth. It will not be an easy endeavour, trust me. You will need all the help you can get. So if there’s a place for me in your plan,” he says as he bows his head, “I want you to know I will do everything I can to help.”
“Are you serious?!” Gafra blurts. “You wanna go back to Earth? Why?”
She is no longer smiling, which hurts Opalis a little. He knows Gafra plans to join the expedition to Earth, despite her lack of experience. Her exact motives are unclear to him, but he suspects she doesn’t actually know what she is doing. Unfortunately, he is too polite to say such things to her face. Instead he explains, “I want to go because I believe we can help the ice-born. I believe in you, in Kopra, and in all Voidese.”
Kopra asks, “You’ve handled electromagnetic weapons before, haven’t you? Like a coilgun?”
“Then you will certainly be of some use. It may take years before we build the portal to Earth – maybe even decades – but I’d be delighted to have you on board!” Kopra leans forward and touches Opalis’ shoulder. “For now, learn to use the mask. Take care of yourself. And most importantly, have fun! This is your home now.”
Opalis gets to his feet, picks up the buzzing fuel cell and adjusts his mask so he can see the floor. It extends for a short distance before giving way to grass, which now appears as an expanse of fuzz with people striding through it. This is his home now. As long as Gafra is with him, he knows he will be safe and happy here. He finally sees the same haven she does. Cane in hand, he begins the walk back home, switching back and forth between the swaying grass and the tall, thin, lovely form of his friend.
Kopra and Wallish watch them leave. “Your father would be proud of you,” Wallish says.
“Just doing my duty. Speaking of which, when are we going to get this fourth wall up?”
THOMAS STEVENSON is our Deputy Editor and the author of Downfall. A tryhard geologist who spends much of his time roaming the Otago wilderness with his pet ferrets, François and Cuvier. Check out more of his work or follow him on Facebook!SHARE THIS POST...