Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning) (6 page)

BOOK: Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning)
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But that big empty space, the one we all live in, is not all that’s inside the ship. There are hundreds of other spaces, not nearly so huge, but still pretty big from a human perspective.

Some of them contained large machinery: pumps, fans, sewage-treatment facilities, recycling centers. These were automated wherever possible but usually contained a few human workers. We had toured many of them on school outings. It was the mechanical underbelly to the agricultural and residential uses of the living space. These places tended to be noisy, and not completely clean because of their functions.

The one we were in was a warehouse, and it gleamed as spotless as an operating room.

The ceiling was about a hundred feet above us, dotted with pale white LED lights high above. All around us were shelves reaching to the ceiling. We were traveling down the middle of the main road through the warehouse, with broad aisles stretching away from us on each side to vanishing points. It was dimly lit and spooky in there, except in the few places where people were working, where sensors turned up the illumination. We saw a few forklifts picking things off high shelves, and a couple of flat transport crawlers with plastic crates stacked high.

Some of those crates were just that: ordinary crates with stuff inside. It was all stuff that wasn’t perishable. Tools, raw materials, the thousand kilograms of personal belongings that each passenger of
Rolling Thunder
was allowed to take into their new life.

But most of the crates contained black bubbles.

BLINKLINK:
STASIS BUBBLES
: Invented by Jubal Broussard during his protective sequestration on the Falkland Islands. Often called “black bubbles” because of their complete lack of reflectivity. It is thought they are related in some way to compression bubbles, and are created through some as-yet-undescribed quantum effect, but this has been impossible to confirm. Stasis bubbles cannot, strictly speaking, be said to have an “inside,” topologically, but it is useful to describe them in those terms. Inside a bubble, no time passes. All chemical and physical reactions are suspended, down to the subatomic level. It is possible, in complete safety, to put living creatures inside. It is thought that whatever is enclosed in the bubble is suspended in a neighboring dimension where time exists differently than in our own universe, but this also has been impossible to prove.

Inside those bubbles could be, literally . . . anything. You name it, we probably have it. Wouldn’t it be a bitch to get a dozen light-years from Old Sun and realize you’d forgotten to bring a can opener, or your asthma medication? Trust me, somewhere in the vast warehouses there are a thousand can openers and many gallons of any kind of medication known at the time we left Old Sun.

The biggest bubbles contain water. I have no idea how much, but it is a lot. We conserve every drop, but there are always small losses. The water is in hundred-foot bubbles. It’s way more than we’ll ever use, but since we have storage space to spare and it masses nothing at all, why not bring it? Water is one of those things, you run out of it, you’re screwed. We also carry vast quantities of compressed gases.

Inside some of those bubbles are plants and animals. We have a larger collection of flora and fauna than any natural history museum on Earth, and it’s not in glass cases or wooden drawers, dried or mounted on pins. It’s all alive. We have snakes and lizards, insects and snails, fish and anemones, birds, spiders, turtles, and mammals from shrews to giraffes. I’ve seen a lot of these creatures. In school, they can be brought out of their bubbles for biology and taxonomy lessons, just as vital and not one second older than when they went into the bubble twenty years ago. Wild and domestic, we have everything.

Elephants? We have elephants. I love elephants, and I once asked Travis how many we had aboard. He said he thought it was about thirty of them. Why? Well, who knows when you might need an elephant? They are terrific if you need to move something heavy and no longer have fuel for your bulldozer. Plus, they make more elephants, unlike bulldozers. Some of the elephants are brought out on holidays, for parades and to give rides to children.

“Noah was a piker,” Uncle Travis said. “He thought too small. He only brought two of everything. Genetically unsound.”

It’s the same with plants. From trees to toadstools, we have samples of everything Uncle Travis could get his hands on. Somewhere, there are vast bubble granaries of wheat, soybeans, rye, millet, rice, oats, barley, corn, sorghum, spelt, you name it. Who knows what will flourish on our new home, and what will wither and die?

Trees? Pines and plums and pecans, some full-grown, with wrapped root-balls, some seedlings, and lots of seeds.

But the things we brought along that matter most to me, who has only known the voyage and for whom the destination is still a faraway, seldom-thought-of promised land, are the perishables. Blackberry pies still steaming from the oven. We can’t grow blackberries, they’d soon take over the whole biome. Calamari, still squirming and shooting jets of ink. Chocolate. Maple syrup. The shrimp we had just set out on the table at the party for Papa. Things we either can’t produce inside or could make only in severely limited quantities.

“None of the ecologists I hired could
guarantee
this great big terrarium could be self-sustaining for a hundred years,” Travis once told me and Polly when the family was sitting down to dinner with him. “Some kind of bug could mutate and kill all the plants. Poisons could accumulate in the soil or in the air. Something no one had thought of at all could spring up and screw us big-time. So I made sure that, worse came to worst, we could store a lot of the passengers and have enough food in bubbles to feed us all for a couple of centuries. Besides,” he said, cracking open a huge Maine lobster claw, “I’ve gotten used to traveling first class.”


We passed through two more warehouses and one wastewater-treatment plant before the car began a slow, upward climb that gradually grew steeper. I knew we were now under the North End, headed toward the pole. The higher we got, the less we weighed, until when the car eased to a stop, we were very close to the axis and didn’t weigh very much.

In fact, we weighed one-twentieth of a gravity. My 140 pounds of mass had turned into just seven pounds.

We were getting no weight from the ship’s spin, but there was that steady, gentle but relentless push from the ship’s engines, which had been thrusting nonstop for twenty years, since before I was born. That meant that the floor, or the “local vertical” as we spacegirls say, was ninety degrees from the axis of thrust, and the bulk of the ship, including all the interior living space, was directly below us.

There was a room at the end of the train line. It had a big round window . . . in the floor. There was a brass railing running all around it, for those with vertigo, but there was an opening for those who dared. I recalled our first visit to this room, when we were about three or four. It was a good memory, of standing out there on the clear plastic and looking down. I couldn’t resist. As soon as we moved carefully off the car, I headed for the window, followed closely by Cassie. We toe-walked—which is the only safe way of travel when you weigh seven pounds—touching the floor very gently, out to the center of the window.

We were slightly offset from the axis of rotation, because that’s where our “sun” runs the length of the living space. Part of the window was polarized, so that the big, hot, bright tube that serves us as a sun didn’t burn out our retinas.

Looking to one side, we couldn’t see anything of the inside of the North Pole, because it was ninety degrees to our position. Down at the rim, inside, what we would see was a huge mural, with forced perspective that made it look like the interior of the ship was a lot longer than it actually was. The best way to see from this position was to lie down, prone, and put your face against the plastic. Polly and I did that.

The surface curved away from us gradually, until about a third of the way down, when the spin gravity was big enough to be an appreciable factor, water gushed out from big outlets spaced 120 degrees around the North Pole. These were the sources of the three rivers that meandered through the living space, then plunged back underground on the flats before the upward curve of the South Pole. There was more false perspective there, in the form of sculpted “mountains” with snow painted on their peaks. The mountains were not very deep. From up here you could see they were almost as flat as scenery scrims on a stage.

About halfway down, where the curve of the end cap had become less steep—around forty-five degrees—were the first human habitations, in the medium-grav region. It wasn’t a
lot
lower grav than on the flat inner surface, but it was definitely enough that you could feel the difference. A lot of the older residents lived there.

It was also the location of Hilltown, home of the hated Hillbillies, the nastiest skypool team, boys and girls both, in the ship. Home of the Horrible Cheryl Chang, the girl who never passed up a chance for an illegal hit. I was pretty sure I could pick out the school from here, looking down on Hilltown. Too bad there was no way to open a hatch and drop something nasty on it.

Finally, the slope of the North End flattened out to the main floor of the ship. I could see the rivers gleaming silver in the light: the Mississippi, the Amazon, and the Congo. None of them were anything like their namesakes, and they would have qualified as nothing more than quiet trout streams on Earth. But from up here they were lovely, the quietly flowing, life-giving arteries of my world. They fed into small ponds like the one at our house, and each one fed into a single larger lake at a different point in its course: Lake Baikal, the deepest and most placid, Lake Michigan, and Lake Titicaca, which had the best fishing.

Looking south on the plains, you would immediately see the rings. The interior of
Rolling Thunder
is a series of terraces that run right around the circumference of the cylinder. This is necessary because of the spin gravity and the thrust gravity coming from different directions.

The spin of the ship forces everything away from the center axis at about two-thirds of a gee.

The thrust runs parallel to the axis and tends to pull everything to the south at one-twentieth of a gee.

If the interior were perfectly flat, there would be two bad results. For one thing, all the water inside would flow too fast toward the south. The rivers would become more like cascading mountain streams than the placidly wandering great rivers of Earth they are named for.

Also, we would all have to walk slightly canted toward the north to overcome the effects of the thrust gravity. Houses would have to be built with one end slightly higher than the other, or else anything you dropped on the floor would roll to the south.

“I thought of just shortening everybody’s left leg a little,” Uncle Travis told us with a perfectly straight face one day when we were seven. “That would work fine as long as we only walked to the east. But if we walked north or south, we’d be lopsided, and if we walked west, we’d fall over.” We believed this fable for a little while, thinking with a certain horror about operations to shorten legs, until Papa told us his cousin loved to “bamboozle” people, as he put it. After that, we always took anything Uncle Travis said under advisement before we believed it.

“Girls! What the heck are you doing? This isn’t a field trip.”

That would be Mama. We raised ourselves from the ground and jetted over to them, stopping ourselves with our hands against the wall near a double door. I got a good look at Papa, and it was no surprise that he was looking green. Papa doesn’t like low-gee, no-gee, and especially variable-gee. The trip up here had been an ordeal for him.

The elevator doors opened, and we moved in, Polly and I holding Papa’s hands so he wouldn’t smash into the opposite wall. We all grabbed a handrail. The doors closed, and we suddenly had about half a gee as the car accelerated upward. That went away quickly as the car reached its top speed. The shaft is about a mile and a half long.

“The ceiling will become the floor in forty-five seconds.” It was an automated warning. “Please reverse your position, with your feet on the surface that is blinking green. Hold on to the handrails. The ceiling will become the floor in thirty seconds.”

“Song about that,” Papa said, as Polly and I turned him carefully. His forehead was covered in beads of sweat, and I could feel him trembling.

“Sorry, Papa,” Polly said. “What was that?”

“Song, an old song. Can’t ’member the name. ‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.’”

“Paul Simon,” Mama said. “The album was
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
.” Never heard of him. It didn’t surprise me that Mama knew it even though it was way before her time. There’s not much about music that Mama doesn’t know.

The weird thing was, Papa might have heard it when it was new. Papa was eighteen at the turn of the century. How weird must
that
be, living in
Rolling Thunder
, halfway to the stars, when you can remember a time when humans hadn’t even landed on Mars?

Mama was reaching into her purse. She took out a pressure injector and bit off the tip. She was gently turning him around so his feet would point the right way. I eased closer and helped her. I whispered in her ear.

“Didn’t you give him his pill?” I asked.

“Two of them,” she said. “I knew this was going to be bad, but it’s worse than I feared. I know the signs. And it’s fixing to get worse.”

She pressed the end of the injector to his upper arm.

“Jubal, honey, there’s gonna be a little popping sound.”

“Popping?”

She flicked the button, and we all heard it. The drug was forced through his skin, almost painlessly. He didn’t seem to notice it.

“Prepare for deceleration.”

All of us but Papa grabbed the handrails and pressed our feet to the wall that would soon be the floor. Mama and I each held on to one of Papa’s arms. Polly had edged over in front, and was holding Papa’s feet to the floor. The deceleration built quickly, and for a moment we all seemed to be standing. Papa looked confused and started to move away from the wall.

BOOK: Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning)
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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