… continued from The Climber
Anna did not talk to Jaci in the morning. When she awoke, she was alone, and she half wondered if it had all been in her imagination. She swung her feet out of the bunk and sat up, then stood up and stretched her arms over her head. The chamber was sized for Kwakitl, so she had to bend her elbows to keep from smacking the ceiling, but after sleeping curled in the short bunk she needed to get the kinks out of her joints. She ran her hands through her hair, remembering how it had looked in the mirror the previous night, and wondered why the cab’s designers didn’t see fit to put a doorway direct between the dormitory and lavatory. With that thought, she realized that for the first time in a long time she was self-conscious about going out into the main room in a state of just-awakened disarray.
Get over it, Anna. This was ridiculous. She palmed the door open and stepped out to face the others.
Morning sunlight flooded the primary chamber, golden through tinted windows. Laxmi, Jaci, and Ca-Tren sat on couches facing each other, finishing off the remains of a breakfast they had shared. Jaci looked up at Anna’s entrance and smiled.
“Good morning, sunshine!”
Anna grunted a response, not meeting his eye, and shuffled over to look out the windows. “Is there coffee?” The planet still loomed large below them, though they were noticeably farther away after a full night of ascending the cable.
“There is, and we’ve even figured out how to heat water at the bar. This is quite a luxurious ride, though I can’t promise that the three-year-old freeze-dried coffee will fully live up to the marketing hype.”
“Thank you.” Anna gratefully accepted the warm cup from Jaci, still avoiding facing him. “That storm has gotten bigger.”
“What storm?” Laxmi got up to look out the window beside Anna.
“That one. The one we saw just before sunset last night. It’s moved farther west, and it’s gotten bigger.”
“Is it a problem?”
“No. I shouldn’t think so. It’s just a storm.”
“It looks like a hurricane.”
“It is a hurricane.”
“And it’s not a problem?”
“This elevator has been here for hundreds of years, so no. Probably not. Might have been an issue if we were still down there, on the island. Could mean more flooding. But it’s still far to the east, it’ll probably fizzle out soon. Anyway, is there any of that breakfast left?”
Laxmi watched Anna, concern in her eyes, as Anna went over to see if they had left her any food, then she turned back to look at the tropical storm three-thousand kilometers below, with its sharply defined eye wall and thick bands of cloud radiating outward in a classic spiral form.
Jaci fetched a bowl from somewhere in the bar alcove, and he even found a spoon. Some things were ubiquitous across cultures, apparently, like spoons. He ladled a generous helping of oatmeal muesli into the bowl and presented it to Anna with a flourish.
“Still fancy yourself the greatest chef on the planet, I take it?” She couldn’t help herself; finally she smiled at him. Perhaps the coffee was kicking in.
“Oh no. We’re not on the planet anymore, so now I am the greatest chef in the Kepler orbital region. May I present you with the finest in emergency breakfast rations, steeped in local water of dubious origin, with a garnish of absolutely nothing, for your dining pleasure this morning.”
Anna laughed, gratefully accepting the bowl. She realized then she was quite hungry, and she dug in with gusto.
“You may tell the chef this is the finest example of muesli I have experienced since the last time I had muesli, two, no sorry, three days ago.”
“Be sure to leave us a review.” Jaci winked and sat back to sip his own coffee.
Anna could not bring herself to raise the topic of the previous night, so she enjoyed her bland meal, savored her bitter coffee, and relaxed.
The four of them spent the bulk of the day stretched out on the couches, or walking in circles around the cab, or gazing out the windows at the incredible view. How long had it been, Anna wondered, since she had not been in emergency fight-or-flight mode, with nothing to do but wait? She enjoyed the relaxation.
Jaci, however, seemed to have pent-up energy that he could not dissipate. He wandered constantly around the cabin, muttering to himself, until finally Anna decided she needed to give him an assignment.
“I have a job for you. See that maintenance hatch beside the bar? The one that’s still locked? See if you can find a way to get that open. I’ll bet there’s a control for it on the center console. Put your language skills to use and find it. Get Ca-Tren to help, if you want.”
“Hmm, good idea!”
Anna figured that would keep him busy the rest of the day, but in about half an hour he had the hatch unlocked and open. She really needed to stop underestimating him.
Beyond the hatch lay a short, narrow corridor, just long enough to pass between the dormitory chambers and provide access to the space behind them. Anna ducked and half-crawled through to emerge into a small utility chamber, lit only by numerous circular control panels and gauges, and just barely large enough for her to crouch in. A persistent hum, nearly too low for human hearing, reached her ears, and all the fine hairs on her forearms raised up straight.
Before her, dark patches broke up the wide bank of busy, colorful panels. Anna reached toward one of the dark areas, but before she could touch it a backlit glow gradually illuminated an area behind it, revealing the patch to be a window onto something beyond, a wide but shallow space, perhaps no more than ten centimeters deep. The far wall of the shallow chamber had a definite convex curve to it, and it extended as far up and as far down as Anna could make out through the window, seemingly without limit. It shimmered in an odd way in the low light, almost sparkling, and the closer Anna got to the window, the more the hair on her head stood up on end, reaching toward the glass surface. She gingerly put her hand against the glass, which was warm to the touch, and felt a soft vibration. With a start, she realized the far wall beyond the glass was not static, but in fact it was moving rapidly, more rapidly than her eye could make out. There were no variations in it, no imperfections, for her to gauge the movement, but it was definitely racing from above to below.
Then it clicked for her. The inner wall wasn’t rushing downward. It remained still, and she, along with the chamber she was in, and the entire cab, was rushing upward. This was the inner core of the cable, and at an ascent rate of about eighty meters per second, no wonder it was too fast for her eye to fix on it. Glancing sideways through the observation windows, Anna could see blocky protrusions extending from her outer wall toward that inner cable, nearly but not quite touching it, leaving a gap of not much more than a millimeter or two. Looking up and down, she could see more. These, she realized, were powerful electromagnets, interacting with the core, being drawn up its length and dragging the rest of the cab with them, not unlike a slug propelled by a railgun, though in this case the slug surrounded the launching mechanism. The precision engineering to allow for such tight tolerances over such a dramatic distance impressed her, but also worried her. At this speed, what would happen if they encountered an imperfection in the cable, even the tiniest bump or divot?
She shifted her gaze to the control panels beside and between the observation ports. She could not read any of the labels, and she did not dare to try touching anything in here. The cab operator’s console in the main chamber was one thing, likely designed to prevent a passenger from doing anything truly stupid and harmful, but this room was another. Only expert engineers would be expected to access this chamber, so quite possibly these controls could change advanced parameters of the elevator in ways that might not be advantageous to its operation, or to the health of its passengers. Anna satisfied herself that she saw no maroon circles, only turquoises and a few yellows, so she presumed that meant everything was working as designed.
She crawled back through the access tunnel into the light of the main chamber, where the others waited for her.
“Definitely an engineering space. I recommend not touching anything in there.”
“Should Ca-Tren and I go in and translate things?” Ca-Tren looked up at Jaci’s mention of her name.
“Sure, but really, be careful. It’s a tight fit in there, and one elbow knocking something could…”
“Could jettison the cab off the cable and send us all plunging to a fiery death, screaming as we go down?”
“Ok, yeah, that would be bad. But, really? You think that’s the sort of thing they would design into a control? Come on.”
“I think some sort of emergency escape pod function probably exists, yes, and we don’t know what control might launch it, or how it would work, so until we do know more…”
“Got it. Read labels, don’t launch escape pods.”
Jaci and Ca-Tren wormed their way through the tunnel, while Anna went over to the windows to look out at the view. Laxmi joined her, and again they watched the storm churning away far, far below.
“We’re not really in danger if they bump something in there, are we?”
Anna shrugged. “There are a lot of controls in there, and some effort was definitely taken to keep folks out. But no, I don’t think they’ll inadvertently do anything bad, as long as they’re careful. And they’ll be careful.”
The hours went by, and Jaci and Ca-Tren made progress toward cataloging the engineering controls. They did not find anything that appeared to be an escape pod launch, but plenty of adjustments to the strength of the electromagnets, the speed of the ascent, the power drawn from the cable, and the frequency of recycling the chamber’s air.
By the time they broke for dinner, Laxmi and Anna had discovered the real escape pods, accessed via small, unobtrusive hatches in the floor, each barely large enough for five Kwakitl or perhaps two or three humans. The pods were equipped with only simple controls, crash couches, and what appeared to be survival kits and emergency ration packs, no doubt expired centuries earlier. Anna expected their operation was largely automated, nothing more than a reentry vehicle, from an age when the occupants could have a reasonable expectation of a rescue crew coming to fetch them from wherever they touched down. She wouldn’t care for their chances of that happening today.
Jaci continued his role of chef, doing his best to make dinner more interesting, but ultimately an emergency meal bar could only be prepared in a handful of ways. He tried breaking them up in hot water to make a stew, but that proved even less appetizing than the original bar, straight from its wrapper. Only Ca-Tren found it interesting, a change from her usual diet of fish, kelp, and algae, and she ate it with gusto, while Anna and Laxmi poked at it with their spoons.
The evening stretched on, late sun shining through the window long after the lower reaches of the cable had passed into the shadow of the planet’s umbra, while far overhead the ring station continued to gleam in its arc toward the western horizon. Anna yawned, realized she had dozed off, and muttered a good night to the others. She rose and shuffled toward the dorm, then stopped at the hatch and looked back.
Jaci watched her, his face carefully composed and nearly unreadable. He seemed both expectant and neutral, all at the same time. Laxmi looked up once, saw Jaci’s expression, then quickly looked away, taking an inordinate interest in something over by the window.
Anna hesitated, indecisive. What was the right move here? She knew what she should do, what she had told herself during the night she would do. It was time to put an end to this, before somebody got hurt. She turned toward the dormitory hatch.
Then she looked over her shoulder to see Jaci still watching. She rolled her eyes, let out her breath, and inclined her head toward the dorm in a come along gesture before ducking through the hatch. A moment later Jaci followed her through, and she shut the hatch behind him.
She put her finger to his lips and looked into his eyes.
“Don’t say anything. Just be with me.”
She took his hand and led him toward the bunks.
… continued with Arrival, Interrupted
header image credit: Oleg Gamulinskiy / pixabay.com via Pixabay License
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