Having said exactly as much as he meant to, he declined to answer further questions. Another irritating grownup habit. I wondered at what age I would become insufferably cryptic. He sent me home with instructions to double my dosage, and affixed a collar he informed me would notify the hospital should my condition worsen. I tried to remove the cumbersome thing once home but found it was locked in place.
“Nice necklace” Elena sneered. I considered levitating the potato from my plate and accelerating it towards her, but my better nature prevailed. “Tell me about your day”. Mom said it so coldly that I knew better than to waste her time talking about the geometry test, what I had for lunch and so on. She meant the altercation at recess.
I pushed the fish around my plate. Tilapia, cultivated on the aquacultural platforms. Right then I wanted to be anywhere else, to discuss anything else. “I had an accident”. Mom scoffed. “Do you know what happens to the ones who have too many accidents? You’ll be taken from me. Maybe jettisoned if they can’t cure you. There’s only so much power keeping us aloft. Only so many people the platforms can support. They have good reason to be selective about who stays.”
She spoke sternly, but with tears in her eyes. It was contagious. My anxiety took the wheel, and I broke down. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m scared. I don’t want to go back to the hospital. I want to stay with you, Dad, and Elena. I love you. I know there’s something wrong with me, something in my head is broken. I have deviated, but not on purpose. Don’t throw me away. Don’t let them throw me away!”
A tense silence followed. Mom ordered Elena to her room, over her protestations. Once she was gone, we got down to business. Mom leaned in, eyes red and puffy, and began whispering in a conspiratorial tone.
“Whatever is happening, you have to control it. Don’t ever let anyone realize you’re different. I’m deviating too, by advising you to hide an abnormality. I hope you realize the risk. Only because I love you. Because I held you in my arms when you were born, changed your diapers and stayed up long hours rocking you to sleep. I’ll die if I lose you. Can you swear on my life that you’ll never slip from now on?”
I took her hands. Dad’s went over mine. Then I swore. I found Elena curled up in a ball on her bed, clutching her stuffed bird. “I’m scared. Are they really gonna take you?” I told her I wouldn’t allow it. That I’d never leave her behind. Wrapping my arms around the quivering little sister-ball, I held her until the shaking stopped.
I spent some hours with her, just talking, laughing and braiding her hair. By now a tangled nest of those silly colored animal beads. When she was absolutely, positively convinced I wasn’t going to disappear if she took her eyes off me, I received her permission to get some sleep. And I planned to…eventually.
I shut my eyes and lay still, perceiving the structure around me all at once, including Elena, Mom and Dad. I watched the swirl of entrancing patterns inside their skulls until the activity diminished, such that I could be sure they were asleep. Then I put on more layers, remembering how unexpectedly cold it was last time, and took to the sky.
This time I repeatedly let myself fall, just to practice recovery. It increased my confidence considerably and before long I was looping, cartwheeling and twirling through wispy puffs of cloud. I slowed to a stop, remembering the story Dad told me. There was now a way to silence any lingering doubts. So I dove.
Down, down, into the cloud layer. Ever present, opaque, so that the mistakes of the past would forever be out of sight and out of mind. Except to me. The layer grew darker as I descended, as if I were plunging into the ocean. Finally I erupted through the underside. I halted so suddenly, one of my ribs cracked.
I doubled over, wheezing, and slowly recovered. The landscape before me was abominable. Charred skeletal remains of anachronistic buildings protruded up out of a sea of black, writhing sludge reaching contiguously from one horizon to the other. Churning, flowing, doubling back on itself. Reminiscent of ferrofluid I’d been shown a video of in science class.
Forms emerged from the soup, morphed, burst, then were absorbed back into it. The shapes of people, of animals. Some I recognized, some I didn’t. Then it took notice of me. Abruptly, a tendril formed. Thin at first but rapidly thickening as it built up the support it needed to reach my altitude. I panicked, fell a short distance because of it, then regained my presence of mind just as it nearly reached me.
I accelerated. To a speed I’d never before reached, much less vertically. Behind me the tendril thundered upwards, thrashing, grasping hungrily for my legs. I could feel it reach within inches of my feet just as I penetrated the cloud layer, before it collapsed back on itself under its own weight. I didn’t stop there, instead rocketing up into the starry night sky, breathing erratically.
So, truly, there was no returning to the surface. To our past. Yet, neither could we ascend towards our future among the stars. A cruel limbo we’re trapped in, by the blue star which brutally strikes down every escape attempt. What future is there for us? We burned every bridge behind us, and the way forward is blocked.
As if in answer, the distant voices returned. Singing beautifully, beckoning. Now less afraid, I isolated the direction it came from and accelerated towards it. I’d not been brave enough to test what speeds I could achieve before that sticky black nightmare drove me to it. Necessity is the mother of invention.
But trepidation, restraint and obedience lay behind me now. Part of the past, consumed by the black sea below the clouds. So, I flew. Piercing the crisp night air like a javelin, surging onwards, my hair slicked back against my head, the skin of my face pulled taut.
Just as I wondered whether the voices were a hallucination, I glimpsed their source. Invisible to the naked eye, but not to my mind, hidden within an immense stormcloud. What had I come all this way for, if I turned back now? So I approached.
The habitat was an immense geodesic sphere, each facet a sort of inflated pocket of air trapped between two flexible transparent plastic membranes. Like an immense, clear compound eye. I’d never seen such a structure. How did it float? There were no traces of ionic lifters above or below it.
Once I was close enough, one of the triangular facets slowly swung open. Not one to decline hospitality, I flew into it and set down on the alien landscape within. Something like a small town, the houses all domes, everything made from lightweight materials. A simulated beachfront stretched out from the houses to the edge of the sphere, artificially driven waves lapping at the sandy shore.
Illumination began to increase. Lights affixed to the interior of the superstructure wherever three beams came together increased in intensity until it was seemingly day time. Still no sign of what could keep something this massive in the air. I knew of no technology along these lines, and had never heard of the existence of an airborne habitat wholly independent from our city.
“Welcome”, a familiar voice said behind me, “To Cloud Nine.” The figure emerged from the dim interior of one of the domes, resolving itself as a gleaming machine in the form of a man. The skin a smooth, reflective silver, rigid where appropriate but flexible where necessary. There were visible seams at the joints, but they served no apparent purpose other than aesthetics. The eyes stood out the most. Dancing colored lights behind circular prismatic lenses.
“What is this place? Why haven’t I heard of it? How does it stay up?” The metal man gestured for me to enter the dome with him, but I stood fast, demanding some answers. He obliged. “Yours was not the only faction which sought refuge in the sky. Nor is yours the only capable technology for that. A wise man who lived and died centuries ago by the name of Buckminster is responsible for discovering the principles which permit our colony to levitate.”
He strode with me along the beach, gesturing to various parts of the habitat as he described them. “A geodesic sphere encloses the largest possible volume for the least possible materials with the highest possible strength, for the other two variables. Additionally, the interior volume increases non-linearly compared to the surface area. As a result, if you make one from appropriately light, strong materials and of a sufficiently large size, then heat the air inside to even a single degree higher than ambient, it will float.”
It seemed absurd. Yet I was standing in the proof. Sensing my skepticism, he went on. “Past a certain diameter, it can lift the weight of the structure. Increase it beyond that, and the additional payload weight it can lift climbs very rapidly. The heating requires no energy but sunlight, and the inflatable insulated facets retain that heat efficiently enough that we do not descend below the cloud layer overnight. So it goes, a daily cycle of heating and cooling, ascent and descent. In this way, we remain in the sky without resorting to the horrific measures your people devised to-”
I angrily interjected. “Horrific? We’re at least pure humans”. He seemed disgusted by the observation. “Have you not seen how your platforms are powered?” I stood and contemplated the question. Slowly, an unwelcome realization dawned on me. The boy in the hospital. The metal spheres. “You can’t mean…” He nodded grimly. My stomach sank. How narrowly I’d escaped the same fate.
Stay Tuned for Part 7!