Rice sucked the last of the beef stew from its tube and stared at the wall across the cafeteria as he chewed the small cubes of meat and vegetables. He felt glad to finally be done with his calories for the day. It wasn't that the stew was bad, but it seemed artificial. And not because it tasted artificial, but simply because he knew it was. The fact that it came in a tube didn't help, either, but gravity was much too weak lately for bowls. In just a few more days, things would begin falling up instead of down, and life would get much more confusing.
He glanced over at Leah sitting a few empty seats away. Even though she too was looking straight ahead, she didn't seem to be staring at the wall. Somehow she naturally avoided looking awkwardly unoccupied. Or perhaps looking unoccupied didn't make her feel awkward. That was probably it. She didn't care much about anyone else, and that was one of the things Rice had found interesting about her.
She had a narrow, fox-like face, paler even than was the norm in their living complex. On her lower lip she unabashedly wore a ring on the left side, and her hair was dyed ghostly white and brushed completely to one side of her head. A tattoo ran up her arm on the same side and disappeared under the sleeve of her t-shirt; it was a pattern Rice didn't recognize from anywhere else, a random criss crossing of lines and blobs that reminded him somewhat of rain running down a window.
He spoke to her on occasion, but got the impression she didn't like him very much. The only person she did seem to like in the slightest was a near-elderly mechanic named Arnold, a wrinkly man who somehow seemed more full of life than anyone else Rice knew. As a mechanic his skill and experience were unmatched in the complex, and he routinely turned down increasingly lucrative contracts from OWLCOM to join their engineering teams on Novus. He would stay on Earth until the very end, he'd insisted. There's no place like home.
Arnold was the one who had introduced Rice and Leah when he had found them sitting silently at the round table in the corner of the cafeteria. It had been Rice's third day after moving to the complex, and his third day eating lunch at a table with this girl who seemed absolutely uninterested in him. She had looked like a member of that lonely subculture he'd always admired from a distance, one of those people with an air of total independence and nonchalance combined with a confidence and sharpness of mind which most people hardly suspected in them. So he had attempted to introduce himself, but she had always been dismissive though vaguely polite. She clearly wasn't interested in him as he was in her, and he couldn't blame her.
Rice swallowed down his mouthful of stew and was going to grab his tray and stand when Arnold came jogging through the room towards them.
"Hey, wait up!" the old man demanded. He wore a smudgy set of orange overalls with a tool belt fastened over them, his screwdrivers, hammers, and who knew what else jingling as he approached just as the electromagnets in his boots clicked along the floor, holding him down. His gray hair was matted and streaked as if he'd wiped his hands in it while doing an oil change, which probably wasn't too far from the truth.
He let himself down in a seat between Leah and Rice, glancing between them and lowering his voice to a confidential whisper. "Do you two still want to go outside?" he asked slyly, looking excessively pleased with himself.
"Yes!" Rice breathed eagerly. They had been discussing doing that a few days before. Arnold had told them he thought he knew a way, if only he could get the right key.
"Yes." Leah agreed, the hint of a mischievous smile stealing across her face.
"Good, then today's your lucky day." Arnold produced a key from his sleeve with a magician's flourish. "I told them I'd been ordered to do a yearly check on the hatch seals on the top level and they gave me the key just like that, ha!"
"Keep your voice down, man," Rice whispered. He looked around nervously at the other diners, but none seemed to be paying any attention. He felt like they were planning a prank in middle school, just like in the good days.
"Oh yeah, sorry," Arnold apologized chastely but then perked right back up. "Let's go then, I have the key for three hours, max."
A swipe of Arnold's key card in the elevator sent them rushing up towards the engineering floors at the top of the complex. "If anyone asks, you're my niece and nephew and I'm showing you around," he said. "Just act natural."
After stopping on a few floors to pick up and drop off other residents of the complex, the three were once again alone as the elevator came to a final rest at the top numbered floor of the structure. They exited into a hallway roofed and floored with grates, above and below which massive pipes carried water, fuels, and waste through the complex. It reeked of iron and dust, a scent more suited to basements than attics, Rice decided.
Other engineers ran to and fro down the hall, some of them stopping to greet Arnold and glance suspiciously at his two companions. Both looked out of place, but Leah in particular looked like a penguin in the Sahara and got the majority of the suspicious glances because of it, not that she seemed to care. Arnold told the others exactly what they had agreed to give as their cover story: Leah was his niece and Rice was his nephew and they were interested in seeing how things got done behind the scenes.
They worked their way toward the western side of the building, the side with no windows. The setting became less industrial and more like a storage area as they went, and eventually they found themselves dodging between crates and doing their best not to knock off any of the dust layer that coated everything. They were moving over the complex's eleventh sector, a sector that had been abandoned to save resources after enough people had gone off-world to free up the space, Arnold explained while switching on the lights for the next section of hallway.
Finally they reached what seemed to be the end of the hall, and they backtracked to the nearest door with a triangular VENTILATION sign. Arnold nodded with satisfaction as his key turned creakily in the lock and the door swung inward at his push.
"Yes, I think this will do," Arnold said to himself, inspecting the small room. A circular hatch with a handle was embedded in the opposite wall next to a tubular machine Rice could only guess was the bottom part of an air filter. Besides that, the room was empty, and it didn't have space for much more.
Arnold flipped open the electric panel on the machine, but everything had already been shut down.
"Close and latch the door," he commanded, and Rice obeyed. "Ok then, hold tight, this might hurt a little."
He jerked down on the hatch's handle and pulled with all of his might. Finally it came free from the wall with a loud pop and both man and hatch fell to the floor in a heap. Air rushed from the room with a sound like a jet engine and both of Rice's ears popped with an alarming amount of force, dazing him for a moment and forcing him to one knee. The next thing he knew his ears were ringing like they never had before but the flow of air had nearly stopped. He looked to Leah and saw her push her hair out of her face. She hadn't fallen, and Rice felt a little prick of embarrassment.
Arnold said something, but to Rice it just looked like he was mouthing words. Rice held out his hands and shook his head in appeal, and Arnold nodded and waved before entering the vent. Rice jumped up and beat Leah to the small aperture, crawling in second.
Their journey still wasn't quite over, but Rice could see the light at the end of the tunnel. They crawled forward slowly, taking breaks every few seconds. The thin air made every movement seem like ten. Rice could only imagine how much more difficult it would be if he were in his sixties as Arnold was.
The end of the tunnel had been blocked by a grate which quickly succumbed to a screwdriver from Arnold's toolbelt. He shoved it outward and Rice heard it clatter against the roof below. He could start to hear that Arnold was saying something as well, but he only caught the end of the sentence: "...about like 20,000 feet now at sea level, I heard."
Arnold pushed the grate further away from the opening and crawled out. "Perfect!" he declared merrily, standing up as Rice's head emerged from the vent behind him. "And beautiful!"
Rice had to agree. The sun baked his skin, the wind licked softly at his hair, the air flowed crisp and cold. It was more beautiful even than in his childhood memories and incomparable to the dimensionless substitute that staring out a window now seemed to be. Rice stood up, and the mere effort of it winded him. "So this is how Earth feels" he wheezed. "I had forgotten her."
He hadn't been outside in over ten years, and back then it had been different. The pollution had been so bad the world was an unbroken sea of fog. Now, presumably since the bulk of humanity had already left and brought their manufacturing with them, the smog had lifted and revealed the ground again. How ironic, Rice thought, that leaving the Earth would clean it up enough to return. But there would be no returning. The planet was being disassembled bit by bit, its blood and guts mined and taken by space elevator to the edge of the void, from whence it was hauled by ship beyond the moon's orbit to the construction site of their new planet. The process was nearing completion, and there wasn't a whole lot of Earth left to return to.
Leah came out last and glanced around silently, looking appreciative, which for her meant looking slightly less like her parade just got rained on. They stood on a sort of sub-roof below the main roof. Behind them was the wall they'd crawled out of, to their right was a row of air filtration units, belching and humming as they cleaned the thin air and passed it on to the accumulators, and to their left and front the building fell away like a steel cliff. Beyond extended a hilly desert of shrubs and brambles. Patches of golden sand alternated with gritty regions of low hedges and vines clinging to the ground like velcro.
Arnold closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and sucked air noisily through his nostrils. He turned to his two friends. "Hey, Leah, you don't look like this is your last breath of Earth-air! Get with the program!"
Leah leaned back against the wall and drew a cigarette out of a pack in her pocket. "If it's too thin to get a cig lit then I hate Earth air."
Arnold looked taken aback but then just shrugged. "I thought you wanted to come out. Whatever." He pointed towards a chain of mountains looming in the distance and looked to Rice, eyes sparkling. "Did you ever go hiking? I went with my dad and brothers all the time in the Rockies, a long time ago."
"No," Rice shook his head regretfully. "The air was already too bad when I was a kid, and there were hardly any trees left, anyway."
"What a shame." Arnold's expression shifted between wistfulness and wonder as his eyes scanned the surrounding landscape. "There will be mountains for us on Novus, you know. Two of them. One in each hemisphere, right in the middle. If you bring binoculars to the top, you might be able to see people waving at you from the other peak. That will be strange as heck, eh?"
"No doubt," Rice agreed, picturing a mountain hanging upside down above him and Arnold's toothy grin greeting him from its summit. "But I don't know how much of a hobby you can build around two mountains."
"Well, it's what we've got to look forward to, so start looking forward to it," Arnold suggested. "On the bright side, they'll be three hundred miles tall each. That's an awful lot of hiking. I'll take you sometime."
"Sure," Rice smiled diplomatically. Arnold spun back towards the scenery and Rice moved over next to where Leah sat against the wall. She blew out a lungful of smoke and drew in another, failing to acknowledge his approach. "You can do that when the air's so thin?" he asked curiously, still panting as if he'd run a mile.
She shrugged dismissively and spoke without looking at him. "When I was young I was a swimmer, one of the best in my age group, out of dozens of millions. I guess I still have the benefits of all the exercise."
"But you don't swim anymore," Rice ventured.
"No one does. The pools are all packed with idiots standing there throwing balls around. No room for athletes." She nodded towards Arnold. "Look at him and his mountains. He wants to know why I'm in a bad mood? I want to see the ocean. You wouldn't understand."
But suddenly he did. "I wish I had something to miss that badly," he sighed.
Leah scowled at him. "No you don't, trust me. Leave off." She looked past his shoulder. "What's that lunatic doing now?"
Rice turned just as Arnold finished removing his boots and started pulling his socks off.
"What are you doing?" Rice echoed with alarm.
Arnold smiled towards him. "Feeling the wind between my toes. Don't worry about me, I'll be careful." He stayed seated and kept a hand crimped under the lip at the edge of the building. "See?"
The sight made Rice nervous as hell, but he wasn't Arnold's mother. He moved to where he could both talk to Leah and keep a close eye on Arnold. With gravity being so weak, the wind could blow the older man away if he slipped without his boots on.
Rice returned to the conversation. "There will be pools on Novus, and oceans, sort of."
"Yeah," she agreed. "And there have been since they started building the dammed place. But they've kept me bottled up here the whole time because swimmers aren't needed to build it. Guess you could say I'm bitter."
"I'm sorry," Rice said sincerely. He had known Leah for a while now, but he'd hardly been able to get any information out of her before. He regretted now that he hadn't tried harder. She had always seemed aloof and sometimes even hostile to questions, but he didn't get the impression now that she was truly upset with him for asking them, even if she tried to act that way.
They sat silently for a while. Arnold wiggled his toes over the edge and Rice watched his expression with interest as something profound and introspective took up residence in it. The toes stopped wiggling and he stared toward the mountains. Rice could see memories flowing across his face like a river, he could see the lone tear race down his cheek and the years of life he now relived. His trance pulled Rice in, and Rice could see the little boy running barefoot through the mountains and splashing through streams, his laughter echoing across the craggy summits around him.
Rice snapped out of it as Arnold stood, turned towards the mountains, leaned forward, and leapt.
"No!" Rice and Leah cried in unison, bolting upright. Both dashed towards the ascending man, their boots pounding on the roof. Rice took the lead, but as he reached out, Arnold turned in the air and smiled down at him. Rice stopped in his tracks, mouth agape, his hand falling away as Arnold ascended like an angel rising into heaven, smiling serenely and lifting his gaze toward the sky. Leah shoved Rice to the ground and bolted past, instinctively jumping to grab at Arnold's feet. But only one of her boots could depart the surface at a time, and she floated balloon-like, anchored to the roof by one leg as she reached in vain for her friend.
But he was out of reach.
"Don't worry!" he called, twisting again in the air toward his mountains, soaring away with his arms spread like wings.
Leah and Rice stood on the edge of the precipice for what seemed like hours, watching until the black speck that had been their friend merged wholly with the pastel violet of the evening sky.
"You could have gotten him," Leah stated plainly, no hint of accusation in her voice.
"Think he'll be back?" she asked, flicking a cigarette butt in the direction Arnold had flown. It chased obediently after him, but the little bit of air left dragged insistently on it.
Rice shook his head. "No, I don't think so. But he'll probably make it to one of the other living complexes. If the wind ever lets him down, that is."
"What an idiot," Leah decided with sad disgust, turning back towards the vent. "I'm going in, nothing else to do out here." She knelt and crawled back into the vent without waiting.
Rice stood at the edge of the structure and stared out into the deepening dusk for a few more moments. Had she not seen the look on his face? The power, the grace, the confidence? There had been something almost animal about it, free from the inhibitions and sluggish circumspection of his human side, open to the experience and anchored in the present, with no thought nor worries for the future or the consequences. Rice had never seen an expression of such freedom, and he envied his friend dearly for what he must have experienced: a dreamlike flight across the canyons and mountains of the ancient world that that had birthed and raised every human since before history, a world that would soon be no more. But mostly he envied him for the moment he took the leap, for that single cathartic moment that had been worth his entire life, the moment summed up in that otherworldly smile.
Something changed then and there in the machinery of Rice's mind, like a floodgate bursting open and unleashing a part of him he'd long forgotten. His brain swelled with the thoughts of all he'd missed and all of the ambitions he'd let languish. He'd always told himself he lived in a cage, a place where actualization needed to be postponed. But now he saw that excuse for what it was and realized what a waste of the last decade he'd made.
He bowed his head towards the skyward grave of his friend and left the rooftop as a different man.
For some loose background look up "Globus Cassus" on Wikipedia
I think I will be returning later to this chapter to fill in more detail, but I wanted to get this story off the ground right away!
As always thank you for reading and your kindness in leaving a review will be returned :)
Also the story name will most likely be changed but I thought this one was kinda cute ;)