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Book Two of the Darklands Trilogy
By Anthony Eaton
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2007 Anthony Eaton
All rights reserved.
Sunrise glittered and sparkled across the domes and spires of Port City. Lari loved this time of day. Below him, the minor domes floated from the darkness. Here and there a flyer dashed out of the night, rushing for cover before full daylight covered the city.
In the growing light, the bluish autotint that shielded the citizens of Port in their enormous domes from the worst of the solar radiation began to activate, morphing the colour of the city through light to dark blue until finally the domes would become almost completely opaque, only vague hints of shape and movement visible within the smooth curves of clearcrete.
From this high up, the city was beautiful, almost peaceful. Even the air was still, only the vaguest hint of a breeze drifting around the curved outer wall and brushing against his cheeks. It was hard to imagine that somewhere down there, below the graceful, shimmering curves of the domes, was the underworld. Gripping the low railing of the balcony, Lari leaned out as far as he could, peering down into the gloom.
He could just make out the vague forms of the old city. Its squat, boxy, crumbling towers huddled close to each other in perpetual twilight. Here and there dull flickers rushed along dark, formless gullies as someone – something – darted from one place to another. From those gullies the stems rose, countless thousands of slender columns soaring up into the sky, far above the highest of the old towers, each fanning out into three long support arms, holding aloft the domes of Port City. Here and there, a stray beam of sunlight penetrated the forest of stalks, walkways and maglift shafts, and glinted grey off ancient concrete.
The underworld. The sight sent a shiver through Lari. He'd never been down there, of course. His whole life had been spent in the bright, glittering air of the upper towers, but like most Port children Lari had grown up hearing the fairy tales, and had his fair share of childhood nightmares about that dark, dangerous world which lurked in the shadows below, populated by shifties and clans and who-knew-what-else. Even now, at thirteen, when he knew he should be too old for such silly fears, it was hard to suppress the coldness that slid down his spine whenever he stared into that dark abyss. His father would laugh at him if he knew. 'Irrational', he'd call it.
The band around his left wrist emitted a soft chime and Lari sighed. Not even full sunlight and he was already approaching critical. Still, he didn't move inside, not yet. Instead he took a few steps further into the shade of the bluing dome behind him, hoping for just a little longer in the outside air.
He wondered, not for the first time, what Janil would say if he knew that Lari came out here, risking exposure for a few minutes in the sunrise. Most likely he'd shake his head in disgust that someone related to him could be so stupid. So reckless. His brother was like that; everything by the book.
But Lari liked it out here. He liked the slightly dusty taste of the air, the coolness that raised gooseflesh along his exposed arms. He even liked the feel of the sun for those few brief moments. Most of all, he liked the memories.
Out towards the east, several kilometres away and perhaps two hundred metres below, the massive form of Port North Central loomed out of the dawn, more egg-shaped than the accom and rec domes which filled most of the sky. Lari watched the sunlight dance through the communications antennas that festooned the enormous expanse of the egg. Its six supporting arms branched upwards out of the darkness, only just visible in the shadow of their enormous load; holding aloft literally thousands of lives, homes, commercial centres, processing and recyc plants, hydro nurseries, ionic air filters ... the thousands of individual people and parts that kept this part of the city functioning. And, of course, DGAP. Lari knew that somewhere over in that massive dome his future was waiting for him, whether he wanted it or not.
Something caught his attention. Far below, a flyer raced through the dying shadows of night, coming in fast from the east, its flickering red beacon highlighting it against the gloom.
'He's cutting it close,' Lari muttered, knowing that the pilot would get blasted by his father for risking such a late return. 'Hope it's Janil.'
It wouldn't be, though. If there was one thing his brother never messed with, it was exposure protocols. As Lari watched, the flyer rose up sharply, clinging to the protection of the shadows before vanishing into the round maw of the docking port on the underside of Port North Central. Immediately the opening closed behind it.
His wristband chimed again, louder now, and a brief warning tingle shivered up his arm. With a last lingering glance out across the rounded, floating skyline of Port, he turned and re-entered the dome.
The door was an access way for maintenance crews, a carryover from the past when occasionally someone needed to physically attend to one of the dome's com arrays. Lari ducked through and the square hatch glided into place behind him without a sound. The warning light set into the wall above switched from green to red and Lari fancied he could hear the faint click of the locking mechanism sealing him and all the other occupants of Dome 3327 North in for the day.
'Ladies and Gentlemen, we hope you've enjoyed this little flirtation with terminal exposure and a horrible death. Now, please relax and enjoy the rest of your day in the greatest city on earth.'
His voice echoed around the dimly lit maintenance level, and Lari grinned at his own cleverness.
He stood a moment, waiting for his eyes to adapt to the darkness, a marked contrast to the bright morning light outside. The lower level of the dome was a round, gloomy, low-ceilinged space about three hundred metres in diameter and crammed with the machinery that kept Dome 3327 North alive. Down here, automated air and water filters hummed through days and nights in eerie half-light. Walls of processors crowded almost on top of one another, each flickering thousands of green LED lights as they monitored the flow of communications between the millions of systems and connections that made the dome habitable. The ceiling was festooned with hanging pipes and cables, all colour-coded against the remote possibility that one day someone would need to actually repair something. Lari knew he'd find the same room in every other of the tens of thousands of skydomes that made up Port city.
He eased through the narrow gaps between the equipment racks, occasionally having to turn sideways and breathe in to fit through, but knowing the way instinctively. The first time he'd come here, with his mother, he'd been frightened, scared of the electric hum and the faint smell of ozone that tickled his nose and left his stomach unsettled. The way the machinery loomed out of the darkness, the faint chattering of the processor switches and their flickering green lights, and the occasional groan of a pipe under pressure had all conspired to make him grip his mother's hand tightly.
She'd just smiled and squeezed back, gently.
'There's nothing to be afraid of down here, darling. It's just machines. All this stuff keeps the world ticking over, all right?'
And Lari had nodded, not really understanding but wanting to be brave. A couple of moments later she'd led him along the narrow passageway and showed him how to use his wristband to scan open the hatch to the balcony.
'But only ever with me, and only ever when the light is green, okay?'
Four-year-old Lari snorted. Everyone knew the rule about green. And his mother smiled again.
'My little man.'
Then she'd taken him outside, into the early dawn.
Unlike that first trip, Lari now slipped confidently through the dark maze of machinery, not worried about being caught. Nobody would ever come down here.
In the very centre of the level the maglift shaft rose through the floor up into the ceiling, contained within the central stem that anchored their dome to the Earth. Lari didn't like to think too much about the fact that their home was linked so completely to the Underworld, despite being one of the highest in the city, and the shaft never failed to stir in him a vague feeling of disquiet. Placing a hand on the plascrete wall, Lari could feel a slight tremor as a maglift hummed through the system somewhere below.
Slowly, his hand trailing against the cool plascrete, Lari squeezed around the circumference of the stem until he reached a black cabinet set up hard against the shaft. Unlike the other machinery racks and arrays that filled the maintenance level, this piece of equipment was largely featureless. Only a single red lamp, unblinking, set into the middle of the facia gave any indication of something going on within those gleaming black panels.
The governor. The heart of the dome. As was his habit, Lari rested his hand briefly against the cool outer casing. Every processor, every conduit, every piece of equipment in this tight, dark space, fed into and out of this sleek cabinet. Every nanobyte of information that streamed into and out of Dome 3327 North came through here. Every protein ration, every recyc protocol and every com message was funnelled, most for less that a millionth of a second – an electronic blink of the eye – through the governor.
It was the discovery of plascrete that had allowed the domes to be built in the first place, but it was the invention of the governors that made them work – made them viable.
Somewhere in there thick umbilicals – bundles of fibreoptic cabling and superconducting micro-shafts – ran down the main domestem, connecting this governor to all the others, linking the city together, joining every citizen of Port to every other, each individual no more than a cell in the enormous, impersonal lifeform that was a skycity, carrying the data, the waste, the recyces – the bloodstream of the city.
The governor had no controls, no access panels, just that single red lamp, throwing a dim, bloody circle over Lari as he stood there.
Then he turned and squeezed once more between two long equipment racks, making his way outwards again, away from the central stem until he stepped through a plain, grey steel door and into a stairwell, a narrow tunnel of steel lit by dull, shielded globes mounted on the walls. The stairs curved steeply up towards base level.
The upper door was exactly like the lower one and for a moment Lari held his palm against it, feeling the cold tingle against his skin. There was no way of knowing if someone was outside, and if he was spotted there'd be questions that even he, the son of the great Doctor Mann, would be expected to answer. And with things the way they were in the city nowdays, it wouldn't be a good idea to get caught by security in an unauthorised area.
For a long while he listened until, not hearing any voices or footsteps outside, he hauled the door open and slipped quickly through.
Base level was quiet, as he'd hoped it would be. Sunrise came early at this altitude, and most of the residents of the higher domes tended to sleep though dawn, rising only when the sun was well above the horizon. Lari followed a narrow passageway towards the centre of the dome and emerged into the common.
On the far side from him a couple of early-risers, a man and a woman, were jogging the circular path that ran around the perimeter of the common – the large, open atrium that filled the centre of every res dome. At this time of the morning, with the sun still below base level, little light penetrated the clearcrete, and the sky above, seen through the autotinted dome, was a heavy, dull blue. Around the edges of the common rose the four residential buildings of the skydome, each curved tower taking up almost one-quarter of the cylindrical interior. Out towards the maglift hub, two shifties – a cleanup crew – were finishing their morning's work, watering with a nutrient solution the dozen or so hydro trees that punctuated the space between the buildings.
Glancing about, Lari crossed the common, detouring around the maglift hub in the centre and avoiding the curious glances of the shiftie crew, and wandered towards his own building, the eastern tower. It was still an hour or so until changeover from fourth to first shift, and then the common would be thronging with both inbound and outbound commuters.
Most of the residents of 3327 were DGAP families – heavy on the scientists and upper-level types. And, of course, most of their kids were headed the same way.
'Concentration of aptitude', they called it in the official history.
Mind you, Lari had to admit that generally speaking the system worked the way it was supposed to. Living in the domes meant that talent was nurtured young and advanced fast. Upper-level kids didn't hang around consuming resources like those from lower down. The earlier you got into your family field, the better it reflected on both you and your family, so most kids sweated their first placement and then, once they got it, spent their first couple of years climbing the ladder as fast as they could, without caring who got lost along the way. Just like Janil: only eighteen but already one of the highest-graded science engineers in DGAP. Lari didn't like to think how many shattered careers his older brother must have left in his wake.
And now it was Lari's turn – at least in theory: thirteen years old, finished school, and just waiting for placement so he could start leading a nicely productive life for the city, working within his family's 'field of expertise'.
Lari's parents were the perfect example of the system in action. They'd lived in the same dome as kids, grown up alongside one another, and both came from scientific families. And as long as they followed the correct genetic protocols to prevent inbreeding, they were free to reproduce themselves – one male, one female. It was a common story.
Lari was the uncommon part.
In the lobby of the east tower, Lari waited a couple of seconds for the lift, then as the doors slid aside he stepped into its bright interior.
'Mann, level ten.'
The lift whispered upwards.
All four res towers were built directly onto the clearcrete outer wall of the dome, the blue-filtered expanse forming a curved floor-to-ceiling window along one entire side of the apartment, looking east to where Port North Central filled the skyline below. It was the best apartment in one of the best domes in the city, but Lari barely ever noticed the view. Somehow, after the living, glittering, dusty vista outside, the light within the dome was never quite right. Always too blue, too clean, too artificial. Even at night, when the autotint went completely clear and the domes and stalks were lit out to the horizon – one of the more spectacular sights on the planet, his father always said – even then, Lari found little or no fascination looking at the world through thirty centimetres of clearcrete. His mother had been exactly the same.
'Look at it, Lari,' she'd told him on that first morning she'd taken him outside for sunrise. 'Look at how clear it is, how ... real. Can you taste the air? That's real air. Outside air.' She'd breathed in deeply and Lari, imitating, did the same.
'You remember this, okay, Lari? Remember this place, remember this morning. Promise me you'll remember.'
'Good boy. Because things are happening out there – out here, I should say, that are so big and exciting we can't even begin to imagine what a different place this world is going to be.'
She smiled down at him.
'Impossible things. You'll see one day soon, I promise. And you're going to be such an important part of them, too.'
She fell silent then and for a long time they'd stood, mother and son, watching together the gradual creep of daylight across the skycity, until finally her wristband began to chime.
'We have to go in now, Lari.'
Taking his hand again, she'd led him back to the hatchway, then crouched to his level.
'This has to be our special place, okay? Just for you and me. You can't tell your father or brother about it, because then it won't be just for us, all right?'
Eyna Mann leaned forward and kissed her son's forehead.
Lari stood before the enormous window wall of the main room of their apartment, staring out at the city, and traced his fingertips lightly across his forehead. Even now, after all these years, if he closed his eyes and concentrated he could still feel the faint, dry imprint of that kiss. That morning his mother had marked him as hers and even after she'd vanished, just a year or so later, that claim still lingered. It was why he kept returning to that balcony, time after time.
Shaking his head, Lari turned away and went into the kitchen.
Excerpted from Skyfall by Anthony Eaton. Copyright © 2007 Anthony Eaton. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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