(Icarus Down Passes 10,000 Words)

The Great Hall

Icarus Down Scorecard:
Word Count: 11,201
Increase Since Last Report: 6,201 (Oct 23)

In the battle of zombies versus ornithopters, shoes versus iPhone, Erin’s Sorrow’s Knot continues to run ahead. I estimate that Erin sits at 15,000 words for her new novel, and she’s pretty happy with how things are going. Icarus Down is starting to come together, however. I’m still throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, but more things are sticking than not, and I’m starting to put together a framework in my mind. I know roughly where I want the story to go and some of the points I’d like to visit along the way, even though I’m not entirely sure how to get there. Though, really, that voyage of discovery is half of the joy of writing, right there.

A surprising portion of the story has resolved itself around a love triangle between the main character, Simon, his flight instructor Isaac, and Rachel — a girl Simon’s age who now works as a nurse, and ended up engaged to Isaac, though she had feelings for Simon. There’s some interesting tension there that hasn’t fully played out, although it heavily influenced my writing in the following scene, which I call “Nocturn”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the culture of the colony of Icarus Down, how they react to a life spent hiding from a sun that roars with a luminosity thousands of times more intense than our own sun. I’ve pictured colony buildings and colonists who wish to drain themselves of all colour — since anything but the whitest, most reflective surface would catch fire in direct sunlight almost instantly. Everybody wears white. Being a nurse, Rachel’s uniform bears the symbol of a medical cross — except that the cross is a pale blue.

Except for one night — the only night of the year when the sun sets beyond the horizon for the colonial cities of Icarus Down. For a colony that drains itself of colour, and maintains a prudish practicality in all matters in their drive for survival, how do they respond to nightfall?

This lengthy scene is the result. Comments are welcome, though be warned that it’s pretty close to a first draft and not really polished.

Note that, in this story, this scene is a flashback. A hospital-bound Simon, after seeing Rachel (now mourning the death of Isaac as seen here), remembers a time two years ago when things might have gone quite differently for their relationship. Simon and Rachel here are fifteen, while Isaac is sixteen.

It had been two Nocturnes ago that I’d lost Rachel. What was worse was that I hadn’t realized until then that I had a chance at winning her.

I finished my duties late that afternoon. It had been my turn to clean up the dorms, and I was down to mopping the floors. Over the hiss of steam and the clicks of the radiators, the school buzzed with excitement. Some lowerclassmen — two boys and a girl — ran through the halls, tagging each other and laughing. They stumbled to a stop when they saw me, holding the mop. They clasped their hands in front of them and looked contrite. I couldn’t help but grin, then, and I magnanimously turned my back. They giggled, and scampered off. I returned to my work, glancing occasionally out the window at the darkening sky. In the cablework, the workers were crawling their way back to the superstructure.

The memory of my father’s fall flashed in my mind, and I looked away.

“Hello, Simon,” said a voice behind me. I turned, then gripped the mop handle. It was Isaac.

“Isaac,” I said, giving him the deference due to a graduate. But I didn’t have to be warm about it.

But, to my surprise, he smiled. And there was no taunting within it. He looked… wistful.

And, suddenly, I realized that he’d just called me ‘Simon’. Not ‘Simple Simon’. Not anything worse.

“Um,” I said, after silence stretched uncomfortably. “How’ve you been?”

“Well, you know,” he said, shrugging. I didn’t. “Busy being a cadet.”

“Flying a lot?” I asked.

“Some,” he said. He chuckled. “Certainly, I’ve been cleaning a lot of ornithopters. A cadet’s job, you understand.”

Despite myself, I grinned. About time he had a taste of cleaning solution. “So, what are you doing here?”

“Nocturn break. I’ve just come back to see the Quartermaster,” said Isaac. “Catch up on some old friends.”

Old friends, I thought. Mostly Rachel, I’ll bet.

“And Rachel,” he added, not looking me in the eye. I nodded. Then he looked up at me. “You seen her around?”

I frowned. He was asking me? “I don’t know,” I replied, truthfully. “The girls’ dorm, I expect. You tried there?”

“Yeah,” said Isaac. “Um…” I raised an eyebrow. I’d never seen him his uncertain. “She wasn’t there, and I’d hoped that we’d get a chance to talk.”

I shrugged. Then, sounding more helpful than I’d felt, I said, “She may be helping with the Nocturn preparations. People are gathering to go down to the Great Hall.”

“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed, and I was perplexed as to why. Until it hit me that there’d be a crowd there. If he wanted to talk to Rachel alone, or at any timber short of a full shout, he was out of luck.

He looked around the dorm room, as though at an old photograph, even though it wasn’t his. “You know,” he said at last, “I miss this place.” He stood for a moment, staring out the window at the darkening sky, his hands shoved in his pockets. “Strange, isn’t it? I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I was sick of vocational school, sick of being a kid.”

I nodded. I couldn’t help it. It was the way I felt; the way every graduate student felt. After fourteen years of being in school, I wanted to be taken seriously.

He went on. “I thought that when I graduated, and apprenticed to be a pilot, that would be it. I’d have made it. Learning would be over; life would be simpler.” He paused.

“And?” I prodded.

“It’s complicated,” he said. Then he reached out and patted my shoulder. “I hear you’re signing up with the pilots.”

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing my shoulder where he’d touched me.

“Good choice,” he said. “I’ll look for you there.” He flashed me a grin. “Maybe I’ll be your ornithopter instructor.” And then he turned away, and walked out of the room. I stared after him a moment, then went back to my mopping.

When I was done, I put everything away and went to my own bed-locker to change into clothes for out of school. When I was ready, I headed down the hallway towards the lobby area.

The vocational school took up several rooms in the eastern side in the middle floors of Iapyx. If I’d have had parents to live with, I’d have only used the classrooms around the lobby area, but since my father’s fall and my mother’s… since I was seven, I’d lived in the dorms that took up the school’s upper level, and rarely saw the lobby. If you lived at school — either because you were an orphan, or because your parents sent you here; Iapyx’s vocational school was the best of the colony, and we often got kids from other cities staying with us until the end of term — you slept and ate there. Curfew outside of school grounds went all day, with day pass exceptions happening more and more frequently as we got older. But Nocturn was different. Nocturn was when everybody opened their doors. Live-in kids who were too young to be on their own would spend the evening outdoors under the watchful eye of a teacher, who somehow managed to make sure everybody got back the next morning. We all savoured the chance to go outside into the city. I was no different.

There was a crowd waiting in the lobby when I got there. It was so loud, I could hardly think. The entire school body was here, all one thousand of us. Kids who could go home at the end of the day were here with their parents, just so they could experience this. Everybody chattered and looked up at the clock, and counted down the seconds until the doors would officially open.

I looked around for Rachel, but I couldn’t see her in the crowd. Just then, I happened to bump into Aaron, who was putting the finishing touches on a school displays about constellations. I nudged him. “Hey, you!”

He looked up, then brushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. “What ho, Simon?”

“You seen Rachel around?” I asked.

He shrugged. “No. Why?”

“Isaac was here, asking after her.” I replied.

“Oh.” He turned back and put gave the display a final pat. “Maybe that’s the reason.”

“What reason?” I asked, frowning. “Why doesn’t she want to see him?”

“He wants to talk to her,” he said meaningfully — a meaning that I as yet didn’t understand.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“She doesn’t want to talk about it.”

I couldn’t talk further because the roar of the students made it too hard to think. I looked up and saw the Quartermaster emerge from the staff offices, his staff in tow. He strode the perimeter of the lobby, his black robes flapping behind him. He took up a position by the school doors and stood facing us, arms folded across his chest, looking stern.

“Sir, sir!” students shouted. “C’mon, let us out, now, sir, please?”

“Now, now!” The Quartermaster’s voice carried clearly over the rumble of students. “You know the tradition. Not until full night. Until then, the hall is open to officials and invited citizens only.”

There were groans, but mostly theatrical ones. We could see the sky outside the window, now a dark grey. It wouldn’t be long. Also, the Quartermaster’s face betrayed a smile before he clamped down on it. As we watched, the smile appeared again. “However…” He waved towards the staff entrance with a grand flourish. “…I thought you wouldn’t object to watching the early part of the ceremonies remotely.”

There was a cheer as two secretaries wheeled out a vid-screen, which was already showing images of crowds gathering amongst the trees and plant beds in the Great Hall. The volume blasted, but we could hardly hear it over our own voices. The Quartermaster simply stood and waited. There was a great commotion as we shushed each other, and then shushed those who shushed. Finally, our volume level had been reduced to a respectable din, and we all stared at the vid-screen.

The city’s information feed had been split, showing the crowd in the Great Hall on one part of the screen, and the setting sun — now a curved sliver of brilliance stretching across one-eighth of the horizon — in a small box in one corner.

Then the split screen showing the Great Hall expanded to fill the screen. The picture focused on the mayor as he stepped up to the podium. He stood resplendent in his robes of office, the chain bearing the seal of Iapyx around his neck. He beamed at the cheering crowd. The flood lights gleamed off his balding head. Then he raised his hands for silence.

“Would those couples who want to present themselves for the vows of marriage please gather at the centre of the hall and join hands?”

The crowd shuffled, and parted, until the centre of the hall was empty save for about a dozen couples, each holding hands and looking happy and nervous.

I leaned over to Aaron. “I can’t wait to get down there. What’s the first thing you’re going to do?”

“Me?” he replied, as though incredulous that I had to ask. “I’m going to the top level with my telescope.”

I nudged him. “You won’t see anything with that cardboard tube.”

He nudged me back, harder. “We’ll see.”

The mayor looked out at the crowd, and nodded. Then he held out his hands, palms up, and spoke the vows.

“We are gathered before the citizens of Iapyx and the representatives of the colonial government of Icarus Down, to join these couples in the bonds of marriage. If there is anyone who knows just cause why someone here should not be joined lawfully in marriage, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

There were a few catcalls. Some of the couples laughed. Others glared. But nobody stepped forward. Finally, the mayor gripped the podium and launched into the rest of the ceremony.

“Do you take your partner to be your spouse, to love and to cherish, for as long as you both shall live?”

The line of a dozen couples, holding hands, called out. “We do.”

“Do you swear, before the citizens of Iapyx and the representatives of your colonial government, that you will work together through your marriage for the future of Icarus Down, guaranteeing your new family will share the burden in preparing for the colony’s future generations?”

The line of couples lowered their heads solemnly. “We do.”

“Look to each other,” the mayor said. There was a shuffling of feet as the couples realigned themselves. “Say to your partner: You are my future. You are the future of the colony. With you I will build the future, to make a better life for yourself, for our neighbours, and for all the children we might raise.”

The mayor waited until the couples had finished saying the vows to each other. Then, with a wide smile, he called out, “By the powers invested in me, by the Creator of the Stars and the Captains of the Icarus, I pronounce the couples before me married. The newlyweds may now kiss, and show their love to all assembled.”

The couples embraced. From the crowd came stray cheers from people who could not hold down their enthusiasm. The mayor just smiled. He raised his arms one last time.

“You are blessed,” he said. “You hold the future of Icarus Down between you.”

Now the Great Hall erupted in cheers. Here in the school lobby, we buzzed in anticipation. The vid-screen swapped images, bringing the view of the horizon into sharp focus. The sun was almost gone. The glow of the crystal ground only hinting at the light over the horizon. We could see the line of brilliance shrinking across the line where the fused silica met the sky. As the sliver of brilliance shrank to a dot and then vanished, and as the sky turned dark blue, a roar rose up, not only from the lobby, but from all Iapyx. It resonated through the struts. It swayed the lights hanging from the ceilings. It buzzed in the soles of my shoes. Everybody was cheering.

“Mr. Baker,” the Quartermaster called. The chief caretaker was already ambling up to the door. “Open the doors, please. Let Nocturn begin!” His shout was echoed by the mayor on the vid-screen, and like the Quartermaster, he could barely be heard over the roar.

Mr. Baker unlocked each set of double doors and pushed them open wide. He jumped back as the first students stampeded through. Laughing, I followed the crowd. I tried to follow Aaron, but I lost him. I didn’t care. It was here! Nocturn! Nobody would be sleeping tonight!

We clattered down stairs, past offices and residential apartments. We ran deeper into the heart of Iapyx, our footfalls growing louder as more and more people joined us. Ahead, pipe and fiddle music drew us in. The stairways and the corridors got progressively wider, until finally, we burst through a line of doors and, cheering, streamed into the Great Hall. I ducked to one side, out of the stampede, and stared up in awe.

The Great Hall never failed to inspire me. Five stories it took up, at the very centre of our suspended city. It was fifty metres wide and over a hundred metres long. Located at the very heart of our pod on the colonial ship, the room used to be circular, like a big tube knocked on its side. And it used to be covered in soil all the way around. But gravity, and the relocation of most of the crop plants to the new arboretum at the bottom of our city had revealed the metal ceiling. The windows of the most important offices and the most expensive apartments looked down on us, now.

Today, it rumbled with practically the entire population of Iapyx. People filled all available space among the trees and the plant beds. Stages had been set up for the musicians. The rafters had been strung with little lights, winking on and off, giving us stars even if we couldn’t see the real ones, tonight. There were tables laden with fruits and rare meats from the forest floor. Most people milled about. Others played impromptu games of kickball. Many just danced.

All had donned the brightest colours they could find: scarves of red, blue and yellow, capes of black. Some ran through the crowds shaking hand-powered flashlights, turning them on and training them on their faces. The coloured cellophane over the bulbs gave brilliant red, blue and green tones to the laughing, leering faces.

Around them, two levels up, the richer families looked down regally. I could see the mayor turning away from his podium, shaking the hand of his chief of security — a man dressed in a dark grey uniform. No colours for him, even today.

Pipe and fiddle music bombarded the ears in an endless, frantic tune. More couples grabbed hands and danced. I watched it all with a goofy grin.

“Simon! Happy Nocturn! Isn’t it fantastic?”

I jumped. Rachel was suddenly beside me, her cheeks rosy and her eyes alive with laughter. She was dressed in white, as usual, but had festooned herself with a pair of sashes, one ruby red and the other sapphire blue. I opened my mouth to speak, only to have her shove a toffee on my tongue. “Isn’t this the perfect night? Do you think we’ll see stars?”

“Mmph, mmph!” I agreed.

“I love the colours and the music,” she gabbled happily. “And the food! The organizers have outdone themselves.” She took my arm and led me towards the food table, which was busier than the weekly marketplace. I didn’t mind. I liked the feel of her hand on my arm, how flushed her cheeks were, and the fact that the top button of her shirt was undone.

But I didn’t have anything to say to her. And when she stopped chattering, I felt as though I needed to fill the sudden relative silence. Not knowing what to say to her, I instead decided to supply her with news.

“Isaac was here,” I said, shouting over the music, which had suddenly picked up in volume

“What?” she shouted back.

“Isaac was here,” I yelled. “In the dorms. He asked after you.”

“Oh,” she said. And her smile faded.

“He wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Oh,” she said again, though I could hardly hear her over the beat of the drums. “Thanks for telling me.” And the relative silence got a lot more uncomfortable. She looked down at the end of the food table we’d just reached, and didn’t pick up a plate. I glanced over the selection, and my mouth watered. There were forest fruits, prime cuts of roasted meat, fresh vegetables from our arboretum, and brightly wrapped candies. As I reached out for a plate, Rachel suddenly grabbed my hand.

“Come on!” she said, pulling me away from the food table. “Let’s dance.”

I stumbled after her. I pulled my hand free. “Dance?! But— What about Isaac?”

“Oh, pfft—” She waved her hand airily. “He’s not here. You are, and I want to dance! Will you?” Suddenly, her eyes were on me, and I looked into them. They were earnest and deep. “Please?”

I never could resist that face. So I took her hand, and she led me onto the dance floor, and we danced. It was easy. We held hands and twirled in a circle amongst the crowds of couples and groups doing the same. We skipped to the beat, sometimes close together, sometimes an arms length apart. I liked the feel of her hands in mine. I especially liked it when we danced close together. I liked the smell of candy of her breath, and there was a fresh soap smell in her dark hair.

We danced several sets before my legs threatened to give out, and I nodded hopefully towards the edge of the dance floor. Fortunately, Rachel seemed ready to move on to something else, and took my had as we walked to an area of clear floor space.

“Have you thought about the future, Simon?” Rachel asked abruptly. I jumped. She was giving me a strange look, like there was a particular answer she wanted.

“Well… yeah,” I managed. “I mean, doesn’t everybody? School feels like it’s taking forever. I can’t wait to choose my apprenticeship. I want to fly!”

“Oh,” she said. Her mouth curved down.

“What about you?” I asked. “I suppose you’ll go to the nurses and study at the infirmary?”

She took a deep breath. “I suppose…”

“Rachel, what’s wrong?”

She didn’t look at me. She stared into the distance and didn’t say a word for a long while. The music hammered around us. Finally, she said, “I want to be somewhere else.”

I blinked at her. “You want to leave Iapyx? And, what? Go to Daedalon?” I’d heard there were lots of jobs there. But there were lots of jobs here, too.

“No,” she snapped, looking up at me. “I want to be, somewhere else.”

“What do you mean? You’re doing great here. You’re a top student; everybody says you’re a shoo-in for the nurse’s academy; you’ll make a great contribution to the colony.”

“That’s the point,” she cut in. “The colony forces me to be this way, and maybe I don’t want to be!”

I stared at her, dumbfounded. She looked away.

“I’ve heard stories,” said Rachel, “about back on Mother Earth. If I were there, I’d still have three years of education in front of me. More, maybe: five years, ten years, before I had to choose what I’d do with my life.”

I nodded. I’d heard the stories too, though I hardly believed them. How could people wait so long for their adult life to begin?

Rachel went on. “Not here. Here, the decision has to come now.” She shuddered. “The Quartermaster wants me to hand in my apprenticeship application. Isaac—” She stopped, clenched her teeth, and started again. “Elizabeth and Susan are already married, and have adopted a ward-baby together. They’re sixteen; a year older than me.” She drew her arms around herself. “I’m not ready.”

“You’ll be ready.” Awkwardly, I patted her shoulder. “You love nursing. You’ll fly through the apprenticeship.”

“I know,” she said, and I hardly heard her over the crowd. “But maybe I want to know if there are other things I’d like as well as nursing.”

I shifted on my feet as the silence lengthened. I wanted to reassure her, but I didn’t know how without repeating what I’d already said. I wanted to tell her that the future would work out. It had to. What choice did it have?

“Look,” I said after a moment, “Let’s… let’s not talk about this, now. It’s Nocturn! Let’s get back to enjoying Full Night, like you were doing at the start. Okay?”

She looked up at me, and gave me a small smile. It was the only encouragement I needed.

“How about I brave the food line and get us something to eat?” I said. “We’ll need to build up our strength before we go back onto the dance floor. Would you like that?”

Her smile widened, though the sad taint to it remained. “Yes, Simon. I’d like that very much.”

“Good. Wait here.” And I got in line for the food. Of course, it had lengthened considerably while we had stood around and talked, but I was patient and eventually I made it to the table, just in time for the cooks to bring a fresh selection up. I’d had two plates almost full when someone bumped into me, causing me to spill those plates back on the table. “Hey!” I shouted, turning. Then I stopped. It was Aaron. And he wasn’t looking well. “Aaron? What’s wrong?”

He blinked at me a moment, as though struggling to recognize my face. I don’t think he even knew that he’d bumped into me. “Simon? Have you seen the Quartermaster?”

“No,” I said. Why was everybody asking me where everybody else was?

“I have to see him,” he said, fervent. I frowned at him. He looked pale. He could hardly keep still.

“I-I’m sorry, Aaron, but I hardly know where I am in this crowd. Did you ask back at the school?”

He looked at me sharply. “You’re right! I’ll start from there. Thanks, Simon! He’s got to hear about this!” And he ducked into the crowd.

“Hear about what?” I called after him. “Aaron!” But I’d lost him already. I thought for a moment whether I should follow him, but I decided that Rachel and I needed to eat. I picked up my plates, and looked back to where I’d left her — and the plates slipped from my hand.

I could see Rachel at the edge of the crowd. Isaac was standing in front of her. He was talking to her, gesturing, and Rachel was looking nervous. Then Isaac clasped Rachel’s hand, pulled her closer and whispered something in her ear. She jerked back, and stared at him, wide-eyed. Then he nodded over his shoulder, and gave her a tentative smile. She stayed still a moment, mouth agape. Then she nodded. He turned and walked off the dance floor, holding her hand. She drew closer to him and put her arm around his waist. I looked around for somewhere to set my plates aside, and then struggled through the crowd, following them.

Through some luck that Isaac had, and he’d always had the luck, he and Rachel made it through the crowds with a lot more ease than I did. I bumped into people, and struggled to keep the two in sight. In the end, I failed. I would have given up, there, but by then I could see that there was only one door for them to have gone through, and I made for it. Three minutes later, I pushed through.

I found myself staring at a flight of stairs leading to the lower levels of Iapyx. People were still coming up from below: utility workers, and the people who crawled the outer gantries, still in their work overalls. The party was about to take an even more frenzied turn. But there was still one path before me, and I followed it. I charged down the stairs.

The levels below the Great Hall housed the factories, the utility rooms, everything else Iapyx needed to function. The bright white walls gave way to a dusty grey. I smelt machine oil, heard the hiss of steam. And the muffled laughter of young people, in couples or groups, as they used the nooks and crannies of the industrial corridors for some privacy. It was Nocturn, after all. I stopped when I reached the corridor, and saw the pipes and doors as far as the eye could see. Young people wandered around, in twos or threes, giggling. Factory workers coming off duty looked around, and smiled knowingly at their co-workers.

It was silly to go running down the corridor, shouting for Isaac or Rachel. I’d lost them. And what business did I have? Rachel had seemed entirely willing to go. I might as well go back to the party and enjoy the rest of the night as best I could.

When I turned to head back up the stairs to the Great Hall, I glanced at the stairwell leading down, and froze. I had found them.

Isaac had Rachel backed against a wall. Isaac’s head was bent down, deep in a kiss. I opened my mouth to say something, to shout, but as I watched, I saw Rachel reach out and pull him closer. The kiss continued.

I closed my mouth and lowered my hands. I hesitated. But as they drew each other deeper into their embrace; as Isaac’s kisses strayed down Rachel’s throat; as Rachel gasped, I knew I couldn’t stay here anymore.

I left, and rejoined the celebrations.

In the sky above Iapyx, the Great Aurora began to shimmer and shine.

blog comments powered by Disqus