Contemplating the End of the World
(Icarus Down rewrite passes 75000 words)

Pneumatic Tubes

Image courtesy io9, and used in accordance with their Creative Commons license.

The writing on Icarus Down was going gangbusters until the beginning of this month, and then I got involved with another tight book deadline (I’ve got to say, the tight deadlines are quite challenging, but the work is still greatly appreciated). We seem to have stalled about two thirds of the way through the book, after the emotional climax during which Simon learns the truth, and now has to decide what to do with it.

I felt that the original draft of my third part didn’t quite live up to the promise of the first two, so now may be a good place to pause and think things through. Strange how things work out.

The sample I have here is from chapter four — pretty early in the story — and is a revision of this scene here. When Isaac became Simon’s brother, the earlier scene didn’t fit, but I was still left with trying to explain why there were no video broadcasts on this world. Thanks to Erin’s help, this is what I came up with. It’s an info dump, but it also matches up to the new voice of the story, having Simon write a letter to the future. I hope you like it.

And so I began to walk again.

The “stim” technology Old Mother Earth had developed to keep early astronauts from withering away in cryosleep had not yet been entirely lost, and it had helped me, but still - my muscles were all but gone. And the muscle memory was gone too. I had to learn walking again, all the little tricks of heel-then-toe, of dynamic balance. I walked first between Michael’s bars - bars I quickly learned to hate - and then with a walker. Eventually I could shuffle around the rehab room with a cane. One day I even made it to the bathroom by myself - though I had to call for help to get back. It took me a long time to find my feet. But I did it, for Rachel, for Isaac, and I tried not to think that I was walking toward a future I did not particularly want.

Meanwhile, the fall of Iapyx was beginning.

I missed the warning signs. If it had been Isaac who had lived, he would have put it together - but then, he would have known what to look for. The woman in my rehab group with the spinal injury - acquired when an interior stairway suddenly fell dark. The influx of people into the burn ward, from a rash of steam-pipe bursts. The flickering light above my bed. The message canisters that seem to show up for no reason - well, okay. I did eventually notice that.

It was the day they issued me my postal clerk tunic. I struggling to button it and working myself up into a good mope about the fact that it wasn’t a pilot’s jacket and never would be again and in any case was much too big for me - I’d shrunk some since the last time the Quartermaster’s office had measured me. As I fumbled at the collar, the message tube whistled and clunked. Frowning, I limped over and peered at the label through the hatch window. It was from the semaphore office. To the flight bay. A flight plan. Somewhere out there, an ornithopter was hanging by its tail, waiting for clearance. Which wasn’t coming. Because the request for clearance had been sent to me. It was third misdirected canister I’d received in a week.

I reached to open the hatch, then looked at my mottled hand. I bit my lip and flexed my fingers, then carefully wrapped them around the handle and pulled. Stretching my fingers open, I took the canister and both hands and pulled it out. The weight surprised me and I almost dropped it. I steadied it against the wall while I gathered my strength. Then, with arms shaking, I inserted the canister into the intake tube, closed the hatch, and pressed the button to send it on its way

As the hiss of delivery faded, I stared at my shaking hands. I closed my eyes, closed my fists, and lowered them to my sides.

A message gone astray. A ghostly visit from my pulped past. It had shaken me. Shaken me enough to - miracle of miracles - make me think. Clearly there was a problem with the postal system. What did that mean? I thought it through, slowly, carefully, as if it were a navigation problem on an exam.

The answer I came to wasn’t pretty. A problem in the tubes could easily be the end of the world.

Iapyx - all our cities - relied on the pneumatic tubes. Our too-bright sun didn’t just leave us cowering from visible light in shadowy canyons. It also favoured us with invisible rays, a heavy sleet of electromagnetic radiation. A wire more than a meter long would quickly build a charge and spark unpredictably. A machine larger than a breadbox had a tendency to become a giant capacitor. Electromagnetic broadcasts were swamped within meters of their source. When our city pods landed, we’d lost our radio instantly, our central power systems within a day, and all but the best shielded of our computers within weeks. In the sixty-odd years that had followed, we’d learned to do without metal. We’d scavenged every scrap of plastic, made what we could from ethanol derived from the plants below, and even learned to make mechanisms - like the circulation fans that kept the cities from heating up like ovens - from fabric and rope and wood. We came to use a lot of steam.

Don’t get me wrong, we had plenty of electricity: a column of super-heated salt stuck into the sunlight above the semaphore tower. The heat drove steam turbines, which in turn put out all the electricity we could dream of. It was just a problem of moving it around without wires.

In sixty years, we’d become very, very good at batteries.

Batteries which were delivered - say it with me now - by pneumatic tube.

Sure, we had the battery boys - some of whom were not male, and some of whom were not children. They had the job of running the batteries from distribution points to, well, everywhere. Every light bulb, every monitor, every elevator motor, every ornithopter. But if batteries didn’t arrive at distribution points, or if fresh and depleted batteries got mixed up - surely there was some critical level of disruption, beyond which, the lights would go out.

And surely we were close to it now.

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