The evening sun painted the hospital room orange as Eva walked in to interview the dying engineer. Her knock had gone unanswered, but the door was unlocked and a deadline loomed.
She looked around the room. Dim lights blinked in a recessed instrument panel. A large tangle of wires and curves filled much of the space. “Mr. Janssen? Hello?”
“Be with you in a moment.”
She couldn’t see where the voice came from. There were no other doors and the guest chairs were empty. The strange machine surely wasn’t large enough to contain a person.
Then the room lights brightened and she saw Janssen.
Oh. Yes it was.
He lay swaddled in a gently rocking cradle, staring at the ceiling and mumbling to himself. Eva looked away and let her reaction run its course. She had seen worse in the past. Much worse. Modern medicine was nothing short of miraculous.
“Eva, was it? Sorry, I was writing a note to my attorney. Please, come in.”
She stepped into middle of the room.
“Thank you for taking the time to work with me. Is there anything you need before we begin?”
He looked at her. His eyes were large and green and bloodshot under bushy eyebrows and a broad forehead.
“You held your composure better than most.”
She shrugged. “I researched you. I was expecting something–”
“You’re Russian, right?”
“Yes. From Astrakhan.”
Janssen winced. “Then you’ve probably seen worse.”
“How much time do you have, Mr. Janssen?”
“As much time as you need. And please call me Cedric. You have excellent English, by the way.”
“You didn’t need to come all this way. When you first approached me I expected that we would do this remotely.”
“Interviews are better done face to face, Mr. Janssen. There is so much of communication that is nonverbal. Body language…” she trailed off.
He chuckled. “Relax, Eva. It’s always a shock the first time.”
“I didn’t realize…”
“Well now you do. So. Why do you want to hear this story? Everything happened ten years ago. With all the terabytes of articles and books and films out there, why talk to me now?”
“My publisher is putting together a timeline of the Gabon towers project. They are expected to reach eight kilometers tall this year, and we want to publish a retrospective. We specifically want new material, even if it covers old events.”
“Why not just cobble something together from the archives?” said Cedric.
“The archives are dusty. The Hvalur story hasn’t been revisited in at least five years.”
“I saw the movie. It wasn’t very good. Nobody knows how to act any more.”
Eva smiled. “You were very handsome.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Were?”
She hesitated. “I didn’t…”
He chuckled. “Sorry. My medication still isn’t balanced correctly. It plays havoc with my mood sometimes. Please,” he glanced at a small chair in the corner. “Sit. Let’s begin.”
She pulled the chair close to the cradle and sat down, then pulled out a palm-sized ceramic rectangle. She touched the surface with a fingertip and said,“This is an interview conducted for New Tundra Publications of Novosibirsk, Russia. I am interviewing Cedric Janssen about his experiences during the maiden voyage of the airship Hvalur.”
Cedric’s gaze drifted to the ceiling.
Hvalur was an experimental hydrogen-lift airship; a half-scale prototype for a super-lifter. She was 500 meters long, a hundred wide, and fifty deep in the middle. All of the infrastructure and living area was in the interior. Cockpit, crew quarters, cargo bay, drone kennel, turbines; all of it inside the hull, buried in a vast body of aerogel, not much more dense than air. Instead of being constrained to gondola strapped to her belly, we ran like mice through her the maze of her insides.
She was constructed in a facility just south of Nuuk, in Greenland, to take advantage of abundant and inexpensive shoreline and relative solitude. Nuuk was growing even before the project started, finding new life as a destination for environmental tourism and extreme sports maniacs. When our project was in full swing the locals developed an entrepreneurial spirit, and new hotels and houses, stores, bars, and all the attendant tertiary businesses sprang up in concentric rings around the town. It is safe to say that during construction the population more than doubled. If the glaciers ever reform in the mountains, Nuuk will be in serious trouble.
Digging out the dock took six months, and the construction itself another three years. The week after arriving on site I met a beautiful woman named Samantha. She was also an engineer, working on the propulsion system. We dated, moved in together, married, lived, fought, separated, and finally we divorced a month before launch. The work was exciting but relentless and it ground everyone down to the bone. I think our honeymoon was the only time after the wedding that we spent more than a day together on our own. In a way, we were convex reflections of each other. Identical, but only touched at a single point. And that point was work.
As construction neared completion there was much infighting and jockeying for position on the crew for the maiden flight. Out of a pool of nearly a hundred potentials, there would be five core crewmembers. After nearly a month of arguments, debates, messages traded with lawyers and politicians, and a couple of fistfights, the final list was Amanda, Yohann, Zelda, Uli, and me.
Amanda was the pilot. She had experience with airships, planes, helicopters, all that. She was ex-military, worked for a little while with some contractors in Africa, but her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t talk about it, but something happened during one of the pacification operations. I think that’s part of the reason she volunteered to fly us. She didn’t like leaving things half-finished.
Yohann was the copilot and electronics expert. Most of his work was complete, other than monitoring, so he kept busy playing around with the Chromatophore system. He wanted to make us look like an actual whale on takeoff but the lawyers said if we wanted to play around we should wait until after we were out of sight of land. Not that it makes a difference, what with all the media drones.
Zelda was the medic and environmental expert. She had just graduated, which bothered me a little until I found out it was her third Master’s Degree and she was considering a job offer with the Gabon towers. For her the trip was a chance to show off for her prospective bosses.
Uli was our drone wrangler and mechanical engineer, and unofficial archivist. He was a Finn by way of southern Argentina, so he was the only one of us who wasn’t cold all the time. Hvalur carried a dozen hex flyers for external views and attempting minor repairs to the skin whenever one of the flex joints rubbed something thin.
And me. Cedric. The engineer. One of over twenty at the hangar. I drew the long straw of the bunch of us at the drydock. My advantage was that I worked on the simulations, while everyone else worked in them. My specific contribution was the baked-in circuitry in the blocks of hydrogen-impregnated aerogel which made up about ninety five percent of the volume of Hvalur. I made the nervous system which ran through the carbon and silicon of her body; all of which was hung on a skeleton of honeycombed steel bones and carbon fiber tendons. I kept a photo of Buckminster Fuller at my workstation. A lot of his ideas ended up in our work.
We also had a half dozen interns. They were fresh out of school; the winners of a lottery to pick the luckiest of the brightest for our test flight.
And finally we had a reporter from Gabon, named Sylvia. She was working on a documentary for one of the Libreville media outlets and always seemed to be around. I don’t know where she got her energy. Near as I can tell, she didn’t sleep more than once during the entire flight. She asked us a thousand questions and watched us do everything, but somehow she never got in the way. She was tall and lanky with short hair and amused eyes and an easygoing smile.
I was immediately taken with her; “in deep smit” as we said in school, which was awkward because I was the oldest person on the ship by about five years, and she was fresh out of university.
So that was us. A dozen people on a ship that could hold a hundred, plus seventy-five tons of cargo. No tourists allowed on the first trans-Atlantic trip, mostly because none of us had the free time to deal with non-essentials.
“Have you seen any of them recently?”
Cedric blinked. “No. Not recently. Sylvia visited me after my first round of surgery. She had just got her prosthetic eye put in and I couldn’t tell the one from the other. It even reacted to the light so both pupils were the same size, though it was hard to tell with eyes that dark. She didn’t stay long. I don’t blame her.
“Anastasia visited a year or so after…”
Cedric was silent for a moment. “Oh. We aren’t there yet. Sorry.” He sighed. “It’s the meds.”
“Even after all this time?”
“It’s a fine balance between the antidepressants and the antipsychotics. They have me on something complicated. I don’t forget anything any more, so I still have every moment of the accident. And I have some trouble with my sense of time. I remember things out of order, and they tell me I drift off sometimes.”
“After a decade they should have balanced things out, no?”
“If it wasn’t for the surgery, yes. But each time they work on me they have to reassess everything because of reduced mass. My limbic system is overpowered. And now?” He moved his head in a way which suggested a shrug. “Now my kidneys are just about shot. They lasted longer than expected, which was nice.”
Eva looked over at the window. The horizon was bright orange, with parallel white streaks of jet trails dividing the sky.
He spoke again. “Have you ever been up in an airship? The new ones, the Leviathans, are so much larger than Hvalur. Thousands of people floating over the ocean.”
“No I haven’t. It’s too expensive.”
Cedric grimaced. “It was never meant to be a convenience.”
We launched on a Saturday morning. The air was cold and smelled of the ocean, and behind it the scent of ice so faint it was little more than a feeling in the sinuses. I worked in the lower observation deck, surrounded by screens. Sylvia was with Amanda and Yohann in the cockpit. Uli hid in the aft observation lounge in his VR rig, running his drones around, recording everything.
Zelda and all the interns walked the corridors checking for leaks. Hvalur was big – three layers of corridors, around twenty public spaces, and private rooms for everyone we could carry. All of it flexed with environmental conditions, up to a point.
We were all nervous and tense. Test launches were routine, but every day was different in some way. Today we were being watched by everyone; not as many people and drones as the original liftoff, but there were important people in the audience this time. The Prime Minister of Denmark was there with some hangers-on, so Yohann displayed their flag on the side of the ship which meant that the whole dock glowed red like a fire.
Someone made a speech. Someone smashed a champagne bottle. And a moment later we were airborne.
From inside Hvalur it was hard to notice the exact moment we lifted off. She flexed as her weight shifted from resting on the dock supports to hanging off of her skeleton. In the movies there’s a huge hollow groan of metal joints at moments like that. For us it was thousands of graphene surfaces sliding minutely against each other. Aerogel does strange things with sound. It seems like it should absorb everything, but it’s rigid, with empty spaces like a Menger sponge. Sound dissipates and travels and resurfaces up in surprising places.
We ascended to two kilometers and hovered for an hour, doing the usual interviews and media face time, while Yohann ran the skin through the approved list of thank yous, shout outs, and impressive visuals. He had some serious talent there. He was a little shy with Amanda and I because his English wasn’t great, but it was better than my French so I couldn’t give him too much grief. When I looked up from my work I saw Sylvia standing in the middle of the transparent floor, eyes huge, watching as Greenland fell away below us. Sylvia was the only one of us who had never been up in Hvalur. From inside she was more like a building than an airplane, and to see the ground moving so far below could be disorienting.
When Amanda got the word from ground control we heated up the aerogel, ascended to five kilometers, and turned south. This was where I earned my paycheck. The effects of pressure differential between hot inside and cold outside was always difficult to predict. Zelda and I divided up the interns and ran them ragged, crawling through Hvalur’s innards, measuring everything several times over.
After the drive turbines kicked in I let everyone relax, but I couldn’t get rid of the ache in my neck from clenching my teeth for so many hours.
At sunset Amanda called us all to the forward observation deck to toast the voyage while the autopilot kept us on course. She had a big bottle of champagne and crystal laid out. After we raised our glasses Uli said something to her, then left the room for a moment. He came back with a big box, a gift from his family back in Argentina.
Inside was several bottles of mead. My only experience was some awful stuff at a renaissance fair back at university. This stuff amazing – made of honey collected from hives in a basil farm. When we opened the first one a smell filled the room like the first warm morning in June. Amanda gave us our toast.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” she said. Her voice was raspy. In another woman I would have called it husky, but for her it was damage from shouting over gunfire and breathing a hundred varieties of smoke from a hundred terrible places. “We’ve been up. We’ve flown around the north. But this is the first leg of ten thousand kilometers.” She looked around for a moment.
“The center of the world is shifting, and pulling us toward it. When we reach the towers in Gabon it will be the best of the old world meeting the best of the new. We aren’t the shiny new toy any more. But what we’re doing, what you’ve done to get here, is extraordinary. The worlds’ eyes are on the towers. Soon we will be too.”
“If this flight is successful we will open a door to an uncertain future. Not all of the eyes on us are friendly. People love to see failure as much as they love success.”
She raised her glass.“ But we won’t hear the voices of the pessimists; we won’t be able to hear them, from our roost at the top of the world.”
We cheered and clapped and cried, and split the first bottle between the dozen of us. It wasn’t enough to get careless, but we all had an extra sparkle in our eyes. I tried flirting with Sylvia, but she was too professional to let it go very far.
Amanda let us enjoy ourselves for about an hour, then it was back to work – the interns to bed and the rest of us settled in to our stations for the rest of the day.
Eva looked up. “When did you last talk to her?”
He frowned. “Who? Amanda? It’s been years. She dropped off the radar not long after the reprisals. Have you interviewed her?”
“No. We couldn’t find her.”
“I think the attack broke her. She was finished with war, but events pulled her back in the worst possible way. They blew up her ship and injured her crew. They killed a lot of people at the celebration. She went a little crazy.”
“What did she do?”
Cedric blinked slowly.
“Some of her old compatriots were still in central Africa. She joined up with them. Paid them herself. They did a lot of damage to the remaining warlords. Nothing compared to what the Equatorial Africa Coalition did. At any other time, in any other place, she would have been called a war criminal.” He chuckled. “I understand that the locals are using the remnants of one of the warlord strongholds as a reservoir.”
“Is she still alive?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. She didn’t deserve that guilt.”
The inside of Hvalur looked much like the outside – no particular color though it could probably be called gray. Or pearlescent. The inside surfaces used the same Chromatophore system as the outside skin, though Yohann was forbidden from altering anything in our work areas, for reasons of safety. Of course we could each do what we wanted with our own spaces, but with Yohann on board it was the difference between an elephant using a paint roller, and Rembrandt.
There weren’t many places to go for privacy, so we worked out a system of “do not disturb”. Not that we really needed it; we had a lot of empty space and we were too busy to sneak off for hook-ups. But there was a lot of space in a complex of corridors and rooms with translucent walls and no real shadows, and the strange acoustics. In some places I could stand next to Yohann and not be able to understand what he was saying. In others Sylvia’s voice would carry across half the ship.
I developed a routine of wandering the corridors and open spaces, setting up lasers and reflectors, measuring the turn and twist of Hvalur to the micrometer. She moved and flexed like her namesake, adjusting to air currents and the movements of the crew. And I was there with whichever of the interns I could bring with me, checking every accessible area of the ship at least twice every day. I think I walked more than a hundred kilometers over the ten days of the flight.
The work was interesting, then tedious, then finally meditative. All the corridors were essentially identical, not quite white, not quite completely opaque. Easy to lose the sense of place; there was no indication that I was in the air, or even on an airship. Those halls would have been appropriate in a hospital or on a movie set.
“Did you know I nearly died of fright after I woke up here?”
Eva flinched. “What? What do you mean?”
“Something with the post-traumatic flashbacks. When they finally pulled me out of the coma the first thing I saw was the corridors here, so much like those in Hvalur. It was like I never left, and I wanted to run screaming away from the fire and the pain. And of course when I couldn’t…”
Cedric chuckled. Eva felt her chest clench.
“Is something wrong, Miss Dmitrovna?”
“I, um….I wonder about the state of your mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you are clinically insane we cannot publish this story.”
“Ah!” He raised his eyebrows, “My last psychological test was three months ago. I was sane at the time. Now? Who can say?”
She held her breath for a moment, then let it out slowly.
“It is no longer useful to worry about these things,” said Cedric. “Does my condition bother you? If you were in Astrakhan during the troubles, you should be used to seeing injuries.”
The words were out before she could stop them. “I hope to God I am never used to seeing injuries. Are you used to yours?”
“No. I could fit in an overhead bin on your flight home. Should I be rational?”
“I don’t know.” She looked away from the cradle. “I am sorry. Would you like me to leave?”
“No. Of course not. Only a few people outside the original team know I’m still alive.” He sighed, and moved his chest in a ghost of a stretch. His spine cracked audibly.
“Ahh…finally.” He relaxed. “Tell you what — let’s take a break. My next dose is scheduled in a few minutes, and sometimes I fade out after. Half an hour sound good?”
“Half an hour, then.”
Eva pocketed her recorder and walked out of the room. The small hospital looked more like a large house, and she found a balcony with a beautiful view south over the Cascade mountains. The fall foliage mirrored the orange sunset, and here and there were tall pines, black against the brilliant colors. Janssen was… he was right. She had seen worse. Much worse. But none of those people had survived their injuries.
She waited as the mountains darkened and the stars came out. Despite Janssens’ assurances she would need to discuss things with a lawyer before the journal released her story. Legal technicalities didn’t carry much weight in her country, but one story often led to another, and word had a way of getting around.
Finally she returned to Cedric’s room. The cradle had shifted and now he sat almost upright. His hair was cut short and she could see the many fine scars in his scalp. One of his ears had a small notch in the lobe.
“I’m ready when you are, Miss Dmitrovna.”
Only near the several observation lounges were things notably different, if only because that was where I was most likely to encounter another person. Usually it was Zelda, with her short dreadlocks and handheld electronic nose, testing the chemical balance of our air and looking for micro leaks in the hull or suspiciously high concentrations of hydrogen. Or maybe Uli, watching his drones, or an intern running errands for one of the other crew members.
I also encountered Sylvia. The first time I was at the end of a round, and she asked if she could interview me. She had all of the usual question about my younger days, and the events leading me from Saint Ignace to Greenland. Before then I had not been in her presence for more than a few minutes. She had the most beautiful accent I had ever heard; French, but with a pronunciation more liquid than sibilant. We talked for over an hour, and maybe it was because of the blankness of the interior walls and the attendant difficulty judging size and distance, but near the end I felt a moment of disorientation and almost fell off of my bench. Sylvia laughed, which if possible was even more wonderful than her voice. But she was kind, and considerate for a media hound. She only asked me one difficult question the whole hour: “And what will you do when you return home, Mr. Janssen?”
I had a glib and hormone-laden answer ready to go, but I choked it off and just sat for a moment, staring at her. That was a tough one. I no longer had anything in the States, and my room in Nuuk was likely rented out before we left the ground. My family was distant in every sense of the word, and my compatriots quickly scattering to other job postings. She saw it in my eyes. I stammered something about beaches and women, but the moment was gone. She thanked me and left the room.
I sat for a while, feeling humiliated, then pulled myself together and got up to do some work. I was near my cabin when the corridor suddenly went absolutely black. I froze, and was on the edge of calling in an alarm when a dragon appeared in the distance and flew straight toward me, dripping venom and trailing smoke. It was Yohann, screwing around. I pictured him at his station, hunched over the control banks, glasses pushed high up on his bald head making him look like a gleeful insect.
The Powers That Be wanted us to be visible, so we couldn’t spend all of our time above the clouds, as pleasant and quiet as that was. The first time we met up with a surface ship was about three hundred miles from Spain. It was a Portuguese liner out of Gibraltar full of rich Europeans, and even some minor royalty. The kind of party I would never in my life have been invited to back in the States.
“Have you been to Gabon, Miss Dmitrovna? Have you seen the towers?”
“Only on the news feeds and in documentaries.”
“If you have the opportunity you should go. They won’t be finished in the lifetime of anyone who flew on Hvalur. It needs to be seen with real eyes.”
“Did you, before the flight?”
“No. Just those brief hours at the end. Hvalur was huge by any measure, but this is something orders of magnitude larger. It’s grand on a scale that almost feels holy.”
“What did you think when you first saw Hvalur fly?”
“I never saw Hvalur fly.”
Eva started to reply, then paused. Cedric was looking at her quizzically.
“How is that possible? You worked on her for all that time…”
“Exactly. I was always inside her or in the dock. If she went up I went up with her, other than remote test flights, and then I was cocooned in a VR rig. I never saw her do more than hover a few meters off the ground.”
“On video, surely. Or in simulations…”
He frowned. “Not the same thing. Not even close. I don’t know how I would have felt, after having spent so much time putting her together. Seeing her lift off without me. The first time would have been in Gabon. The video feed of us approaching the towers and docking. All that information from a hundred drones, and news organizations, and people with ten thousand recording devices. Even high resolution satellite feeds.”
“Have you seen any of the new ones?”
“Only through the window. Moving me around is, well…challenging. And my immune system is shot.”
“Surely there is something to be done.”
Cedric looked out the window again.
“Maybe a few years ago. Now if I want leave the building they would need to hermetically seal me in a bubble.”
“Surely you want to do something while you have time left.”
“I don’t have much time left. And when the time comes there is a facility on standby, not far from my hometown. Sometime in spring, I think. After the Lake Superior ice melts.”
A Gibraltar cruise ship full of drunks makes for a wild night. I think I ended up going over thirty-six hours without any significant sleep. We crossed time zones slowly enough that we couldn’t just crash for a day and a night to acclimatize. It was a constant drift forward, by the clock. About one hour per two days of travel, on average. The prototype wasn’t built for comfort, physical or psychological. Yohann did what he could with the interior surfaces, but at the end of the day, it was still just walls.
We sat beside the cruise ship for twelve hours, until nearly noon that day. This gave us our first test of landing and taking off from the open water without the support network. The seas were a little rough, and we could feel the sections shifting against one another as Hvalur torqued and twisted. Some of the long corridors looked completely non-Euclidean. We weren’t in any danger of sinking; I don’t think there was any one part of the ship any deeper than about two meters in the water. There was an excellent view out the lower windows, had there been anything to see other than deep ocean at night.
Much to my surprise, I got lucky. Out of the swarm of the party rose a beautiful young woman named Anastasia. She spoke reasonable English; certainly better than my nonexistent Russian. Fortunately it wasn’t the kind of party where a lot of talking is necessary. She wanted to join the mile-high club. We still call it that. Kilometer-high club doesn’t roll of the tongue. We couldn’t lift off but I smuggled her up on the top hull far enough from the edge that nobody could see us. The air was cold and we had blankets and wine. The stars were magnificent and under them she looked like a sumi-e painting.
Finally we dressed and I brought her back to the cruise ship, then I went back up on top and just walked around, taking in the scenery. It was dawn, just before sunrise, and the sky was light. It wasn’t like the sunrises on land with all the reds and oranges; this one was a smooth gradient from dark in the west to silver on the horizon. No clouds in the east; just a line that grew brighter until the sun rose out of it.
It was a perfect moment, when all the partiers were inside crashed out, avoiding the early morning chill. I stayed out there, and let the wind clear the cobwebs from my brain. There was nothing between sea and sky except the two ships, all alone in all the world. Something like that should have made Hvalur feel tiny, but with nothing for comparison – and I’d never been on a cruise ship so I had no idea the dimensions of the thing – with no precisely measured landmarks we felt like a natural part of the earth. Like how you don’t know you’re on a giant plateau until you reach the edge and look down at the rest of the world.
Where the sun warmed the hull condensation formed almost immediately, reflecting so brightly that my eyes teared up. Then it evaporated just as quickly in a moving gradient of brilliant orange. I wondered if Uli or Yohann was recording the moment.
Yohann must have been watching at least, because the hull below me suddenly turned into water filled with circling mermaids and sharks. I found a drone hovering in the distance and pointed a cheerful finger at him, then went below.
We lifted off again just before noon. It took us a little while to get our crew untangled from the party ship. I ducked back into my space, surrounded by screens and lights. We’d taken on some water through micro-fractures in the skin, so Hvalur wallowed a little in the air, like she was hung over too. This gave Uli his chance to shine, and he stood in his chambers, VR helmet on and gesture interface gloves moving like a symphony conductor or marital artist. All around us his drones flew and applied patches with insectile arms. Yohann grumbled about the loss of his light canvas in those places, but the patches were small and we needed to be water-tight. When Uli finally removed the helmet his spiky hair was matted with sweat and his eyes were bloodshot. We gave him a round of applause as he staggered off to his room. Once we passed the final checkout out we rose up to five kilometers and pointed ourselves at the equator.
With the party ship gone there wasn’t much keeping the media drones occupied, so they dropped off until there were only one or two left. We had a satellite feed running so terrestrial nerds could see what the minute by minute of flying looked like. Anastasia pinged me a couple of times but I was too busy to answer. Once my mind is in that space I don’t want to come back out. The minutes stretch out but the hours fly by.
So it went for another day. And the day after that. The weather was good and the ocean didn’t change. We had a couple of offers to descend to party with other cruise liners, and one mega-yacht out of Mexico.
There was a tense moment when a small media drone broke from the pack and rammed us. I was in the forward observation room in the nose when this big spider pterodactyl thing zipped in from below and hit us dead center. It made a hell of a noise, but it did about as much damage as a fly hitting a windshield. Didn’t even scratch the canopy.
We all panicked, everyone except Amanda, though for the rest of the day her jaw was tight and the veins in her forehead stood out. Suddenly we were in the news again, which must have been frustrating for the outlets because Amanda abruptly demanded a no-drone zone of two kilometers, and now we were shadowed below by an American destroyer with a full compliment of anti-aircraft weaponry. I didn’t get much work done that day.
Cedric paused and looked out the window. The sky was deep indigo, and nearby trees little more than gray shadows against the stars.
“We could have cancelled the flight right there. Amanda wanted to. She thought it was a terrorist attack. I thought it was dumb kids on a dare. Other opinions were evenly split, though Zelda said it was probably just an accident.”
“Who was it?”
“We never did find out. The drone crashed and sank in the ocean, and nobody claimed credit.”
“Could you have cancelled the flight?”
“Maybe.” Cedric was silent for a moment. “Amanda could have done it. Just refused to go anywhere. Set us down in the middle of the ocean and call the Navy to pick us up. I think that’s part of what messed her up so much after the fact.”
“Yes. She could have trusted her gut. It would have got her fired and blacklisted. We never would have made it to Gabon. And the airship programs might have ended. And you wouldn’t be interviewing me.”
The next big event was crossing within sight of Africa. We were a few hundred kilometers out when we were hailed by an observation station in Mindelo. We’d forgotten there were even islands down there. So we decided, why not? We planned to land again before Gabon, somewhere close to the mainland, but here was as good as anywhere. We broadcast our intent, then set down about twenty kilometers west, and used the rear turbines to float in to the rendezvous.
It was an unpleasant experience. For all its volume Hvalur weighed next to nothing, and the sheer size made an excellent sail for catching the wind. In the mid Atlantic the waves are an order of magnitude larger than off the coast of Greenland. We had to do an emergency liftoff to avoid spearing ourselves on some rocks and that sobered everyone up. Amanda spent a couple of hours after that alone in the cockpit being chewed up one side and down the other, while the rest of us kept our heads down and worked. One of the interns got so nervous she vomited, though that could have been from the continually dwindling supply of the mead. Zelda made her clean it up before she purged the air circulation system, but the smell still lurked in odd pockets for the rest of the day.
We wanted to continue on, but I talked Amanda into setting down again, downwind of the islands, so I could check the skeleton for stress from the sudden lift-off. Amanda wasn’t happy about it, but she couldn’t exactly ignore a nervous engineer. This was when I found out that she had some very well-hidden facial scars that were only visible when she was flushed and angry. I wondered if they were also visible when she was aroused, but I didn’t dare ask her. We all spent the rest of the day with pads and wires plugging in to every exposed block of aerogel composite and taking electrical resistance reading. The interns roamed the outer hull, four on top and two in diving gear below. Toward the end Sylvia and Yohann disappeared for an hour or so. When we saw them again they looked happy and guilty. This pissed me off for no good reason, other than jealousy.
As it turned out I guessed wrong. A couple of hours later we were hailed by someone speaking loud Portuguese. It was the captain of a huge white trimaran, state of the art and decked out with computer assisted sailing gear. It was beautiful to watch on approach, like an ice dancer or a heron flying. Apparently Sylvia also spoke moderately good Portuguese. Good enough, anyway, to get a local politician to bring us a huge spread of seafood and a dozen bottles of Madeira, and twenty or so of his closest friends. Things quickly got rowdy, but I was too exhausted to look for company, and the seafood sat heavy with all the wine. I went back to Hvalur early, and went over the stress test data one more time, then passed out.
I was up early the next morning and went up to the top of the hull to take in the view, and clear my head. Near the tail I found Sylvia and Yohann tangled in a blanket, sound asleep. I went back down without waking them up.
In the late morning we finally lifted off and set course for the last leg of the trip – around the middle of the continent, then straight in to Libreville. 2,700 kilometers to go. We’d lost a day because of our shenanigans, so we upped the speed for a straight run in. Amanda, Yohann and Uli worked in rotation in the pilot’s station, backed up by interns and myself. I handed off my monitoring work to Zelda, reasoning that she knew the intimate feel of the ship as well as I did. She pointed out that anything that happened now would be inconsequential, as it would either kill us outright or the crews in Libreville would rescue us. She was right, but I didn’t want to leave any gaps in the record. We compromised on me setting up the equipment and her merely pulling the data from the units on her rounds.
We stayed at altitude, six kilometers up and around 40 knots, for thirty six hours. Nobody bothered us up here; not even media drones. They were all gathering at the towers, waiting for us. Amanda stayed on the comm with Libreville, and Sylvia jumped in sometimes when the complexities of the conversation required a native speaker.
During that time Sylvia took one last round of interviews with all of us. When she found me packing up all of my equipment she sat a respectful distance away, warmth in her voice but no flirtation. Very professional. I wasn’t really surprised when she repeated her earlier question. This time I wasn’t so addled by lust, so I told her I planned to return to Greenland to work on the next generation airships. Uli spent most of his spare time immersed in new feeds and he provided an ongoing stream of commentary, suppositions, and the occasional conspiracy theory. Most of western media treated us like a beautiful oddity, though in the financial sectors some very big names were quietly watching us with predatory eyes. I wondered at this until Uli pointed out that investing was essentially gambling, and there was a lot of money to be made from both success and failure, sometimes by the same interested parties.
This of course raised the question of whether we were worth more dead or alive, which made Zelda laugh out loud and Amanda snarl when she overheard Uli and I discussing it. Sylvia just sighed and shook her head. I asked her why she as a reporter was dismissing my answers and she responded by asking me why I could spend hours talking about everything else in the world but would be so evasive or superficial when talking about myself. In truth, after my chaotic love life back in the alien landscape of Greenland, Hvalur was as much a home as anywhere else in the world, and I knew her more intimately than any lover I could remember. So why, then, would I have plans to do something different at the end of this flight?
This answer baffled Sylvia, and apparently pissed her off too. She muttered something in a language I didn’t recognize and left my work station. I stared after her for a moment, then kicked the wall so hard I heard a creak from the nearest seam, so I had to set up my equipment one last time to see how much damage I had caused. None, other than to my pride.
We slowed to a crawl just before we crested the horizon, so we could all freshen up and break out the formal wear. I was all in light linen, anticipating a long night and morning of partying with the locals. The plan was to come in out of the setting sun and dock at a modified drone kennel a kilometer up. Yohann was red-eyed from time spent putting together a Chromatophore show. I was looking forward to it too; seeing his work through a video feed was unsatisfying.
We got the word from the city and started up again, descending through the evening with the skin dark. When we could see the lights from the city Yohann did his thing.
He’d set us up to glow like something from the deep ocean – a pale blue or violet that seemed to shine from deep inside the ship. It wasn’t all one color – he picked out details and highlights, and through it all patterns moved like sunlight through waves.
We were still at the mouth of the estuary when the towers came into view thirty kilometers to the east. I suppose they had been visible for some time, but scale is difficult to judge with something so big, and in the fading light they were hard to see against the sky and jungle. The sun had just passed below the horizon and a line of orange was creeping up the side of the complex, so bright against the landscape that we had difficulty seeing anything else. The drones swarmed like mosquitos, buzzing and jostling for the best shots of us, and of the towers, and of us against the towers. Amanda sent a sharp message to Libreville, but if they responded the drone operators ignored them.
Five kilometers out, and we were all in the forward observation deck, looking up at a wall of gray flecked with grids of sparks and the running lights of the drones drawing arcs and scribbles across the background. For the whole approach I stood there, slack-jawed like an idiot, watching the line of sunlight creep up like a door in the world was opening for us, I guess there’s a difference between hearing about something in the media or running through immersive simulations, and seeing the thing itself. Three kilometers tall, and still seventeen to go before it would be complete.
By now the drones were so thick around us that we could hear them scraping along the hull. Amanda sent off another message. A moment later Libreville responded with an interdict signal, and about three quarters of the drones suddenly shut off and tumbled away below us. The rest, the officially approved units, moved back to give us some room.
Now we were less than a kilometer out, and the sun was just kissing the top of the towers, the construction equipment on top catching the last of the light. Yohann ran our skin through a series of impressionist animations, suggesting without actually showing the remnants of the Greenland glacier, the fading coastlines, the blues and grays of the Atlantic, stormclouds, islands, stars, and the changing face of the moon. The show started dim, then brightened as we approached the dock. Just before we touched we lit up like a comet then began to strobe in time with music playing from the tower broadcast system. All of the outdoor loudspeakers were down near the crowd so we heard the sound about three seconds out of synch with our light show.
The docking itself was so smooth I didn’t notice when we stopped moving. Gantries like great spiders unfolded and gathered us in, and spun cables to hold us in place. Amanda came out of the cockpit a moment later, glowing with something like post-orgasmic bliss. I was closest so she grabbed me in a bear hug and lifted me off the floor. I couldn’t help it; I laughed out loud and kissed her neck. Her scars were visible again, and beautiful in this context. All the tension of the past days just melted away.
Yohann called up a video feed from one of Uli’s drones and displayed it on the wall of the lounge. It was low resolution and dark, but what an extraordinary sight! Us in all our luminous glory, nestled up against an infinite grid of lights. Objectively there was nothing to provide a sense of scale; we could have been a guppy or a galaxy. I stared until Amanda herded us toward the exit.
He stopped talking. Eva waited for a moment, then several.
There was no answer.
She leaned forward to look at him. His face – all she could see of him – looked relaxed. He was breathing normally and the myriad machines had not changed their lights or sounds.
He’d mentioned that this sort of thing could happen. She sighed and thumbed on the display of her PDA. The transcript of the interview flowed across the screen, and she scanned it, editing out verbal tics, the “like”s from Cedric and her own “Umm”s. He was a good speaker, and she wondered if he had been so charismatic before the attack. By his own admission he was a difficult person.
“I faded out, didn’t I? My apologies.”
She sat up and rolled her shoulders. “It was only for a few minutes.”
“More like half an hour. Sometimes it’s only a second. And sometimes it’s a day. I can’t tell except by checking the time, or looking for visual cues.”
“Empty chairs. I should be okay now. We’re close to the end of the story.”
Somewhere in there I discovered that Anastasia was at the party, and did not approved of my inattentiveness after our previous encounter. She struck from behind, and before I could collect myself we were on Hvalur again, laying in the bowl of a darkened observation dome in the bottom of the hull. Nothing between our bodies and the ground but clear plexi and distance.
After the immediate needs were taken care of, we rested for a while and talked. It turned out she was the niece of some Russian oil oligarch, taking a year-long tour of the world. Us meeting twice had been a genuine coincidence.
The talking didn’t last long. There were more important considerations.
I wrapped a first-aid pulse monitor around her wrist, then fed the output into the external Chromatophore system. I may not be Yohann, but I knew a couple of tricks. Suddenly the entire ship was pulsing shades of blue in time with her heartbeat. Steady at first, then the pace began to accelerate, then became erratic for a brief eternity, and finally slowed down again as we collapsed, looking through the clear floor at the party a thousand meters below us.
Eva raiser her hand. “One moment, please?”
“Is this how it all happened, with Anastasia and Sylvia? I’m sorry; it strikes me as more of a fantasy than an actual account.”
Cedric stared up at the ceiling. “You interviewed both of them, yes? Do I contradict their stories?”
“I did not interview Anastasia. What you have said of her here today is all I know of her.”
“Ah. So you think I made her up as a sort of sour-grapes reaction to not getting anywhere with the young Gabonese woman?”
He turned his head to glare at her. Then he laughed, loudly. It was a surprising sound, considering his condition.
“I admit I was a prick to Sylvia. I was forty five, recently divorced, lonely, and under a lot of stress. When Anastasia approached me on that cruise ship I jumped at the chance. I never expected to see her again. Then when she appeared at the landing it was…I don’t know. I felt something with her, in that moment, that washed all of the Sylvia shit out of my system.”
“What is her full name?”
“I don’t know. I never got her last name. The hospital may have it. She came to visit me about a year after I was admitted.”
“What was that like?”
“Awkward. Sad. She walked into the room and saw me, swaddled like a baby and not much larger, though I still had one arm. She didn’t miss a step, just turned and walked right back out.”
Eva blinked. To hear about such things, said so cavalierly, was disconcerting.
“And that was all of it?”
“No,” said Cedric, “she came back in a few minutes later. Her eyes were blue, usually, but now they were almost lavender, and she was even paler than usual. God! But she was beautiful. We talked for hours. We said our goodbyes. At the time the doctors said I only had a few months.”
He blinked a couple of times, eyes bright.
“What is it with Russians? You’ve been through ten kinds of hell in the past decade and still you take the time to visit some asshole dying in the mountains in New York?”
She looked out the window. “It’s been much more than a decade. Would you like to know why we do these things?”
“Absolutely,” said Cedric.
“A long time ago someone said that all of Russian history can be summed up in four words: ‘Then, things got worse’. That hasn’t changed. Every year, more pieces of my country are peeled away, either through rebellion, or disaster, or stupidity.” She squeezed her hands together.
“That’s something I can sympathize with.”
“You are not as funny as you think. We can do nothing about our history. Events are too big for one person. So we find joy where we can. Even if it is just a night of passion in the middle of the ocean. You just admitted to thoughts like that.”
They were both silent for a minute. Then Cedric arched his back and some of his vertebrae crackled.
“You’re right. If what happened hadn’t happened I would have stayed with Anastasia. Or at least tried to. You remember how I said I can’t forget anything? I remember how my heart felt when we parted that night. It was a beautiful melancholy.”
I walked Anastasia back to the tower lift, then ducked back on board to clean up the observation dome before it was swarmed with paparazzi. Just as I reached the room all the lights went out. I had a moment to curse Yohann, then there was a colossal flash of light through the room and I smacked my head on the ceiling. Hvalur was bucking and writhing like she was being electrocuted, which as it turns out was not far from the truth. As I lay in the dome I saw brilliant lines of light which seemed to come from our ship, moving across the face of the towers, and into the jungle, and across the ground. It was hard to make sense of. Then I smelled the ozone, and my ears popped and suddenly I could smell the jungle and the stink of fried electronics. I saw one of our turbines fall past the dome, glowing hot and trailing smoke.
Then the explosions began. The room slapped me around some more and suddenly I was falling. Through tears in the walls I saw Hvalur above me slowly settling, tail-first. She was still attached to the tower, and mooring lines ripped loose and snapped across her skin like whips, tearing loose huge chunks of aerogel. It took me nearly a minute to fall a kilometer in the severed section of the ship. Terminal velocity for aerogel and plexiglass is quite slow. I couldn’t move, other than to look up through the hole in the wall. There she was, still glowing blue like a sea creature, being cut to pieces by lines of light. More of her broke away and fell like leaves, and then explosions started to rip her guts loose, as the hydrogen reservoirs lit up.
For a moment I saw our attacker, part huge multi-rotor drone, part shark. Hvalur looked like a Catherine wheel now, jets of fire shooting out from the holes in her body, twisting and tearing at her bones and sometimes pinwheeling off into the jungle.
Then a brilliant light like a meteor crossed the sky and where our attacker had been was only fragments and smoke. I saw Hvalur pull loose from the tower and fall toward me. Then I hit the water.
It was one of the local warlords, flying a Chinese-made gunship, stealthed and loaded with enough weaponry to start or stop a small war. They hit us with a monofilament harpoon that punched right through her skin and into the steel skeleton, then zapped us from the inside with an EMP burst. After that they hovered above the Hvalur and unloaded with all their guns, tens of thousands of rounds, cycling through armor-piercing, high impact, and incendiary shells. A load like that could have torn a hole through a mountain. Aerogel and ceramic offered as much resistance as a fog bank. In the sixty seconds of the attack they utterly destroyed the Hvalur. There were many casualties on the ground, but of the fifty people on board mine was the only serious injury. Everyone else was in the interior or on top and floated relatively slowly to the ground. Many were hurt but nobody was killed.
The American destroyer, fifteen kilometers up the estuary, took them out with a railgun. One shot. They said they could have fired sooner but needed to wait for the gunship to move out of line with the towers. Finally they just let loose. One of the towers, the northernmost, had a meter-wide hole punched halfway through it. It didn’t matter. By that time I was already in the water.
The Hvalur fell in a cascade of blue and orange, her chromatophore skin being burned by hydrogen flames. It was beautiful. Then something huge and dark and heavy landed on me, and that was the last thing I saw for six months.
Eva stared at Janssen. “My God…”
He didn’t reply. He looked at her calmly. She rubbed her hand across her eyes and took a deep breath.
“You are extraordinarily lucky to be alive.”
“So they tell me. Most of this,” he looked down at his torso, “happened afterward. I was conscious when I hit the water. I had maybe a concussion and a broken arm. Then a turbine landed on me. Part of the gunship. That took my legs, and dunked the wreckage in the water until just my face was exposed. It was glowing hot, and gave me some terrible burns.”
He looked at her carefully. “Do you want me to continue?”
Eva swallowed around the lump in her throat. Perhaps she hadn’t seen worse after all. She looked down at her hands, and the legs they rested on, and the small tablet, silently recording their words.
Janssen sighed. “Being in the water did more damage than the fall or the fire. All the construction around the towers stirred up sediment which probably hadn’t touched open air for a couple of thousand years.”
“The bacteria that got in me was old and hungry, and we didn’t have anything to fight it with. It found its way in through a hundred different cuts and scrapes and set to work. And it had help. Some of the Gabonese wildlife found me too. The doctors told me that the small fish nibbling away the tatters and burns and infected tissue may have saved my life.”
He cocked an eyebrow at Eva. “Did you know they named one of the bacteria types after me?”
Eva’s throat was too tight for a reply. She shrugged and looked out the window.
“If they ever decide to weaponize their water they’ll be a serious threat to global security.”
“Um, is that also when you lost your, that is, the rest…”
“No. Well, one arm, yes. For the rest, it was all chasing the infection. When they finally let me out of the medical coma I still had an arm and my pelvic bones. But new infections kept appearing, and they kept cutting. My last injury-related surgery was years ago. The more recent ones have been to stabilize me, and to hook me up to tubes and monitors.”
“Has the infection come again? Is that why you are dying now?”
Cedric thought for a minute. “No. My kidneys are shutting down. My liver is damaged. Too many medications over too many years. They could replace them, I suppose, or put me on dialysis, but that would only give me a few more months.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“Some friends have a cottage on Lake Superior. When the time comes we’ll bring in a full-time hospice nurse. We’ll sit out on the water and watch the north wake up from the long winter, and unplug me, one tube at a time.”
“And your family?”
“No one close. Some cousins, I think. I said my goodbyes years ago.” He sighed.
“I’m tired of surgeries and sorrowful faces. It’s time to just let it go. Zelda visited me a few years ago, and asked me about my religion. I told her I didn’t think much about it, one way or the other. Then she told me a parable about peeling away the layers of an onion until nothing is left except the universe. I think it’s appropriate.”
The world outside the window was dark now, and through the reflections Eva saw a few stars. She waited for Cedric to speak again, and when he didn’t she straightened up and turned off the recorder.
“Mr. Janssen, this was an extraordinary story. Thank you for taking the time with me.”
“My pleasure. I haven’t spent this much time with someone in many months.”
“Is there anything you need?”
He smiled at her. “No. I have everything I need. More, actually. Zelda tells me my soul is too big for my body now, and it’s leaking out into the world. This makes sense, considering how much of the rest of me is still out there.” He mumbled something and his cradle shifted position.
“Now I need sleep. If you publish while I’m still around, I would like to read it.”
“I will let you know. Goodbye, Mr. Janssen.”