The Spiral Arm (episode 1, season 1)
The Spiral Arm (episode 1, season 1)

*

Peter Boland

*

*

Copyright © Peter Boland 2013

*

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, locales or organisations is entirely coincidental.

*

*

The Spiral Arm

Copyright © Peter Boland 2013

*

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, locales or organisations is entirely coincidental.

*

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the author.

***

Who wouldn’t give up everything they owned

for just one more day of life.

*

Chapter one

*

I don’t sleep. I never sleep. Every night it’s the same. Lying on my bed staring up at the damp spot on the ceiling. I know it intimately now. Every dirty curve and tendril. Sometimes I think I can see things in it, like one of those Rorschach ink tests. Tonight it’s a grim-looking face with wings sticking out the side of its head. Maybe I’m going crazy. Perhaps I should paint over it and then I’ll get some shut-eye, but I know it won’t make any difference. Nothing does. Insomnia has been my unwelcome companion since I can remember. It’s a wonder I manage to function during the day. I’m so used to it now; it’s just something I am. A part of me; like having freckles or a tattoo.

Pity I’m not the party type. I’d be really good at it. I could go on night after night without any side effects. A hardcore party animal, I’d be the last person standing, calling everyone else a lightweight for succumbing to sleep.

But parties are the last place I want to be. Actually I’ve never been to one, never get invited to any. From what I can gather it wouldn’t be my scene; stuck in a place with all the beautiful, perfect people from my school, while I do my best to blend in with the wallpaper. No thanks.

The worst thing about not sleeping is the boredom. There are hours and hours of dead time to fill. Every night I become a ghost, invisible to the slumbering world, with an eternity of time on my hands. So I spend most of it reading, easily demolishing a book a night.

I squeeze the com chip in my left hand. A nanosecond later it projects a flat square of colored light inches above my wrist. The holographic touch screen hovers in front of me. I check my message box – empty as usual.

Touching my book icon, I drag my index finger down the screen, scrolling through the massive library of literature I’ve downloaded. There are some novels but mostly I like tech manuals. Yeah I know, weird right? Most people use their com chip to chat or watch movies or post dumb stuff about what they’re doing at this precise moment. But me, I use it to read – call me old-fashioned but there is a method behind the madness; or there was.

I started reading tech manuals in the hope that the tedium would send me off to the land of nod. It had the opposite effect and I got hooked on reading about how everything with an ON button works. Tonight, it’s how to dismantle the propulsion system of a ground shuttle.

As you can probably guess, I don’t have many friends. It’s okay, don’t feel sorry for me; that’s the way I prefer it. Nice people say I like my own company; mean people call me a freak, a weirdo or worse. Not many people are nice to me, so it’s usually the latter, which is mostly why I avoid people.

It’s so damn hot in here that I polish off a liter of water while reading. After an hour my bladder’s full so I swing my legs out of bed and walk across the apartment, although cubicle would be a more accurate description, it’s so tiny.

There are about four thousand of these little people-hutches in our block and at the last count we had 277 floors – that’s about average for an accommodation block. The bigger, more expensive ones in the city are double that. They keep building more floors on top of these towers to fit more people in but it’s never enough, they’re overcrowded the second they’re finished. The top of our tower sways it’s so high. They all do. Most people are frightened to go up there, especially the ones who live there. The residents’ handbook says it’s perfectly normal for it to do this, and is part of the design. Being a geek, I checked all the calculations just for something to do one night, and they all work. I think it’s kinda cool having a bendy building. Better than one that could snap like a twig.

It only takes several steps to cross the entire apartment and the cold metal floor feels good against the hot soles of my feet. What I wouldn’t give for a window that opened.

My mother is asleep on the other bed. She looks peaceful. All her bedclothes are on the floor. I pick up the bed sheet and carefully slide it over her, not because she’s cold but because it always feels more secure to have something covering you. Without waking she clutches the sheet and curls it around herself. I kiss her lightly on the forehead and my lips feel the deep lines carved into her skin. I guess that’s what a life of worry does to you. I make a silent promise that I’ll graduate, get a good job and take care of her the way she’s taken care of me.

I step into the microscopic bathroom in the corner, it’s barely big enough to sit down without banging your knees on the door. There’s a showerhead halfway up the wall screwed into the cracked tiles. They call it a wetroom because everything gets wet when you shower. All the water in the building is recycled so I’ve drunk, peed and washed in the same water that everyone else has, thousands of times. It’s filtered and cleaned of course, down in the basement, and I haven’t dropped dead just yet, so I figure it’s safe, although not a pleasant idea if you think about it too much.

After I finish I flush, put the lid down and wash my hands. Then I sit back down and carry on reading.

It’s 5.29am when the manual’s completed and I try and think of something else to do. I’m not in the mood for anymore reading, so I get ready for school, making as little sound as possible. I don’t want to wake my mother. She worries about me enough already and if she hears I’m up it’ll panic her. She thinks my insomnia was cured years ago. I haven’t the heart to tell her I still don’t sleep. Sometimes hiding the truth is the right thing to do.

I leave the apartment, closing the door gently behind me. Outside, people sleep in the hallway, budged into every available space and wrapped in thin blankets. I step quietly over them, hoping I don’t tread on anything sensitive.

I could take one of the elevators, but there are probably people asleep in them too, and I think it’d be unkind to wake them up. So I make the mammoth trek down the stairs. People are sleeping awkwardly on the steps but there aren’t so many and I’m able to pick my way down each flight until I’m on the sidewalk.

Outside on the street it’s the same story. People huddled together in little sleepy clusters; some have even built little shelters for themselves out of anything they can scavenge. Others sit in doorways with their hoods pulled over their heads. They’re not hobos or bums, most probably have jobs. They just don’t have anywhere to live, not because they can’t afford it but because there’s nowhere available. Space is the rarest commodity on our tiny planet, seeing as there are 86 billion people elbowing each other for room.

Mom and I are the lucky ones. Lucky that my uncle is a science officer in the marines. He pulled a few strings to get us somewhere to live, otherwise we’d be jostling with these people for a patch of sidewalk.

Above me, vast apartment towers reach skyward like long fingers, making me giddy as I look up. There’s a thin rectangle of clear sky like a blue stripe; I’m sure the sun’s up there somewhere. But down here it’s dark, always dark whether it’s day or night because the sun never reaches down this far. That’s why the streetlights are always on, fizzing away 24/7, a constant reminder of the population apocalypse we face.

It’s way too early to catch the shuttle to school so I walk. No-one is awake yet and it’s the closest I can get to being on my own. Overcrowding is everywhere. The planet’s just too small for all of us to live on. We’ve built on everything: deserts, mountains, ice caps, jungles - there’s nothing natural left. Every inch of planet has been used to make way for apartment towers that block out the sun. We have become a city planet. Not the best place to be if you like your own company.

I should eat something. My uncle says I don’t eat enough, but I just never feel like it. Hunger’s not my main priority. It’s not that I’m trying to be super-slim or anything, in fact I’d love to have proper curves. That’s never going to happen of course. I’m a straight-up-and-straight-down kinda gal with short hair and big brown eyes, making me look permanently startled, so I’m told.

I head around the corner to Hank’s street food. His long bullet-shaped trailer is parked by the side of the road beneath a mountainous accommodation block that rises so high it disappears into the clouds.

His shutters are down, but I see a yellow outline around their edge. The lights are on inside, so he’s definitely awake.

I knock on the outside.

“Go away, we’re not open.” His voice is gruff through lack of sleep.

“Hank, it’s me, Wren.”

There’s a shuffling sound and then the shutter rolls up.

“Hey, Wren.” He yawns as he says my name.

“Late one last night?” I ask.

“Well, yeah,” he says, yawning again. “It’s Call-Up today. The night before’s always a big one, everyone partying and acting dumb. What were you doing?”

“Oh, the usual. Nothing.”

“Wren, you need to get out more, mix a little.”

“Yeah, I know.” He’s right but I don’t want to talk about it so I change the subject. “How’s your grill working now?”

“Oh, like a dream, thanks for looking at it. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. You know me, I do that stuff for fun.”

“Too kind. Hey, wanna coffee, it’s on the house?”

“Er, no thanks, I don’t have a problem staying awake.”

“I could do with some of that myself. Want some falafel? I made it fresh this morning.”

I nod and Hank puts a plateful of the fragrant spheres in front of me, I have to admit they smell out of this world. I pop one straight into my mouth and spit it back out again. It’s hotter than a burning coal.”

“Oh, sorry, should’ve warned you,” Hank says.

I hold up a hand to signal that it’s okay. “Water, please?” I croak.

“Sure.” He hands me a large bottle and I drain the whole thing. “Wow, thirsty huh?”

“Yeah, no appetite, but I drink like a dog, and I’ve got a bladder the size of a peanut, it’s not the best combination.” I make him laugh.

“Here.” He bags up the falafels. “Have them later when they’re not so hot.”

“Thanks, Hank. Get some sleep.”

“You too, Wren.”

I wave my goodbye and set off toward school. It’s just after six. If I walk slowly I can kill another hour. School doesn’t usually start until 8.30am, but because it’s Call-Up day, students can come in at ten, which suits me fine. It’ll be open but empty so I can just find somewhere to sit on my own and read.

Loud shouty voices come from the street up ahead, the kind that spell trouble. That’s okay, I’m an expert at avoiding it. I duck into a doorway and squish myself next to a sleeping family. A little boy beside me opens two weary eyes from beneath a dirty blanket. I put my index finger to my lips. He smiles and offers me a corner of his blanket. I smile back and mouth the words ‘thank you.’ There’s enough material to cover my legs, I bend my head down so it touches my knees making me look asleep. Hopefully it’ll do the trick.

The voices are familiar. One stands out from the others, the arrogant tone is unmistakable. It’s Sagan Philips. He’s in my year. The other voices must be his buddies, Yan Marks, Eli Howie and Max Tims. They’re arguing, trying to figure something out. It’s pretty clear none of them has a clue; their words are slow and slurred, and they keep repeating things. I hold my breath as they pass by.

I hear them staggering off down the sidewalk when the little boy gently touches my hand, as if to say it’s okay. He has the cutest face and dirty smudges on his cheeks. I quietly reach into my bag and hand him the bag of falafels. He looks inside and his mouth drops open, then he looks back at me with questioning eyes.

“They’re for you,” I whisper, “for keeping me safe.”

The broadest grin breaks across his face and he reaches in to take one.

Suddenly his mother wakes up. She sees me and sees the bag, and comes to the worst conclusion. “Get away from my boy,” she hisses, wrapping two protective arms around him.

“It’s not want you think,” I say. “I was just hiding.”

She stands and pushes the boy behind her, shielding him. I stand too and hold up my hands, trying to be as submissive as possible. Willing her to be quiet.

“Leave us alone,” she shouts. “Go away.”

“Please, I’m just hiding from someone.” She’s not buying it. There’s an unstoppable rage in her eyes, the primal kind that only comes from a mother protecting her young.

“This is our doorway. You can’t have it.”

I need to calm her down fast, if that’s possible. Sagan’s gang is still within earshot and if they hear trouble they’ll want to stir it up.

“I don’t want your doorway. I’ll go in a second, please be quiet,” I plead.

She shoves me hard and I stumble on to the sidewalk. “Get lost. Don’t come back or you’ll be sorry,” she shouts, following me onto the sidewalk.

There’s no way those guys haven’t heard the commotion. I don’t wait to find out and run up the street in the other direction. My bag leaps up and down on my back as I sprint. I call it a sprint, anyone else would call it hasty jogging. I want to go faster but I’m not built for speed. If I can just make it to the corner up ahead, maybe I can give them the slip.

Rapid footsteps pursue me. They’re going to be on me any second now. They get faster and louder while I get slower and wheezier, gulping down air as my lungs start giving out.

Someone overtakes me. It’s Sagan. He turns suddenly in front of me, blocking my path. I almost crash into him but his arms shunt me back like buffers on a train

“What are you running for, Harper?” he’s not even out of breath.

The rest of them catch up and form a circle, watching me through tired half-lidded eyes. They’ve been up all night celebrating.

I go to speak but can’t. I have a stitch and I can’t get any air out of my mouth to form the words.

“Take your time, Harper,” says Eli. “We ain’t going nowhere.”

All I can think about is correcting his double negative. This is why I get picked on. Other people would be formulating survival strategies right now. While all my brain wants to do is sort out his grammar.

“I’m just trying to get to school on time,” I say, breathlessly.

“Such a geek,” Yan says. He’s swaying badly and his eyes are having trouble focusing.

“No, no,” says Sagan, running his fingers through that ridiculously thick blond hair of his. “She’s a conscientious student, aren’t you, Harper?”

“I guess. So you guys been out celebrating?”

“Oh yeah,” says Max, “Last night on Earth, gotta make it special.”

I think if I can keep them talking they may lose interest and let me go.

“Tell me,” I ask, “How can you be so sure you’re going?”

“You’re kidding,” Sagan replies, “Our stats are off the chart. We’re dead certs. Call-Up’s just a formality.”

“Say, Harper,” Max pipes up, “Do you think you’ll be called up?”

They all laugh. I laugh too. Laughing at the bully’s joke is such a dead giveaway that you’re a victim. I hate myself for doing it but I can’t help it. I’ve been doing it so long it’s become an automatic reaction.

“I’ve been working out, can’t you tell?” I flex my biceps like a body builder and cringe inside. At least they laugh with me. “Well, you guys have a great morning and I’ll see you at Call-Up.” They’re still laughing so I think it’s safe to back away. Sagan grabs my arm, his grip cuts off my circulation.

“Not so fast, Harper. We need you to do something for us.”

This is not good. It’s either going to involve pain or something criminal or both.

“Can you let go? You’re hurting me.” Sagan bends my arm in a way that it’s not supposed to go. I wince and cry out in pain.

“So you gonna help us?” he asks.

I look across at his friends for sympathy but all I get back are sadistic smiles. It’s time to give in.

“Okay, okay, let go, I’ll do it.” He releases me and I massage my arm in a lame attempt to make the pain go away. Before I have time to take a breath he grips me by the collar of my jacket and drags me along the sidewalk. Some of the people sleeping nearby wake up but they soon pretend to go back to sleep when they see the size of Sagan and his buddies. I’d probably do the same; it’s not worth getting involved unless you want a broken jaw.

I’m dragged for a block and then down a side street. No-one is asleep down here because there are no doorways, and therefore no-one to witness what we’re about to do. There’s a very expensive car parked by the curb. An Infinity Interceptor - beautiful, fast and rare. I read the manual a few months ago. I have no idea why people drive cars anymore; they’re just status symbols, relics of the past and totally impractical. It’s impossible to get any real speed up, there are just too many people in the way, unless you drive around in the early hours of the morning.

“Right, Harper.” Sagan gestures to the car. “As it’s our last night, I mean morning on Earth, we think we deserve a ride in a fine car like this one, and if some jerk is dumb enough to park it here, well ...”

“You want me to break into it for you.”

“Credit us with some skills. We can break into it, that’s the easy part. We just need someone to get past the forcefield.” He picks up a stone and tosses it at the car. The security force field sizzles and pings it back at us twice as fast as he threw it.

“Please, guys. I really don’t want to do this.”

Max sighs and walks up to me, “Oh, Wren, I don’t usually hit girls, but I’m not sure you exactly qualify as a girl, so I guess it’s okay.” He thumps me hard in the stomach and all the air exits my lungs. I double up, coughing and fighting for breath. Sagan holds on to me, stopping me from collapsing on the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes.

“That’s it breathe, breathe,” he says in a mock caring tone, as if he’s a midwife and I’m giving birth. “First punch is always the worst, then the adrenalin kicks in and starts to numb the pain, which means Max will have to hit you harder next time.”

I don’t need any more persuading. “Okay,” I croak, “I’ll do it.”

They give me a few minutes to recover, which buys me some time to figure out how I’m going to do this.

The car is emitting a security forcefield, a very powerful one. I need to somehow syphon off all that power to somewhere else, otherwise it’ll blow me across the street. It’s being generated by Zero Point Energy. Everything is these days.

Zero Point Energy or ZPE was discovered over a century ago and basically means energy can be extracted from nothing. Crazy, I know. Turns out that even nothing needs energy to exist, or not exist. Depending on how you look at it. And the bigger the nothing, the more energy you get. And there’s no bigger nothing than the universe. Who’d have thought all that space could be converted into energy? All this time we were sitting in a vast ocean of the stuff. So our energy crisis was solved, only to be replaced by another one. The population rocketed and has been doing so ever since.

“Hurry up, Harper, we haven’t got all day,” Sagan says, interrupting my thoughts.

“I need to think,” I reply.

What can I use to absorb all that energy? I look around. The solution is standing right next to the car: a streetlight. All the power for lighting comes from a ZPE conversion station housed miles outside of the city. It’s spread across a vast grid, just like old-fashioned electricity.

I get to my feet and ignore the ache in my midriff. In my bag I find my small toolkit I take everywhere with me.

“What’s up, Harper?” Sagan asks.

“I think I’ve figured it out.” I select a small screwdriver and start loosening the access panel on the streetlight. Inside, there’s just one cable leading up to the light at the top. That’s what I need. I pull and pull at the black cable but it’s like trying to pull out a tooth. Sagan steps in and shoves me out of the way.

“Allow me,” he says. Taking the cable with one hand he yanks it out as if he’s pulling up a daisy. The streetlight goes out.

“Thanks,” I say, as he hands it to me. I pull the disconnected end over to the car, which sparks and pops violently. The other end of the cable is still attached to the base of the streetlight. I swallow as I hold the exposed end near the car’s forcefield. This is where I see just how good my theory is.

I look away as I plunge it into the forcefield. The cable expands in my fist and I can feel all the power flowing past my fingers. All that separates me from instant death is a thin sheath of insulating plastic. One by one, the other streetlights hum, becoming unnaturally bright. Right off into the distance I see each of them glowing like miniature suns. The humming grows louder, more violent and I think the cable’s going to blow, taking my arm with it. A few seconds later, the droning subsides and all the streetlights fade back to normal, as the power from the forcefield is sucked up and dissipated into the grid.

I start breathing again.

Dropping the cable, I slowly stretch out a shaking hand toward the car’s body. My fingertips touch its sleek metal surface.

“The forcefield’s gone,” I say, exhaling with relief.

The boys around me whoop and slap each other on the back.

“Good work, Harper,” says Sagan, punching me on the arm. It’s meant to be one of those affectionate punches but the pain goes right into the marrow of my bone.

Despite the situation, I’m a little pleased with my achievement. “This model has a separate energy source for its security and alarm systems, and another for its engine so it should …”

“Okay, you can shut up now,” Eli says. He walks up to the window and puts it out using his elbow, then he reaches in and flicks open the doors. Sagan slots himself into the driver’s seat while the rest of them jostle for shotgun. A few seconds and a few twisted dashboard wires later, the engine growls into life. Sagan throws me a salute while Max gives me the finger. I stare back at them, still trying to work out how people like that still exist in this day and age; you’d think they’d have eradicated the gene for being an asshole by now.

Sagan guns the engine and accelerates up the road, nearly hitting a wall, then he throws it into a harsh turn at the end of the deserted street. The car disappears from view but I still hear its engine echoing along the quiet streets.

I pick up my things and continue walking to school, taking comfort in the fact that by the end of the day all four of them will be out of my life and on a ship heading to a planet 600 light-years away. I wonder if it will be far enough.

Chapter 2