‘It’s quiet, isn’t it?’ said the commander of the Scouting Vessel 2195, Western Sector 3.
‘Well, that’s what you’d expect, isn’t it?’ replied his young trainee, Kyle Thomas. ‘No craft landing. Nor any coming from it,’ remarked Kyle. He looked down at the milky blue planet. They were quite close to it now, and it filled almost half of the screen. It seemed so still, as if it were surrounded by a pool of quietness.
The rest of its solar system was buzzing. Small scouting vessels like their own, and bigger cargo ships were busily going backwards and forwards between the planets. It made navigating this stretch of the Sector 3 rather tricky. He was glad the autopilots were amongst the most sophisticated available.
‘Well, it sure is still a fairly blue planet,’ Nielson continued. ‘Shame, though. It used to be so much prettier than this. It was even bluer. And you could see greens and brown as well, before the poison cloud.’
‘Why do they bother?’ asked Kyle. ‘They have a poison cloud and they’re still living there? They could live anywhere.’
‘I suppose they feel safe enough down there, ‘replied Nielson. ‘What with all their farms and things tucked up nice and safe in those caves of theirs. The rest of us could learn a thing or two, if only they’d let us get a bit closer.’
‘Not much chance, though is there?’ replied Kyle. ‘What with them wanting to keep disease out. They won’t let anybody in.’
‘Yeah, well,’ said the Commander. ‘That’s something else it would be great to learn about. It’s funny how they’ve gone so shy. Considering it all started there in the first place.’
‘When was the last time anyone moved from the planet?’ asked Kyle.
‘2309,’ replied Nielson.
‘Just after the first colonies formed?’ asked Kyle. ‘So, over a millennium ago? It’s mad.’
‘Yep,’ replied Nielson, ‘and they’ve reported being disease-fee for just over two hundred years now. So, it ain’t just that that’s keeping them there. I reckon they’re just using that as an excuse.’
They were beginning to leave the blue planet behind.
‘Right, we’ll go on to manual now,’ said Nielson. ‘I want to see how well you can steer this thing.’
Kyle felt the power surge as the scout switched over.
‘One wide orbit around Terrestra and then out to the end of the solar system,’ said the Commander.
Kyle turned the craft. It wobbled and juddered a little. He fought hard with the controls for a few seconds and then she began to glide gently back over Terrestra.
He began to get the scout under control. He had the measure of her now. She was purring along.
It was then that he noticed it. A flash of green lightening ripped through the soft blue mist that surrounded the quiet planet. A cascade of sparks followed. Kyle opened his mouth to say something.
‘Watch it,’ said Nielson suddenly.
A smaller scout was nudging its way across their flight path.
‘Watch the dataserve,’ said Nielson. ‘You must follow its coordinates.’
Kyle concentrated on the controls again.
Marijam looked up at the skylight. The smoky plastiglass, which covered the ordinary plastic window, was distorting her view of the stars. But it could not dull the brightness of the strange lights, which were shooting across the sky tonight. They were still changing colour. They were even more intense now than when they started an hour ago.
‘Is it working again?’ her mother called up from the other chamber.
Marijam looked at the dataserve screen. Still frozen. She bit her lip and ran her fingers through her hair. She wanted to finish the unit on the causes of sunlight poisoning in the late twenty-third century. That would complete her Part One, the first of her Specialist Study for her High School Graduation Certificate and well before the summer holiday.
‘No!’ she called back.
‘Well give it a rest, now, sweetheart,’ her father called. ‘You really should watch this. It’s the first time the Northern Lights have appeared for centuries.’
Marijam’s mother, Louish Kennedy, came into the room. Dressed from head to toe in a besequined pale blue satin, Louish stood out as usual from the damp greyness of the cave walls. Marijam winced as she saw her. She preferred to blend in with her surroundings. But even Mrs Kennedy couldn’t compete tonight with the light show out there.
‘Do you think’ she said to Marijam, ‘it might mean that the poison cloud’s beginning to lift at last? And it really is something, isn’t it?’
Marijam watched as a sheet of light shot across the sky. Marbled streamers of pinks and golds and greens flowed into one another. Marijam had never seen so many colours in one go. It was so dull down here in the caves. And even when you went up into the tubes and walked across the surface, you looked at everything through grey glass. The colours were so bright tonight that the glass couldn’t dull them.
‘I don’t think it is actually the Northern Lights,’ said Marijam’s father, appearing in the doorway. ‘I’ve seen movie clips of them, and they weren’t this pretty. Even when you saw them direct, and not through plastiglass.’
‘I don’t think you’ll be able to get anything else done tonight,’ said her mother. ‘There are too many problems with the network.’ She shivered. ‘The other support systems will work, won’t they?’ she asked, looking at her husband.
Marijam’s father, Frazier Kennedy, Head of Education, smiled.
‘They’ll be fine,’ he said to Louish, combing his hand through his wiry black hair.
Marijam recognised the gesture. He always did that when he was trying to convince himself rather than the person he was speaking to. He hugged his wife, resting his dark brown cheek against her greyish pale one. Not for the first time Marijam looked at her own arms and wished she had inherited her father’s skin colour instead of her mother’s. The cave-life was just washing white people out.
‘They always give the air top priority,’ Frazier continued, the skin round his eyes beginning to crinkle as his eyes smiled. ‘They’ll keep the seals in place as well.
‘But they’ve got to keep the life support systems going… on the farms and everything,’ Louish continued.
Marijam suddenly noticed how anxious her mother looked. The pupils of her eyes were bigger and her face was a shade whiter than normal.
Frazier shrugged his shoulders lightly and opened his arms, turning his palms upwards, and admitting defeat. ‘The education networks will be the first to go down,’ he said. ‘They’ll keep the lights on in the plantation caves, and yes, they’ll let us carry on breathing. Don’t worry so much.’
A purple light, edged with silver and blue streamed across the sky, catching Marijam’s eye and making her look again through the skylight. She held her breath. Not even the Midsummer Presidential Laser Show could match this.
It wasn’t just the lights, though. There was something about the atmosphere tonight. It was warm, even with the air conditioning, and she had this overwhelming feeling that something tremendous was about to happen.
‘Well, I guess nobody will be studying much tonight,’ said Marijam’s mother. ‘Everyone will be up in the tubes, getting a closer look at the sky.’
‘You should go and meet your friends,’ said Frazier. ‘You’ve just got to enjoy an event like this with people of your own age.’
‘Well, we’re going anyway,’ said Mrs Kennedy.
It probably was a good idea. There seemed to be little hope of completing her project tonight. And goodness knows when anything as exciting as this would happen again. Marijam felt a strange fluttering in her stomach. Her heart was racing.
‘Go on,’ said Louish Kennedy. ‘Put on your best tunic. Go and meet your friends. I’ll bet they’re all out there.’
They left her room. Marijam turned to her wardrobe. It was overflowing. She was the only daughter of the Head of Education. All the Heads of Services – Education, Transport, Agriculture, Life Support, Diastics and all the other services which kept this isolated planet going - were rich and important. Marijam could have anything she wanted apart from fresh air. Her parents had even let her have the room with the skylight. She opened the door. Row upon row of tunics. Black and grey ones. Some were made from expensive wool and cotton. Then there were the ordinary ones out of ripon, the cheap comfortable cloth that everyone wore. And some in blue, red, lilac, in fact every colour you could think of.
How can I possibly choose from all these? she thought. So much for equality.
She always felt guilty that her father’s position allowed her so much. Everyone was supposed to be born with equal chances. She knew, though, that she had it easier than many. That was why she normally preferred to just wear a comfortable dull-coloured ripon tunic.
She really didn’t go out much, even though she was allowed to use the cyber beaches and holoscenes as much as she liked. That was yet another advantage of being the daughter of one of the Heads of Services. There was never a question about the cost. On the whole, though, she preferred the solitude of her room and her dataserve, and the sky above, which she looked at through her skylight. She liked to dream of a time when all the people – even those from the Z Zone - would be able to walk freely on the surface of the planet. Would they ever be able to again? And would it be in her lifetime?
No, that won’t do, she thought to herself as she took down her old grey tunic. Not today. Today’s really special.
Marijam found herself gently touching a purple silk tunic. It was so soft and smooth beneath her fingers. She had not worn it before. It had been a present from her aunt, her mother’s sister.
‘You should get out more and enjoy yourself,’ Aunt Kayla said. She always told Marijam off about spending too much time in front of a dataserve screen, of not going out enough and mixing with other young people.
Well, Aunt, thought Marijam, you would be astounded. Yes, this will do nicely.
She felt the soft fineness of the silk next to her skin. It added to her excitement. She sprayed on some perfume, and even put on a little make up. She looked at herself in the mirror.
Yes, she would do nicely as well. Though for what, she was not quite sure. Another streak of pink light rushed through the sky above. She heard the swish of the vacuum doors closing in the entrance hall below. Her parents were already on their way. Time to get going for her as well.
The crowds making their way through the cave networks were stifling. Marijam had never seen so many people out at once. If you could really call it ‘out’. Even up in the tubes wasn’t really ‘out’. She had often wondered what ‘out’ would really be like. Not even this many people were around for the President’s Laser Show or the Christmas Walks. The queues for the lifts were really long. Marijam asked herself whether it would be better to just make her way to one of the large skylights. But no! Looking up from a tube would be a bit nearer to standing in a field and staring at the night sky.
‘Oh come on, get a move on,’ she heard one man mumble under his breath.
Exactly, she thought.
‘I expect we’ll get there eventually,’ a woman’s voice answered him.
It was amazing how calm people were staying.
Eventually she was at the front of the queue and the lift came. In seconds they were up at the surface, and she was joining the crowds now making their way along the tubes. She desperately wanted to get to somewhere where they didn’t criss-cross over each other so much, so that she could get an uninterrupted view of the sky.
Odd that she had not yet seen anybody she knew. She had to walk almost half a mile before she came to somewhere she could stand and look.
The lights still rushed across the blackness. Occasionally two from different directions would collide and then a shower of golden and lilac stars would sprinkle down towards Terrestra’s surface. But it was not accompanied by the ‘oohs’ and aahs’ heard at the President’s laser display. Everyone stood in absolute silence. This was something really special. The excitement carried on growing inside Marijam’s stomach. She felt as if she were glowing. And it was good watching the lights through the plastiglass tubes. She seemed as if she was nearer to them than when she looked through the sky light. You didn’t have the long tube of rock and stone.
Gradually, though, the brightness of the lights faded, and their path across the sky became slower, less urgent. Suddenly, one last vibrant streak of red seemed to rush at the plastiglass tube where they were standing.
The silence broke. There was a gasp of surprise, perhaps of fear. The light hovered, almost threateningly. Then it vanished suddenly. There was nothing left but a clear night sky. Clearer, Marijam thought, than she had ever seen it before. Was her mother right? Was the poison cloud shifting at last?
The noise that the people now made as they moved towards the lifts compensated for the earlier silence. There was an excited chatter. And all sorts of ideas about what might have caused the lights.
‘I bet it’s somebody from another planet,’ a young boy cried. ‘I bet they’ve got some guards up there that they didn’t tell us about. They’ve been zapped.’
‘It could just be some strange meteorite storm,’ the man with him replied.
‘I wouldn’t have thought they’d be that colourful, though,’ replied another man.
Marijam didn’t want to go back to the apartment. It would be too much of an anticlimax to go back to work. And she was not far from the Laguna, the nectar bar where people from her school level were encouraged to go to meet people of their own generation.
For once, anyway, Marijam felt the need to be amongst people, and drink some of the state-provided nectar with its mild mind-altering chemicals.
The Laguna was buzzing when she arrived. Marijam almost turned straight back. People she wanted, yes, but not this many. But she had to pause a moment to admire the granite walls. The Laguna, at least, was a real cave, unlike most of the man-made ones that inhabitants of Terrestra used as their homes. The ceiling was covered with a huge screen, which showed the picture taken from a camera up on the surface. You could almost believe that you were outside.
Marijam looked up at the sky. No, there was definitely no more sign of the lights. And yes, she was sure the sky did look clearer than normal.
‘Marijam!’ a voice suddenly called. ‘Over here!’
Marijam turned to see who had called her. A girl in a silver tunic and with purple hair was waving frantically at her. A whole group from her school unit were sitting in one of the alcoves. It was Sadie Rojens. They had once worked on a project together, though mainly via the dataserve.
‘So what do you think caused those lights?’ asked Sadie excitedly. ‘We’re just getting one or two ideas here.’
‘What would you like to drink, Marijam?’ said a male voice.
A tall boy who was now standing up next to the table. It was Rainer Elbman. He looked quite elegant in his deep navy tunic. It looked as if it was made of wool and so must have been expensive.
‘Oh, er … a peach and melon, I think,’ said Marijam blushing slightly.
‘Hands off, he’s mine,’ Sadie hissed in her ear.
The thought had never occurred to Marijam.
‘Well, Marijam, what do you reckon?’ asked another masculine voice. Ponty Davidson. ‘What was all that about?’
Marijam felt herself flush. Ponty made a point of talking to her at every school meet. She always felt so awkward talking to boys, but with Ponty it was worse. He seemed to stifle her. She couldn’t work out what he wanted of her.
‘Do you think it’s the poison cloud going?’ she managed to mumble eventually.
‘Maybe,’ replied Ponty. ‘Or maybe it’s because one of the most delicious girls in our social group has decided to show off her assets at last.’
His pupils were wide open and she could feels his eyes first on her legs, and then on her breasts. He slid an arm around her waist and pulled her towards him, nestling his nose into her hair. ‘Oh, and you smell so gorgeous too,’ he said. ‘Have you any idea, what you’re doing to me?’ he asked.
‘Put her down,’ said one of the other girls. ‘This is much more interesting.’
Marijam managed to wriggle free. She was surprised, though to see something different flash across Ponty’s face. There was something in his eyes. He looked almost as if he was going to cry.
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘Won’t you go out with me, though? I promise I’ll behave well.’
‘Oh look,’ said Marijam, as another bright flash chased across the sky. When she turned back, Ponty had disappeared.
‘Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough, what’s been happening,’ said one of the other boys. ‘I bet the scientists are on to it already.’
‘They’ll be putting it up on the news screens soon, then we’ll know,’ said someone else.
Rainer placed her drink down in front of her.
‘Who’s that over there?’ he asked.
Marijam looked over to where he was pointing. It was a boy she had never seen before. His tunic was a little odd. Not really quite the usual shape. He was white but had much darker skin than she had ever seen before and his hair was much lighter than everybody else’s.
I don’t know, thought Marijam, but I wish I did. That odd, exciting feeling was beginning all over again. Her stomach was turning summersaults and her heart was racing. She held her breath until she really needed to breathe again.
Now she understood what Sadie was talking about. She took a sip of her peach and melon nectar.