Aurelia anxiously recited her ticket number to herself as she waited in line. Slowly, one by one, the other passengers passed through the gate and then it was her turn. She recited her number into the intercom, the gate clicked open, and without turning back, Aurelia hurriedly followed the passenger in front of her. Clearly, they were walking through one of the transport arms that Aurelia and her father had seen from outside the terminal building, but there were no windows. Just a long, cream-coloured tunnel with industrial grey carpeting. She noticed that the floor slanted gradually upwards. Finally, after a couple of minutes of walking, she came to an open hatch with a steward standing in front of it.
“Number?” he asked, smiling politely.
She told him, and he beckoned at her to follow him.
“First trip?” he asked as he led her into the round deck.
“Yes,” she said.
The deck was surrounded by windows, with two circles of seats in pairs: one seat next to the window, one seat next to the aisle. In the centre of the deck was a column, and from the signs Aurelia could see that this was where the toilets and steward centre were housed.
“Nothing to worry about,” the steward told her, kindly. “Flying for business or pleasure?”
“Business, I guess,” said Aurelia as he led her around the circle of seats. “I'm headed up to Lunar City Hospital to take my posting.”
The steward stopped and showed her to her seat, an aisle seat. “Med Worker, huh?”
“My parents were both Med Workers,” the steward confided. He looked around the deck. “Listen,” he said, leaning in. “Wait until everyone's in, and then if there's a spare window seat, I'll get you moved. Shame not to see the view on your first flight.”
Aurelia smiled at him. “Thanks. That'd be nice.”
“No promises,” he said. “But I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, you might want to take your seat.”
She did as she was told and passed the time looking around the deck. The other passengers were all Workers. There seemed to be a pretty even mix of tech Workers, Chem Workers and manufacturing Workers. As far as she could see, she was the only Med Personnel on the deck. She thanked her lucky stars that Jaki and her group were seated elsewhere. The shuttle's interior skin was a Medium grey colour, and the carpet had a hint of blue. It was actually quite a calming effect, though Aurelia assumed that it had been designed that way. She was about to investigate the back pocket of the seat in front of her when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw the steward.
“Come on,” he said. “There's a window seat over here.”
She stood, and he escorted her to a seat on the other side.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said to the male tech Worker who was sitting in the aisle seat.
The tech Worker stood to let Aurelia slide into the window seat.
“Thanks.” She smiled at both the techie and the steward.
“No problem,” said the steward. “Once we're under way, I'll see if I can get permission for you to visit the flight deck, if you'd like.”
Well, if you're going to do something new, you might as well go all out, thought Aurelia, agreeing and thanking the man once more.
The steward left, and the tech Worker turned to her. “First flight?”
“Everyone keeps asking me that,” groaned Aurelia. “Is it really so obvious?”
The tech Worker laughed. “A bit,” he admitted. “You look a little like a scared cat, but you'll be fine.”
He went back to reading his screen, and Aurelia fiddled with the belt on her seat until an announcement caught her attention. Looking up, she saw several large screens descending from the ceiling at various points around the circle of seats.
“Safety announcements,” the tech Worker said, noting her interest. “You can ignore them; everyone else does. Shuttles are as safe as houses these days.”
He bent his head to his reading, but Aurelia gave the safety briefing her full attention.
“Should the deck lose air pressure,” the announcing voice droned, “oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Place the mask over your face and continue breathing as normal.”
Aurelia looked up, almost expecting to see a mask drop down right at that moment.
When the safety announcements were over, Aurelia once again turned her attention to the seat pocket in front of her. She pulled out a card that listed all the safety information that she'd just heard, and then a strange folded bag.
“It's in case you get space sick,” the tech Worker said. “Most people do the first time, but it's usually not bad enough to need the bag. If you feel nauseous, just call the steward and he'll give you a shot.”
Great. So not only did she need to worry about remembering all the safety information she'd just heard, but now she had to worry about not embarrassing herself by puking in front of the entire deck. Shuttle flying was turning out to be more work than she'd anticipated. A faint vibration began, and whilst the noise was no more than a hum, Aurelia could feel the shaking in her bones.
Once more the tech Worker looked at her. Then he folded up his screen and put it away. “It's the engines starting,” he explained. “Now, tell me, why are you flying up to Lunar?”
Aurelia inforMed him about her posting, and he asked several questions before she in turn asked him about his own journey. The Worker was just pulling out his screen again to show her a picture of his son when Aurelia caught a glimpse of movement outside her window.
“Hey! We're up!”
The tech Worker smiled at her. “Told you it was going to be easy,” he said.
She realised that the man had been distracting her with conversation during lift off, and she felt a wave of gratitude for his thoughtfulness.
“Now,” he continued, unrolling his screen. “You don't have time to be looking at pictures of my kid; you're going to want to watch the view for a while. For the next hour or so we'll circle Earth to work up the speed to break through the atmosphere into space. So the looking's good for now. Gets boring later, though.” He smiled at her. “Go on, admire the view.”
She did as she was told, seeing first only blackness. Then the shuttle began to tilt slightly, and she saw light below. Through the clouds she could make out flickering lights, and after a moment she realised that the lights were divided into square patches. Blocks. This was City 01 spread out beneath her. She bit back a cry as she stared at the hugeness of what lay below. The city was bigger than anything she'd ever imagined. It took several minutes for the shuttle to fly over the city, and then the lights became scarcer and eventually disappeared.
Craning her neck over, Aurelia saw only darkness. Like most other people, she had never been outside of a city. And like most other people, she didn't really know what was out there. Sure, there were stories, but nothing really factual. All she knew was that these areas were uninhabitable. Destroyed by nuclear warheads or Chemical weapons, the very land leaked poison. Some said that there were mutants out there, either animals or what had once been people, depending on how scary the teller wanted their story to be. In the darkness, Aurelia could see nothing, but in her imagination these places were empty and desolate, brown and black.
The five remaining Earth cities, labelled by numbers 01 through 05, covered around seven percent of the available surface of the planet. From her history classes Aurelia knew that before the Old Earth centres had begun their reign of terror, a full twenty-nine percent of the planet had been made up of land, though not all that was habitable territory. Now, though, huge oceans buried what had once been some of the largest and most powerful empires the world had ever seen. Other cities stood ruined, empty and echoing, their atmospheres so loaded with a combination of pollution and war gasses that no one could survive for more than a moment in them.
She found it hard to understand that the world had once been bigger than she knew it to be now. Hard to understand how all of this had happened without someone standing up to stop it. Why hadn't these people, her ancestors, done something? Said something? And then it had been too late - it was gone. It was lucky for them all that the Lunar Project had come to fruition, that when the civil wars and racial battles had begun, shortly to be followed by the thudding of economic crashes and finally all-out war, there had been a peaceful place. There had been a group of people who had the foresight to remain apart and keep civilisation alive above whilst those below did everything in their power to destroy it.
Not for the first time, Aurelia muttered a prayer of thanks to the Elitists. The Ruling Class may have privileges, some even that she envied, but those privileges were just reward for what had been done to save what was left of Earth.
“Look over there,” said the tech Worker, leaning over and interrupting Aurelia's thoughts.
He pointed out of the window, and following his finger, Aurelia saw glinting on the horizon.
“That's City 02 coming up,” he said. “Watch for a while and tell me what you see.”
Aurelia watched carefully as the lights began to focus and the shuttle flew closer to the city. But it wasn't until they were directly over the city itself that Aurelia realised what she was looking for.
“Ah!” she said in triumph.
Rather than the regular, square blocks of light that had made up City 01, City 02 seemed to be made of circles of light, connected by lines.
“Why don't they have blocks in City 02?” she asked the tech Worker.
“Well,” he said, “at the end of the War, much of the land under 02 had become swampy and water laden. The air was pretty clear, though, which made it a good, inhabitable place despite the water. So what the engineers did was to reclaim some of the land.”
“Reclaim?” asked Aurelia.
“Yes. There were high points that were above the water level, so these places were solidified and made larger. Today City 02 is basically a series of interconnected islands, with bridges going between them. Each round island is the equivalent of one block in City 01.”
“Interesting,” Aurelia said. “It must be nice to live around the water.”
The tech Worker laughed. “You wouldn't say that if you'd ever been to City 02,” he said. “The stench is horrific. Like all natural water, it requires filtering before it's fit for use, but the water in the canals in 02 can't all be filtered, so it's left as is. That means that not only does it stink, but also that you can't touch it.” He shook his head sadly. “Every now and again a small 3, usually just a toddler, falls in.”
Aurelia understood immediately the consequences of that. “And nothing can be done?”
He shook his head. “Not right now. The Eng Workers and Tech Workers are looking for ways to purify the canal system, but so far nothing's come of it. We'll get there eventually, though.”
“Are any of the other cities like 02?” she asked with interest.
Again the Tech Worker shook his head. “Each city is a little different, depending on the territory that it was built on. In a few minutes you'll see City 03. That one's an island all of its own, and it's the smallest of the cities, though it's built in the same block pattern as City 01. You'll catch a glimpse of 04, though we won't fly over it. That one's a big one, almost as big as 01.”
“My mom is from 04,” said Aurelia. “She's told me a little about it, though she came to 01 when she was a kid. It's cold, I know that.”
“Mmmm,” agreed the techie. “04 is the only City that still gets snow. It's built in blocks, but the blocks are larger and further apart than those in 01. Partly because the buildings have thicker skins for insulation, but also to accommodate snow drifts that are pushed to the edges of roads, narrowing them significantly in the winter.”
“And what about 05?”
“That's the one that you won't see today. 05 is the hottest of the cities. Again, the blocks will be bigger than you're used to. Each block has twenty-five buildings, rather than ten.”
“Because the land under 05 is sandy. It can't support the huge weight of taller buildings, so each building is limited to only forty floors or so. That means that there needs to be more buildings per block to accommodate the right number of people.”
“Got it,” said Aurelia.
Her knowledge of Earth Empire geography had pretty much tripled in the course of a two-minute conversation. Though she had been taught geography during her early school days, before Med training started, classes had been limited to City 01 geography - considered important as most children would stay in their home city - and Lunar City geography, since it was the capital.
She watched as City 03 appeared below and then quickly disappeared. It really was far smaller than the other cities she'd seen so far. The vibrations of the shuttle had begun to get stronger, and Aurelia could feel the increasing speed.
“Not long now until we break through,” the tech Worker said. “Thank Gods.”
“Because that's when we can get some rations around here,” he laughed. “No food and drink till we're through the atmosphere. In fact, no leaving your seat either. Those are the rules.”
Aurelia wondered if Nicholas was watching the view too. Then she remembered how often he flew and decided that he probably wasn't too interested anymore. He was a nice guy. Attractive too. And hey, there was no rule against being friends with a Clone, right? Aurelia figured she could use all the friends she could get, moving to Lunar City. Crap. She needed to stop referring to it as Lunar City even in her head, and call it Lunar like everyone else did. She didn't want to sound like some provincial idiot.
The shaking of the shuttle intensified.
“It's normal,” the Tech Worker said. “We're building up a lot of speed now. Don't worry about it. It'll get a little worse. Feeling space sick?”
She shook her head. “Ready to get up there, though.”
“A few minutes longer.”
Everything below was completely black, though as the tech Worker had promised she'd seen the distant lights of City 04 on the horizon a couple of minutes back. She felt a pressure on one side and realised that the shuttle was turning, becoming more upright now as it prepared to shoot out of the atmosphere. The vibrations were stronger still, the sound no longer a humming but more like a rattling. Now the pressure seemed to be on her head, and Aurelia felt a little like she was being squashed. She pushed herself back into her seat and gripped the armrests tightly.
Just as she thought that the shuttle must shake itself apart, there was a quick flash outside her window and all vibrations suddenly stopped. There was a stirring inside the deck, and Aurelia heard the clicking of seatbelts being released and a general feeling of relaxation.
“We're up,” the Worker next to her said. “Safe and sound.”
She sighed in relief.
“I'm going to stretch my legs,” he told her. “When the steward comes, grab a drink for me if I'm not back - oh, and a meal pack too.”
He set off around the deck, and Aurelia looked over the seats ahead of her to see the steward approaching with a trolley.
“What'll it be, Med star?” He grinned as he reached her seat.
“Er, I guess a coffee for me, and a meal pack too, please. Oh, and the guy next to me asked for a meal pack and a drink, please.”
The steward handed over two foil-wrapped packages, then two insta-cups. Aurelia struggled to get her hand into her pocket in her seated position, but the steward shook his head.
“No charge. All part of the service,” he said. “And…” He leaned in a little. “I've got that flight deck permission for you. I'll come get you when things have settled down a little in here and escort you up if you want.”
“Great, thanks.” Aurelia smiled.
He smiled back and went on his way.
Aurelia was staring at the packages in front of her when the tech Worker came back. He sat down heavily next to her.
“Here,” he said. “Like this.”
He took an insta-cup from her and peeled back the lid. He removed a plastic divider that had been holding the two substances inside the cup apart, swirled the cup gently and then reached up to release a tray from the seat in front of her and place the cup on it.
“Let's see what's for dinner, shall we?” He grinned, picking up a meal pack.
Unwrapping the foil lid, he looked in and grimaced. As Aurelia unwrapped her own pack, she saw why. Inside there was something that looked a lot like brown sludge.
“It's alright,” the tech Worker said. “It always looks like this. Usually tastes good, though. It's something about your sense of taste changing when you're in space. They have to make the stuff like this because if it was real stew, it would apparently taste just awful. Still, they could at least have changed the colour or something.”
Aurelia couldn't help but agree with him, though when she tasted the slop she found it was actually pretty good. A cut above school food, anyway. She finished her meal in a couple of minutes and sat back to drink her coffee.
“We've got a long while to go,” the tech Worker said, sitting back too. “Your seat reclines, and they'll dim the lights later so that you can sleep if you want.”
Aurelia was still too hyped up to sleep, and she had an upcoming flight deck visit.
“If you want entertainment, then ask the steward; he'll give you a vid-tablet to watch.”
“Maybe later,” said Aurelia. “Thanks for the tip.”
She was watching the flickering of stars when the steward came for her.
“All ready to go up?” he asked.
She undid her seatbelt, and the tech Worker moved to let her out.
“Have fun!” he said as he reclaimed his seat.
The steward guided her into the central column.
“Just wait here for a couple of minutes. I need to check if anyone needs a vid-tablet and dim the deck lights, and then I'll take you up, okay?”
She nodded. He left her in the column, which was larger than it appeared from the outside. On each side of the entrance were toilets. Directly in front of her she could see a room that looked like it was stocked with meal packs and insta-cups, and next to that was an open door revealing another seat like the one she had just left and a scattering of personal belongings, obviously the steward's room. In the middle of the column was a large, transparent shaft. Aurelia guessed this was an elevator shaft and was proven correct when the steward returned and pressed the call button.
“There are stairs if you prefer,” he said. “But I'm guessing that you don't want to walk up seventy-five floors worth of steps.”
“Not if I can help it,” Aurelia said.
“The elevator is faster, though not by much. And we'll be body scanned before we reach the flight deck. Are you okay with that?”
She nodded. “Security?”
“Security,” he agreed. “It only takes a couple of minutes, and you won't feel anything.”
The elevator doors opened and they got in. The steward keyed in a number, and the lift whooshed into action.
“Do people often visit the flight deck?” Aurelia wanted to know.
“Sure,” said the steward. “Usually it's our younger passengers, but a lot of first-time flyers like to see what's going on too. Watch out, body scan coming up.”
The elevator stopped, but the doors remained closed. An automated voice asked them to remain still and upright, not making contact with the walls of the cabin or with each other. A humming began, and the steward tutted impatiently.
After a couple of minutes the elevator juddered back into life.
“All good now,” said the steward. “Just a Second more.”
Even as he said the words, the elevator slid to a halt and the doors opened. Again, they were inside a central column.
“This way,” said the steward.
He guided her out of the column and onto the flight deck, and Aurelia gasped. Everywhere she looked there were monitors and buttons and flashing lights, but the real showstopper was the domed glass ceiling that gave the pilot a full 360-degree view of the sky.
“Impressive, huh?” said the steward, smiling at her awe. “Captain, we have a visitor.”
One of the two men on the flight deck turned in his chair. Seeing Aurelia, he smiled. “First time flyer?”
“I know, I know, I've been told that I look like a scared cat.”
“Maybe more like a puppy,” said the pilot with a grin. “Come, sit down; I'll talk you through everything.”
The steward escorted Aurelia to the seat next to the pilot and told her he'd be back in fifteen minutes to take her back down to her deck.
“So,” said the pilot. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything!” Aurelia answered.
He laughed again and began an obviously well-rehearsed explanation of the main points of the flight deck. When he was finished, Aurelia still looked rather overawed.
“Is it really only the two of you up here?” she asked, referring to the pilot and his Second-in-command, whom she had been briefly introduced to.
“That's all it takes,” the pilot said. “Actually, I could do it single-handed - in fact, the shuttle could fly itself and generally does, but for safety reasons we keep two qualified pilots on board.”
“And what about you? New Med Personnel, from the looks of your uniform.”
Aurelia quickly explained what she was doing on board the shuttle.
“Phew,” whistled the pilot. “You must be pretty special to get a posting in Lunar right after graduation.”
“Top of my class,” boasted Aurelia.
“Parents both top rank?”
“My dad yes, my mom Second rank.”
“Those are some stellar qualifications you got there, girl. With credentials like that and the right connections in Lunar, you could find yourself moving up the social ladder.”
This was what Aurelia had avoided talking about with her father earlier. It was possible for a Worker to become Elite. It wasn't common; it was actually incredibly rare. However, the Ruling Class needed to make sure that a certain percentage of the population were Elite. They also needed, for want of a better phrase, new breeding stock. The danger of keeping a small group of people completely Elite was the risk of inbreeding. That meant that every now and again a Worker could be elevated to the Ruling Class. Those elevated were always top-of-the-line Workers. They were those with impeccable credentials, stunning work history, and, of course, safe political views. They were also, more often than not, women rather than men.
“Could be,” said Aurelia, smiling politely at the pilot.
It wasn't that it hadn't crossed her mind; of course it had. To become Ruling Class and eligible for Elite privileges, including permanent residency in Lunar City and the right to stop working should she choose, was the dream of many Workers. Aurelia didn't want to curse her chances of elevation by talking about them. Plus, the thought of elevation scared her. And truthfully, elevation was not her motivation. She loved her work; she wanted to work. But should she be elevated, she stood to gain a lot.
Returning her attention to the pilot, she saw that he was pointing out star clusters to her. This piqued her interest, and she was questioning him about navigation when a red light began to flash on one of the monitors.
“Damn thing,” said the pilot, looking at it. “We get false alarms like this all the time. Sensors are too sensitive.”
The co-pilot swung his seat over to the flashing monitor. “I'll switch it off,” he said.
“Okay, just note it in the log.”
The pilot turned back to his conversation with Aurelia, but before he could open his mouth, the co-pilot spoke again.
“Weird, it won't let me override the safety settings,” he said.
“Here, let me look.” The pilot smiled at Aurelia. “Just a Second.”
The two men pored over the monitor, pressing icons. Then a siren began to sound, shrilly cutting through the calm air of the flight deck.
“Shit, that's all we need,” muttered the pilot. “Fine.”
He moved over to the main control panel and pressed a couple of buttons, bringing down a screen. He then zoomed in on the picture. As Aurelia watched, she could see his face whiten.
“Code 37,” the pilot barked.
“Code 37 received,” the co-pilot responded.
Both men began hitting buttons and clicking on icons on the screens in front of them.
“For the sake of the Gods, turn that damn siren off,” growled the pilot, not looking away from his monitor.
The siren stopped, mid whoop.
All of this had happened so quickly that Aurelia had barely taken it in. There was obviously a problem here, a big one. She didn't know what to do and thought about leaving the flight deck but didn't know how. She didn't want to distract the pilots from their job, but she knew that she probably shouldn't be up here right now.
“Shields are coming online, at five percent power and gaining,” said the co-pilot.
“There's a Security breach on deck 31,” responded the pilot.
The pilot moved over towards his original console, his eye catching Aurelia as he did so.
“Gods, I forgot you were here. You need to get off the flight deck, now.”
Aurelia fled towards the elevator door. Then she remembered that she didn't know the access code and turned back. “Hey!” she shouted.
“Girl, the shuttle is being attacked!” yelled the pilot. “Get off the flight deck!”
“Shit, plug in your personal ID number.” And the pilot turned back to his console, fingers flying as he hit keys.
“Shields at eight percent and gaining,” said the co-pilot as the elevator doors slid open in front of Aurelia.
She stepped into the cabin, her heart beating so fast that it could escape her chest at any Second. She was rapidly running over the safety instructions she had heard earlier. Surely the shuttle wasn't really being attacked? That never happened. She'd never heard of it happening. It must be a false alarm, or a drill. Yes, that was it. A drill. The elevator doors had closed, but the cabin wasn't moving. Aurelia remembered that she hadn't hit the code, and with a shaking hand she keyed in her number. The elevator beeped, and the automated voice said the number was not recognised.
Shit. What now? Oh Gods, she'd done it again. Entered her old number. She took a deep breath and ran over the new number in her head. Then she tried again. This time the elevator accepted the code, and the cabin began to move downwards. She sighed in relief. Not that anything was going to happen. This was just a drill, after all. But she didn't want to get into trouble. All she wanted now was to sink back into her seat on her deck.
The elevator ground to a halt. What? She cursed the stupid technology. Then the automated voice came back, warning her to stand still for the body scan. Seriously? The humming began, and Aurelia stood as still as she could. Just let it be over. And let her get off this stupid, damn shuttle. What a time for an attack drill.
“Scan aborted,” the automated voice said.
“What?” Aurelia almost screamed. “What now?”
She keyed her number into the console again, but nothing happened.
“Assume the safety position,” said the voice.
For a drill? was the last thought that went through Aurelia's mind. Then the shuttle began to shudder with the force of several simultaneous explosions, and she had no more thoughts.