Chapter 4: Rebekah and Liam
When Rebekah finished her shift, she headed back to the sickbay. Rounding the corner, she said, “Doctor Weaver, how is our patient?”
“See for yourself.”
She walked in. Liam was sitting up on the biobed. All the tubes and wires had been removed. Doctor Weaver clucked to herself as she checked things off of her pad.
“He’s healed enough that he doesn’t need my help anymore.” She kept looking at the biobed.
Rebekah could see for herself how much Liam had improved. She glanced up at the readings on the biobed and was startled to see how much change there was from just this morning. “You look a lot better than you did earlier,” she said.
“I always look good. I had never tried looking good while taking a bullet, though. New experience.”
“I forgot to warn you about that,” said Doctor Weaver to Rebekah.
“Warn me about what?”
“Warn you about his incredibly humble demeanor, but as soon as he’s ready, we’ll put him to work. That will help dial him down a notch or two.”
Rebekah giggled. “Would it be okay if I showed Liam around a bit?”
“I suppose. Take him down to see Duncan and get him some supplies. I’m sure they have assigned him a stateroom. Check there, and he can get a shower and change, and maybe get some lunch. Captain Grumm wanted to talk to him this afternoon. Something to do with where we are going, so try to be early. I heard we should finally be arriving tonight!”
Liam spoke up. “Arriving where?”
Rebekah answered, “Believe or not... we were looking for your father.”
“Yeah, I overheard a couple of the guys that pulled me into your crazy RV saying that before the shooting started.”
“Yeah. Your dad, my dad, Captain Grumm and Mr. Davis are the ones that primarily designed this ship. Have you talked to Jules yet? Your dad invented him, too.”
“You don’t say. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m surprised or impressed. My dad had a lot of time to make all this cool stuff because he was never home, spending it with my mom and I.”
“Oh... I’m sorry…”
There was an awkward silence.
Liam sighed, “It’s fine. Old memories. Unfortunately, if they are looking for Dad, I’m going to disappoint them. I haven’t seen him since a couple of weeks before the Event”
Rebekah silently kicked herself for bringing up touchy subjects. Outwardly, she said, “Once we got most of the ship’s systems working, we started out about a year after the Event from a small island outside of Catalina. We also stop to trade for supplies, to forage or when we see communities that might be in need, like Union Springs.”
“Yeah, right. Union Springs isn’t exactly in the mood to accept charity.” Changing the subject, Liam asked, “Catalina? Where’s that?”
“Right off the coast of California, near San Diego.”
“So, you’re a California girl?”
Rebekah blushed, “Hardly, I was born in Seattle. My dad and Captain Grumm are business partners.”
“And, you said my dad was too?”
Doctor Weaver interjected, “Okay, you two… you can continue while you walk… Liam, please come back if you feel if at all you need to, and definitely come back tomorrow morning so I can run another check on you and change that dressing.”
“No problem, doc. Again, thank you. I owe you my life.”
“That’s silly, Liam, it’s what I do. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Well, thanks anyway.” With that, Liam and Rebekah were out the door.
They began walking down the corridor, heading forward and finding the first set of stairs up.
“So, what is this place? I mean, besides the fact that it’s a floating thingamabob that scared the shit out of a bunch of people this morning.”
Rebekah wasn’t fazed by crude language. Most of the engineers aboard knew the wrath of her father if they cursed around her, but the few teens on board had their own way with words.
“I don’t mind it, but be careful talking like that around my father. He hates that kind of language. He’s a Mormon.”
“A Mormon? A religious scientist?”
“I know, I know. Something about my grandmother and the way he was brought up. Just, you know, watch it around him.”
“Are you religious, too? I mean, this kinda seemed a lot like the end of the world and all to me.”
“I love my dad and all, but…” Rebekah began but changed the subject. “It’s an airship.” She saw his blank expression. “Like a blimp, just a lot bigger. What were you doing anyway? They said you just ran straight at the launch like a wild man.”
“Like I said, I overheard two of the guys at your RV saying they were looking for the Waite family. I saw an opportunity. I didn’t mean to get shot, but after the last two years there, I saw a way out. You can’t believe how bad it is there.”
“From what we’ve seen, it’s bad everywhere. But, yeah, I believe it. They started shooting the moment they saw our people, too.”
“That would be Curtis Manning- excuse me, Colonel Curtis Manning. He runs the place with an iron fist. No one can leave, because there are outlaws everywhere around the town that capture people and take them away as slaves… or worse.”
They rounded a corner and walked past another endless row of staterooms.
“This can’t be a blimp! Damn, how many rooms does this place have?”
“You’ll see… just wait until we get upstairs. Finish your story.”
“Anyway, Curtis and his boys literally rode into town about a month after the earthquake- uh, event. We thought they had come to help. First thing they did was shoot the current sheriff right between the eyes. They just stood there looking at the body. Ever since, they control everything. No one comes or goes without their permission. Anyone caught doing anything is punished. You can get beaten for almost anything.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“Yeah, it was brutal. One of my friends was caught stealing some meat from the butcher- we all had to steal to survive- well, they brought back hanging. He was hung right in front of us on the town square.” Liam’s eyes misted up and a shudder ran through him. He pushed it down, but not before Rebekah caught it. “Well, I saw my chance to get away. Wherever my family is, they aren’t there. I haven’t seen them since it started. I’ve been running the streets ever since. Damn, how much further?” Liam’s shoulder was beginning to ache.
“Only a few more flights and one more corridor.”
“Lead the way. So, where are we going? You never answered.”
They bounded up the three flights of stairs and into what looked like it should have been some kind of nightclub. It had a stage at one end and a bar at the other, but in between was filled with boxes. There were chairs and small tables piled up along the sides. Scaffoldings and dried up paint cans littered the floor.
“Right here. It’s just on the way to the ship’s quartermaster and I thought a visual aid would be helpful.”
Liam looked around, taking it all in. “I can’t help but get the feeling this place was never finished,” he said, sweeping in a circle taking it all in. “But I meant where is the ship going?”
“It’s not even close to being finished.” Rebekah grabbed two chairs and pulled them together. “I forgot about your injuries. Here. Sit.”
“It’s perfectly fine. I don’t need…”
“Yes, ma’am!” Liam chuckled inwardly, enjoying this. He sat, straddling the chair.
Rebekah surveyed her companion. He was still in dire need of a shower. His clothes were basically rags and those shoes… “When we get to the quartermaster’s, they’ll be waiting for us. Fortunately, we have plenty of clothes that will fit you.”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“Seriously? You haven’t seen yourself? I wouldn’t need to see you; I can SMELL you from a hundred feet away!”
Suddenly, Liam became much more self-conscious about his looks than he had been in a very long time. It brought back memories of the first days of middle school. He all at once felt very old, despite not quite turning sixteen yet.
“To answer your question, we are heading for your dad’s company on the outskirts of St Louis. This boat has a fancy nuclear reactor, but we have never been able to use it.”
“A nuclear reactor? You’re shitting me!”
Rebekah laughed. “It’s like the ones they used to put in submarines, I think. You should know, your dad built it.”
She continued, “We have scavenged parts during our entire trip cross country so far, but there is one final piece we need to start it.”
“A special kind of key that was made just for this ship.”
“Why don’t you just hot-wire it? I got kind of good at hot-wiring cars. That is until we ran out of gas.” Liam changed the subject. “So, what happened? Was it an earthquake?”
“We don’t know. If it was an earthquake, it was a mighty large one. Some people think it was something even bigger, maybe a volcano. Because of the damage we have seen all the way from California to here, some, like my dad, are calling it an Extinction Level Event.”
“You mean like what killed off the dinosaurs? Then how come we are still here? We’re not wiped out or anything… yet.”
“Exactly. Yet... It took thousands of years for the dinosaurs to all die off. An asteroid is just the trigger that gets it all started. It’s just a matter of time now. We do have one advantage, though, that the dinosaurs didn’t.”
“What’s that, miss smarty pants?”
They were really hitting it off now. “Exactly that, doofus!”
“Smarts. Idiot. Geez. My dad says it might be one thing that might save us. We are infinitely smarter than the dinosaurs were. We’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah, tell that to the guys down in Union Springs. Somehow they didn’t get any when someone was handing it out.” Again, Liam moved on to a new topic. “So, how does it run now?”
“What? The ship? We use sails and propellers mostly, and get our electricity from solar power and batteries. The ship will be much more useful once it gets its main engines running. It’s taken us over a year to just get here. We also tried steam power for a while- we found some old steam locomotives and rigged them up to run generators.”
“Wouldn’t those be really heavy for an airship?”
“Yeah, you would think, but we have plenty to spare. No, the real problem was fuel. We’re all the way up here and the trees are all the way down there and they still have to be chopped down. You also have to dry the wood before you can really burn it. It was just too inefficient.”
“So, let me guess the next part. My dad still has the keys to the ship and it’s the one thing you need before the ship really works the way it’s supposed to?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
“Typical,” Liam half-muttered to himself.
“My dad never started a project that he didn’t think was better left unfinished. I don’t think he actually ever finished anything. What kind of key was this anyway? Maybe he left it at the house?”
“Unlikely. The key isn’t just an ordinary key. It’s actually a quantum cryptographic key. It’s complicated enough that Jules, our computer, would take almost forty years to crack the code by brute force.”
“A cryptographic key? Like in TV shows and movies? I once saw a show where the girl cracked the code in, like, thirty seconds.”
“That was just a TV show, moron. That never happens in real life. An old computer like they had twenty years ago would take thousands of years to crack real cryptography. Fortunately, Jules and other similar AI are significantly smarter than that, but it still takes years.”
“I guess you know all this from your dad?” asked Liam, suddenly jealous.
Beka snorted, “He’s too busy to talk to me most of the time these days. After my mom died- before the Empress-, we were inseparable. I mean, yeah, I learned a great deal from him. But now, he’s too busy. We normally get breakfast together and sometimes dinner. No, I make myself useful on the ship. I poke around, learn things and try to stay out of serious trouble.”
“You don’t have to tell me about busy. My dad has been busy since as long as I can remember. He was gone on some kind of business trip about a month before this all started. He was really excited about something, but I haven’t seen him since.”
“Hand me one of those boxes near you. One marked ‘novelties’.”
“Behind you to the right. You can read, can’t you?”
Liam made a sour face. “It’s not my fault they canceled school. Yes, I can read just well as you can. For the first year in Union Springs, our gang lived in the abandoned library. I came close to reading every book… until they burned them.” Liam’s eyes darkened and he got a faraway look on his face.
“Men came in the middle of the night. Killed two of the younger ones. Billy was too sick to move. They hauled out all the books and burned them to keep warm.”
“Oh.” Rebekah was at a loss for words.
“But I did read most of them, except the romance novels, we burned those ourselves.” Liam reached behind him with a grin. “Enough about me. I don’t think you want this one, it feels empty.”
“Trust me, it’s exactly what I want.” Rebekah pulled at the tape and tore it off the top of the box. Inside the box were what looked like little solid plastic objects of all shapes and colors. She gestured inside.
“See that little red disk-like button on the bottom?”
“Stand back first, don’t get your face in the way-!” Too late. Liam was looking right at it when he pushed the button.
Beka talked over Liam’s howl as he grabbed his nose. “We never completely worked the kinks out of them. At least they don’t combust anymore.” Beka put a hand out to help Liam back onto his chair.
“What happened? I can’t feel my face.”
“Well, it’s still there. Nothing bleeding or broken.”
Liam looked around, still touching his face. A glowing, blue-hued sphere, about the size of a beach ball, was floating a couple of meters above their heads. “What’s that?”
“That is one of my father’s inventions. I assume you know how a balloon works?”
“Yeah, you fill it up with helium and it floats?”
“No,” she sighed. How oversimplified. At least he’s pretty. “How they really work.”
“Oh, you mean buoyancy and all that?”
“Yeah, all that.”
“Well, the helium is less dense than air, so air tries to displace the helium, pushing the balloon up.”
“Crude, but it’ll do.”
Liam rolled his eyes. “Okay, so what do helium balloons have to do with anything other than your amusement in seeing me get sucker punched by one?”
“Here, try another.” Rebekah handed him a red one with a different shape. This time, Liam was careful to point it away from them, pushed the button. Faster than the eye can track, a large, red glowing cube burst into existence. Rebekah caught it before it could rise out of their reach. Regardless of its bulk, it didn’t take much effort. Liam reached out to help her and she passed it to him. Surprisingly, the balloon felt very solid.
“Sit on it,” Rebekah commanded.
“You heard me or are you as deaf as you are dumb?” Liam looked up at her. There was a slight twinkle in Rebekah’s eye.
“Whatever.” Liam pushed the cube to the ground and gingerly placed himself on top of it, expecting it to either give way or flip out from under him. It did neither. In fact, the cube was as solid as if it were made of concrete.
“How?” Liam’s eyes were wide
“Now who’s being dumb? How is this possible?”
“The same reason this ship floats. You are sitting on my dad’s prize invention. He called it something stupid, but we took a vote and Aerolon kind of stuck. The balloon is an extremely strong mesh of Aerolon nanotechnology that goes insanely rigid when you apply electricity. We can make the mesh in any shape we want. With no power, it’s just like one of those shiny Mylar balloons. The little cubes are just completely mashed up. Add the power, though…” Rebekah reached in and picked up another oddly shaped piece, pressing the button as she flung it away from her. It instantly became a floating giraffe a couple feet tall. Much more life-like than the balloon animals Liam had played with as a kid.
“These were prototypes that my dad’s company had made before Artie - Artemis - Captain Grumm showed up and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. We were going to get rich and retire.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Rebekah didn’t answer. Instead, she offered Liam her hand to help her up. “Ready?”
Liam complied. She got back on her feet and walked to doors on the far side of the room. “Follow me.”
Liam strode right behind her. It was midday but felt like nightfall-the gloom was gathering overhead at an alarming rate. The sun threatened to peek out from behind towering clouds from time to time, creating an epic display in the sky. They stood at the bow of the ship, at the top deck where the glitziest of the lounges would have been. When she threw open the door, the entire expanse of the ship rolled out like a dark green carpet in front of them.
Liam looked wildly around. Looked at her and then looked out across the park. His brain seemed incapable of taking it all in. Added to the scene was a menagerie of running lights, marking the edges of the ship’s deck and pontoons that disappeared into the gathering haze.
Rebekah looked up at the clouds. “Is it always like this in Union Springs?”
“What?” He looked back at Rebekah and traced her eyes to the clouds above. “Yeah, for the most part. It started a few months after the event, but the storms have been getting worse for the past two or three.” He looked back down the length of the deck. “…How?” The cube floated past them and disappeared into the darkness above. Liam looked up after it. “How is any of this possible?”
Rebekah laughed. “This is the offer my dad couldn’t refuse. Come on!” She led him out into the light. “This ship is called the Empress of the Sky. It was the first of a series of airships Captain Grumm was going to build. It’s over seven hundred meters long, almost one hundred and fifty wide and it floats!”
“The Aerolon. The entire ship is made from it! Those pontoons over there…” She gestured off either side of the ship. “…are giant bladders, like balloons, but with all the air removed. They are stronger than reinforced concrete and much stronger than steel, but still much lighter than air. Altogether, not including the ship, we can carry thousands of tons of people and cargo. Almost everything in here that’s not nailed down is made of the stuff. Using the machine shop, we have down below, we can make almost anything from it. When Grumm offered to buy Dad’s company and keep him as chief engineer… Well, it’s the happiest I had ever seen my dad since we lost my mom.”
“Why are you sorry? You didn’t even know me before today.”
“Well, it’s okay to be sorry, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” They were walking towards another set of doors set on the side of the park. They passed a small orchard covered in low hanging fruit.
“Certainly. You don’t have to ask here. No one is going to mind. That’s what it’s for.”
“It’s going to be hard to break some old habits. Back in Union Springs, if you weren’t on the run and stealing everything like we were- you almost had to ask permission to take a piss.”
She laughed. Liam found it hard to ignore the twinkle in her eye. “I understand perfectly. We’ve all been through hell and back.” She waved to a group of people tending a garden nearby. One of the people stood up and leaned on his rake.
“New boyfriend, Beka?” He yelled.
Rebekah grimaced, plucked an apple and threw it at him. The volunteer jumped out of the way just in time- the throw had to have been over a hundred feet. She missed, but not by much.
Liam whistled, “Remind me never to make you mad!”
“Damn right! Now let’s get down to the quartermaster and get you some real clothes.” She opened the other set of doors and they re-entered the ship on the other side.