Chapter 8: The Captain and Liam
Captain Grumm and Liam sat down. The rain had begun beating on the window. Everything here had the look of something that crossed between a cruise ship and something from an old movie set. Liam was having trouble processing it all. It was all just so weird.
Once the door was closed and they were alone, Artemis opened the trays of food. Instantly Liam began to salivate and forgot all about the storm outside. He had not seen so much food in one place since his last Thanksgiving before the event.
Kyton looked at Grumm who nodded and then handed Liam a plate with a grin. “Dig in, but don’t make yourself sick.”
Liam didn’t know where to start. There was sliced turkey and ham, homemade bread, cheese, mashed potatoes, a number of vegetables. He selected broccoli and artichokes. “What’s that on the screen?” Liam had noticed the remainder of the briefing on the wall behind Grumm.”
Kyton retained his composure. “Nothing really. Just the part of our operational briefing right before you arrived.” Kyton turned off the screen with a wave of his hand. He artfully changed the subject. “I like this guy already. It’s not every day to meet a teenager that will eat anything green.”
Liam noticed how fast he changed the subject. “Sir, I haven’t seen anything green that was edible in over two years. My parents were kind of fanatics about eating right. My mom was a pediatrician.” It was really hard, but he was trying to take his time. On the other tray was a pumpkin pie. An honest to goodness pumpkin pie! Back in Union Springs, any one of the kids would have killed his brother for a pumpkin pie. He thought of Red for a moment, choked back the guilt and continued to eat.
Grumm replied, “Yes, your parents were the main reason I wanted to talk to you. Many of us knew your father. As I said earlier, we had many meetings while we were designing the engines for this grand folly.”
“Why do you call it a folly? This is the most glorious thing I have ever seen in my life!” said Liam between mouthfuls.
The rain began to beat on the windows in earnest.
“It would have been, too, if everything hadn’t gone south so quickly. We had glorious plans. This was going to the first of five such ships. The other ships would have had other themes, each focusing on a specific time period like the French Revolution or the 1950’s. This one was our prototype and was supposed to be modeled after the Victorian age, well, with a little twist. To liven it up, we were going for the Steampunk look.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain. You start with Victorian. I’m assuming you know what that is?”
Liam nodded between bites, “Our house was Victorian.”
“True. You take that and then you add the future!” Grumm swept his arm up to the ceiling with flare. He looked at Liam.
“I don’t follow,” replied Liam with his mouth full.
“We add in a bunch of fantasy bits to try and showcase a romanticized Victorian age filled with wonder and possibilities.”
Kyton interrupted, “Don’t worry kid, I didn’t get it either. Your dad was all over it, though. Loved the idea!”
Grumm continued “I was then going to branch out into homes, businesses and any number of luxury items.”
“So you were going to revolutionize the world through this Aerolon?”
Grumm and Kyton looked at each other.
“Rebekah told me all about it and almost gave me a black eye demonstrating it to me.”
“Yeah, I guess she forgot to tell you to hold them away from you when you activate them?”
Liam grinned, “Yeah, something like that.”
Kyton replied, “Be careful with those toys. Any kind of concussion could set an entire box off at once. Fortunately, the boxes almost feel empty. If they were more massive, they would be dangerous to store on board.”
“You saw how one of those balloons reacted when you activated it, right? Imagine an entire box expanding in the blink of an eye. Those novelties are first generation. They can be lethal if not handled properly! I don’t think we should have even brought it on board!”
Grumm grimaced. “They might be dangerous, but they could prove useful at some point. Besides, what you saw in that room was billions of dollars’ worth of research. I was not going to leave it behind!”
“It was a good demonstration. I would not have thought anything like that was even possible.”
“It had been possible for quite a few years. We just bought up enough companies that had Aerolon related patents that we were able to start putting the pieces together to make it not only possible, but practical too.”
“So why are you telling me all this stuff?” Liam said, waving a piece of turkey on his fork.
Kyton replied “Because your dad was just as important to this ship as any of the rest of us. We’re just excited to fill you in on that piece of it. I kind of get the impression this is all new to you?”
“Yeah, Dad never talked about work much with me. He took me around and showed me things, but I was really too young to care much about what he did.”
Grumm said, “Your dad was a brilliant man, Liam. He is the one that helped Doctor Peck turn his novelties into something practical.”
“That’s the second time you mentioned practical?”
Grumm replied, “It’s the part we are proudest of. This ship wouldn’t have been possible without your father’s contribution. We perfected the process of making what can only be described as a brick of Aerolon aero foam that is lighter than air. We start with a cubic meter of the foam. When it’s manufactured, it has a memory. Whatever shape it cures into to is basically the shape it retains.”
“Retains? Like, it stays that way? Forever?”.
“Yes, and no. We then start to compress it down, removing all the air and vacuum seal it in a special airtight graphene formula that will stretch the precise amount. Once we are finished, that one-meter brick of Aerolon foam is now only one centimeter on a side and weighs about the same as a sugar cube. We then apply electricity. It doesn’t take much, but the electricity makes all the trapped strands of Aerolon repel each other. That effect is more than enough to overcome the vacuum on the inside and the brick resumes its original shape and displaces a cubic meter of air. Since the brick weighs about 16 milligrams and the air it displaced weighed a little over a kilogram, the brick floats. The Aerolon also acts as a giant capacitor, holding the charge. It has to be periodically recharged, but we think it will be years before that happens.”
“I got some of the speech from Rebekah this afternoon.”
“Remarkable young lady, Liam. You will learn much from her.”
“Yeah, I guess. I know most of the basics, though. As I was telling her earlier, I spent the first year in the town library - until they burned all the books, that is.”
“What is the world coming to, Kyton? Burned all the books?”
“Yes sir, just to keep warm.”
“Why didn’t they just go chop down more trees?”
“Most of the trees in town were already chopped down. When people started venturing further and further outside the village, they started disappearing. We had raids of men that came and took people away. We heard rumors they were taken as slaves. Curtis Manning made it very... uncomfortable for anyone to go outside after that.”
Kyton and Grumm looked at each other. The former answered, “Well, she keeps us all on our toes here. I have never seen someone so young seemingly know and understand so much. She’s like a sponge. She even helped program a lot of fundamentals of Jule’s systems.”
“Helped, Kyton?” Artemis made a face at First Officer. He finished the story. “Your dad delivered the butler program to us only about a month before everything went bad. He never had a chance to send anyone to install it or start the arduous task of connecting the program to all the ship’s systems. Rebekah did that and did it practically all by herself. It took her many months, but she did it. I’m not sure there would have been anyone on board that could have helped her anyway, but Jules is working splendidly.”
Captain Grumm looked directly at Liam “If he is anywhere around here, we will find him. You have my word on that. Your mother too.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Liam changed the subject. “If I could ask a question?”
“Certainly, anything we can tell you, we will.”
“What happened? I mean what caused this? People said it was the largest earthquake they had ever felt. You call it “The Event”. Rebekah seemed to think it was an asteroid or something. Some people in town kept talking about the New Madrid and the Mississippi running backwards?”
“I have no idea about the Mississippi. It may or may not have ran backwards. I do know that yes, there were earthquakes. However, it was horribly widespread. Jules has been mapping everything we have seen. There seemed to be many earthquakes everywhere at once. We first thought that maybe that Yellowstone had finally erupted. But yes, an asteroid strike is probably the best guess at the moment.”
“Excuse me, why would Yellowstone Park erupt? It’s just a bunch of boring geysers. I mean, my parents took me there when I was six and tried to tell me a bunch of stuff about it. All I remember was that we were in the car for hours, stayed at a hotel that didn’t even have good cable and we were in the car for another long time, got out see Old Faithful. We were like ten minutes late, so we had to sit around and wait for the next eruption. When it finally happened… not impressed. Our water park shoots water higher than that and you could actually play in it. You can’t tell me that Old Faithful could destroy the entire country?”
“Not the geyser by itself. Of course not. It’s what is under the geyser that counts. Geologists keeping track of Yellowstone learned a long time ago that it was one of the largest Calderas anywhere in the world.”
“What’s a caldera?”
“Jules, would you be as kind as to put up a diagram of the Yellowstone Caldera?”
Amid the flashes of lightning and accompanying peals of thunder, Kyton and Liam turned to see the screen behind them. Jules had put up one of the classic pictures of the magma chamber under Yellowstone National Park and under Montana and Wyoming.
Artemis looked down from the picture and focused steely eyed on Liam. “The magma under Yellowstone is enough to wipe out all life in three-quarters of the United States. Even here, there would be at least a foot of volcanic ash. It would be just like a nuclear winter. Ash would fill the air, turn to cement in people’s lungs, killing millions and nothing would grow.”
“Thanks for the nightmare material, Captain Grumm, I’ll add it to my collection!”
“Well, fortunately, it didn’t happen. There was some ash, so we know whatever happened is partially volcanic, but we have no idea what caused it. Every sign points to one of the epicenters being right around here, in the Saint Louis area. I think whatever we find will also be responsible for this weather.”
Another crash of thunder emphasized Captain Grumm’s prediction.
“We know that this area was very hard hit, one of the worst actually. We have seen wide scale damage all the way from the coast to here and it shows no sign of stopping, but here it’s particularly bad.”
Kyton jumped in. “The event caused massive tidal waves too. We were building the Empress on an island off of San Diego. We heard a tsunami warning, but didn’t have a lot of time. We literally pulled everything we could onto the platform we were working on and lifted off.”
Artemis Grumm looked stricken and shot Kyton an angry look.
Kyton said quietly, “That is not his favorite part.”
“What happened? You obviously got away,” replied Liam innocently.
Captain Grumm quickly changed the subject. “Liam, you’ve been in the plant. We have never been to it and there are no blueprints, plans or schematics anywhere to be found. The land down there is also pretty tore up.” He looked at Liam imploringly.
Again, Kyton jumped in. “The Captain is asking if you will come down with us and act as a guide.”
“You aren’t kicking me off the boat, are you?”
“Good heavens, No! We are giving you an opportunity. We don’t always just sit up here in our comfy Sky Cruiser and watch the action below. We also get our hands dirty. Look for survivors, distribute supplies. We do whatever we can.”
Another flash of lightning, followed by a tremendous crash.
“I really don’t remember much about it. I was, like twelve the last time I went. Most of the time, I spent on my pad. I remember I wanted to go to my friend’s house and dad said he would take me right after he picked up some work at the office. We went, but he got caught up in what he was doing, he was always like that. We never got to Kyle’s-”
“You would be surprised what you remember once you got there and looked around. It would really help us out.”
“Well sure, I’ll do it. Anything you need. When do we start?”
Grumm said, “Hopefully, tomorrow. Get some sleep. Have the doctor check you out and clear you first thing.” He looked at the boy quizzically. “I suspect everything will be fine. Eat a good breakfast and join us later in the morning. You’ll be told when and where.”
The Captain and First Officer stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse us, there are many pressing ship matters to attend to.” Liam shuffled his chair to stand up also. Artemis said, “Nonsense boy, stay and eat your pie. It was a pleasure meeting you.” He extended his hand and Liam shook it enthusiastically.
With that, Grumm and Kyton walked out of the room, leaving Liam alone with his pumpkin pie, the thunderstorm and his own thoughts.
“Jules, I’m sure you are there?” Liam asked the ceiling.
“Certainly Liam, always present and accounted for. At your service.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Whatever do you mean? I thought the Captain appeared delighted to meet you.”
“Yeah,” said Liam, “He was friendly enough. However, when I asked about the Event as all of you are calling it, Grumm literally turned more shades of color than I can count.”
“I understand Liam, but we all lost much and it’s not my place to divulge personal information. When and if Captain Grumm wishes you to know or feels he is comfortable talking about it, he will.”
“Okay, I get it. Why did he ask me to come along tomorrow?” asked Liam, shoveling the last bit of pie in. He had not tasted anything so wonderful in years.
“No hidden agenda, Liam. There are only ninety-five people on this boat. Of those, you are the only person here that has ever stepped foot in there. You may only remember one or two things about the place, but that makes you invaluable compared to everyone else.”
“Well, what will Grumm do with me after I am no longer invaluable?”
“That, Mister Waite, is completely up to you.”
Outside, it had become a new color of dark. Suddenly there was a huge hiss and flash of lightning.
BOOM! The crash rattled the ship and made Liam jump out of his skin. “Wow, that was a close one.”
“That lightning discharge was three hundred meters off our port bow. Yes, very close. I’m working on putting us above the clouds, but this storm is moving fast and carrying us with it.”
“Can’t we outrun it or fly over it?”
“Working on it, Liam, but without the big engines, we use wind power and propellers for propulsion. Not very efficient, but I’m giving it all I have.”
“I can’t eat another bite.” Liam put down his fork and pushed his plate away.
“Well, if you are finished, just put your utensils back on the tray. Generally, you are expected to clean up your own messes, but not tonight. Rebekah and some of her friends are nearby. If you wish, I could lead you there?”
“That would be perfect, Jules. Thank you.” Liam got up and again jumped out of his skin at the closeness of the lightning and resulting thunder.
“You are perfectly safe here.”
“I get that; it will just take time... Where I was less than twenty-four hours ago, we had storms like this all the time. They just kept coming and coming. Never got used to them.” Liam got to the door and motioned to an imaginary friend. “Okay, lead the way! No, after you, I insist.”
“You had these storms all the time in Union Springs?”
“Yep, for the last year, maybe twice a week, but they also were getting more frequent.”
“That’s valuable information, Liam. I have been making weather and atmospheric models during our excursion east. I don’t have access to any satellite data any more so any data we can collect is helpful.”
Liam reached a junction.
“Turn right and up the steps. Then turn left. You can’t miss them. I’ll catch you later when you return.”
“Thank you, Jules. See you later.”
Liam bounded up the steps and then stopped. “What did you mean you would catch me later?”
But the disembodied British voice of the ship didn’t answer.