Saturday, December 12, 2009


Aaron could see from the window monitor that the Earth had shrunk to a grey dot, set in a black sea punctuated by glistening stars. The biggest shock, though, was the overpowering brilliance of the sun, electronically muted to protect the eyes of the travellers. Born after the destruction of the old atmosphere he had never seen the Sun before, except as a brighter patch in the daytime sky. The Moon and the stars were no longer visible beneath the dense clouds that now wreathed the Earth. Everything was grey and gloomy, but often punctuated by violent storms that lit up the clouds from beneath as the torrents of rain washed everything away but the giant cities of the survivors and the matted forests in which they were embedded.

When the blue ticket had been delivered by special courier from the Retirement Commission it had been a shock: fifty-seven was hardly old, even in the long established pyramid of Citadel Nine. He had heard about the great ships that left on a regular basis, but had taken little notice except when one of his colleagues had been summoned. Dora, his wife, had been shocked of course, and had hardly stopped weeping since the truth of their separation had sunk in. He had tried to explain that it was a necessary service to society, like the colonists on Mars who could never return, but they both knew the voyage on the black ship had a quite different purpose.

The lottery was fair, or so he believed, a privilege really in recognition of his public service. As a physicist, he had been involved in the fusion breakthrough that had replaced the nuclear plants that powered the pyramids. This had made life much more secure and had delivered virtually unlimited power to safeguard the Citadel against external attack and for all their economic needs. The population was relatively small compared with those who had been abandoned to the wastelands. All the food had to be grown hydroponically inside the vast structure, for nothing useful could live beyond its artificial borders.

 The price for the continued existence of the community was strict economic control of all resources, including the population. There was a quota for children, and this was allocated without the possibility of appeal. For those not on the register, sterilisation was mandatory. The old idea of reproductive rights to satisfy individual needs was no longer possible and had passed out of social consciousness. Dora had been granted one child, but he had recently migrated to Citadel five, on the American continent, a much larger unit that provided more opportunities for the young than the European Citadels. There was even talk of reclaiming land for agriculture in the more favourable areas, but there were no such plans for Europe, much of which had suffered nuclear pollution from the rush for energy solutions. Solar power had quickly become useless as the cloud cover became permanent, turning the planet into another Venus.

The number of travellers was not widely publicised, and he guessed it varied each year according to the managed birth and death rates. Age was a factor, because no one under forty was included in the lottery, unless they requested it. He thought it might be around one thousand, out of a population of roughly a million housed inside the pyramid. There were a few scientific and military outposts dotted through the forests but these would have numbered no more than a few tens of thousands.

The popular story, learned in childhood, was that travellers would be sent to colonise the new planet that had entered the solar system just over a hundred years ago. It had been named Valhalla, presumably because the Earth's population was entering the last days of the great civilisation that had been destroyed by the unstoppable progress of climate change. Images from satellites had shown a completely black planet about the size of Mercury that barely reflected any sunlight.

 He had been about twelve years old when news of the planet's approach through the Oort cloud had filtered through from the dying satellites. The energy wars were in full swing, including tactical nuclear exchanges in the Middle East. Miraculously, all out war had been avoided, but the vast displacement of populations had led to the breakdown of all but the pockets of civilisation that had erected the energy pyramids. It had been a time of great uncertainty, as to whether they could be completed and secured before the starving hordes succumbed to the hostile environment outside. The sieges had lasted for many years, in dying waves of hopeless struggle between the powerless masses of outsiders and the military organisation of the pyramid dwellers. Eventually, nothing remained outside but the ugly tangle of vegetation that had adapted to the ruined atmosphere and the burning temperatures beneath the roiling clouds.

The chosen ones were not allowed to congregate in large numbers, but there had been a celebration of about twenty of the travellers in his sector of the Citadel. They had been given special presents for their families and granted permission to move freely about the pyramid for a few weeks, the nearest thing to a holiday that was on offer in the work orientated community. There had been some muted discussion of what it all meant, and even attempts at jocularity, but the end result was a cloud of worry and depression once the party was over. He had been given a bottle of tranquillisers, but threw them away, deciding it would be cowardly to use them.

A short week later he was lining up at the vast dome, beneath the sinister bulk of the transporter that would take them on 'holiday' to Valhalla. Saying goodbye to Dora was the worst part, but half his mind was focussed on his own fate in the darkness of space, where the black planet had stabilised some fifty million miles beyond Jupiter. As a scientist, he could not remain unexcited about actually passing near Jupiter, a sight that only the travellers got to see. This, he supposed, was what much of the fuss was about. They were going into a heavenly region that might even hold out the prospect of a better life: nobody knew but the travellers who had gone before them on the robot guided vessel that would return to Earth after they had disembarked for Valhalla.

After a long ride on the motorised pavement, they had been herded into elevators by uniformed monitors, and whisked upwards into the belly of the Leviathan at frightening speed. Instructed by small drones they were guided into their seats in pods of twenty. Soft music played all the while and quite luxurious refreshments were freely available. The interior was otherwise Spartan, but well furnished with monitors showing the world outside the transporter. Some of the travellers conversed with each other, while others maintained a gloomy silence: Aaron, too, remained subdued.

There was a knot in his stomach as the robot voices issued endless instructions about the rigours of take-off and the pleasant flight thereafter. He knew a bit about the electromagnetic pulse engines, because they worked on similar principles to the plasma bottles he had designed for the artificial suns that powered the pyramids. Enormous repulsive power would build up and hurl the giant ship into the clouds at around nine Gs. Some of the passengers would not survive such strains, but that hardly seemed to matter. Maybe he would be one of the lucky one to go early.

The take-off was more terrifying than he had imagined, but the interior magnetic fields were used to cushion the enormous G forces. In less that five minutes, they were above the cloud cover and exposed to the light of the Sun, at least via the wrap around monitor that gave the impression that they were completely exposed to the airless space outside. The nearest drone explained that he could turn off the monitor if he wished, and ride in the muted darkness of the pod, but the view was too exciting to waste cowering in fear. The experience of the traveller was indeed a privilege and a wonder beyond belief, after years of confinement inside the utilitarian environment of the pyramid. He thought of Dora weeping below, but there was nothing he could do but participate in the experience until the end.

The journey was a long one; even with the ion drive speed of some two million kilometres an hour Aaron knew it would take about twenty-five days to reach Jupiter and several days after that to Valhalla. The majesty of the stars was incredible, but the human mind soon tires of even the most magnificent experiences. Staring at stars, however bright, soon palls, especially when faced with the dangers of the unknown. The in-flight entertainment was extensive, ranging from a wealth of programs about astronomy, pure science and the arts to pornography. Needless to say Aaron avoided the latter as quite inappropriate to the seriousness of the voyage. Then there was sleep, aided by a selection of psychotropic drugs that promised thrilling experiences that had never been available in the Citadel. Morality, it seemed, was an earthbound constraint, which did not apply to the travellers, who were being invited to indulge in all manner of hedonism.

He reflected a little on the huge cost of the enterprise and its utter uselessness to the community trapped below. Perhaps it was the kind of hope that religionists had indulged in before the collapse of the old world. As a scientist, he had little sympathy with delusions of longevity, let alone immortality. His satisfaction had come from serving the community and the aesthetic delights of scientific discovery. Still, there seemed no reason now not to enjoy what delights were on offer on this unique journey into the unknown. He could see from their expressions that many of his fellow travellers were partaking of the multitude of delights on offer, and he gradually succumbed to the sybaritic life-style that seemed to be expected of him.

The days passed quickly, once he had become accustomed to the cycle of drugged sleep and the intensely pleasurable experiences available through a combination of electronic stimulation and drugs. When the finally reached Jupiter, the giant planet loomed with awe inspiring power in the monitors, rivalling anything he had experienced before. It remained in view for several days as they flew past the ever-changing panorama of the biggest weather system in the Solar system. The four great moons provided some further distractions until the great planet shrank in size as they moved swiftly to the far side. He had seen many astronomical images before but never with such intensity, and it was with a sense of foreboding that he realised his journey was nearly over.

The deceleration could be felt as a continual force as they approached Valhalla. His first view of the planet was in some ways more frightening than Jupiter, perhaps because they were much closer as the great ship sought out a stable orbit. The planet appeared smooth and featureless, and very, very black. The robots began to twitter information about what was to happen next. He was amazed to hear that they would be actually landing on the planet, not in the transporter but in the pods, which would be detached from the mother ship. He could hardly believe it, but what else did he expect.

As they moved closer to the planet, mysterious geometrical features began to appear on the dark surface, which could not possibly have been natural rock formations. The detail increased until the landscape seemed to be some kind of complex artefact, which reminded him of the old printed circuit boards that had once been used in computers. The robots began issuing instructions in earnest now, warning about the discomforts that might be experienced as the fifty or so pods detached from the mother ship. With little time to prepare, he felt the sudden surge as the pod was ejected and saw in the still active monitor that he was among a regular formation of glistening pods showering down towards the blackness of the surface.

The fall towards the surface was terrifying but exhilarating, and his hopes soared when the monitors began to display what appeared to be vast cities below the falling craft. It was all there, the advanced society that men had always dreamed about, perfect in every detail, the glistening buildings that must contain countless millions of settlers from the once fertile Earth. He understood the secrecy now. It would have been very unsettling for the majority on Earth to know of this far flung Utopia, the finest achievement of a race almost doomed to extinction by its rapacious way of life.

The pods slowed in unison now, as they approached a vast landing ground upon which many vehicles moved about their daily business. Aaron realised that the surface was deliberately black to maximise the absorption of radiation from the distant sun. It was all too amazing to take in, and he gasped in wonder at the scale of the achievement by the tiny, vulnerable creature that was man. He felt a twinge of sadness that Dora could not be here to share this moment of surprise and triumph.

The long-range cameras on the mother ship recorded the succession of flashes as the pods struck the barren surface of the planet, proof that another mission had been successfully accomplished. The Retirement Commission registers would be updated when the data reached Earth and any pensions due to relatives credited to their accounts. The dream of a new Earth and a new life was kept alive, and unrest quelled for the time being. The public relations division would celebrate with a modest party to mark the success of another mission to the dark planet.


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