Chapter 9: Solar Strip

The lift might have moved smoothly, but it had impressive acceleration. We took off without a jar and shot upwards, looking out at the Dome spread out below us, the three walls of the lift shaft blurring by at the sides and the bars across the front of the shaft passing like blinks. Then the curvature started to show, too. I could see houses under our feet, through the metal-woven glassil of the floor, and when I looked up, I could see the wall of the shaft curving over above us.

As smoothly as it had started, the lift slowed and stopped, leaving us looking out onto an access platform at the base of the strip. Low down on the other side of the Dome, the sun made it hard to look due east, but we could see how far we had to go. All across the Dome… it was a long, long way.

“Wow…” breathed Lindsi, up against the door. “I never really realised how big the Dome was before. It looks like a giant’s toy from Engineering.”

You’ve been in Engineering? With the way everything was locked down and sealed off, that was about the last thing I’d expected!

“Sure, it’s where I work. Worked, anyway.” She looked at one hand again, the faintest of metallic sparkles reflecting in the deep blue of her suited skin. “B shift, Brandian manual division. Fetch and carry, cut and weld.” She pressed the door button, and they slid obediently open, letting us out. I couldn’t feel the air, but I remembered little gusty winds up here, and I could see them flicking and ruffling Lindsi’s silver hair as she walked across to the railing, looking down at everything spread out below us. “They yell at you for stopping to look out the windows, but everyone does once in a while. It’s a heck of a view.”

I nodded. I knew just how impressive it was. Engineering occupies the very centre and rear third of the towering spire that projects from between the four Domes. Downwards by gravity is forwards for the Ship: if we look up at the stars, we’re looking back at where we were centuries ago. Get out onto the very edge of the ‘scoop, where gravity does a crazy ninety-degree shift to let you stand with your feet pointed towards the centre of the Ship instead of down/forwards like normal, and you can look ahead, where we’re going. Countless stars ahead of us match the countless stars behind, splashing long milky arcs to either side of the Ship and surrounding us like the banks of a pond. The biggest pond in the whole universe. Really, it’s a spiral galaxy, and we’re inside it, so ‘above’ and ‘below’ are the view out of the galaxy, while ahead, behind, and around it rings us in in that softly shining band. I know the rough numbers for how big it is, but it’s hard to really comprehend. If our Ship was a dust mote, the galaxy on the same scale would be way bigger than the entire real-sized Ship containing the dust-mote one!

“Well, I guess we should get to work, huh,” Lindsi said, pushing herself back from the railing. “Think there’ll be tools around here?”

There should be, I told her. Tools are usually stored near where they’ll be needed, after all. Probably a diagnostic console again, too.

“Good thinking. If it’s like those ones down under, it should give us a few hints!” She turned in place, looking around, then started up a steeply sloping ramp as wide as the lift, headed up still closer to the solar strip. Warning signs were posted at intervals, older than me and a bit grubby: ‘BE AWARE OF LOCAL TIME’ ‘THIS AREA ACTIVE DURING BRANDIA 18:30-19:00’ ‘DO NOT ATTEMPT WORK DURING ACTIVE HOURS’

“That looks a bit worrying,” Lindsi commented, waving her hand at one of them.

It’s supposed to be. The strip puts out a lot of power. Standing right next to it while it’s on could probably cook you or something. That’s why the strip walk starts in the east, so the sun can’t sneak up on you.

“Now you tell me.” She didn’t seem to mind, though, and the sun was a long way away. “So this way, I guess?”

We’d got to the top of the ramp, the strip now almost level with us, the top of the Dome right above our heads. A track ran along it just between this gantry and the strip itself, embedded in the curving arch of the support strut that ran right across the Dome. I vaguely remembered wondering what it was for last time I was up here, so either it went all the way across or there was a matching one on the other side. Lindsi turned left, back to the top of the lift and to where the solar strip and its arcing strut met the opaque side-wall of the Dome. There was a closed door back where the walkway entered a kind of corridor in the strut — three doors, in fact, one to the left, one to the right, one dead ahead.

“This looks more like it!” Lindsi tried the right-hand door’s touchplate, and it opened, as simple as that. Like the filtration system, it must just have been assumed that nobody would make it up here. The room beyond was a fair size, and didn’t look like it had seen much use for a while, everything covered in dust. Screens flicked on as we walked in, looking around slowly. A wide window gave us a view out along the strip and into the Dome. I guessed either it would darken when the sun got closer, or a shutter would close, or maybe both. One of the angled terminals just below it caught my attention, the orange and black of a warning message taking up most of the screen.

That doesn’t look good. I pointed, already walking over, and Lindsi followed. We both read the message at the same time, standing side by side.

‘System alert:’ it read. ‘Power supply insufficient to reproduce full solar spectrum. Circuit diagnostics inconclusive. Ship network communications failure detected. Alert Engineering manually.’

“Looks like it can’t even tell us what’s wrong…” She folded her arms, shifting her weight a little. “There’s a lot of strip out there to search blind.”

I’m not sure it even is the strip, I said. The diagnostics are inconclusive, and it seems to be talking about the overall power supply, not any of the individual solar panels. I think even if they’re all working fine, this would still be true — there wouldn’t be enough power.

Lindsi ran her hands through her hair. “How are we going to fix that?”

I frowned. Well, it’s got to be a power allocation problem. I wanted to ask the Ship to fix it so badly, but I knew if it could have done anything, it already would have. For some reason, there’s not enough flowing to the strip. I’d already said that, but I needed to think, and talking was helping keep me focused on the problem in front of me, instead of all the other problems. Like the Ship being locked out. Like my being dead. The Dome should get a quota of power from Reactor Control. Either the quota’s too low or the Dome’s splitting it up wrong, diverting too much to other systems.

“How do we find out which?”

We’d need access to Brandia substation, where our power’s regulated. I shook my head. There was no way we were going to so much as get in the building. There’s not many places you can shift the power balance around. Reactor Control handles the quota for different parts of the Ship, but I don’t think it does any more fine-tuning than that. There might be an engineering override somewhere that could get us control of the Dome’s power subsystems, but it’d have to be in either Main Engineering or on the Bridge. My voice rose in frustration as I remembered Lindsi had said the Bridge would be locked down. The Ship’s supposed to take care of this stuff! It’s supposed to warn us, to recommend balances! If we lock it down and ignore it, it — everything could all fall apart!

“We can figure it out.” I didn’t know whether she meant me and her, or people in general, but either way I didn’t much care.

Maybe we can, but by cutting off half the knowledge base and half our tools, we’re leaving ourselves half blind! All because what, someone didn’t like something it said?! Because — because some incompetent politician wants more power?!

“Calm down!” Lindsi brought her arms sharply downwards, palms to the floor. “We’re going to figure it out because we’ve got to.” Her voice shook a little. “If we can’t fix the strip right now then we move on to the air purifiers and maybe we’ll come up with a plan for sorting out the power while we’re doing it. If we stand around shouting, nothing gets done, and then if what the Ship said was true…” She trailed off emphatically, and I felt like the weight of the Ship had just settled on my shoulders. I knew it was true, probably better than she ever had. I trusted the Ship almost absolutely, I grew up with its written advice, endless chains of reasoning behind it if you only asked. Yes, sometimes it was limiting, if you wanted to fabricate a tower that stretched from the bottom of a Dome to the top it would tell you no, but that’s because it was a bad idea, and if you asked it would tell you why! Everyone knew it cared more about education than almost any kid aboard, or any adult for that matter, and… and I had to do this. More important than anything else, I had to help Lindsi fix everything, because if no-one would listen to the Ship then we were all they had.

Sorry, I mumbled, looking at my feet. I just… it’s just… I opted for the Understatement of the Century award. A lot of stress.

Lindsi laughed in a stressed kind of way. “Oh, you bet.” She held out a hand to me, even though I couldn’t take it. “So. Air purifiers? And maybe we can figure out a way to get back in touch with the Ship.”

Maybe. I put my hand alongside hers for a moment. You’re right. Let’s do it.

Together, we turned to go, leaving the solar strip warning still flaring its message to an empty room. If nothing else, we’d learnt something. That was, had to be, better than nothing.

< Chapter 8 | The Fused | Chapter 10 >

Creative Commons Licence
The Fused by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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