Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 24

Chapter 24.

          “I know it’s only thirty people, but that’s a hell of a crowd compared to us,” DuQuesne murmured. He glanced in the direction of the group that was waiting, mostly patiently, outside the entrance to the Guardhouse area, then looked back down at the cable he was rigging. Going to need a lot more power here.

          Carl Edlund paused in the middle of fixing the last brace for the table. “I don’t think they even outnumber you,” he said.

“Ha. Unfortunately it’s not that kind of outnumbering.”

“Be grateful,” Tom Cussler said, waving the first people forward. “They could have sent a lot more through, but I’m guessing they’re screening the first set very carefully.”

“I guess. And it’s plain as day that we’ll be needing a lot more people for everything we want to do. Just wish I didn’t have to worry how many of them might be more on Naraj’s side than ours.”

“Well, hey there, DQ!” called a cheerful voice.

DuQuesne stood upright, startled, and looked down at a woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, hair done in streaks like a box of Neapolitan ice cream — brown, red, and white — with a dark tan and sharp hazel eyes. She had a large red duffle-bag slung over her shoulder and was gazing up at him with a broad grin.

“Tobin? You came to this madhouse?”

“DQ, once I heard you were involved, I had to come see what you’d gotten yourself into. After the Singularity project I’d thought the excitement was over, but judging from what I saw just on the way in, that was only a warm-up!”

“You know Doctor Tobin?” Cussler asked. “I’d heard of you by reputation, Doctor, but –”

“We worked together on the Singularity Power Project some years back,” DuQuesne said, still smiling. Damn, this is something of a stroke of luck. “Tom, Carl, and Steve, this is Doctor Molly Tobin, one of the best practical power engineering designers you’ll ever meet.”

“Another power engineer?” Steve said with some excitement. “Oh, that’s excellent! DuQuesne’s great, but he’s got so many other things on his plate that we have to practically beg him for help on this stuff.”

Tobin nodded, looking around, as Tom started getting information from the other two people he’d called up. “That’s DQ, all right; take on more work than any three other people and call it a good night’s work.”

“‘DQ’?” Carl repeated. “Never heard that one before.”

“And only Molly and about two other people get to call me that, so don’t start,” DuQuesne said in a half-serious warning tone. “What kind of equipment have you guys brought?”

“Couple more AIWish units and a whole bunch of key elements — the sort that’re harder to come by, not available in large quantities out on your upper Sphere, at least based on what you’ve sent us so far,” Molly answered promptly. “Efficient turbine designs and other components for various types of powerplants, of course, that can be coded direct to your AIWish. More power means getting more done, so we figured power engineering would be one of the key factors. Also brought a couple civil engineers, habitat analysis people, concept synthesizers, and so on.”

“That’s definitely going to help. A lot.” He glanced at the group more closely. “Most of ’em don’t look too shell-shocked, either. Been picking from the ones who don’t rely on their AISages, eh?”

“That was one of Ambassador Naraj’s directives, yes,” she agreed. “And based on what we knew, that made a lot of sense.”

He bent, finished locking down the cable. “You been briefed?”

Heavily. Enough that I just about believe this crazy place really exists, now that I’m here.”

He grinned at her. “Oh, it’ll get harder to believe before it gets easier. Well, we’ve just finished the survey above our Sphere and we have no fewer than eight Sky Gates. Simon’s preparing to send probes through to see what’s on the other side — hopefully one of them goes to Nexus Arena.” He turned. “Follow me, Molly. The others have to go through all the rigmarole, but I know you, you know me, and I want you to see the problem you guys will have to tackle first.”

He led Molly up through the Inner Sphere to the elevator. “Get ready to meet the Arena.”

“I thought the real Arena we couldn’t go to yet. This Nexus Arena.”

“In a way, yeah…” The elevator door slid open, and they walked into the foyer towards the door to the Upper Sphere. “But this is still part of the Arena, and the important thing about now is that you’ve arrived at night.

They stepped through the door… and Molly Tobin stopped dead.

Above the dark jungle, silhouetted against a distant horizon and spanning vision in all directions, was…

There still aren’t words, DuQuesne thought. Maybe my long-ago creator, that bombastic Doctor E.E. Smith, could have described it. But I can’t.

The sky of the Arena glowed above the Sphere of Humanity; a shimmering of clouds in the indescribable distance, flickering and flashing with lightning strokes that branched and stretched not for instants but long, long seconds of seething electrical fire, blue-white and fire-orange and gleaming pearlescent white against blue-black; a deep ruddy glow was visible in another direction, and against it a dark, trailing line of clouds edged in rose and blood. Directly above, a roiling, majestic sea of deep violet and velvet and sparking, shimmering blue. It was the sky of storms the size of worlds and of lights that might come from another world, a moon’s distance away in that impossible airy gulf, and faint, barely-seen movement that might be creatures, living beings that dared to live and fight and die and perhaps even think, wonder, and love in the endless spaces between Spheres.

“Oh… my.” Molly said finally.

“Yeah, that’s about all you can say. Or something like that. Even more if you’re here in the daytime first; looks pretty much like some place on Earth then, with the Luminaire up. You have to squint pretty hard to make out anything funny in the sky in the daytime. So then the sun goes down… and you suddenly know you ain’t in Kansas any more.”

“Or down the rabbit hole. This place seems just about that crazy.” She shook herself in a way that DuQuesne found amusingly familiar; most of the original visitors had done the same thing when recovering from a typical Arena shock. “So… besides that, what did you have for me?”


She cocked her head, and even in the dim lighting he could see her sudden smile. “Oh, now, that is hopeful. A waterfall?”

“And a big one,” DuQuesne said with an answering smile. “We’ve diverted a tiny portion of it so far with what we could rig up, but I know you worked on studying hydro plants before. My best estimate on this fall is it’s close to two million liters a second.”

“That is pretty big,” she said. “I admit… I’m having trouble grasping this. We are on top of a spherical construct, right? What’s all this… world doing on top of it, if you know what I mean?”

“It’s made to be similar to our home environment — though similar does not mean identical, so get that through your head. Near as I can figure, there’s a couple thousand kilometers of rock under us which acts like the actual mantle of a planet. Plate tectonics, the whole nine yards. You’ve got some kind of oceans out there — Simon’s probes were able to return some images, and we’re finally getting some idea of what the top of the Sphere looks like. Within the gravity area there’s some convection and condensation — but we’re not even close to figuring out how all this interacts with the stuff outside the gravity field.”

He shook his head. “It’s enough to drive you nuts, I’ll tell you. But the long and the short is, we get weather like Earth, pretty close, you get night and day like Earth, there’s volcanoes and earthquakes and all the rest like Earth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t seasons to the … North and South of us, where the Luminaire’s light will be more oblique; I’ll bet its path slowly goes North and South over the period of a year, just like the apparent position of the sun varies due to Earth’s axial tilt. We’re pretty much on the equator right here.” He paused. “The effective equator of the Upper Sphere, not the actual Sphere’s equator. Damnation. We’ll need yet more new vocabulary.”

They stopped at the edge of the ridge overlooking the swift-running river. “That is impressive,” Molly said finally. “So you want me to design a power plant to use… that?”

“Figure we could get a few gigawatts out of it, which would go a long way towards giving us some comfortable independence here. And if there’s one waterfall like this, I’m betting there’s plenty of opportunities for water-power here.”

She nodded. “I can imagine the largest possible water power generator, actually.”

“What do… oh.” He suddenly began to chuckle, then laughed loudly. “Doctor Tobin, you haven’t stopped thinking bigger, have you?”

“It just seemed obvious to me, Marc,” she said, grinning back. “Given the description, there’s a wall, an edge, somewhere around this Upper Sphere, the point where the gravity stops keeping things comfortably on the surface. Go knock a hole in it and let the entire ocean start draining out until you reach equilibrium. With a few billion liters of water a second, I’ll start giving you some real power!”