Author : Philip Berry
I placed the flat of my hand against the thick wall and felt the vibration of a hundred thousand pistons moving in synchrony. Pressing an ear, I heard the high hiss of gas igniting under pressure, expanding, driving the piston heads and collapsing into vacuums. Then, the whir of the great fly-wheel, collecting the energy of those controlled explosions into a huge momentum, its endless rotation invisible to the people it served, encased, concealed within a towering central hall that none were permitted to enter.
I would enter. I would work there. Not for me the usual occupations and vocations of this immense, travelling society. I wanted to work at the source, in the heat and racket of the perpetual engine.
To get this close I had wandered for months, from the peripheral zone of my birth, through numerous unfamiliar townships, complexes and multi-levelled agricultural matrices. I had escaped the propaganda, the ‘countdown to journey’s end’ that never seemed to reach zero. I no longer believed the pronouncements – where was our new world? Did it really exist? For a fifteen-year old, I was highly cynical.
I had reached the great ship’s lowest level. A portion of the wall slid open. A scratched, sexless mech walked out, holding an oversized spanner. I slipped in before the door shut.
A maze of gantries separated me from the blurred edge of the fly wheel. Gleaming piston-rods charged back and forth, driven by muffled explosions within the impenetrable housings. Invisible field-cords connected them to the speeding fly-wheel, from where the collected energy was transmitted to aft propulsion units according to the helmsman’s whim, or to the millions of residences where my fellow travellers demanded power for their gadgets, via remote couplers.
“Ah! Welcome.” An old, gentle voice. I was sure he would understand me. I climbed several flights of metal steps, drawing ever closer to the fly-wheel’s rim. I felt the breeze it created against my cheek.
“Curious, eh?” asked the man, who wore stained overalls. He stood near the wheel, and his white hair moved in the turbulent air.
“I’ve always wanted…”
“Of course, of course. Yet… do you have any idea what it is, this engine, this ship?”
“I know we are the last transport. I know we are all that’s left.”
“Quite right. But do you know where we are going?”
“We’re looking for another world, in another galaxy.”
He looked disappointed.
“If you are going to work here you must know the truth. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
“We travel at the universe’s edge. It is burning up behind us. There is no specific destination. We live at the envelope of existence, but we succeed, we have done so for centuries… we outpace entropy. It is enough, don’t you think?”
“But how long can we…?”
“For as long as we want to. But we must want it. You see, this engine’s only fuel is hope. Here, at the edge, thought is energy, and the plans that people make, delusions perhaps, but alive, colourful, are enough to keep the pistons moving and wheel spinning. Young man, we cannot stop hoping that the journey will bring us to a new home.”
“But if they knew, the people…”
“They will never know. You will never tell them.”
“But my family…”
“The family you fled? Boy, take this rag.”
I took it.
“And take this can of oil.”
I took it. He glanced towards the innumerable, shuttling pistons, and added,
“Now get to work.”