Section 1/24: Accident
The eight teenagers waited excitedly for their chance to be dangled from the giant's arm. Solomon Wheat stood apart from his classmates, his face hidden by the hood of his black tracksuit top, his gaze lost in the latticed shapes of the gantries silhouetted against the white light of the dome above them. It was to be their turn next; they could see the arm of the tower crane swinging towards them, the glass and denceramic carriage starting to descend. Except for a single figure, it was empty, the rest of their class having already been deposited on the far side of the complex.
Despite his withdrawn posture, Sol was as excited as the rest of his classmates. He had never been up in a crane car, and this was a luxury model, normally only used by the big-noise industrialists and planners. As a school tour, this was going to be hard to top. The carriage was being lowered towards its cradle. Large enough for ten people to sit around its richly upholstered seats, its smooth, classic, graphite-coloured curves spoke of sheer class. This was how the other half travelled - archaic, but majestic. The figure inside was Vincent Schaeffer, the main man, head of the Third Quadrant, responsible for the very air they breathed. The whole thing was a blatant PR stunt, an attempt to show how the company was 'in touch' with young people. But as long as he got a ride on the crane, Sol wasn't going to complain.
The carriage's cradle, a steel-framed platform, rose to meet the carriage on hydraulic arms as it was lowered the last few metres, magnets activating to pull the swinging load into line and control its touchdown with impressive accuracy. The five girls and three boys surged forward, each of them eager to be the first on board and grab the best seats.
'Hold on!' Ms Kiroa, their teacher, called them back.
'Wait until Mr Schaeffer says it's all right. That includes you, Faisal Twomey.'
Ana Kiroa was young, and pretty in a strict, teacher kind of way, but her voice already had the tone of authority, and the students reacted, stumbling to a reluctant halt. They waited, slowly edging closer to the door, while trying to look as stationary as possible. Sol hung back near the teacher. He would try and sit near her if he could, but not so close as to be obvious.
Schaeffer opened the door and waved them aboard, stepping aside to avoid being knocked over in the rush. Ms Kiroa smiled an apology, shrugging helplessly as the students poured up the platform's steps and through the door. Sol shifted the strap of his bag onto his shoulder, stuck his hands deeper into his pockets and nodded to Schaeffer as he passed him. There were three seats left together, and he took the middle one, relishing the knowledge that Ms Kiroa would have to sit beside him. He stuck his bag on the floor and twisted to look out of the window behind him.
They were surrounded by the Ventilation Complex, which made up the centre of the Third Quadrant. Most of the girls hated the complex - they thought it ugly and cold - but to Sol it was interesting, an insight into how the city worked. A stacked maze of metal shafts, ducts, filtration systems, tall dispersal fans and many other unidentifiable constructions served to feed air into the city from the frozen world outside. Beyond, the tops of the poorest apartment blocks in the quadrant could be seen; their windows looking out on this industrial spread.
'Welcome to the Schaeffer Corporation. Unfortunately, at this early stage, I'm going to be leaving you,' Schaeffer told the class, interrupting Sol's thoughts. 'I have a few things to attend to, but I'll meet you on the other side. I'm sure Ms Kiroa can talk you through the trip. Just a few safety messages - sorry, I have to, you know what these safety people are like!'
He was a short man, in a slightly rumpled suit, with a potbelly, long white sideburns and a chubby face. He didn't look like a big-shot businessman, Sol thought, and he was obviously ill-at-ease around young people. Knowing the young people around him, Sol couldn't blame him.
'There is a safety lock on the door that operates while the carriage is in motion, but don't touch the door anyway. Keep your weight distributed evenly for a steady ride; don't all crowd over one side of the carriage - it won't lean, but it could increase the amount of swing. If you feel sick, there are bags provided under the seats. Please use them. Oh, and no eating or drinking in the carriage.' His face expressed boredom at the tiresome rules. 'Right, that's my duty done. Enjoy the ride, and I'll see you over the other side!'
Some of the students started talking softly under their breath as Schaeffer finished. Sol didn't join in. It was funny how people lowered their voices when they were excited. Ms Kiroa sat down beside him, and he pulled his hood further up over his face, feeling suddenly tense.
Schaeffer stepped out of the carriage and closed the door firmly behind him. Sol turned to watch him; the man waved at them as if they were children, and then turned to walk towards another carriage on the far side of the yard. Sol turned back as the seat shuddered underneath him, and he pressed his feet against the floor in reflex.
'This is such a rush!' Cleo, one of the girls across from him, muttered to a friend. 'Feel my arm; I'm all goose-bumps!'
She was an odd-looking girl - cute enough, with her oriental eyes and blonde hair. Cleo and Sol had been friends when they were younger. But now she was just another loud-mouth teenage ditz, a singer for some wannabe band. Sol looked away: he had no taste for girls his own age; they were all so flighty. The carriage jerked slightly, creaked, and then he felt his stomach lurch as they were lifted from the ground. There were a few whoops and squeals, and suddenly everybody was standing up and looking out of the windows.
'Sit down, please!' Ms Kiroa called, but it was half hearted, and she stood up herself to make the most of the view. Sol positioned himself at her shoulder; he was taller than her and, with her head by his nose, he could smell her hair. He breathed in the scent, then moved away slightly, suddenly embarrassed by how close she was.
The city fell away around them, and they rose high over the quadrant, above the Ventilation Complex below, above the surrounding buildings, until they could see clear across the city. Above them, the tower crane's jib began to turn, swinging them out and round, heading towards the Second Quadrant, where they would connect with a gantry crane and be carried over into the Food Production Complex. Between the tops of the four looming tower cranes - one in the centre of each quadrant - and the domed roof of the city, there was only the gantry grid. Each with four arms, the tower cranes' resemblance to a force of protective metal giants was now a permanent part of their image.
'We must be over a hundred metres up,' Cleo said, a tremor in her voice. 'It's like we're flying.' The city of Ash Harbour looked spectacular. Built inside a hollowed-out mountain five kilometres across, its top roofed with a massive dome to keep out the ferocious elements, this was their whole world. Beyond those walls, deadly storms and freezing temperatures had stripped the planet bare. Sol gazed out at the city, and realized for the first time just how small their world was. His window was facing towards the body of the crane, and his eyes followed it down to the bottom, a long, long way below. The crane's perspective heightened the feeling of being hung out in the sky and he experienced a moment of dizziness.
He caught sight of the carriage that Schaeffer had boarded. It was hanging from another arm of the crane. It was going to pass inside the path of the school's carriage, overtaking it as the students took the scenic route. It was moving jerkily, as if something was wrong.
Sol leaned harder against the glass. He could see two figures inside. One was on the nearside of the carriage, looking anxiously towards the ceiling. He was a young man, dressed in the suit of a businessman or industrialist. Sol couldn't see the other person very well, but knew it must be Schaeffer. Ms Kiroa saw what he was looking at, and leaned in closer beside him, her shoulder touching his.
'Why is it shaking like that?' she wondered aloud.
'Maybe just worn bearings,' he replied, wanting to sound knowledgeable. His gaze was locked on the scene before him.
'They should lower it down. It doesn't look safe.' The obvious alarm in her voice carried around the carriage.
All of a sudden the entire class was pushing in around them, staring out at the shuddering crane car, which was coming ever closer.
'Maybe it's going to fall!' Faisal Twomey said, from behind Sol.
'Shut up, you grit!' Cleo snapped.
'Quiet, all of you,' Ms Kiroa said calmly.
Sol felt queasy. Seeing the unstable carriage dangling so high above the ground made him all the more conscious of their own situation. His eyes locked on the face of the man who was less than fifty metres away. This was a man who presumably travelled in these carriages all the time. Sol was close enough to see the barely suppressed panic on his face. Something was badly wrong. Above and beyond the other crane car, beneath the arm that held it, he could see the cabin where the controller sat. He must notice that there was a problem. The carriage was only twenty metres away, but it had stopped swinging past them now and, glancing up at the trolley beneath the arm, Sol could see that the winch had started up - it was beginning to lower the car.
There was a jerk in the doubled cables, and the carriage dropped slightly, shaking back and forth. Sol looked back up at the arm.
'Jesus,' Cleo gasped. 'Look . . . The thing . . . The trolley's come off!'
The trolley holding the winch was hanging off at one end. As they watched, another of its wheels gave way, and now the entire weight of the crane car was suspended from only one corner of the trolley's welded steel frame. The rail holding the wheel was already buckling.
One of the girls started crying. Somebody else joined in.
'Get a grip, for God's sake!' Cleo exclaimed.
With everyone on one side of their car, it was unbalanced, and swinging ever so slightly. Ana had her hand over her mouth; she was holding her breath. Sol spared her a glance, but quickly brought his eyes back to the man in the other carriage. The young man was clutching a rail beside the window, holding onto it for all he was worth, as if that would help support the dangling carriage. Sol felt the floor under his feet tremble, and he looked down in alarm. But it was a normal movement. Their carriage was starting to creep in along its jib to reach the other car.
'What the hell's goin' on?' Faisal growled. 'What's he doing?'
'We're going to get them out of there,' Cleo told him. 'But we're going too slowly.'
'Vibrations,' Sol hissed through tense jaws. 'He doesn't want to knock the other car loose.'
The man could see them approaching. He looked out at them, shouting something. Letting go of the rail, he pressed both hands against the window. Growing more frantic, he started hammering his fists against the glass. On the other side, Schaeffer was still looking towards the two control cabs. The dangling carriage jerked again, the trolley's rail pulling bolts free from the crane's arm. The young man behind the glass was talking again, pleading, urging them on. They were very close now. Sol thought he could have jumped the gap, if he'd been able to take a run at it. They were almost within reach.
Sol looked up at the trolley and saw it give, feeling it part from the arm with a jolt like a physical blow. The carriage dropped away, almost seeming to suck them after it in its wake. He saw the young man for an instant before the carriage turned into a tumble, saw him open his mouth in a silent scream behind the glass as he fell. The moment was perfectly silent, and then the cable, snaking past them, smacked the broken trolley against the side of their carriage and everyone screamed.
Their carriage swung from side to side, and the other car was suddenly forgotten. They all clutched at the rails on the walls over the seats; those who missed were thrown onto the floor. Sol had a firm hold on a rail, his eyes shut tight. Ana had seized his arm and was squeezing so hard it hurt, her fingernails digging into his flesh. The swinging subsided, but it was difficult to tell - his head was all over the place, and his stomach was trying to climb out of his mouth. He smelled the sharp, rank scent of urine and knew somebody had wet themselves. Everybody was gasping and sobbing.
'Get us down!' Amanda Yan shrieked. 'Get us down from here! I want to get down!'
They were dropping towards the ground . . . slowly. Ana let go of his arm, struggling to regain her composure. Around the carriage, everyone was sitting down, some trembling and crying, some silent, scared and embarrassed. Sol was surprised to find himself shivering, his heart pounding fit to burst. Steeling himself, he looked out of the window.
His stomach had a hard time dealing with the height, but it was the sight of the other carriage that finally did it. The car lay, crumpled and shattered, about fifty metres from where they were going to come down. He could see the bodies of the two men. Reaching under his seat, he barely got the sick bag out in time.