The train was just squealing past the vaults when Dorbian’s next question arrived.
"Have you read Soro’s new paper on the sub-decks? He’s made some remarkable discoveries."
The young academic was brimming with the latest theories and critiques. He was fidgeting about, from either nervous excitement or the new red wool sweater he was wearing.
"I schooled with Soro. We’ve partnered on theses. Whatever he’s done now, I’m sure it’s good work."
Unlike his travelling companion, Warick’s theory days were well behind him. There was grease beneath his nails, rust coating his boots. Or so he liked to think.
"He theorizes the size of the Nibi Decks could only have been used for waste management or supply storage."
Warick’s notepad was laid out on his lap, the thin wax paper covered in notes, work orders, questions requiring answers. When he wasn’t looking at his fluorescent glare reflection in the window, he took to scribbling spirals and boxes in the corners. Anything to rob the boy’s sense of his attention.
"Presumptuous. The supply stores we’ve mapped are smaller and specialized. Sewage tunnels would not require such large hangar doors. The prevailing theories are correct- former shipbays I believe, or maybe areas that were never developed." He told himself to stop but added, "Soro has chosen poorly I’m afraid."
Dorbian went quiet and grappled with his bursting bubble. "So you’ve read his paper then?"
"I’ve been to the Nibi decks. I’ve led expeditions there and beyond." His spirals trailed down the page. "It is not me citing Soro, it is Soro who should be citing me."
He didn’t need to look up to notice the boy itching under his collar and looking generally uncomfortable. The train’s cabin was humid, but not enough to sweat like that.
Perhaps he was being too sharp. The boy was just trying to learn afterall. Had you not worn a similar sweater once? Took pride in its vibrancy, the years of effort it capstoned. Warick considered his own wool, faded grey and hanging to his knees, the sleeves drooping loose, and the constant battle to keep them from his hands. "Soro is an admirable figure, you should follow his work. But much of this cartography business will be obsolete once we reconnect with the Intelligence."
The boy perked up at the word. "You think so?"
"The Intelligence will provide us a complete map of the ship, details on all its functions, even act as a central control scheme I imagine. Our linguists are only a few years from translating the ship’s code."
The boy smiled. Intelligence discussion was a sideshow within the academy, but Warick suspected it wasn’t his partner’s first time on the topic. "They’ve been saying that for decades, how close are they really?"
"I have it on good authority they are as close as they have ever been."
Like steps in a graceful dance, he knew what came next.
"Well, of course, it presumes there’s an Intelligence to speak to at all."
Now Warick looked up, catching the boy’s stare and watching it twitch and evade his own.
"Mr. Dorbian," Warick said, his words curling into a grin. "I didn’t take you for a heretic."
It was a shame the engine halls were not open to the public. Of all the known areas of the ship, it was the halls, Warick believed, that were without compare. It was easily the largest chamber, encompassing multiple floors and decks. The ceiling and walls were spaced so far that clouds collected among the lattice-work of pipeline bridges overhead. Long naves flourished with gothic arches stretched into hazy distances, hundreds of thousands of blackened columns aligned for perfect structural integrity. These fed into an overbearing bulwark dominating the exterior wall, a massive slab of thick, grey rock housing the thirty-six great maws, each screaming fire and heat to thrust Warick and everyone else deeper into nowhere.
"It’s even bigger than I imagined." Dorbian said.
A shuffling scrum formed as they stepped off the train, Warick pressed by foremen armed with reports and requisitions to be vetted. If he hadn’t been reading and signing he might have laughed at his shadow’s comment- it was something of a running joke in his line of work. "Keep close-," tugging the red wool sweater to heel, "your professors never took you to the halls?"
"I’ve only written of about it. Not many professors still do tours these days."
Warick was already turning to near-sighted colleague at his other side. "Where is Zuker?"
"Still half-hour out." Was the snap response.
He nodded and the woman split off from his side, a comet fragment on its own trajectory. Dorbian watched the crowd disperse like her one-by-one, orders leaking down the chain.
Their path turned onto a highway plunging through the arches towards the great slab.
Warick motioned above to sets of anchored floodlights beaming upwards. "We installed the lights first to repair some bridges, use blubber lamps for groundwork. The halls have many scars but little record of their purpose. Previous generations took it all for granted, didn’t pry at their secrets. We still don’t know where most of the pipes lead." He drew the boy’s attention forward again. "We spent the next year peeling away a thick layer of steel covering the wall along with a viscous substance beneath." Looking to his companion he arced a brow. "That we’re still studying, of course."
The wall’s summit arced overhead, its dull grey surface spotted with acne of craters and drillholes, pipes from every direction weaving into cords and plunging into the flatness. As they approached Warick pointed out four globes of lights spaced out at its base before them, a droning rumble echoing from each. "Took us a while to find the right drills. Our scrappers were only used to rusted metal before this. It required some trial and error to get right."
They approached the work site directly ahead, flames lining the avenue on each side coming together in glowing nebulas. They passed circles of workers resting outside the site’s perimeter, away from the heat and the noise, smoking and joking in thin wool ponchos and copper leather pants dusted grey.
Closer now, Dorbian saw a line of men, wiring, and a crude railline disappearing into a three meter wide borehole. Caught in rhymtic loops, the grinding roar echoed from within and was carried on a warm breeze, as if the very rock was gasping for air.
Warick tugged Dorbian to the lip of the cave and shouted over the noise. "Six months! Only forty yards! Who knows how much more!"
He peered inside and spotted a dot of red light deep in the black. Everything else - the wires, rail line, the figures shuffling stone hand-to-hand - swallowed in total pitch. Starring at the dot, he wondered if the lines went into the tunnel towards the light or if they stretched out from it. Then there was Warick grabbing his shoulder and pulling him back.
The noise dimmed as they left the perimeter and Dorbian recalled what Professor Yurovan always said- Search for context, find the bigger picture...
"But what do you hope to achieve by reaching the engines?" He said.
"Study them of course. We’ve only explored the exterior of the engines, and still don’t know how they work, what fuels them, so on," Warick waved a hand, as if to wipe away a litany of other concerns. "Despite all this, we continue to make discoveries and find, if not answers, then solutions."
Warick smiled and pressed on, Dorbian hustling to keep with the taller man’s pace.
Between the two middle worksites stretched a thick length of rope and about twenty men. They were laying about in conversation, some sleeping off to the side, wearing much the same as the rest of the workers with the addition of thick leather mitts.
A nearby worker, thin-faced and wearing a band of cloth to hold back greasy strands of hair, stood to attention.
"Just the two." Warick said.
With a shout the men stood, the sleeping shaken and the lazy kicked, to assemble around the rope. Satisfied and without a word, Warick took a lamp and started for the wall. They followed the rope until it arced up into the air, Dorbian craning his neck to find where it hung. He bumped into Warick who was undoing a latch to a small cabin door.
The archeologist motioned for him to step inside a prison of planks nailed together, wire mesh filling the gaps between. The rope was tied to a thick metal ring on top and hung slack from dark heights above.
Dorbian gripped the doorframe and was slow to step inside. "Is this safe?"
Warick nodded, shadows of his features pooling together. With only the workers and darkness to retreat to, Dorbian tugged down his wool sweater and climbed aboard. He graviated opposite of Warick with a firm grip on the closest edge. Warick roared to the rope team and grunting heaves sounded in reply. The whole cabin lurched, the wood creaking beneath the strain. It swayed from side to side and banged against the wall with each heave.
"And now, I suppose, to why you’re here."
Dorbian eyes were jumping between the exposed nails and the ground below. They locked on the archeologist, thankful for a stable reference point. "Uh, why I’m here, sir?"
"Good question. Why are you here?"
Dorbian’s grip was whiter than his flourescent-tanned skin. "The academy wants students shadowing alumni in the field, to se-"
"And you were assigned to me I take it?"
"I chose you, sir. I have great respect for your work."
Warick grumbled. "You chose did you?" To his benefit, his companion had not shown any signs of suggestive penetration. However, Warick’s expertise in such matters could only be described as passing.
"Well my friend, whether you organically discovered my work, or were guided here over the course of - if not your academic career then perhaps your life - I cannot be sure." Warick looked out on the white spots below, keeping his face from the lamplight. "But I want the academy to see I have nothing to hide. Their efforts planting you here have been wasted."
"I believe I’ve given the wrong impression, the academy requested nothing from me."
Warick slide across the unstable space between them to stand over the student. "Make no mistake Mr. Dorbian, whatever you think, you were sent here as a spy."
Dorbian touched a proud fist to his chest "I reject the very idea! I am an educated, free man of reason!"
Warick kept careful watch over his companion’s tics. As much as he wished to give him the benefit of the doubt, the boy was a dangerous combination of confidence and privilege. He was unprepared, still unaware of his molder’s hands and the teeth beneath each smile. Just another pawn for petty games.
"What is your name?"
"Your birth name."
He thumbed his chest. "That is my true name and I wear it with pride."
"Tagging a few letters on won’t earn you their respect, son." Warick shook his head. "No, you were born Dorb, to a shopsmith, couwman maybe. Brown curls, squat build, puts your family somewhere between Decks 18 and 25. CeeHold? Maybe AourHold? Am I close?"
Dorbian’s face soured. His sweater looked small and restricting on his frame.
"You’ve given over everything- mind, body, name, to the academy. You are their man and now you are here." The squeaking of the pulley above weined and the cabin settled just above the wall’s lip. "So come, behold, tell them all you have seen." He pushed the door open and motioned for Dorbian to step through.
A moment’s hesitation, cloaked as defiance, was all Dorbian could muster before nearly leaping from the ramshackle box.
To their left, a narrow tunnel was half-buried in the smooth rock. Down a steep ramp, Warick rotated a wheel to open an oval door, the thick metal gliding wide with little effort.
"There is no record of this place anywhere. It was seemingly unknown until I scaled the wall and found it." Dorbian stepped instead first at his insistence and Warick followed, sealing the door behind them.
Four people were already inside, three standing before a wall of levers, buttons, and knobs. The fourth, the woman Warick spoke with earlier, was attending to a thin rod with a talker attached to it. "They’re in position Warick, waiting on your word." She said.
Warick took the thick receiver from her and put it to his ear. "Are you there Zuker? How was the hike?"
Dorbian could hear static crackling and clumping together in sounds approximate to words. "Hearing you, Warick. Assembled but down two- Korklen and Paummers."
Warick closed his eyes and pressed the black box to his forehead. Korklen was a newbie. No big loss. But Paummers was a veteran expeditioner and a reliable right hand man. A critical asset to lose.
"Very good, begin observation."
They knew what they were getting into. Expeditions outside explored territory within the ship were dangerous, but expeditions across the ship’s outer-surface were especially perilious. One slip, one poorly secured hook or chance encounter with hurtling void debris, meant a lonely death and an eternal, tombless wandering among the stars. Their suits, air-tight and jury-rigged with shared air circulation, were also prone to tears or mishaps. But for all that, Warick envied Zuker and his team. He was imagining himself among them, half-a-kilometer out from the nearest engime, eyes set on a vector nozzles rising twenty stories from the surface, crowned by halos of plasma and volcanic exhausts of blue ion.
Warick never asked how his friend passed. Sometimes it was better not to know.
"Omir, lets begin phase one."
A young fellow, no older than sixteen, slid to one end of the wall. He pulled on a rusted lever, the thing resisting at first before giving way with a metallic crunch. A string of green lights lit up across the board to its right. Heartbeats passed before he reached down and turned a nearby knob clockwise. Breathing stopped and muscles tensed in anticipation, waiting on some response from the deep. More heartbeats passed.
"Report." Warick said into the receiver.
"No visible change."
Warick nodded to the boy. He shuffled over to the next section, flipped a smaller lever and pulled back on another handle, bringing it to the bottom of its niche. Again, breathless silence, a room of tuning forks begging for vibration.
Dorbian couldn’t read Warick’s face. It was a mixture of confusion and concentration, mouth agape as if he was about to say something.
"Movement... narrowing nozzle, thin thrust."
A brief CO2 spike as everyone breathed. Smiles breaking out among the assembled. The boy shifted the handle back to its original position.
"Nozzle open... more thrust."
A bolt went through the room, an aura of contagious energy.
"The next one boy, hurry! The next one!" Warick said waving him along, frantic in discovery.
Omir swept over the next few panels, each action returning a stoic confirmation draped in static.
On the last confirmation a cheer went up. Warick righted his posture, chin held high, yellow teeth on display .
"Congratulations Zuker, bring the party home." He set down the receiver and turned to Dorbian. "And congratulations to you as well, welcome to history." He extended a hand.
Dorbian returned the gesture but his arm was limp. "I’m not quite sure I follow."
"After this discovering this space, I kept it a secret. I had many theories, but only one seemed to fit right. A control room, a redudancy to the Intelligence’s own capabilities. Until now, we had no proof this room did anything, no direct observation of a connection between here and the exterior." Omar joined them and they embraced before Warick returned to the student. “For the first time in centuries, we can now steer our home.”
Dorbian’s confusion echoed the words of his studies, "But our course, the Destination..."
"Fool’s gold Dorbian, more reason to distrust the academy.”
His brow and nose collpased together, realization dawning, "So you’re saying the Navigator Council doesn’t navigate?"
"Of coure not," Warick wheeled open the hatch and offered the exit, "and if I have my way, they never will."