Like most cities, Caldera had grown by sprawling slowly across the landscape, filling the contours of the land and taking paths of least resistance. A city unimpeded by natural barriers could spread for miles, but unlike most cities, Caldera had grown inside the giant crater of a dormant coastal volcano and the mountainous perimeter wall constrained the city into a far smaller place than visitors expected.
Caldera had been founded shortly after contact with earth had been lost, but before the civil war had dragged the star systems to the brink of a new dark age. The Commonwealth had been founded on the premise that this must never happen again.
It was the promise of cheap energy released from the depths of the earth by geothermal extractors which held the key to Caldera’s success. In the years after the Fall, something as mundane as reliable energy became the foundation on which the wealth and power of Parador would be built.
So, the city of Caldera remained small, Parador’s black pearl nestled safely in the landscape.
When Tila, Ellie and Malachi reached the main road into the north city they were relieved to discover a footpath alongside the highway. After their trek across country a paved surface was a welcome relief and made the rest of their journey so much easier, and so much drier.
‘Why was the ground so wet? Was that caused by rain?’ said Ellie as they turned onto the path and began leaving wet, grassy footprints behind them.
‘I think that was dew, not rain,’ said Malachi.
‘So where did that come from?’
‘Uh… the ground I think. It gets wet in the morning, right Tila?’
Tila thought back to childhood lessons, but the only thing she was sure of was that she hated most of them and rarely listened. Life had provided its own important lessons in the last few years but dew point calculation was not one of them.
‘Right,’ she said.
Ellie considered this for the next few steps. ‘So why does it need to rain?’
‘Because of clouds?’ said Tila. She looked to Malachi for help but Malachi had no manual for this and was equally clueless.
‘Right,’ said Ellie slowly, ‘Neither of you knows anything about this, do you?’
‘No,’ said Tila.
‘We don’t get dew on the Juggernaut, Ellie,’ said Malachi.
‘Well now you have something to think about when we get back.’
Their path was not the only route into the north of the city. Further east, to their left, green buoys floated two hundred metres above the ground funnelling approaching air traffic into orderly lanes. Beyond them red buoys marked out exit lanes, and to the east of them lay the sparkling sea.
The road was noisier than Malachi had expected, and it surprised him to see so many wheeled vehicles in use alongside the regular anti-gravity transports.
Their path had been rising on a gradual incline for some time now, and the rocky hills that lay before them when they started their journey began to rise steeply on each side of the road. The rocky walls of a natural pass had been blasted or carved clear to widen the road. Their path veered right, away from the road and into a short tunnel cut for pedestrians. When they emerged, they were through the apex of their climb and inside the city of Caldera.
Every space within the dormant volcano had been filled. The buildings and streets of the city ran all the way to the edge of the rock wall through which they had entered. The perimeter curled gently to the right, isolating the city to the north and west, but gradually falling away to the south, there to be replaced by wide open plains.
The black lines of highways ran across the plains like scars linking the city with the local spaceport, kilometres to the south. Yet even from this distance they could see the silver and white gleam of ships rising and falling.
‘Now that,’ said Ellie, ‘Is a city!’
‘It’s not that impressive,’ said Tila, crushing Ellie’s awe without realizing.
‘It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen,’ she said.
‘It’s not the biggest city,’ said Malachi, ‘But it’s one of the most important in the Commonwealth and it’s special in other ways too.’
‘Is it?’ said Tila doubtfully.
Ellie ignored her. ‘Why is it special?’
‘It’s built inside a volcano for one thing, and you see those black buildings in the middle? That’s the financial district. Those buildings are made from obsidian. That’s volcanic glass.’
‘Why is that special? Is it good for making buildings?’
‘No. Just the opposite. It’s pointless, and useless and expensive.’
‘And tasteless,’ said Tila, ‘That’s why they do it, Ellie. It’s just another way to letting everyone know how much money they have.’
‘Do they have a lot of money here?’
‘Ellie, there is enough money down there to buy a star,’ said Malachi.
Ellie stopped suddenly and grabbed Malachi’s forearm in fright. ‘Wait, this is built on a volcano? Don’t they blow up?’
At yet another interruption Tila made a face she thought Ellie couldn’t see.
‘Sometimes, but this one won’t,’ said Malachi reassuringly.
‘How do you know?’
‘Because this one has been dormant for about a thousand years.’
‘But how do you know?’
‘I checked before we landed. It’s okay.’
Tila was growing impatient. The day had started and they had a lot to do. ‘Ellie, why are you worried about this? There are a hundred ways to die on the Juggernaut, but you’re not worried about those, are you?’
Ellie thought for a moment. ‘Well now I am!’
Tila grunted and continued walking.
‘What did I do? Is she mad at me?’ Ellie asked Malachi.
‘Nothing Ellie, forget it. She’s just eager to talk to the investors.’
For the rest of the journey Tila walked alone, leading the way while Malachi and Ellie followed discussing the differences between Caldera and the Juggernaut. A lifetime of living within the sealed environment of the Juggernaut meant that concepts like unlimited air, and free water recycled by nature were utterly foreign to her, and the more Malachi explained, the more Ellie wondered why people here would waste so much.
Eventually, they reached a plaza on the edge of the financial district. It contained the first real proof of civilisation they had seen since they had landed: public bathrooms.
They parted ways, and Malachi heard Ellie’s shriek of delight as she discovered the joys of modern plumbing. When she emerged, she sat with Malachi on a dry section of wall which surrounded a black, three-tiered fountain in the centre of the plaza.
A flat ring of soft, fuzzy moss grew on the ground where the wall met the paved surface of the plaza, fed and watered by the fountain which danced in complex patterns from all levels.
A light morning breeze blew spray and steam away from them. Commuters hurried and tourists dawdled through the plaza, all of them avoiding the shallow puddles where the water from the fountain had pooled.
Ellie watched the crowds while Malachi leaned back along the edge of the fountain, closed his eyes and soaked up the morning sun.
‘Does anyone mind that this fountain is on all the time?’ she said.
Malachi heard the question beneath the question. He had grown up on worlds where water, air, food, and even the power, were things to be consumed liberally. A whole world offered limitless resources if managed properly. He had learned to accept the tight constraints of Juggernaut living so he couldn’t deny the appeal of returning to a life of plenty, but for the first time a nagging thought at the edge of his conscience wondered where the thin line was between a life of comfort and a life of excess.
‘So long as they are not getting drenched by the spray I don’t think so, El. Look, we are on a planet now. Things are different. They have so much water here that they couldn’t use it all if they tried. There’s less than half a billion people on Parador. They’re never going to run out.’
‘But half a billion is a lot! We don’t even have a million and we have to make sure we don’t run out of anything.’
‘That’s because the Juggernaut is so much smaller. How do I explain to you how big a planet really is?’
Ellie shrugged. She wasn’t really interested either way, but she knew one of Malachi’s teaching moments was fast approaching, and this time there was no escape.
‘How long do you think it would take you to walk from one end of the Juggernaut to the other? The longest straight line. No gangs, no closed borders,’ he asked
‘If all the doors were open? I don’t know. Can I go through the middle?’
‘Let’s pretend that you can.’
‘Umm, four days?’
Malachi nodded thoughtfully, eyes still closed. ‘Four? If you walked here for a thousand days, you wouldn’t even be halfway round the planet.’
‘But that’s… a thousand? Are you sure?’
‘Ellie, I’m never wrong. You should know that by know.’
‘Except when you are.’
‘Apart from that.’
Ellie idly trailed her fingers in the water as she watched the crowds scurry through the square, wondering where so many people would have to go all at the same time.
‘Are all fountains this hot?’ she asked.
‘Most are cold.’
‘Why did they bother to heat this one up?’
‘It comes out the ground hot.’
She sniffed her wet hand. ‘It smells funny too,’ said Ellie. ‘Do you smell that?’
Malachi opened his eyes. ‘It does, doesn’t it? The fountain’s built on a hot spring over a volcano. It must pick up something underground.’
‘You mean the volcano which is definitely, definitely, not going to explode?’ said Ellie.
‘That’s the one.’
Ellie thought for a moment as her finger stirred a tiny whirlpool in the water. ‘So, the water is dew?’
‘No, this is a spring. It’s different.’
‘How is it different?’
‘It just is.’
‘But it comes out the ground?’
‘No. It’s different.’
‘But you said it comes out the ground.’
‘So why does it need to rain?!’
‘Did you just say ‘sigh?”
Ellie leaned over so she could kick him. ‘It’s unnatural, anyway. I thought nature was supposed to smell fresh and clean.’
‘What’s fresh and clean?’ said Tila, who had approached unnoticed. She had seen them relaxing – Malachi almost lying down on the dry side of the fountain – as she had walked across the plaza. Now wasn’t the time to relax. They had only just landed and they had a lot to do. Wasting time wasn’t on her agenda for today, and wasting time in a city which wasted money was certainly not.
Tila had already seen more than enough. The plaza, the fountain, the tiled footpaths, the carefully cultivated trees and plants which seemed to be everywhere, even the buildings around them – everything seemed to have been made with an abundance of effort and care. The buildings around them were stone and brick, not endless shades of metal with a rust accent. The walls here had been carved and decorated with romantic images of the lost earth’s past. It was a jarring experience after the metal rat runs of the Juggernaut.
The citizens of Parador had so much space that they had filled nature with a city, then filled the city with nature.
‘The smell of the fountain,’ said Ellie.
‘Ellie, everything seems unnatural to you,’ said Tila. ‘You’ve lived in a tin can your whole life. Now are you coming or not.’
‘Good, I don’t have all day.’
‘I’m not slowing you down!’
‘You’ve been sitting here playing with the fountain for ten minutes.’
‘We were waiting for you!’
‘Well, you could have been doing something useful with your time.’
Ellie had, without realising it, stood up and was squaring up to Tila.
‘What were we supposed to do? This is your adventure. We were waiting for you.’
‘You could have checked the public network for details of the people we want to see.’
‘Malachi’s the one with the datapad, why aren’t you complaining to him?’
Malachi waved his hands in don’t-get-me-involved gesture. ‘Hey, don’t bring me into this, I’m just making the most of the scenery. But luckily for you ladies I already found out where to go.’
He pulled out his datapad which connected at once to the public data network.
‘I found the names of the three largest backers of the mission, and all of them are based here in Caldera. There’s a Cho Suleman and a Simon Harrington close by. And another guy, Alastair Conway, is a little way out from the centre. He was the biggest individual investor. It’s your plan, Tila, so where do we start? The closest or the biggest?’
Malachi put the computer back in his bag and waited for Tila to decide. After all, they were here for her. Malachi didn’t want to be the one to push her in a direction she might not want to go.
‘What do you think, Mal? Who would want to know what we know the most?’
Malachi flicked through options on his little screen. ‘It all looks the same to me. I’d say follow the money, but they all have money.’
‘Then we start with the closest. Is that Suleman or Harrington?’
Malachi stood up and slung the bag over his shoulder. ‘Harrington.’
‘Do we know anything about him?’
‘According to the information I found he’s famous for pushing his workers as hard as he can but also makes big contributions to charities every year. I read that he personally funds orphanages on all four continents on Parador and all over Mirador as well. So, tough but fair I guess? Sound like a good start?’
Tila nodded, happy to be doing something.
‘Then we go this way,’ said Malachi.
‘We should be cautious though,’ Tila said as they set off. ‘Just because someone wrote nice things about him doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful.’
‘You don’t trust anyone, do you?’ said Ellie.
‘Most people aren’t worth trusting, Ellie.’
‘I think it’s sad you think like that.’
‘Yes,’ Tila agreed, ‘So do I.’