Peter A Dixon

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The Juggernaut | Chapter 11

The Juggernaut grew like a tumour. In fact, a tumour was the best metaphor anyone had come up with to describe the Juggernaut. It grew slowly, without thought or design, and was big, ugly, dangerous and unwanted.

The original kernel at the heart of the city had long ago been lost to tons of metal which had accumulated around it.

Like an oyster layering nacre around an alien particle, the Juggernaut too had grown, skin by skin, blister by blister, into the titanic beast it had now become. It shared the same process without producing the same beauty.

The Juggernaut attracted wrecks and husks of old ships like refuse did to flies. As more and more people from nearby systems found themselves among the low ranks of the dispossessed the demand for living space grew rapidly.

The increasing population brought with it a commensurate increase in the need for power, light, food, raw materials and the hundred other things on which a city feeds.

But the city never stopped feeding. Never stopped growing. Its impossible hunger could never be sated. The only option was to add more ships.

In time this mantra became ‘add more anything’, and residents soon welcomed a diverse array of hulls and structures which quickly became part of the city.

This growth happened slowly, and, without any central government or oversight, it took place haphazardly.

In the long years since the first two ships were fused together the city had grown in bumps and bulges, fits and starts.

The fastest growth occurred near docks and ports as new parts were layered around the most convenient places for ships to land. In time these areas became entirely rimmed with habitation and the ports began to resemble metal craters on an artificial moon.

The next logical step was to enclose these craters entirely. Once sealed and pressurised, they became bubbles of life and beacons of hope. Beacons which attracted the hopeless.

Eventually, inevitably, the new growth would cover the old, further burying the past in the artificial stratum of cable and steel.

And so the city grew.

Some unconscious instinct of design had meant the city had grown longer than wider, and wider than taller.

From a distance the Juggernaut appeared like a giant flattened and misshapen potato, aligned along its vector.

But despite the hope and home it offered to hundreds of thousands there could be no happy ending in store for the city. It lived in a decaying orbit and tumbled slowly through space with nothing able to stop its growth, or its eventual impact with the sun.

No one could stop it, so they called it the Juggernaut.

In space there is no up or down, and yet human ingenuity, boundless and resourceful, had found a point of reference. The orbital plane of the star had become the compass by which starships sailed. The solar north became up, and the solar south became down.

But the Juggernaut was no space station. It had no planned orbit. It spiralled through space, so there was no common up or down on which to agree.

This meant that it was not uncommon for travellers on foot to have to adjust themselves to the local gravity field.

So, it was a wise and wary traveller who paid close attention to the clues before them. Dirt and debris gathered unnaturally in a corner, or corridors lit from the side, rather than from above, would all be signposts that the conditions ahead may not be as expected. The next airlock could see the floor become a wall with one step.

Tila had spent days and weeks exploring the regions around New Haven and had trained herself to become alert to all the subtle changes in the environment. She was a wise and wary traveller.

Malachi spent most of his time in the workshop elbow-deep inside an engine. A wise and wary traveller he was not.

“Humph,” he said as he fell sideways against a wall which had rudely and suddenly become a floor. From his point of view Tila and Ellie appeared to be standing on the wall.

He had stepped into a gravity shelf set at ninety degrees from the previous room. His down had become his left in the space of one footstep and gravity had grabbed him and pulled him sideways at an irresistible nine-point-eight metres per second. Then it had dumped him, ungraciously, on the new floor.

The girls supported each other as they manoeuvred more carefully into the new gravity zone. Tila made it look effortless as she seemed to roll from one section to another without missing a beat.

“You could have told me,” he accused, rubbing his elbow where it had knocked against the wall. Floor, he reminded himself.

“That’s right, I could have,” Tila agreed. “But Ellie asked me not to.”

Ellie’s jaw dropped.

“I did not!” she said to Tila. “I didn’t,” she repeated, this time for Malachi’s benefit.

“What did you say then?” Tila challenged.

“I said what if you don’t tell him?”

“See?” said Tila.

Malachi brushed himself off and climbed to his feet.

“Har-har,” said Malachi, not laughing.

“Where to now? This passageway splits up ahead,” Tila asked.

“I’d check the map but I think my arm is broken,” Malachi complained.

Tila clapped him on both shoulders. “You seem fine to me. Are you sure you can go on?”

“I’ll manage.”

He pulled his map free and worked out their location. Despite Tila’s joke he knew she was still concerned. She wouldn’t be making this journey, this deep, without a good reason.

Malachi thought she was overly worried about finding the ship. He didn’t think it would amount to anything. Ship names were reused all the time under different ports and registration authorities. So what if there was another ship named Far Horizon? It didn’t mean anything.

What had happened to her all those years ago was tragic, he wasn’t denying that, but he hoped she would have the sense to realise that this was going to be a fruitless chase. He knew grief could be a powerful motivator, but he had always thought of Tila as the strong one of their trio.

The map showed they were still on the right path. Their destination wasn’t far. The only thing still nagging at him was that their path had led them so deep inside the Juggernaut, far deeper than he would have expected for a ship that had only arrived in recent weeks. Not only that, but if it was from the Far Horizon that would only make it about twelve years old, and who would abandon a ship here that had barely a decade of use?

So it must be a different ship, an older ship, he told himself. It was the only thing that made sense.

“This way.” He pointed toward the left passage at last. “It’s this way.”