Labyrinth: Excerpt from Chapter 19

After a minor catastrophe forces the Jacobsen family to move to a new settlement, Amber and her mother get a tour of the place. Having spent her whole young life within the cozy spaces of habs, settlement tunnels, rovers, and suits, Amber finds certain parts of her new environment a bit unnerving at first.

Margolis led them down a set of steps to floor level, then to another large bulkhead door.  Inside the door was the chamber of an  airlock, one large enough to drive a small rover through.

As they entered the airlock into Bubble 1, Margolis muttered something into the small object strapped like a watch to her wrist.  Amber only caught a quick glimpse, but was sure Margolis’ MA was a new Holst Informatics Onyx 3.  She could only hope her new job paid enough for her to buy one of those.

The door behind them swung shut, and the one in front of them immediately opened — it was pressurized on both sides, so there was no need to pump down or suit up here, but the small difference in pressure made her ears pop.  Like the emergency bulkhead at the entrance to Main Street, the airlock was a safety feature against catastrophic depressurization of the bubble above.

Walking up the long ramp into the bubble, Amber thought she knew what to expect.  After all, they had had a greenhouse at home…arguably the prototype for this one.  This one was bigger, of course, but how much different could it be?

She looked up at the narrow slot of sky visible between the walls lining the ramp.  The tint of the translucent membrane overhead gave the sky an alien hue, a pale red-blue, not quite Martian or terrestrial, but somewhere in between.  It was far enough above that she didn’t notice at first that anything was there at all — it just appeared to be a strange-colored sky.

But it wasn’t the size or the color of the dome that made Amber look around, slack-jawed.  As she reached “ground” level, she stepped into a world she had only imagined before, based on pictures, vids, and her parents’ descriptions.  She stopped, astonished.  Is this what Earth is like?

The openness made her stomach knot.  She had no problem with open spaces while out on the surface, suited, but this was very different.  Here she stood unprotected at the edge of a grassy field a hundred meters on a side — larger than any open place she had ever been without a suit.  Worse, there was much, much more volume beyond the end of the ramp, where instead of grass there were long ranks of trees and assorted crops stretching into the distance.

She gulped and squeezed her eyes shut.  The nausea and unease gradually passed.

Looking up again, she could see the sky for what it was:  a multilayered translucent membrane some thirty meters above her, curving down to the waist-high anchorage wall.  Just inside the anchorage was a deep recess where the windows of the residential area below were located.  Construction details  — crisscrossed tension-stay wires, broad light panels, small clusters of sensors here and there — brought the bubble into a manageable but still unsettling scale.

Towards the near end of the bubble, the grassy field was bounded by a concrete trough filled with assorted bushes and flowering plants, sunflowers mostly, carefully arranged and meticulously manicured.  Amber looked at the dark green carpet stretched out in front of her.  “Is it real?”

Margolis giggled. “The grass?  Of course.  Try it out.”

She hesitated.  “I’m not going to hurt it, am I?”

“No,” her mother laughed, giving her a playful nudge forward.

Amber took a few cautious steps. Even through her slippers, the ground felt strange, spongy.  The floor is actually alive! She pulled her slippers off and ran her toes through the soft, slightly moist blades.  Imagine a whole planet like this…so full of life you can’t go anywhere without seeing it, touching it…or stepping on it. She closed her eyes as she walked gingerly into the field, imagining she was on that lush planet, instead of a world carved with great effort from a cold, dead wasteland.  Opening her eyes again, she felt a fleeting twinge of disappointment.  True, the Green was a little spot of paradise in the middle of the barren Martian desert, but no matter how real it looked, it was still only a simulation of the real Earth.  The thought tempered her delight…but only slightly.

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