The heavy glass door smoothly slid aside with a digitized beep and a pneumatic whoosh of air. Laren Botner walked into the cool lobby of the circular room, along the central corridor toward the main desk, practically dragging her eight-year-old daughter, Arora, along with her.
"Mommy, I don't want to do this," her daughter whined. "Can't we do something else?"
"Something else?" Laren replied incredulously, looking down at her pleading face. "Arora, sweetheart, we've only been on the waiting list for this for about eight months now. You're going to love the beach; I know I did at your age. It's fun."
Arora smirked, shaking her head defiantly. "Times have changed, Mom. The beach isn't the blaster thing to do anymore. Can't we go to the jet-rink? I would love to get some laps in."
"Sorry, dear," Laren answered her, shuffling her beach towel, sunscreen lotion, and holo-book to one overwrought hand as she searched her carry case for her reservation. "We're doing this, and that's final."
Her daughter opened her mouth to say something else, to somehow get that final word in over her mother, but one silencing look from Laren put an end to that. She resolutely crossed her arms over her own beach towel as they approached the crescent main desk.
Laren fumbled the reservation from her case, almost succeeding in dropping everything else, and slid the transparent plastic card through the compu-scan machine. There was a series of clicks, and the soft whine of a transistor firing up, and then, three seconds later, another card popped out of the upper slot. On it, it read: Gate 16- 45 minute allowance. Have turbo-fun!!
Laren quickly placed this card in her case, making sure that Arora was following her as she made her way around the main desk. They walked through an interconnecting gateway of sloping passages, each of them constructed of tampered steel and lit with the impersonal glow of fluorescent light strings. Passersby bustled this way and that, going to or coming from their own destinations, paying no mind to Laren and her daughter as they shuffled to Gate 16.
Laren thankfully dropped her items near the entryway to Gate 16, bending down to read the digital readout that confirmed room conditions were adequate and stabilized. She once again took out the card she had received from the compu-scan, and, with a glance at her daughter's moody eyes, slid it through the open slot of the readout. Another digitized beep, another whoosh of air, and the door slid aside.
Laren walked into the room with her daughter, taking a deep breath. Not that there was really anything to smell, but it was still nice, in its own way. She plodded along the sand, thermatically cooled by condenser units buried two hundred feet underground so that it didn't scorch the skin off the bottom or their feet, and laid her blanket down on it. Arora positioned hers beside her mother's, and looked around the enclosed room.
Three surrounding walls were still constructed of the same tempered steel as the passageways had been; only painted a dull blue to mimic the appearance of sky. The sand beneath their blankets was the actual ground, safely partitioned from the outside by the deeply entrenched walls and the barrier shield in front of them. The roof set high above, more steel, but a lighter alloy, contained a skylight constructed of heavily polarized, ultraviolet protected glass that shimmered with a rainbow of prism colors from the sun.
The barrier shield was the ingenious morphing of heat-absorbing plastic and rigid liquidized steel support bars, making it impervious to the outside elements, but still able to look through. It was slightly warm to the touch, an incredible feat considering the temperature during the twenty-hour day was consistently close to 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Didn't I tell you this was great?" Laren asked her daughter, activating the holo-book and removing the cloth coverings over her feet.
Arora took a disinterested look at the barrier shield and what lay beyond, craned her neck up to the skylight, and shrugged indifferently. "It's okay, I guess," she finally commented, noticing the holo-book. "What you reading?"
"It's a collection of short stories that somebody self-published a long time ago," Laren answered, pulling up the story entitled "The Man and His Dog". Laren wasn't quite sure just what a dog was, but she hoped the author had at least provided a good description.
"Can I see it?" Arora asked sweetly.
"I don't think it's really something for you, sweetheart. They're scary stories."
"I looovvveee scary stories," Arora commented, putting a small hand on her mother's arm. "Pleeeaassseeee..." she begged.
With a sigh, Laren handed the slim tablet over to her daughter, who adjusted the font to an easier-to-read format, and lay down on her towel, absorbed in the text of the story.
Oh well, Laren thought to herself. I came here for the beach, anyway. She looked through the barrier shield, feeling privileged that she could take this opportunity to catch a glimpse of the surface world.
The orangey-red sun easily covered two thirds of a sapphire sky, cloudless now that it was too hot to generate water vapor. The sand on the other side of the barrier laid flat, swept clear of dunes by massive wind storms that had plagued the earth an unspeakable time ago, and then, some time shortly after that, died out completely. Visible strands of steam curdled up from the dark brown surface. And, at a safe distance further away, the ageless and expansive sea lolled in gentle crests that rose and trickled to the shoreline, sizzling as the boiling water crept along the scalding pockets of sand. It was hard to believe that anything could survive in the acid wash of the ocean, but-
As Laren thought of it, a tubular shape burst from the flat horizon of the ocean, greatly miniaturized by the unfathomable miles of distance between Laren's vantage point and the creature itself. She knew that if, somehow, she could stand beneath the monster's towering neck, it would be taller than her own perception of tall, challenging the very ceiling of the sky itself. It moaned with a sound that wasn't entirely unpleasant, and then vanished again beneath the flowing surface.
Laren began to wonder what it was like, ages upon ages ago, when people could actually go out there, play in the waves of the ocean, and smell the salty air. Back when a medium known as radio was still possible, unaffected by sunspot activity. Back before an expanding, and dying, sun swallowed planets historians referred to as Mercury and Venus. And she knew that it was still hungry, with Earth next on the menu.
Arora startled her from her thoughts by throwing the holo-book in her mother's lap. "I'm done now, how much longer do we have?"
Laren glanced at the readout card, which had changed to display that there was thirty-five minutes left. She told her daughter this.
"I'm bored," Arora complained, shutting her eyes and pouting her mouth, still reclined on the synthetic material of her towel.
Laren decided to ignore her, picking up the holo-book for a moment, then putting it down and closing her own eyes, making a supreme effort to enjoy the time she had left.