Of all the Dome festivals, the Autumnal Processional was surely the gloomiest for Maire. Elegant and well-oiled, the rotund young men and women who were unattached paraded down the Grand Esplanade, mincing and bobbing and ogling each other for the Winter Pairing under the approving eyes and cheers of their families. Maire, unattractively underweight, and still unattached at twenty, had given up on the whole humiliating spectacle. She had never once been beckoned by any of the portly young gentlemen of clans high or low and had never experienced the giddy roar of public approval that was the right of every fetchingly dimpled and amply rounded girl who bobbed in acceptance of a young man’s beckon.
“It is an unpleasant set of circumstances when family connections detract from one’s status,” her mother hissed between her teeth as they sat at the sidelines. “The discomfort is even more poignant when one’s family fails through lack of their own efforts. It is not a difficult thing to eat sufficiently.”
“I try, Mother. Really I do.” Maire had been through this many times before. She had to put up with poorly concealed public scorn and disgust at her gaunt appearance as well as endless nagging at home. It didn’t help that her little brother was already adorably chubby. His round little body already held bulk enough to last through even the longest winter sleep.
“Nor should one think of discomfitting the family in our Vault this winter. It is most unpleasant to be disturbed in the Sleep. If one can’t sleep and- you know you can’t, then let other people sleep in peace.” Her mother turned away and gave a little cheer as her niece bobbed tentatively in the direction of a youth of the Latimers, not quite as round as Maire’s cousin but of status high enough to make up for any lack of girth.
Maire sighed. In another week, the Dome families would take to the comfort of their beds in the cozy dark Vaults for the Winter Sleep. Maire had never been able to gain enough weight to stay asleep through the winter and so had to spend the long dreary months alone and above ground, scavenging for food. The courtesies of the Dome prevented anyone from openly calling her a freak or waster of resources to her face, but she knew that plenty of malicious gossip went on behind her back. She heard it herself later that week at the Feast of the Nightcap as nutmeats and sweetmeats and berry trifles were being packed away by the crowd composing themselves for the long night.
Maire had just helped herself to a walnut pate when she heard a newly beckoned Althorpe girl say, “Well, I think it is a waste. It doesn’t do her any good and every bite she takes is food wasted that could go into the stomach of somebody who could put it to good use.”
Maire flushed and pretended not to notice. One more day and they’d all be down in the Vaults and she’d have the Dome to herself until the Rites of Spring. It wasn’t so bad, really, being alone. The Dome was somewhat cold in the winter, but it was the quiet she minded most. Except for the twittering sparrows, scavenging like her, there wasn’t a sound. Even the ardils hibernated in leaf nests high in the great nut trees that brushed the top of the Dome.
Sometimes she climbed to the top and touched the chill nacre of the Dome ceiling, one hand holding onto the slender branch that rose and fell beneath her as she shifted her weight. She loved the feeling of being high up in the Dome. Once she got thirty or forty feet above the ground she could see past the encroaching ice that covered the lower sides of the Dome. This year the ice rose even higher than the year before. Once up above the ice she could see for miles and miles, a vast snowscape of one white hillock after another. At times she imagined that she saw solitary figures trudging through the snow but how could that be? Who could survive outside the Dome in winter? This year winter seemed to come on in a hurry and hard, with the translucent Dome wall frosting over early. Maire shivered and climbed back down.
Two weeks later she was amusing herself bobbing and weaving down the Grand Esplanade, waving to an imaginary crowd when she heard an odd slamming noise and felt the air pressure change around her. She scrambled up the nearest tree to look around but saw nothing amiss in any direction. Then she smelled smoke. Maire climbed down and went to investigate. A small fire was burning right in the middle of the Portcullis Plaza and a man stood beside it, stripping off layers of clothing. He was as skinny as she was and decidedly a stranger.
She approached him in indecision and waited till he had pulled his parka off. He jumped in surprise when he saw her.
She crossed her arms and looked away. “An uncomfortable situation has arisen. A person may not be addressed without acknowledgement of family and rank. Here is a person without reference to either!”
He sat down and extended his feet to the fire. “Hey kid. You gave me a start. Never been in a Dome before where there was anybody awake in the winter. What’s the deal?”
Maire looked at him in confusion. His speech was unusual and hard to follow. She tried again. “A person low in the hierarchy can scarcely be spoken to. How much more so when one does not appear to hold any rank whatsoever!”
“I hear what you’re saying, kid, but I can’t say I understand what you’re talking about. What’s your name? Mine’s Vance.” He held out his hand.
Maire looked at the hand warily, uncertain as to its purpose. Had he given her his family or personal name? What honorific was she to use? “One is of the Creightons having been given the personal name Maire.” She bobbed a general bob, noncommittal as to rank or station.
“What you doing awake in winter, Maire? Your kind hibernate all winter. I figured to have this place to myself while I repaired my kayak. Taking a risk, though, with the ice so high on your Dome. Don’t want to be in here when the whole thing comes crashing down.”
“The speech of the one known as Vance is difficult to comprehend. What is meant by a kayak and why should it come crashing down?”
“A kayak is my boat. Whale upset me out in the sound. That’s why I had to shed my clothes and warm up. But I wasn’t saying the kayak would come crashing down. I was talking about your Dome. You know you’re about the only one left, you here at Woolaburra and the Dome over at Kilgore? Raumati and Paraparaumu both collapsed last winter.”
She still didn’t understand him. “The Dome is not a thing that comes crashing down, like a tree branch. The Dome doesn’t move.”
Vance gestured to a nearby bench and she sat. “You know there were other Domes, right? You don’t? What do they teach you?”
Maire gestured an elegant flick of the wrist. “One learns what is to be learned. Deportment and grace. Proper gastronomy and courteous speech. The rankings of clans and families.”
“And how the Dome was built and how to care for it? No, that’s stupid of me to ask. Great Bear! If you Domers were still being taught that, you wouldn’t have neglected the ice wall so long. I’ll show you. C’mon!”
Vance stood up and when Maire didn’t respond, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her. “Sorry, kid, this is something you got to see for yourself. Your life is on the line, you know?”
He dragged Maire through the Portcullis door and into the Lock. “Ever been in here before?” He gestured at the suits hanging on hooks and the racks of long handled tools. “Know what these are for?”
Maire shook her head. “We don’t come out here. It’s cold and uncomfortable. It would not be a thing to do that reflected decorum.”
“Well, those are outside suits and the tools are, were used to clean the ice off the Dome. Your people used to do it first thing every Spring. To keep the ice from building up like it is now and crushing your Dome.”
“Go outside? I don’t think anyone would want to do such an unfashionable not to say uncomfortable thing. I’ve never heard of anyone going outside. Even in summer it’s chill outside and there are great beasts.”
“I know there are beasts. I’ve seen them. Last year I saw a bear swimming across the open water of the sound, three miles from shore. Scared me silly. But what I’m trying to tell you is your people used to go outside and care for your Dome. It’s something that had to be done to protect the Dome. Now they don’t even know how to do it or how important it is.”
“The Dome does not need protecting. The Dome protects us.” Maire was getting irritated with this outside man saying nonsense things about the Dome.
“ Listen to me. You have to have seen the ice creeping up your Dome wall. Is it higher than it used to be?” Vance took her by the hand again, an unseemly thing.
“Yes, it’s higher. What of it? Every year the ice advances and retreats with summer and winter, and every winter it is a little higher but this has not harmed the Dome. This is proof in itself that the Dome cannot be harmed. The Dome is everything.”
“Well, in the old days your people cleaned the ice off every year to keep it from building up to a point where it was so thick that it would be dangerous. If they don’t like being uncomfortable it’s no wonder they just let it go. Scraping ice isn’t lazy man’s work. Sorry to say it. It’s beyond the point where anything can be done about it now; looks to be about four feet thick, I’d say. No, your Dome is going to come crashing down soon. Maybe this winter, maybe not till next or the year after. Hard to say with these kinds of things.”
Vance led the way out of the Lock back to the little fire he had kindled. He sat down to fillet a couple of fish he had brought with him. He looked up at her and smiled. “Mmmm, grilled fish. Care for some?”
Maire shook her head and shuddered. She had seen the edge of the ocean from her perch high up in the nut trees and had heard it said that there were things that swam in it. To eat them seemed so gross and uncivilized. Besides, her mind was whirling with the crazy things this outside man had said against her Dome. That her Dome could fall and that her people had gotten too soft and lazy to take care of it! She fell back on what she said before.
“”Your assertions are fantastic and plainly wrong. A tree can fall; the Dome does not. If a tree falls, a sapling takes it place. Thus there will always be trees. The Dome cannot fall. The Dome has always existed. It will always be there to protect us. This should be obvious to anyone with eyes.”
Vance popped a piece of fish into his mouth and chewed. After he minute he said, “You should come with me. You seem like a nice kid. No point in sitting around here by yourself and waiting for the end. You don’t want to die, do you?”
She raised her hands to cover her ears. “These words are not the words of a courteous gentleman. No person of rank and distinction speaks of death.”
“Not talking about it won’t keep it from happening. Great Bear, kid, I’m telling you, there’s a rich life out there on the water, following the coast line. All the fish you can eat, seal too. Endless freedom, fresh air, new sights. There’s a whole string of friendly villages along the coast! Aren’t you bored being cooped up in here? Wouldn’t you like to see new things?”
These words stung Maire. She was bored! She had never realized it before this minute. Suddenly the thought of one more long dreary winter alone in the Dome, one more summer season filled with the empty, vain babbling of the self-centered Domers seemed unendurable. But to go outside! To give up the easy, sophisticated life of the Dome! She temporized.
“Perhaps I’d like to go with you someday. I would like to see new things. But I don’t know how to live that life. So not just yet. Couldn’t you come back and get me when things get dangerous? Everything is fine here now. Perhaps later.”
Vance got up and brushed himself off. He held his boots over the fire until he was sure they were dry. He smiled again at the girl and shook his head. “Can’t say I’ll be back. I’m taking a risk every time I visit your Dome. I trade a bit with Kilgore but their ice isn’t as far gone as yours. Look, you won’t get any warning. Everything will seem fine until the Dome comes crashing down and everyone inside will die under the impact and the weight of the ice. It will be too late then. So if you don’t want to come, it’s goodbye. Seems a shame. I think you are one of the few Domers who could make it outside. So it was nice meeting you, kid, and I hope it’s quick and painless for you when it happens.” Vance pulled his boots on and then a sweater. He took up his parka and hesitated. He looked at her with a sad smile. “So goodbye, then.”
At that moment Maire knew he was telling the truth and that somewhere in the back of her mind she had always known the encroaching ice meant doom for her people. “Don’t go! Wait!”
Vance smiled again. He had an easy, winning smile and the laugh lines etched deep in his face told that he was a kindly person. Maire felt drawn to him.
“I don’t know how to live on the outside! I don’t know where to begin!”
Vance went back to the Lock and came out with a suit. “Put this on. We’ll go to the nearest Village and everyone there will help teach you. C’mon, no dawdling. There’s no time to waste. Any minute could be the last for your Dome.” Vance helped Maire suit up and walked beside her, encouraging her as they entered the Lock and stood before the outer door. He pushed the door open and they stepped outside.
Ä blast of wind hit Maire and knocked her sideways. Even in the protective suit, the knowledge of the cold communicated itself to her body. She looked inquiringly at Vance. He took her hand.
“The cold? Lean into it. You have it into you to make it. You’ll do fine. You’re free now, Maire! Glorious Freedom! Let’s go find out what lays ahead.”
They went together into the storm.