“When I make these kinds of trips I usually stay overnight,” Samantha said as she checked the glove of the environment suit to make sure it was properly connected. “Enjoy having the room to yourself at least for one night.”
“What’s it like? Flying out in the gasses I mean?” Jonathan asked.
“You remember when you went for your first jump a couple months ago?” She said. “It’s like that. Every single time.”
She picked up her helmet and began walking towards the door, but stopped partway there. She looked at the toy rabbit next to his pillow and furrowed her brow. “Jonathan…”
“Yes?” He asked.
“Do you ever feel like you don’t quite… I mean, like something is a bit…” She tried to get it out but failed. Giving up she shook her head and smiled to him. “Never mind, I’m just worrying about nothing. And look at the time, I’m already running late. Anyways, have fun, see you tomorrow afternoon probably.”
She finally walked out of the room leaving him to ponder her parting words. For a few hours he read up on some study material Master Gwain had given him. Finally there was a light knock at the door.
“Come in!” He called.
The door opened and Ella poked her head in to look around. “The coast is clear!” She said to someone waiting in the hall.
Ella, Jace and Doan all piled into the room shutting the door behind them. Jace dropped a small cooking plate with a tripod on the floor towards the center of the room. Doan set a bag down against Jonathan’s bed and began pulling out clear containers with various foodstuffs in them.
“What the heck is going on here?” Jonathan asked.
“When one of our roommates goes out over night we all have a bit of an overnight picnic of our own. Just remember to keep your voice down.” Jace said.
“Is it against the rules?” Jonathan asked.
“Don’t know.” Doan said, “And not something we want to find out so it’s easier just to keep the noise level down ahead of time.”
Jonathan discreetly hid the rabbit under his pillow then got down onto the floor to be at the same level as them.
“So, Ella, your going to hit four hundred hours in the next couple days right?” Jace said, throwing her a broad smile.
She nodded, but frowned. “I’m really feeling down about this one. The landings are still getting me.”
Doan shrugged, “Well it’s not that big a deal. The average apprenticeship time is two years, you’ve been here for what, ten months? There’s no shame in taking the test a few times.”
She looked at Jace and changed the subject, “I hear you got pulled onto office duty as Master Gwain’s page?”
Jace’s face went a little flush, “Yeah, I did. Still not entirely sure what I did to deserve it.”
Jonathan laughed, “Oh come on, you keep us running like clockwork. It completely suits you.”
Emma elbowed him in the side, “Keep it down.”
Jonathan grimaced a bit then grinned, “Right, sorry, sorry. So, what’s for dinner?”
“Diced potatoes and carrots, some chicken, and to top it off some Kerettine Mushrooms.” Doan said.
“Kerettine Mushrooms? What are those?” Jonathan asked.
“They’re a sugar crop, like beats or sugar cane.” Ella answered, “But well, their mushrooms. Their supposed to be really sweet when fried.”
He licked his lips, “Sounds great, can’t wait to try them.”
Master Gwain knocked on the door of the familiar container house. She was left standing for a long time before the door finally swung inward. The woman who had answered it looked up at her with dark sleepless eyes.
“What do you want, Margret?” She said roughly not bothering to invite her in.
“I need your help, Isabella.” Margret replied.
“Leave me alone Margret. Can’t you see I’m in no state to help anybody?” Isabella said, motioning to herself. She was wearing a plain tank top that looked as though it hadn’t been washed in days, and long sleeping pants that were fraying around the edges. Her arms were soft, lacking the muscle tone that all of the active Deliverers seemed to have.
“So you’ve gotten soft, you just need to get hard again. I can wait a few weeks while you get back in shape.” Margret said not backing down, despite being almost a head shorter than the woman.
“Oh, for… That’s not what I mean. Look, I don’t live the life anymore, Margret. I stay in. I watch my cats. I don’t go out fixing things for everyone who asks. Not anymore.” She said.
“And from the smell of your breath you also drink in the mornings now.” Margret said, but she held her ground anyways.
“Just a shot to numb the pain… look is this going somewhere?” Isabella asked.
“I’ve got an apprentice, bright kid. Right at the moment almost too bright, even for Kokkusawa. I’m good, but he doesn’t fly, he floats on the breeze like it’s part of him. Reminded me of you, back in the day.” Margret gave her a hard look then continued. “You’re still a part of the guild, and this kid needs a teacher that can show him how to really soar. I’m not asking you to come back, I’m ending your retirement, guild sanctioned from the top.” She shoved a clear data card into the taller woman’s hands.
Isabella deflated, “When do I report in?”
“I’m in a benevolent mood, so I’ll give you a month. Bright and early on the twenty second, and be ready to get out there and ride. You know I can be a hell of a lot scarier than any review committee so don’t even think of just taking the loss on this one.” Margret said.
Isabella sighed, “All right, I’ll be there. Anything else?”
“Nope that about covers it.” Margret said.
“Right, be seeing you then,” Isabella said then slammed the door shut.
Margret just chuckled.
“So how have things been going with your dad?” Jonathan asked, staring out at the cloud wall.
“Pretty bad, to be honest. Aunt Margret keeps trying to get between us, but I don’t think it’s really helping. We’re just even more at each other’s throats when she’s not around.” Mikael replied, also watching the clouds.
“You know, if you got into one of the guilds they could get you housing somewhere. Apprentices your age aren’t exactly unheard of.” Jonathan said.
“Margret says the same thing. Honestly, I’m happy with working like this. It gives me time to hang out over here, enough to get by and even put some away. And Dad wasn’t always like this… Who knows, maybe one day he’ll get that call he’s waiting for and it’ll all change for the better.” Mikael said.
Jonathan doubted it, but he rather got the feeling Mikael did to so he held his peace. A loud noise caught his attention, a bit further down the lane some children were horsing around. He shook his head to himself.
“So how are things going at the stall?” Jonathan asked.
“Actually pretty well. I saw Shanky the other day, she asked about you.” Mikael replied.
“Ah, I haven’t had a good chance to get over there in a while. Between my simulator hours and my jumps I’m kind of surprised I’ve even managed to get out here today.” He said.
“Well, she told me to remind you that her door is always open. You know, you sure have a way of making friends.” Mikael observed.
Jonathan laughed, “Nah, I just have a lot of interests.”
There was a scream from further down the street. Jonathan looked up just in time to see a young boy from the group he’d noticed earlier falling over the edge of the colony. Without even thinking about it, he was up like a shot running to the limit of the ground. In the next second he was off, falling through the sky. He didn’t have his goggles on, so the wind whipping at his face caused him to cringe and squint.
He saw the boy almost immediately. The boy’s trajectory was pretty bad. If he didn’t change course he would wind up floating into the clouds long before the anti-gravity stopped his descent. Jonathan pulled himself in close, minimizing his resistance to catch up with the falling child.
For a few long moments, he just fell, the lateral distance between them getting larger as the vertical difference got smaller. Finally falling far enough to get ahead he slammed his hands onto the green buttons deploying the jump wings on his uniform. He caught a violent crosswind and rode the edge of it towards the child. The interception went off without a hitch, bringing him within arms reach as the boy fell past. He grabbed the boy’s arm and got pulled down into his descent.
“Grab my neck!” Jonathan called.
“I’m scared!” The boy cried, tears streaking his wind chapped face.
“I know you are, and I’m here to help. But I need you to grab my neck!” Jonathan said.
“I… I can’t move!” He let loose a deafening wail.
“What’s your name?” Jonathan asked.
“Ja… Jacob.” The boy got out between sobs.
“Alright, Jacob, my name is Jonathan. We’re going to get through this. But I need you to trust me, can you do that?” Jonathan tried to remember his emergency response training but most of it seemed incredibly distant at the moment.
“I think so…” Jacob said, sniffling.
“Right, then just get one arm up around my neck, I’ll help.” He reached out for the boy’s other arm and got a good grip on it. It was difficult sliding the arm around his neck in the maelstrom of their fall, but finally he got it into place. The boy immediately pulled himself tight wrapping his other arm around.
“Great,” Jonathan said, though honestly he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to breath much longer. The wall of clouds that was coming up far too fast for his comfort became his more immediate problem though. He opened his arms wide and kicked out with his legs to get himself onto a horizontal plane.
Finally freed up to worry about gliding he realized that he was on a layer of winds pushing towards the cloud layer so he closed up again and dropped down a ways. As soon as the winds changed he opened up again, riding the wind in a gentle arc out away from the wall.
Looking around he saw a glider descending between them and the clouds. It soon turned towards them, barely effected by the coursing winds that it was cutting through. As it got closer Jonathan could make out a long line trailing out behind it. The rider, Journeyman Renolds, motioned to Jonathan to grab the line when he passed.
His first attempt missed, finding open air as the line snaked in the wind just beyond his grasp. Thinking quickly he extended his other arm and pulled the hand he’d tried to grab it with in tight causing him to roll closer to the pale blue cable. With a second grab he managed to get a grip on the cable just before the tip passed beyond his reach.
He held on with both hands as he suddenly became less of a glider and more of a wake board, cruising through the winds that the faster moving glider was breaking for them. “You okay Jacob?” Jonathan asked.
“Yeah…” Jacob said, finally looking around with wide eyes.
“Good, just hold on a little longer, we’ll get you back on something solid soon.” He smiled to the tyke.
Ahead of them a large airbus came into view. He motioned towards it, and Journeyman Reynolds gave him the thumbs up. Jonathan released the line and went back to gliding under his power. The bus wasn’t very off, and the currents around it were gentle enough for him to arc his way into a solid landing. Derek was there waiting for him, holding up his personal computer.
A hologram sprung into life in front of them. The hologram was of a business woman who immediately reminded him of Elizabeth, with strong features and dark skin. “Oh Jacob, you’re all right!” She said kneeling down in front of him. The hologram tried to touch his face, but pulled back when the image simply cut out. “Are you okay, are you hurt anywhere?”
The boy rubbed his bloodshot eyes, but put on a brave look, “I’m alright, momma. I was just a little scared.”
“Oh, I was too baby! Momma was so scared, but I’m glad you’re alright.” She smiled to the boy.
Jacob puffed himself up, “Momma doesn’t have to be scared anymore, Jonathan saved me!”
She looked up at Jonathan, “I can’t tell you… You saved my little boy. Thank you! Thank you so much!”
Jonathan suddenly felt rather sheepish, “Well, your welcome. But I mean, it was just the obvious thing to do…” In fact it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t actually thought about it at all. He mentally winced as he imagined what Master Gwain was going to say when he got back.
“Oh, stop that. You saved my boy, that’s not just an everyday thing. Tonight you’re having dinner with us.” She said, when he moved to protest she cut him off, “No buts! You’re eating with us and that’s final.”
A beep sounded from Derek’s computer. “Well, I’m going to have to let you go now Mrs. Senders. The Commodore himself is trying to get a call through.”
“Okay. Jacob I have to go now. I’ll see you just the second you get back up to the colony, okay? Momma loves you.” She said.
“Okay momma, I love you!” Jacob said. The hologram cut out. Jonathan guided the boy to a seat and got him settled in then turned back to Derek.
“You’re making quite the stir boy. Anyways, best not to keep the Commodore waiting.” He pressed a small button on his computer and a new hologram appeared. This time of a tall solidly built man wearing an overly ornate dark blue uniform. His dark hair was long and rested around his shoulders in a wavy mess, while his beard was long and bushy stopping just above his chest.
“So tell me, are you Jonathan Honor?” He said, narrowing his eyes.
Jonathan bowed as was appropriate for his station, “Yes, your honor.”
The Commodore gave a hearty laugh, “Stand up straight, young man. I’m not one to stand on formalities.”
He straightened his back, “Ah yes, your honor.”
“Now what I’d like to do is rake you over coals for running off half-cocked. Believe it or not we do have emergency services that are capable of handling these kinds of things.” He said, furrowing his brows. Jonathan shrank a little. “But I can’t do that. Turns out someone got a halfway decent recording of your little stunt, and the planetary network is already choking on it. I give it a week before it crosses the entire interplanetary web.”
Jonathan looked up at him confused, “I don’t understand…”
“You’re a hero kid.” The Commodore summed it up.
“What? I mean, I wasn’t trying to…” Jonathan stammered out.
“Exactly. You’re just the kind of hero people love, someone who jumps out and does it for no other reason than they could. Master Gwain and I are going to field interference for you with the press. You may still have to give an interview or two, my staff will make sure you know when you’re needed for something.” He reached up and pulled the visor of his Commodore’s cap down to hide his eyes. “And Jonathan…”
“Yes, your honor?” Jonathan asked, worriedly.
“I’m people too. You do us proud, now hurry and grow up.”
Master Gwain was waiting with Mrs. Senders on the landing pad. Jacob ran to his mother who gathered him up and held him. Jonathan smiled at the sight but was much more reserved as he approached the Master. From the daggers she was glaring at him, it was likely he was going to take that chewing out the Commodore had wanted to give him now.
“Ah, Master…” He began.
He was interrupted when she grabbed him in a crushing hug. “You idiot,” she said, “Don’t you know there are people here who worry about you too?”
Tears overcame him and he hugged her back, “I’m sorry…”
She broke the hug a moment later, “Alright, apprentice. If you’re determined to get yourself in trouble then it’s two weeks suspension, and half allowance for the next month.”
He drew himself up and nodded, “Yes, Master Gwain!”
Mrs. Senders walked over to them a moment later. She pulled him into another rib crushing hug, “Thank you.”
He blushed, “Really, I just acted without thinking. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
“Nonsense young man. Now dinner is an hour before dusk, I’ve sent the directions to your mail. No excuses, you be there!” She ruffled his hair. He watched her pick up Jacob and walk away.
“Well, sounds like you’ve got plans,” Master Gwain said. “I hope you’re not planning on just wearing your uniform?”
“Ah, I hadn’t really thought about it.” He said scratching the back of his head.
“My nephew is waiting for you at the surface level. I’m sure he can help you pick out something nice.” She put her arm around him and walked him to the elevator.
He reached up and knocked on the door with some trepidation. He still wasn’t sure exactly how he felt about the outfit that Mikael had talked him into wearing. The pants were straight, matte black work pants made of lightweight and flexible metal interwoven with synthetic cotton. His jacket was tan, and although made of incongruous pieces of surplus materials the design worked that to it’s advantage.
There was a certain degree of feeling out of place, though. The Senders lived in the lower sections of the tower, rather than in the container city. From the moment he’d first entered the towers he’d felt under dressed. The blue tinted glass that looked out across the lower city did give a spectacular view though.
To his surprise it was Elizabeth that opened the door, and the surprise continued when she immediately hugged him.
“Uh, hi. Am I at the right place?” He asked confused.
“Ah, yeah. Jacob is my little brother,” she said, pulling away bashfully. He finally got a good look at her. She was wearing red canvas cargo pants and a plain black work shirt, but she’d let her down so that her raven locks framed her face. They both stood there for a moment in awkward silence. “Well, uh, come on in. Mom’s been cooking up a storm. She even opened some of that strawberry jam she got imported from Titan.”
The mouthwatering smell of a veritable feast assaulted him. He happily followed her into the mid sized apartment. The walls of the apartment were powder blue while the ceiling was stark white. The floor was covered in a soft patterned material that reminded him carpeting even though it was obviously some sort of plastic. In the center of the room was a medium sized table, just large enough to seat the family and an occasional guest or two.
A few steps in he felt the impact of a tiny toddler freight train impact him. “Jonathan!” The boy screamed in delight.
Behind the boy a tall dark skinned man in orange coveralls walked out of what he assumed was a bedroom. The man looked at him with intelligent dark eyes and a stoic expression, then walked over and shook his hand. “You saved my boy. I won’t forget that.” He said, his grip warm but implacably firm. “I look forward to the day you get a glider of your own.”
Mrs. Sellers walked out of a conjoined room and placed a large pot on the table. “Liz, can you help me get this all out to the table?” Elizabeth shot him a smile then disappeared into the kitchen, leaving him with her father and brother.
“So I guess it’s only a matter of time before you become a Stormrider then?” Master Sellers phrased it oddly, but it sounded like a question.
“Well, I can’t think of anyone who isn’t working towards that in the dorms. I just hope I can do well enough to make it in.” Jonathan said.
Master Sellers smiled and clapped on the shoulder, “Don’t worry too much. You’ve already shown you’ve got the attitude. It’s just a matter of getting through the training.”
Before he could respond, Jacob pulled him away to show him something he’d done in class that day. A few minutes later they were all called to the table for dinner.
The food laid out before him was even more of a feast than he’d been expecting. There was a vegetable stew at the center of the meal, with two loaves of home baked bread. Each person at the table was given a small dish containing a ration of the strawberry jam that Elizabeth had mentioned earlier. He could tell that the butter that sat by the bread wasn’t the real thing, but it was clearly a higher grade of the synthetic than he was used to.
Dinner was hardly something to stop conversation for the Sellers. Though politely waiting until they’d finished chewing, they still managed a roving discussion around the food. Sometimes it was Mrs. Sellers discussing the inner workings of the commodities market she traded in, another time it was Elizabeth interrogating him about his ideal glider. This of course led to a long discussion about the advantages of the aerodynamics of a given set of stabilizers. To his surprise, Mrs. Sellers seemed to be as much a part of the technical discussions as her husband and daughter, showing an enthusiasts knowledge.
“Do you fly?” Jonathan asked her.
“Oh, I used to, it was a long time ago.” She said giving a sad smile. “Long before I met Joseph at any rate.”
“So where are you from, Jonathan?” Master Sellers asked.
“Johannesburg, Earth.” He replied.
“Brrr. Sounds cold,” Mrs. Sellers joked.
“It could be. We didn’t spend much time outside. It was better for everyone that way.” Jonathan said.
“Well, you get to spend a lot of time outside around here,” Elizabeth said.
He smiled, “Yep, good thing.”
It was a good meal, and the conversation lasted far longer than the food. Finally things wound down, and it was looking time to go.
“Elizabeth, why don’t you see Jonathan out.” Mrs. Senders said, nudging her daughter.
With a final round of goodbyes they slipped out of the apartment and into the waiting hall. Jonathan stopped to look out the windows. It was visibly darker out, but it effected the cloud banks far less than the colony that stretched out before him. Only the tower remained lit, the lower city had only the occasional light from someone still milling about after lights out. For some reason it struck him how peaceful it all looked from up here. He’d never been so high up after lights out.
“It’s a great view isn’t it,” she said.
“Yeah, even at this level it feels like you’re looking down at the whole world… I wonder what it’s like from higher up?” He mused.
“Well, we try not to let that part go to our heads,” she laughed.
“So tell me, why did you decide to join the Mechanic Guild?” He asked.
She shrugged, “Between dad and mom I grew up hearing all about gliders and some of the other vehicles used around here. Right before it came time to join a guild or take the exam I wound up reading one of my dad’s tech manuals. I was so fascinated by how all these pieces fit together I just had to go out and get my hands dirty.”
“So are you your dad’s apprentice?” He asked.
“Yeah, one of the perks of having family in the guild,” she said.
They began walking again.
“You haven’t said much about yourself, or your family back on Earth,” she said.
“Well, honestly I miss my parents every day. My mom was always supportive of me, and my dad made sure I stuck through things. I owe them a lot.” He said.
“Now that I think about it, how did you even decide to join the guild in the first place? Earth’s never been a big place for the Deliverer’s Guild.” She asked.
“My parents suggested it. My dad had always wanted to get into glider riding, but he really liked his research job back on Earth. So there were always videos of gliding competitions lying around the house. Before I knew it I was dreaming of what it’d be like to soar through the air, made it a pretty easy decision when they came to me about joining the guild.” He smiled wistfully.
When he got back to the room Samantha was sitting on her bed reading a book. He could almost make out the words of the page she was reading through the thin sheet of paper, but the ink soon shifted into the form of a new page before he could quite make out the words. Noticing him walk in she slipped the book beneath her pillow and stood up.
He smiled, but she whacked him in the back of the head. “That’s for doing something so stupid.”
He sheepishly rubbed his head and looked up at her plaintively, “But he was falling…”
“And Journeyman Reynolds was in the area, he would have caught him. Look kid, you’ve got to learn to pace yourself and follow procedure in these kinds of things. Going off alone to be the hero is the number one prohibition of the Stormriders.” She said, hooking a thumb at her environment gear. “So what did Gwain say about it?”
“She said I was suspended for two weeks with half allowance for a month.” He said looking at the ground.
Samantha whistled, “That’s pretty light, sounds more like a break.”
“But two weeks without any simulator time…. That’s at least fifty hours I’m going to fall behind.” He pouted.
She looked off to one side, as though trying to decide whether to say something.
“What? What is it?” He asked.
“Well there is a rumor going around that seems like it might be pertinent… But I’m not the kind to just spread rumors.” She said. He raised an incredulous eyebrow and received another, lighter smack to the back of the head. “You brat.”
“Alright,” he said massaging his aching scalp, “You’ve said this much you can’t leave me hanging.”
“Well word is they’re bringing Master Caemor back out of retirement to take over training here at Kokkusawa.” She said.
“Master Caemor… I remember that name.” He fell silent for a moment before continuing, “Jace said she was in the accident that left those marks in the landing area. He said she was the only survivor.”
“Yeah, it was a dark day around here. We don’t talk about it often. I don’t know if you’re ever going to get the full story on that one around here. Too much… well just too much. But Master Caemor, she’s brilliant. Broke all kinds of records as the leader of the Stormriders.” Samantha said.
He yawned, “Well then I can’t wait to meet her. But right now I think I’ll go get cleaned up.”
Determined to get some sleep before tomorrow’s wake up call he kept the shower quick. Before he left the bathroom he stopped in front of the mirror. He wasn’t sure why, after all he knew it was probably a bad idea to stare too long. Like always the face of a stranger stared back. He couldn’t exactly tell what was wrong with his reflection, nor could he say that the person in the mirror wasn’t him… He just couldn’t recognize himself. As he always did he shrugged it off, must be a puberty thing.
Isabella leaned back on her seat a fine sheen of sweat covering her from her workout. She flicked her wrist signaling the computer to play the video again. Seeing him immediately jumped in brought back painful memories and her chest tightened. From the initial jump to the way he broke their descent, it was all achingly familiar.
She poured her sports drink into a tall etched glass, but stopped about three quarters of the way up. The rest she filled with clear liquor. She spun the glass in her hand partially stirring it with the force of inertia then took a drink. The familiar numbness came back to her limbs and she could finally relax.
A pair of mail notifications blinked on her computer. She opened the first one, just an acknowledgment that the guild had hired the Mechanic Guild to get her glider out of storage and back to fighting trim. Then opened the second one. Samantha popped into holographic existence before her.
“Look I don’t know if you’re going to get this… Oh hell,” she turned away from the recorder to mess with something out of the recorder’s range. “What I man to say is,” she said turning back towards the recorder, causing her to stare into space just above and to the left of Isabella, “I want to know if it’s true. Are you coming back? I tried going by your place a few times but you never opened the door… Last time… I was a kid, and I see that now. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I… Well my feelings haven’t changed.” The recording of Sam smiled sardonically, “You were wrong, I never really did move on. Just… Just let me know if you’re coming back. I really miss you.”
A tear fell down Isabella’s cheek. The hologram cut out a second later, the message finished. She took another drink.