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In Endless Times

“You know… Most of your species would be on their knees in prayer right about now.” The man said as he took a seat in the bunk across from me.

“They think there is a god to hear them. I know there isn’t.” I replied.

“Hmm, I suppose. Still, even if there weren’t you’d think you’d want to hedge your bets before the end, right?” He asked.

“A god that would allow me to hedge my bets isn’t worth praying to.” I said.

“I see your point.” He said.

I want to ask him why he’s here, what he wants. I don’t. He will either tell me or he doesn’t want me to know. If the former then he simply needs to get around to it, if the latter then I can’t force it out of him.

“He was right. You do have a beautiful mind.” The man observed.

My eyes locked on the man’s face. It was concerning that he’d know that much about my recent life. Even the prosecutors of my trial hadn’t been so well informed. “Was he? I had thought that was merely a manipulation.”

“You let him manipulate you. Why?” He asked.

I shrugged. “I was hurt… Broken. I didn’t mind striking back at those who caused me pain. Besides it was… Amusing to see someone convince themselves that they were in control of me just because I didn’t disagree with them.”

“Did you know that the common theory was that you were scapegoated? It seems people are rather convinced that he must have come up with everything himself and just told people you’d developed it.” He watched, looking for a reaction.

Pride is a difficult thing to swallow. That people would honestly believe my intellect to be lesser than that moron’s galled me. Still, they didn’t exactly matter to me. My work had cut a bloody path across three continents. If I was fine with their deaths I could hardly complain of their idiocy.

“No.” Was all I said out loud.

He didn’t say anything for the next few moments, just watched me. I simply kept my breath even and tried to continue my meditation. Clearing my mind was impossible. I’d learned that long ago. Instead I simply allowed the constant flow of thoughts to wash over me.

“I’d like to give you another chance,” He said. “Another universe, some resources. I’d like to see what you can build.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite an offer.” I mulled it over. Questions like his ability to deliver were immaterial. He had somehow transported into an isolation cell in a high security women’s prison. Resources far beyond what I was used to were a certainty. Lying was also immaterial, he was either telling the truth and I had something to gain or he was not and I had nothing to lose. Instead the more fundamental question was whether or not I should take such a chance at all.

I could hardly argue that my present circumstance and coming execution were anything other than just recompense for my actions. But they were so because I had denied the common order of this world in the first place. Simply lying down to die for the peace of mind of those I hated made no sense.

While I may have been a monster, I was the monster they’d made. The karma of their ignorance and hatred consolidated in a single being that happened across the means of striking back. Would they truly learn if they felt the matter concluded? Would they think, change, and correct themselves if they believed justice had brought the matter to conclusion?

For better or worse I’d walked this road. I would not see it end now if I could help it. Let them hurt, perhaps they will eventually learn.

“I accept,” I told him with a nod.

“Excellent.” He replied. A pad of paper and a pen appeared on the bunk next to me. “I’ll let you leave one last message.”

————————————————————

Cynthia Reynolds sat down to check her email. Covering the recent trials had been tasking. There was something fundamentally draining about dealing with fanatics. They had their beliefs and they stuck to them no matter what and in the face of all evidence. Still, they usually liked to talk. It irked her that her articles had a single noticeable hole in their coverage.

She raised an eyebrow as she realized that one had been forwarded to her from an anonymous drop email. Such things were typically thought impossible, but more than a few cryptography experts had bent their mind to the problem. With enough data points to cross-reference they could still be broken, but her sources were very careful to use it as rarely as possible.

The body of the text said little, simply directing her to the attachment. With her laptop’s out of date capabilities it took a moment to load the image file, but once she did she almost dropped the pen she’d had in her teeth.

It took her almost half an hour to read the entire document. The logic was labyrinthine but followed from one point to the next building its case like the trial lawyers she’d been listening to for the last three weeks. Each point held alone and proven in isolation, then smaller groups brought together and interconnected.

A chill ran up her spine as parts of it had her nodding in agreement. Something written by a woman compared to Himmler shouldn’t make so much sense. But she did… Awful, horrible, bone chilling sense that made her nauseous as a matter of course. She barely noticed when her husband entered the room.

“Cyn? What’s wrong?” He asked as he noticed how pale she was.

The woman took a moment before answering. “I… I’ve been dealing with these fanatics for so long I forgot.”

“Forgot what?” He asked resting a comforting arm around her shoulder.

“Fanatics make it so easy to spot it. So easy to sit down and say this is us and that’s them. We’re good, they’re evil.” She said.

“Well, from what you’ve been telling me it is pretty clear that these wackos are evil.” He replied.

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I forgot. It was so easy to forget… Evil doesn’t have to be obvious, doesn’t have to be insane.” She shook her head. “Sometimes evil people make themselves sound so reasonable. Like it was all so obvious and the rest of us just haven’t figured it out yet.”

“This.” She said pointing to the document on her screen. “This is evil.”

He nodded and held her tighter. “Well, it’s not much but it’s not like she can hide forever. They’ll catch her eventually and when they do she’ll burn with the rest of the heretics.”

She gave him a slight smile. “Yeah… Yeah you’re right. Someday she’ll burn.”

“Great, now what do you say we go catch a movie? Something to cheer you up.” He smiles and gently drags her towards the door.

“Sounds great.” She answered and followed along with a light chuckle.

There are endless ways that one can measure a person or one’s self. One of my favorite songs makes special mention of this, ’525,600 minutes’ indeed. For a person with emotional problems I’m sure the answer is almost always ‘by whatever yields the least.’

For the time being I’m going to work on a series of blog posts that I’m going to call Disconnects. They shall have comments disabled as they are not for the purpose of open discussion. More simply they are musings, placed on this back shelf of the internet should someone ever find them of use or interest.

And my first musings are on identity… Or at least the measures I take of my own identity. There is room in this topic for identity politics, but oddly I don’t actually want to get into that. Rather this is about my identity and consequently how I measure it.

My father was a workaholic. Perhaps not to the most fearsome extreme where he abandoned his family for his job, but a wholly different extreme where he was incapable of leaving work at work. His job was his life, at work, at home, weekdays and weekends. He didn’t especially love his job, and made it quite clear that any job would get equal fervor… It was simply his concept of how to live. The few times that home life became a part of his life it was again through the lens of work.

This time it would be work around the house, home improvement, moving bedrooms, fixing cars. It didn’t matter so long as there was a project. Of course since these were not projects for his employer, not that that usually stopped him much either, his children were his swiftly conscripted helpers. Now this would probably not be so terrible if he didn’t have a temper and a profuse desire that things be finished in a single session or as close to it as possible. To be a slow moving and thoughtful child who didn’t always understand everything he said meant I endured a great deal of his anger as a child.

Yet in the end a lesson was instilled. He intended it to be along the lines of ‘You must work if you are to have worth’. I’m sure he would have been perfectly satisfied if that was exactly how it was understood, but as I said, I was a thoughtful child. My lesson, the enduring truth that I came out of my childhood knowing, was that your worth was equal to your work.

If your work is great, your worth is great. If your work is pointless, you are pointless. Is it wrong? This commutative relationship between work and worth is unhealthy at the best of times, destructive at the worst. I know few others who would find working as a middle manager of some corporation a suicide worthy state, but for me it certainly is. To be a germane worker has become a fate worse than death… Or rather always was in my mind.

Its self sabotage on a terrifying level. Yet it is a fundamental part of my existence. It instills in me a drive to excel or die trying, yet leaves me vulnerable before the worst of fate’s barbs. In reality, failure is always an option. So should I be seeking relief or thankful for strength I have found in adversity.

As is so often the case, I am quick to leap without a chute… And just as quick to reap the consequences.

So my dip into the shallow end of crowd sourcing failed to wow me, but it didn’t completely disappoint either.

I made $120, less than half of the $300 target but more than enough for a case of mountain dew. In the total breakdown, there will be 3 honorable mentions and one person getting a character of their own within the game.

The best part of it all is that the extra money gave me a few more days. In those days I managed to find a way to revamp the way static menus look, rebalanced the classes slightly, and changed out my music selection. (Who knows if that last one is for the better though…) The time has been invaluable, and the spare two liter of Mountain Dew hasn’t hurt either…

Now I need to decide between ordering a pizza and replacing my dieing ram… decisions decisions… To be more serious, I’m hoping the game will get enough at auction to purchase a whole new development computer. So in one sense spending the money on ram could be a total waste. On the other hand it could be the stitch in time that I need to keep going. Hard decisions approaching.

I’d like to start, if I may, with a list. In this case a list of all the game influences I noticed as I played. Also I’d like to note… I find this to be a good thing. I like design that gathers up disparate mechanics and recombines them into something better than the sum of their parts.

1. WoW
Some definite WoW love here. You could point to the art style which marginally apes it, or the quest system which comes eerily similar while still being better. Personally though, I’d have to say it’s the environment design and the camera angle which seem to be what really give the strong WoW flavoring here.

2. Thief Series
Seriously, someone should give the guys who worked at Looking Glass a medal. Pretty much everyone who has a stealth system has cribbed from them either directly or indirectly. Now KoA doesn’t seem use the exact thief system but it does seem to use a truncated version without the bread and butter light system*. It’s a good choice, the game’s strong action focus and well designed encounters mean you don’t spend much time missing it.

3. Fable 2/3
Might, Finesse, and… damn I forgot what they called it exactly, meh it’s magic. Point is the three tiered melee brute, skilled ranged/speedy fighter, and mage are a pretty clear grab here. They certainly use their own take on it with a unified leveling system rather than the “you are what you do” of the Fable games. They also have the ability to toggle whether or not you can attack NPCs. (killing quest givers for fun and catharsis…) You could make the argument that combat is based largely off of the Fable series, I think it’s certainly the closest analogue. However the combat system itself is too much of an amalgamation for me to point to any one game as having done more than inspire it.

4. Diablo 1/2
Oh yeah that leveling system, the one with points where you buy levels of bonuses and new abilities but in a very spread out non-tree kind of way… Yeah, that’s pretty Diablo.

5. Bethesda Games
Didn’t know which game to credit so their whole line-up, sans Brink, gets credit on this one. So there I was on a quest to kill a troll for a hunter woman to get a ring and she decides to join the fight. That was great, right up until she died and I failed the quest. Such a classic Bethesda moment, but alack, this is KoA. Also the world is open to exploration, but honestly it’s in a fashion far more reminiscent of WoW (go anywhere but through tightly enclosed spaces) than of Skyrim (go anywhere, no really).

6. Guild Wars
The big “omg it’s Guildwars” moment for me was when I used one of my abilities and it consumed some of my max mana pool to sustain the effect. It’s a small touch, but a rather cool one.

These are the ones I noticed, I’m curious if anyone else knows of any others. For instance I didn’t get into the crafting at all so I may have missed a few games in there.

http://youtu.be/TSy-Z-9pLKM

The Game

Laired is a never ending dungeon crawl at it’s core. On top of this you layer a system of collectable and upgradable heroes, of elementally themed advancement, and a good layer of character rebirth. Finally throw in some arcadey upgrades in the dungeon and what you get is a proven classic that feels unique all over again.

Laired expands on the principles of early genre founders like Wizardry and Gauntlet, but with as much cruft as possible removed to leave a game that plays both cleanly and fun.

Laired is a dungeon crawler built on distilling down that fundamental contradiction of dungeon crawlers: Preparation vs. Dungeon Dive.It builds on that to create a game in which the player is constantly faced with the choice between returning to town for more permanent advances, and staying in the dungeon with whatever temporary bonuses they can find. To do this it casts away from the traditional xp and item mechanics, borrowing instead from arcade and point buy systems.

Right now about another month worth of development is forecasted before taking the game to auction.

The Story

Ever looked up into a store window, eyes wide, starstruck by the wonders inside. Well Sapphire has. She looked up at those delicately carved figurines and knew she wanted them. It was a fierce need, rather unlike any need she’d felt before.

Unfortunately for her, Sapphire was a pixie and pixies don’t use human money. Distraught at the thought of their slipping through her grasp she ran into the forest looking for something of value she might barter. Some thing that would shine bright enough to make the shopkeeper smile wide and hand her the small figures. And strangely enough she found it.

A gold disc had been embedded in the very back of a cave wall. She was far too young to read the writing around the disc. Something about darkness. Without a second thought Sapphire pulled down the disc and trundled into town. She’d have the figures, the shopkeeper would have his shinies and the whole town would have their monsters… wait, monsters!?

Contribution perks -
$5
Get your name in the special thanks section of the credits.

$35
Get hand drawn concept art sent to you in the mail. (Please send contact info to sara.pickell@gmail.com)

$100 – Limit 4
Be added to the game as a hero character.

Funding Bonus Goal Rewards

As a motivated creator I have a laundry list of tools and assets that I’d love to have around for future projects. Meeting larger funding goals allows me to do that and allows me to spend more time on Laired guilt free. Every time a goal is reached a new set of 3 hero characters will be added to the final game.

Bonus levels -

$800

$1200

$1600

Putting The I in Team – About the Developer

Laired is a dark beast in it’s own right, clawing it’s way forth from a single developer. Sara Pickell lives in a single bedroom, working half the day on game production and half the day fighting back the termites that threaten the room’s continued existence. A biography of their life would be a strange and twisted book, including years of depression, some homelessness, and the challenges of growing up as a queer Mormon, who also happens to be bipolar.

But enough of that dark stuff, she also loves music and dancing and games and making games. She can’t imagine not making games, so she’s not going to try.

Why this isn’t on kickstarter-
Because if this only raises enough for a case of mountain dew… that will still make the final product measurably better.

Word Count – 2138

It was two weeks of his usual life before there were any major changes. One day he walked down to breakfast and there was another person there. He recognized her from the jump class, though she seemed far less vital this morning. The dark circles under her eyes were even deeper than they had been then. She didn’t move to speak with the recruits until after breakfast though.
“I’m Master Caemor, I’ve been placed in charge of your training from now on. Doan, Ella, you two are the closest to getting on your own gliders. I’ll be spending my mornings with you two. After breakfast and until lunch. Jace, you’ve got my afternoon. Jonathan you’ll be my evenings. Friday we do combined flight training in the mornings, ride alongs in the afternoon. Saturday are my remedial, right now that’s Jonathan.” She rattled off the information without inflection.
Jonathan swallowed, “Remedial?”
“You’ve been given too much free reign. Tell me, can you even do a dive into a headwind?” She asked him as though annoyed he were wasting her time.
“Well… no I guess I don’t really know how to do that. Can’t you just-” He began.
“Just find yourself without options.” She cut him off. “You’re my student, you learn the basics. Know the basics by heart, then you can build the rest.”
The other students shot him commiserating looks, but stayed silent. He looked down blushing.
“Doan, Ella, simulators. You two,” she pointed to them, “Are reporting to Journeyman Renolds for your daily chores.”

Jonathan was set to glider cleaning while Jace was set to more mundane cleanup. He couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it was going to be a much more lonely chore today. To his pleasant surprise, though, Joseph and Elizabeth were there making last minute adjustments to a pair of gliders he hadn’t seen before.
One was a two seater. He could tell from the smaller elements of the design that it had been built within the last few years. They’d probably shipped it in new. The other though was far more fascinating. It’s design was classic, at least a hundred years old, but the parts were all polished to look brand new. It’s base color was a decadently dark purple, with minimalist golden trim. There was something about it that spoke to him. He couldn’t help getting a better look at it.
“A real beauty, isn’t she.” Elizabeth said walking up next to him.
“She’s… amazing. Is this Master Caemor’s glider?” He asked.
“It’s what she rides when she goes solo. It was a family heirloom. Three generations of her family were all in the Delivery Guild. It saw it’s first tour of duty in the skies of Loremond, with her grandmother. Then her father brought it to Andora back when they were first getting the colony established. Around here she’s considered good luck. Been in the skies for every major disaster and saved a lot of lives in each of them.” Elizabeth said. “This was the first glider in service with the Stormriders, back when it was more Stormrider.”
He ran his fingers along one of the stabilizers. For a second he could have sworn it hummed under his touch.
“I’ve never been one to believe in machines having souls, but you know… I get the distinct impression that it likes you.” Elizabeth smiled to him. “You know, she hasn’t been given a proper washing since she arrived. I think you can prioritize giving her a scrubbing.”
He smiled back to her, openly grinning like an idiot. “I’ll go grab the soap rags.”

Isabella walked around him inside the simulator, floating in midair. It would have been absurd, but she’d set their course for an ultra low altitude run through the Grand Canyon. He was far too busy reacting to the unpredictable flows of icy air to care where she was.
“Use your flaps! The winds are not your friend, they are a beast to be harnessed!” She shouted.
He careened around a curve too fast and found himself facing the wall. He turned hard and slid sideways looking for an updraft, but instead he got stuck in a downdraft and pulled down into the wall. The room turned dark.
“What did I just say!?” She shouted.
“Use my flaps.” He said glumly.
“You’ve made it this far by trusting your instincts, but they won’t always be right. You’ve got to know the right thing, not just feel it.” She said. “Look you know everything I’m going to say, just keep running this until lunch. Use your flaps, know what you’re going to do before you do it!”
The door slid open and she walked outside, into the false brightness of the hallways lights. She heard the door close behind her but didn’t turn around. Looking around for company she slid a small vial out of her pocket and downed the contents, the clear vodka burning her throat as it went down. She shook her head to bring herself back to attention then slid the vial back into her pocket.
“Is that your first for the day?” Margret said, surprising her.
“Second, if you’re keeping track. It’s stressful being back here six days a week.” She said. She gave Margret a defiant look. “Little enough I can still fly if I want to.”
“Do you want my applause for getting it down to a fixation from an addiction?” Margret said. She then shook her head, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. You get me saying a lot of things I don’t really mean.”
“Like till death do we part? Yeah, noticed that a long time ago.” Isabella couldn’t help the dig. The pain in Margret’s eyes made her immediately regret it though. “Look, before we rip each other to shreds, was there some reason you came down here?”
“Seems to me like you’re being too harsh on him. Conditions up here can be pretty bad, but Grand Canyon? We don’t have anywhere around here he’ll face that kind of obstacle course.” Margret said.
“People who don’t know the fundamentals make mistakes when the time comes. Mistakes that cost lives.” Isabella stared off into nothingness for a moment, but soon felt Margret’s hand on her arm.
“It wasn’t your fault! If they had followed your lead and rolled with the cross wind all three of you would have made it.” She said.
“And if I’d stuck to my basics like they did, they both would have lived.” Isabella shot back.
“And YOU would have been smashed across the side of the colony and killed. Nobody asked you to make that kind of sacrifice.” Margret said.
“I did.” Isabella replied. “Look, either way, the kid is going to know all those things I skipped over because they weren’t as fun.”
“Well let’s just hope you aren’t also destroying something unique and beautiful in the process.” Margret said, casting a worried gaze at the simulation chamber.
“Let’s hope.” Isabella repeated.

Jonathan lay spread out across his covers staring up at the ceiling. Even as he lay there he couldn’t get the layout of the Grand Canyon out of his mind. Briefly he wondered how much the Big Freeze had actually changed it’s topography. Very briefly. The entire last two weeks had all been Grand Canyon runs. The winds were fundamentally different, requiring a more active hand. He still hadn’t gotten to the point where he wasn’t using the winds, but he was getting better and disengaging before a wind became dangerous.
“What the hell am I supposed to be learning from this?” He wondered aloud.
“How not to die a horrible death.” Samantha said walking out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. For some reason it no longer effected him to see her naked or nearly so.
“Not sure I follow. Seems like all I’ve been doing in the simulator is dieing a horrible death.” He said.
“There’s a lot of sense in what she’s saying. People like you act without thinking. You just figure there will be a draft there to catch you, hell you can feel it in your bones. But that’s not always the case, sometimes the wind works against you. This can lead to you staking everything on your instincts, only to find that this time you were wrong, and this time it matters.” Samantha said.
“I don’t get it, the wind’s not my enemy.” Jonathan said.
“It’s not your friend either. That’s the point she’s trying to get across.” Samantha said.
When he bothered to look back over she was already fully dressed in her uniform. “You have a route tonight?”
“Official function, everyone Journeyman and up who isn’t working a route will be there.” Samantha replied.
“What’s it about?” He asked.
“Oh same old stuff to me. The importance of safety, the role of the various guilds in the safety of the colony. A little award show at the end. Stick with the guild and you’ll see a million of them, not much to get worked up about.” She said.
“So that’s why you’re putting on your best perfume and doing more than a few seconds of make-up?” He retorted.
“Well, just because the occasion isn’t much doesn’t mean the company is boring.” She said.
“So you’re going with somebody?” He asked.
“More like I’m trying to attract someone’s attention. Wish me luck!” She said.
“Good luck!” He said.
He settled into the silence after she left, pulling out the toy rabbit. He wasn’t entirely sure why he kept it, but he knew it was important. When had he gotten it? Had his parents given it to him? No, that didn’t seem right, so why couldn’t he remember when he’d gotten it?
He remembered the antiseptic halls of the hospital. It had been such a long time ago. He remembered now, he’d gotten really sick when he was six. They’d taken him to the hospital, his mother had cried the whole way. Was it an illness? He didn’t remember, he’d just felt so bad.
Why had he forgotten that? Maybe that’s just what it meant to get older. He couldn’t remember the faces of the children he’d played with as a child, maybe it was just one of those things.
He shoved the rabbit back under his pillow and lay there staring up at the ceiling. The training course played through his mind again. Swinging around tight corners and barreling through straightaways. No matter how he tried, he always crashed somewhere on the course though. It frustrated him.
The open sky always seemed so free. Is this what Stormriders had to face? Those skid marks returned to his mind. Something had happened, and two people had died while Master Caemor had lived. Was that really what this was all about, making sure he never wound up as a skid mark.
Distracted he let himself slide mentally in his run of the course and something clicked. He finished the course once, then twice, then three times. He shot out of bed and rand down to the simulators. It may get him in trouble, but he had to see if it would work. See if he was right.

Samantha wandered out onto the covered opening, looking down the precipitous tower side. She looked to Isabella, “Get too hot for you inside?”
Isabella looked up at her, “Open your link to the guild’s intranet and check the latest simulation recordings.”
She did as she was told, though she had no idea what the older woman was getting at. Looking at the time frame she groaned, “That idiot, he knows it’s logged.”
“It doesn’t matter, just watch.” Isabella told her, leaning comfortably against the railing.
The personal computer projected the recording directly into her eyes. She watched as the boy began the course, riding roughly in the harsh winds. He kept at it though, sliding into the turns with a strange lilt. She almost dropped the wine glass she’d been holding though when he made the most difficult turn with a twisting roll. He controlled himself so that he sliced downward through the crosswinds catching the draft he wanted on the other side.
“That’s… I mean, I’ve seen a few professional racers use that trick. How did he even learn that?” Samantha asked.
“He’s a natural whose been pushed to the edge of his ability to learn.” Isabella said.
“Was this what you were trying to get him to do?” Samantha asked.
“No… But I can’t talk about the training wheels anymore after this. At the very least, it’s proven he’s finally grokked the basics.” Isabella looked at the ground and shook her head. “What am I going to do with that kid, Sam…”
She chuckled and threw a friendly arm around the older woman, “You’ll make him shine.”

Word Count: 2813

Jonathan lugged a pair of boxes up the stairs, a duffel bag swinging around behind his back. It was slow going, trying to make it up to the fourth story without losing his balance. Finally he made it to the top, and was grateful to find the door already open for him. He slid inside the container apartment and carefully set the boxes down by the door. Looking around he took in the chipped white walls, and the small blue covers blocking appliance connections.
Mikael came in behind him, even more overloaded with four boxes. “Here, let me help with that,” Jonathan said, grabbing a couple boxes off the top.
“Thanks,” Mikael said. “And hey, thanks for helping me with this whole move.” Mikael put his boxes down. The tanned young man was out of uniform, wearing long wide shorts and an open front sweater. His dyed green hair was pulled back into a practical ponytail.
“No problem, I just wish you’d let me do more. I get banged up and they just shrug it off, you break a nail and you could be putting your job in jeopardy.” He said.
“Oh you’re being over dramatic about it,” Mikael said, but he reflexively checked his long nails for damage. “Besides, you’re not as disposable and you make it out to be. I heard from my aunt that you’re having your first on-video interview in a few days.”
“Well, even so a few scrapes and bruises will just add to my rugged charms.” He said. “What even made you decide to move out anyways? Last time we talked you seemed pretty committed to riding it out at your dad’s place.”
“Honestly… the last time we talked. Watching you jump off the colony after that boy, no hesitation… I thought I could use some determination like that. You know?” Mikael answered.
“That was only a few days ago…” Jonathan looked at him surprised.
“I’ll just say that this wasn’t the first time I’d been out looking for a place to stay and leave it at that,” He said. “So, what do you think?”
Jonathan looked at the empty space not much larger than the room he shared with Samantha. A variety of descriptors went through his mind before he picked out the one that seemed right to say at the moment. “Cozy…”
Mikael laughed, “Yeah it’s a bit on the small side.”
“So are you just going to keep working at the stand?” Jonathan asked.
“I’ll keep going on with it for a while, but I’m also taking some business management courses. Getting this place didn’t cost me that much, I’m still a good ways towards buying out a place of my own.” Mikael pulled out a rod as long as his shoulders and pressed a button, dropping the bottom to unfurl a portable mirror. “You don’t have anywhere to be anytime soon, right?”
“That’s about the sum of it, why?” Jonathan said.
Mikael pulled the chair he’d moved in earlier over by the mirror, butting up against the sink that was below it, “Then let me give you a make over. You’re like perfect material.”
Jonathan blushed, “I don’t know…”
“Oh relax, nobody outside this room has to see it. We can just wash it off once you’re done, I’ve already got the water turned on.” Mikael gave him puppy dog eyes, “Please, I need the practice.”
“Yeah right…” Jonathan said. With a sigh of defeat he sat down in the chair and looked at the sink.
Mikael spun him around pulling up a seat of his own. “No peeking until the end… You know, I didn’t think it was possible but up close your eyes are even bluer.”
“Is that a good thing?” Jonathan asked.
“Oh hell yes.” Mikael said. He reached over to the duffel and pulled out a large makeup kit which he set on his knees. “We can emphasize the eyes against the pale skin and frame it with your black hair. Now hold still while I apply the foundation.”
The foundation was a cool liquid that Mikael applied with his hands, gently rubbing it around to cover most of his face. He could feel a slight tickling sensation on his skin that made him want to twitch, but he kept himself contained. “All right now say ah.” Mikael instructed. He opened his mouth wide, but felt the noise was unnecessary. The lipstick felt waxy as it was applied to his upper lip. He could taste it slightly but it didn’t really have a taste he could identify. “Okay, go mm,” Mikael said pursing his lips together to give him the general idea. Jonathan did as he was told, actually slightly amazed when some of the lipstick transitioned to his lower lip. Next came a series of pencil like applicators around his lips and eyes, followed by the blush.
He had to close his eyes for the mascara and eye shadow, the thought of having anything that close to eyes made him skittish for some reason.
“Hold still, we’re almost done.” Mikael said. He used a small brush to put the finishing touches on the make up and finally leaned back to take in the whole view.
“Are we done, can I get a look at it?” Jonathan asked.
“No, now we do the hair!” Mikael laughed.
Jonathan rolled his eyes. Mikael stood up and pulled out a brush and a handful of hair clips. Jonathan winced the few times the brush found a tangle in his hair. It didn’t help that it felt like Mikael was downright pulling his skull out trying to fix them. After a good brushing the clips went in, the pattern felt haphazard to him, but he guessed it would be something he’d just have to see when it was done. Finally finished Mikael walked back around in front of Jonathan and took a good look.
“Wow, you’ve got something… just wow.” Mikael whistled in appreciation. “You know, while you’re on suspension you could always help me out with the stand…”
“That would just cut into your profits wouldn’t it?” Jonathan said giving him a questioning look.
“Are you kidding, with you there I could get in three times, no four times as many customer.” He replied.
“It can’t be that good.” Jonathan said.
“Take a look,” Mikael swung the chair around for him.
Jonathan forgot to breath as he looked at the woman in the mirror. Her long dark hair fell in waves down one side of her face, the other side being held back by an ornate flower clip. Pale blue lipstick and eyeshadow lightened her face and emphasized the startling blue of her eyes. Long dark lashes completed the look, giving even her amazed stare an almost sensuous air. But more than anything, Jonathan recognized her face as his own.
His chest knotted in fear while a weight lifted from his mind. He giggled at first, then teared up. He turned to Mikael, his vision blurring slightly, “I can look like this again?”
“Yeah, absolutely! We can do it every day during your suspension if you want.” Mikael was surprised by his exuberance.
“Let’s do it!” Jonathan said, staring into the mirror. “Let’s just do it.”

Although his suspension had him out of uniform, he still went down with one of Derek’s classes after finishing his day at the stall. The timing had been too tight to wash off the makeup or do more about the skimpy service uniform than pull on his jacket. To his surprise Derek didn’t seem to recognize him as he got on the bus.
He decided to watch from the open upper layer of the air bus. This time it was a more advanced class, so he could get the chance to see them do some interesting maneuvers. Across from him there was a woman he didn’t recognize that also didn’t have a jumping suit. She was tall with dark hair almost the same shade as his. Dark bags hung under her eyes, but she seemed intensely alert.
The jumpers had already left the bus and it was now sitting below the stopping layer for people. It surprised him when she actually stood up, shaking out her long pants and zipping up her tight vest. She put her hands in her pockets, stood up on the seat and jumped off the side. He watched her fall for a few feet before the anti-gravity really kicked in flinging her upward into the open air at incredible speed.
His eyes couldn’t help but be glued to her as she soared through the air. Even without the flaps of a jump suit she kept complete control of herself. She twisted her legs, using them as flaps against the wind, keeping the force of a wind she wanted to ride against her center of gravity. From insane in place turns to sharp descents, she went through a whole set of tricks surfing on the winds. As he watched he slowly began to understand what she was doing, how each twist interacted with the slipstream itself.
Unlike the gliders that tried to ride as high as possible, she would deliberately dive deep down into the anti-gravity’s control to be shot back into the sky. To her it was not a safety net, but a massive technological trampoline that she could use to regain lost air whenever she needed. It reminded him of what Samantha had taught him on his first jump, but this woman had refined it to an art form in it’s own right.
She came in with the other jumpers after the lesson had ended, though she was clearly far more worn. Derek walked up to her, “Hey, Isabella. Hadn’t seen you in so long I didn’t even recognize you until you got into the air.”
“Yeah, it’s been a long time.” She stretched out, “Almost a decade now, since my last little outing.”
Derek nodded, “I was still just a part of the class back then. Can’t say I’ll ever forget it, but it was ten years ago. I figure bygones can be bygones and all that.” He stuck his hand out.
She took it, and gave him a half smile, “Thanks. I know I didn’t earn it.”
He shrugged, “Well seems like you’ve got a round two. Make the best of it.”
“Yeah, I guess I do.” She smiled. “That reminds me, I assume you know something about this recruit they’re bringing me in to train.”
Jonathan reached up to toy with his hair, watching the clouds roiling in the distance while the airbus did it’s best impression of speeding back to the colony.
“He comes around, from time to time. He’s still rough but fun to watch. It’s like he’s putting raw emotion into his flight, reminds me so much of you sometimes it’s scary.” Derek laughed.
He wondered for a moment who they were talking about. Maybe he needed to get down here more often.
Derek changed the topic to old times and they spent the rest of the ride back talking about things that didn’t catch his interest.

Jonathan sat down on the smooth curb, laying his legs sideways to avoid damaging the long skirts. Unlike Mikael, the uniforms he wore while helping out with the stand were always quite modest. Long purple skirts with intricately laced jackets seemed to be the oder of the day. “So remind me again why I can’t wear something cooler?” Jonathan asked.
“Because you’re still fourteen. Getting you out there in skimpy skirts would just be creepy. Besides, you’re doing more than well enough as you are.” Mikael took a seat next to him, the stand closed for the moment. “I haven’t been this busy for this much of the day in a long time.”
The woman who worked the shaved ice stand across the way from them walked over with two colorful balls of shaved ice. She handed one to each of them and gave Jonathan a big wink, “I don’t know where you’ve been keeping her, Mikael, but she’s quite the secret weapon. Sales are up for the entire street.”
Mikael put his hand on Jonathan’s shoulder, “Well don’t get too used to it. My friend here is just on a vacation from their guild, they’ll be back at work soon without us.”
She pouted for a moment, then smiled, “At the very least, don’t be a stranger. Come by whenever you like.”
“I will,” Jonathan said softly. He couldn’t help smiling. It felt like the smile was just welling up inside of him, trying to break out.
A familiar figure turned onto the street, only a little ways from them. Master Gwain had apparently cut her hair, the white stood out more against the orange with her roots exposed by the pixie cut. She caught sight of Mikael and marched down the street towards them apparently all business.
“Mikael! Robert told me you moved out.” She said coming to a stop in front of him.
“That’s right I did. We need our space so I’m giving him some.” Mikael said, holding his ground.
“Mikael…” She actually took a seat next to him. “Look, your father is going through a tough time right now. Leaving him alone may only make things worse.”
Mikael leaned back looking up into the sky, “It’s not like I’m not you know. Dad wasn’t the only one in our family who loved mom. But all we do now is fight, he doesn’t go to work and I can’t hardly speak to him.”
She sighed, “I’m sorry, Mikael. I didn’t mean to… I just… Sometimes I forget you have trouble too. You’re too damn solid all the time.” She laughed to herself. “Look, I’ll move in with Robert for a while. He may not listen to you, but he damn well knows better than not to listen to his big sister.”
Master Gwain looked over at Mikael then her eyes wandered to Jonathan where they pretty much immediately stopped. “Jonathan!?”
“Uh… hi?” Jonathan squeaked out, feeling his cheeks burn with the fire a thousand suns.
“He wanted to help me out around the stand. I thought it might keep him busy while he was still suspended.” Mikael said.
“Is there… something wrong with this?” Jonathan asked. He couldn’t help worrying that he’d broken some sort of unwritten rule.
She shook her head and gathered her wits before speaking again, “No, there is nothing wrong with it. I was just surprised. And you, I’m willing to bet you added a little push of your own. You are compensating him correctly, right?”
“More than right. He doubled my business on the first day and today he tripled it. Keep going this way and I’ll be making five times as much by the time he comes off suspension. That’s the kind of boost you make sure to do right by.” He said, hooking his arm around Jonathan’s shoulders.
“Right…” She said.
“Hey, I heard Aunt Isabella was coming out of retirement.” Mikael said.
“Aunt Isabella?” Jonathan asked, feeling like he’d heard the name before.
“She would be Master Caemor to you. And the answer is yes, she is.” Master Gwain said.
“Are you two going to…” Mikael trailed off.
“No. We’re not.” She looked wistful and turned her gaze to Jonathan. “Whatever was between us, it’s long over. There is no point reopening old wounds.”
“Should I give you two some space?” Jonathan asked. He felt as though he were beginning to intrude on things he probably shouldn’t be hearing.
“What are you talking about. You’re practically family at this point, Jonathan.” Mikael said.
“Yeah, you are…” Master Gwain said. She shed a tear, only noticing it once it was rolling down her cheek. “Oh… Oh, I’m sorry. Anyways, I should be getting back to work. You both take care now.” She hurried off.
“Well… I sure messed that up.” Mikael said.
“What? I don’t understand, what just happened?” Jonathan said. He felt confused and worried, had he been wrong after all?
“Aunt Margret and Aunt Isabella tried to have kids of their own once. They got into some experimental program for fertilizing an egg with the genetic material of another egg. I mean it was more complicated than that, obviously, but point is it was totally experimental. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, none of their contributions wound up being viable. I was just a kid then, but it’s kind of obvious looking back that that’s when things between them really started going downhill.” Mikael said. “And now I feel like a total jerk. I mean, you’re just the right age.”
Jonathan thought about the hug he’d received just after saving that boy. It suddenly made a whole lot more sense to him now. “You know, suddenly I know exactly what you mean.”

5024

“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.

4950

“Ah my ears!” She said rubbing the sides of her head. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a loud voice.”
“But… but…” Jonathan stammered, “You’re naked!”
“Yeah I was just in the shower, what did you expect?” She brushed it off, and proceeded to pull on a pair of panties she’d left lying on the bed. “Look, you room with someone, it’s close quarters. Just expect that. And don’t worry about me seeing you. First of all your just a kid, and second of all, I’m not really into what you’ve got.”
“Uh…” He was floored. There wasn’t really any response he could come up with.
“Anyways, the name is Stephanie, I assume you’re my new roommate?” She said extending her hand out while her other hand was busy clasping her bra.
“Uh, yeah, I’m Jonathan. Nice to meet you,” he shook her hand. Her grip was stronger than his and for a moment he thought his hand might be crushed.
“Alright Jonathan, you’ve probably got the next few days off. Take a look around the place, talk to people. You’re going to be here a while.” She pulled her tan uniform on with an ease that seemed to defy physics. “I’ve got to head off and start my run. The bottom two drawers are yours, as is the shelf over your bed, feel free to settle in.”
“Right, thanks for explaining.” He said, too overwhelmed to come up with any questions.
“Hah, I bet your head is spinning. In any case I’ll be back in the morning.” She said one hand on the door handle. “If there’s anything you need to talk out, I’ll be around then.” With that she was gone, jogging down the hall.
Left alone in the room with nothing but his things he began to unpack. He unzipped his carry on and pulled out his most personal treasure. The toy rabbit was soft to the touch, a layer of off white suede sewn over a soft pseudo plastic. He couldn’t actually tell what it meant to him, but he had held on to it like it meant life itself. The wear around the edges, only made him love it more. It went in pride of place by his pillow.

Jonathan wandered down to the public room at the foot of the stairs. A trio of apprentices were all sitting there, engrossed in other things. One, a girl, was reading a technical manual on cloud skimmers with rapt attention. The other two were boys and were playing a game of Shogi. The boys saw him first and stood up to introduce themselves.
“Hey, you must be the new guy. I’m Jace,” the one closest to him said. His smile lit up his green eyes, and gave him an almost airy feeling from his platinum blond hair.
“I’m Jonathan,” he said shaking the boys hand.
“My name is Doan,” the dark haired boy behind him said extending out his hand. His manner was reserved, but he gave a shy smile that softened his appearance considerably.
“Her name is Ella, and once she’s started in on a book she might as well be in a comma as far as the outside world is concerned,” Jace said hooking his thumb towards the girl. Jonathan thought for a moment that he had seen her glance up at them, but it was far too fast to be sure.
“So how long have you all been here?” Jonathan asked.
“I’ve been here for about three months now,” Doan answered.
“I’m closer to five. Don’t worry, we’ll try and get you caught up double time.” Jace said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“So I hear you’re from Earth.” Doan commented, “What’s it like coming from the home world?”
Jonathan thought for a moment then threw them a wry grin, “cold.” This time Jace gave him more of a light punch to the shoulder. “Alright, alright. I’ll talk. Honestly Earth isn’t much to look at these days. There are few historical sites they keep the ice away from, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza, that tower in Chicago, you know those sorts of things. The rest of the world is just an ice sheet or tower dwellings stretching high up above the snow. Still, you’ve got this whole cross-section of people coming from all over the galaxy just looking for some little sense of home and belonging. It’s just such an old place, gives it this whole air of mystery… even at negative seventy degrees.”
Jace moved a piece across the board. “Your move Doan.”
Doan sat down and surveyed the move, “You’re really putting that silver out there.”
Jace just leaned back and smiled, as he watched Doan struggle to find a move. Finally the dark haired boy slid a pawn further up the board. The blond leaned back in satisfaction and slid one of his lances into position.
“So when’s dinner around here?” Jonathan asked.
Jace checked his personal computer, “About half an hour from now.”
He nodded and looked around at the various exits. There was the door back out to the reception area, the stairs up to the dorm rooms, and two more doors. One had a line of yellow tape around it, which drew him towards it. “Does this lead out to the hanger?” He asked.
“Yeah, feel free to take a look. Just don’t wander into the landing area, the red zone, and you should be alright.” Jace replied without looking up from the Shogi board.
Jonathan opened the door walked down the dimly lit corridor. It eventually opened out into the brightly lit hanger. It was a surprisingly quiet place. The white metal floor was dinged and chipped, with large black stains on several sections. To one side the floor was made of red metal instead, and several long black gashes marred its surface. The wall was open near the red floor looking out on the clouds that swam around outside the colony.
On the other side of the room sat four beat up gliders. The gliders were essentially saddles with handlebars strapped to a small anti-gravity device with fold down wings tacked on in front of and behind the rider just for good measure. Their simplicity allowed designs to vary a great deal. For instance a glider from the Siobahn company would be a single hollowed out metal form with only the wings and the inner most workings of the engine as points of failure. Of course, there were also these. The word Deonaughtics was proudly emblazoned on the saddle, but it wasn’t really the kind of thing any individual person would ever accept credit for having made. The engine had obviously been built separately and had the saddle riveted on later. Even the control sticks which should have been completely solid looked more like an after thought. The only thing it did even mildly well was the wing design, which had a novel positioning for the stabilizers.
As he got closer, her noticed that there was a hallway towards the front that led further back. The hall had a series of roll up doors on one side, acting as a collection of sub-garages. The ones that were closed had small red lights indicating that they were locked. Most of the open garages were dark, indicating that they were only open because the glider was in use. One though had it’s light on, spilling a white glow out into the hallway.
He stopped by the door, contemplating for a moment if he should go in. The sound of a tool dropping echoed out of the room along with a cry of pain, making up his mind for him. He rushed into the room, “are you alright?”
A girl about his age was wagging her heavily gloved hand in pain, a large wrench lying on the ground nearby. “Yeah, I’m fine, it didn’t make it through the glove.” With the immediate danger taken care of, he was able to get a better look at her. Her skin was the color of almonds and tied back hair raven black. Her nose was hard edged and strong unlike her soft face, as though she hadn’t quite grown into it. There was something intriguing to her dark eyes, as though she were seeing through him.
He finally noticed she was waving her hand in front of his eyes. “Huh, sorry I got distracted.”
She became a little flush, “I.. I was asking what brought you out here anyways.”
“Oh, I was just taking a look around, trying to get to know the place.” Desperate to redirect the discussion he turned to look at the machine that dominated the small garage space. “Are you in the Mechanic’s guild?” It sounded like a lame question even before it came out.
“Uh, yeah. I am.” She said, adjusting her orange coveralls.
“So this is a Rehgon model, right?” He said. The glider in front of them was somewhere between the two extremes. In this case the control sticks and saddle were part of the engine housing lending them extra strength. The engine within the housing, though, was still a largely modular construction made up of parts from a wide variety of manufacturing shops. The wings as well had different manufacturers between the wings themselves and the stabilizers which were from a modification kit.
“Yeah, they’re great to work on. Still have enough pieces you can actually get in there and do something. Something goes wrong on a Siobahn like Master Gwain’s and you just hope it’s something that just needs a bit of epoxy. Otherwise the whole unit has to get sent back to the manufacturer, and that’s a pretty big expense from out here.” As she talked her eyes lit up and her words got more intense. “You see, this one was having a problem with it’s aerodynamics a while back, but it had slots on the wing so we just went and bought a better set of stabilizers. Right now there’s a problem with the air intake that’s keeping it from cooling properly. I was just going to check it out but the cooler is under the saddle above the xenon filter.”
She grabbed the wrench off the floor and knelt down by the bike. The head of the wrench went over a bolt and she pounded on the wrench down by the end. “When they’re stuck on like this, the best thing to do is just keep applying sudden force from the back here. It should…” The wrench suddenly moved through it’s arc as the bolt came free. “Break loose. And that’s how it’s done. Now can you hand me the socket over there? I’m going to need it for the next part.”
He picked up the tool and handed it to her, watching her work. It held it’s own fascination to him, to see the way she worked through the process of changing out the part. Though, he wound up missing dinner that night.

“All right, hold it steady now.” Master Gwain said over the ear-piece. Jonathan tried to hold the simulated glider’s course despite the crosswinds pushing him around. It was quickly becoming obvious it wasn’t going to work just trying to keep on course. His mind made up he turned slightly allowing one cross wind to push him to the next. A gentle weaving pattern emerged as he surfed the gusts. The feel of the rise and drop involved in riding the winds exhilarated him.
“I’m giving you a delivery point now. I’ve put it up in the tower city and we have simulated traffic, take it slow. Our only goal for today is to familiarize yourself with the city.” She said.
A holographic map was projected by his personal computer over the control sticks. Taking a moment to get a feel for his rough destination he then turned to head towards the tower. He found a favorable breeze to ride most of the way but at times unpredictable winds cut across pushing him off course for a moment or two. He tried to keep track of the locations where the winds turned unpredictable.
Suddenly a strong updraft slammed into him carrying him upwards. The glider spun in wild abandon as he struggled to keep his grip on the control sticks. He tried to shift his weight to counteract the spin but it was already moving way too fast. A moment later he was thrown out of the draft and out through the open air. Despite knowing it was only a simulation his adrenaline shot through the roof. He struggled to get a feel for where he was in relation to things despite the tumbling making it difficult to truly grasp which direction was up and which direction was down.
A desperate idea occurred to him. He released one of the control sticks and slid the hand down the column to the activator. With a press the anti-gravity engine shut off restoring the full weight of the vehicle. It immediately fell into a nose dive, straight down towards the giant spinning ring that contained the anti-gravity generator that kept the colony afloat. The total change in direction brought the craft out of it’s spin, bringing it back into some semblance of control. Struggling against the force of the wind whipping across his body he pressed the activation button again.
The anti-gravity kicked in, making him suddenly feel as light as a feather. He hauled back on the control sticks, screaming in exhilaration as turned from his near vertical dive into a shallow climb.
“Good work not wiping out, but any package you were carrying would be broken all to hell. Just try and get back on course.” Her voice spoke in his ear. It surprised him how softly she spoke this time, he’d expected to get chewed out completely.
Grinning to himself he got back on course, but started trying to predict where the wind currents might lie. He made a lot of mistakes, but every once in a while he was dead on. It took him nearly twenty minutes to make it to the main airways surrounding the towers. The holographic display changed to a local traffic map, showing him the safe zones he could join traffic at. He slid the glider into it’s designated lane but kept his speed up. The Deliverers had a priority status in traffic, so long as he kept his speed up the program would give him lanes that were safe for his speeds.
The currents that flowed around the towers actually helped him. So long as entry was made from the upwind side, the buildings would perturb the wind to create natural speed lanes. It created new difficulties for landings though, and he would soon have to cope with those. His destination was finally in front of him, only a bit further down the lane. He climbed a bit upwards to begin his approach. Then he pushed himself into a shallow sweeping dive. He moved in a large circle that ended with him facing straight into an open space in the side of the building.
As he passed the edge of the walls a force net caught his craft, quickly bleeding off his speed until he was left moving at little more than a crawl. The anti-gravity engine made his descent to the red floor a gentle process. His feet soon touched the floor and he smiled.
“A decent landing for a beginner. You need to practice bleeding off your speed before you hit the force net. Your speed exponentially increases the energy cost of the net, try not to cost your client any more than you absolutely have to.” She said. With a hissing snap, the shallow holograms of the simulator disappeared leaving him in a dark room with only the imitation glider. He swung a leg over the side and jumped off of the poorly padded saddle. Master Gwain opened the door allowing a flood of light to enter the room, temporarily blinding him.
“The simulators are available to apprentices any time except after lights out, or when already assigned another duty. There will be a test once you’ve clocked in four hundred hours and every hundred hours there after. Until you pass you don’t get to touch the real thing.” She said, still speaking unexpectedly quietly. “Your uniform doubles as a jumper suit, just press the green buttons on the front. This is a not so subtle hint to get some time in free-jumping. You’ll get free access to lessons.”
He nodded and smiled up at her.
“So what do you think, kid?” She asked.
“It’s so amazing! I can’t wait to get out there for real!” He said his eyes lighting up.
“Right. Anyways, it’s time for lunch, you’d better get down there.” She stepped out of the way of the door and motioned for him to exit.

Samantha walked into the master’s office. She was surprised to see the usually dynamic woman quietly watching a holo-recording. The flier in the recording was obviously just a beginner. “Is that Jonathan’s first flight?” She asked.
“That’s right,” the master replied.
She watched as he wandered into a section famous for it’s unpredictable updrafts. She winced for him when an especially powerful updraft caught him throwing him uncontrolled into the sky. “Well, I guess that was a short session.”
“Just watch,” Gwain said, shooting her a quick look before turning back.
Samantha rose an eyebrow and kept watching, seeing him spin out of control as the draft threw him away. Then she saw the anti-gravity engine cut off and couldn’t help leaning in to see what happened next. Even as he pulled back into a climb she couldn’t believe her eyes. Gaining a controlled dive from an uncontrolled spin was incredibly difficult. Even using the weight to cut off the initial spin, it still took a near perfect sense of internal balance to keep form putting it into a spin again. Not to mention the effects of the initial spin could easily leave the pilot too internally unstable to know which way is supposed to be up.
“That’s…” Samantha began, but couldn’t quite complete the thought.
“It’s like the kid has wind in his veins.” Gwain said. “I figured the geneticists were overstating his potential. His parents are to be commended, the environment would have needed to be perfect to bring out his potential to this extent.”
“What about the other reports?” Samantha asked.
“We won’t know until he figures that out for himself. If it becomes an issue, he’ll come to us. I’ve got a few experts on stand by, it shouldn’t effect his performance.” Gwain said. “Besides, that’s why I put him with you.”

Jonathan adjusted himself in the seat of the airbus. It felt so strange to have the layer of aluminum and glass between him and the sky. He’d already managed to clock in nearly forty hours in the simulator that week, and it was only half way over. Samantha sat next to him, taking a quick nap. He wasn’t sure why she’d come with him, but couldn’t help being grateful. Her presence made the discomfort much more bearable.
A tall man wearing an expensive jumper suit stood up towards the front. “I am Derek Ivankov and I’ll be the instructor today. My helpers and I will be along the outsides of the formation during the jump, do not pass beyond us. If you go out of control, one of us will grab you and bring you back to the bus. You cannot fall below the layer for pedestrian jumpers nor rise above it so there is no danger of vehicle traffic. The cloud bank is almost a mile away at its closest, but if you lose control that can be a lot closer than you’d think so always try to aim for center.”
“Before we even get out there I want to go over some basics. If you want to dive, put your hands by your sides and close the wings of your suit. Oppositely if you want to climb it means opening your arms. The wind currents are not stable down here, if you feel yourself losing control close your arms and lean into the wind. The gust will pass and you’ll be moved only a minimal distance. All else fails, just stiffen up and let yourself fall. The faster you fall, the sooner the anti-gravity will catch you and the smaller your profile the less the wind can effect you. Again, if we see anyone staying on the bottom one of us will come get you and take you back to the bus.”
He passed down the aisle until he was next to their row and tapped Samantha on the shoulder, “hey Sam.”
She yawned and looked up at him, “yeah Derek?”
“You planning on showing this kid the ropes?” He asked.
“Was about the sum of it,” she answered.
“I’ll leave him to you then,” he said. “All right people, time to go!”
The doors at the back of the bus opened. A trio of very professional looking people all stood from the back seats and jumped out without a sideways glance from Derek. Jonathan assumed these were his assistants. Jonathan got ready to stand up, but Samantha put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. She made no move to stand until the two dozen or so people in the class had already filed past, gotten inspected and jumped out the back. A couple people were still seated towards the front of the bus, having apparently gotten cold feet about the whole ordeal. Finally she stood up and he followed her out into the aisle.
“Now here’s the breaks kid. We’ve got plenty of room to maneuver out there and limited time. I’ll give you a few moments before I start kicking you in the butt, but we’re here to get training.” She gave him a little salute then leaned backwards until she was falling into the open sky.
“Don’t do that, just jump out as far as you can.” Derek said giving him a serious look.
Jonathan grinned, lowered his goggles and gathered himself up. With a massive burst he jumped straight of the back whooping in excitement. The wind whipped around his face, and flowed around him in an exhilarating rush. He turned his head and got a good look at the people from the class. Four people were forming a circle that the others were all trying to stay within. Well except Samantha who had controlled her descent so that they were soon side by side. “Are you getting this?” she asked through the communicator in his ear.
“Yeah, I can hear you!” He shouted, giving her a thumbs up.
“Again, too damn loud. No need to shout if the com is working.” She said.
Derek shot past them, in full descent mode. Jonathan watched for a moment as he swooped from person to person checking to see how they were doing. Suddenly the whole formation went from falling to rising as they hit the upper limit of the anti-gravity. “We’re going for air here, so close in and go as deep as you can.” She said.
He put his hands next to his sides and aimed himself straight downward, he picked up speed for a while but then suddenly hit a wall of resistance. He tried to make himself as small and tight as possible but could only eek out a few more inches. The resistance turned to acceleration throwing him upwards into the sky. Again he kept himself tight for as long as possible, letting the upwards momentum carry him up. Once he’d peaked he opened himself up a little and glided a ways towards the center of the bubble waiting for an updraft. Finally he found one and opened up completely. He rode it in a circle straight up into the sky. “Good job, now do it again. You need to get used to finding the current when you don’t already have one.”
Grinning in joy at the thought of doing this all over again he put himself into a dive careful to avoid the other class members. This time he opened up completely just before peaking out of his rise. A gust of wind carried him out across the field of winds, but the early opening kept him rising as he went. At the first feeling of a downdraft he turned sideways and let it propel him out sideways into it’s neighboring updraft. He rode this one even higher than the last. “Careful kid, there are some strong winds passing through there.”
As if on cue a blast of wind caught him and threw him out of the draft. He lost control for a moment, but as he fell he tried to catch any draft he could. Soon he was passing from draft to draft, riding the up and skirting the down, letting the crosswinds carry him. It was pure motion, like he was swimming through the sky with complete ease. He laughed as the exhilaration bubbled to the surface. “Enjoying the ride?”
“Ha, this is so awesome!” He shouted. She didn’t bother to warn him about the volume.
When he came back down he took a good look at the giant pale blue ring far below them. The ring sat at the center of a group of five concentric rings, the ones on the outside were greenhouses filled with mosses and fungi that were fed from the clouds around them. The inner circles were open gardens that produced the bubble of oxygen that the colony floated in. He closed up and dropped down to get a closer look. The inner gardens looked like a forest form above tree canopies gathered three or four deep on each circle. Aqueducts were barely visible around the edges of the gardens, filled with the water needed to keep the gardens growing.
“All right kid, come on back. We’re going to do some pair exercises for a while,” she said.
“Pair?” He asked while making the soaring turn to glide back to the group.
“Yeah, formation riding is going to be pretty key if you want to ride with the Stormriders,” she said.
He felt a new wave of thrill and excitement shoot through him, “you think I’ll be able to do it?”
“Well, no guarantees, but I’d say you have the potential. Now we just need you to live up to it. And that means practice.” Samantha said.

The apprentices were gathered in the hanger. The practice gliders had been moved off to the side to make room for all ten of the regular member’s gliders. They knelt around each one, carefully scrubbing it down with soap rags. As they scrubbed the rags themselves dissolved into a soapy foam due to friction.
“So I heard that there was an accident on the Galileo moon colony.” Jace said into the silence.
“Was anybody hurt?” Doan asked.
“There were a few injuries but it wasn’t that bad. Word is though that they need to replace two whole drill assemblies. The manufacturing guild is going nuts. They’ve already scheduled six more runs on the gas harvesters.” Jace said.
“Are they sure it was just an accident? I mean two drills is a pretty big deal to lose to a mistake.” Ella added to the mix.
“What else could it be?” Jonathan asked.
“There’s been talk going around…” Ella trailed off.
“Talk of what?” Jonathan asked.
She turned to face him, but when she talked her voice was only a whisper, “The New Martians.”
“Oh get out of here, those guys are just a rumor from the web.” Jace said laughing.
Ella shot Jace a dark look. “Well, how do you explain it?”
“It was an accident. They happen, and sometimes they can get pretty bad. We just got lucky more people weren’t hurt.” He said with finality.
Deciding to drop it Ella went back to scrubbing, as did the rest of them.
The glider he was working on was Samantha’s. It’s body was a bright fire engine red with dark gold clouds emblazoned around the edges to mark it as a Stormrider’s glider. It was another Rehgon model, this one had a special cover bolted across the engine to protect it from the heavy elements of the outside atmosphere. It’s wing configuration was long with over sized stabilizers that he assumed were used to deal with the stronger air currents of Andora’s natural atmosphere.
“Who made the skid marks?” Jonathan heard himself asking before he even realized he wanted to ask the question.
“What?” Doan asked.
“Those skid marks over in the red zone, who made them?” Jonathan said.
All three apprentices looked over as one, then at each other. After a long moment Jace spoke, “We don’t really talk about those.”
Doan sighed, “It’s not like it’s some kind of secret. Those were from an emergency landing by the last generation of Stormriders.”
“Master Caemor was the only survivor. It’s kind of a sore spot.” Ella finished.
“Oh.” Jonathan said. The silence they worked in for the next few minutes felt far more oppressive than it had before. “Does Elizabeth come around here often?”
Jace smiled, “Fairly often. I mean her father, Joseph, is the main mechanic for the guild here on Good Hope. She mostly does enthusiast work while she’s here, tweaking flight characteristics, that sort of thing.”
Jonathan nodded to himself, “Thanks.”
“Anytime!” Jace gave a big goofy grin.

5134

The shuttle fell through the layers of the atmosphere. Blue and Gold flames licked across the view ports from the friction of entry. Jonathan Honor forgot to breath as he watched the flames dance around his window. He slid one of his tan gloved hands across the view port, feeling as though he might actually touch it through the glass. Instead he only managed to temporarily remove the faint reflection of his dark hair and blue eyes.
When the flames cut out they were replaced the multicolor swirl of gasses that made up the second layer of the gas giant’s atmosphere. It was like looking into a thick gold and red fog. Jonathan could still see the shuttle’s wings but only barely. The eddies of the gasses just in front of the wing, where they were being parted and pushed away by the craft itself, fascinated him. The man in the seat next to him spared only a glance out the window, then went back to tapping out messages on his small business computer.
A serene voice played through the cabin, “We have entered the atmosphere of Andora. Our course takes us across the rim of the Scilian Downdraft, so expect some light turbulence. We’ll be arriving at Good Hope in a little under three hours.” As he looked around Jonathan could see the eta slide across the display of those who had brought projected screen computers. A slight twinge of envy made him frown as he rubbed the point on his belt where a computer of his own would have been if he had one.
Far in front of him he noticed a woman wearing the pale blue uniform of a spacer guild member enter the cabin. She moved from row to row, entering polite conversation with the passengers and taking note of any pressing needs they might have. When she made it to his row, she placed a steadying hand on the luggage bar and leaned in to speak to him. “Are you doing okay?”
Jonathan smiled up to her, “Yeah, this is grand! I mean, do you see this every time?” His excited tone seemed to penetrate the businessman’s bubble of working solitude earning them both a scowl of disapproval.
The woman looked sheepish for a half second, but soon grinned back at Jonathan. “Well, not every time, but it is why I like these colony runs. Interstellar Navigators don’t get much time out of the navigation pit unless we’re in atmosphere.”
“So you’re a navigator? You must have been everywhere!” He said.
“Hah, I wish. I’ve got a destination list a mile long, and I’m adding new places faster than I scratch the old ones off. But, yeah, I’ve been a few places.” She smiled as she talked. “This is your first time traveling more than a light-year right?”
The fourteen year old nodded, “The deliverer guild is all in-atmosphere. It’s our sister guild, the courier guild, that handles deliveries in space.”
“You know, if it’s that interesting, you can change guilds at sixteen…” She trailed off.
He smiled and looked out the window. “No, I mean this is just… amazing. But I’ve got something even better waiting for me. I’m going to join Kokkusawa!” He said.
She whistled and raised her eyebrows, “Kokkusawa!? Wow kid, didn’t know I was talking to a prodigy.” She laughed, “Well it was worth a shot. Good luck with the apprenticeship. Keep up the fight!”
The businessman was outright glaring now, but he couldn’t defeat either of their smiles. Jonathan went back to looking out the window as the navigator moved on to the next row. Three hours and he’d be arriving at his new home. He knew he should probably get a nap before they arrived, but there was no way the excitement was going to let him sleep.

Jonathan watched in awe as the shuttle slid out of the clouds and into the bubble of atmosphere that housed the colony. All around the outside clouds of red and purple roiled and twisted, constantly shifting along the edges. In the center of the open space rested the colony of Good Hope. It’s shell of dark blue and bright white panels shone brightly, back lit by the station’s lights. It had the shape of an old time ocean going vessel, long with a v shaped bottom. A main control tower jutted up from the center of the colony vessel.
As they got closer it’s scale became more apparent. It had been one thing to read about it being a mile long, entirely another to experience that fact. The control tower was soon looking less like a tower, and more like a vertical city all it’s own. The sparse dots that had surrounded it like a swarm of insects slowly came into focus as the vehicles of hundreds of people going about their business in the colony.
Their shuttle glided alongside the behemoth vessel for a while, allowing Jonathan to get a good look at the walls of the colony. Seen up close the bright panels had signs of wear and degradation around the edges. Where at times there was an opening people could be seen sitting from open doorways, or hanging from long suspension lines as they did maintenance on the outside of the colony. After a few minutes the shuttle pulled up rising towards a dome to one side of the tower city.
They slowed as they came into their approach, a short runway hanging off the side of the ship lighting up for them. The cabin voice returned, “We are coming in for a landing. Expected forces five Gs, please harness yourself appropriately.” Jonathan checked his harness, ensuring it was tightly in place. The cabin lights flickered then turned green to signal the start of the landing sequence.
Landing was a rough process, more than he could have been prepared for. Almost as soon as the wheels of the shuttle hit the runway the port’s force web caught it. The small force webs within their harnesses kept them from feeling the full forces of the battle going on between the shuttle’s momentum and the force web that was attempting to stop it. Still Jonathan felt himself being pressed back into the soft seat with an incredible force. A moment later their momentum was under control and the force disappeared. As one the passengers leaned forwards gasping for breath.
“I hate landings.” The businessman said between gasping breaths.
“We have now arrived at Good Hope Colony Spaceport. Please wait while we establish a connection with the terminal.” A long, white, shrouded walkway slid out of the wall of the spaceport and slowly drifted towards the shuttle. After a few long minutes it found the shuttle’s exit hatch, several long tubes along it’s outside spun clockwise securing the two together. “Our connection has been established, please proceed in good order to the exit hatch. And remember, polite behavior makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone.”
They all set about unlocking their harnesses and removing them. People stood and moved towards the exit, milling about somewhat after the shock of landing. A few people slid around the crowds to talk to their friends, but they were careful to stay out of the way for those that were looking to immediately get off. For his own part Jonathan found a place in the line exiting the shuttle.
The co-pilot stood by the exit hatch, personally shaking the hands of people as they passed by. A woman in a business suit slid past the disembarking passengers, coming from the other direction. He only caught a brief look at her as she passed by the co-captain and headed straight to the cockpit. It only took a few minutes for the slowly moving line to meander out into the terminal.
A staff member was walking up the line, quickly performing a cursory retinal scan and a medical scan. Looking around he realized that the uniform was standard across all the staff, a powder blue dress that came down to the knees, white stockings, blue heels made of solid plasticine. Their makeup was all immaculate as well, with blue eye liner, lipstick and nail polish. When the woman working the scanner got to him he could see that she was more of an older teen, seventeen or eighteen, than an adult. She took the scans quickly, quietly thanked him for his patience and moved on to the next person in line.
As he got a good look around he realized the spaceport was really rather empty. Rather than being swarmed with people, small clumps gathered here and there. Other than a few groups greeting people as they came off the shuttle, most of the people seemed to be business people meeting with members of the port worker guild. All four of the info kiosks were empty, allowing him instant access. “Kokkusawa Apprentice Dorms.” The kiosk gave him a quick map overview, drawing a route for him. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” The automated voice replied, surprising him.
He was thinking about the supposed route he needed to take as he walked out of the terminal and got his first ground side look at the colony. The terminal exited to a small business park that rested just below the towers. Even craning his neck all the way he couldn’t quite see the tops of the towers. To his left there was a collection of low buildings, on his right the surface seemed relatively level with only a few buildings all the way out to edge of the colony. According to the route he needed to turn left here. The dorms were on the underside of the vessel, but the route down had looked convoluted. For a while though it said to stick to the surface, so he set off towards the buildings.

The reality of the surface streets was far different from what he’d imagined. People milled about in impressive numbers in this region, at least a thousand were within his direct view. Bright lights just off the street level lit everything from below in shades of white and blue. Occasionally a building would have graffiti scrawled across it, but it wasn’t like the signatures left by disaffected teenagers back on Earth. Each instance was a mural or work of art in it’s own right, calling out in brilliant colors to be viewed. There was a staggered street market with service workers in short skirts and mini tops hawking their wares or services to anyone passing by.
One of the shops sold tattoo nanites, another a colorful selection of artificial lifeforms to keep on your personal computer. A few had personal computers of all kinds of colors and models, with prices ranging from impressively cheap to downright exploitative. One caught his eye that sold personal computers with custom artistic details already applied. As he got further in he started to notice that each street seemed to have it’s own specialty. The busiest streets had food vendors, though which caused the other was anyone’s guess. His stomach growled to him reminding him that he needed to eat. A familiar smell stopped him in his tracks, and he followed it to a small stall selling backed potatoes.
“What can I get for you kiddo?” The older teen standing at the stall said. Jonathan stopped for a moment to take him in, he was tall and thin as a rake, wearing a downright scandalous mini-skirt with long fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. Even his top was little more than a band of cloth to cover his pecks. “What’s the matter, you haven’t seen a service worker before?”
“Ahh, I’m from Earth,” he explained with a mild blush.
“Oh, how cute. Just off the shuttle are you? We don’t have to worry about the big freeze around here, so you’re going to have to get used to seeing people wear a lot less.” He said.
Jonathan adjusted the collar of his coat suddenly realizing it was terribly warm here. “Do you take ret scans?” He asked, as he salivated at the sight of a tin wrapped potato cooking on the grill.
“I don’t have a reader… although, that looks like a Deliverer’s Guild uniform, you coming here to join a company?” The salesperson asked.
“Yeah, I got an apprenticeship at Kokkusawa.” Jonathan told him excitedly.
“Kokkusawa, huh. I know someone at Kokkusawa, I can just bill it to their tab.” He grabbed a flat wooden fork from a small bin on the side and used it to maneuver an uncooperative potato onto a plate. He handed the plate and fork to Jonathan, “My name is Mikael, sweetie. What’s yours?”
“Jonathan,” he replied and blew on the potato to cool it off. “Jonthan Honor.”
“So tell me, Mr. Honor, do you know the way down to the dorms?” Mikael asked with a wry grin.
“I saw the map at the information kiosk, but honestly I can’t remember it very well now.” Jonathan said.
Mikael turned his grill off, “In that case, how about I give you the gawker’s tour of Lower Good Hope and drop you off at the dorms afterward?”
“Won’t you get in trouble for losing sales?” Jonathan asked.
“Ha, nowhere near as much trouble I’d get in for letting you wander off lost. Trust me, my aunt would kill me. I’ll survive a reprimand, and sales have been good lately. I think I can afford a bit of time off.” Mikael gave him a quirky grin and waited patiently for him to finish eating before guiding him out into the city.
After a few minutes of walking they came to a plaza with cafe’s lining the outside and single massive tree growing in the center. “This is De Garo’s plaza. Named for Lorn De Garo who was responsible for doing the chemical survey of Andora. Life in the lower quarters pretty much revolves around this place. Stay here long enough and you’ll meet everyone who’s anyone around here.” Mikael made grand gestures as he talked, like the spokesperson from a tourism ad. Jonathan felt impressed, the buildings here were visibly different, many built or at least faced with brick and stone rather than the pretender steel that everything else was made of. The strains of amateur love ballads saturated the air from musicians wooing girls and setting the mood for couples enjoying the plaza.
Mikael took him down what looked like a series of side allies next. Eventually they exited on a surprisingly quiet street. The street looked out on the edge of the vessel. A series of platforms hung over the edge for observers to get a better feel for the view. Despite the silence, there was at least a hundred people on the street. Some were drawing or painting, others writing. A few of them even seemed to be just meditating as they basked in the incredible view of the gasses swirling around them.
“The view here draws in all sorts of people. Sometimes I come up here and just watch it all go on around me. Someone once told me the winds across the outside edge are in the range of a hundred-fifty miles per hour.” Mikael said. Off in the distance a large ship floated serenely into the cloud bank disappearing in a few moments. “And their goes our main industry. They’ll go a ways out to find the really good stuff and trawl the clouds for industrial gasses.”
“And they do this every day?” Jonathan asked.
“Nah, they only go out once a week or so. The total need is filled so the manufacturing guild doesn’t pay for more than a couple expeditions a month. The other times it’s usually privately funded and looking for more exotic gasses. But it pays well, kept this place floating for the first fifty years pretty much single handedly. These days we’re a lot more self-reliant around here, so there’s even less need for them to keep going out.” Mikael explained.
Jonathan nodded, but something caught his eye. He turned to look up into the sky, such as it was. Far above his head there was lonely patch of blue sky at the very top of the bubble. “Wow… What’s that?” He aked, pointing towards it.
Mikael followed his finger to where he was pointing at and laughed. “The contained atmosphere has moisture gathering at the top. That’s why it’ll rain every once in a while. There’s a sun mirror in synchronous orbit with us, it transmits down sunlight through the clouds even if it’s not much. The sunlight hits the very top and passes through the moisture and oxygen giving us a small area of blue sky. Anyways enough science lecture, this is our next stop.” He pointed to a small circular alcove.
Mikael pushed him in then crammed himself in behind him. A wave of Mikael’s hand brought up a holographic console, and with the press of a button they were sliding downward in a transparent tube. The interior of the colony was it’s own mass of wonders. White and Blue cargo containers were lined up in semi-ordered rows, sometimes just one, sometimes as much as four wide. Each row was stacked nearly to the rafters. Cloth bridges and long flat sections of metal connected stacks to each other. As the elevator got lower he could see people milling about, entering and exiting containers, going about the typical activities of life.
“People live in those?” Jonathan asked, more impressed than ever.
“Yeah, I live in that one.” Mikael pointed to a section of containers almost hidden from view. “If you aren’t from the guilds or have some real credit to throw down on a place, you tend to wind up here. The original cargo containers brought to the city were designed for use as building materials, so they’re surprisingly cozy.”
“Am I going to live in one of those?” Jonathan asked, perhaps a bit too excited.
“Nah, you’re a guild kid. The guilds all have their own housing, usually as part of their overall complex.” Mikael ruffled his hair.
Jonathan huffed at him, but then they passed below the level the container city was on. Immediately below seemed to be workshops set aside for making or fixing things on demand. Partway down the elevator stopped, and the wall behind them rotated to the other side of the elevator. Mikael herded him out of the elevator and into a long narrow corridor. It was kept in surprisingly good repair, with a working a holographic directory on the wall ahead of them. “Come on, this way,” Mikael started off down the corridor. To their left.
Jonathan got a quick look at the directory, to confirm their location then hurried to catch up to Mikael. “So do you come down here a lot?”
Mikael just shrugged, “Sometimes. It’s not my favorite place in the world, but it’s a place.”
They passed by a lot of closed doors and even most of the open ones only opened to unlit rooms. Jonathan caught a few of the name plates that boldly announced the purpose of each room. “High Pressure Cleaning”, “Gatherer Maintenance”, “Android Repair”, the last gave Jonathan a moment’s pause. “You guys have androids around here?”
“Not in any significant numbers, they’re mostly used on the collection ship and it just left.” Mikael said. His eyes caught on the door and lit up. “You want to see what’s going on, I could probably get us a peek inside.” Jonathan didn’t need to say a word, the naked hero worship in his eyes was enough. Mikael rapped on the door a couple times and they waited.
After a long while a blond woman in disheveled overalls opened the door, “Yes?”
“I was just giving my friend here a look around the colony and we noticed you guys were in Android repair. Do you think we could take a peek inside and see what goes down?” Mikael asked easily.
“I don’t know…” she said, “Shanky, there’s some people here want to see you work.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” another woman said. When she appeared behind the first woman they were almost startling in their differences. Shanky was at least a head taller, her figure full and her pixie cut hair pitch black. Though at least they wore the same basic overalls. “Mikael! Didn’t expect to see you here, come on in!”
“Oh hey, Shanky, if I knew this was your place I’d have just come on in.” Mikael said throwing an arm around Jonathan and guiding him in.
The room was white walled with a gray floor but the walls were hardly barren. A wide array of tools of many different shapes and colors covered the wall. Jonathan’s eyes instantly locked on an older model android sitting against a nearby wall. It’s gold and maroon husk informed that it was a construction unit, but even so it had the unique sleek and trim look that separated androids from more basic robots.
“Is that a model A-24?” Jonathan asked.
Shanky grinned and walked over to it, “Well it’s an A-23 technically, but the regulator was jury rigged from a 24 so it looks more like one of the 24s now. She’s been having trouble lifting more than a few hundred pounds, I’m thinking back problems.”
“Those are kind of rare for 23s aren’t they? I mean it’s a lot sturdier built than the G-2s or the A-28s that they’re making these days.” Jonathan leaned over the android to get a better view.
“Uncommon but still possible. Out here on the colonies there is also a lot more overuse and people are quicker to order them to do things beyond their specs.” Shanky leaned in to point out a few of the problem parts.
For his part Mikael just stood at a distance watching the enthusiasts get down and dirty. “I take you aren’t as excitable?” He asked the blond.
“No.” She said. After a few seconds it became clear she wasn’t going to elaborate further.
“All right stand back,” Shanky said surprising him.
“Hmm, what’s going on?” Mikael asked.
“We’re going to watch her do some spot surgery on the spine,” he positively beamed.
“Oh great…” The blond rolled her eyes and turned to a small workbench pointedly ignoring the proceedings.
Shanky took a seat in a large chair, a holographic interface building up in front of her. As she tapped a few buttons robotic arms slid down from the ceiling and positioned themselves around the android. The bindings on the android moved, quickly flipping it over to allow access to the back. One of the robotic arms turned and connected to a tool on the wall, gently lifting it out for use. In this case it was a large socketed opening. She removed one bolt at a time from the androids back casing until it was only lightly resting in place. The other arm grabbed the edge and removed it, placing it on a nearby table for use later. The first arm replaced it’s tool and both grabbed long gun-like extensions.
Jonathan couldn’t tear his eyes away as they came back over the droid. The larger extension lit up indicating it’s invisible laser was active. There was a squealing of metal from the android’s spine as it expanded under the heat of the laser. The second came in perpendicular to the first. A massively zoomed in view could be seen in the chair’s interface as the view skimmed across the metal of the spinal connectors. For a few moments they found nothing. Mikael was even starting to wonder if the diagnosis had been correct when the view came to a stop on a trio of small faults in one of the last two vertebrae. Shanky crowed out in victory.
The smaller laser fired in a visible green beam melting away the metal while a tiny cup extension caught the drip. After a few seconds it went up to change extension again. The view zoomed in further to show a single frayed wire that had been hidden under the scored housing. A tiny blade cut away the wire on either side of the fray. Wire extended out to a length that could replace the damage the base of the arm which it grasped then cut off. It held the wire under the large laser until it began to wilt then placed it in the hole in the wire. Holding it in place the edges melted together, prompting it to deactivate the heating laser.
It changed back to the laser attachment and poured the still gooey metal back into place on the vertebrae. The other arm placed a blocky extension over it, acting as a temporary mold. Shanky reclined back in the chair and looked over, “Well, how was it?”
“Incredible!” Jonathan replied. He looked at the walls again, “Are these all robotic extensions?”
“Most of them. There are a few hand tools for when I just want to wail on something, but the big stuff is all for the arms.” Shanky grinned to them.
Mikael gave them a few more minutes to chatter on about the details, then nudged Jonathan. “We’ve still got to get you to the dorms, remember?”
“Oh right,” Jonathan agreed. “Thank you again for letting me watch. This was great!”
“No problem, try and stop by from time to time. There aren’t many enthusiasts around here. Even within the guild,” she said. The blond gave a belabored sigh in response to the not so subtle jab.
“All right, I will. Bye!” Jonathan followed Mikael back out into the hall.
They walked along in a comfortable silence for a few minutes.

It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that they wandered into the Kokkusawa complex. A man dressed in a tan uniform and wearing a pair of thin framed glasses sat behind a large desk in the center of the main room. From the look of things he was comparing a pair of ledgers and moving some transactions off to fit by themselves. “Mikael, what brings you here?” He asked. “Or rather, is that our newest recruit there behind you?”
“I found him topside a little lost, figured my aunt would prefer it if he found his way here.” Mikael said.
“What do you mean it arrived two hours ago!? Where is he!” A woman shouted from the other room.
“Then you two had better go in now, I’d hate to see what she’ll do once she gets worked up.” He said looking back down at his ledgers.
“That’s not worked up?” Jonathan whispered to Mikael.
“Nope.” He answered. The older boy guided him into the side room the shouting had come from. The woman he found there surprised him. Even with her hair teased up into a tight bun on top of her head she still wasn’t more than an inch or two taller than him. Her hair was mostly brilliant orange but creeping lines of stark white were beginning to invade it.
“Aunt Margret?” Mikael tried to catch her attention.
“Not right now, Mikael, I’m busy.” She said.
“Looking for the new guy, right?” Mikael asked.
“That’s right.” She repeat, then stopped. “Wait, how did you know that?” She finally turned around to see both of them. “Oh.”
“Well, I think I’ve done my good deed for the day. I’ll be out of here.” Mikael made good on his words and slipped out before anything more could be said.
The woman fumed at her nephew for a moment longer then turned to face her charge. “Jonathan Honor, I presume?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” He said.
She looked him over for a moment then opened her desk and pulled out a small transparent rectangle with a black dot in the center. She passed the bit of plastic to him, “this is a computer slip, it’ll get you any personal computer at the black level. You’ll have four days to square things away before you’re thrown onto the duty roster, getting a personal computer and familiarizing yourself with it is priority number one. Out here things can change in seconds, a sudden gust from the Great Barrier and we could drift five miles off course in a moment. A storm changes direction and we may need to ground everyone immediately. Never neglect your physical conditioning, on any given day you may be running more than riding. But as I was saying, your personal computer is your only chance of keeping up with the changes, and that can mean life and death out here.”
He took the slip and nodded as she spoke, making mental notes. “My name is Margret Gwain, that’ll be master Gwain to you for a while at least. Our first year apprentices room with our Journeymen, it solves a lot of problems with hazing and fraternization before it even begins. In you’re case, that would be room C. The dorms are across the foyer and up the stairs.” She shooed him from the room then quickly went back to making and taking calls.
With only a moment of confusion he followed her directions and quickly found and ascended the stairs. To his surprise rather than being rooms simply designated in order, each rooms letter was written on it with some kind of black marker and they weren’t in any particular order. He passed rooms X, F, G and A before even going halfway down the hall. Room C as it turned out was one of the very last rooms, sharing the honor with room H which was across the hall from it. He knocked briefly, but got no response. He cautiously opened the door and walked in.
Inside he could hear the shower running in the attached bathroom. One bed had a uniform strewn across it along with a bevy of rider’s gear, while the other had the luggage that was supposed to be delivered to him on it. Divining which one was his he sat down on the bed and let himself relax from the excitement of his day. His eyes begun to scan the room, taking in the environment suit that marked his roommate as one of the elite Stormriders who assisted with search and rescue on top of their delivery duties. Then his eyes fell on the picture of her with her parents on either side.
Wait, my roommate is a girl? He thought. Realizing the shower had stopped running he instinctively looked towards the bathroom door. It opened before he could realize what was about to happen and she walked out completely naked except for the towel draped around her neck.
A scream filled the room.