“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.