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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Assuming this value is constant, the object will continue to move in a straight line unless an external force is applied to it. This leads us neatly onto Newton’s Second Law, namely the law concerning how the force applied, as well as the mass of the object, determines its subsequent acceleration. If the spatial constant sigma and the temporal tensor tau are equal… do I really have to read this whole thing?”

“Yes please! It’s better to train the speech recognition before you take off.”

“It’s a bit dry though, don’t you think?”

“Elementary physics, Chiara. The Laws of Motion were written for enlightenment, not entertainment. Although…” I noticed a blinking green light inside her goggles. “Looks like you’ve read enough. Your headset is calibrated.”

At last, the time had arrived for Chiara’s first flying lesson. We’d put a day aside to go through some drills and help her become comfortable with her spanking new suit. She stood before me on the hillside, her tailored fins and stabilisers draped around her like the furled wings of a gigantic bat. Patches of aquamarine stood out from the black, carbon-infused fabric. Strapped to her back was a somewhat aged jetpack. It didn’t have the sheer power that mine did, but it also lacked the pesky ignition coil that had caused so many problems.

The girl herself wasn’t exactly radiating enthusiasm, but she was determined to give her best effort. Without any signs of reluctance or worry, she had listened closely as I explained the drills, building up to her staying off the ground for just a few seconds. This was the standard beginner’s course for Voidese children. I’d been through it all before, but never taught an adult. This was going to be interesting.

“Okay,” I began, “Before we get to the serious stuff, better try out your stabilisers. Do you want to start with the big ones or the small ones?”

“Uh… big ones?”

“Would you please stretch out your arms, like this?” I showed her by making a T-shape with my body. “Yep, that’s good. Nice and clearly, say ‘Deploy scapular stabilisers’.”

When Chiara spoke the command, the sheets hanging limply from her upper arms suddenly fixed themselves into two curved, sail-like shapes. They were held there by fullerite rods controlled by tiny motors on her shoulders. When they activated, Chiara gave a cry of surprise. Still frozen in a T-pose, she said, “Sorry. Are they supposed to do that?”

“That’s perfect! You can move your arms around if you want, they’re very flexible.” She stayed like a statue. “Now you just need to say, ‘Deactivate scapular stabilisers’ and they’ll disappear again.”

In a markedly quieter voice, she gave the order and the sheets became inert once more. We repeated the process for each pair of stabilisers on her form, moving from the airbrakes on her forearms to the fins on her calves. No issues at all, not even with the normally bipolar speech recognition software! It was time to move on to her jetpack. This was where things got tricky.

“All our jetpacks have ‘test programs’, if you know what I mean. They’re so we can make sure they’re working fine without actually taking off. First of all, could you please say ‘Burst test one second’ for me? It will power up for just a moment, so-“

Before I could finish, Chiara said the magic words and her feet were lost in a puff of vapour. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules were being smashed together inside the jetpack, creating hot water and an oddly satisfying whoosh. However, one second wasn’t enough to accelerate the flight motors much, so she got barely any kick from it. The small amount of kick she did receive caused her to topple forward, her hands meeting the ground. That was it; the vapour dissipated in an instant and everything looked normal. Good early test!

Except my subject didn’t see it that way. As I stepped closer to Chiara, she sank into a kneeling position and covered her face with a muddied hand. Through the headset, she made noises that I interpreted as sobbing. My heartbeat sped up as I knelt down in turn and tried to look through her fingers. Droplets were breaking out on her face, of sweat or tears or, more probably, both.

“Are you okay? Talk to me,” said I.

Her eyes were closed and her voice was incredibly feeble. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…” That was all she could get out. Poor Chiara looked just as miserable as the day we’d first met. She even curled up into the same foetal pose. To try and calm her, I placed my hand on hers. It had rapidly become pale and drenched in cold sweat.

Father didn’t need to be there to tell me what was happening. When I spoke next, I tried my best to emulate the soothing voice he’d used, almost a whisper. “You’re okay, Chiara. Everything is okay. Your first test went just fine.”

Again she just said, “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” I asked.

“So sorry… I’m just wasting your time… I’m such a failure.”

“Because you fell? Lots of folks fall over on their first try.” That was true. Many years ago, Mother attached me to a jetpack and it had soon introduced my face to the grass. Not that I was going to admit this to Chiara.

“I can’t do this, I just can’t. I’m sorry.” Suddenly she began clawing at the straps running across her chest, like they were strangling her. “Would you please take this off?”

“Seriously, it’s-“

“GET IT OFF ME!” Chiara’s hand returned to her face and the crying resumed, much louder than before. I noticed that her body had started to tremble. My heart ached as I watched her, trying to imagine the suffering she was going through. Right in that moment, I would have done anything for her. Absolutely anything. If she’d asked me to throw myself off the edge of the mountain without my flight gear, I would have done it.

Luckily, no such requests came. As quickly as I could manage, I tore the jetpack off her back and unplugged the cord that connected it to her headset. “It’s off now, okay? I’ll just put it over here.” With that, I set the apparatus on the ground. It made a low thud as it hit the soil, like a fallen stone.

That seemed to calm her down a bit, but it was a long ten minutes before Chiara talked again. All that time I sat next to her, patting her shoulder and watching the tears collect on her goggles. At first she was hyperventilating, but her breathing slowed and became steady again. She stopped shaking. Then she said, “Oh God! I thought I was going to blast off the mountain and kill myself.”

“You’re perfectly safe,” I reassured her. “Can I do anything to help?”

“No… no. I’m so sorry I wasted your time.” She’d said that already and I began to wonder if her memory was failing.

There were a million things I wanted to say and none of them were, “Pull yourself together.” That’s what I would have said to anybody else. Chiara of Earth was different. When she raised her goggles to wipe them clean, I saw the truth in her face. It was there, clear as crystal in the red around her eyes and the green around her glands. Despite her determination, she’d actually thought she was about to die.

That was the most horrible thing I’d ever thought. All of a sudden, I wanted to throw up.

“Why did I fall…” she continued. Hearing her voice perk up, almost imperceptible though it was, brought me back to reality.

“Do you want to know why we fall?”

With visible effort, she raised her head to look at me. “Gravity?”

I managed a chuckle. It didn’t change her profound frown. “There’s always gravity, no matter where you are in the universe. It’s the one thing you can always count on to be there. That’s not the answer to the riddle, though.” Here we went with another gem of wisdom from my parents. “Folks fall because that’s how they learn. If you don’t fall, you never see how to push yourself back up. Right?”

“I still feel like I let you down.”

“Trust me, you didn’t. You did everything right.” My gaze flicked from her to the abandoned jetpack, then back again. I felt a pang inside as I realised I didn’t know what to do next.

Chiara soon offered a solution. “I can try again,” she said in a far more imperious tone. “Just one more test. Is that okay?”

“Sure thing! Do you remember what the code is?” In the past, children I’d taught had said “Yes” to this question and swiftly proved they were lying.

This lady was no child. “‘Burst test one second,’ wasn’t it?”

“Perfect! Now if you’re really sure…” I waited for Chiara to nod, and seeing her oblige made me a whole lot cheerier. “Let’s get this back on you.”

United with her jetpack once more, Chiara switched her headset back on and repeated the burst test. This time she didn’t fall. She didn’t really move at all. Another puff of gas and that was it. No danger, no pain. All the same, Chiara felt like she’d learned enough for one day, so we went through a recap on the way back home. Her recall ability was astounding; not a single command or component of flight gear was forgotten.

When we returned to the shop, Gafra was outside, lounging on the grass with her heel springs propped up on a log. She waved gaily in my direction, then saw Chiara and screwed her face in concentration. Since it was the latter’s first time in a full flying outfit, I reasoned the former couldn’t recognise her at first. As we got closer, the proverbial light globe went off in Gafra’s head.

“Lookin’ good, new girl! Ooooh, I see you went with the aquamarine, that’s nice. How’re you doing?” She strained to hear Chiara’s response, then let her disappear inside. Rolling over to face me, Gafra said, “Something go wrong with her first class?”

“Take a guess. We got there in the end, though.” I checked to make sure Chiara was no longer in range. Then I breathed, “She had a panic attack when the jet first fired up.”

“Poor soul. Looks okay to me now, so good job helping her out. Do you have time to chat?”

“Sure, but I better help this woman get her gear off first!” Despite being a fast learner, Chiara hadn’t yet mastered disentangling herself from all the bits of her suit. “See you in five minutes?”

Six minutes later, I rejoined Gafra on the ground. It was a quiet day; nobody trading in the shop, no farmers chopping up the fields, no bombs falling on the buildings. Our cornplant harvest was over, leaving my friend with plenty of spare time and everybody with nutrition. It was all very well stocking up on whiskerbeans and vitamins, but there was nothing better than humble corn. Except chocolate, of course!

But I digress. For a few minutes, the two of us lay there, staring upward and contemplating life. Even though it only changed colour once a week, the monotonous sky somehow never lost its wonder. Then I propped myself up and scanned the horizon. Yes, everything was perfectly normal, and that was worth smiling about. Except for one thing. When I looked back at Gafra, my eyes were drawn to the “log” underneath her feet. Specifically the end of it that had four massive nails sticking out.

“What the heck is that thing?” I demanded.

“Ain’t it cute? I call it the Thagomiser,” hoisting it up as she spoke. In her hands it looked like a club. One end was whittled down to a point, while the other end supported the nails arranged in two pairs, sticking out at roughly right angles to each other. “Just in case those brutes holding up New Auckland come for us next!”

“Do you think that’s likely?”

“They blew up our church, falcon. We were a target before the miners were. Besides, this is multi-functional! It’s a self-defence mechanism, a footstool and-“

“You know a piece of wood with nails in it won’t stop a coilgun. They’re designed to shoot through metal!”

In a mock show of defiance, she held the Thagomiser to her chest and placed her other hand where the ear of a baby would be. “Kopra, you musn’t be so pessimistic!” Then she giggled and returned the hideous object to her feet. “Hey, don’t worry. Pieces of wood with nails in them can do a lot of good in the right hands. Hi again, Chiara!”

Silent as a shrub, the young woman sat herself down in front of us. Her skin was regaining its normal colour and all the sweat was gone. However, the wustrated look on her face told its own story. “Your dad just said they can’t get the radio tower working. Nobody’s been able to send or receive broadcasts since the one from Bikral came in.”

Now I was curious. “Really? That radio’s about the oldest thing on this rock, but it doesn’t usually take this long to repair.”

“Perfect timing, don’t ya think?” That was Gafra. “Those Order of Whatsit guys raid our secret weapon stash, New Auckland goes into Lockdown and suddenly we have no radio. Coincidence… or sabotage?” Her hand caressed the Thagomiser with alarming fondness. “I told you. They’re coming for us next.”

Chiara and I exchanged a look that said we weren’t keen on speculation. I replied with, “Nobody’s dropped explosives on the transmission tower. Where’s the evidence it’s been sabotaged?”

“Oh, you and your innocent little mind.” With her other hand, Gafra poked my cheek playfully. “There’s a lot more subtle ways to stop people communicating. Somebody could have snuck into the place and switched a few wires around without being seen. Or messed around with the carrier frequency. Seriously, you should read Doofus and Ralts, it’s all in there!”

“Are you comparing our situation to a crime novel now?”

“Yeah. Why not? I always say, reality is just as weird as fiction.”

“No,” Chiara cut in, “It’s much weirder. I don’t understand what’s going on, but you have shown me that anything’s possible in this place.” She prodded me gently – folks were making a habit of that lately. “Shouldn’t we be talking to your dad about this?”

“I’m sure he’s already considered every possibility. Very clever man, you know.” Father had all the resources of the Guild of Engineers at his disposal, so I didn’t see how any problem could beat him. That said, a smidgen of doubt invaded my mind. Even with all the brains of the Guild of Engineers, it was taking a long time to solve a recurring problem. Even they didn’t understand what was happening with the Order of Silence around. All of us were still blind seals waiting for the orcas to strike.

This day ended with our troika joined by Rutalis and some other neighbours, all speculating into the night. Everybody seemed to have a different theory about our enemies. Were they in league with real, power-hungry aliens? Were they recent arrivals from Earth looking for a way back home? Were they New Auckland locals simply seeking attention? Many questions and no answers left us all in something of a mood as we plodded off to our respective dreams.

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