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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Kopra,” my mother said, “You will do great things. Here, not even the sky can limit you.”

Those were her last words to me before my first jump into the Void. I can never forget the feeling. The lurch of your stomach followed by the sensation of weightlessness. The roar of wind zooming past your ears. The knowledge there’s nothing under you except air. It’s intoxicating.

It’s the feeling of falling.

Fifteen years on and I still get the same adrenaline surge, even after thousands of jumps. Maybe I’m just a daredevil with too much free time. Or maybe it’s the magic of what I’m jumping into. I was born and raised in the Void, but my parents came from Earth. They taught me to appreciate the strange – and made me see just how remarkable this place is.

Most of the Void is beautiful, empty sky. It goes on for unimaginable distances, like a map with no edges. But it has a top and a bottom, shrouded in bright red clouds. I plunged through the clouds at terminal velocity, seeing only crimson gas through my goggles. Sometimes you get sparks and brilliant lightning, when the clouds are in just the right state.

But before long, I was back in the vast blueness, plummeting toward the floating mountains. Settlers in the Void had built towns on these mountains and colonised what little land there was. They had water, farms, metals and enough brains to make it all sustainable. My parents were down there, managing their shop and waiting for me to literally drop in.

On the inside of my goggles, a light blinked and a message flashed up.

“ESTIMATED TIME TO LANDING 3 MINUTES. FLIGHT GEAR READY.”

Of course, every jump necessitated a landing. We had some good engineers too, on the mountains. Using only Earth-based knowledge and raw materials, they had developed hydrogen-powered jetpacks and other systems to make the Void safe to navigate. They also chose the name of this place based on its location.

It’s misleading though, because ‘Void’ is supposed to mean there’s nothing at all in it. But here there’s so much beauty and so much space. I guess they just stuck with ‘Void’ because it’s easy to pronounce.

“ESTIMATED TIME TO LANDING 2 MINUTES.”

Two minutes meant I had to start thinking about slowing the descent. I tucked my legs in and started to flip my body upright. My flexible flight suit helped me to control the move. The mountain I called home appeared in the distance below, like an insect on a pond. That was my target.

What looked like a speck was actually a mass of rock the size of the Earth territory called Tasmania. It was home to around a thousand of us, all living on a mountain suspended in the sky. Once my parents would have said this was impossible. In the Void, impossible is a word only used in Scrabble.

“ESTIMATED TIME TO LANDING 60 SECONDS.”

The speck was enlarging rapidly and my feet were pointing at its centre. Time to power up the jetpack. I told the onboard computer to do its thing. Despite the furious rush of air around us, it heard me as clear as if we were in church.

Compressed gases started flowing into the fuel cell on my back and ignited. There was a burst of power that seemed to rocket me upward. In reality, it was just making me move downward more slowly. It had been a great jump as usual, but I was starting to come down from the high. My commanding side took over as I asked the computer to deploy the various fins and air brakes attached to my suit.

“ESTIMATED TIME TO LANDING 30 SECONDS.”

It felt like I had a smooth half-minute ahead. By then I could see the ground itself, with a nice, flat field to float into. However, a new and alarming feeling took over. Something wasn’t right. I was falling toward the field much faster than the human anatomy would cope with. In flashing red text, my worst fears were confirmed.

“MALFUNCTION DETECTED!”

This had happened before. I immediately knew that I had seconds to restart my jetpack. I also knew that panicking would be fatal. A new batch of adrenaline arrived and I fought to keep my cool. Time slowed to a glacial grind in my head. There were only seconds left, but it seemed like hours to me.

My commands to the computer were swift but audible. I repeated every emergency code I knew. I felt more gas enter the jetpack, but no ignition. The only thing left was to extend my air brakes as far as they’d go. With barely a second left, I turned so that my belly faced down. My flight fins spread out like a parachute. Even as the green raced up to embrace me, I never closed my eyes.

The impact launched a cloud of soil that served as a perfect distress signal. By the time I regained consciousness, about ten locals were digging me out of the field. My parents were among them; their shop was very close by.

My back, arms and legs felt like they’d been in a rock crusher. My goggles were shattered and I was leaking hydrogen. But I was alive, breathing and talking.

“Father,” I said, “The Thing happened again.”

 

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