Come Fly With MebyIcingsugar©
It was close. I could feel it in the air. Everyone still went about their business, scurrying in and out of doors, along parapets and across the web of bridges, suspended platforms, and cableways stretching across the chasm, that perfect cone shaped drop that was the Axis.
"The Axis?" you say. That's right. I keep forgetting. Neither the Axis, nor Aurora would mean anything to you. She has long since passed, and will never return here again. But to understand my story, I think you must know at least the basics.
The Axis was the centre point of Aurora, the twelfth evacuation vessel from the old world. Aurora carried a population of a million and three hundred thousand when we set out, and a million and six hundred and fifty four thousand when I left her fifteen years ago. She had then travelled for fifty seven years. Yes, Aurora is where I was born and raised, and the four hundred levels of circular streets around a round chasm called the Axis is, and always will be, my home town.
In the Axis, people lived a regular townslife, had regular town jobs and did regular town things. Not everyone busted their balls driving the ship, mind you. There was a society that had to be run. After a few years on board of Aurora, all kinds of roles, and levels in society began to crystallise. Barbers, shopkeepers, barkeepers, accountants, lawyers, housewives, prostitutes, criminals, you name it. It was, in all aspects, a run-of-the-mill city. Except that we floated around in interstellar space.
Anyway, that day, that day was like all other days in the Axis. Below me, on the bottom levels, the rich and the fabulous pranced around in their smaller circles of luxurious condos and garden platforms. I lived a bit above that, in a not too costly, but respectable and quiet part of town. High above me, on the wider floors, underpaid service workers, as well as a few ethnic groupings had chosen to make a living. We had a Chinatown some thirty floors up, a big Hispanic area between 328'th and 366'th, and the seedy, run down and not very friendly neighbourhood up near the roof, where criminal gangs reigned and an escalating drug problem was keeping the PD busy. There was room for all in the Axis, and all tried to make the best of their situation as it was.
But they knew, as well as I did. Today was one of those days. We were about to do a slingshot. And I knew that they were all scared. I was too.
The official name for the maneuver was a Tremenie Charge, after the scientist who had discovered the techniques behind it some two hundred years ago. Basically, it had to do with tapping into the energy that existed in the antimatter that vacuum consisted of. Now, when I went to school we were taught that vacuum didn't consist of anything, but that was grade school physics. This Rosalyn Tremenie's theories were apparently proven correct, and there are matter and energy to be extracted pretty much everywhere.
I'm not an egg-head, so I have no idea. All I can say is that it works. It was what kept Aurora going, provided energy for the life-support system, artificial gravity and all the other things that we took for granted. The name "slingshot" came from one of the things that this Tremenie Charge did to the ship, the one that was most obvious to the million or so regular people living here. When channelling into Tremenie matter, we are kind of letting loose it's powers in the "real world" of atoms and molecules, and the spot that we target, at a safe distance from Aurora itself, becomes a massive centre of gravity. So around that spot we would orbit, while somehow tapping into it and recharging our own batteries. When we were done, the hole, or whatever it is, is sealed up, and we continue, with increased velocity, in the direction of the tangent.
Aurora wasn't built for that kind of thing. She was an old ship, one of the first of her kind, and the ability to do a slingshot had been added on later, just months before launch. The stress on this huge vessel was enormous, and there was always a small risk that something might go wrong. After every slingshot there were weeks of repairs to me made, both to the hull and to the inner structure. I should know, I was one of the ones doing them.
What was really dangerous for the everyday citizen of Aurora during a slingshot was not the risk of total annihilation. That was too distant to be on anyones mind. I doubt that most people even were aware of it. No, the real danger was the gravity. Or rather, the lack of it. Too close to a real, natural gravitational field amassed around a Tremeine centre, the ships artificial gravity could not function, so during the charges, it was turned off. That meant that anything, and anyone, not securely attached would drift out into open air. And when gravity was turned on again... Well, to put it in as simple words as possible: Splat!
That's why everyone stayed in their homes during a charge. Just holding on to something and staying outside was also a bad idea, due to the heavy trembling and stress on the ship, keeping a grip for the six hours it takes would not be a safe bet. And then there was also the business of having anything that was sent drifting raining down on you when gravity returned.
And then it came, just as I had expected. Xenon lights on top of every streetlight, along every bridge, started their blue and red flashlight blinking, turning the walls of the great chasm into a mighty spectacle. Have you ever seen those old movies from the athletic arenas of Olympic Games? You know, when the fire is first lit, and everyone flashed their photographic cameras to capture the moment. That's what it looked like. A beautiful sight, but foreboding something not at all as pretty.
Then the sounds. Sirens hollered in the distance, from speakers the message echoed, in twelve different languages, "A Tremaine Charge will commence in T minus two hours. Please return to your quarters or a public chamber and remain there until further instructed. Remember to secure vehicles and loose items in your homes. Thank you."
The sirens and the mantra of that warning was repeated for another five minutes. I remained at the parapet, leaning out over the edge to see the floors below me. There, as well as on the street behind me, activity was beginning to stir. It wasn't the first slingshot, and it wasn't the last. People were getting pretty used to the routine. I heard steps behind me. As the sirens finally fell into silence, my next door neighbour, a retired old camper from the granary department named Salvatore, joined me at the railing.
"Here we go again." he said, his voice like the tearing of paper. He had had an accident at a wheat plant years ago, and some fertilising chemicals had fried his vocal chords. Not that he cared all that much, he had explained. It wasn't like he had that much to say anyway. I liked Salvatore. He didn't fuck around.
"Yep." I replied.
"They say it's going to be a smooth one this time."
"Yes, yes. Compared to the last one at least."
"Let's hope that. It damn near tore us apart. And it cost me five weeks in a wheelchair."
"Yes... How is the knee these days, by the way?"
"Doing better, thank you for asking. I should be able to go back to work in a few weeks."
"Good, good." Salvatore mused, staring out into the lightshow still going on. "It did you good though. Rehab. You look heathy. Not like this time last year."
"It did." I had to agree. Getting my knee smashed had actually been great for my health. Gave me a reason to start working away five years of being a couch potato, a drunk and a painkiller addict. That kind of thing can really make you look like shit.
"Well, here's to better health. I'm off." Salvatore said, and with a pat on my back, he turned and headed to his door on the bottom floor across the street, the door next to mine. "Better get those damn chairs tied up and secured. Don't stay out late, kiddo!"
With a chuckle he walked away, crossed the street and went inside. He'd do like so many others; secure his stuff from drifting, strap himself into bed, pop a sleeping pill and nap it out. Me, always I stayed awake and untied. Some couldn't stand it, and would get nauseous. Not me. I liked the whole weightlessness shebang, and I used to amuse myself with drifting around doing silly little pirouettes and somersaults. Not that I'd ever admit to that in public.
I had no rush, I only had a few plants to bag and stuff in a locker, and a few chairs in the kitchen that were designed to clip onto the already down-bolted kitchen table. So I stayed, turned to the street behind me, and watched the bustling of parents calling their children home, men and women walking past their windows collecting loose trinkets and putting them in plastic bags, cars being anchored to the ground and scooters being chained to the railing along the edge. Within the hour, the street was empty, save for the occasional straggler, or people with better time management, like myself.
Well, it was time. The bridges were empty, the cableway gondolas had been parked on either side. People were for the most part already inside, waiting for the almost monthly event. Many were probably already asleep, at home, at the office or in one of the huge public chambers on each floor. I sauntered across the street, brightly lit from the glowing ceiling high above me, and from the xenon symphony behind my back. I collected a few assorted items from my small front porch, merely a ten feet platform by the window, and carried them inside. A few items, a garden chair, a potted plant and an open book, some old 21:st century classic. Inside, I put the book in a sealed cabinet along with my other literature, jammed the chair in under the bed, and started picking up assorted junk and litter.
That was of course one positive thing about the slingshots. They gave me a reason to tidy up.
My chores took just about the time I had expected, and with five minutes to spare, I sat down in my sofa to wait for the afternoon of weightlessness that was about just around the corner.
Sometimes fate plays a strange little game. Had it not just then occurred to me that this was the last time to get a decent drink of water out of the sink for two hours, I might not had spotted her. I would had read a sad little note about her demise in the news bulletin the next morning, how a young woman on 120:th didn't make it indoors and lost her grip on the shaking parapet where she had clung desperately when gravity was turned off. How she had drifted up, and out with the slow but persistent draft of the Axis. How she had fallen, hundreds of floors down, turned into a wet spot on the sidewalk.
There was always one or two for every slingshot. But it wouldn't be her. Not this time. Because I had seen her on my way out from the kitchen.
There was a woman walking along the edge railing. Casually, strolling as if she had no hurry to get herself to safety. She lead a scooter, but didn't seem to care to ride it for the extra speed I knew she'd need. I guessed that she was headed for the public chambers further down my street. But at that pace, she wouldn't reach even half the way.
She was one of those posh low level girls. Enough family money to buy her a solid education and nice clothes, but not enough to wallow in luxuries. A tall, healthy figure dressed in a nice, hugging, but not too obviously teasing casual suit. Her skin was quite pale, which was surprising, because her long, dark hair and equally dark eyes would had me guessing a mediterranean heritage. But this was Aurora, and old lineages was a rapidly dimishing phenomena. So you never knew. What I did see however, was that she looked absolutely beautiful, like the girls in the cosmetics commercials. Perfect skin, a strong, proud face, and an impeccable, but tasteful make-up. The impression of perfection ran all the way from the well groomed raven hair, to the sexy but tasteful skirt and the dark red polish on her fingernails. She was the kind of woman that you could pass on the street, have an appreciative glance at, and then dismiss, because they simply looked too well balanced to be anywhere near interesting other than as statuettes. Too good, too perfect, too out of range.
Besides, her looks didn't concern me at the time. Her immediate safety did, and I reacted as I would had if she had been just anybody. I ran to the door, pulled it open and shouted.
"Hey! Miss! What are you doing out there?! Don't you know there's a charge coming up?"
"What? Who are you?" she said and turned my way.
"I live here. Didn't you hear the warning? Don't you see the fireworks? A charge! A goddamn slingshot! You can't stay out there."
"Yeah, I know." she replied with a what's-your-problem shrug. "But that's over twenty minutes away."
"Twenty minutes? Is that what your clock is telling you?"
"Yeah. Five past three. Why?" she said, and confirmed my suspicions. This girl did not seem like enough of a bimbo to ignore the warnings. In fact, she seemed to be sharp enough to take care of herself. But what difference does that make if one is so way off on an important fact? And the time was the most important fact in her life right now. Time that was about to run out.
"Well, you're off by a quarter. They'll switch off the pull real soon now." I warned her.
"What?" she said, and examined the watch on her wrist. She looked at it, put it closer to her eyes, tapped on the glass, and sighed. "Well, I'll be... damn. It has stopped. It's broken."
She just stood there, shaking the little watch, and didn't seem to care about her situation. I guess the impact of what it meant to stand out there in the free was too much to take in instantly. Shock of the surprise of immediate peril, I guessed. But then again, I'm not a shrink. All I could see was that she stood there, still holding on to her scooter and examined her watch. I had to snap her out of it somehow.
"Hey!" I shouted. "Lady! You have to get inside. Now! There's only something like five minutes left before..."
As if on cue, the speaker system crackled and called out the last warning: "Attention, citizens of Aurora. The Tremaine Charge will commence in fifteen minutes. The artificial gravity generators will be shut down in three minutes. If you have not yet done so, seek indoor shelter immediately."
The girl got a panicked look in her face.
"Three minutes?! Shit! I'll never make it. Maybe if I hurry..."
She mounted her scooter and prepared to race down the street.
"Hey, don't be stupid!" I called out. "They've closed the public chambers already. Besides, that's at least ten minutes away. Come here instead, I have plenty of room."
"I don't think so. I have no idea who you are. I really shouldn't..." she said.
"Come on, I'm not gonna do anything. It's not a bloody pick-up line, I'm just offering some help."
"It's not that, I... I really shouldn't."
"Shouldn't what? Save your ass from drifting away out into the big drop? It's up to you, lady. The door is open."
Now she just stood there. Tense, intense, torn between options that I couldn't understand. She stared at me, at the doorway I stood in, up and down the street, and back to me. This was going too slow. I was not leaving that girl out there to risk death.
"Two minutes!" I called out. "Don't make me have to come and drag you in here, you hear?"
Finally she snapped out of it, took one last glance up and down the street, as if there were other options awaiting her, and got moving. First she took her scooter, did a quick attempt to pull a chain from one of the tied-up bicycles by the railing at the edge. Then she dashed for my door, and the welcomed roof it provided.
Safely inside, she turned to look at me. I could see the uncertainty shining from her eyes now. I did my best to try to calm her.
"Hey, miss. Chill out, will you? I know you don't know me, but you really shouldn't think the worst of people. I'm a nice guy, honest."
"It's not that." she breathed. "It's this. I've always been asleep. I won't have time to let a pill work now, right?"
"Wait. Are you saying that you've never been awake through a shot?"
She shook her head.
"No, my family have always slept them out."
"I see. Any reason why?"
"I...I don't know. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
"I can't see why." I said. "I'm Petri. What's your name?"
"Camilla." she replied.
Camilla? Now where could such a name come from? Was she British? Scaninavian perhaps? On the other hand, she probably wondered the same thing about my own name. I'm told my biological mother was Finnish, but she died before I got old enough to get to know her. My new family decided to keep that name. A nice gesture, I think.
"Well Camilla, let's get you settled. I don't have anything to put you asleep with, but there are some cords between the cushions in that sofa if you want to hold on to something."
I scurried out into the kitchen and came back with a plastic bag, which I gave her. She had settled down into the sofa and was checking out the "seatbelt", which was the recommended equipment for securing ones person during non-gravity. Useless junk as far as I'm concerned.
"What's this for?" she said and eyed the yellow plastic shopping bag suspiciously.
"In case you want to toss the cookies. Many people get nauseous from this."
"Oh. Yipee." she said, with not much enthusiasm. "Ok, now what?"
"We wait. Any second now..."
Then it came, that split second before the floor was dropped from under us. I was standing in the middle of the room, the attractive, but unexpected houseguest was sitting on the sofa, holding on to the nylon straps as if her life depended on it. Everything fell into silence around us, the whole of Aurora held it's collective breath in anticipation. You could had heard a needle drop.
Except you wouldn't. The needle wouldn't have anywhere to fall.
Because at that very moment, the circuits to the gravity generators were cut, and in an instant up and down became a memory of the past. Before anything else, I felt it in my gut. That rushing feeling of falling came and passed just as quickly. Camilla half shouted half gasped in sudden surprise behind me, and I felt the pressure on the soles of my feet ease. Careful not to loose touch with the only leverage I had, I eased up on my toes and sent myself slowly rising to the ceiling. Bouncing around was the key. To be left hanging in the middle of the room was very annoying.
"Ohmygodohmygooood." Camilla whispered, and as I glanced over my shoulder I could see her clinging to the safety straps on the sofa that was bolted to the safe floor. Her whole body was tense, her knuckles were white and her face was a display of wild fascination mixed with mild terror. She must have jerked her legs somehow, because the fabric on the front of her skirt had begun to drift upwards, exposing more and more of her smooth, well toned thighs. To my defence, I would like to add that I did try to look away. But I'm only human, and they were magnificent.
I was about to say something to calm her down, but I had forgotten all about The Symphony. That's what I called it. That godawful noise just after losing gravity in the Axis. It started with a loud, distant, monumental groan, instantly followed by other sounds, rattling of chains, creaking of wires, straining of coal fibre, metal and ceramics. It was The Symphony of a thousand bridges. All the roads and passages that crossed the chasm of the Axis, thousands of tons of suspension and pillars, that adjusted to the absence of something holding them down. For something that is designed for one G of gravity, nothing is almost as much a strain as the double. It was other things too, all the things that people had secured with chains to rails and lamp post on floor after floor, the strain on the houses and streets themselves, all contributed to The Symphony, and the clamour drowned out everything else.