The foot tram was broken on the north side of the pier. Seventeen year-old Toby Johansson had to walk across the dirty grid path—it wasn’t too strenuous for a physical enhancement instructor. As he strolled, he looked at the solar panels attached to the tall support frames and building facades. The panels were glazed over with oxidation and separating at the seams, posing the danger of breakage and electrical shorts. ZZZzzzpht! Eight hundred years of exposure to the elements had taken its toll.
He knew that twenty wind turbines, rooted to the pier and reaching skyward from tall masts supplied supplemental electrical energy to the high scraper city. Only half were operable, but still working in concert with the warped solar panels. What a joke. When the weather didn’t permit solar penetration, wind turbines strained to keep the deep cycle batteries charged to supply the city.
Toby stuffed his hands in his jumpsuit pockets, feeling the nip in the air. To his left loomed the quads; endless rows of massive Quonset hut dormitories built with three story levels, with the roofs blanketed in cracked solar panels. The quads took up one hundred and thirty of the one thousand two-hundred and eighty acres. The rest of the platform land was reserved for the enclosed garden grounds, hydroponic stations, electrical generators, shops, drag pumps, maintenance bays, iron and copper mills and factory warehouses. He’d seen every installation so many times he couldn’t give his mind permission to wander. My city. You’re ugly enough to make a freight train take a dirt road, old as Triassic rock and carrying more baggage than a Cruiseliner. You piece of shit.
From his vantage point, he could see the giant Phillips drag pump installation that took up the southwest corner. The pump machinery sat over the hollow piling extending below it. The pump station looked like an oil refinery that’d had coitus with a cement plant—a dirty, eroded collaboration of tanks, pipes, valves and furnaces. It stank like burnt oil.
When Toby neared the southwest corner, he glanced around before he ducked under a bundle of conduit pipes, stepped around a back-up generator and squeezed between two holding tanks. He crossed over the red warning line and walked to the railing. This was the most isolated spot he’d found on pier zero-zero-one-C, officially named Cloud’s Rest. He called his hiding place the “cubby hole.” He stared below at the last remnants of sleet nestled in the muddied gullies.
Anything alive and moving down below was indistinguishable, except for the big electric scout and track vehicles which ran over a levy road and disappeared in the distant tree line. The edge of the forest sat upon upraised land created by the giant tidal surges nearly five hundred feet above the flat washed-out basin. Behind the surviving trees, hills rolled away in a blaze of grays and dark greens. The trees seemed cleaved away from the basin as clearly as though cut by an axe stroke. The saltwater run-up had done its damage. Toby knew that the birds that flew over Cloud’s Rest had come from the arboreal dells within the forest. How many times had he wished that he could fly above the trashy flotsam and soar in the sweet fragrant air, to land in the comfort of a nest? Freedom.
The trees and plant seedlings produced and cultured at Cloud’s Rest were frauds, engineered in giant Lucite tubs and fed mineral supplements. What trees they had were stunted varieties that grew in shallow soil on the fringe of the garden grounds. The more mature vegetables were planted in the expansive gardens and harvested when they ripened. The homemade greenery was just as encaged and controlled as the populace—nearly 8,000 people trapped, corralled in a makeshift pier city that was fast running out of resources and raw materials. The whole rusted heap was leaning, ready to topple over and crash to surface.
Toby flinched when he felt a shoulder pinch. His thoughts curdled when he turned around expecting to see law enforcement in his face. Instead, he found eighteen year-old Maria Theresia standing behind him. The auburn highlights in her dirty blonde hair stood out under the dim sun. The crack of a wide smile cut her elfin face in half. She held out her hands in an open gesture, which he took to mean, hey, it’s only me; so don’t blow a gasket.
“Don’t sneak up on somebody like that.” The breath sucked sharply between his teeth. “I thought for sure you were a blunt.”
She grazed against him before she sidled up next to the rail. “I don’t know how you could mistake me for a blunt.” She looked at him with steely green eyes and pursed her lips. He was convinced that her body language was deliberately animated. She never stood in front of anybody with a relaxed stance. She always struck a pose.
Toby watched her raise to her toes and arch her back, throwing her chest out over the rail. She had made her own summer top constructed of sheer fabric which she wore in November to torment him. She had him right where she wanted him. Turn it on and melt me into slag again, why don’t you? She had the kind of hair that flipped, dropped, curled and flowed. He couldn’t resist the way it looked so feminine and wild at the same time. She had once told him that she liked the old classic multi-layered shag. He’d thought she meant that she owned a extra thick carpet in her quad. In spite of her flirtatious shenanigans, he’d made no mistake about her skill at tailoring and sewing. Her job assignment was seamstress and material fabricator. If not for her talents, none of their plans would have taken root.
He turned from her and focused his gaze at the tree line. He estimated the distance to it to be ten miles away, give or take. Could be seven or eight miles. The accuracy of his depth perception runneled through his head. The city council had outlawed range-finding oculars and spotting scopes from the general populace. You never wanted us to see the truth.
Without turning to her he said, “How far along are you? You’ve got to be close.”
She rubbed the small of his back. “I finished this morning, just in the nick. The cords gave me the most problems but I got lucky and found some surplus nylon three days ago. I used plastic eyehooks, canvas harnesses and a hell of a lot of knots. All the material is old stuff but I’m sure it’ll hold up. Justice helped me out with the last of it. We worked fast.”
“You and Justice are featherweights. I’m pushing one hundred and eighty pounds. Remy’s about fifteen pounds over that. We’re talking about some major pull and load.”
“I’m telling you, they’ll take the load. No one in the factory suspected anything missing. If they did, they didn’t give a care or show it. Look, I’m no expert on drag coefficients—we knew the risks.” She peered over the rail. “It’s five thousand eight hundred and twenty-two feet. If we have a breeze we’ll get some good lateral distance. What could go wrong?”
He gave a snort. “The chutes don’t open; we plummet over a mile and pancake on the deck.”
“It’s the last foot that kills you.” She let out a squawking laugh. “Cheer up! This was your idea a long time ago. We can back out if you want…or put it off.”
He wasn’t about to back out. It was one of those now or never dates with destiny. There would be no time for custom fittings, prototypes, experiments, or friends who shied off because of a lack of guts. They all knew the risks and punishments. The time couldn’t be better to make a dash for freedom. Tomorrow was the eight-hundred year-old anniversary of pier zero-zero-one-C, Cloud’s Rest. There would be aerial pyrotechnics, deregulated alcoholic beverages, free rides at the Happy Corner and old classic holographic movies. The blunts would be busy monitoring the crowds and making arrests. Security patrols for restricted areas would be cut by seventy percent. The countdown to Toby’s Soaring Eagle had begun.
* * *
It was eleven o’clock at night when Toby made it to the cubby hole. Surprisingly, Maria and Justice were there, sitting in the extreme corner and making themselves as small as possible. He could see their faces in the refracted light set off by the fireworks above—the anniversary celebration of Cloud’s Rest was in full swing. Justice looked thin and frail with her knees drawn up against her chest, head at a slight downward tilt, causing her long black hair to cascade over the front of her shoulders. Her dark brown eyes were lost in shadow, looking like two black sockets.
Four packs were lined up against the railing, harness straps splayed out on the deck like fat strands of linguini. The girls had placed all the packs and gear there earlier. Toby noticed the packs were encased in heavy paper sacks, which gave him some alarm. Four additional survival packs were stacked against a railing post.
Where in the hell is Remy?” asked Justice
“He better not be doing what I think he’s doing,” said Toby.
In a kidding gesture, Toby had nicknamed him a “slobaholic,” since the man had a penchant for stealing liquor, picking fights and trashing his quad cubical. Remy had been written up twice for imbibing hooch, a strictly rationed commodity that was reserved for special parties and medicinal purposes. Toby had once caught him sipping rubbing alcohol. One more infraction and Remy Billings would pull sixty days of lockdown.
Toby looked at Justice crunch up her face and rock back and forth, knowing she had the same thoughts. “I’m going to kill him,” she said. “He’s getting his fill somewhere when he knows we’re on the clock. Soaring Eagle will come apart at the seams if he doesn’t get his ass here—right damn it to hell now.”
Toby gave Justice the finger over the lips gesture. Her voice was a tad loud, considering they were under stealth mode. The thought of a blunt happening upon them sawed on his nerves. There would be no question about the group’s intentions. Attempted escape brought severe penalties. Lockdown for six months was not uncommon. Another option was a shorter sentence at hard labor in the fertilizer depository. The hard labor was durable. The fact that dead human bodies were ground up with mulch and served as nutrient feed to the garden grounds gave the job a sickening morbidity. He closed his eyes and imagined the bones cracking and flesh squishing under the grinding wheels. I’m about to lose you, you ugly bitch, he swore at the pier
They had to wait fifteen minutes before they heard a body shuffling and clanging through the pump gear. The unknown person warbled a few stanzas to an old song and then hit something that sounded like a bell. Remy. The thick-bodied seventeen year-old, appeared from between the tanks, stood for a moment and then leaned ponderously forward. He rubbed an impact injury on his forehead.
Toby hooked an arm around him, shoved him to the rail and hissed, “Shut the damn hell up, Remy. You stink. You’ve been swizzling.”
Remy blew out a flammable breath. “I ain’t doing this shit sober. You know me—when it ain’t right, I get tight. Besides that, and for your information, I had a mission to accomplish.”
Justice got in Remy’s face. “You damn fool; you can’t do this drunk. We’ll have to call the whole thing off on account of you.”
Remy rocked on his heels. “Naw, we’ll never get this chance again. I’m goin’.”
Maria said, “The hell you say.”
Toby swished his arms. “Everyone enhance your calm.” He turned Remy’s face around to glare steadily into his eyes. “You sure about this? You know what we have to do. We can’t have any foul-ups, and that means terminal ones.”
“I’m tellin’ ya I’m going to be all right. Let’s make this happen.”
Toby gave Remy’s body a scan. “What do you have in that waist pouch? You know our weight limit is critical.”
“Just a few essentials.” He blew out a nauseous burp. “No more than a few extra pounds.”
“Whenever, and if we ever get married, I’m going to kick your ass to a dirt curb,” said Justice.
Maria positioned everyone’s feet over the two leg strap openings. Then she told them to pull up the harness straps, cross them over their shoulders and bring the belly strap around to the front. Toby knew about the belt buckles and adjusted his harness for a tight fit. He and Maria helped the others lace up and position their pull cords over their right shoulders. Toby knew that with one stark yank, the pull cord would deploy the pilot chute then pull out the main canopy. They’d performed the movements in rehearsal a dozen times, three times in the dark.
Toby tossed the surplus packs over the rail near the base of the corner pier piling. He wouldn’t hear them hit or see where they landed. He ordered everyone to spread out a distance of ten feet from each other. Instead of taking his position, he walked over to Remy and put the pull cord firmly in the man’s right hand. “Give it five seconds,” he reminded Remy. “Don’t let go of this cord for any reason, even after you pull it. Wait for the rockin’ big tug.” Toby wet his finger in the air and held it up. “Okay, no breeze. No steering. Don’t pull to either side.”
“I know the drill,” said Remy and slung his leg over the top rail. “God Master on a wagon wheel, here I go!” He leapt, emitting a small whine.
Justice went next after a ten second wait. Maria counted down and gave Toby a snappy salute. She bellied over the rail and disappeared from sight. Toby waited his turn and then kicked up over the rail and let go.
He felt weightless in the pitch black void, but then he had the feeling he’d begun a spiraling tumble. He cursed against the wind rush and pulled his cord at the five-second mark. Nothing happened. He cursed again and yanked harder. He heard the snap of fabric and then had the sensation of being punched in the guts by a giant fist.