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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
sneak up on somebody like that.” The breath sucked sharply between his teeth.
“I thought for sure you were a blunt.”
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.
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.
to her he said, “How far along are you? You’ve got to be close.”
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.”
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
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?”
gave a snort. “The chutes don’t open; we plummet over a mile and pancake on the
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.”
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
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.
in the hell is Remy?” asked Justice
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.”
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
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.
hooked an arm around him, shoved him to the rail and hissed, “Shut the damn
hell up, Remy. You stink. You’ve been swizzling.”
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.”
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.”
rocked on his heels. “Naw, we’ll never get this chance again. I’m goin’.”
said, “The hell you say.”
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.”
tellin’ ya I’m going to be all right. Let’s make this happen.”
gave Remy’s body a scan. “What do you have in that waist pouch? You know our
weight limit is critical.”
a few essentials.” He blew out a nauseous burp. “No more than a few extra
and if we ever get married, I’m going to kick your ass to a dirt curb,” said
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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