Chapter six: All's well, that ends deep.
I walked into the kitchen quietly. I didn't want to simply slam the screen door and announce my presence, particularly when my father and I hadn't really parted on the best of terms.
It was more than a little surprising and disconcerting to turn on the lights and see-
Percy and dad, sitting at the kitchen table. Staring at me. I screamed.
Both of them immediately began laughing themselves silly while I pounded my head slowly against the refrigerator door.
"Why are you both here? What's going on?"
Dad frowned at me. "Come now Finston, I thought I taught you better than that. He is my guest and thus I cater for him. It's only polite."
I rolled my eyes and then realized I was still facing the fridge. I considered rolling them again, this time with my face actually pointing in their general direction, but it was no-good the moment had passed.
"So why are you two, just sitting here, In the dark, Waiting for me." I asked, attempting to put a good deal of suspicion, disbelief and some quite genuine concern into my warning tone.
Percy waggled his wrist-watch; he was old fashioned like that. He preferred arm-mounted smart-phones to terminal PC's with holographic or simple VR goggle interfaces. "I've got an application to tell me when my wings are nearby. It went off a minute before you touched down, so w just thought we'd have our little joke, no harm done right? No harm done, everything's shiny on our end. Now It's your turn, why did you go home, from the artifactory when I left a note saying don't leave?" He raised a single eyebrow.
"I was out, learning the system."
Percy grimaced and my dad looked slightly disappointed.
"Son, how many points did you lose?"
"None. I had to give the ones I gained back… as a gesture of trust. Still, I think with a little- whats the word? Means six legged." I snapped my fingers, irritated at the lapse.
"Hexapedal?" Percy suggested before swigging a soda.
"That'l do. With some hexapedal help, I should do quite well. Anynow, I've now convinced several promising people to go out and encourage others to act in a manner which will allow them to accumulate points quickly.
I'm hoping it will also be invaluable for tracking down those players who have accumulated a great many points."
"I'm afraid there's a flaw in your plan; you can only have one point gained per opponent. That is, you can't gain two competition points by betting against someone who has beaten someone else you've beaten. One person, one point gained, be the victory attained directly or through proxy."
I quite suddenly felt myself feeling glum.
I hadn't known that.
My father held up a finger. "Hang on just one moment, if you can actually set this in motion it would definitely work in our favor, or your favor if you're set on winning whatever ridiculous prize the Nike corporation is offering."
I sat down at the kitchen table, landing in the chair heavily. "How paw?"
"Simple, if the word gets around-" He made swirling motions with his fingers in the air "That this town is easy to get competition points in, then people will come to us having exhausted other cities in their pursuit of points."
Percy snapped his fingers and began to search his wrist-watch for something.
Moments later he straightened up; "Here, the other day an unofficial site sprang up, it shows where the most competition points are by density in the world."
Father and I peered at the screen "Percy, could you link to my projector?" "Sure."
His Wrist-comp connected to the holographic display of my terminal glove, enlarging the image in the air so all three of us could see.
"Dang, Japan, England and the rest of the island nations are so full of C.P's that it's not even funny. I mean look at us, we're half their concentration and we're the most concentrated in the whole D.S.A!"
My brow creased in worry. There was no way we could catch up to the denser population centers of the island nations even if we did try.
Father's face was neutral "This city is home to Nike H.Q. and while I don't like them very much, they are extremely shrewd business people. What I cannot work out therefore, is why they have not set the bounds of their competition to be confined to singular cities, states, nations or even continents!
Having the entire world competing for the same prize may be ambitious, but some suburban flier who has great skill, can still be beaten by someone who has the time and money to globetrot."
Something tugged at the strings of my memory.
"Well, I heard tell that someone released an application which can tag people with their real-time score. Perhaps the system is intended to allow cross-pollination. People travelling from one city to the next, making connections and winning points-"
Percy had been silent for a time, now he snapped his fingers again.
"Of course! Three years ago, Nike bought huge shares in public transport infrastructure! If this competition becomes an annual event, they could make a Killing!"
He paused and his fingers blurred as he tapped out a new search into his wrist-comp.
"Got-it, there are deals on Nike-Aries. Their airlines are offering discounts for competition participants based on how many points they've accumulated in the areas around the airport."
My mind was on fire. This was more than ambitious, it was in motion. All these people from a
ound the world travelling to pit themselves against others, all because and through Nike- Oh hang on!
"It's not just transport for now- Holy crap! They're making business for themselves."
Percy and dad looked at me oddly.
"It's like arms dealers, Sir Zaharoff was one who sold munitions by starting and maintaining wars. He sold the first submarine to the Greeks, then told the turk's about it and sold them two and then went to Russia and said both the turks and the Greeks were giving the Russians some funny looks and had been stocking up on submarines. That's just as an example. This competition is making all these people travel and meet each other all around the world. What happens when you go up against people who're almost on par with you?"
Understanding dawned on Percy's face.
"It's like a global dating service or something."
I winced "Not, exactly, I was thinking that like, with all of the people meeting each-other, getting to know one another, there are going to be a lot of people saying things like 'come back here sometime' or 'lets get together again' and then people who usually have no reason to travel are suddenly buying plane tickets to go over and reminisce about their old flying days for the next few decades."
Percy paused with a pained expression on his face. "I think we need some paper."
Ten minutes later we were looking at a list of benefits that the Nike corporation could experience by holding this competition.
It was a pretty long list.
The only real downside we could find was that if the eventual prize wasn't good enough, or if something screwed up during the award giving, then there was a really good chance that they'd be dealt a serious blow- while making it exponentially more difficult to pull a stunt like this again.
So there was only one real, obvious plan of action.
"We need to win. At All Costs." I whacked the table with my fist. It felt right.
Percy bit his lip.
"Chances are, although this stage of the proceedings will be legit, Nike is probably fielding a few safe candidates for the win. They thought of all this in the first place, If I were them and I was this smart, then I'd have a contingency." He drummed his fingers on the bench.
Pa stood up and nodded "Then we'll have a contingency as well. Christopher. Would you mind assisting me in this? I have a few ideas."
Percy stood up "By all means…. But please Mister Kanstanofski. Call me Percy."
Pop shrugged and then turned on me "Finston, this enterprise is for your benefit, so if you'd be so kind as to contribute?"
I sighed "How much do you want?"
"Just start the transfer. I'll say when."
Chapter 7: A different league.
Two and a half days earlier, the blare of a bedside alarm clock woke a bleary-eyed girl from her fitful sleep.
Steeling herself, she waited exactly five seconds before throwing off the covers, dashing across the room, grabbing the curtains and tearing them apart to be blasted by the bright sunlight of the new dawn.
Outside, a quiet suburban street was waking up. Men in dressing-gowns going about that timeless pursuit of picking up the mornings post.
Such old-fashioned habits matched the wide sidewalks and grassy verge's that lined the street.
It was a slice of the past. Just beyond the curve at the end of the street, the towering skyscrapers, monoliths of shining glass and steel would stretch toward the sun, glittering like the spires of some fairytale city.
Here, the world looked like it had decades ago. Clear sky and green leaves.
The only difference is that the roadway isn't asphalt, its flawless glossy black mag-strip.
Washing and dressing, she descended down to the first floor.
Breakfast was eaten quickly, she didn't want to be late today.
The pancakes were gone before the buttery knob atop the stack could dissolve.
Now walking to the front door, she opened the cupboard that contained her gear.
Strapping on the protective boots, leg-holster, knee-pads, elbow-pads, helmet and chest-piece before shrugging on and cinching tight the round hemispherical ovoid of her Nike Omega wingpack.
Pulling on the control gloves, she flicked the helmets toggle-switch.
Immediately a tracery of blue lines began to swirl on the concave face of her flight-mask as the GUI resolved itself on the transparent surface.
Thin blue white lines of light began to creep along the edges and seams of her protective gear, eventually running into the chest plate and emblazoning the featureless black surface with a glowing 'swoosh'. The light continued to spread to the backpack where it ran down both sides, the cold glow advancing with the liquid smoothness of a freshly cracked glow-stick.
The advancing glow met at the lower apex of the ovoid and in perfect synchronicity a glowing Ohm containing a Nike swoosh flicked on, intense at first and then fading to a soft, steady glow.
She stepped out.
Behind her the door swung shut and for a moment she paused to breath in the crisp fresh air.
It felt like a good day.
Kneeling, she drew the Mag-line from her leg-holster. It synched with her helmets GPS and in moments it had confirmed her course.
She clenched her left fist and let the first two fingers on her right hand curl.
Wings resolved into existence behind her.
Twin folds of blazing orange furled around her as she sighted down the magline, fired and then clipped it to her belt. She relaxed and waited for the jerk of acceleration to catch her as the road surface, originally intended to float and propel cars caught hold of the line and began to pull it.
The line snapped taut and she was dragged forward.
In that instant she jumped and unfurled her wings, angling so the wind would catch her and send her soaring upwards.
The road was reserved between seven and seven thirty A.M. for flying pedestrians.
After that, Mag-lines would retract and people would have to land or risk endangering others in the traffic stream.
Constable Icarus was very specific about that in the last tape they played of him at the school.
"Hey, Aurea! How's it falling?" A boy in a Nike 'Black-light' flight-suit was gliding along-side her, his hammer shaped wings of neon green curled downwards at the edges.
"Going great Steven! I finally have all my homework done and I've been practicing the hook! Wanna see when we arrive?" The shortwave communication channel didn't have the greatest quality, but nothing could disguise the enthusiasm in her voice.
"Awesome, nice to hear you finally got the hang of it- Woah!" The reason for his surprise flew past in a pink and black blur.
Rozalin Mayfield didn't bother with padding. She didn't bother with anything she didn't feel was worth her while and what's more, she was good enough with her Nike to do what she liked. A real Air-head in training.
Which is why she retracted her mag-line and dove downwards from behind us, shifting wing-form from flight to razor.
The razor wing is a cheap trick, outlawed in pro-league gliding, sports and aeronastics; instead of letting the millions of monomolecular surface edges of the feather field curl in on themselves, the wing's edge is left straight.
In feudal and modern Japan, some of the finest and definitely the sharpest swords in the world are forged by folding and beating a club of steel over and over until it's edge is made up of layer upon layer of tempered metal.
The blade-wing creates an edge keener than even that, despite being formed of stratified layers of atmospheric gases.
In any-case, the result sheered clean through the titanium nano-tube alloy cable of boy girl and boy's mag-lines.
The two quickly recovered as their hands immediately hit the retract buttons, tiny motors inside the magnetic grapnels barrel spooling up the cable and damping the whiplash.
Now simply gliding, both craned their necks to watch as Rozalin flipped mid-air to face them.
In a frozen moment she simply fell backwards, her wings dissolving into streamers of light which reflected and danced across the dark glossy curve of the ski-goggles she wore in place of a full mask.
She leaned forward and blew them a kiss, before reality caught up.
She tumbled and twisted mid air gracefully, reactivating her wings and angling herself down as the hot-pink and sharply slanted fields materialized. Swifter than either Aurea or Steven could, she angled herself downward and accelerated around a sharp bend and out of sight.
Both boy and girl followed. Maybe today they could catch her and force that bully to ground.
Their wings morphed, shifting from shapes suitable for gliding to their personal presets for racing.
Trading altitude for speed, they followed Rozalin, taking the same corner as she had, although both went wider than the other girl.
With that corner, they'd entered the Hall of Mirrors.
In a city of glass and steel, knowing the territory counts for a lot, especially when tracking someone outlined in day-glow fluorescent pink.
It became clear after the first three turns that they couldn't track her by her reflection anymore. They weren't alone.
The streets began to fill with gliders, each one as bright as the falling sparks of a firework.
All heading for the same place. The Hive.
Although it's official name was the combined community education center, all of the staff and children who taught and were educated there called it the Hive.
It had started as a single hexagonal spire, but now with the addition of the six outer towers the towering block was about eight hectares wide at the base.
All education in the city took place in the Hive.
At its top and about halfway up the structure, empty spaces with grassy terraces, trees and climbing frames had been constructed. While the rest of the building was as neatly subdivided into classrooms as any office block.
Each tower had its own specialty and rather than having classes divided up into grades by age, you moved up and down the tower based on how you did in class.
For example if you did well enough on the fifth level to pass the lowest student on the sixth level then you got moved up.
It was intended to teach mental agility as partners seating arrangements and subject areas could shift on an almost daily basis.
Steven and Aurea were together clear through most of the day. They had a handshake agreement that they'd both try and stay on the same levels and had managed to keep to it for three months.
Today they both came in to land on the springy surface of the sixth floor arrivals deck with perfect timing.
You had to be careful with how you landed from your glide. If you left your wings open too long you might get caught by a gust of wind while close to the ground and end up injuring yourself in the fall. If you cut the power too early, then you'd risk turning an ankle or breaking a bone.
The spongy surface of the Hive Landing pad was much more forgiving than most surfaces and it would take a monumental exercise in stupidity or bad luck to injure yourself while coming in to land here.
"Ow!" Like that one just now.
Someone with wings the white and grey shades and neutral aerodynamic shape of the default settings had come in to land, forgetting t cut their wings while also aiming for one of the deep seams in between the blocks of spongy foam.
Their foot had got caught, a crosswind caught them and they'd fallen over sideway's clutching at a turned ankle.
Steven and I exchanged glances and wearily walked over.
Some people who fly are so horrible at it, they really shouldn't have tried in the first place, yet most of them never listen to advice and think of themselves as the bees knees.
I leaned down and depolarized the faceplate of the ordinary flight-mask that the injured one was wearing.
"Tessa, why am I not surprised?" I asked, taking one side and hauling her up with Steven assisting across from me. "You really should just get your dad to give you a lift, he'd do it and this is the sixth time this month."
This was not one of those people. Tessa tetra contessa was athletic, strong, flexible and accurate; but she could never really master the one thing that had become the only popular outdoorsy activity in the last few years. Flight.
She could get the gear, but never the passion or the skill it took to execute a straight up vertical Skillrex with triple rotation… not that I could actually pull off a stunt like that-
Anyhow, the point was that she was miserable and instead of getting all narky at Nike, she decided that the problem lay with her. Which although true, to a point, did mean she didn't really choose the best way of dealing with all this.
"Tessa, you really need to think about the way you act." Steven commented on the way to the infirmary.
"Huh?" Tessa looked surprised, usually he didn't offer his opinion, even when helping out.
Steven helped me let her down into a chair outside the office, I glanced at Steven and he nodded.
"Really, it's not good for you to keep getting injured like this, I mean, are you even Ensured?" It worried me that I'd never bothered to ask that question before.
Tessa glanced along the spotless stretch of corridor. Steel and epoxy left no cracks where dust could nestle or germs breed and fluorescent lights set into the ceiling filled it with cold light.
"Well, bye then Tess, we've gotta get to class." I told her, feeling as always a pang of guilt for leaving her, semi-crippled in such a cold and featureless setting.
She waved and watched us as we ran around the bend in the corridor and out of sight.
Fortunately we were still in the right hex for our first class and so we were only a scant five minutes late.
We entered the room, which too was hexagonal, as were the desks and chairs; the latter being made of transparent colored plastic with a similar shade selected for the top of each desk (The legs and base of the desk were white flawless plastic. We sat down in the two empty spaces left in the front row and tapped the transparent orange tinted plastic twice.
It darkened and showed the Login for our sessions; we were both in Co-op as usual.
Math's class now, apart from in the very lowest and highest levels of The Hive, consisted of playing a simulation of the lives of famous historical mathematicians and physicists. Each time you completed one you'd be able to unlock someone from the next time period based on your performance.
By the end of it, you were supposed to be able to understand how practically every conclusion in mathematics was reached up until now. We were both up to Richard Feynman in the twentieth century.
From there we had our languages class, which covered not just the one we spoke, but binary, cobol, sasquatch and Piltdown. Digital is international.
No matter what we did though, Steven would win out in sciences, leaving me stuck in the average while he lorded it up on the forty-ninth.
Eventually we met up in the core area for Lunch.
The core was basically where the building's floors had been sliced away and all that was left was a huge open area covered with grassy hills.
At the center a gigantic support column, held in place by magnetically tethered cables at each apex, kept the gigantic space open, despite taking up all of floors twenty two to twenty eight in the main Hex.
More recently, Nike had donated money to have platforms and ladders strung between the anchor cables, now kids would nestle on them, some squatting on the edges of the platforms, wings furled like gargoyles, others hanging underneath them like bats. All watched as the Games took place. Each day, teams of fliers would slice through the air, spiraling around the central column.
Normally, children never have anything more advanced than basic anarchy when it comes to playground organization.
However, after forty one and a half injuries the first day the platforms were put up, it was decided that having everyone take to the air at once was not a good idea.
Hence the teams and the games. The premise was simple; choose one of the four games. You'd then be put at the bottom of the challenger list for that game. The challenger list worked on a rotary system. The Champions would face two teams per day until they lost. The winner became the new champion. The loser went to the bottom of the list.
The most popular was the Feather Fall. You had to keep yourself from touching the ground until after your opponent. If you used your hands or feet to grab anything, then you lost.
You worked together to force your opponent to lose altitude faster than you and then spiraled once they were out of wing reach. It used to be that diveracing, Lazor airtag and even the scored team aerobatics were more popular than feather fall.
What changed it was when an up and coming air-head figured out by curling the end of your wings you could form a hook, able to grab, swing and even grapple mid air. You couldn't just circle anymore, you actually had to force your opponents down. Of course then came the idea of actually holding yourself up off the ground, until wrestled to the ground by your opponent.
In short, it had gone from four minutes and fifty five seconds of circling and five seconds of mid-air flailing, to five minutes of furious mid-air acrobatics and combat.
It also made it the most dangerous of all the games.
Steven and Aurelia had four people on their team, but neither Francis or Magnus were good enough fliers to be worth considering. Like so many things, learning to fly was easy, but mastering it took time, skill and precision. Francis was great at Diveraces, able to flip out of a fall with fearless and millimeter precision, while Magnus could go through mid-air twists and contortions that left even some of the girl gymnasts in open mouthed amazement.
Today though, they were up against Rozalin and her crew. For the last three rounds she'd basically used the rest of field as stepping stones; and since her vertical drop-kick had been described by victims as like "Being hit by a cargo freighter".
Fortunately, they'd watched closely over the last several days and realized that once she performed the move, there was a five second recovery period before Rozalin could recover her stability.
No time left now for that. It was time to jump.
Steven and Aurelia's wings snapped open as they stood on the far side of the hexagonal platform.
A slow clap began in the crowd around them. They both sealed up their helmets, gave each-other a quick nod, sprinted to the edge of the platform and jumped.
Two figures with wings in Challenger Yellow swooped from the platform and broke away, curving left and right around the edge of the Hex.
Two figures with wings in Champion Red cut around the center pillar on the left side. Aurelia craned her neck to try and watch them as they circled around behind her.
Rozalin's team-mate now flew closely below her, wings shaping themselves for stability as she stepped onto him and let her own wing elongate, extend and curl. The red strip snapped around a support cable ahead of her. Aurelia remained calm. Her opponent would pull herself up, gaining altitude and speed, before dropping down to deliver a crushing blow.
Not this time. Aurelia began to count. Timing would be everything here. She'd seen Rozalin do this move before. Every time, it took her at least four seconds to begin her drop. So on three, Aurelia's fingers flicked out with a practiced motion, hooking her wing to a horizontal support cable and letting her momentum swing her around in a vertical ark.
The crowd watched, awed as Rozalin sailed past where she'd been, missing by mere millimeters.
Her reaction time was spectacular, spreading her wings wide to check her fall- but now she had almost no momentum and without momentum or something to stand on, she wouldn't be able to pull a grab assisted recovery.
Unfortunately Aurelia had problems as well. She'd swung fully round, unfortunately, she hadn't been able to practice this bit and so didn't pull off the second part of the maneuver properly; instead of breaking cleanly away and turning into the direction of her momentum in a controlled glide, she made a rookie mistake when angling her right wing. Instead of going back, she let it swing up. So when her left wing unhooked itself, she dropped into a narrow and uncontrolled spiral dive.
The wind rushing past her face, the yells from the other children, they all seemed to slow to a standstill.
Her mind shed layers of reasoning and protocol, turfing out all the deadweight to deal with a situation that required immediate action.
Aurelia saw she was falling. To reduce speed, she opened out her arms and splayed her fingers, widening her wingspan and increasing drag.
She was still falling though, and fighting to remain stable. Operating solely on instinct, she looked for solid objects to use as springboards. There was one right below her.
Curling her arms inwards, she let herself fall faster. Impact and she let her knees bend, absorbing the shock, before pushing off forward and spreading her wings in a perfect swan leap.
Out of danger, her mind returned to normalcy. Meaning she suddenly began to see the last twelve seconds as everyone else had.
The challenger Aurelia had swung around and performed a perfect 'Drunkard's walk'; a difficult maneuver that allows an attacker to get a fix and close on a moving target without pausing or slowing to locate them.
Then, she'd cheekily performed the very same finishing technique that Rozalin had attempted to use on her! In the pro-leagues the vertical Drop-Kick is notorious. Perfected in nature by hawks and birds of prey, the attacker flips out of a steep dive at the last moment to deliver a lethal blow.
Killing your opponent is of course frowned upon in most professional settings.
So instead of targeting the neck, you go for the pack- and keep the blow soft, if you please; equipment is expensive.
In her totally unplanned recovery, Aurelia had managed to crack Rozalins pack like an egg.
The crimson wings flickered, and then vanished altogether. Gravity greedily took hold of Rozalin and added it's pull to the force of the downwards blow.
The girl hurtled downwards, shock, rage and fear fighting for dominance within.
Aurelia dived unthinkingly. There was no way she could catch up with her opponent, not at the speeds she was travelling at. It was already over before it started; the two other players on the field were too distant to help.
A long beam of coruscating energy lashed out and caught Rozalin mere meters above the ground.
The beam itself was being emitted from the 'safety-net', a set of what looked like spotlights, arrayed at the midpoint
"Oh… oh…. Bugger!" Aurelia punched the air, sending herself into a lateral spin.