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The following text is an excerpt from Skye Object 3270A by Linda Nagata.
Copyright © 2007 Linda Nagata.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Skye’s skin suit was a royal blue so hot it glowed. It covered every inch of her body, from the toes up, snugging around her like the smooth, thick hide of some water creature. The hood dangled in neat pleats behind her neck. With gloved hands, she reached back and grabbed it, pulling it up and over her short, wispy brown hair, then down across her face. The fabric became clear where it arched over her eyes. Like a living thing squirming into its proper posture, it bent again, to form a stubby muzzle over her nose and mouth. Then it sealed itself at her neckline, the fabric of the hood knitting with the fabric of the suit, so that the seams vanished.
For two seconds there was no fresh air to breath. Then the suit’s Dull Intelligence—a machine mind that was fast and functional but not truly self-aware like a human being—spoke to her in its soft, feminine voice, “Activating respiratory function.”
Well, it was always nice to breathe. Skye filled her lungs with oxygen-rich air. Then she turned to Zia Adovna, who was standing next to her, wrapped in a glistening gold skin suit. Zia was three days short of her fifteenth birthday and tall for her age. Skye was only five days past her fourteenth, but she was taller. Her grin was invisible inside her hood, but Zia would know. “I’m scared,” Skye said. Her suit radio picked up her voice and cast it to Zia on a private link.
Zia’s voice murmured into her ears. “And I’m your mother.”
They both laughed at the familiar ritual. They’d been sky jumping for almost a year, and it was still a screaming rush every time. A lot simpler than hanging out with guys, and way more exciting.
There were at least two hundred people milling around on the observation platform, though only a few of them had come to jump. Those who were serious were dressed in skin suits. The rest wore street clothes. They lined up at the concession stands, or clustered around the clear bubble that arched over the jump pit, where they could watch set after set of jumpers take off. They blocked Skye’s view of the pit, but it didn’t matter. She knew that all the jumpers scheduled ahead of them were real people, adults a hundred years old or more. Skye and Zia were adolescents—ados in Silken slang, pronounced with twangy long vowels, ā•dōze, and meaning something like not old enough to know the difference.
Skye and Zia were the first ados to jump this morning. All the others had signed up for later slots because they wanted to see if she and Zia really would set a new joint distance record.
Skye smiled to herself. No sweat.
They waited for an elevator to carry them down one level to the pit. When one opened, they stepped aboard. Zia registered them. “Zia Adovna,” she announced, and this time her suit radio carried her voice to both Skye and the Dull Intelligence in the jumper’s pit. “And Skye Dropped-in-from-Nowhere—”
“Oh, ha ha.”
“—on a tandem jump of length 4.3 kilometers. Qualifications on file.”
The pit DI responded in a neutral voice: “Zia Adovna and Skye Object 3270a approved for jump, 4.3 kilometers.” The doors started to slide closed.
Then the voice of Commandant Penwo, the jump pit supervisor, cut in over their radio link. The doors froze, still half open. “Four point three K?” Penwo said. “Uh-uh, kids. I don’t think so.”
Zia slapped a symbolic hand over Skye’s face mask, before she could respond. Then she answered Penwo in a polite, formal voice. “Is there a problem, Commandant? We have DI approval.”
“Sooth, there is a problem. Four point three K is the maximum allowable drop. It’s not a kid’s jump.”
Skye glared at the elevator doors, willing them to close all the way, but they remained half-open. Commandant Penwo was holding them open.
The ados on the observation deck had begun to notice the delay. Heads turned. Questioning looks were aimed in their direction. This was not shaping up into the triumph Skye had imagined. “Commandant,” she growled. “We’ve completed the required preliminaries. We’ve jumped two point eight klicks. This is the next logical step, and it’s only adding six seconds to the drop time.”
“Six seconds, one and half kilometers, and a bone-crushing velocity check when you hit the end of your cables. No, Skye. Those regulations were drafted for physically mature ados, not for juveniles—”
“Please check the dates, Commandant,” Zia cut in. “Skye Object is officially fourteen.”
“And besides, we’ve earned this,” Skye said. “You know we have. We’re both fourteen, so it’s our decision—”
Skye’s argument floundered as a commotion erupted on the observation deck. Her skin suit’s external mike picked up the noise. A few ados squealed. More roared with laughter. There was a swirl of motion near the bubble, then a sudden burst of excited chatter. One booming voice rose above it all. “Hey, Skye.”
Behind her visor, Zia’s face scrunched up as if she’d tasted something revolting. Skye groaned, knowing that Buyu-the-brainless had caught up with her once again. “Please, Commandant,” she pleaded. “We’re legal. Close the doors now, before—”
“Hey Skye,” Buyu shouted again, as he shouldered his way out of the crowd. “Did you lose something?”
Buyu was easily the biggest ado boy Skye knew. He was a head taller than her and twice as wide—a walking display of over-developed muscle. On his round face he had recently grown a line of curly hair that exactly traced the outline of his jawbone—a beard. Skye hadn’t even known what to call it until Zia told her. In Silk, no one wore hair on their faces . . . or no one had, until recently. Now strange little sculpted beards were all the rage among ado boys. Sculpted beards and . . . nose bells? Buyu had replaced his nose ring with a little bell that dangled on a clip. Skye could hear its high-pitched tinkling even through the noise of the crowd. She started to giggle . . . until she realized what he held in his hands.
Did you lose something . . . ?
Impaled on his fingers, frantically wriggling to get free, was a mass of gold goo anchoring two whipping tentacles, each half a meter long. Skye’s eyes widened in horror as she recognized the mashed body of her robot attendant. “Ord,” she whispered. It took only a second for her anger to catch up with her surprise. Buyu had gotten his hands on Ord, and he’d smashed it. Even as she watched, the gooey gold plasm of Ord’s biogel body dripped and flowed around Buyu’s upturned hands. The tentacles whisked over his head like streamers, groping, groping, but never grasping anything.
“Open the hood,” Skye growled at her suit’s Dull Intelligence. Then she stomped out of the elevator.
Zia peeled off her own hood. “Skye!” she shouted. “You can’t go now—”
“I’ll be right back, okay?”
Then she turned her full anger on Ord’s assailant. “Buyu! You vicious brain-dead creep. Put Ord down now. What makes you think it’s okay to touch my things? Who gave you permission to vandalize my attendant? Did you forget to go for your usual treatment at the monkey house?”
Buyu stopped cold, staring at Skye in helpless surprise. The “monkey house” was the name everybody used for the medical center—maybe because the docs believed their most important work had to do with the mind, especially, helping people to hold onto a civil attitude. In a fragile, crowded city nothing was more important than getting along, so the docs sometimes monkeyed around with people’s thoughts and attitudes.
Now Buyu’s wide brow wrinkled as his gaze shifted to Ord. He looked as if he’d been presented with an unsolvable puzzle. “Skye, I found your robot like this. It dripped out of a ceiling vent, and hit the floor looking like melted glass. It was about to get stomped. So I picked it up.”
“Stomped!” Skye did not try to hide her indignation. “Ord never gets stomped. Only grabbed on occasion. And vandalized.”
“Skye, it’s biogel. Ord’s just melted. It’s not hurt. Here.” He held out his hands, his fingers pointing down, while the blob that was Ord oozed off them. “It’ll fix itself as soon as it calms down.”
Was he right? Skye leaned forward to catch the flowing plasm in her hands. One tentacle touched her arm and wrapped tight around it.
“You know,” Buyu said, “you really should see the monkey house docs about managing your anger.”
She glared up at him. “Like you know.”
Her gloves reproduced the soft, oozy feel of Ord’s shapeless flesh. It steamed a little in the cool air, but Buyu was right. Already she could see the biogel forming into Ord’s old shape. She bit her lip, feeling a little embarrassed now. “It was supposed to be locked in Zia’s breather.”
“Guess it found the ventilation system.”
Well, duh. She almost rolled her eyes, but she caught herself. “Well. Thanks for picking it up. I guess.” The goo in her palms was quickly reorganizing itself, flowing into the shape of a little square-shouldered bottle with a big, round cap. The cap was Ord’s robot head. She watched as two optical disks surfaced, drifting until they took their place as eyes. The tentacles slid into position where arms should be. Two squat legs sprouted in the cooling tissue, and finally, a mouth formed. “Good Skye,” Ord said, in its soft, whispery voice. “Come home. Come home now. To jump is bad, Skye. Be safe.”
Skye cracked a grin. She couldn’t help it. “Don’t worry, Ord. You know I always do everything by the rules.”
Ord’s tentacle tightened around her arm. Out of habit, she started to boost the little robot up to her shoulder, but she froze when she realized Zia was standing beside her. “You know you can’t take it with us,” Zia warned.
“Sooth,” Skye said. “I know.”
Ord wasn’t made to function in the airless void outside the city. That’s why they’d locked it in Zia’s breather in the first place.
Skye frowned at the robot clinging to her hand. Ord had been following Skye around the city of Silk since she was seven years old. The robot had been assigned to her by city authority when she’d disappeared once too often from a foster home. It was supposed to be her babysitter, her tutor, her own personal tattle-tale if she ever violated any of Silk’s city rules.
She wasn’t a juvy anymore, though. Now she was fourteen, a full ado, and if she wanted, she could visit authority offices and ask someone there to decommission Ord. If she wanted.
She sighed, desperately wishing Ord had an off switch, because its first instinct was to be with her, always, no matter what. Sometimes that was endearing, but sometimes it just got in the way.
“Hurry up, Skye,” Zia said. “Or we’re going to lose our slot.”
At this, Ord looked distressed. It shook its little head. “No Skye, no jump,” it pleaded. “Please good Skye? Come home?”
“Skye!” Zia scolded. “You’re not going to let that little worry-wart—”
“Of course not!”
“Then come on.”
What was she supposed to do with Ord? She didn’t want it to follow them onto the elevator. If only Commandant Penwo had closed the doors sooner. Then they would have made it into the jump pit, where Ord could not follow.
Her anxious gaze fell on Buyu. She eyed him suspiciously, scowling at the line of his beard, and his nose bell. “You said Ord just fell out of the ceiling vent, right?”
Buyu nodded, and his nose bell jingled. “It looked like warm jelly. I guess it had to melt to squeeze out past the baffles.”
So he hadn’t really hurt it. “Well then, would you mind . . . holding on to it one more time?”
Ord was listening. Skye knew that, so before the words were halfway out, she shoved the little robot at Buyu’s muscle-bound belly. He raised his hands instinctively, and she jammed Ord into them as quickly as she could. Buyu’s fingers closed around the little robot, and immediately it started melting again. Even worse, it still had a tentacle wrapped around Skye’s arm. She backed away, prying at the tentacle’s adhesive tip. Zia tried to help her. “Would you mind, Buyu?” Skye repeated. “Just until we’re on the elevator, okay? You can let it go after that.”
Buyu juggled the warm mass in his hands, a goofy grin on his face. “Sure, Skye. I’ll do what I can, but hey, you’ve got to get it all the way off you first.”
“We’re trying!” Zia snapped.
The tentacle had stretched so far now, Skye feared it might break. She stamped a booted foot. “Ord, you listen to me! Let go right now.” She jerked her hand back hard, and to her surprise, the tentacle popped free. Skye staggered backward. Zia whooped. Had Ord really obeyed her? No. It was more likely the robot had just reached the point where it couldn’t stretch any more.
“Skye, come on,” Zia growled, pulling her toward the waiting elevator.
Skye stumbled after her, still off-balance. She glanced back, to see Ord flowing out of Buyu’s hands in a long, golden honey drip that puddled on the floor. “Hey, Buyu, thanks!” Then she turned and sprinted after Zia.
But in that glance back, she’d seen Buyu’s brown cheeks flush in a rosy, embarrassed warmth. Buyu, embarrassed? That was a first. Skye didn’t want to think about the reason. She didn’t want to think about that at all.
She didn’t stop running until she hit the back of the elevator with a concussion that rattled her teeth. Then she grabbed her hood and pulled it back over her head. This time, Penwo closed the doors.
Skye sighed as the familiar hum of air being pumped out of the elevator car reached her through the skin suit. As the air pressure inside the car dropped close to zero she felt her suit stiffen, but the sensation passed in a couple of seconds. Her skin suit was made of tens of thousands of tiny scales, each continuously talking with all the rest as they slid against one another allowing Skye’s body to move. That was the key to the suit’s operation: it detected Skye’s motions and flexed to match them, rather like a wall, constantly folding to get out of her way. It had to be that strong, to keep her safe in the airless vacuum outside the city.
In a high, teasing voice, Zia said, “Would you mind, Buyu? Please Buyu.”
Skye groaned, and leaned against the wall of the elevator. “Did I really sound like that?” she whispered over their private link.
“Well, ado, let’s just say you were under stress.”
Skye thought she might die of embarrassment—but at least the elevator was moving. It dropped only a single floor. Then the doors opened onto the jump pit.
The pit was an ugly chunk of a room, weirdly lit by panels set between the three sets of elevator doors along its curving back wall. Faint shadows shifted and rippled across the floor, leading Skye to glance up, at the domed observation bubble, and the faces of nearly two hundred ados staring down at her. Buyu was there, though he no longer had Ord. He gave her a thumbs-up. Skye pretended not to see.
She straightened her shoulders, glancing nervously at Commandant Penwo’s office, sheltered behind a transparent wall on one side of the jump pit. She could see him, dressed in street clothes and rocking in a high-back chair. He didn’t look happy. He wanted to veto this jump, but Skye was fourteen now, and by Silk’s city charter that meant she was free to do any activity approved for ados. It was a giddy freedom that she had been cherishing over the five days since her birthday.
Penwo caught her glance. He shook his head. “Somewhere between six and sixty people lose their good sense,” he said. “We don’t call this phase ‘dumb ado’ for nothing.”
Skye’s fingers twitched. “Can you remember that far back, Commandant?”
Penwo grinned. “Have fun, Skye Object. Hope you live.”
Usually, it was necessary to wait on the floor of the jump pit while other jumpers took their turn. This time, though, they’d been delayed so long the floor was clear. Skye was glad of it. She didn’t like waiting under any circumstances, but especially not when she’d been toasted by embarrassment. Her body was screaming for a jump. There was no better way to scare out all the cramped, ugly feelings everybody stored up from day to day.
With Zia, she loped across the jump pit, stopping at the railing that guarded the abyss. Skye’s gloved hands closed on the top rail. Her booted toes curled over the edge, yet she had no sensation of any great height. She wouldn’t get that until she looked down. For now, she looked across the abyss, twenty meters to a massive, curving wall.
It was the wall of the elevator column.
In Silk, when people talked about the elevator column, they were never referring to the puny machines that ran between the city’s industrial levels, or that carried people up and down inside the high rises that studded the city’s outer slope. This elevator column was far larger than any of those. It was a space elevator, a massive cable that rose from the surface of the planet called Deception Well, all the way up through the atmosphere and into the airless vacuum of space beyond. Tens of thousands of kilometers separated its beginning from its end. The elevator cars that moved up and down this long highway were the size of multi-story buildings, and a journey to the top took days.
The space elevator was a beautiful balancing act. It could stand only because the downward pull of Deception Well’s gravity exactly equaled the outward pull on the mammoth counterweight at the column’s end.
On the whole column only one point was actually in orbit. That was at PSO—planetary synchronous orbit, a point high on the column where a freely-orbiting satellite would require exactly one day to complete one trip around the planet. Above PSO, any object dropped from the elevator would fall away from the planet. Below that point, a dropped object would plunge downward into Deception Well.
Skye smiled. That was why it was possible to jump. The city of Silk was built on the elevator column. Like a bead on a string, it dangled 300 kilometers above the surface of Deception Well.
She leaned against the rail. There was no danger. The railing would curl to catch her if she started to go over before she was tethered. Or so the real people promised. Skye wanted to test the system, but she knew she’d lose jumping privileges for half a year if she ever tried it, so she curbed her curiosity.
Two blisters inflated in the surface of the elevator column. Skye braced herself, as a cable shot out of each of them, moving with the speed of a chameleon’s tongue. One hit her in the belly with a feather-touch of pressure. A thin gold cord spooled off the cable’s end, sliding into a socket on her royal blue suit. “Compatibility check in progress,” the suit DI announced. “Ten, nine, eight . . .”
As the countdown proceeded, the other cable reached Zia, and linked to her skin suit.
The cables were a color between gold and copper, shimmering in the weird, angled light of the jump pit. This close, it was easy to see that they were made of thin, tightly coiled cord. They flexed and stretched like living things.
As the countdown finished, Skye found herself bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “Compatibility check complete,” the DI announced. “Integration at one hundred percent.”
“You’re too close together,” Commandant Penwo complained. “Space yourselves, until you’re at least twenty meters apart, or I can’t give you clearance.”
“Fus-sy,” Zia muttered, but they each took a few steps to the side.
“That’s it then,” Penwo said. “Do be sure to jump straight, ladies, because you are going to have a long, long fall, and that means a long, long time to tangle your lines.”
“We know the dynamics,” Skye muttered.
“I hope so. Cleared to jump.”
Zia whooped. Skye grinned, glancing overhead one more time at the ados watching through the observation bubble. A few of them were jumping up and down. More were pumping their fists, their mouths moving as if they were chanting something. Zia raised a hand in greeting, like a soccer star walking onto the field, but Skye felt horribly self-conscious. All she could bring herself to do was look down.
The elevator column looked like a huge, slightly curving wall. Below the jump pit it was bathed in sunlight. Skye’s gaze followed it down, down, down. Massive at first, it tapered slowly with distance, until she couldn’t see it anymore, as it plunged into the glowing green crescent of Deception Well’s equatorial continent, over 300 kilometers below.
Three hundred kilometers straight down.
If the cable failed, Skye knew she would not stop falling until she burned up in the atmosphere.
Her heart ran fast. Her skin felt hot with a sweat that was wicked away by her skin suit almost before it could form. Skye drew a deep breath, then she turned to catch Zia’s eye. “Ready ado?”
“Ready,” Zia echoed. “On three. One. Two. Three.”
Still holding each other’s gaze, they dove together, head-first off the platform.
by Linda Nagata