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Windhame

by Geoff Hart

You spot the place from orbit for the first time, you know it's somethin' different. It's not just that it's big, you see; lots of places are big. Jupiter's so big it makes you feel like a virus on a flea on the butt of some honkin' big dog, and ole Jove's not even particularly big as planets go. Hell, even Mother Earth's big enough no man can hope to see her all in a single lifetime, even with prolong.

It's just that you don't expect anythin' on this scale to still be light enough a man can walk on it, let alone fly. That's right, fly. That's why you're here, isn't it?

The nearer you get, the bigger and flatter it gets. You think you know flat, child of Earth that you are, but you ain't seen nothin' until you're driftin' down to Windhame, watchin' the horizons gettin' farther and farther apart until your forehead feels like it'll split open from your eyes tryin' to take it all in at once, and wonderin' why they didn't call the damned place “Tabletop” or “Plane” or somethin' like. And it doesn't get any better as your shuttle comes out of its dive and begins parallelin' the ground, on your way to Hole in the Wall, where the Earthmen land. There—and there alone—you see somethin' other than flat, 'cause the port crews keep the grasses bulldozed to let the shuttles land, and the hole this creates makes about the only nonflat part of the world you're goin' to see.

Okay, so I'm exagerratin' a bit. If you're not careful you can trip over a rock or somethin' hidden in all that grass. What? Yeah, more grass than there are atoms of hydrogen between the stars, only packed more densely together; it's like God went shoppin' for plants one day and grass seed was on sale, and he'd just got his platinum card approved. You look at it from high up and it's like the world's biggest shag carpet, deeper than head high, and flowin' back and forth in the wind that never stops and when you're down, you know why they didn't call the place “Tabletop” or “Plane” or somethin' like that.

This is grass like you haven't seen on Earth—hell, like no man's seen on Earth since before they tamed the prairies and turned them into wheat and corn and rye and canola and all those good things. It's a lot like you imagine the old tallgrass prairie might have been betimes; you can still see it growin' on back roads here and there where it doesn't pay nobody to herbicide it or burn it or mow it. The grass is green or golden, dependin' on the season when you land. You get out of the shuttle, and grass is what you see, a wall of grass, and maybe you're beginnin' to feel a mite bigger now, like the flea on the dog's back, lookin' out from the middle of a patch of mange and wonderin' which part of the fur will give you the best shelter when that big ol' hind leg comes a'scratchin'.

The air's a bit thin, and it takes a moment for your ears to pop, and then you're overwhelmed by the smell. It's like—you ever smelled fresh-cut grass? No? Well that's what it smells like; you should try it some time. It's not that the dozers have scraped the ground clean of grass and crushed it—which they keep havin' to do every now and then; it's more like there's so much of the damn stuff there's no room for anythin' else in the air. They don't let you land when it's cloudy or any time near sunset 'cause of the risk of storms—and you ain't never seen a storm until you've seen a Windhame storm, which you will if you stay long enough. You've landed, so that means there's no storm nearby and that the sun's so hot you can feel the sweat poppin' out on your face. If you stand there much longer, the sweat's goin' to be runnin' down your sides like neutrons slippin' down a black hole's gravity well, but you stand there anyway on the gangplank, starin' like a rube. The sky above you is blue like a sapphire wants to be blue when it grows up, and the grass stretches to the horizon green or gold or somethin' in between like someone took a laser and cut a line between earth and Heaven and forgot to turn the thing off when it reached the end of the world. And there's nothin' but the grass and sky, stretchin' straight as that laser until your eyes get tired of movin' all that distance and you blink, and you hadn't realized 'til now how dry your eyes were gettin'.

The wind's takin' your sweat away as fast as you're makin' it, so fast you can't even smell yourself, notwithstandin' 12 hours on an overheated shuttle and a good day'n'a half before that without so much as a sponge bath in the men's crapper. It's a thin wind, like you're up on a mountain, only there's nothin' even remotely like a mountain anywhere here, 'less you count the shuttle; they keep the bases here underground to shelter them from the storms. But it's enough, and dry enough despite all that grass, that it pulls the sweat from you all the same. It's not enough to lean into, not yet at this early hour and not before the wind freshens, but the local bugs have to work to hold position in it. You'll spot them if you look, though they stay close to the grasstops to avoid bein' blown away.

Someone pushes you gently from behind; they've been starin' too, and gettin' awfully dry and thirsty in that sun, and you take your first step and almost fall down the ramp. I told you it's a light planet. You get your feet back under you soon enough, since you've been copin' with this kind of change onboard ship for the months it's taken you to get here, and by the time you touch ground, you're walkin' like a native. You'll meet the natives soon enough. But now, you're enjoyin' the feel of soft ground 'neath your feet after all that deck plate and the poor excuse for carpet they put on ships these days. The soil's grey as cigarette ash here, out in the sun, but under the grass, it's black as a Chinaman's hair, and crumbly like Mom's best cake. And the worms—if they had fish here, they'd be linin' up along the shore waitin' to get ahold of those suckers. Catch one of them worms and you'd be able to retire on the fish equivalent of easy street and live off its carcass for the rest of your life.

What with the low gee, it's a short walk to the bunker, and the shadow falls across you like you were dropped into a swimmin' pool, and you stop short, waitin' for your eyes to adjust. Sure, it's lit, but you've just come out of the sun, and the outdoors is lit. You'll have to find yourself some of those goggles the locals all wear if you plan to spend much time out of doors. Which you do, 'cause that's why you came here, isn't it? The maitre d' or majordomo or whatever they call the guy takes you in hand and brings you and the other tourists to the check-in. The paperwork's already done, but they want a headcount and a retinal print before they'll key you into your changin' room and bring you back into the lobby to give you the talk.

The place is like any other luxury hotel, so you hardly notice the cookie-cutter elegance of the decor; your kit over your shoulder's too light to notice in this gee, and the dufflebag they hand you isn't much heavier, though it's tall as you are. You heft the bag with the synskin, goggles, GPS, stormtracker, gravitics and suchlike onto your other shoulder—all the stuff you're gonna need when they let you out again—and make your way to the place you'll change. The room's so small you'd think you're back on the ship again if it weren't for the smell; even over the oil and hot metal and plastic and 'lectricity, you can still smell the grass, and no ship ever launched had that grass smell.

But you didn't come here to smell grass; you came to fly. So you tip the duffle out onto the floor and inspect your wings. They're far too large to unfold in such cramped quarters, but you can feel their promise as you caress them: gossamer fabric flesh, spun of spider silk, carbon microtubules for bones, and you can feel the life and the lift even before you've strapped them on. You're halfway into your synskin before you realize your door is open, and you're not at all alarmed, body-shy though your people are. Belatedly, you close the door and stretch the skin over you, pullin' hard until it reaches your neck and you can loop the hood around the top of your head, anchorin' it in place. You can feel its tug on your scalp and the soles of your feet, fadin' only grudgingly as it adjusts to you, and in that moment, you see the same image every newfledged Icarus has felt since Windhame opened its skies to tourists: the suit slippin' from your forehead and propellin' itself like a bolt from a railgun across the skies, leavin' you nekkid as a jaybird high in the air. You grin smugly, straighten a fold where it's pinchin' your midsection, and now that you're safe from the killin' levels of UV, attach the electronics:

Stormtracker to warn you should any of Windhame's weather begin movin' your way. GPS so you can't lose yourself in that endless sky and so that those in the bunker, more sober in their work, will know where you soar at all times so they can direct you away from incomin' shuttles and other flyers. And the gravitics, of course; even eagles can fall from the sky, and fractional gee or not, the surface is no less hard when embraced from a thousand metres up than the surface of any other planet. Last of all, the goggles that shield your eyes and face from the light that would leave you cataract-ridden within a day or two, and too far from anythin' like a real clinic to restore your sight anytime soon. You toggle the heads-up display that flickers into life at the edge of your vision, and you'd pause to read its messages were it not for the green lights that line the screen and the sky that lights your imagination.

You gather your wings and head for the lobby, feelin' their springiness in your arms where you hug them tight to your chest and feel them vibratin' in tune with your heartbeat. You've kept yourself in shape, and have the heart of a man half your age, but still, your pulse is goin' fast enough to alarm your cardiologist were he readin' your telemetry now. You think you've changed quickly, but you've actually lingered; most of the others are already there. Maybe a dozen of them—who cares?—familiar faces, but no names, or none that you've remembered.

The trainer stands waitin' and reads the canned speech he's read a thousand times—a million, maybe—and you ignore him, though an irreverent image interposes itself briefly between you and the sky; you see him clutchin' the disembodied seatbelt and explainin' what to do should the oxygen mask fall from the roof. You smile unreservedly, the skin of your cheeks stretchin' beneath the taught synskin, and continue ignorin' him; you've read all the briefings, often enough, in fact, that you could rewrite them from memory, improvin' on them even. After all, you've flown the sims often enough that you know your wings better than the anonymous techwriter who prepared the manual. The trainer's “any questions?” lingers in the impatient silence, and shakin' his head, he stands aside.

The wind has freshened, enough that when you unfold your wings, you have to hold on tight lest they take flight by themselves and leave you grounded, alone and crippled while the others soar above you. You follow the procedures you've memorized, heedlessly, though you savor each click and pop as the wings expand and the struts lock into place. You check each joint individually, testin' it with your muscles standin' out against the synskin but unable to do more than flex it slightly; this carbon, though the stuff of life, is made of sterner stuff. At last, you wait for a lull in the steady breeze that's freshened while you were underground and tug the wings onto your shoulders and along your back, where they lock in place with a tremor you can feel right down the length of your spine and through your limbs. Before they can peel away from you as the wind gusts again, you slip your arms into the pinions that run their length, clasp the handles, and leap into the air, not waitin' for the command.

Your tail unfurls behind you, the wind catches you at the height of your leap and flips you over on your back, and for a moment, there is only sky above you, an emptiness that beckons you upward, but you ignore that summons for the moment and pull one arm across your chest, throw the other backwards, and snap onto your belly, only just beginnin' to fall back to earth. Reflexively, you toss your shoulders forward, the wings sweepin' overhead with the same crack! as the canvas on the the dinghy you learned to sail more decades ago than you care to remember. But that image fades, for these first few strokes are crucial; you're yet too low to harm yourself by fallin', but the shame of needin' a second leap to be airborne would hurt more than the fall. Your arms sweep backwards and down, and now you're higher than your first leap took you, and dozens of metres downwind.

A red light flashes on your goggles, and you snap your downwind arm across your chest, throwin' yourself sideways, as another flyer, even less cautious than you, crosses your path. Not close, yet with the span of your wings...

Your first few strokes require some concentration, but after that, it's like swimmin' in a river, the wind behind you strong enough at this height that you've got to work hard to keep from stallin'. Enough! You tense your abdominals, then snap your toes towards your head; your body jacknifes and brings your head up nearly vertical, even as you cross your arms again and throw yourself into the teeth of the wind. The altimeter spins deliriously as the thin air catches you, and you rise like a kite caught in a jetliner, acceleration blurrin' the ground beneath you for a moment until your velocity levels off and your eyes can catch up. Below and behind you, the port is a pore on the face of the landscape, small enough that you'd never find it again without the GPS unit, and dwindlin' fast as you whip upwards and downwind. Were it not for the pressure of the synskin against your flesh, the rush of blood to your feet would blind you, and the last thing you want to be now is blind.

You rise even higher, the wind strengthenin' but the omnipresent smell of the grass finally dwindlin' into the distance, as the horizon stretches ever further away from you. And for the first time since you forgot about where you were in the rush of the present moment, you feel once again the scale of the place. The horizon below you stays flat, no matter how high you rise, and even when the altimeter chimes, warnin' that soon there'll no longer be oxygen enough to sustain you, there's still no blur or haze in the distance that would testify to the curvature of the planet and the boundary between atmosphere and space. Incongruously, you find yourself wonderin' whether you remembered to lock your room before leavin'.

But the altimeter chimes again, more urgently, and you spin sideways, snappin' your feet to the left and pivotin' about your hips, hangin' briefly suspended before the sky rises above your feet, the ground rises above your head, and you begin your fall. You tuck your arms behind you and fall like Mercury towards the surface, the wind noise risin' until you can no longer hear the poundin' of your heart, the horizon fillin' with the sea of grass until you can no longer see sky at the periphery of your vision. Only then do you level out, arms strainin' against the weight of your descent and wings creakin' disturbingly, flexin' alarmingly further than you'd been able to flex them with all your strength, and isn't it a good thing that the frame won't let the wings move further than the range of motion of your joints? But the wings hold, as they were designed to do, and you soar past the port, the wind only gradually slowin' you, and you wonder if you broke the sound barrier on your way down, knowin' you didn't but not lettin' that stop you from wishin'.

As your speed drops, your stomach and testicles catch up with you, and you angle your arms upwards, shoulders strainin', and bend yourself into a horizontal loop, shootin' downwind faster than the wind itself and feelin' the loss of lift enough that you've got to scull with your arms to maintain altitude. And as you pass over the port, you cross your arms again and do a barrel roll, showin' off and not carin' whether anyone's really watchin'. Your speed drops further still, and anticipatin' the stall warnin', you turn into the wind and fling yourself upwards, reachin' for altitude like the shuttle tryin' to escape back to its native realm.

How long you wheel and bank and climb and dive, you don't know; the chronometer in your goggles could tell you, but you've become one with the wind, and what need has the wind of a timepiece? You have no idea where the port is anymore, though the GPS will tell you if you ask it, but what need has the wind for any one location? But the stormtracker has lit a yellow warnin' light at the corner of your vision, and—metaphors notwithstandin', and unlike the wind—you've got to heed its warnin' if you want to be back up here again tomorrow.

Blinkin', you roll and set yourself on a flat glide, lettin' the GPS orient you towards the port, and as you descend leisurely, you consult the stormtracker's display and draw your breath in sharply, only now feelin' the ache in your chest muscles that months in a gymnasium couldn't prevent after this long in the air. The doppler radar shows an order of magnitude increase in windspeeds since you left, but that you were prepared for; what leaves you breathless is the two orders of magnitude increase you can see further upwind, comin' for you in a curved wall like the breakers you once surfed as a child. For a moment you feel panic, then the scale sinks in; Windhame is big, and you've got maybe an hour before the storm comes close enough to threaten you. Even so, you steepen your glide and bend your path more closely towards the base. You'll not be the last one home, but neither will you be first, and you'll have to keep your wits about you. The part of your mind that's already plottin' your approach to the port wonders how the shuttle managed to leave without your seein' it go or hearing its voice on the wind.

Far too soon, the ground comes up in your face, close enough you can see the individual stalks of grass, angled steeply over as the wind combs through them. And you can see small, furry shapes boundin' through the grass, each leap carryin' them above head height as they flee downwind towards the base. You'd love to watch them closer, but you've got to land, and while it would be embarassin' to be blown onto your back or to pitch forward on your face, it would be even less pleasant to break a limb by landin' too fast and hard. Come all this way for a single day's flyin'? Not if you've got anythin' to say about it.

So you time your descent, and watch the altimeter and airspeed indicator until you feel close enough to touch the ground, then snap up your wings. The gossamer fills again with a snap! as you catch the wind, killin' your velocity almost perfectly. What little remains sends you staggerin' briefly backwards until you can catch your balance and get your groundlegs beneath you again, and though you reel for a moment, you remain standin', abdominals crunched hard to keep you bent forward and your wings spillin' the wind. Safely down, you hit the release, goin' to your knees as your wings collapse around you and the struts sink to the ground. You're pullin' them in without thinkin' before the wind can snatch them from you.

You half see the furry shapes that bound past you and into the port, but their musky smell is all around you, strong as the grass scent, as you gather your wings into a compact bundle and look for the door to the bunker. The clap of thunder that deafens you almost makes you drop your burden, and you look up, expectin' rain—but the storm is still many minutes away, and all you see is the last few flyers descendin', faster than you did for they've left themselves much less time to escape the storm. You hurry inside, and the trainer takes the wings from your numbed grip; you hardly notice, for you're surrounded by a sea of sunwarmed fur and that musky, mostly pleasant scent.

You push gently through the natives, headin' for the bar, but not because you need a drink; indeed, you're already drunk on the wind, and anythin' else would be gildin' the lily. No, your goal is somethin' more important, for the bar has the only window in the bunker (lookin' up from underground), and you've heard so much about Windhame's storms that they drew you almost as strongly as the chance to really fly. You seat yourself at the bar, peel the hood from your face with a snap (only then noticin' the sweat that soaks your hair), and remove your goggles, securin' them to your belt. The bartender places a bottle in front of you, and without takin' your eyes from the window, you drink. Salty-sweet, it runs down your throat like finest cognac, and you suddenly realize just how thirsty you've grown. Flyin's not easy work, even for a younger man. You shoot the bartender a look of gratitude without ever meetin' his eyes, and turn your gaze back to the skies.

Where before there was blue, pewter and black anvils of cloud now tower into the skies, loomin' overhead like a fallin' tree. The storm will hit any second—but you wait, and wait, and finally give in and pick up your stormtracker. No, it's still miles and minutes away; it's the height of the clouds that was deceptive. Lightnin' flashes bright enough to throw your shadow against the far wall, despite the window's automatic polarization, and the room fills with a hushed chitterin' from the natives. Then the thunder rolls across the room, and it's like standin' behind a shuttle as it launches. Your ears are still ringin' when the first hailstones strike, balls of ice the size of a child's fist caromin' off the ground and leapin' high into the air. The grass is beaten flat by the wall of water that follows the hail, and the lightnin' blinds you even as the bartender hits the button that rolls the plastalloy doors across the window, and the thunder roars so loud the echoes topple your drink across the bar. By the time you've looked down to apologize, the drummin' of the hail on the windowshields is so loud that you can't even hear your own voice. The bartender nods, havin' already caught the drink and dropped his washcloth on the spill, and as he returns the drink, he nods his head, directing you towards the deeper bunker.

You look around, bemused, and find the bar already empty 'cept for discarded drinks and the lingerin' aroma of the natives. The bartender shepherds you expertly down the stairs and seals the blast door over your head, and you descend ahead of him. Even here, the ground shakes from the violence of the storm, and the hail and the rain far overhead are like the pulse of the ocean at night, lullin' to anyone who doesn't understand the strength they represent. You know better, for you've briefly played at tamin' that wind, knowin' all the while that it was just playin' with you.

After a time, you wander over to a cluster of the natives. They have the sleekness and mischievous faces of Terran otters, but they're banded like ground squirrels, and their cuteness notwithstandin', these are no mere prairie dogs. Their hands are sturdy and calloused, as befits diggers, but the fingers are long and supple, and the two thumbs on each hand are both opposable. And they wear belts woven of the grass, a variety of metal tools half-concealed by the coarse weave. They speak no English, but the bartender has accompanied you, as he's done for many before you, to interpret their squeaks and grunts. He's well paid to live on Windhame for as long as he wills it, but not so well paid that he's unwillin' to work for tips.

No, the natives don't resent your presence here. Quite the contrary, they welcome it, for you bring proof of the world that lies beyond their heaven, and an insecurity about your place in the world that leads you to dare the skies in an effort to prove yourself to yourself, and perhaps to them. Though they know better, and have no desire to tempt the skies that bring them life when the storms have passed, and death should they linger too long outside their burrows when the storms come. Now and then, they gently correct the bartender when his interpretin' strays too far from their meanin'; it's hard to remember, against the promise of those mischievous faces, that they're intelligent enough to have learned your language, even if their anatomy provents them from speakin' it.

When your exertions catch up with you, you hand them a few offworld coins that they'll use to buy more tools, or keep as treasures in their own right, and you press more coins on the bartender, who thanks you, and with a knowin' look, directs you to your rest chamber. Your bag is already waitin' for you, and you throw yourself onto your bunk, desperate for sleep, before the pressure of the synskin and your bladder both remind you of the foolishness of lyin' down before you've done what's necessary. You peel the suit from you, amused to note that it doesn't fly across the room when you tug it past your shoulders and drag it to the floor. The crapper is close enough that you can reach it with stiffenin' limbs, and you relieve yourself, only rememberin' at the last minute to flush before you throw yourself down on the coarse, scratchy blankets. Unpleasantly scratchy under other circumstances, perhaps, but now you find them better than satin.

The cot trembles beneath you, and as you fall into the darkness, it's unclear to you whether the tremblin' is the storm reaching down for you through ten metres or more of soil and rock, or your own abused muscles enactin' their own puppy dreams now that they're free of the commands of your mind.

In the mornin', your muscles are so stiff you're convinced you'll need to ring for medical assistance, but you've been warned to expect this, and grittin' your teeth 'gainst the pain, you stretch until every muscle in your body seems afire. But afterwards you can move, and a good thing too; you reek of stale sweat, and the empty pit of your stomach threatens to consume you if you don't find breakfast soon. Under the beat of the shower, which pounds life back into your complainin' flesh once more, you belatedly notice that the storm has passed, and the ground is once more still beneath and around you. Coffee, followed by enough breakfast for two normal men, and you're back outside, ready to once more embrace the sky.

The pattern repeats the next mornin', and the next ones after that, until your stay here comes to an end. So you head for the surface, bearin' your kit bag and your memories, to stand awaitin' the shuttle. Two hundred tonnes of steel and ceramics hurtles towards you and touches down gently, gravitics cuttin' in at the last moment, and you know precisely how it feels as it settles. It, like you, will soon take to the sky again, your natural element, and as you stand in the openin' in the grass, watchin' with some amusement, another dozen tourists disembark to take your place. They stand there, starin' openmouthed at the grass, which has somehow miraculously recovered after a week of poundin' from the storms, and only move towards the bunker when a crewmember, frownin' at somethin' only he can see in his goggles, pushes one of the rearmost and propels them all into motion. They walk past you, unseein', and you smile at the other flyers around you and the crewman, understandin'.

Sinkin' back against the paddin', you close your eyes and hear the gentle sighin' of the wind across the ramp, smell the sharp, fresh-cut-grass smell of Windhame, and feel your time here comin' to a close. When the ramp retracts with the whine and grease-scent of hydraulics, the door thumps shut, and the gravitics lift you gently into the air, you bite your lips against the sudden longin' that rises in you, the longin' that is only faintly soothed by the roar of the engines and the thrust that presses you hard against your seat. The shuttle is bein' flown back to its home, but you? You're a flyer, not someone who is flown, and as Windhame falls behind you, dwindlin' in the distance, you know you're leavin' only in body.

Somewhere behind, a part of you's still flyin'.

Author's notes

This story was conceived as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, combined with second-person voice. It's deliberately almost dreamlike, and I think works well to convey that uneasy sense of real yet unreal. I'm not sure whether the narrator's "accent" (dropping the terminal g in participles) works, but it does give the story a slight jar and gives it enough distance from the familiar that, at least to me, would not be there without that verbal tic. Speaking of tic(k)s, the flea on the dog image undoubtedly comes from Gary Larson's cartoon entitled "Home on the Mange". It certainly wasn't a conscious hommage (the joke doesn't fit at all), but there you go: credit where credit is due.

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