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READ FROM THE START - Chapter 1 Scene 1 - MILAN v0.5

Chapter 1 "The Warmest Welcome" MILAN Mars. The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against th...

Friday, January 10, 2020

Chapter 1 Scene 3 - LIV AND DEELON v0.5

LIV AND DEELON


The cargo hold was pitch-black, save for the odd safety light. The quiet undulating hum from the life-support unit on his back seemed repetitive.

Then it all shattered, as the large doors opened and a burst of orange and yellow light from below bathed everything in sight.

While Deelon’s pupils retracted at the sudden brightness, his eyes widened. With his feet centimeters away from the edge of the door-frame, Mars lay beneath like an Olympic-sized swimming pool that had been converted into a sandpit, just waiting for someone to dive in. He bent down in his envirosuit as best he could and gripped on the safety railings like a vice, just to get a glimpse of the horizon in the distance. This might be the first and last time he ever witnessed this sight in person, and he was going to make sure he took it all in.

“Wow,” was all he could manage, stretching the word out in a long drawl. His brown eyes spotted dunes, crevasses, discolorations of black rock, and the reddish-brown wisps of a dust storm. He could almost hear the howling wind in his head.

“We will be approaching your jump window in two minutes,” stated the android to his right. It had the letters GWR emblazoned on its chest, and its head was a reflective sphere unlike any other robot Deelon had seen before. Datu had explained it was for recording in full cinematic three-sixty degrees.

“Gotchya,” was all he could respond with, as the enormity of the drop below only added to the internal conflict that was rushing through his chest and head. He had waited two years for this chance, now he just wanted to get it over with.



***



“Deelon? Are you sure you still want to go through with this? You know, considering what just happened back on Phobos?” Liv Rademaker had a pang of worried concern in her voice. “I mean, at the end of the day, everyone down here would understand if you called it off, and then you wouldn’t have it at the back of your mind, either.”

“That’s true, after all, you cannot afford to lose focus, especially at the end of the descent,” added Datu Hizon, the Guinness World Records representative. “Your mind should be completely on the job at hand.”

Datu sat next to Liv in the six-seater Gryphon VTOL aircraft at the bottom of Valles Marineris, the deepest canyon that Mars had to offer. The day was perfect for the jump, with a bright blue-tinted morning sky and not a single grain of dust moving on the ground. It was clear, peaceful, and almost serene - everything that the situation wasn’t.

“Yeah, it will be,” replied Deelon’s crackled voice through the radio, “You know how long it took me to get a flight on one of these things? I might be an old man before I get a chance like this again. I’m gonna focus like it’s the only thing I’m ever gonna do.”

“Okay,” Liv belatedly replied. She snorted through her nose and muted the comm channel on her wrist, gesturing Datu to do the same.

Staring out at the immense landscape, she hurriedly tried to think of words that might change Deelon’s mind, but the sight itself was distracting. It was a canyon so deep that when she first compared it to Earth’s Grand Canyon, the one in Arizona looked like a simple tear on tissue paper. However, seeing a recorded view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon had felt far more intimidating than its Martian counterpart. Its claustrophobic and towering walls made Liv feel as if they could collapse down at a moment’s notice and bury her for millennia.

Valles Marineris, on the other hand, was so enormously vast that even from their current position, in the deepest point some seven kilometers down, it merely looked like a valley with distant ridges. It was the thought of just how tall those distant ridges were that kept distracting her.

“I’m struggling to think of anything else to say that might change his mind.”

“You told me he was stubborn,” the Filipino man grinned as he slowly nodded. “But it is understandable, considering the rarity of the opportunity he has. I’ve met some people who spent a good portion of their life building up to their record attempt only to never get the chance in the first place.”

Liv sighed.

“It’s just such insensitive timing, why can’t he see that?” Liv turned her head to try and regard the older man sitting behind Datu, but with her envirosuit strapped into the seat, all she could catch was half an eye. “Avery, maybe you should talk to him.”

“As much as I’d like to, I won’t,” Deelon’s father replied. “He’s old enough now to make up his own damn mind.” With his helmet on, the expressive nature of his white eyes against his dark features of African-American descent only highlighted the finality of his words.

“And considering how much you and I have probably distracted him already? I wouldn’t advise it, either.” Datu added, while leaning his head towards her.

She sat silently, trying to rustle up one last way of phrasing it. An approach that would make the kid understand that in later years there was a good chance he might regret attempting his parachute jump in the shadow of the Phobos incident. The only report they had received so far spoke of an explosion, but people could have died up there for all they knew. She wanted to point that out to him, if he hadn’t thought of it already. But, at the same time, Datu was right - distracting him too much with guilty thoughts might get him killed if he then went ahead with it anyway. Despite feeling a strong matriarchal bond with Deelon, his father made a good point; when it came down to it, he was eleven now, and old enough to start dealing with the consequences of his actions.

A bleeping went off on Datu’s wrist as the camera android sitting behind Liv spoke up.

“Camera One is requesting communication.”

“I’m here,” the Filipino man acknowledged.

The android accompanying Deelon up in the spaceplane was quick to respond.

“We are approaching the jump window in thirty seconds. Mark.”

Datu looked expectantly at the woman before continuing. Liv gave a few resigned nods.

“Very well, begin recording.”



***



On the automated Tuanjie Corporation spaceplane, Deelon was gently rocking his head back and forth, attempting to psyche himself up. He was still trying to remove the last thoughts of Phobos out of his head when the Guinness camera android attempted to reset its stance, despite being in micro-gravity. For precisely what reason the machine did it, he didn’t understand. A red light then appeared on its chest, and Datu had told him that was when ‘the lights were on, and everything was go.’

If thinking about how the android’s camera turning on had made his chest flutter, then Deelon’s heart felt like it was about to explode when the presenter’s voice burst into life over the radio. Datu’s voice took on a new, official tone - one that made him almost sound like a different person.

“Hello, and welcome to Mars. I am your host, Datu Hizon. This is the Guinness World Record’s official coverage of Deelon Stafford’s attempt at the highest skydive in the solar system. At an altitude of eighty kilometers above the surface, Deelon is going to parachute towards the lowest part of the red planet, some seven kilometers down at the bottom of the fabled Valles Marineris. It is by far the largest and deepest canyon known to humankind. Not only did he choose this spot to increase the total height of his jump to nearly ninety kilometers, it is also to assist in landing safely. Melas Chasma has the highest atmospheric pressure density on the planet, and that will aid his parachute when he reaches the surface.

Deelon is a twenty-one-year-old 3D printing engineer from Borealis Arcadia, a native Martian who was not only the first person from his planet to break a world record that once stood on Earth but will do so twice if he completes this skydive attempt. Deelon, how are you feeling?”

Deelon’s first instinct was to express how stupid he was in as colorful language as possible. He shouldn’t have had the doors open two minutes before jumping, it was far too long. Staring at the drop below had just let it build up in his mind.

“Good, thanks,” was the stilted response. If anyone watched the footage back and could see his face through the helmet, they would easily tell he was lying through his teeth.

The Borealan did a final check on the custom-fitted thrusters strapped to his hips; both lights were green, fully fueled, and ready to go.

“And do you have a message for the people back home, before you take the plunge?”

He gave one of the straps on his parachute a final tug, and ran his fingers down it, but stopped short of feeling behind to double-check the huge bag was there at all. His light brown lips quivered as the adrenaline took hold. It was then that he realized he couldn’t recall what he was going to say. He had spent ages planning it out, but now it was like someone had locked his memory in a box and chucked it over the edge ahead of him.

“Dad,…” Deelon struggled, but used the first thought that popped to mind, “and all my friends, this is for you.” The moment he finished saying it was like a key had been turned, with his mind opening the floodgates and letting it all come back. He was going to say that it was for Borealis as well, that it was a sign of the progress in how far they had come. No longer just surviving on its hostile surface, but thriving, having time to follow more crazy pursuits. “Oh, and for Bore...” he tried to blurt out.

“Jump window approaching,” interrupted the camera android, “in five, four...”

Datu provided a final wish of good luck before the time ran out.

A second passed after the android said “Now.”

Then another.

He tried yanking himself forward, willing it. His thigh muscles flexed but just wouldn’t do it. It was only when the robot began talking again, something about his jump window, that his mind passed the threshold and sparked his fear of missing it. He dived downwards.

Deelon half expected the spaceplane to zoom off into the distance and buffet him about. But, unlike the action games he had played, there wasn’t enough air up here to drag him back behind the plane. Added to that was the fact the plane’s engines were turned off, meaning they both had the same velocity. So, after doing an unintentional triple somersault from his dive, he righted himself as best he could and watched the spaceplane above him move ever so slowly up and away.

The first reaction his mind brought forward was to internally ask if he had just killed himself. He shrugged that off as quickly as he could. ‘Stay positive, take action,’ was the mantra that he had drilled into himself during his preparation. Mars lay below, and with his feet dangling, that on its own felt like an odd sensation which he would never get used to, no matter how many practice dives he had done at lower altitudes.

Deelon pressed on his wrist screen and started the Heads-Up-Display on his helmet’s faceplate. White markers and numbers for altitude and distance blinked into view. Even from the test jumps, it still made him recall the look of the fighter-plane cockpits he once saw in an old Earth movie. He glanced around in a few directions, mostly to check the markers and numbers were working and looked correct. Unfortunately, bringing up a view of his projected landing made him realize he was a bit further off than anticipated - the cost of not jumping when the robot had told him to.

Despite his landing zone still being well beyond the horizon, Deelon re-positioned himself as best he could and tapped intermittently on his hand-held button for the thrusters. Nudging it ever closer to the precise direction he wanted, he made sure to keep one eye on the red line - the minimum fuel needed in reserve for approaching the ground. Despite his parachute was huge compared to an Earthly version of the same type, it would still need a final burst from the thrusters to give him a soft landing.

With enough left in the small tanks for one good error correction and an atmospheric slow-down burn, Deelon was beginning to feel more in control of the situation. He was also glad that his fingers had finally stopped shaking.

Knowing that he still had a long time to wait before things got tense again, he got back in touch with Liv and Datu to let them know everything was going to plan. Datu helped him pass the time by doing another interview with him, and Liv became seemingly obsessed with asking questions about the view and what he could see. He told her about the sea of black above him and the curving ball of orange and brown below, along with the haze of gray and blue in the distance and the jutting ridges and craters that poked up from time to time.

The normality of the interactions helped take his mind off the crazy situation that he had placed himself in. It also stopped him thinking about the horrible things that might have happened on the first moon.

When the time finally came around for the slow-down burn, Deelon had overcome his fear of just how fast the ground was moving beneath him. With an atmosphere so thin that it barely affected a parachute until your feet could brush the tallest mountains, combined with needing another course correction, he decided to kill two birds with one stone.

Pulling the rip-cord, a monstrous, billowing entity tore out of his backpack like a mythical Kraken from the darkest depths of the sea. It slowly unfurled and blossomed into a gargantuan yellow parachute with blue trim lines. The entire experience was far gentler than he had anticipated, and Deelon looked back a good few times to check it had deployed correctly before deciding to hit the brakes. Until he did, he was still moving nearly horizontal to the surface itself.

It didn’t take long, as the timer turned red and he could see the walls of Valles Marineris fast approaching. Now was the time, and it brought all the tremors back to his body. Deelon felt like his chest was passing all his breath through an accordion first and his arms trembled, despite gripping onto the cord. The upcoming slow-down burn and landing were where the danger really kicked in. In the next minute or so, he was about to learn if he was a brave and courageous idiot or an arrogant dead fool.



***



Liv was scanning the sky as best she could, but the tracking-assisted binoculars that pressed against her eyes were struggling to find Deelon.

‘Or maybe I’m the one struggling,’ she thought, giving a glance at the dashboard monitor that was tracking his progress.

Datu was staring around in a few directions himself, unaided by binoculars and simply letting his EyeGlass implants do the heavy lifting.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of binoculars before, outside of a movie that is,” he commented, giving the unusual object another fleeting glimpse. “How come Borealis never traded with the corporations for EyeGlass lenses?”

“Well, between the medical supplies, the need of rare materials to print out replacement parts for broken machinery, and all the other essentials you need to keep a colony alive, there’s always something more important to trade for.”

“Ah, I see,” Datu murmured, before hurriedly bumbling through an apology. “Oh! No pun intended I mean. I just, I didn’t...” He looked downward bashfully as Liv snickered in response.

“No need to apologize, I didn’t even notice until you pointed it out.” She took her eyes out of the holes and looked his way. “And stop looking down; we need those computer-assisted eyes of yours on the sky, not the dashboard.”

Datu apologized again and resumed the search.

“Actually, there is one person in Borealis who has EyeGlass implants,” Liv idly pointed out, hoping to put the man more at ease. “I won’t say who, but you can probably imagine how she got a hold of them.” This made Avery chuckle, but it turned into a wheezing cough, and he had to bend forward in his seat and hold his chest before it stopped.

“Ah, the oldest profession made it to Mars after all,” Datu mused before his hand shot up. “Wait, there! I think that’s movement. EyeGlass, zoom-in and enhance.”

Liv darted her binoculars in the same direction, trying to catch a view, but still failed. She had to admit it out loud after Datu asked if she could see her work colleague. 

Giving up and trusting to his vision, she started up the Gryphon and began flying in the general direction he was gesturing. It was a couple of kilometers later before she could make out a tiny black smudge in the sky ahead. At first, she thought it was a piece of dirt on the cockpit window, but when it started noticeably dropping, it was clear that it was Deelon.

Datu meanwhile was busy giving orders to the android behind them, explaining how he wanted it to approach and what shots he wanted when they landed. Then, he switched over to the comm channel, asking his flying camera drone to intercept and circle the skydiver.

As they approached, the dashboard monitor finally gave a clear readout of the final landing site. Liv attempted to land as close as possible while still providing enough leeway to negate any chance of the parachute flopping over the Gryphon.

They landed with a heavy thump, a sign of Liv’s haste and nervousness, and she switched the rocket engines off immediately. It gave just enough time for the dust caused by their landing to clear, enabling them to witness the impressive sight of Deelon’s hip-mounted thrusters firing. Another plume of brown particles blew outward in all directions, obscuring the view, and the only sight after that was of the gigantic parachute gently flopping down.

Avery was more animated than Liv had seen him in years, as he leaned forward in his seat and swung his head from side-to-side, trying desperately to catch sight of his son. However, the dust cloud had blown their way and was hanging in the air, making it impossible to tell how Deelon had fared.

Liv and Datu bolted out of the Gryphon as fast as they could, with Datu clumsily banging his helmet on the door. The camera android also took off after them in hot pursuit. With the cloud still not settling, the Guinness representative was asking his mobile camera to switch to a thermal view when a triumphant cry came over the radio.

A silhouette with two hands thrust into the air was jumping around and began racing towards them. Liv met Deelon halfway, and their gray envirosuits clashed together as they embraced and began bouncing. All the frustration she had with him for going ahead with the dive had drained away, replaced with nothing but the excitement of the landing and the sheer relief that he was in one piece.

After a fist bump and hug, Datu conducted the briefest of interviews, before letting an eager Deelon rush off. He beat both Liv and Datu to the VTOL and scrambled into the back as quickly as he could to bear-hug his father. The sickly man was in his late fifties by Earth’s count but showed no sign of age or disability as he gave as good as he got, and hugged hard, with tears streaming down his face. That in itself was another first for Liv.

She had known Avery Stafford all her life, and despite losing his wife, a leg, and losing a lung to perchlorate poisoning, she had never seen him cry before. Her eyes watered as she watched them, knowing that if it were her son Max or her daughter Fenna, instead of Deelon, she would be bawling herself silly, too.


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