Gravity Pilot (Excerpt)

Please enjoy this excerpt from M.M. Buckner’s The Gravity Pilot, coming from Tor Books on March 15. In this novel, the author of Watermind tells the story of a couple torn apart by opportunity, both accidental and ambitiously sought, in a polluted and gritty future. The following excerpt details the reckless gravity dive that sets everything in motion.

* * *


See him glide into the blue dance. Watch him soar on thermal swells. Feel the crosswind skew him sideways through drenching Arctic clouds, and he steers, banks, treads the shining air, till down down down the eternal spiral curve he falls….


AAD. Automatic activation device, opens parachute in emergencies.

Orrpaaj Sitka lay stretched on his back, visualizing his skydive. Light gray eyes. Windburned skin. Stinky gym socks. Clean soap in his ears. High up in a geodesic dome, he rested on an I-beam and squinted through the glass at Alaska’s winter sky. Forty meters above the concrete, one leg dangling free, his body made small twitches as he practiced the moves in his mind. Twenty-two years old, and how he could narrow his focus. The sun, the clouds, the shaping forces of the universe all centered on one event: his skydive that day. No other notion could stick in his head. Not on that day, surely not. He swore to himself that nothing else mattered, but he was lying.

Squirming on his steel beam, he wadded his gloves for a pillow. Mentally, he sorted his gear. Yet his girlfriend’s voice repeated, Why do you throw yourself away for nothing?

Last night, because he couldn’t list his reasons, everything between them ended. Today while Orr braved the stratosphere, Dyce would leave for Seattle to take a library job.

He sat up and straddled the I-beam, plagued by the memory of her hair. Last night while she packed, her long braid came loose, and her hair smelled of candle smoke. He’d never been with anyone else. He’d never wanted any other girl. Seattle was a myth to him. All his hopes lay in completing this stratosphere dive. He sat in his high dome chanting an old Aleut prayer. He hadn’t yet learned what vapor dreams were made of.

Smog rolled around the base of the dome. Noxious fumes had buried the long chain of Aleutian Islands where he lived. Only the highest volcanic peaks emerged above the haze, and from space, the ancient land bridge resembled the broken spine of some great fallen bird. Acid storms immersed the cliffs as predictably as tides, and the rivers ran so yellow, any possible salmon had long since expired. Who can say how the Aleut people endured those islands for nine thousand years? Yet endure they did, even to the day in 2068 when Dyce left for Seattle.

Orr loosened his collar. The glass dome focused the sun like a lens. Built at the summit of Mount Shishaldin, the seedy old Unimak Air Base had long since been abandoned by the United States government and taken over by the tribe. Still, its dome rose above the smog right into the blue January sky, and Orr ached to be up there. Up in the stratosphere.

On the launchpad below, loud sirens blared the ten-minute warning, and he refocused. He got to his feet, drew on his frayed gloves and whispered the Aleut war cry.

Yio’kwa. Let’s do it.”

From the I-beam, he dropped into the gantry tower, then slid down the metal ladder, skimming his gloves along the rails, barely touching the rungs with his feet. His limbs seemed to flow like music. At the capsule level, his quadriceps pulsed and contracted. He felt so ready for this dive.

The air in the dome seemed to crackle with static. The usual loiterers lounged by the hangar doors, trading friendly insults and passing around a sack of fry bread. Orr waved to them, breathing in the heady smell of grease and engine oil. Then he spotted his cousin, Gabe Lermontov, crouching over their gear bag like a chubby bear.

Orr snuck up and goosed Gabe in the ribs.

Gabe’s shaggy eyebrows merged into one. “Do you realize what time it is?”

“No worries. We’ve got plenty of time.” Orr twirled his electronic helmet on his fingertip, dodging back and forth to keep it in balance.

Gabe unzipped the gear bag. “You’re worse than my five-year-old.”

Ah, but what tenderness the two young men displayed toward their gear bag. They reached in and lifted out their Celestia Sky Wing. Most of their gear was patched and faded, but the Celestia was new, virginal. It dazzled them. They glanced at each other and grinned.

“Today we do it,” Orr whispered.

“Don’t push.” Gabe wiped his damp hands down his beard. “You’ve gotta see how this Wing behaves.”

Orr clamped on his helmet and visualized the stratosphere, thirty kilometers above the Earth. Lots of people jumped from that height, but Orr never had. Eight years he’d been working part-time at the tribal seafarm, collecting equipment, practicing, saving his money. He wanted to earn his instructor license. And today, he would do it. He felt feathers tickling his insides. He had to stamp his boots to keep from singing out loud.

Warm winter sun radiated through the glass dome. Gabe climbed onto a step stool to drape the new Celestia over Orr’s body like a tent. Light as air, its transparent micromesh could withstand a nuclear explosion, but Gabe coddled it like wedding lace. He hunkered underneath its folds and jacked its control leads into Orr’s helmet. Then he climbed down off the stool, stepped back, and pretended to beat a drumroll. “The moment of truth.”

Orr chinned a toggle in his helmet, and the Sky Wing came alive. Energy sang through its gauzy folds, and from inside, Orr watched the veil shimmer when he touched it. He felt like dancing. But every eye on the launchpad was trained on him, so he stood a little straighter, and his baritone dropped to bass. “Let’s see if she’ll furl.”

He nudged his toggle, and a mandate surged through the mesh. Within its warp and weft, billions of microscopic sacs released spiraling polymer chains of nano-resins which combined and reacted. The Wing’s material memory realigned, and with a waffling snap, the mesh rolled up into a tight cowl around Orr’s helmet, so thin it might have been a wreath of glitter. Despite Orr’s resolve, a note of involuntary bliss hummed out of him.

The final minutes were speeding by, so he strapped on his parachute rig. The Celestia would sail him aloft, but he would need his parachute to land. He couldn’t stop grinning. Fully geared up, he felt almost too excited to breathe, so he circled their rented rocket, eyeing the new seams he and Gabe had welded.

He’d sold many things of value to make this day happen. His health card. His transit pass. The one good shirt Dyce bought him for job interviews. Along the rocket’s flank in runny yellow spray paint, some previous owner had scrawled a name, Mister Missile. Drone rockets like this were easy to retrofit for sport diving. They were cheap, too, since the U.S. liquidated its arsenal.

Gabe got out his wrench and retightened the mosquito cameras mounted under the fins. His pride, those cameras. Gabe claimed his videos of Orr’s skydives would earn mind-boggling sums of money one day. Both cousins had a gift for pipe dreams.

When the two-minute warning blared, adrenaline hammered Orr’s rib cage. He ran up the tower steps, fondling his silvery cowl to make sure it was really there. Then he swung into the tiny cockpit, snapped a salute to Gabe and closed the hatch. But an ache rippled through his mind. Dyce. He rolled his shoulders to shake off the gloom.

Dyce wouldn’t leave him. Not today. After the dive, he would smooth things over. He always knew how to make her smile. But as the prelaunch sequence began, misgivings rose through his blood like bubbles.

A leisurely Montana drawl rumbled over the radio com link in his helmet. It was Pete Hogue, the fixed-base operator. “Aye, Orr. I’m showing high pressure in your fuel tank. Could be a glitch.”

Orr checked the heads-up display in his helmet visor. “My readout looks good.”

Screwy indicators were common at the air base. Pete leased the operation from the Aleut Tribal Council, and his control tower gauges were nearly as obsolete as his rust-colored rental rocket. For today’s launch, he’d let Orr and Gabe install an oversized fuel tank scavenged from a junkyard. No one but Pete Hogue would allow the old buzz bomb to take off. The flight was illegal. But Pete used to be a skydiver himself, so he understood their need.

“It’s nothing,” Orr said after a pause. “Don’t mention it to Gabe. I think he’s having his period today.”

Pete chuckled. “When is he not?”

Orr squinted out his side portal to make sure Gabe was safe inside the hangar. Gabe’s three little sons were pressing against the plate-glass window, throwing him good luck signs. Ilya, Nick, and Yanny, his fan club. He waved to them, then switched on the air supply in his pressurized jumpsuit as the final pulsing siren announced the opening of the dome.

With a loud boom, the dome split across the middle, and metal squealed against metal as its two halves retracted. Alaska’s toxic smog gushed in like a dozen yellow wind-devils, warmer than it should have been for January, though the temperature seemed to go higher every year. Orr watched the smog spiral around the tower and mushroom against the sealed hangar doors till the whole dome filled with unbreathable haze. Inside his pressure suit, he gulped recycled air. Sure, tonight, he would convince Dyce to stay. But now he needed to focus. Pete was calling the countdown.

“Five … four … three…”

At the mark, Orr ignited the main engine, and fire exploded through the aft nozzle. Thunderous vibrations rocked the hangar windows, and Mister Missile lifted on a thick column of exhaust. Acceleration flattened Orr deep into his vinyl seat. His stomach tightened as the rocket shuddered upward through the long jolting climb to the tropopause, the highest reach of Earth’s blustery weather.

When he broke through the cloud tops into the sudden calm, the quiet engulfed him. Black silence, as pure as ice. His interior spaces opened wide, and he released his grip on the yoke. He was rising into the stratosphere, higher than he’d ever been. Even through a thick scarred window, such a view clears a young man’s mind. He rocked forward and bit his lip to keep from singing.

Pete’s slow drawl crackled over the radio com link. “Check your velocity, son.”

Orr scanned the rocket’s old-fashioned console dials. “I’m still accelerating. That’s funny.”

Pete said, “You’re climbing too fast to exit. You gotta slow her down.”

Orr flipped a switch to override the rocket’s cranky onboard computer. He punched keys to cut fuel and close off the oxidizer flow in the combustion chamber. But the engine didn’t respond. Maybe a valve was stuck.

“Firing retros,” Orr said. He felt a slight jerk as the side-mounted verniers expended their short burst of fuel. He slowed for an instant. Then the acceleration resumed.

“Little firecrackers ain’t worth shit,” Pete said.

Orr accelerated straight up through the stratopause, the roof of the stratosphere. He knew better than to exit. If he popped the hatch, the speed would rip his body through the metal wall before he was halfway out.

“Orr, this is Gabe. Abort the jump. I repeat, abort the jump.”

Pete came on. “Just ride her up and down, Orr. See the sights. That fuel pressure warning must’ve been for real.”

Gabe’s voice rose an octave. “Fuel pressure? What’s this about fuel pressure?”

Orr gripped the helm and rotated the deflectors in the exhaust nozzle, trying to reduce speed and force the rocket over into a flat trajectory. He’d worked too hard to get this chance. Raking kelp. Fixing machinery. Washing out tanks at the seafarm.

Why? Dyce’s voice echoed.

He flipped keys to reposition the rocket fins, but the engine fought back. He heard it detonating inside like a ruptured heart, and he climbed through sixty kilometers, sixty-one, sixty-two. He soared above the stratosphere, into the freezing mesosphere. The temperature outside read minus forty degrees Celsius.

At last, the engine sputtered out, and he knew its chambers would never fire again. His velocity dropped. In a few seconds, the old bucket of bolts would pitch over, exactly as it should have done in the stratosphere. And Orr would feel that instant of weightlessness—his one chance to exit. After that, Mister Missile would drop like a bomb till its glider ’chutes deployed for a splashdown in the Gulf of Alaska.

He had to make a decision now. Exit, or stay with the rocket. But he was so high, almost at the edge of space. His pressure suit wasn’t rated for this altitude.

“Ride the rocket down,” Pete said, as if reading his mind.

“Don’t jump, Orr. We’ll find another engine. We’ll try again.” Gabe’s voice cracked. “I’ll sell the bus.” Gabe supported his wife and sons flying his bus around the Aleutians. The offer was desperate.

Orr checked the altitude, and his mouth went dry. Sixty-four kilometers. Nearly forty miles above the Earth. The thought of leaping into that frigid void made his balls retract. But a Wing dive from that height would set a new world record. He tried to imagine what Dyce would say. A world record. She couldn’t call that nothing.

The rocket pitched over, and he floated up in his seat. Against all reason, he felt lucky.

“I’ve gotta do it.”

“No,” Gabe whimpered.

“Yio’kwa!” Orr slugged the ejection switch and exploded from the cockpit.

Above ground level. Altitude referenced to drop zone level instead of sea level.

Orr and his rocket hung side by side in the mesosphere. Cold bit through his pressure suit, and Dyce’s face seemed to waver before him like a ghostly reflection. The sun blazed to his left, too bright to look at. On his right, he saw a swell of yellow haze, but he felt no connection with that vague contour. He drifted in a separate place all his own. Measureless. Mute. Eternal.

He chinned his radio. “Can anybody hear me?”

No answer. The com link in his helmet had always been fickle. Dyce fussed about his unreliable gear. But his GPS was almost new, and that didn’t work either. Maybe he was too high for satellite relay.

Though he seemed to drift weightless, he knew he had to be falling. One side of his body felt on fire where the sun hit, but the other side felt bone cold. His suit couldn’t equalize the energy loss, and shivers whipped along his spine. Quick, he had to unfurl his Celestia Sky Wing before it froze.

He chinned a toggle, and the cowl around his helmet brightened. Nano-resins formed elastic pairs. Molecular bonds realigned. The micromesh began to unroll. In seconds, it stiffened out and snapped into a clear pliant cone, open at the rear, with Orr swinging free inside, attached only at the helmet. The funnel-shaped airfoil was so glossy, it looked wet.

Almost vibrating from cold, Orr slipped his icy hands and feet into the Wing’s sensitive pilot braces. His slightest movements would alter the shape of the flexible cone so he could steer. For a test, he bent his right arm, but in the thin mesosphere, the Wing barely skidded left. Then it started tumbling. He couldn’t stabilize in such rarefied air. Just holding a straight line took all the skill he had. His teeth chattered, and the Wing made unpredictable moves. It was like learning to fly all over again. He felt the giddy edge of mortal terror.

Gabe’s four mosquito cameras separated from the falling rocket and zeroed on his helmet signal. They swarmed into his draft to begin recording, and he wondered if Gabe would receive their transmission. He angled his body inside the Wing and checked his speed. He was plummeting into the stratosphere now at a rate of—could that be right? Five hundred meters per second? That was over eleven hundred miles per hour, an inhuman speed. Yet he felt no resistance, no sense of falling. Instead, he felt luck riding on his shoulders.

Below him, the rocket spiraled down, glinting in the sun. He saw it disappear into a yellow cirrus cloud bank where lightning arced wide enough to span mountains.

“… got your … calling…” Voices crackled in his helmet.

“Pete? Gabe?”

Still no answer. The silence went to his head like a drug. He felt as wide open as the universe. What name could he give to such a feeling? He found himself humming.

When he blasted into the denser air of the troposphere, heat rippled the Wing’s leading edge. The pilot braces felt hot through his gloves, and Gabe’s cameras shot sparks. He steered the Wing to shield them. He’d never cared about video before. Just doing the dives was enough. But today he would set a new world record. He pictured Dyce running to greet him, leaping into his arms.

“Sitka, you blamed fool…”

“Pete? This is Orr. I did it. The view’s unbelievable.”

“You’ve got…” Pete’s voice broke up in static.

Orr felt the wind now. It moved at terrific speed, driving him due west into the sun. He darkened his visor as the airy tops of smog clouds rushed over him in a blur. The acceleration intoxicated him. When his horizontal speed maxed out his gauge, he hooted, “Yio’kwa!” He’d read about the hot new greenhouse jet streams that swept down from the Arctic and tore holes in the sky. Now he’d caught one by the ears.

Sailing the high-altitude current, he lost track of time, and he chuckled aloud like a happy fool. He gazed down at the amber cloud banks as if they were continents he might claim. If only he could share this view with Dyce. He imagined guiding her, arm in arm, through his kingdom of clouds. But … skydiving scared Dyce.

Rain streaked his Wing as he passed through hollows in the smog. His GPS was still fritzed. He kept trying to contact Pete and Gabe, but their silence didn’t worry him. Here in the thick brown air, he flew the Celestia as he was born to fly, by reading the wind and feeling his way through the currents. The Wing was so swift and responsive, she moved like his own body, and the physical action stoked his senses. He felt the liberating confidence of sinew and bone. All he needed now was a thermal to ride till he sighted a few landmarks.

“Come in, Sitka. You’re…”

“Pete? Come in, Pete?”

The radio signal cleared. “You’re two thousand kilometers off course. Do you read? You’re halfway to Japan.”

Orr chinned a switch, and the GPS map finally popped up on his visor. He was cruising due west over—what? The North Pacific Basin?

Gabe’s voice buzzed over the com link, talking to Pete. “Didn’t I tell him to wear a jet pack? No artificial power, he said. Keep the dives pure, he said.” Gabe sounded ready to weep.

Pete broke in. “We’re calling air-sea rescue.”

Orr squinted down through the auburn clouds, trying to spot the Pacific. His display showed him dropping fast over the Chishima Islands, and a bright, red warning popped up on his visor. Those waters were infested with box jellyfish. Sea wasps, the Aleuts called them. Lately, their venomous blooms had spread all over the northern seas. If he landed anywhere near, their long silky arms would trap him and drag him under.

No time to think. He needed to gain altitude. His lips wetted the radio mike. “Check the weather, Pete. Find me a storm I can surf.”

“Be careful what you ask for, boy.”

Pete’s weather map flashed on Orr’s display, but before he could read it, he saw the cloud swirl dead ahead. A category seven cyclone was building over the hot Kuroshio Current. It was cycling two hundred kilometers per hour, chewing up the eastern coast of Japan.

He chinned for graphic display, and his interface morphed the storm into a panic-stricken jet stream coiling and biting its own tail. Orr breathed through his teeth. Storms like that never used to hit Japan, but the North Pacific was changing. The display showed a column of hot air boiling up from the cyclone’s eye, and that would give the lift he needed to fly home.

Reaching that eye, though, would be tough. Those wind shears could rip him out of his Wing. But the challenge engaged him. He imagined Dyce watching, and he felt his luck rise. So he flexed his limbs and focused on what he had to do.

“There’s a ship, Orr. We’re trying to contact a ship.” Gabe’s voice always broke when he was lying.

“Did you get your video?” Orr asked.

“Sure I did. A new world record.” His cousin sounded frantic. “The boys are with me. We’re watching you now.”

Orr waved to the cameras. “Show this to Dyce, okay?”

“I will, Orr. We’ll show her together. I’m calling that ship.”

“See you soon.” Orr shut off the com link. Then he flew toward the storm.

The outer winds buffeted him counterclockwise around the outer cloud swirl, and downdrafts thrust him lower. He needed to cross through that swirl to reach the rising air at the center. So he forced the Wing onto its side to carve through the current at an angle. His horizontal speed picked up fast, but the Wing started fishtailing. He felt like a child riding a paper kite.

When the Wing began to spin, he reacted fast and rolled it upside down. Runaway spins could kill. He tried carving into the windstream at different angles, but each time, the Wing started bucking. He made a mental note: the wingtip needed a flatter edge. When he got home, he would text the designer.

Wind shears were intensifying, but he kept trying to slice through. At last, the current caught him, and he spiraled toward the center. The vortex was sucking him in. Only two of Gabe’s cameras still trailed close in his draft, and he glimpsed them over his shoulder. When Dyce saw this recording, surely she would admire his skill. She’d be waiting. Surely, his sweet girl would wait.

Out of nowhere, a rogue gust knocked him sideways, and he felt a force like hard vacuum tearing his body out of the airfoil. He lost his hold on the braces. Only his helmet wires held him in the Wing. He felt them tugging, straining. Then one wire snapped. It lashed across his visor, grazing the clear ceramic with a starburst of hairline fractures.

But he was rising. No doubt about it, he felt the buoyant upsurge of air. He grabbed for the pilot braces and chinned the toggle for his readouts. Nothing. His helmet display was dead. He was flying blind now, soaring back up toward the cloud tops. At last, his Wing tumbled over and bobbed upside down in the boiling upper reaches of the storm. He’d made it to the center. His eyes leaked tears of pure elation.

Inside his suit, he felt soggy with sweat, out of breath. His oblique muscles burned when he flipped the Wing upright. Filtered sunbeams drenched every surface in bronze. As he surfed the storm’s crown, he looked for the cameras. Only one had survived. Its lens irised wide to gather the metallic sunlight. Brass, silver, copper, the clouds heaved and tossed. An arc of mist geysered upward and hung suspended. It glowed like platinum, edged in white gold. Orr watched it shimmer.

He grew calm watching the clouds. Gradually, he became aware of a riveting joy. The sky seemed to billow and pulse with unspeakable poetry, and Orr’s chest swelled. Dyce felt very present, very close beside him. He could almost sense her hand in his.

Around him, the cyclone whistled. His limbs ached from holding his position in the boiling uplift. He couldn’t stay in the storm’s eye, exhausting his strength. He had to cross out and fly east.

He took one last glance at the geyser of mist, haloed against the sunset. It was dissolving and falling, a crimson spiral curve, fringed in black.

“Let’s do it,” he whispered.

He flew into the swiftest inner wall of the cloud swirl. His worn-out muscles sang with pain, but he gripped the braces harder, willing himself to stay strong. Winds jetted around him like furies. All at once, the Wing stood on end, and Orr’s head smacked the airfoil.

He woke under his parachute canopy. Silence. Smog. Drifting. He had no memory of opening his parachute. His automatic safeties must have kicked in. The side of his head raged, and it took him a few seconds to realize his Sky Wing was gone. Gone? The storm had ripped it away.

He turned and squinted through his scarred visor, but in the murky smog, he couldn’t see the Wing anywhere. He knew the laser signal in his helmet still worked, because that last tenacious camera still buzzed beside him, documenting everything. He imagined Dyce watching. Maybe this would be the video to make his cousin rich. A new world record. Orr drew a breath. He was about to complete the highest pure skydive any human being had ever made.

Why do you throw yourself away for nothing?

The sky felt cottony quiet, dappled in golden light. Stratus clouds parted below, and he glimpsed the yellow Pacific. He was lower than he thought. He could see the bubbly foam on the wave crests. He would hit the water in seconds. No time for recovery. His mind screamed, This can’t be.

Time whistled past. He switched on his locator beacon and activated the CO2 cartridge to inflate his life vest. The ocean rushed up. Not yet. I’m not finished. He checked his canopy to make sure the cells were inflated and the lines were clear. He spun to face the wind, but before he was half ready, the waves engulfed him, and his own weight carried him down.


Copyright © 2011 by M. M. Buckner


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