You look at him and you see a man without a home. You see the dirt and the abandonment, the defeated face of a homeless man.
You never see who he was. You never see who he will be. You see the weaknesses but not the strengths, and because of that, you assume there are none. You assume all you see is all there is…and I can’t blame you.
But I can tell you that is how he surprised an entire galaxy.
“Welcome!! To Freefaaall Destinyyy!!!
“Live anew or die gloriously, we’re your favorite dynamic duo: Keilo Farkto and Jik’hit! Coming to you all the way from the fantastic and scenic planet that is Euclides 3, all the way from the fabulous Cluster Arrow!
“This week? We have Ocklo Celár, a forty eight year old man braving the freefall course on one of the highest and most risky of difficulties! Jik’hit, can you run us by the rules again? Just in case there’s still someone out there who’s not familiar with them.”
The elevator arriving from the docking bay diverted my attention from the screen, all but oblivious to my unwillingness to face its contents, and in a way, that day.
Freefall Destiny was the event of a lifetime for the contestants, the greatest entertainment event for the spectators. But for us coaches? It was just another depressing bore…
Ocklo Celár, the contestant of that week, came out of the docking bay like thousands before him, and looked like it too. It was a rule that no one should know a contestant’s past but it was clear from the get-go I was dealing with a homeless man; the smell, the many different layers of misshapen clothes, all dirty and stained, the heavily unshaven face, the eyes, grey and surrounded by dark circles as well as some redness, of tiredness or crying. His hair was graying despite his young age, strings of it hanging down his forehead like they were disgusted of his head. His facial hair looked to manifest surrender.
He walked with a slight slump on his shoulders, too. He was looking around like he had never been on a space station.
He looked at me perplexed, and nodded. The look of recognition that contestants gave me always reminded me of what I saw in the mirror every day. A suit and tie, an average build and an average face that the pony tail tried to compensate for, along with the moustache that I thought gave me an air of more advanced age and experience. More notably however was the serious expression of someone who doesn’t like jokes or chit-chat, which wasn’t necessarily true, mainly a demand of the job.
“I’ll be your coach, follow me.”
“Oh, ok,” his voice sounded out, a bit hoarse but otherwise more respectable than I had expected. That much I remember, the first hint of surprise. The tip of the iceberg.
“We first need to deal with your image. You’ll get a shave, a hair cut, a shower, the works.”
“They told me, yeah.”
Viewers liked to deduct things about the contestants as the match unraveled. Looking like he did, it was obvious he was a homeless man trying his luck, and being so obvious wasn’t desirable.
“Meanwhile, tell me what you know, I’ll tell you the rest,”
“Well, hum, I was told a ‘porter was gonna be launched. I’m launched after it, orbital drop, right? Then I freefall and I gotta catch it. If I don’t die, I get a fortune and a new identity.”
“New identity is optional–”
“I’ll take it if that’s fine,” he said while I hovered over a panel, opening a door. Inside stood the small team of wardrobe artists.
“Well, they’ll take care of you, I’ll clue you in on what you don’t know afterwards.”
The door slid to a close behind him, and I approached a bench nearby and sat down. I didn’t think very much of Ocklo, not at all. I expected him to look much more impressive once he left, the team in there knew their stuff, and that was part of the contestants’ charm. It was important they looked amazing, the audience expected more out of them that way. There was more hype.
But he did look good. Shaved clean, they had actually let his hair stay long. They washed it and combed it so it curtained around his face in a “bad boy” way, it hid what little of the dark circles they hadn’t been able to discolor away. He wore the diving suit, a skin-tight red suit with patterns colored like his hair, to give it personality, and it did a very good job of making him look athletic.
He was still slumping however, no amount of make-up could fix a desperate attitude, in both posture and facial expression.
“Alright, let’s go.”
He moved on and Ocklo followed.
It was quiet, there is always a quiet walk through silent corridors, moments of peace, the calm before the storm of attention that all the VIPs and journalists were waiting to unleash…at the appropriate venue.
They went into an elevator.
“First thing’s first, my name’s Miroslav, I’m your coach. I’ll be in contact with you during your fall and I urge you to pay attention to what I say during. But before that,” he looked at him, “once this elevator opens, we’re going to go through all the journalists, and all the spectators that bought VIP seats at this station. They’re going to hassle you with questions. Don’t tell them anything about you or your past. Your participation will be canceled if you do, got it?”
“Yeah yeah, no problem,” he nodded, a bit intimidated, and I felt it was with good reason; the five minutes of fame that the contestants experienced were overwhelming even for the coaches.
“I’ll tell you the rest after we get to your cabin. Remember, watch what you say.”
He nodded one too many times while the elevator doors opened to show a stadium filled to the brink with people anxious to meet him.
It was clear Celár expected far less than what he was met with: dozens upon dozens of rows stacked with people, and that was just to start with, because there were stands all around the center of the very massive theater, the center which was saved for a bigger holographic projection of what was going on around him. Both of them were being projected above for everyone on the stands and seats to see. And then there were the cabins, hosting the most important guests and VIPs. VIPs were the emperors, the kings and other sorts of world leaders, or obscenely rich individuals, that were a part of the United Federations of Humanity. Or its allied systems.
“Ocklo Celár, what’s your home town?”
“Celár Celár! What do you want the money for?!”
He was surrounded by so much up-roar it was hard to hear the questions, but reporters always found a way, even if it was by repetition.
“How do you plan to use the reward, Celár?”
“Celár! Are you related to Sophia Celár??!”
Everyone knew the rules but everyone always tried to ask questions they shouldn’t, for whatever reason, something that was allowed as a hooking technique, they enhanced the mystery of the contestants, the potential of what would be found out about them, by reminding the audience of what they didn’t know.
“Celár! Why would you risk your life like this?”
“Are you homeless, Celár? Is that why you’re doing this?”
“How do you feel about all of this, Celár?”
On that question, I remember it was in reaction to it, he stopped and looked at the reporter woman. He looked around as if taking in where he was and what he was doing, as if feeling it was the point of no return. He looked like he was surrendering to being overwhelmed.
“I feel it’s important.” A good reply, all things considered, especially since it was the only question he answered. I was certain the network loved it.
Before I knew it, we were finally in the comfort of our sound-proof cabin, where I was free to tell him about the rest that he had to know.
“Have you ever watched a Freefall Destiny event?”
“Then you know most everything. There will be gadgets and weapons falling ahead and alongside you, for you to use if you want. I advise you to only use the ones I tell you to. What you don’t know is that I’ll be surveying your fall, I’ll be predicting your trajectory and I’ll be suggesting directions and deviations that, frankly, you should follow. Because I have all eyes on your environment and I will be seeing things you can’t or, if you can, before you do.”
“Do you have any prior experience with freefalling?”
He hesitated for a second.
“I can’t say.”
I smiled mildly pleased, there were few that didn’t fall for that trap. I used it so I would have something to correct them, a practical demonstration that I know better than them. It’s a personal tactic I used, however, and not all that vital.
“The first 20 seconds of the fall are very important; you need to come to grips on how to control your fall during that time or your odds of surviving go down about as fast as you are. You will have instructional videos teaching you the ropes on your way to the drop. With me so far?”
I then pulled my flat screen and logged into the system. It buzzed and hummed in reaction to my commands putting forth a graphical 2D view of the fall environment. I remember taking a minute to second-guess my schematics before telling him about it, I remember it being a very…tricky environment.
“Your fall will last approximately twenty minutes, give or take. During the fall, you will pass by floating islands and what looks like a storm. Ideally, you will catch the teleporter long before you hit the storm. Also, this is dragon fly season, you might run into some.”
“Dragonflies? The bugs?”
I rolled my eyes remembering the main problem of the contestants. They’re unfamiliar with the world and just how packed with craziness it really is. The whole world was heavily mutated, something out of a fantasy book, which is why most F.D. events were hosted on it. It looked fantastic on screen, provided unexpected surprises and, most importantly, had the most varied and messed up assortment of climates that Humanity had ever registered. Even worse than Earth.
“No, dragon flies: huge lizard-like monstrosities with insect-like eyes and wings. They’ve been known to eat contestants so we’re going to be paying close attention to that.” I noticed then he was not looking at me, but down at the table in thought. “Hey, don’t zone out on me, our time is vital.”
He shook his head slightly, glaring at me for half a second before simply nodding again.
“I’m serious, the most common cause for death in freefall is you getting so wrapped up by the fall, by fear or any of its cousins, that you zone out and stop listening to me.”
“I…I’ll do my best, Miroslav. I can’t really promise anything beyond that.”
I looked at his eyes to gauge his words and I remember seeing a kind of acceptance. I realized then that whatever reason was behind his decision to risk his life in F.D. did not stem from desperation. In fact, it seemed to me he was ready to die, even though he was not fine with it. Not by a long shot.
“Good, you might survive this yet.”