He looked so much younger, shaving will usually do that to someone, but as the jump came closer, so did he seem to get younger.
With helmet in hand and goggles strapped around his forehead, he looked much younger and much more capable of making the fall. He looked at me very seriously, since I was the only one with whom he could connect, telling me goodbye. I imagine what he was looking at, these icy blue eyes staring back at him with meaning and warning, but mostly judgmentally. He gave a very slight hint of a nod as he dramatically blinked while the doors to his shuttle closed between us. I don’t think he nodded though, I think I got that impression from the blink alone, it was the last time we would see each other, for good or for bad.
I sighed in anticipation of another failure, another contestant being decapitated by a bird or something of the sort, but I shrugged it aside on the grounds of professionalism and moved to do my job.
I paced back to my chambers. It was built to ensure my own isolation, it was sound-proof, and it had everything I needed to coach my contestant: the holographic maps, the large screens splitting feeds amongst all the cameras the broadcasting team had access to and, above all, the communicator that only I could use.
The communicator connected to the diver’s goggles, which doubled as a modem for the neuronet, which meant the diver’s brain was in fact connected to the neuronet. This is how Freefall Destiny is able to feedback the diver’s thoughts and memories to the public and, more importantly, what he is seeing. It also allows coaches to communicate with them clearly and without effort. The diver could hear everything in the coach’s room and the coach could walk around at will and simply talk normally, while the diver could hear it as if in his mind.
I turned on his feed on the main screen, as well as the holographic projection of the world, then I switched the secondary screen to feedback all the extra cameras in split viewports.
Through him, I could see the interior of his shuttle, though only for the briefest of moments. As if sensing he was now being watched, he instead raised his eyes and fixated his sight out the window, on the space outside. I remember I allowed him a few moments to take in the endless deep and gather his thoughts. I always felt I should allow them moments of contemplation, if that is even what they do, but whatever it is, I’ve found it helps ease their nerves. I always have to interrupt however.
“Celár, can you hear me? Nod if you can.”
“Stop looking at the pretty stars, the instructional videos are already playing at your left.”
Celár immediately looked aside to see a 3D hologram shooting out of a disk, showing skydiving, along with captions hovering around, highlighting what was happening and all the steps and procedures involved.
“You have time to replay any of them, simply say “replay” followed by the number of the video. I suggest you cover your ears so the ship’s noise doesn’t distract you, you should find ear plugs next to your seat. I’ll say more once it’s time for you to drop, nod that you understand.”
He nodded so I stayed silent, instead focused on preparing the fall. It took me half his trip there to finally give the ship its drop coordinates, and lay down a falling trajectory…which felt utterly worthless because the average for how long it takes for contestants to leave the mapped trajectory is around five seconds into the fall.
But it was the job…doing our part, and then going far and beyond to do more so that when the contestants completely deviate from any plans we made, we can help them survive. Though if surviving was their main concern, I don’t think they would be falling in the first place, which further added to the frustration in his job and the feeling it was pointless, really.
I looked through the list of support gadgets that were going to be launched to see if they were including the rocket boots. Those were usually great assets but they weren’t scheduled to launch, which meant Celár had chosen one of the more difficult levels of competition. I double-checked to make sure there were no additional contestants being thrown into the mix, and there weren’t, so at least he had not gone for the hardest one.
Finally, I connected a screen to feedback the cast itself. It’s hard to admit but, Jik’hit, the commentator, actually mouths off with good ideas sometimes, which is why I have gotten used to keeping an ear out for it. Of course, I directed the sound output to an ear-piece so that Celár wouldn’t hear it.
I went back to the holo-maps and the list of items so I could make my choice on how to launch them. I could choose one to be launched when I wished with rocket-assisted guidance but the rest would be dropped normally.
“Ssss…damn.” I realized then I had forgotten to explain to Celár how to open the boxes that were carrying the gadgets. I made a mental note to explain once he gained control of the fall while I scheduled the vapor gun for an assisted launch, and laid out the other items around his projected trajectory, more so along the left angle since that is where, statistically, the participants most deviated to.
Meanwhile, the commentators yapped away.
“Well everyone,” Keilo called to attention, “the pilot says he’s making his final approach on the drop site laid out by coach Rybkin. Jik, your thoughts on Rybkin’s fall scheme.”
“Well Farkto,” she said, the screen feeding back to her own holographic map of the planet, her hands trailing and gesturing in explanation, “it seems to me he made an appropriate choice, all things considering. His trajectory avoids a dragon fly nest by a considerable distance, and it avoids this flock of migrating birds and, of course, doesn’t collide against any island along the way. It does depend on the participant to avoid these clouds however, I’m curious as to what his thought are on that.”
“Heh, coach Rybkin is known for picking the most efficient trajectories, regardless of the participant’s actual skill. Sometimes it pans out!”
“Most times it doesn’t,” she disapprovingly pointed out, but I ignored it and watched Celár’s feed, he was replaying the tutorial on how to open item boxes, which relieved me.
“Alright, here’s a message from our sponsors. Don’t go anywhere though! Soon as we come back, Celár will forfeit his name and life by falling into the planet! But will he be getting a new life, or will he die in the glorious attempt? Either way, he’s already a champion, no doubt about that!
“This is Keilo Farkto, ” “and Jik’hit,” “and this is Freefall Destiny! Live anew or die gloriously, that is the destiny of all our champions! We’ll be right back after these messages.”
I had stopped seeing the contestants as champions years before Celár had come along. All I saw were selfish individuals with nothing else to lose, putting it all on the line for a quick-buck. One had actually told me he did not mind dying there, “at least it’s not on some hospital room,” he had said, “it’s like the title of the show. It’s a glorious death, fast and cool.”
I never saw the appeal, particularly, and I felt bad for those who were pushed into it; those, I thought at the time, like Celár.
The first memory surged as soon as the door opened. The harness held Celár feet up as the bottom of the room spread open. The moment his eyes looked down at the world he was about to fall into, from such high a distance it was nearly space, the feed blinked and an overlaid image of himself begging on some streets came into focus. That did not come as a surprise.
“Seems Celár was a homeless man. We’ve seen our share of those, haven’t we, Jik?”
And for a good reason, since that is the social class where you most easily find those with nothing left to lose.
He stood there for long seconds, watching the colorful world while surrounded by star-struck darkness. I myself always liked that view because, well, he was looking at a massive globe of concentrated life…put in contrast against a never ending landscape of nothingness. The sensation of self that such a sight offers is unique and amazing.
It was interrupted when the teleportation device, in the shape of a briefcase, was dropped ahead of him. Memory filled his mind, an image of a young man in some kind of uniform, yelling at him from an opened door of an aircraft. We couldn’t make out the content of the yelling however, there was no sound to the memory.
“Wow, what is this now?! Jik, what do our analysts say?”
“They’re looking into it but that’s an orbital strike uniform for sure.”
“Orbital strike?! So our man might already have sky-diving experience!”
“This is very likel–”
“Wait I’m sorry to interrupt but we’re starting the countdown! 5! 4! 3!”
Thousands of people chanted the countdown so loudly I could almost hear it through the sound-proof walls. It always surprised me how excited people were to see someone falling to their doom.
For me however, that would only come later. I felt little else than spite at the time.
The harness clicked open and the deep rushed up at Celár, his vision blurring and then blacking out for those usual initial seconds. This was so common no one was surprised by it.
I counted to five and his vision’s feedback connected again, tunneling what were the skies around him and the approaching continent below. But soon after that, he started tumbling through the air, completely out of control.
“Gather yourself, Celár,” I said in my normal tone of voice, albeit firmly.
Yelling at that stage would only make it difficult for Celár to get control of his fall, so as he continued to roll around chaotically, I cautiously and calmly called out to him.
“Celár, remember the videos,” I told him, to no avail. “Can you hear me Celár? The instructional videos. Just do as they taught.”
But that did not work. On the fifteenth second, I gave out a quick and powerful, but ephemeral, yell. I followed it with a short bellow, “listen to me!”
But he tumbled pass the twenty second mark, and was still out of control.
“Oh! And that’s 20 seconds, already a bad start for our brave contestant. Will he just spiral into his doom or will Coach Rybkin manage to get him back?”
At that time, I noticed there was an overlay memory blinking over the visual feed, but it was hard to tell and, quite honestly, practically the same as before, the military one. And that reminded me of the fact it had just been established he had skydived before, probably as a soldier.
Soldiers respond differently to yelling and stress.
“SNAP OUT OF IT, Celár!” I yelled, “REMEMBER YOUR TRAINING!”
The visual feed blinked for a second, showing the memory of some other land on some other planet, and then immediately cleared. I watched him level himself through the alternative feeds, and once he was leveled, I looked back to his vision feed. The world was rushing up at him very slowly, but very consistently. And it looked, as it usually looked, breathtakingly beautiful.
It is hard to imagine what the full experience is like without actually being there: the only sound you hear is the rush of the planet’s life soaring by you so loudly it can almost deafen your very thoughts… the body falling so fast that the still, otherwise insensible air, feels like wind rising against your body, slowing your descent. You feel alone, but are not deprived of life as everything inside of you is reacting in excitement and fear, exhilarated adrenaline flowing through you in a manner that is so different from any other circumstance that involves solitude. This is why it doesn’t feel like solitude… but the truest form of freedom.
I’ve done my own skydiving, unsurprisingly, and there is nothing like it, in my opinion. It is freedom…of the likes nothing else can compete with.
I looked at the hologram to see how much Celár had been deviated from the trajectory, just as he crossed the highest of the sky-islands, a veritable flying iceberg the size of a space station. I looked aside and smirked because he was clearly fixated on it, probably awed by it. As if in sync, a memory crept into the screen. They were simply the feet of someone in front of him but this one had sound.
“Why’m I supposed to give you money? For failing at life? Ha!”
The memory continued for three more seconds. It looked down at his own feet, showing dirty old shoes and dirtier hairy legs, all while the voice continued “kids deserve that kind of handouts, not grown ass rejects like you!”
And I had to admit…
“Well that was pretty harsh, huh, Jik?”
“Logically sound though, says 30% of our viewers.”
“Hah, well, we want to hear from this guy! Bilk, is there a match for that voice?”
“Indeed, Keilo,” a third voice mentioned, though I didn’t have that secondary feed on my screens to see who it was, mostly due to disinterest, “we’re getting him on the phone now.”
“Alright, meanwhile, our contestant approaches the clouds!”
The clouds on Euclides three were a lot denser. Though not enough to cause physical harm to the contestant, they could slow the descent considerably, so it is good to avoid them. And in Celár’s case, having already lost the time he had at the start, it was quite vital.
“Celár,” I called out, and he immediately looked down, “the clouds coming up on you, you see them? You need to avoid them. Go in-between and don’t touch them.”
I thought it would be harder to make the curves necessary to go around the clouds, and all the other actually mortal dangers, than to fly through them. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
“Damnation,” I couldn’t help but protest as Celár scraped an arm against a cloud, the resulting surprise at its consistency throwing him spinning out of control again.
“Celár! CELÁR!” I yelled out, looking at the feeds from the cameras around him.