A Kind of Confidence
I saw Julie in the distance, and my heart sank. She was already talking to Bart, the arrogant jock she had dumped me for. It was more than I could stand. I glared at him, disdainfully muttered, "Groundhog," and turned. I took a few deliberate, running steps, and jumped off the cliff.
I went over head first, keeping my arms stiff and straight at my sides, turning my body into a human bullet. The base of the cliff was hundreds of feet below, with the ocean washing up against it, crashing into foamy white surf on the sharp rocks. I aimed at the largest rock I could see. As I dropped, I felt the wind whipping by my body, and the rocks swiftly drew closer as the whistling grew in my ears. At this point I began to have second thoughts. At the moment of impact there'd be a white flash, fading quickly through red to black, and then it would all be over. But that wouldn't really solve anything.
I'd done it enough times before.
A hundred feet above the water, I brought my arms up, straight out to the sides, and spread my fingers. My wings responded instantly, and filled with air, jerking me up with a rippling boom. I leveled off less than twenty feet above the water, and skimmed along at an exhilarating speed, letting the thrill of flight wash the anger from me. After all, Julie was one of the most radical girls I'd ever had the nerve to ask out, and I was just another techno-nerd she'd met at the University. I was more cranked about how I had fooled myself into thinking she liked me than about how she had treated me.
I dipped my right arm and banked into a turn, heading back toward the cliff side. There was always a good updraft there, and I didn't feel like climbing back up on pure muscle power. Not that I couldn't have done it -- I may be small but my pectorals are rock hard, from flying whenever I can, in the slack time between lessons. But for now I just wanted to get some altitude. I'd save my strength for some acrobatics when I reached Angel's Run. I sculled a bit with my hands to pick up speed, and turned my head to watch the waves skim by, not far under my right wingtip. Even after hundreds of hours in the air, I got juiced out of watching my huge black wings move in response to my arm and hand motions. I knew my right arm was there controlling things, but it sure looked and felt like the real thing.
As I neared the cliff I felt a change in the breeze running across my body. It grew a bit warmer, and shifted to blow partly from beneath me, giving me lift and buoyancy. I spread my fingers wider and watched my wings respond, warping for maximum lift and climbing efficiency. I went into a controlled glide, first swooping along the cliff face in one direction, then turning out to circle and cut back across the face again. Each pass bought me another fifty feet of altitude, and before long I was at the top. I edged over, passing twenty feet above the grassy plain that swept back from the cliff edge, over the entry booths, and headed for Angel's Run obstacle course, a mile distant. I could get a good workout there, and go home tired but satisfied. There was no sign of Julie or her new blond boyfriend, for which I was truly grateful. I knew that she had been flying only a few times before, and I was sure she'd have no interest in an advanced run like the obstacle course. I expected she'd be at Eagle's Roost or one of the other Wingside gathering spots, where the in-crowd usually flocked to be seen. I hoped that she and Bart hadn't already gone back over, where they could shed their wings at the post-flight lounge, and make out over drinks.
I kicked myself again for believing she wanted to go flying with me because she liked me, and not just for my flying instructor's free passes. Julie always had lots of dates, but not many could afford the stiff fees that Flights of Fantasy charged. I had lusted after her from afar ever since I saw her in an English class. I finally got up the nerve to ask her out, and stumbled through inviting her for a flight this evening. She had accepted, and all I could think of was how I would help her into her harness. When she came out of the locker room in her black leotards with the scarlet stripes and matching spandex bikini brief, I had to give my functional but ragged sweatpants a few tugs to keep from embarrassing myself. I showed her to the door of her booth, but when I offered to help her into the harness, she looked at me disdainfully.
"Thanks, Jim," she said, "but Bart here offered to get me started."
My jaw dropped when I saw Bart -- tall, rugged, and athletic, in a brand-new "wet look" Nike flying suit -- step forward. He looked vaguely familiar.
"I'll take it from here, kid," he said.
Kid! If he was two years older than me, I'd eat my socks. I thought of making something of it, but even if managed to intimidate him, I'd lose my instructor's license and be thrown out. Besides, he had the build of a weight lifter, and although my flying muscles are in great shape, at five foot nine I only weigh 125 pounds. People are always surprised I make a few extra bucks as a flight instructor in the first place. They don't realize that in a computer-simulated environment, reflexes and coordination are more important than strength. In fact, I got into the job because of my programming background. When Flights of Fantasy opened last year, it was one of the first flying cyberclubs in the country. Their software was always flaking out or breaking down, and my first trip to "the Other Side" was just so I could debug a new routine. I never expected that something so physical could be so fun. But it was great to be one of the insiders. Perhaps I could use that status to salvage this date. Bart was like a bad dream.
"Are you sure you know how to rig the harness?" I protested. "It can be dangerous if you do it wrong. You could get tangled in the lines."
Julie just smiled at me and said, "Don't worry, Jim. Bart was telling me about how much flying he's done here. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'll see you on the Other Side!"
Before I could think to reply, they'd stepped into the booth. Bart started adjusting the harness to fit Julie, and I couldn't stand around and watch him in there where moments before I'd imagined myself. I had to admit, he did seem to know what he was doing. Then I recognized him -- he was a regular, often showing up with different women, spending more time flirting than flying. A perfect example of what real fliers contemptuously called "Groundhogs." I had wondered how well-off he must be to afford the prime-time fees, but considering how I had just financed a date for him, perhaps I was overestimating his wealth. The only reason I hadn't recognized him before was that I'd mainly seen him on the Other Side, in flight. When you register at the desk they run a quick 3-D scan of your face for the computer to recreate within the simulation. I rarely paid much attention to faces on the Other Side, because lots of people choose to appear instead with the faces of celebrities or fantasy creatures. But Bart was good looking enough to stick with his own smooth features.
I quickly strapped myself into a harness in an open booth, after automatically checking to see that the tension was adjusted properly to let me float in the middle of the padded room, and that the fans in the walls, ceiling, and floor were all functional. It really cranks me when a fan gives out. It ruins the illusion of motion, and robs you of important physical cues you can't get visually. I ran through the computer checkout on the wall monitor, selecting my avian form, and making sure that the infrared and magnetic sensors on the harness and data gloves were reading the proper position of my torso, legs, arms, and fingers. Then I lifted on the helmet with its twin color LCD displays, one in front of each eye. The perspective checked out, and the built-in stereo headphones were working fine. I looked down at my body. To my view, I appeared to be a falcon, with human proportions and a ten foot wingspan. I leaned forward and let the harness take up my weight, distributing most on my torso, but just enough on my arms and legs to make me feel like a bird. I moved my arms, and my wings responded. But, for now, I still needed hands. I straightened my right index finger and curled the other fingers into my palm, following the instructions that appeared to float in the air in front of me. A gloved hand appeared in front of me, index finger extended. It followed every move of my own hand, and I "touched" a glowing panel in front of me, the one inscribed with the word "READY" in large block letters. A door opened, and I stepped though onto a grassy plain. I was on the Other Side.
Everyone enters the Wingside environment in the same vicinity. It had only taken me a few seconds to spot Julie. Her computer-generated image looked like a human-sized red-tailed hawk, with her own face set among the feathers. Hawks were fast but difficult forms for flying, and unusually beautiful. Julie's priorities were pretty clear. I had started to call out to her, knowing that the microphone in my helmet would automatically relay my voice to everyone "nearby." But she had already found Bart, and I could see the date was over as far as I was concerned. That was when I went over the cliff.
Now I was nearing Angel's Run. It's a three-dimensional maze of hoops, made of shimmering light, and it gleamed like sunlight reflecting off of soap bubbles. Attached to each hoop was a number. Hoop number One was a hundred feet off the ground, and a good thirty feet in diameter. The last hoop, Twenty, is only four feet wide, and twelve feet off the ground. You have to curl your wings around you to fit, and then pop them open instantly to avoid hitting the ground. But I'd worry about that when I came to it.
I spilled air and circled once to make way for another flier, in the relatively slow but agile body of a sparrow. From what I could see of the face, it was a woman, but cyberclubs had already become notorious hangouts for practical jokers, strange characters, and people of unusual sexual preference. It was much better to make person-to-person contact in the post-flight lounge, where you could tell what you were getting into.
Whoever she was, the sparrow had skill. I circled and watched as she went through the first part of the course flawlessly, turning and diving in midair to plunge through the center of each hoop in order. But between hoops Eight and Nine she ran into trouble. They're near to each other, high in the air, with the openings parallel to the ground. You have to go nearly straight up through Eight, then nose over and dive through Nine. She hit number Eight square in the center, but I could see that her angle was too shallow, and her speed too great. She twisted in midair, flapping hard with both wings, and surprised me by going over in a backflip before straightening her dive and aiming for hoop Nine. In fact, the backflip maneuver almost worked, but she had too much horizontal momentum to kill. She hit the edge of the hoop, shouting a high pitched, "Damn it!", and disappeared in an explosion of feathers. I was impressed. I saw her rematerialize below me, back near the beginning of the course, still swearing in a clear soprano voice that the computer relayed to my helmet headphones. But now it was my turn.
I went through the first hoop at top speed. Form is critical, but when you've practiced as much as I have, style becomes subordinate to speed. My best time was a hair over fifty-one seconds. If I take it slow I can practically do the course with my eyes closed, but when I'm going for speed, I need all the help I can get. This time, everything seemed to fall into place. My anger at Julie, Bart, and (to be honest) myself melted away. There was only room in my mind for flight, and the shimmering hoops flashing past me on all sides.
I shot through the first section breathtakingly fast, slowing only before I entered hoop Eight. My angle was perfect, and I nosed over straight through Nine, clearing the edges with plenty of room to spare. I thought I heard a cheer from nearby as I did so, but I was too intent on the next hoop to pay attention.
Each successive hoop was smaller, and presented a new challenge. I went through Twelve backwards, then popped my wings open and flapped for all I was worth to climb to Thirteen. By the time I shot through Eighteen I could tell it was a radically hot run. I tried not to let my excitement break my concentration. Nineteen was high off the ground, and I had to climb hard to make it. Even as I cleared it, wings tucked close to fit, I was lining up on Twenty. It was nearly sixty feet below, and I flapped a few times to build up some downward speed. Besides being only four feet across, Twenty floated at an oblique angle. I shot downward, trusting my intuition. Now! Grab air, straighten the dive, tuck, and through! Spread, flap, and glide! The ground rushed by my face, no more than inches away. But I was through. I pulled up, and levelled out into a fast glide, looking at the time clock superimposed on my field of view. Just forty-seven point two one seconds, a new personal record. In fact, it was only three seconds over the course record! I did a quick victory roll, dived for the ground, and pulled up at the last second, making the double-clenched fist sign for immediate recall. The landscape faded instantly away, and I pulled my helmet off, savoring the shock of disorientation as I found myself back in the flying booth. My sweats were soaked from my short but violent flight, and I felt great. I left the booth and headed into the locker room for a leisurely shower and change of clothes.
I was on my way out through the post-flight lounge when I noticed a woman staring at me. She was a petite redhead wearing a short green dress, and she was waving me over. I was afraid it was some sort of mistake, but I was still so high from my new record that I walked over.
"Excuse me," she said. "Aren't you the one who..."
"Oh Jim," a familiar voice interrupted. I turned. It was Julie, with Bart in tow.
Julie was beaming. "Jim, I just wanted to thank you for introducing me to Bart. He's so interesting! Did you know that he owns a Porsche?"
"Why, uh...", I replied with characteristic wit, looking for a rejoinder. I was saved by Bart, who seemed very intrigued with my new acquaintance.
"Hey, haven't I seen you around before?" asked Bart.
She fixed him with an icy stare. Her eyes were green. "Get lost, Groundhog," she said in a cool soprano voice.
Bart shrugged, and allowed Julie, glaring alternately at the redhead and Bart, to drag him away. I was speechless. The redhead turned to me and smiled.
"Weren't you the Falcon who just did that perfect flight through the Angel's Run?"
"Er... yes," I nervously admitted.
"You're fantastic!" she exclaimed. "I was the Sparrow doing the course ahead of you! I've never been able to hit hoop Nine like you did. What's your secret?"
"No secret," I said, relieved to be 'talking shop', and more than a little flattered. "You almost had it yourself when you did that backflip. Now that was a radical move! I just watch my speed, and keep the entry angle steep. It's frustrating to slow down there, but you can't rush it or you'll overshoot."
She nodded and smiled. I tried to think of what to say next, but I was transfixed by her smile, and my customary panic froze my vocal cords.
She glanced down at her watch, and I figured the moment had ended. Well, at least I had the consolation that Bart and Julie hadn't left on the best of terms.
She looked up again. "Listen, I'm really running late tonight. But..."
She hesitated, and I managed a quizzical look.
"You probably get this all the time, but, I mean, would you be willing to meet me sometime, and teach me a little about your flying technique? Maybe next week? I'll understand if you don't want to bother..."
Somehow, I was too surprised to be flustered. "Well," I said, "I'm free from seven o'clock on, next Tuesday night."
"Tuesday would be great!" she said, smiling even more broadly. "My name is Andrea. I'll meet you on the Other Side at seven." She pursed her lips for a moment. "I hope I can learn to have your kind of confidence. See you then!"
I watched her stride away, a little stunned by the course of events. I had a feeling we were both going to learn a lot.