Science Fiction

Learning to Fly – Chapter 1.1

“This has got to be the wrong place,” Rekhi whispered.   The old warehouse at the edge of the slum was barely standing.  Its cinder block walls tilted inwards as the weight of the old roof started to press down on the structure.  She couldn’t see a single window without a hole or two between the frames, if they even held a single pane of glass.  The main doors hung limp on their hinges.  The building looked like a death trap.  That explained the number of tents and sleeping areas around its perimeter instead of inside it.

She checked the envelope again.  The milky white purity of the creamy envelope had been tainted by her greasy fingers.  The warehouse’s address had been handwritten in beautiful black ink on the outside.  She pulled out the small card that was inside, the same creamy cardstock that would never be found inside the Mumbai slum, and read it one more time:

COME AND SEE.
YOUR FUTURE AWAITS,
IF YOU COMPLETE
THE CHECKLIST’S STRAITS.

The envelope had just appeared under the keyboard of her workbench.  It had definitely not been there the day before.   After all, she’d spent the entire day repairing cell tower interfaces and hadn’t seen a single person, other than Ankit of course.  She’s been working for him for almost five years now instead of going to school.  She fixed all his tech, and in return, she got fed and a bed.  The best days were when he left her alone, like today.

Rekhi tucked the envelope back into her jeans pocket and slipped between the main doors.  Inside was exactly what she expected, exactly what the rest of the slum looked like:  a pig sty.  Tattered pieces of furniture were piled on top of fallen walls and chunks of the roof.  Dirt and mud puddles were everywhere.  The stink of urine and feces and humanity was so thick in the air, Rekhi had to wrap her scarf across her nose and mouth, not that it helped much.  As far as she could see, there was no one sheltering here today.  The creaks and moans from the metal roof high above where enough to discourage anyone from staying inside for too long.

She wandered deeper into the warehouse, keeping a close eye out for ghosts or bangers, but she couldn’t see or hear anyone.  There were plenty of faded spaces on the concrete floor where industrial equipment had been at one time.  Everything valuable had been stripped years ago, leaving the building to the whims of the elements.

A small beep chimed from her pocket.  She pulled the card out of the envelope.  On its back, a small green light appeared.  Rekhi examined the card closely, amazed by the tech.  She’d never seen paper that could hold an electric charge, much less power a sensor like this.  As she crept deeper into the building, the beeping grew faster.  “Getting warmer,” she whispered as she continued.

She started climbing over a massive pile of junk and debris, and the beeping slowed down.  When she climbed down, the beeping returned to its faster pace.  “Okay then,” she sighed as she slipped through a small opening and entered the pile.  She squeezed and fidgeted, and her gaunt form managed a way through any gaps she could find.  One nice thing about being poor and hungry, you could basically fit anywhere you wanted.  She could feel the air getting thinner as she pressed deeper into the pile.

“What the?” she winced as she bumped into a solid wall.  She felt it up and down in the glow of the green light.  “Duraplas?” she pondered.  “Gotta be to hold up this much debris.  But how did it get here?”  She felt around but couldn’t find anything on the surface of the wall.  The beeping was constant now.  Rekhi guessed she’d found what the card wanted her to find.

On a whim, she pressed the card up against the plastic.  With a soft hiss, the plastic started to open up, like the zipper of a tent.  A moment later, there was an opening large enough for her to slip through. She stepped in, and the beeping from the card stopped.  The green light filled the empty space, and her mouth dropped when she saw what was inside.

Propped up on an elevated work area was a small spaceship.

There was no doubt about it.  It was an honest to God spaceship, complete with grav-pods, thrusters and a cockpit for a single passenger.  Its metal plates were covered with dirt and rust as well as scorch marks from who knows how many launches and landings.

Rekhi giggled as she ran to the spaceship.  It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, certainly the most valuable piece of tech to be found anywhere in the slums.  Ankit would pass out in delight if he’d seen this.  The hull plating alone might be valuable enough to finally get him his own place in low-town.  The ship’s outer hull seemed intact, although aged.  She could tell the engines would need some work.  As best she could tell, the ship didn’t have any power.

The card beeped again.  Then she heard another beep answer from inside the cockpit.

She searched around the side of the cockpit and found the manual release.  Using all her strength, she turned the lever, and the hood slowly rose away from the hull.  Inside, she saw another creamy white envelope sitting on the pilot’s chair.  She climbed up the fuselage and managed her way inside.  The rhythmic duet of beeping stopped.

There was no writing on the outside of this envelope.  She snatched it up and plopped into the chair designed for someone four times her size and three times her age.  She carefully pried the envelope open and took out the single piece of paper inside.  She couldn’t help but smile as she unfolded and read it.

YOUR NEW SPACESHIP CHECKLIST

  1. Get yourself a good ship.
  2. Let your A.I. do all the work.
  3. A ship without an engine is just a shell.
  4. Have space suit, will travel.
  5. There are no rest stops in space.
  6. First flight.
  7. Pull your first Yuri.
  8. Take a walk.
  9. Voyage sur Lagrange
  10. Moonshot

Below the typed checklist was another written note that read, “Your new life is waiting for you, if you have the skills.  We hope to see you soon.  Good luck!”

Rekhi could barely breathe.  She looked around the dark cockpit with awe and wonder.  The screens were dark but intact.  Various compartments were empty, the markings or stickers on their covers faded and peeled so it was hard to figure out what went where.  She sat back in the chair and looked up through the opening.  In the distance, she could make out the duraplas dome that protected the ship from the rest of the world.

She started to cry.  Even if this spaceship never flew again, she had shelter and a place she could call her own.  She could live inside the ship, learn its tech and maybe someday land a job in high-town.  Rekhi knew Mumbai had a spaceport, of course.  She’d seen spaceships much larger than this one lift-off and land every day.  For the most part, she’d ignored them as they were just  reminders of a life she would never have.  As her hands gently brushed the interior, she knew that her future had changed.

It didn’t matter where the envelope had come from, or even how this spaceship found its way inside an old warehouse in the middle of a Mumbai slum.  This was her ticket out of here to a new and better life, and it was all hers. She cackled with glee as she danced in the chair.

She reviewed the checklist again.  “Step 1,” she said.  “Get yourself a good ship.  Well, I’ve got the ship.”  Her hand brushed a layer of dust off the main display screen.  “But not quite good yet.”  She tapped on it, and nothing happened.  If the ship had any power at all, something should have appeared on the screen.  She knew what she had to do first, and she knew just where to go to get it.

As much as it pained her to leave, Rekhi wiggled her way back through the debris back out into the warehouse.  When she hit the open air, she heard a familiar tone erupt from her phone.  She sighed as she pulled it out of her pocket and tapped the screen.  Through the cracked glass of the display she read the text message:

ANKIT – Where the hell are you?  Get your ass back to the workshop.  NOW

She looked back towards the debris pile and the prize that it concealed.  “Your future awaits,” she whispered.  The text appeared again, this time in all caps.  She tapped on the screen and sent her reply.

REKHI – On my way.

When she emerged from the warehouse building, she looked around a couple of times.  As best she could tell, no one had seen her enter or leave.  Her secret should be safe, hidden under all that debris.  Besides, who knows how long the spaceship had been there before today?  She ran down the streets of the slum towards the workshop, her mind swimming in plans.

She vowed to devote every moment of her life to finishing that checklist and getting the hell out of here, getting away from Ankit, finding a place better in the world.  More than anything, she wanted to learn where all those grav-ships went when they left the space port.  Anything was better than this.

For the first time in her life, Rekhi felt hope.

About Bradford W Wendel