Cloudsurfing

Taking a look at the appropriate folder, she found a picture of a man in his early or mid-twenties with protruding cheekbones, spiky black hair, and what looked like grey eyes. Philip leaned over to read along. “Worked at the regional championships last year,” he summarized, apparently not all that impressed. “Don’t be such a snob,” she commented, “I’ve never officially worked at an event like that.” “Only because I’ve never been allowed to participate,” he reminded her. It was true. ***** Nothing has ever really come between aero technician Sahara Frost and gold-winning cloudsurfer Philip Walsh. They've gone through their childhood and teenage years together and managed to remain best friends despite having very different interests and personalities. But when they're both sent to one of Earth's most remote cities to prepare for the Polar Cloudsurfing Race, things change dramatically and it is uncertain whether their relationship can survive in the biting cold.

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1. Sahara - A Full Sponsorship

 

The training field was covered in a light layer of fog, which was kept close to the ground so that everybody could access it easily from the various posts that poked up through it. Above, the sun was shining from a clear blue sky. Even the peaks of the taller towers were clearly visible on this beautiful day when they were normally embraced by clouds.

From the track below, laughter and excited screams rose up as children tried out their own or the club’s boards. Most of them were no more than ten years old, and their parents stood nervously on the large platform overlooking the foggy area. Their worst fear was to see their little ones falling down through the grey mist and out of sight, but they comforted each other by discussing how reckless a sport this was.

Sahara lifted the visor of her cap slightly to allow for a bit of sunlight to hit her face. It was a beautiful day, and she took a certain sort of pleasure in listening to the concerned parents going on and on about their kids and the sport. With a wide, catlike grin on her face, she swung her legs over the railing and let her booted feet dangle over the grey mist.

“You know,” she said to one of the parents nearby, “the instructors would never let anything happen to them.”

Judging from the look on the woman’s face, the words did nothing to soothe her anxiousness. Instead, her eyes darted to a little boy with blond curls on one of the small launch pads halfway across the track. A tall, slender figure stood next to him, bent forward, obviously busy coaching. One hand held the back of the boy’s shirt firmly while the other gestured out and around the track. The boy nodded seriously, large eyes sparkling in the sunlight.

“Miss, you probably shouldn’t be sitting like that,” an elderly lady, perhaps a grandma, suggested. “You could fall.”

Instead of arguing, Sahara adjusted her position so she had one leg on each side of the top. “I always sit like this,” she admitted cheerfully. “It makes me feel free.”

 

The uttering had the desired effect; those who had heard her exchanged glances that clearly said what they thought about her: that she was absolutely nuts.

She turned back to look at the ellipse shaped track of fog. A couple of older children were rushing past their younger surfers in a slalom like manner without regard for the fact that some were just starting to learn. Out of instinct, she wanted to tell them off and ask them to behave if they were going to keep coming there, but it was not her place, so she didn’t.

Willfully, she fixed her eyes on the instructor with the blonde child. With one hand tangled in the little one’s shirt, the guy was kneeling on the plateau and making small adjustments to a board. She knew he was adapting it to fit two pairs of feet without compromising balance, which was a hard thing to do with one hand.

Finally, the board was ready, and the instructor took a seat on the edge of the platform. He ordered the child to sit down, let go of the shirt, and proceeded to fasten his feet into the footprint shaped pedals of the board. Once that was done, he lifted the boy onto his lap, bent his legs and did the same with the smaller feet.

From at distance it was not obvious what he was doing, but Sahara had seen and done it so many times before that she knew by heart. He squeezed the boy tightly with both legs while easing the board and their legs over the edge. All the while, his mouth was moving, explaining, comforting the little one. A kick with his back foot activated the windpipes that would keep the board afloat as soon as it came into contact with the cloudy mist a few feet below.

“Oh, look, Yvonne!” a woman exclaimed. “Tommy is on his way out.”

The mother Sahara had first addressed leaned over the railing, shoulders squared and eyes wide with terror. “Oh my God, do you see how the instructor is holding him? Isn’t that dangerous?”

Sahara rolled her eyes impatiently. If she had her way, she would never have any kids. She’d leave all the family stuff to Sonora who would be more than happy to take on the role of the adorable housewife. This was not the case for the eldest of the sisters; she wanted to travel, to see the world, to go on expeditions, to contribute.

“Please, dear God,” the mother whispered near the girl’s ear, “I can’t look.”

“Come on, you guys,” Sahara cried exasperatedly, “he’s done this hundreds of times before. He’s obviously not going to drop your son.”

As she said it, she looked into the ellipse and found that the board was hovering steadily over the fog, the instructor with one hand still on the launch pad and the other one resting on the little boy’s shoulder. They looked adorable together in the bright late summer light.

Very slowly, the instructor pushed the board away from the dock, adjusted his feet carefully, and set out on the journey along the outer perimeter. A pained gasp forced its way out of the woman next to Sahara, who leaned back lazily, keeping her balance in mind.

She remembered her first surfing session, in a training area similar to this one, but outside of Valfield. It had been an overcast day, and she had been able to see the holes in the lower clouds when the more advanced surfers crisscrossed across the formations from above. Her coach had been a man in his early thirties with five kids at home. He had explained to her the importance of always wearing a helmet and protective gear and never going so fast that she could not keep her balance. That last lesson was something she had learned hard many times; she could not count the amount of crashes she had had over the years. In the end she’d turned out not to be any great surfer, but she still remembered the feeling of the wind through her hair and the icy sting of the cold on the tip of her nose with fondness.

Part of the fun, she supposed, was also in having somebody to do it with. Somebody who was not afraid of pushing her, and somebody who had started learning from her but had then taken things into his own hands. He had found where he belonged: atop banks of fog or heavy rain clouds. Or even, as it turned out, in an artificial learning environment with little kids clinging to him until they were ready to try for themselves.

The instructor and the little boy pulled up in front of the spectators’ platform. “Look, Mommy, I’m doing it!” the kid yelled excitedly.

Next to Sahara, the woman pulled herself together and offered a bright, convincing smile in the newcomers’ general direction. “Looking good, sweetie,” she said, then lifted her eyes to the instructor’s face.

Sahara followed her gaze. He was smiling brightly, like he always did when he was doing something he enjoyed, brown bangs standing up in every direction from the top of his forehead. “You’re doing really well, Tommy,” he said encouragingly, now holding both of the boy’s hands with his own. His right foot was constantly making little adjustments for the board to stay in place.

“They’re very concerned that you’re not doing your job properly,” Sahara put in teasingly.

The young instructor looked ashamed. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said respectfully to the lady. “I promise you I’m doing my very best to keep everybody safe.”

“It’s not you personally,” the woman replied quickly, shooting Sahara an inappreciative glare. “It’s just that this sport is so risky.”

He nodded once. “It’s only risky if you’re not careful, ma’am.” And he was always careful. Sahara had supervised the first time he had placed his feet in the straps that kept them linked to the board at all times, and from that moment on, he had never undertaken a task if he wasn’t a hundred percent sure what to look out for and how to deal with potential trouble.

Sahara would not have been sure what to say to that, and, apparently, neither was little Tommy’s mother, because she just bobbed her head up and down in agreement a couple of times and reminded her son to listen to what the instructor said.

Then the two hovering individuals turned away from the railing at an adjustment of the instructor’s right foot, and before long, they were at the opposite side of the rink.

 

Sahara was grateful for the shade of her headgear when she left the platform, because she could feel the sunlight burning into the tips of her shoulders, and she did not want her nose to suffer the same way. The burning ball of fire that lit up the world was descending now, slowly but safely heading for the horizon.

All the younger kids had been picked up by their parents, but some of the older ones liked to hang out around the club and perhaps get a few extra tricks out of their coaches. At the moment there was nobody on the track, and the foggers – the machines that produced the grey mist – were gradually shutting down. Unless there was a special event, the owners did not want anyone surfing at night, mostly for safety reasons but also to avoid tempting anyone to borrow a board and never give it back since there were no staff members.

Sahara let herself into the cafeteria in a small building about fifteen feet from the rink. Inside were two people, an instructor and a prospective surfer. The older of the two was standing with his back to her, the white letters on his black tee screaming Philip Walsh, Instructor at her. Across from him was a younger boy of about fourteen, who was paying no attention to the uninvited guest.

“…know I’m not setting a very good example here, but if you use your left foot for speed and your right foot for direction, then you’ll have much better control of the board,” Philip was saying.

“Got it,” the boy said, his eyes sliding to Sahara who was moving closer very quietly. “Thanks, coach.”

Philip dragged a hand through his windblown hair. “Don’t mention it.” Then he turned.

Sahara grinned at him, and he tipped his chin upward as a casual greeting. “I hear little Tommy made it back into Mommy’s bubble wrap arms without so much as a scratch,” she said cheekily, knowing what reaction it would cause.

He burst out laughing. “Someone whispered in my ear that you were stirring up trouble again.” With a slim index finger, he tapped the side of his nose twice.

“The best part of coming here,” she countered in her most arrogant tone and flicked her ponytail playfully. “Oh, and I like watching you work, too.”

He grabbed the swinging tail of hair and tugged lightly at it. “Speaking of,” he picked up and sat down on one of the lunch tables, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Pretending to be offended, she sat down next to him and put an elbow on his shoulder. “It’s not like I’m never here.”

“True,” he agreed lightly, “but it’s rare that you stay until I’m off.”

“Maybe I just wanted to catch a ride home,” she suggested. He had never enjoyed guessing games, and perhaps for that very reason, she loved teasing him with riddles and pointless suggestions before actually skipping to the point.

His eyes were taking her in curiously, and she stared back. Anyone could see that he was a handsome fellow. Not only was he tall and broad-shouldered from all the exercise, but his facial features were the perfect combination of soft and prominent, and his brown eyes were so dark they seemed bottomless. Sahara completely understood Sonora’s not-so-secret obsession with him. If they hadn’t been so close friends, she probably would have made a move on him herself.

But as it were, he was more like a brother to her than anything else, and she had no reason to believe he felt any differently about her.

“Too bad I took the bus this morning,” he said and leaned back on his arms.

She snapped her fingers. “Then today must be your lucky day. I’ve finally managed to replace my brakes.” It had taken weeks for the right parts to arrive at the garage, and when they finally did, someone had locked them in a cabinet for her and taken the key on an extended weekend somewhere near the Equator.

“So you’re definitely not here for a ride home,” he commented. “But congratulations on your brakes. Do they work as anticipated?”

A little wave of warmth surged through her at the mention of the machinery bits. Of all people, Philip had never questioned or doubted her skill with vehicles, and he seemed genuinely interested in her work. And most importantly, he understood how proud she was of her car and the things she had done to it since she had finished her apprenticeship.

“Like a dream. They’re so smooth. I’ll let you drive so you can feel it…” She trailed off because he was laughing. “What?”

Shaking his head, he leaned his shoulder against hers. “It’s just that you seem more in love with your car than you’ve ever been with a guy,” he chuckled.

She poked her tongue out at him, mostly because he was probably right. Of course there had been guys in her life, more than a handful, but they’d all thought her a bit too masculine, or they hadn’t been able to keep her interested in the long run. Ever since she had gotten a real job in a garage, there had been no romances, and she’d devoted herself to fixing her own as well as other people’s cars. Cars were much better than relationships anyway; at least they let themselves be fixed if you used the right tools. Once a problem had occurred in any of her relationships, they were sent right to the junkyard.

“So what? Are you jealous?” she asked before the silence got too dense to be broken easily.

Philip stood up. “Of course. I’ve been right here next to you all these years, and you still appreciate your car more than you appreciate me,” he pouted. Sahara raised an eyebrow, waiting for the mask to fall. After a few short moments, it did, and his boyish grin revealed itself. This was far from the first time they had been joking about loving each other.

“Feeling neglected, are you?” She jumped to her feet.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said, winking at her as he crossed the floor and seized his duffel bag from a table in the corner.

Sahara followed him. “Ah,” she whined, trying not to giggle, “you know I love you more than my stupid, unreliable car.”

He put an arm around her shoulders, stating, “You’d better.”

Bumping lightly against each other, they made their way back outside. The temperature was much more tolerable now, and a tall beech cast its shadow onto the shining, completely renewed car parked at the curb.

Philip waved goodbye to some of his understudies, none of which bothered asking if Sahara was his girlfriend. By now, everybody who had been affiliated with the club for more than a few months knew that she tended to drop by, but that they were just friends.

To Sahara’s knowledge, he had never had an actual girlfriend. Sure, he had plenty of admirers – especially after his recent return from the other end of the world – but none of them seemed to be right for him. Or maybe he was just so absorbed in his hobby and work that he never longed for anything else. If he wanted the company of someone his own age, he would call her, and because he was her best friend, she would be there a few minutes later.

She handed him the keys and slipped into the passenger’s seat. The thing she loved most about cars was not driving them – it was correcting their wrongs and upgrading them, making them look their best and increasing their potential – so she did not mind riding shotgun. Besides, Philip was so used to navigating that he made an excellent chauffeur.

“So,” he said as they rolled north east, “are you going to tell me why you were waiting for me?”

Now that they were completely alone with no risk of anybody else overhearing their conversation, she saw no reason to keep toying with him. “I may or may not have a proposition for you that you cannot resist.”

His eyes darted to the side before returning to the road. “You think? What about?”

She had been looking forward to this all day, since the moment she had left the Valfield’s financial district that morning. “If I say the Polar Race, you –”

“No.”

Surprised, she turned her head and looked at him. He was staring blankly at the windshield, breathing slowly and steadily. Something was tugging at the corner of his mouth, pulling it down for a change. Was he angry?

“What do you mean ‘no’?” she demanded. “I haven’t even finished telling you about the offer.”

He sighed audibly. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to let myself be tempted,” he explained, fingers clenched white on the steering wheel. “I promised my parents I would call it quits after the Games, regardless of the outcome. They won’t fund another competition – especially not one as extreme as that – and I don’t want a reason to blame them for it.”

For a split second she considered ending the discussion there, because she knew it had been a struggle for him to get to where he was. Charlotte and Ron strongly disapproved of their son’s wish to share his talent with the world, and every step of his climb to the top had cost him in terms of his relationship with his family. She did not want to be even partly responsible for tearing at those wounds now that they were given a chance to heal.

However, she strongly felt that he had not reached his climax yet, and the amount of extra shifts he took at work – most weeks he worked ten-hour shifts all seven days – made it obvious how much he missed having something to train for, to aim for. She wanted to see him enjoying the rush of doing what he did best, and she wanted the rest of the world to see it, too. He deserved it.

“You won’t need any funding,” she murmured. “The whole point of a full sponsorship is that other people take care of the expenses.”

She saw his left leg jerking, but the right one with which he was controlling the speed of the car slowly eased the vehicle to a stop in a gravelly shoulder. At first, he said nothing. Then, slowly, he turned his face to hers. “Okay,” he gave in, “I’m listening.”

Technically, he had only given her a chance to speak, but she knew him well enough to know what that meant. 

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