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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2. Sahara - Skyter


“So,” she said secretively and unfastened her seat belt, “you know how I applied for a new job?”

He leaned back in his seat. “Yeah?”

“I went to the formal interview last week, and they said they would get back to me within a couple of weeks with a reply. Then when I came home that very same evening, I had a message on my voicemail saying they’d like me to come by to discuss any terms of my employment. I was so happy I almost called you like a thousand times to share the news, but I wanted to keep it a secret for a little bit longer.

“Anyways, I went back today to discuss said terms with my future employers, Mr. Sherrie and Mr. Dickson. I was super nervous and expected having to agree to minimum salary and some lousy position in their worst possible location. Also, their headquarters? Fucking nuts. I had to go through a metal detector and a scanner to prove that I had no filming equipment or USB-sticks with me to store any stolen data. They couldn’t know I’m a total ass with computers.

“So a lady showed me to the appropriate meeting room, and two men in suits were waiting for me. They asked me to have a seat, so I sat down and kind of waited for what felt like an eternity. Then one of them cleared his throat and said,

“‘We were really impressed with what we saw last week, and we’d like to offer you a contract.’ Just like that. ‘But first of all, we’d like to know if you would be willing to work as the lead mechanic of one of the Polar Race teams this winter.’ I was blown away. You know I’ve always liked tinkering with your boards, and that I’m pretty good at it, but to be given a chance to work on something of this scale was so incredible that I couldn’t say anything right away.

“Instead of giving an answer straight away, I asked, ‘Have you already assembled the teams?’

“They hadn’t. Still haven’t, since this happened today. They told me they’re still looking for surfers, physicians, and assistant mechanics, and that I would get the final word about the latter since they would be under my supervision. It was all so surreal, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to accept the offer. I mean, I’ve never had responsibility like that, and I have very little experience with racing like that, so I might fuck up and get someone killed or something like that.

“In the end, all I could think of was you. So I asked if I could make a suggestion, because then at least they would have good reason to withdraw their offer, and if they didn’t, it would make it all a little easier on me.

“Although these people have hundreds and hundreds of employees worldwide who advise them on pretty much everything, they seemed eager to hear what I had to say. So I said, ‘You see, I have this friend … He’s an extremely good surfer and has won more than one international competition. I’d like you to consider him as one of the surfers.’ I didn’t tell them your name. They might’ve thought I was being secretive, but actually it totally slipped my mind.

“Mr. Sherrie asked, ‘Is the surfer going to play a role in whether you choose to work for us or not?’ I told him no, but that this was really no joke, and that you were a force to be reckoned with. Then they looked at each other for a couple of minutes before asking if I had any other conditions.

“‘It’s not a condition or a demand, and I’ll take the job either way,’ I reminded them, after which they left the room for a while. I was convinced they would walk back in, shake their heads, and ask me to leave. Instead, when they came back, one of them held two little stacks of papers. One was my contract. The other is an official invitation for you come visit their offices for a screening. I didn’t bring it with me because I didn’t want to risk losing it, but if you come home with me, I’ll give it to you.

“I’ve read it through. It doesn’t have your name on it – because I didn’t give it to them – but it explicitly states that what is at stake is a full sponsorship at the Polar Race this year. They’ll need to make sure you fit the requirements and are in good enough shape to compete, but once they see you in action, I don’t think there’ll be any problem. All you have to do is take the chance.”

She was afraid to look him in the eye, because if he was angry, it would take her weeks to erase the imprint of his burning eyes from her retina. Because she wasn’t looking and neither of them were moving, the car fell completely silent. If this were a highly trafficked road, at least the noise and commotion would have done something to break the quiet, but since that wasn’t the case, they were stuck until someone did or said something.

Philip’s hands had slid from the wheel as the story had proceeded, and they were resting on his thighs now, one with a finger soundlessly picking at a hole in the light blue jeans. The engine had been shut off, so not even the hum of the vehicle could distract them from their thoughts.

Finally, the instructor in the black shirt leaned forward and put both forearms on the wheel, then rested his head on top of them. “Do I even dare ask what manufacturer that was?”

Sahara poked him in the ribs. “I’ll tell you if you stop being so depressing,” she promised fiercely. There was nothing worse than seeing his ever-smiling face crumbling into a sulk.

Turning his head ever so slightly, he rolled his eyes. “Just tell me already.”

Based on his reaction, he clearly wasn’t expecting the manufacturer to be one of the larger ones, and she couldn’t blame him for it. She would not have believed it, either, if she had not already seen it. The thing with smaller manufacturers was that they rarely participated in the Polar Race out of passion for the sport or made a serious effort. Instead, they tended to use the media coverage to promote their own boards and inventions to the less competitive public, and Philip despised it.

He was not competitive about anything but surfing, but when it came to just that, she knew his opinion: if you were going to compete, at least do it properly rather than for the long-term gain. He had lost and won enough races to have become somewhat addicted to the rush of being first and the burn of regret and shame of not qualifying for the next round or obtaining a medal.

“I want to see you smile first,” she pushed on.

A gasp of laughter escaped between his lips, and he straightened back up, mouth curving upward in a crooked grin. “You never give up, do you?”

“If you had wanted me to give up on you, we wouldn’t still be friends,” she pointed out.

Being this close had not always been smooth sailing, and as with most close relationships, there had been times when they had seemed to be drifting apart. At least until one of them had made the leap and dragged the other back into place.

Philip flashed a row of pearly teeth. They were still unnaturally white from the Games. “So who is it?”

When his curiosity was fully awakened, she thought it the most entertaining to keep him hanging a little while longer. “Think. Which manufacturers have their headquarters in Valfield?”

“That’s not fair!” he protested. “You promised.”

She laughed out loud and leaned back against the door. “I have the upper hand which means I can do exactly as I please.” To demonstrate, she poked her tongue out again. It was becoming a habit.

He made a lazy motion as if trying to catch the tip of her tongue. “Which one is it?”

Technically, there were only a few based in Valfield, and an even smaller number of those were significant enough to purchase a spot in the Polar Race. It would not have been hard for him to play the guessing game, because the options would be exhausted within a few guesses if he didn’t hit jackpot right away.

“Guess,” she urged.

He groaned in defeat and slumped back against his seat. “Erh… Xtreme?”

They looked each other in the eye and burst out laughing. Xtreme was an up-and-coming brand which had launched a series of severely lame commercials over the past few months. Everything from the camera quality to the acting could be described in one word: AW-FUL. Sahara would not have so much as considered working for them if they had offered her a seven-digit hourly salary rate. She knew someone who had worked in one of their stores, and the individual had been so ashamed they’d changed their clothes before leaving work so no one would notice the uniform.

“Honestly,” she said, feigning offense after recovering from the laughing fit, “do you really think I would do that to you?”

Philip chuckled. “Hopefully not. Please just tell me.”

Sahara crossed her legs in a ladylike way that did not suit her outfit. “Okay,” she gave in, smiling mischievously. “It’s Retyks.” Despite the laughter in her voice, she managed to say it quite matter-of-factly.

“Never heard of it.” He was obviously baffled, and she understood why.

In all the years they’d been friends, he had always been more of a nerd than her when it came to brands and manufacturers. Sure, she knew the quality of each little piece of paraphernalia from different factories, but he was better at looking at the company names as a whole. And he was loyal to his favorites. So much so that his practice board was close to five years old – which was quite impressive since he used it almost every day – and he kept insisting that she repair the broken parts rather than just replacing it with a newer one.

“Sure you have,” she proclaimed. “It’s your favorite.”

Watching things slowly coming together in his brain was always so entertaining. He sat completely still, eyes downcast, lips lightly parted, and thought things through. They both knew what his absolute favorite brand of all time was, so it should not be difficult for him to guess, but then of course the name didn’t match with what she had said.

Philip was a hundred times more book smart than she was, but every once in a while she got the better of him. When she had the chance to entertain him like this, she did it.

His eyes moved to hers again, dark and questioning. “Say the name again – slowly this time.” Evidently, he was on to something, because his teeth and gaze were flashing brightly.

Sahara was thrilled. He had almost solved the puzzle. “Retyks,” she repeated loudly and clearly.

A moment of focused silence passed by while Philip’s lips slowly shaped and rearranged the word to something that would actually make sense. When he reached a conclusion, he blinked incredulously at her. “You’re kidding, right?”

“What?” she asked innocently and fluttered her eyelashes.

He laughed – as was his habit when something made him happy. “Retyks is Skyter spelled backwards.”

Knowing that was not what she meant, she clapped her hands enthusiastically. “Congratulations, Mr. Walsh, you’ve solved the mystery!”

Shaking his head, he reached over and grabbed her head, holding it firmly between his hands. “They’ve hired you?”

The impact of his words made her heart leap with pleasure. Because she had been waiting for a good time to tell him, and she wanted him to be the first one to know, she had not told anybody else about possibly making the biggest leap of her career. Therefore, hearing someone else saying it out loud was a brand new experience and one she had been dreaming of since she saw the posting about the open position.

Despite his strong but gentle grip on her face, she managed to move her chin up and down a couple of times. A broad smile was taking control of her facial expression.

“Sahara, that’s amazing!” he shouted at her, moving his fingers from her cheeks and ears to her shoulders and pulling her halfway across the car into a hug. “Congratulations!”

She wrapped her arms around the slim lower part of his torso and squeezed tightly. She wanted desperately for him to say that he was going to consider coming with her on this adventure, but right now would not be the time for it. For a little moment longer, she just wanted to be that lucky girl who could enjoy her best friend’s support and not worry about anything else.

His hands rubbed her back softly before one found the top of her cap and gave her a noogie. At the mild pain, she flinched away from him and grabbed his wrists to ensure he would not continue. The only problem with that was that he was much stronger than her and could easily have taken back control if he had wanted to.

As it was, he let her keep his hands in check. Breathing hard from laughing so much, she let her head dangle from her shoulders.

“Look at me,” he commanded, clearly catching his own breath.

She did as she was told and looked up. As expected, his eyes were burning brightly despite their darkness, and a deep dimple dug into his right cheek.

“I’m proud of you,” he said forcefully. “Really.”

There was no need for him to actually say it, because she knew just from the expression on his face and the liveliness that had come over his entire body. All her childhood, she had been so concerned with watching him glow, and she’d had the time of her life contributing to that, but now she felt like it was her turn to be the bringer of good news… Even if he didn’t want to admit that the offer she had gotten him was tempting beyond resistance.

“I haven’t actually signed the contract yet,” she admitted and let go of his hands. They dropped to the empty space between their seats.

“Why not?” A canyon was forming in the thick skin between his dark eyebrows.

She shrugged. “I wanted to take my time and think things through, let my dad read the contract for me…” She trailed off there, not wanting to say that she was not sure she wanted the job if he wasn’t coming with her to one of the coldest places on Earth.

When he had left their place of birth for international competitions, she had usually been there with him, but for the Games she had not been allowed to come. Restrictions excluded anyone but trainers and immediate family – unless the participant was an orphan – from the participants’ area, and since she was neither, she had stayed home with her face glued to everything that was electronic in the hopes of catching a glimpse of him. It had gotten to a point where she’d realized that this was the longest consecutive period of time they had been apart since they first met as kids, and she never wanted it to happen again.

She had missed him. Missed hanging out at the club and watching him with all the children, missed having someone other than her family to turn for with immediate emergencies such as a cute guy stalking her online. When his plane had landed in Valfield, she had gone to the airport to meet him, and he had dumped his duffel bag in the middle of the arrival hall and lifted her off the ground in the biggest hug ever.

“Seems logical,” he concluded and turned to start the car again. “I wouldn’t want to get myself into a mess just because I hadn’t read the contract carefully enough, either.” As the vehicle began to roll, his eyes swept away from her to the road.

She put her seatbelt back on. “You are considering what I told you, though, aren’t you?”

With one hand, he scratched the back of his neck while the other one remained on the wheel. “I’d be an idiot not to,” he told her calmly, “but I’m not making any promises.”

Pushing him was wrong, so she took what she could get. Especially because she knew his parents would put him through hell when they found out he was so much as contemplating it. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The car spun as Philip allowed it to stretch its imaginary legs and make a run for it, and Sahara closed her eyes and enjoyed the sound of it and the feeling of rough asphalt under the tires. A tingling feeling in her shoulders reminded her of the sunburn she had gotten and made her warm and lazy. So much so that she almost fell asleep listening to Philip’s low humming of a song she’d probably recognize if he could actually sing.

When the tires started turning more slowly, she looked out through the windshield. North Point looked so peaceful and harmonious in the sunshine. Long shadows crept over front lawns and little tree-lined lanes. Children were playing with their pets behind the type of low fences that were not necessarily meant to keep strangers out, but to keep the aspiring explorers in for a while longer.

Philip adjusted his right foot on the pedals and brought the car to a stop outside Sahara’s childhood home. “Oh,” he said, grinning as he turned to her, “smooth.”

With a slight delay she realized he was referring to the brakes and lit up into a bright smile. “I know, right?”

He switched the engine off and pressed the parking button in the panel next to the steering wheel. “Definitely,” he agreed and unbuckled his belt. She copied the motion, opened her door, and stepped out.

Sonora was tanning on a sunbed on the front lawn with a book spread across her bent legs. Her muted purple hair was tousled and looked beachy, and a gemstone winked at Sahara in the sunlight. Or perhaps the wink was addressed to Philip, who had gotten out of the car and shut the door. He was spinning Sahara’s keys around his index finger while he made his way to her side.

“Hey, sis!” Sahara called out and started the walk through the grassy yard.

Sonora tilted her head to the side. Her enormous sunglasses made her look like a purple-headed insect with a sublime body. “Hi!” she replied cheerfully. When she twisted her body, the gem caught the light once more.

Philip stopped and put his hands in his pockets. “Is that still When Flowers Sing?” Sahara did not have to look to know he was referring to the book her sister had been reading.

“What if it is?” Sonora returned playfully.

“Then you seriously need to get your head out of the clouds and start reading some real books.”

At that, both sisters laughed. “First of all, I don’t think I’m the one who should be getting my head out of the clouds. Second of all, when was the last time you read a book?”

Sahara turned at the door to watch the friendly banter between her younger sister and her best friend. She knew Sonora admired Philip because she no longer bothered being shy about it, but she was also pretty sure he didn’t return those feelings. When it came to displays of affection, Philip was about as skilled at reading them as she was at reading fashion magazines – which was not at all.

“Speaking of clouds,” he picked up teasingly and threw the keys to Sahara, “when are you coming by the club? Your board’s getting rusty.”

Sonora sat up straight and put the book aside. “I’ve kind of quit since you stopped teaching me,” she said casually and got to her feet. It didn’t sound like she intended it to be harsh, but knowing Philip, Sahara thought his feelings might’ve been just a tiny bit hurt.

Unfortunately, he was not enough of a dick to let himself be distracted by her sister’s gorgeous body. “I’m sorry,” he muttered miserably, “I’ve been kind of busy lately.” There was a modesty in his intonation that was not appropriate for someone who had done great things being busy.

The two of them walked side by side on the tiled path to the front door where Sahara was waiting.

She stepped inside, kicked her working boots off gracelessly, and disappeared up the stairs to find the papers she was giving away. They were sitting peacefully in a sunny spot on her desk, looking innocent and unimpressive despite the potentially life-changing message the little black letters carried. Now that she was in her room, she slipped out of her dirty working clothes and put on a pair of denim shorts and a baggy sports top with the number 56 printed on the front and back.

For a moment, she just stood and weighed the stack of white with black in her hands. If she gave it to Philip, she was ninety percent sure he would do something about it, and that way she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about going to the Arctic without him.

But if he did decide to go – and made it through the testing phase – he would be choosing her offer over his promise to his parents, and she was not sure she wanted a part in that. Charlotte and Ron had been so happy when he’d returned from the Games because that had marked the end of his – in their opinion – naïve sports career. She liked Philip’s parents, and they treated her in much the same way her parents treated their son. If she did this to them, would they forgive her eventually?

And then there was the competition itself. The Polar Race was the most treacherous one of all races. Last year, one participant had been fooled by ice poking through the clouds and dropped a good five hundred meters before a rescue vehicle could catch him. The route was hazardous, and the cold would not make it easy on anyone up there. Was she really willing to put Philip through that? To willingly offer him a chance to partake in perhaps the most dangerous sports event in the world did not seem like something a best friend would do.

But he had always wanted to try it out.

Taking a deep breath, she turned and headed back downstairs where Sonora and Philip were still talking. He was saying something about cyborgs, and she was giggling adorably.

Sahara folded the written invitation once so her sister would not see what was written in it. There was no need to stir up trouble at home just yet, in case Philip decided not to go through with it.

“Here you go,” she said cheerfully.

He took the papers, smiling. “Thanks.” After a short moment of silence, he gestured to the door behind him. “I should probably get going. I promised my mom I’d mow the lawn before dinner.”

“I think that’s a little late now,” Sonora commented teasingly, and Sahara laughed.

“I’ll give it a try anyway,” he maintained happily and pushed the handle down. “See you tomorrow?”

Sahara nodded. “At some point, yeah. Say hi to your parents.”

“Will do,” he promised, stepping out. “Ciao, ladies.” 

 

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