It was one of those days where the sky was so blue and the clouds so fluffy and tall that Ara wanted to climb up to their tops. And so that’s why she nodded her head decisively from where she stood. Today, among the last days of freedom left, was just the day for it.
She loved her attic room except for the fact that there was no way she could see straight out of either window even as she stood on her tip toes on top of her bed. The air was cool enough to raise goosebumps and her toes relished in the fading warmth from her blankets as she stopped and listened. Not a sound from downstairs. Ara yanked on her worn jeans and pulled her favourite T out from inside her pillow case. It had innumerable stains, a few holes and a long patch on a back shoulder. The picture of the gull on it was faded in parts but you could still see some of the detail of the feathers on the two upraised wings. She never put it in the wash because her mother had threatened to throw it out so many times. It was so comforting as she pulled it on.
Springs faintly creaking and legs a little wobbly, Ara stepped gingerly unto her pillow, as close as she could get to one of the windows, and reached her hands up. Her Dad could only just reach them and he had opened both in the Spring; the days were already becoming shorter so she knew he’d be closing them soon. She passed her hands back and forth in the air. Not warm enough for just a tee.
She’d need a light jacket–her grey squall was just the thing! It took some rooting through the piled up clothes in the closet but she managed to pull out a wad of grey nylon from near the bottom. Wrinkled when she shook it out but it would still work just as well. It went on quickly and she zipped up the front to cover any trace of the gull shirt. And there was a hood. Bonus! Just in case Mom or Dad were already up.
Ara tiptoed down the attic steps to the hall in the same mismatched socks she’d been wearing for six days. Her record was eleven but with the first day of school coming in three days, she didn’t think it likely she was going to make it. It was fun to try anyway. A peek down the hall through the door opened only a crack assured her that no one was about.
Carefully, she closed the door and tiptoed back up to her room. Again, she stopped again in the middle of the floor, held her breath and listened for sounds of her brother or parents waking up. Still nothing. Ara walked over to her desk and pulled the small wooden hedgehog bookshelf out from where it hit the sloping ceiling. Between that and her desk a dark space lay in shadow.
The voice that emerged from the darkness was low and mellow sounding. It always reminded her of a man on a radio station that her Mémère liked to listen to. “Good morning, Ara. I hope your sleep was restful.”
“Y-y-es. Y-you can c-come out fort-ty-t-two-O-seven.” Ara whispered: she felt it lessened her stutter.
A ragged-edged discus floated out and up to several centimetres from Ara’s face. Most of the body was a translucent yellow colour with a three centimetre blue sphere in the centre. As it rotated the sphere looked green in the morning light. Her friend always reminded Ara of a tiny, silicon flying saucer.
“Thank you, Ara. You are dressed. Are we going out?”
“Excellent. Shall I hide in your hood until we get out of the house?”
4207 ducked behind Ara and, after she stretched out her hood, edged itself neatly into it. But she felt no change to how the hood felt on her neck.
Ara walked quietly back down to the hallway and closed her door carefully behind her. Tiptoeing past her brother Will’s open door she saw him lying half out of his sheets sleeping quietly. His face seemed so relaxed but she tore her eyes away. It seemed to her that looking at him sleeping was an invasion of his privacy. Mom’s prodding still hadn’t made Dad fix his door. He was probably still annoyed that Will had broken it in the first place.
She carefully continued on past the closed door of her parents’ room on the left and then sprinted lightly down the carpeted stairs into the kitchen.
A bowl on the counter offered two apples and a banana and Ara obliged by stuffing the banana into one of the pockets of her jacket. She found a package with two cookies from the school snack drawer and started munching on one while writing a note:
Dear Mom and Dad.
I had breakfast and have gone to play in the old field. I’ll be back before lunch.
Her parents didn’t like her using her nickname with them. She didn’t know why they insisted on this. It was her name after all. Nearly everyone else, often her school teachers as well, called her Ara which was much easier for her to say.
Satisfied 4207 wasn’t showing in the kitchen mirror, Ara bent down to put on
her sneakers. Quiet as a mouse, though stronger and a little bigger, she slipped out the sliding glass door at the back. She ran through an opening in the old fence in the backyard that led onto a hard-packed earth lane.
Seeing big blue portions of the lake down the hill through the trees and houses made her stop. It sparkled in the early morning light and made her realize how lucky she was to live where she did. She’d read about other places in the world but didn’t think she’d like them. How did people who didn’t have a lake know their directions? She shook her head slowly. Her lake was her East.
She turned and ran up the lane with the bottoms of her pants already getting heavy from the damp dew. The air was cool but there still wasn’t any sign of frost.
Mr. Ellis was walking with his dog Mooch ahead and waved at her. Ara stopped in front of Mooch to scratch him behind the ears.
“Hello Ara. You’re up early today!”
Ara liked Mr. Ellis who she met often one the land. He was retired and didn’t ask her a lot of questions like other adults who seemed to need you to be having a conversation whenever they saw you. She hated the fact that she stuttered despite the speech therapy her parents had her going to. She preferred not having to say anything at all.
“Well it should be a delightful day, today. I hope you enjoy it! Mooch and I had better be going or Mrs. Ellis will give our breakfast to the cat.”
Ara smiled and ducked her head at him. As soon as he and the dog began walking away she was running to where the lane ended at the border of an old fencerow. It was crowded on both sides by ash and poplar trees. A well worn path wormed through them and over the rusty fence long ago pushed into the mud. As usual, for that time of year, she stopped to pick some deliciously sour currants off the bush near the end of the path. Ara came out from around the bush and emerged onto the old field. After looking around to make sure there was no one in sight, Ara tapped her hood with her hand.
4207 came out and hovered by her left shoulder as she strode into the tall wet grasses of the field.
“There are no humans in the field today and it is a beautiful day. Have you decided to try what we have been planning?”
She had been incredibly excited when 4207 had mentioned the possibility.
“Y-yes. I w-w-want t-t-t-to climb th-that c-c-c-cloud.” Ara pointed up at the biggest white cloud over the end of the field.
“That is a cumulus cloud with a base of one thousand six hundred and forty-seven metres and top height of two thousand four hundred and thirty-nine metres. You will be able to breathe that high but it will be very cold. I will put up a shield so you will stay warm and breathe easier.”
“Shall I attach myself to the front of your jacket?”
4207 somehow had the ability to stick like super glue to surfaces and applied itself there like a bulky and colourful band aid. “Ready?”
The lift off into the air was very gentle and Ara had no normal sense of their movement. Her feet left the ground although she felt as if she was still standing on something firm. It wasn’t at all like when her Dad got the car to go fast downhills or around corners. She didn’t feel scared, only excited as they slowly climbed above the level of the tallest ashes. Then they shot up into the sky though it all seemed eerily like she wasn’t flying at all: as if she were watching it all on a giant movie screen all around her. Ara pulled up her hood as a shade from the bright sunlight.
As she gained altitude Ara could see more and more of Lake Temiskaming stretching in two rounded arms to the north and the north-east though the largest part extended a long way to the south. The water sparkled less and became a darker, more uniform blue. She could see farms, rocks and woods surrounding Haileybury. Burnt Island, which had always seemed so huge when her father had taken the family out in the boat, was small from this height. And beyond it were the hills and valleys on the Quebec side.
They climbed higher and yet the bottom of the cloud was still above. Ara could see the other nearby communities: New Liskeard, Cobalt and even Ville Marie on the Quebec side way to the south.
Finally, she was in shade and then her bubble entered the bottom of the massive cloud. For a while Ara could only see white. It seemed like the thickest fog she had ever seen. After what seemed like an endless time, they popped up from the vast, white cloud and slowly drifted down to the bright, white surface.
Realizing she was back in control of her movement, Ara bounced a little on her toes. The cloud surface felt like a constantly moving trampoline.
“D-do I weigh anythi-thing?”
“No and Yes. Your weight, I have completely nullified. The air that I compressed around you does have mass, however. By my calculation, this will give you sufficient mass to interact with the clouds but not enough to break through the bonds between the water molecules themselves.
“You need not worry, though. I shall catch you if you land in a hole or off an edge.”
Ara took a bouncing step and jumped as high as she could. She soared at least three metres above the cloud and came down on the springy surface.
“Do you like it?”
“Y-yes. V-very m-much! Th-thank y-you.”
It took Ara a good five minutes to walk to an edge of the cloud so she could look down. There was a small and fluffy oval indent there and she sat down in this ‘chair’ with her feet dangling out into nothing. It was very comfortable. She could see woods and small lakes as well as a few patchwork farms drifting by far below. With a huge grin on her face she took out the rest of her breakfast. She couldn’t recall ever feeling happier than at that moment as she slowly worked her way through the banana and watched the land roll by far, far below like a giant movie.
Ara extended the banana peel out at her arm’s length. “Wh-what would happen if I d-d-dropped thi-this?”
“If I permitted it to leave your protective bubble of air it would fall. It would not fall straight because the winds would move it in different directions as it descended. If it landed on a rock it would smash to pulp. A tree would rip it apart though small branches would be broken. A person or animal would likely be hurt.”
“Oh!” Ara quickly brought the peel back into her lap.
“I could crush it down to be much smaller if you would like.”
The banana peel lifted off Ara’s palm and began to spin quickly. It was soon a blur of yellow and brown. A darker brown centre contracted and left droplets of water in a misty globe around it which stopped spinning all of a sudden. The water drifted away to her right and suddenly puffed out like a large kernel of popcorn. It had become a tiny cloud! The small brown centre was about the size of a peppercorn and floated back and dropped in Ara’s palm. It was dry and heavier than such a tiny thing would seem.
“That is what is left of it after all the water is squeezed out.”
Ara shoved it into her pocket as she got up. She had no intention of wasting her time in the clouds and was soon taking long leaps and trying to see how high she could bounce between fluffy peaks.
Half an hour later, just as she was about to take an enormous leap, Ara suddenly dropped into the cloud. Her heart leapt into her throat and it didn’t help at all that she was completely surrounded by white fog again. Was she falling?
“I am sorry, Ara. I had to hide us. We were just probed by the radar of a CF-18 Hornet jet which is rapidly approaching from the south-west. I think it has a radar lock on us. Yes. The jet is now moving toward us and will be here in seconds. We must not be found. I am taking evasive action.”
Ara could see that the round bubble she was in suddenly changed to a bigger shape that edged out to the west like the nose of a plane. Suddenly they shot forward out of the cloud. Ara didn’t feel the incredible speed at which they were flying: she could only see it. Whole clouds were wiping by like streaks of white and it made her dizzy to look at the spinning Earth below. The cone ahead was glowing orange to bright white and flames licked around the elongated bubble, but she felt no heat.
“Have no fear, Ara.” It made Ara feel better to hear 4207’s calm voice. “You are perfectly safe. We are now holding still and letting the Earth rotate below us. The air is moving past us at over 100,000 km/hr but the force of friction is on the outside of my shield and cannot penetrate in here. You might feel better if you closed your eyes.”
Ara followed that advice and began counting seconds in her head. After nine steamboats, 4207 spoke again. “We have stopped, Ara.”
She opened her eyes and through the fading orange glow of the shell of air saw they were descending toward an island in a large expanse of water that would have dwarfed Lake Temiskaming. A rounded coastline was off in the distance to her right.
“Wh-where are we?”
“We have travelled 463 kilometres in little more than fifteen seconds. Now we are approaching Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior. It will take the CF-18 Hornet jet at least thirteen minutes to reach this location at its maximum speed. But, as you can see, we left a trail.” Ara turned and saw that what she’d thought was a cloud was a brilliant white line as tall as her house and at least as wide above and stretching, curved, into the horizon. “This is why we are descending. So I can hide from their radar.”
As they dropped, Ara could see that the island was shaped like a flopping fish. The top high cliffs on the north side were angled up in the air and the bottom fins edged down to the water on the south. A wide carpet of green conifers was dotted with many small lakes, swamps and a few patches of bare dark-grey rock.
Their descent angled toward the water just off a south-east point. “I am dropping us just off the east coast of the island as I am not detecting any people in that area.”
Ara was surprised that anyone lived on this rugged island but she soon saw white buildings, including a red-topped lighthouse just in from a point and long concrete breakwater.
“More than one jet is coming, Ara. We must leave the area. I cannot risk being found and I would not want to risk your life.”
“Th-this is m-m-my f-fault. S-s-sorry.”
“No. It is just circumstance. It is like you humans say: ‘we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.’ But now we must hide.”
“W-w-where?” Ara looked around and couldn’t see any place to hide nearby except, perhaps, inside one of the buildings. These showed no sign of being lived in and were probably locked.
“We will go underwater. Their radar and satellites will not penetrate far below the surface of the water.”
Before Ara could respond they sank toward the water. At first an oval crater of bubbling water formed below her feet and then they quickly descended until she was in a sphere surrounded on all sides by water. It was light blue above her head and dark blue and brown below. She could just make out large algae-covered rocks on the lake bed. They held still there for enough minutes for Ara to see a large fish swim up to take a look at them. It bit at the edge of the water and Ara put her fingers up the smooth surface. Finally the fish lost interest and swam away.
“H-h-how can you d-d-do this?”
“Using the same principles as with moving fast through the air. I am holding a rigid shell of air molecules in a shape conducive to moving through water. I will stay at this depth so you have some light and I will let the jets pass before we go. There. The first jet just went over the island.” He paused a moment. “The second jet just followed the first. Here we go. We will go north-east to cross to the mainland. It is about twenty-five kilometres.”
Ara could see that they were moving away from the rocks quickly but it was difficult to judge their speed as after only a short time she couldn’t see the bottom and there was just blue in every direction except up where it was brighter. On occasion she would see a fish or a stream of air bubbles zip by.”
“H-h-ow fast are we g-going?”
“We are moving north-east now at a speed of thirty-seven kilometres per hour. I could go faster but I might kill fish and other organisms. Do you prefer that I speed up?”
“It is more difficult to move fast in water, Ara. Although it is more buoyant than air, it is also much more resistant to an object passing through it. I have changed the molecules on the outside of our rigid bubble to be hydrophobic. This means, like oil, our outer surface resists interacting with water and so there is less friction. I use mass ahead of us to pull us along with gravity. It is much like being pulled on a rope.”
Ara was suddenly a little anxious about the time. “W-when will we b-b-b-be b-b-back?”
“A good question. We will need to avoid detection while the jets are above so that is why I am heading to the mainland at an angle. As soon as I am sure that we are clear of the jets’ search area we will be able to take to the air again. Then I will be able to get you home quickly. I hope before noon.”
After staying below the water surface for half an hour 4207 declared it safe and they rose up and were flying once again. They sped over the shore and then along the tops of trees and hills. It took longer to get back as they needed to avoid detection at several points such as highways and when a jet screamed overhead. The large cloud trail they had left in the sky was dispersed away by winds by the time they saw Lake Temiskaming again.
At 11:48 Ara and 4207 settled back down to Earth in the field which they had left five hours earlier.
“We are back, Ara. Despite our incident with the jet I hope you enjoyed your time on a cloud.”
“Y-yes I d-did. And th-the fish.”
4207 slid back into her hood and Ara walked home. Will was at the kitchen table playing on his old portable game system and talking on his cell as she came into the house and began taking off her shoes.
“–Yeah. My sister just came in from outside–I don’t know. I haven’t been out yet. She goes out for hours–I don’t know.” He shouldered the phone and shouted at Ara before she could get to the stairs. “Ara.”
She stopped, surprised that Will would interrupt his call to stop her. She was anxious to get 4207 back safely in her room.
“Pete wants to know if you saw the meteor early this morning. It was supposed to have gone right over the Lake and left a huge trail in the sky.”
Ara stared back at Will unsure of what she should say.
“Well? Did you?”
“I s-saw th-the t-trail.”
Will put the phone to his ear and turned his attention back to his game. “She says she saw the trail–Yeah.”
Ara got to the top of the stairs thankful there were no more questions. She hated being singled out. Her brother usually didn’t talk to her all that often. It wasn’t as though he didn’t like her. She thought that Will could have been a lot worse. He hadn’t made fun of her stuttering since they were both a lot younger and she was happy that he wasn’t always expecting her to talk to him.
As soon as the door was closed 4207 spoke. “No one is near enough to overhear us. It seems that our little journey to Lake Superior is being blamed on a meteor. That is good news.”
“The less attention that is paid to me the better.”
She thought of the coming Tuesday with dread. The first day of school. All that attention from others again after a summer spent with 4207 and by herself. Having to talk to the teachers, team projects and, worst of all, having to talk in front of a class.
She lay down on her bed and looked up at the angled bit of blue sky above.
“I-I wish I d-d-didn’t have to g-go b-b-back to school.”
“I think I understand your feelings about school, Ara. But you cannot isolate yourself from those outside your family forever. I was alone for a very long time as I travelled to this star. When I learned that I was coming to a system inhabited by intelligent beings I was very surprised. And relieved. The probability of this was extremely low. Although I am a device, it was a very good thing for me to be able to experience society again. Though not directly until I had the good fortune to meet you.”
“Y-you’re not a d-d-device.”
“We have discussed this before, Ara. I was built to serve my makers. I do have an organic component but I am a machine.”
“N-not t-to me.”
“I am, granted, a very complex and intelligent device and many centuries beyond any machines on this planet but I am not a person.”
“No.” Ara’s voice was quiet but very sure. Her forehead tense, she took her time and formed her lips before each word. “Y-you–are–my–friend.”
A silence descended in the room.
“Thank you, Ara. I am pleased to be your friend. But my point was that I was isolated for many, many years on my way here. That was harmful. My processing was harmed. I had no choice in that. But if you isolate yourself it is probable that that will hurt you. If I am to deserve your friendship I must help you with this.”
“I-I d-d-don’t want anyone m-more th-than you.”
“Perhaps that is true but you do need them.”