It was one of those days where the sky was so blue and the clouds on the horizon so fluffy and tall that you wanted to be on top of them. You ached to climb those white mountains in the sky. And so that is why Ara nodded her head decisively and slid down from the bed. Today was just the day for it.
She loved her attic room except for the fact that there was no way she could see out of either window unless she stood on her tip toes on top of her bed. She stopped and listened. Not a sound from downstairs. Ara yanked on her faded 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 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. But it was so comforting as she pulled it on.
She stepped underneath one of the windows and reached her hands up. Her Dad had opened it in the Spring; the days were already becoming shorter so she knew he’d be closing it soon. Ara passed her hands back and forth in the air. A little cool. She’d need a jacket — her grey squall jacket was just the thing! She rooted through the piled up clothes in the closet and pulled out a wad of grey nylon from near the bottom. It was wrinkled but she didn’t care. It went on quickly and she zipped up the front to cover any trace of the gull shirt just in case Mom or Dad were already up.
She tiptoed down the attic steps to the hall in the same mismatched socks she’d been wearing for six days. Ara’s 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. She reached the door and opened it a crack. A peek down the hall assured her that no one was there.
She closed the door and tiptoed back up to her room. Stopped again in the middle of the floor, she 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 the edge of the old wainscotting. Between the lip and her desk a small dark space lay in shadow.
The voice that emerged from the darkness was low and a little hollow sounding. “Good morning, Ara. I hope your sleep was restful.”
“Y-y-es. Y-you can come out fort-ty-t-two-O-seven.” Ara spoke in a whisper: from her point of view it lessened her stutter.
A ragged-edged discus-like object floated out and flew up to a few 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. It always reminded Ara of a tiny flying saucer made of silicon.
“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 her hood opened wider, edged itself neatly into it.
Ara walked quietly back down to the hallway. Tiptoing past her brother Will’s open door she saw him lying half out of his sheets sleeping quietly. She continue on past the closed door of her parent’s room and ran lightly down the carpeted stairs into the kitchen.
A bowl on the counter offered two apples and a banana and Ara obliged by stuffing them into the kangaroo pocket 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 everybody else, often her school teachers as well, called her Ara.
Satisfied 4207 wasn’t showing in the kitchen mirror, Ara bent down to put on her sneakers. No noise was made as she unlocked and slipped out the sliding glass door at the back. She ran through an opening in the old fence in the backyard that led into a hard-packed earth lane. Seeing big blue portions of the lake through the trees make her stop. It sparkled in the early morning light and made her realize how lucky she was to live there.
She continued down the lane with the bottoms of her pants already 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. Ara stopped running and walked over to Mooch to scratch him behind the ears.
“Hello Ara. You’re up early today!”
Ara liked Mr. Ellis. He 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 the lane ended at the border of an old fencerow. It was now considerably widened by ash and poplar trees. She followed a well worn path through the trees and over the rusty fence. As usual she stopped to pick some deliciously sour currants of the bush near the end of the path. Ara stepped around the bush and into the edge of 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?”
“Y-yes. I w-w-want t-t-t-to climb th-those c-c-c-clouds.” Ara pointed up at some large white clouds over the end of the field.
“Those are cumulus clouds with a base of 1647 metres and top height of 2439 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 stuck there like a bulky and colourful band aid. “Ready?”
The lift off into the air was very gentle and Ara could hardly sense their movement. Her feet left the ground although she felt as if she was still standing on something firm. She did not feel frightened, only excited as they slowly climbed above the level of the tallest ashes. Then they shot up into the sky. 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 to the north and far to the south. The water sparkled less and became a darker, more uniform blue. She could see more of the features of the farms, rocks and woods surrounding Haileybury. Burnt Island, which had always seemed so huge when her father had taken the family boating, 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 clouds still seemed far above. Ara could now see the other nearby communities: New Liskeard, Cobalt and Ville Marie.
Finally, she was in the shade and her bubble entered the bottom of a 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 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.”
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’. It was very comfortable. She could see woods and small lakes as well as a few patchwork farms far below. With a huge grin on her face she took out her banana. 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.
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. 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. As the brown centre contracted it left droplets of water in a misty globe around it. The water drifted away to her right and suddenly puffed out like a large piece of popcorn as it become a tiny cloud. The small brown centre was about the size of a pepper corn and floated back and dropped in Ara’s palm. It was heavy for such a diminutive object.
“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 this opportunity 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. She was completely surrounded by white fog again.
“I am sorry, Ara. I have had to hide us. We were just probed by the radar of a CF-18 Hornet jet which is rapidly approaching from the south east. 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. 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 them, but she felt no heat.
It made Ara feel better to hear 4207’s calm voice. “Have no fear, Ara. 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 ten steamboats, 4207 spoke again. “We have stopped, Ara.”
She opened her eyes and saw they were above an island in a large expanse of water that would have dwarfed Lake Temiskaming. A rounded coastline was to her right.
“Wh-where are we?”
“We have travelled 463 kilometres in little more than 15 seconds. We are now hovering over Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior. It will take the CF-18 Hornet jet at least 13 minutes to reach this location at its maximum speed. But as you can see behind us, we left a trail.” Ara turned and saw a brilliant white line as tall as her house and at least as wide stretching, curved, into the horizon. “I suggest we descend so I can hide from their radar.”
As they dropped, Ara could see that the island was shaped like a fish. The top was angled up in the air and the bottom fins edged into the water. The high cliffs on the north side sloped gradually down to the land 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 the point and a 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 the surface of the water.”
Before Ara could protest they sank toward the water. At first an oval crater formed below her feet and then they quickly descended until she was in a bubble surrounded on all sides by water. It was light blue above her head and dark blue below. She could just make out large algae-covered rocks on the lake bed.”
“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. 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 25 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. The water around their bubble looked almost exactly the same 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 going north east now at a speed of 37 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. Likely before noon.”
After staying below the water surface for half an hour 4207 declared it safe and they rose up and were soon flying once again. They sped just over the water and then along the tops of trees and cliffs. 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 con trail in the sky was dispersed away by winds by the time they saw Lake Temiskaming again.
At 11:38 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 walking on clouds.”
“Y-yes I d-did.”
4207 slid back into her hood and Ara walked home. Will was at the kitchen table playing on his Nintendo DS and talking on his cell as she came into the house.
“–Yeah. My sister just came in from outside. –I don’t know. I haven’t been out yet. She’s out in the woods for hours. I don’t know.” He shouldered the phone and shouted at Ara before she could get to the stairs. “Ara.”
Ara stopped. She was surprised that Will would interrupt his call to stop her and 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 th-think so.”
Will put the phone to his ear and turned his attention back to his game. “She says she thinks so. Yeah–”
Ara got to the top of the stairs thankful that 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 never made fun of her stuttering and she was happy that he wasn’t always expecting her to talk to him.
As soon as the door was closed 4207 spoke. “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. All that attention from others again after a summer spent with 4207 and by herself. The first day of school. 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. The probability of this were extremely low. Although I am a device, it was a very good thing to have happened to me.”
“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 largely a machine.”
“N-not t-to me.”
“I am, granted, a very complex device and many centuries beyond any machines on this planet but I am still a machine.”
“No.” Ara’s voice is quiet but very sure. Her forehead tense, she took her time and formed her lips before each word. “Y-you … are … my … f-friend.”
A silence descended in the room.
“Thank you, Ara. I am pleased to be your friend. But my point is that I was isolated for many, many years on my way here. It harmed me. My processing was harmed. There was no choice for me. But you isolate yourself and it is probable that this will hurt you. If I am to deserve your friendship I must help you with this.”
“I-I d-d-don’t want anyone more th-than you.”
“Perhaps that is true but you do need them.”