Saturday 30 September 2017

Racing the Wind

From the crest of the ridge, the valley is like a crumpled tablecloth spread below us, sprinkled with trees and houses.

Far away, looking little more than a stain in the air, the mountains on the far side of the valley rear towards the sky. I had been there yesterday, with the others, checking the topography, each of us marking out the route we’d take, planning out the way to win.

It takes a lot of planning and plotting, this sport, more than the actual time spent in the game.

The referees are coming around, to check on equipment. The one who approaches me stands for a moment, staring, as I’d known he’d do, before he bends to check on harness clasps and straps.

“All fine?”

He nods silently, and then motions to my helmet. I strap on the bright yellow plastic shell. All the helmets are numbered and colour coded. I’m number nineteen; to my right number thirty two is fumbling with his white helmet, while on the other side is number five, in red. He’s joking with the referee, and the man, who wouldn’t say a word to me, is joking and grinning right back.

The Chief Referee, with his green cap, comes up. “Gentlemen,” he announces, and glances at me. “And lady.”

I hear a faint titter from somewhere. Again, I’d expected this. It isn’t easy being a woman in this man’s sport. It’s only been a few months that we even got the right to compete, and even now there are hardly any of us in the top league.

One of the reasons that there are hardly any of us in the top league is that we don’t get any sponsorship to speak of. I have saved all I could for a year for this.

“Gentlemen,” the Chief Referee repeats, “and lady. Your attention, please.” We pause in our fumbling at our equipment to look at him. “You have drawn lots for your starting positions, and you know the rules. Drones will be accompanying you. Make sure your cameras are turned on. We wish you good luck, and may the best man win.” There’s a moment’s hesitation, and he glances at me. “Or woman, of course.”

There’s that titter again, and I’m almost certain it’s from thirty two, who’s behind me. I remember him from earlier, when we were drawing lots. He had been complaining loudly that ranking and experience should decide the starting order, not the draw of lots. He’d especially been disgusted when he’d come in behind me, the woman on her first competition.

We begin to shuffle into line. I’m next to last, of course – my luck isn’t that good – but there’s at least number thirty two behind me. It’s hard walking with the harness and the equipment hanging down our backs like a bat’s wings. The morning sun hasn’t warmed the air yet, and my breath hangs before my nose in a little cloud.

“Priyanka,” my coach had said, “remember that you don’t have to win this. You just have to compete, to make your mark. Don’t take risks.”

“I won’t,” I’d said, though we’d both known this was ridiculous. Just taking part in this sport is all risk. And if I play safe, hang back, and lose without putting in an effort, it’s just going to tell everyone that women can’t compete, they can’t be taken seriously. And I can’t possibly do this without somebody helping pay the bills. Better equipment, too, and a better coach as well.

A whistle goes off. I can’t see the head of the line, but they’ll be dropping off the ridge now, one by one, as fast behind each other as the referees will let them. Glancing up, I can see a drone, hovering on shimmering propellers, watching. It and others will be with us all the way.

That’s all they will be doing, watching. It’s not that they’ll step in when things get rough. As they will.

Belatedly, remembering just in time, I reach up to the top of my helmet and turn on my camera. If I had one of the new, expensive helmets, I could have the option of projecting the footage on the inside of my faceplate, telling me when to turn my head to get the best footage to please the advertisers and television networks. But my helmet doesn’t even have a faceplate; I peer at the world through rubber-framed goggles clamped over my eyes, like a snorkeller’s mask.

The line’s moving faster and faster, and suddenly there are just three in front of me. A bright blue helmet flashes, catching a stray beam of sunlight, and disappears over the edge. The launch referee, hand raised, is peering over the edge. He turns, his hand comes down, sharp, and the next helmet – black as midnight, the number three briefly visible – disappears. Then it’s number five, in the red helmet. I’m so close to him that I can see the material shift and twist as his limbs tense under the apparatus. And then, like a bubble pricking, he’s gone.

For a moment, I flash back to the first time I’d ever done this, flown solo. I’d stood on a launch platform, tense with terror though I’d been on enough training tandem dives to know what it would feel like. Like that moment, when I’d stood poised on the edge, I feel suddenly as though I’m not ready for this, that I’ll never be ready. But I have to be. I can’t turn back now. It’s not just the fact that I’d lose everything; I literally can’t turn back without disrupting the launch schedule and delaying number thirty two, behind me. Baki, I remember his name now. It’s Baki. I flex my knees, pull my harness cords.

The referee’s hand drops sharply, his head turning. “Go!”

The ground drops out under me. One moment I’m stuck to the rock by the soles of my boots, as much so as any of the stones around. The next, I am falling through the air like a pebble thrown by a child.

As a child, long ago, I used to have a recurrent dream, one that was so frequent that I used to lie awake fighting off sleep in case I had it again. In this dream it was night, under a sky without moon and stars, in a city without lights. There were only immensely tall buildings, so close together that the streets between them were little more than alleys.

The dream was always the same. I was falling down the face of one of these buildings, past rows of blank dark windows. I never knew if I’d fallen or I’d been thrown off the roof or jumped, all I knew was that I was falling, that I could feel myself falling, and that in a moment my life would be over before it had even properly begun. And then, just before I hit the ground, I would wake up.

And so it is now. I’m again falling, past the cliff-face, and though it’s rock and not brick and plaster, and it’s broad daylight, it’s just the same. Only this time, I can do something about it.

I pull on the harness cords, and my folded wings spread with a snap, taking my arms and legs with them. Suddenly I’m no longer falling. Suddenly, I’m a bird, not a stone.

Now. The wind catches me, slaps against the bottoms of my wings, and I’m swooping past the rocks, rushing past them faster and faster, and then I pull back my arms at the right instant and I’m rising, lifting away from the rock studded slope. I’m flying.

I have often wondered if I would ever have taken up this sport but for that dream. Maybe if I can fly enough times, I can exorcise it. And then, maybe, I will never want to do this again.

But that is something that may or may not happen in the future. Right now I am here, and I am flying.

My equipment, like my helmet, isn’t of the same grade the others have. I had to buy what I could afford, and it’s just barely of competition standard. My wings are smaller than the others, and the section between my legs ends at my feet. I do not have the spread  tail the others have, to lift and manoeuvre with.

On the other hand I’m smaller and lighter, and I know my wings. I know they can do what I order them to do.

Below me, the beginning of the valley is a tortured jumble of rock and scrub, and at the speed at which I’m flying it’s just a blur. If I hit that stone now I’d be a smear. I resist the temptation to pull up further, knowing I’m at a safe height and that rising will rob me of lift and speed. I can’t afford to stall and fall out of the air.

There’s one last ripple of ridge below me, like a frozen wave, and as I rush past it the valley is open below me, green and beautiful and inviting. I have no time to think of it.

Below me, the air is dotted with the bat-like, brightly coloured specks of the other flyers. I’m too far away to make out who’s who, and at this point it no longer matters anyway. Right now all that matters is flying as fast as I can.

Even through my helmet I can hear the wind rushing by, and it’s buffeting my face and nose so hard it’s difficult to breathe. By turning my head to the sides I might snatch a few extra breaths, but I have long since learnt not to do that. At this speed, spread-eagled and tied to my wings, turning my head back and forth could change my direction, and I can’t afford that. Not even the slightest bit.

A shadow falls over my face, and for a moment I wonder if it’s one of the others, if I’ve overtaken someone already. But that’s ridiculous. There will be no overtaking here, not out in the open. That will only happen when we’re in the mountains on the far side.

It’s a drone. The thing drops to my altitude, effortlessly faster than me on its many whirring propellers, and spins so the black round eye of one of its cameras is pointing at my face. I can imagine the feed going out on television, the studio commentators – not one of whom has ever strapped on a wing – talking about the lone woman competitor and how this is a breakthrough for her, even though the bookies don’t think much of her chances.

It’s distracting and intensely annoying, but there’s nothing I can do about it; the competition rules say the organisers can take and use any media footage they desire. My coach would tell me to maximise the opportunity for publicity, to look up at the camera and smile, show them as much of my face as they can see past my goggles. Instead, I look down, at the valley floor rushing by. If asked by my coach later I’ll say that I was checking for height clearance and whether I should try to gain altitude, but, really, I’m safe. I just don’t want to feel like a piece of meat on the block. Not one of the others will have a drone staring into their faces – or if they do, they’ll be enjoying it and making use of it for all they’re worth. You can be sure of that. I look up again, and the drone is gone.

Right then. For the moment all I have to concentrate on is not letting my airspeed drop off too much. I can’t get too slow, or I’ll never make the other side.

There’s a dip in the ground below, a long channel in the valley, and I dip my wings to pick up speed, hurtling over the ground, slashing by over a road, lorries and cars blurring by below, white and red houses a blue to the right. Now the ground is rising again, and my increased velocity carries me upwards, up towards the craggy rocks on the other side.

“Why did you ever choose such a dangerous sport?” I’ve been asked this more times than I can remember. “Don’t you know how lethal it is?”

“What else can I play?” I could have answered reasonably, and I used to. “I can’t run, I can’t throw things any distance, and I can’t kick a ball to save my life. I can’t plan a chess move if the fate of the world depended on it, and I can’t tell one card game from another. What do you want me to do?”

These days I just smile. “Maybe I’ve got a death wish,” I say sweetly.

“You ought to get married and settle down,” I keep being told.

“Maybe,” I reply. “But I don’t have that much of a death wish.”

I still remember the first time I’d seen the wings on television. It was when I was in school, unhappy and friendless, bullied because I was too studious, not studious enough, the teacher’s pet, the teacher’s hate object, too ugly, too pretty. Nothing I could do was right. And then I saw the wings, bright blue, green, yellow, and red, and at that moment I knew that this was what I was waiting for.

I didn’t know, of course, just how lethal the sport was, especially at the competition level. Even if I’d known, it would not have made a difference. I was hooked.

A blur of motion in the corner of my restricted, goggle-vision startles me out of my thoughts. I see it a moment before it vanishes, a spire of stone like a finger pointing at the heavens. I’d marked out this finger on my map, and when the time has come I’ve been so busy dreaming about the past that I almost missed it.

Here, now. The valley is ending, the mountains of the other side coming up, the point at which the race really begins. I can no longer waste time thinking. From this point on, it’ll be hard work, and luck, all the way.

The slopes are rising again, fast, the mountains a wall of rock before us, too high to fly over. I catch a glimpse of one, two, three, glittering bat-like figures to the right, sliding through the air. They’ll be making for the main pass, depending on it to get to the finish line. The pass is broad enough for them to manoeuvre, and has enough twists and turns for them to try and outfly one another.

I have other plans. With my small wings, in the narrow confines of the pass, I have no chance.

Dipping my left wing, I slip into a hard turn, through the shadow of the finger, the wall of rock to my right. Ever since I saw the cleft in the rock, yesterday, I’ve been planning this; I’ve gone over it so many times in my mind last evening that I’ve done it in my dreams.

The plan was simple. Everyone else would go for the main pass, or perhaps one or two would fly on to the spot where the two arms of the mountain ridge joined at an obtuse angle, and there was a point that a fast-flying wing might be able to get over. I could never manage that; my small apparatus could never lift me that high.

But there was the cleft on the other side, little more than a fissure in the mountainside. It was longer, too long for the professionals to bother with, and in it I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else. I could just concentrate on staying in the air, as fast and as high as I could.

But in plans everything goes perfectly. Reality is another animal.

Here’s the cleft, coming up, and I turn right, hard, as hard as I can, knowing that if I miss the crack I will become a smashed ruin on the rock surface, knowing also that if I turn too hard I’ll lose lift and stall. It looks as though I won’t make it, and I wrench hard, as hard as I can, on my left wing, and suddenly I’m through.

It’s a narrow space, the walls blurring by on both sides, and I’ll never get any lift from air currents here. There won’t be any room for mistakes, but if I can just concentrate on flying, I should be fine.

Wrong. I am not the only one to think of the crack.

At first, when I see the shadow on the rock below, I think it’s my own. But the angle is wrong, it’s much too high, and there’s my shadow, right where it should be. Then I think it’s a drone, but it’s far too large for a drone, and the way it’s flying, that isn’t like a drone, at all.

And then I know. It’s someone else, someone who’s chosen the same rock fissure as I have, someone who’s followed me in here. And, given my position as last but one in the line, there’s only one person it could be.

If I could have heard anything through my helmet and the slipstream roaring past my face, I might have heard him snigger. He knows that the fissure is too narrow for him to pass me, unless he can fly higher, and he can’t fly higher because there is no way to gain height in this narrow, windless space.

I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to try and get rid of me.

How will he do it? If he’s armed, I’m dead, no matter what I do. But there’s no reason he would take along the extra weight of a weapon – he can’t have known that I would be going alone into the fissure, not out into the pass with the others – and the referees would have noticed it. Besides, a bullet hole will be hard to explain away, and in any case a drone may be watching. And the camera feed from his helmet will show what he does.

That limits his options, but doesn’t eliminate them. He’s more experienced, and, more importantly, he’s got a much larger wing. So...I clench my fists momentarily as I realise what he’s going to do.

He’s going to rush me, get as close to me as possible, and use the downdraft from his huge wing to push me down onto the rock. It’ll work, too. There may be suspicion, but that’s all. Nobody will be able to prove it wasn’t an accident.

I’ve heard of this happening before, flyers sabotaging each other, deliberately crossing each other’s paths to force them to stall or turn away and lose time. But those have been gamesmanship, not attempts at murder; and, anyway, I have never expected it to happen to me.

I can’t see Baki yet, he’s still behind me and slightly above. He probably doesn’t know yet that I’ve spotted his shadow, that I know he’s there. I have to use this while I can.

My jaws are clenched so tight that I force them to relax, while I try to think. Yesterday, when we’d come over here on the official inspection, the others had concentrated on the pass, while I’d come back to this fissure. I try to remember whether Baki had come back as well. I can’t remember seeing anyone else.

Therefore, he must have made up his mind afterwards, and that meant he probably doesn’t know the fissure as well as I do. That’s my only advantage. I must use it.

Ahead, past a bend to the right, the fissure narrows sharply, and that’s where he’ll make his move. I’ll have no space to dodge, no way to escape. But there’s something I know that he doesn’t.

Just past the bend, the fissure splits. One side, which is actually wider, and looks like the natural extension of the main cleft, goes straight on. But it’s a dead end, and terminates in a flat wall of rock in a couple of hundred metres. The smaller passage, to the right, is the way to go.

He’s probably following my lead, waiting for the right time, and this has to be what I’m going to make use of. I don’t have time to think longer, or hesitate.

Sweeping into the bend, right wing dipping slightly, I note, out of the corner of my eye, his shadow on the rock. It’s closer, but not yet too close. I may just have enough time.

Now. There’s the straight passage ahead, and I fly towards it, and I feel him following, the first down pressure of his coming pressing down on my wing surface. He’s busy calculating at exactly what point he’ll press in on me and send me down like a sparrow with a broken wing.

But I’m lighter than he is, and my wing is smaller. I can turn more sharply than he can.

And that is what I do. At the very last moment, I drop my right wing and wrench myself as sharply to the right as I can. I have a nightmare glimpse of the rock, so close that I can feel it kiss my toes, and then I’m round, I’m turned, and the passage to the right is open before me.

I turn my head, risking a look, just in time to see the bat-shape of his wing vanish into the dead end. There’s no way he can turn round in there. He’ll have to get down or crash into the rock, and either way, he’s lost. I can imagine his baffled fury, but I have no time to worry about his fate.

Here is the narrow part of the passage, and I’ve lost too much speed, too much altitude in my twisting and turning; I can’t fly on at this height or I’ll crash. There’s just one thing left to do –  dive.

The air is like a wall against my face, battering against my cheeks and teeth. The rock of the fissure floor is so close that I might be able to touch it if I stretch, but I’m going faster now, fast enough, and I risk pulling up my wing leading edge. Slowly, I’m gaining height.

Little by little, metre by metre, I claw back some of the altitude I’ve lost. I have to turn again, now, once more time, and suddenly the fissure is done. I’m in the open air, over a gentle slope, and there’s the finishing line, below.

Of course I’m not the winner. The ground is already littered with parachutes. I’m still too low and too fast to risk it, and I swoop overhead, away over the slope, and turn round again, coming back, and pull the ripcord.

There’s the familiar jerk and the snap of the opening canopy in my ears, and I’m dropping, down towards the ground, people looking up at me and a couple moving away from my descent path, the ground coming up and slamming my boots.

I’m down. I’ve survived.

My coach comes up to me and helps free me from my equipment. “Not bad,” he says. “Thirteenth of those to finish. They’re still coming in.”

I want to tell him about Baki, and decide not to. “Thirteenth,” I say. “Is that unlucky?”

“Not for you. You’ve made the qualification for the Typhoon race.”

I think of what I’ve heard of the Typhoon race. It’s in an deserted city, between skyscrapers so close together that one can’t fly straight longer than a hundred or so metres. And any accident means a fall down to the cracked surface of the streets far below, dotted with the rusting wreckage of abandoned cars.

Or perhaps the city is only supposedly deserted. I’ve heard tales that gangs live in the basements of the crumbling skyscrapers, and are not above shooting at the wings as they speed by. It’s rumoured that the organisers know it, too, and hope that someday a flyer is gorily shot down on television so they can get good ratings.

“Do I have to?” I ask.

“I thought you wanted to get recognised at this,” he says.

I think of Baki, somewhere in the mountain, who’d planned to eliminate me in order to win. I think of feral gangs with rifles shooting up at me. And then I think about a dream of falling down a dark building, and how I have been spending my life trying to get over that.

“I’ll do it,” I say, picking up my wings. “I will.”

We trudge up the slope, to where the referees are waiting.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017