“This must be what BASE jumping is like,” I think to myself as we plunge down the karst carbonate throat of a former cenote, “without the parachute.”
The harrowing ride had begun innocuously enough in a flooded soccer field after the shuttle lifted away. The backwash from the turbines created a water depression around the ascending craft’s landing gear, which added even more humidity to the already saturated air and forced a wave of muddy water to lift the stacked luggage off its platform and briefly become surfing flotsam.
The sun beat down furiously and I began to think that I should never have left the air-conditioned shuttle and just returned to orbit.
Mauro wrangled the muddy bags onto the flatboat and the four of us climbed aboard. At least, Mauro called it a flatboat, but it was really just a giant banana palm leaf laid on a flexible gravipeller frame. It was roughly two meters wide, two and three quarters long, and had no seats or gunwales.
Nonetheless, I still grabbed an edge and rolled it into my hand, mostly out of instinct, even though I knew that there would always be a steady one G keeping my ass rooted to the leaf, no matter our orientation.
The other two passengers looked like traveling pharmaceutical saleswomen. They both wore the same bright yellow, crisply pressed skirt suit with white decolletage blouses, and totally useless footwear for this planet: matching three-inch yellow pumps. I shook my head at the absurdity of it and amused myself by imagining them with matching pom-poms these clearly former cheerleaders used to shake.
Mauro stroked petiole veins in front of where she was sitting, and we floated gently into the sky before accelerating rapidly. The wind whipped my face, and I turned to look at this world go by. Moving away from the landing field, we headed towards the local town. Glinting in the closing distance were its huddled masses of buildings encircling a towering mountain’s base. They looked like a child’s haphazardly stacked blocks holding back and separating the cascade of green foliage spilling down the flanks from the muddy brown shoulder of the the river.
The town came into view, and as we flew by I saw that the apartments had been built in clusters of five. Two on either side of a gated courtyard and three to the rear. Each cluster came with its own caged, zig-zagging stairway that led up or down to the next level’s courtyard, all made of metal grates welded to structural pipes that likely served double-duty for water and sewage. The top ranks had landing platforms while the lower levels had stairs that went down into the muck.
Each cluster was its own gated community, and I saw people scurrying up and down stairs while leaves, doors, plastic sheeting, carriages, and even canoes attached to gravipellers flitted in, out, up, down and around the platforms like a semi-orchestrated hurricane.
I was agog that we didn’t witness or participate in a mid-air collision.
Every apartment looked to be the same architecture; about three meters wide, eight meters deep, and two stories high, with anodized, rectangular aluminum window frames in a rainbow of colors holding transparent, semi-transparent and opaque panes of varying hues.
We accelerated to upwards of 200 klicks, and the effect of zipping past the buildings was a dizzying kaleidoscope of blocked color and reflected light that just about induced an epileptic seizure in me.
We followed the shoulder of the mountain into a dense, green valley until the town petered out behind us, leaving us to surf over and gaze at the canopy as it flew by. Mauro knew the local fauna well, for she would occasionally slow down somewhat and swerve to the side, flushing out flocks of parrots that were roosting and sending them skyward, or plunge down to clearings in the understory and stampede tapirs into denser cover. Me and the other two tourists recorded these encounters with our resmems.
I admired Mauro’s piloting skills. If she had grown up somewhere populated, she likely would have been able to get into the Academy on her skills alone and ended up skimming galaxies instead of treetops. Some of her moves alarmed the saleswomen, but I could see her in full flow mode, consciously and unconsciously dancing with what the world put before her and I felt reasonably safe.
Eventually, she settled into following the undulations of the trees. This fractal rhythm went on for about half an hour and I had been close to being lulled asleep, so I wasn’t paying very close attention to our surroundings when she suddenly pulled a huge loop-de-loop and disengaged the gravipeller at the vertex while simultaneously turning up the G field to what felt like three. This clamped us to the leaf and put us into a seemingly terminal, parabolic arc.
Your gut knows when you’re falling. Our brachiating heritage wired our brains to be very attentive to free fall. But our heritage is worth squat when two gravitational fields intersect somewhere around our knees, each pulling in different directions. The instinct is to reach down and grab hold, but when there are two downs, the brain short-circuits, leaving you paralyzed.
I helplessly watched us head towards a ridge of treetops that would be our end.
Screams erupted from behind me and I could sense movement behind me towards Mauro, but I knew it was useless.
In the time it took for me to realize and accept that I was going to die after plunging to the jungle floor in a tangled mass of branches, flesh, and leaves, and have my carcass consumed by scavengers with more legs than IQ points, I spied a black opening in the canopy that we seemed to be falling toward, and my predicted demise shifted to being cratered into the damp understory. But to my everlasting surprise, we ruffled the leaves fringing the dark hole, and then we plunged down into the gullet of the empty cenote.
Mauro’s wicked laughter was torn away by the wind buffeting us, so only her highest frequencies carried across the leaf. She sounded like the shrieking madwoman she was. The other passengers struggled against the G force but it was all they could do to gasp terrified breaths.
Despite myself, I laughed as well. While I didn’t agree with Mauro’s dangerous trick, I admired her skills and thought about how many other off-worlders she had scared with this little piloting trick. She caught my mirthful eye and winked as she touched the controls again, this time to re-engage the gravipeller and reduce the G field to about three-quarters.
This had the effect of dramatically slowing our descent and creating the disorientating feeling like we were now floating upwards. I glanced at the women, and they looked like they were going to be sick. I chuckled and wondered how the rest of their day was going to go. Hopefully they had some anti-nausea medicine in their bags.
The expected angry tirade began after they caught their breath and stomachs, and frankly, I didn’t blame them. One of these days, Mauro was going to be a bit off, and there’d be one less taxi in the fleet and reams of paperwork to do at multiple insurance offices. I decided to save my breath for a chat with the local recruiting office. We could use more pilots like her.