I remember how the sky looked, in the early days, when we called our time Austerity, not Collapse. I was eleven years old and Huntsville, Alabama was at the peak of the weather boom. Ninety-one degrees in January, everything turning brown, ice and snow a fairy story for every kid under the age of thirteen.
The sky that year was brilliant yellow and red and orange from the dust — even at noon on a clear day, and they were all clear days. Huntsville was a big city then. The weather boom was economic, not meteorological. Great towers were going up all over the place; new water ’cyclers and refiltration systems were being produced on a planetary scale. And Redstone Federal Arsenal was the flickering heart of the entire jump program. The parabolars, those silver marvels, went up every month with hundreds of jumpers.
On jump days I skipped my morning classes. I went up to the roof of my tower. Dawn would be coming up over that strange sky, the ground steaming off the night’s humidity in seconds, hot wind stirring the drying trees. I got up on the observation ledge, heedless of the height, heart throbbing with excitement. If there was any cloud cover at all, even the wispy ones that were high up, I knew the jump was on. I kicked up a little roof-dust with my sneaker, and when the wind blew it, I knew which direction they’d come from.
Understand this: to seed the sky for rain, you have to have human jumpers. There’s something in the way we do it — it requires perfect accuracy, except when it doesn’t. Of course you could have AI plan the jumps, and sometimes they did, but in the end you needed people. It was always more like drawing a picture than building a wall. And art wasn’t the only reason to do it. During Austerity, the jumpers gave us pride. They gave us hope. Back then, it had seemed like the jump teams might yet turn the tide, and every military in the world had hundreds of them.
Those hot mornings, looking south and west from the tower I lived in, I could see the massive parabolars scream off the landing strip at the Arsenal, a dozen of them, right after another, like beads sliding off a string. Each one carried a tiny white glider containing two or three jumpers and all of their gear. Seconds after the first plane launched, the first sonic boom would shake the tower on its foundation, and my ears went numb for an hour or more.
That’s how close I was.
The parabolars rocketed right overhead. With so little cloud cover you could see them go and go and go, higher than you ever thought anything could fly, and then toss their precious cargo before plummeting toward Earth to collect their next load of jumpers. The white gliders whisked silently through the air like so many distant seagulls, and after a ten-count, you could see the jump teams spill out, flying their strange patterns against a dawn sky the color of candy sugar.
It was beautiful.
I was a girl on a roof, in the middle of a city too small to sustain its growth, in the middle of a country of denial, but for ten glorious minutes I was flying. I was free. And then, when the jumpers came close to the ground, their chemical packs spent, their chutes deployed and they’d glide over the city, sometimes crossing so close overhead that you could almost shake hands (and sometimes, it’s true, my hands shook).
It was the end of the world, but we didn’t know it then. I was grown before we knew for sure that the jumps weren’t working, that there weren’t enough chemicals in the world to hold off the drought, that Collapse would win the day. That was a long way away. On those jump mornings, when I was little, the clouds would billow up like cotton candy, beautiful in their blackness, and my parents wept, and they started planning what they would do next year, when things were better.
I believed in those jumpers with all my heart.
I always knew exactly what I wanted to be.
N.V. Binder is a public librarian in Florida and a 2007-2008 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She is the author of the Redshift series of short science fiction novels, available on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. She is active on Twitter @nvbinder. “Seed” is her first professional publication.
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