James Swallow - Fallen Angel

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Fallen Angel
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James Swallow - Fallen Angel
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Faridah Malik was falling through a dawn sky full of amber sunlight and grey clouds. The howling wind thundered at her, ripples of it streaming over her body and the bare skin of her face, plucking at the thin material of her clothing. She could believe it was alive, the way it toyed with her like a cat with a mouse, batting her back and forth. Somewhere below, concealed in the gossamer strata of smoggy city-haze, the golden towers of Upper Hengsha were reaching up for her, vast glassy daggers catching the light of the rising sun.

She opened her mouth to cry out, but her breath was stolen away and the scream she wanted to release was gone in an instant. The sky took it from her.

Afforded some protection behind a pair of goggles, her eyes scanned the horizon line and looked for a familiar silhouette moving against the drifts of heavy cloud. She found it, maybe a few hundred feet away, turning against the sunrise. A boxy white shape hung between two stubby wings and the blurred discs of massive rotor props. The aircraft was an old military transport from the mid-2010’s, a V-22 Osprey years past its wartime prime, decommissioned for civilian flight.

Faridah grinned and changed her attitude, reconfiguring herself in the punishing airflow to alter her body’s aerodynamics. At first she was a diving human missile, arms flat to her sides and her legs together, mimicking a dolphin-like profile; but now she let her arms extend out, legs bend and shift. She cut into the wind, widening her silhouette. Slowing. Defying gravity.

But still too fast, she told herself. The Osprey was coming up quickly ahead of her. Faridah pressed the thumb of her right hand into the middle of her palm and held it for a two-count before she felt the quiver that ran through her clothing. The wingsuit’s dormant systems activated. Memory-plastic webbing snapped open in sails between her arms and torso, between her thighs and crotch. The wind filled the winglets and she felt velocity suddenly bleeding away.

The aircraft was very close now, and she was coming in behind it, aiming herself on an invisible line between the vertical fins of the Osprey’s H-shaped tail. A yawning drop ramp was open beneath the fins, a brightly-lit cargo bay visible within. Five minutes ago and a few thousand feet higher up, she had thrown herself out of that same hatchway and into the pink glow of the cold, pre-dawn air.

Faridah laughed, feeling the sound in her chest more than hearing it as adrenaline surged through her bloodstream. She felt swift and dangerous, and she knew she was utterly alive in this moment, in a way that it would be impossible to express to anyone who had not shared such an experience.

The wintry kiss of the sky, the heavy embrace of gravity and the thundering power of the winds left her elated. Part of her wanted to close her eyes and fall forever.

But then she forced out a banshee whoop and pivoted into a side-slip motion, letting her body be her aerofoil. Faridah plunged into the V-22’s turbulent wake and burst through it. The open cargo bay reared up like a hungry mouth and she allowed it to swallow her whole.


She landed hard against the metal deck and grabbed at a cargo net, shaking as the icy, mingled rush of fear and joy coursed through her. Faridah climbed unsteadily to her feet and started laughing again.

“You’re crazy!” shouted a voice from the front of the aircraft, as the drop ramp rose back up to seal off the cargo bay.

“It has been said,” Faridah shot back, making her way forward to the flight deck as she pulled off the goggles. She blinked away droplets of sweat.

In the command pilot’s seat, a woman with a tight blonde bob and a pleasant, smiling face beamed back at her. Evelyn Carmichael had been one of the first people Faridah Malik had made friends with on arrival in Hengsha,

one American seeking the familiarity of another’s company. She was, if Faridah were ever to admit it, the closest thing she had to a sister. Theirs was a friendship forged fast and firm, two against the world and daring it to come at them.

Evelyn presented a bare palm to the other woman and Faridah returned a languid high-five, tapping the control to retract the wingsuit’s sails before slipping easily into the co-pilot’s position.

Evelyn mirrored Faridah’s grin. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had a lover out there.” She jerked her thumb at the sky. “Look at you. You’re flushed, your heart is racing…”

Faridah gave an amused shrug, finding a water bottle in the dump bin under the control panel and taking a generous swig. “S’better than sex,” she said, between gulps. “Never disappointing.” It was Evelyn’s turn to laugh, and despite her elfin, spare build, she had a raucous and dirty chuckle that was always infectious. “So, what? You want to have a smoke and then go out again?”

“If only. We are supposed to be working.” Faridah leaned forward, running a trained eye over the Osprey’s dials and readouts.

Malik and Carmichael were up in the VTOL to give the aging aircraft a check flight; the impromptu skydiving was just a perk of the job. The Osprey had spent the last week in the hanger getting one of its Rolls Royce turbofans replaced, and the aircraft’s owner Jai Cheng wanted to be sure it was cleared for operations. Cheng employed the two women as part of ArcAir, a small cargo and logistics company operating in this corner of the East China Sea. It was less than inspiring work, mostly light transport flights between Hengsha and the mainland, or runs out to Hong Kong and Macao – but it allowed Faridah and Evelyn to do what they loved. ArcAir was always busy, and the two women were never short of flight hours they could log. And when they were not flying for Cheng, he let them fly for fun or go weekending on any one of a string of tropical party islands, where flash mob gigs or extreme sports were the big draw.

“Looking good,” said Faridah, peering at the new engine’s temperature gauges. “Green across the board. Reckon we can sign off on this bad boy. Or maybe I can take the stick, and you can play jump-and-scoop.”

Evelyn made a face. “Cliff-diving, yeah. Dune-boarding, okay. Even regular high-altitude low-opening parachuting. But if I get out of a plane, I don’t usually climb back inside in mid-air.” She looked away. “Besides, we should get back to the barn. I promised Lee I’d call him today.”

Faridah tried and failed to hide the scowl that automatically marred her features whenever Lee Hong’s name came up in conversation. “Sure. Right,” she said, settling her headphone-mike rig over her ears. Faridah’s thumb absently brushed the tiny Monroe piercing in her upper lip, and she frowned. It was her only tell, and she hated herself for showing it so easily.

Naturally, Evelyn caught the gesture. “I’d really like it if you could get on with him, Ri. I mean, I know he can be a little rowdy-”

“He’s a hot-head, that’s what he is.” The words slipped out before Faridah realized she was saying them. “It’s not my place to tell you who to date,” she added, trying to back-pedal.

“No, it isn’t.” Evelyn’s tone cooled. “Lee isn’t like the other guys we always meet, the drifters and the trust-fund babies. He’s got plans, he’s got ambition,” she went on, becoming defensive. “And he treats me well.”

For now, Faridah thought, but this time she kept her silence. There were a dozen ripostes she could come up with about Hong, from bringing up his shady family or the stories about his occasional flashes of violent temper. But all those things had been aired between the two friends many times before today, and never found resolution. Faridah learned the hard way that coming down on the wrong side of Evelyn’s love life was a recipe for argument. She didn’t want that; she didn’t want to put a distance between herself and the woman who had been her only friend during those early days in Hengsha, when it seemed like the city was going to eat her alive. But she couldn’t escape the fact that she just didn’t like Evelyn’s taste in men.

Faridah ended any further discussion by patching into the general aviation channel and contacting Hengsha Air Control. “H-A-C, this is ArcAir Zero-Niner-Niner. Maintenance flight is complete, we’re coming back to the pattern. Request clearance for return to Alpha Alpha One Four, over.”

A synthetic voice crackled in her ear. “ArcAir Zero-Niner-Niner, H-A-C confirms. Clear to RTB, over.”

“I got this,” said Evelyn, as she gripped the control yoke. The loose, easy mood in the cockpit had evaporated.

“Sure,” offered Faridah, looking away. Her eyes became glassy as her gaze turned inward. “I guess I’ll check my footage…”

Suddenly she was falling again, this time giddy inside the confines of her own head. Faridah’s skin tingled with the ghostly sense memory of the jump.

She wasn’t the kind of person to be ostentatious about her augmentations. Maybe it was some lingering effect of the conservative family she had been brought up in, but Faridah was circumspect about how people outside her circle of friends perceived her. She never felt the desire to change herself radically by replacing limbs or other obvious elective surgery. What implants she did possess were relatively small pieces of tech – neural augs that gave her better reaction times and sharper optical acuity. There was also the ‘black box’, but that she tended to use more for her own amusement.

The device was essentially a human-scale version of the flight recorder fitted to the V-22; the unit’s wetdrive captured a digitized feed of the impulses from Faridah’s visual and aural senses, a few hours of images and sounds that could be played back, or downloaded through an induction connector placed on her temple. It was a common enough aug for a flyer, designed to be hardy enough that it, like the flight recorder of an aircraft, could be recovered after a fatal crash to determine the root cause. The Chinese aviation authority made them mandatory for all civil pilots operating in their airspace.

Faridah dismissed the need for it, though. She was confident enough in her own abilities to believe that she

could walk away from any hard landing. Instead, she used the playback to store her wilder experiences whenever she could, saving the footage to a hard drive back in her apartment. To anyone else, they would have just seemed like random sensory clips bereft of context and meaning, but to Faridah they were bottled memories. Like looking through someone’s home vids, they really didn’t have any resonance unless you had actually been there.

Still, the playback pulled her in deep enough that when the Osprey started to descend toward Hengsha, it was almost a shock to disengage and snap back to the real world. The great raised platform of upper metropolis, the gargantuan city-atop-a-city, filled the view through the canopy. It reminded Faridah of a giant’s table, the surface dotted with elegant bottles and ornate crockery, each piece made of perfect cut glass or decorated porcelain. Grassy, green arcologies turned toward the sky, like vases full of cut flowers.

These were the domains of the Hengsha’s rich and powerful, those who lived in the rarified air of high company management and great wealth; alongside them, the intellectual elite who staffed the exclusive universities and research centers. The sculpted monolith of the Tai Yong Medical corporation’s tower dominated the artificial landscape, the surface of it smooth and sleek like the skin of the cybernetic limbs that made the company its colossal fortune.

Evelyn guided them downward, past the thick strata of the pangu – the massive deck that separated the upper district from the one beneath – and they descended toward the old town. Below the upper city, the lower quadrant lay in an endless half-night of eternal shadows. Neon-drenched streets shone around the feet of massive anthill apartment towers and smoky industrial complexes. Drones and other flyers crossed back and forth, the sky becoming busy as the two Hengshas awoke with the new day.

Not that Lower Hengsha ever really slept, Faridah reflected. It was the dark mirror image of the upper city’s opulence and luxury, a bestial and dangerous likeness of its dazzling twin. In the lower city, life was cheaper and times were harder; and up above, while things might have shone a little more brightly, they were just a different kind of dangerous.


Evelyn brought the Osprey around in a spiraling descent, and with Faridah’s assistance, she rotated the spinning props on the end of the wings to a vertical mode. The VTOL made a careful touchdown on ArcAir’s south pad. The airfield was part of an artificial reef that had been one of the first things built during the founding of Hengsha, and it extended out into the bay.

Faridah couldn’t help but glance out over the landing apron to where the company’s more modern aircraft were parked. Jai Cheng’s other private planes were sleek models with windowless virtual cockpits and swept-back wings. While they were similar in structural configuration to the tilt-rotor V-22, that was where the resemblance ended. The other VTOLs had advanced axial flow engines at their wingtips, making them highly agile and capable of near-supersonic speeds. It was no secret that Faridah Malik coveted the chance to fly one of them. So far Cheng hadn’t been willing to give her the job.

As if thinking about him summoned the man, Faridah caught sight of Cheng crossing the apron toward them as Evelyn ran through the Osprey’s shutdown checklist. His normally smiling face was set in a grimace, and he had a purposeful manner to his gait that made Faridah worry that he was coming to chew them out about turning the check flight into a joyride. But then she saw the low shape of a six-wheeled robot fuel bowser nosing into place under the Osprey’s wing and guessed that something else was up.

Evelyn saw the fuel truck too. “What’s this? We barely touch down and we’re tanking up again?”

Faridah unstrapped and climbed out of the hatch behind the cockpit to meet her employer as he stepped up. Getting a closer look at him, she had the sense that Cheng was under stress, but she knew that he would never admit that to her.

“Hey, Malik,” he began. “Listen, you need to top off and head back out.” He jerked a thumb at the control hut

across the short runway. “There’s a new flight plan for you.”

She nodded at the sleeker jet VTOLs. “Can’t one of them take it? Maybe Fynn or one of the other pilots? The replacement engine, it ought to have one of the techs give it a look over-”

He cut her off with a shake of the head. “No can do. A timetable has been moved up, and we have a job to do.” Cheng straightened and self-consciously adjusted the floral lapels of his jacket. “It’s a special request from one of our, ah, elite clients,” he added.

Faridah said nothing. It was an open secret among the ArcAir crews that Cheng’s company had an ongoing relationship with the Red Arrow triad, one of many Chinese organized crime groups that operated in dozens of cities around the world. It wasn’t a shocking truth – in Hengsha it was just a fact of life, the price of doing business in a city where criminal gangs kept the peace better than the corporate rent-a-cops ever could. His so-called ‘elite clients’ were usually senior Red Arrow members, who paid him back in influence for no-questions-asked trips that never got logged by city flight control. Faridah and Evelyn had steered clear of such things, though; if she dwelled on it too long, Malik became uncomfortable with the questions such thoughts raised, and she preferred to stay out of Cheng’s shady dealings as much as she could. If ArcAir was a Red Arrow shell company, she didn’t want to know about it, and she damn well wasn’t going to voice such suspicions openly.

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