The Gridshadowers

by C. A. Lootens

Humanity undergoes a quickening in this thrilling tale of connection, sacrifice, and human transformation. Some people become dangerously hypersensitive to their own technology; others develop strange new powers. Meanwhile, a downtrodden EMT and a quixotic young scholar turn into headstrong hostages while caught in a chilling bus ride that is headed way off grid.


Chapter One


The pilot acted as if a spider had just crawled into his underpants. Ebony Diamond Booker was the first to notice him writhing and twisting as he attempted to maintain control of the helicopter. She leaned forward and poked her head through the cockpit, “Hey, you alright up there?”

The pilot gave no response. He wrapped his hands tighter around the controls. His chest was sunken, and his face crinkled. He threw up his visor and removed his helmet. Then he blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes raw. After a worrisome pause, he tilted his head back and asked, “You guys see that or am I going crazy?”

Ebony had no idea what he was talking about, but the fright in his voice walked right over her skin.

“It's gone now,” he said, “the thing just came through the clouds, stopped dead in the air, about fifty feet in front of us...and well, just like that, poof. Into the waterfall below. I –I couldn't fix my eyes around it. It was just too…” He shook his head and blubbered his lips. “Well, no worries, crew. We're touching down now. Probably just a bird.”

“Yeah, probably,” Ebony said, her emerald eyes glistening. Then she sat back down next to the other passenger, her skinny adrenaline junkie friend, Henrik Berg. With her feet tapping the floor in anticipation, she began parting and primping her course curls, in hopes that she wouldn’t have “helmet head” for the post-jump photo shoot.

“Touchdown. Be careful down here. Some real loco birds in these parts.” the pilot shouted over his shoulder to them.

“Touchdown, but not for long.” Henrik said, as he laughed and gave Ebony a swift slap on her knee.

The door flew open. Henrik emerged from the chopper, jumping to the ground like a superhero ready for action. His boots left faint tracks in the rocky soil as he helped Ebony, his newest BASE-jumping cadet, step out and lug her gear towards the cliff's edge.

“All right, beautiful, check your entire rig again. Can't ever be too prepared for this, ja?” he shouted over the harsh gusts of wind encircling them.

Henrik's perky demeanor faded as he shifted his attention to some uncomfortable adjustments in the groin area. Ebony checked her ring release and watched as he fumbled with his harness straps and made sure his container was centered. “Check. Closing pin’s secure,” he said. Then he grabbed his chest mount to double-check the controls on his camera, making sure to get the best resolution possible. He was always hell-bent on perfection before each glory jump and wanted to be sure he had something pretty to show for it.

Whenever he went back home to visit, Berg's old friends in Norway called him “Squirrely.” At age twenty-seven, with just over three hundred successful, if illegal, skydives and BASE jumps combined, Henrik was anything but timid, but everyone, even his distant mother, noticed, in some of his recent jump videos, that he took off through the air in his flashy new wingsuit like the king of the flying squirrels.

“Vee are just moments away from getting the absolute knulle of knulles my friend,” Henrik said, laughing. He fixed his eyes out to the left, just over the cliff, where the white, cascading mane of Angel Falls roared, burying its weight into unimaginable depths below. Ebony looked up and waved, as the copter which had delivered them to the high fall's edge wobbled away through the sky.

“Hey,” Ebony said, waving her gloved hand in front of her friend's thirsty eyes. “Remind me again, what's our drop velocity here?”

She hadn't slept well the night before. Until now, her eyelids were like heavy drapes. Henrik leaned into her ear. “You're putting too many hours in at the university Eb, with your obsession with all that electro stuff.”

“Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, EHS, Henrik,” she stressed, as her hands fidgeted around her equipment. “Really, read up on what electromagnetic frequency radiation does to human cells. The World Health Organization's biomed findings scare the hell outta–”

Their eyes locked. As much as she wanted him to, Henrik wouldn't pull his away. “Look,” he continued, taking her hand in his. “I know about the strange trends out there. I just think you need a break from the electro blues, maybe go back to the old dissertation on kids and diabetes?”

“No way, Henrik! Diabetes smiabetes. All they gotta do is get off their little butts and stop shoving sugar into their mouths. I'm not going back to that. This is bigger,” Ebony said, straightening her back. “This isn't about a handful of off-grid crazies in Europe. It's getting worse every day. What if this reaches a critical mass?” Depressing even herself now, with the “electro-blues” she turned her gaze to the hungry sky above them, watching and waiting to take them in.

Henrik pulled her closer, so she could hear him. “I know this is hard to accept, but you and I both know the review board's getting ready to yank those research dollars out from under you. The people who matter aren't complaining about EHS, and the ones who don't...well, let them figure out how to survive.” He opened his arms to the sky. “Look here. I think she's calling for us, ja?”

For a split second, Ebony wondered how she let her new friend from the university talk her into this level of insanity. Then a fierce wind smacked at her cheeks and a familiar passion stirred in her gut. She and her friend shared more than just an intellectual curiosity about life. They shared an aching desire to explore the fringes of it, too. BASE jumping was free falling, even if only for a matter of seconds, and it was as close to freedom as they could get.

Henrik held his gaze on her as she started reciting raw numbers and facts. As much as numbers annoyed her, they always became her motivational mantra in times of crisis. Henrik gave her hell about this whenever he could, too. After all, unlike him, a population statistics genius, Ebony was more into generating ideas and helping people than reducing them to soulless numbers.

“Um, now Ebony.” Henrik shook his head. “You and I both know you're obsessing about the numbers again, to run from your anxiety. I thought we were past this. You in this with me or not?”

Ebony closed her eyes. “Oh, wait. It's all coming back to me,” she said. “The drop is ninety...yeah, ninety miles per hour. Two thousand, six-hundred and forty...forty-seven. Yes. Just about two thousand, six-hundred, and forty-seven feet to the bottom.” She still couldn't keep her hands still.

“Look, remember what I told you, Eb?” Henrik turned to face her. Their eyes locked again, just two inches apart. “Vhat's the only thing you really need to remember?”

He had her at a soldier's attention.

“Proper exit?” she said.

“No, no...overall?”

“Oh, right. I have ten seconds to be on this chute here.” Ebony's eyes darted to the side like a schoolgirl who hoped she had just pulled some quality crap out of thin air so she could still go to recess with the rest of the kids.

A look of disappointment crept over Henrik's face.

“Oh, I don't know, Henrik,” Ebony gasped. “Open my arms into cross position at take-off? Extend my legs three seconds into the jump? Lateral, um... Oh, Canopy skills? All right. Crap. Maybe I should have trained harder for this,” she wailed, even though she was sure she'd practiced her rising and toggling enough to clog her arteries with it.

“Okay, stop!” Henrik shouted. “You may be green, but you have more than enough training for this.” Communication between them was all screaming now. The air got thicker, and mousy voices weren’t enough. Gusts of wind smacked at their faces and yanked Ebony's dark, coarse hair from the bottom of her helmet, whipping it around. Angel Falls. You Evil Seductress.

Just hours earlier, on the ground, a wayward local with a sandpaper face warned the two about the Venezuelan beast's gluttonous nature. Of course, he referred to the falls themselves, but this trip was solely for the sky. They had no intention on mingling with the locals for the lore, but Henrik's inability to devise a precise route had had them walking in pointless circles around Canaima National Park, seeking directions from anyone who looked like they had at least half an eye for the terrain.

As Sandpaper-Face oriented them to their surroundings, he managed to sneak in some local lore about Miss “Salto Angel,” or Angel Falls herself, and how she was known to “devour people whole, sucking them right into her void.” The two friends had a good laugh about it all but humoring themselves with it wasn't enough to stop Ebony from wondering if the old man was right.

“There's no margin for error in this. None,” Henrik reminded her, slapping the back of her rig. “Fall right or don't fall at all.” He turned back again to face the cliff's edge. “So, still in this with me, beautiful?” he asked, as the wind lifted his voice to a higher level.

“You know it, dammit!” Ebony shouted.

“Okay, Miss Electromagnetica, let us go then.” Henrik winked. Ebony outstretched her arms to the sky. She hoped this power pose would do more for her than just make her look gutsy on the outside. This was her first BASE jump ever, and she had a lot of skeptics behind her, at the university and in her family, scoffing at her and predicting the worst possible scenarios. She knew she wasn't so “green” though, after her years of countless sky diving ventures, from all of which she had emerged upright and in one piece. Whether she was skydiving or BASE jumping, it was all the same, but with different exits and timeframes between free falls. Either way, she had to do this. She was too invested, and nothing could stop her now, not even the terror arising within.

She looked down the side of the cliff again. An inner green light started flashing. She had big dreams for this jump. It was supposed to devour her, and to bring her into an empty stillness she'd never been able to achieve on her own, no matter how many hours she sat in meditation trying to “transcend” her general unease with life.

“Right, then. You wanted to go first. So, jump.” Henrik was right behind her now. She wondered if he had it in him to push her over the edge. His hot breath crawled down her long, naked neck as his hand begged to drift below the small of her back. That's when she started having regrets about what happened the night before in their hotel room. Although she never told him because his poor heart was broken too many times by other woman, she just wasn't into him that way.

Henrik didn't push, but he nudged her, just inches from the edge, and started the countdown. “Five...four...three...two...Ser deg seinare.”

No regrets? Ebony spread out her arms, tilted her body over the crumbling ledge and gave herself over to the sky, all in proper form.

Piano No. 14. First movement. “Adagio,” C-sharp minor. Beethoven. As she fell fast, it began. It started like a little, built-in record player in her head. A few seconds later, her inner Moonlight Sonata opened its melody, like large, angelic wings, and enveloped her in the swirling wind. The sound was almost palpable now, and it held her up to the clouds like a coconut cream-filled macaroon on a shiny platter. She knew Henrik would have jumped already, just seconds after her, but she couldn't see him. In those moments, she was more alone with her inside music than she’d ever been before.

She was right about how the jump would be. It had her in its grasp so tightly she could feel nothing but the fresh, metal tip of a pure, existential void. All her troubles dissolved in those moments. Nothing, not one thing, place, or person, could ever compare to the fall. The fleeting seconds of descent stretched so thin there could have been minutes, even hours, of missing time between them. The loose fabric on her jumpsuit flapped with a vengeance. An otherworldly orgasm seized her. The ensuing laughter was so hard it could have popped a rib from her diaphragm. Lucky for her, all her ribs remained intact.

Although part of her wanted to feel this way forever, she was ready for gravity to do its job and ground her.  Something in her nature was ready to once again place her naked feet onto the soil of contrast, conflict, and experience. She was still young. She had to have her heart broken, and, if she could ever bring herself to do it, finally break one in return. She wanted to drill to the bottom of the EHS phenomenon too, and to help end the suffering. She also had high society parents to impress, and they didn't approve of BASE jumping, something they called a “tasteless, outlaw sport.” She had to find something to make them feel like proud parents.

Beethoven's foreboding melody then shifted into something different. The music sounded like Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky, one of Henrik's favorite classics. Ebony's ten seconds of bliss neared its end, and she knew it was time to throw a practical find her grounding. Every great gig must end. She grabbed at her harness and reached around to her slider. Her pilot chute should have triggered in less than a second. But it didn't. She tugged even harder this time. Still, it did not deploy. “Lower velocity...lower chute pressure. Crap! Object proximity! Open! Open! Ohhhh, Lordy.” Her cries and screams were lost to the heavens air. She fumbled for control of her trajectory, but the massive wind currents threw her into a whirling tumble. This time, she was headed down the toilet and she knew it. Nobody hits the ground at terminal velocity without a chute and comes out as anything other than a human pile of spaghetti.

Then, just as the Great Gig around her came to its whispering epicenter, she noticed something hovering above her in the clouds. Three giant objects, with what appeared to be strings propelling them along. They wafted closer, to right of her, then to the left. The fierce wind didn't faze them. Nothing she'd ever seen before, not even Henrik in his wingsuit, could move as swiftly as they did. For a strange moment, she felt suspended in mid-air. She wondered how much of the drop still separated her from the earth.

The silent objects drew even closer. Their dangling strings lit up, consecutively, and an incandescent stream of light shot out from each one. Still, there was no sound...until, a second later, when there was nothing but noise. Then she lost control of her position and became a fierce tumbleweed on the wind. Something else was off, too. It felt like an earthquake was splitting open the inside of her head.

Drop is ninety miles per hour. Bottom is two-thousand, six-hundred and forty-seven feet. Beware…object proximity. Object proximity! She looked straight ahead at the coarse layer of rock that was closing in on her, fast. She felt the objects reaching out for her with willowy extensions. That's when the world fell silent.




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