Wind Settles in the Bones
by Stephen Granade
Syn hated pre-race press conferences. Instead of mentally preparing for competition, she had to smile and answer every media outlet’s repetitive questions. Timm Yancy with One AU especially frustrated her. He unfailingly asked inane human-interest questions like “what did you have for breakfast this morning?” (a magnetocarbonate shake so she could sense magnetic fields, followed by protein-rich cricket bars for the nausea, same as every race day) and “is that a new haircut?” (as if it would be seen under her spacesuit helmet). But Syn hadn’t become the third-ranked solar wind racer by putting off unpleasant tasks, so she called on him first. And that was how Syn learned that her dad had died.
Syn’s teeth ached and her ears hummed from the cameras floating in front of her. Their magnetic fields were a hundred times stronger than the solar wind’s, and the magnetocarbonate made her bones thrum like bass strings plucked too hard. Then Syn realized how long she’d been silent, gaping at Timm. Her media training took over. She offered a sad smile calibrated just so. “It’s hard, but I know he’d want me to focus on the race.”
A lie. Her dad had asked, then pleaded, then demanded that she quit. Each time, she’d cut the conversation short. Six months ago he hadn’t let her. He’d ranted, gesturing angrily with his pipe. “You always loved that hobby of yours more than you did me!”
It had been the final straw. She’d instructed her digital assistant to refuse his calls.
And now she’d never talk to him again.
Syn got through the rest of the presser on autopilot before fleeing to her locker room. She suited up, then collapsed on the bench, turning her helmet over and over like it was a puzzle to be solved.
“Syn, I’m so sorry.” Fiona Carter, her coach, had come to check on her. “You want to talk about it?”
Syn couldn’t look at Fiona or she’d start yelling like Dad. “Don’t worry, I’m going to race.” Three heats. Three days before she could deal with her dad’s death. “You should have known.”
Fiona sat next to Syn. “I blocked him after you did.”
The helmet glinted in the overhead lights. “You were supposed to deal with him.”
“What, you get to ignore him but I have to let him scream at me about kidnapping his daughter?”
Syn slammed the helmet hard enough to chip the bench.
“Hey!” Fiona took the helmet from Syn. “Easy!”
“Don’t act like my mom.”
“It’s okay that you’re hurting.” Fiona gave her a quick hug. “Look, I wish I hadn’t blocked him. I’d had enough of his abuse, though, just like you.”
Syn’s anger left as quickly as it had come. “What am I going to do?”
“Race. You want to overtake Onyotu, right? Maybe even Marisol?”
The second- and first-ranked racers. If Syn did well enough, she could get enough points to move past both of them.
Fiona helped Syn up. “You’re nineteen and already within striking distance of the top spot. You’re the most gifted racer I’ve ever worked with.” She put the helmet on Syn and locked it in place. “Go show everyone what you can do.”
Syn floated above her board at the L1 Lagrange point. Her stomach floated, too, turning lazy flips and amplifying her magnetocarbonate nausea. Pre-race nerves. She focused on Fiona’s eternal advice to embrace those nerves. They’d make her sharper, improve her time.
Stars filled space above and below her. Left and right were her competitors, including Onyotu. Marisol had already had her qualifying heat.
Forget the other racers. Only two things mattered: the Earth in front of her, the Sun behind her.
“Got the good nerves?” Fiona said over the link.
“Don’t forget, they’ll make you sharper.”
“Yeah, yeah.” But Syn was glad Fiona always said that. It was a good-luck charm.
The link cut off. Race time. Her helmet’s heads-up display flickered to life. It outlined the solar wind streaming past her, turning space into a topographic map. Froth lay on top of it, turbulence that could buck her off her board if she rode it wrong.
Red race light in Syn’s heads-up display. Her board hummed to life, grav drive pulling her boots onto its pebbled surface. “You are ten ounces below your check-in mass,” it reported. It would drop its thrust to compensate so she wouldn’t get an unfair advantage.
Yellow light. Syn’s palms sweated inside her suit gloves. She hated the five seconds between yellow and green. Her anxiety filled that time like poison gas.
She shut her eyes, breathed deep, and listened to the wind sing in her bones. She opened her eyes. “Do the thing,” she murmured.
Syn leaned forward. Her board leapt in response, its thrust in proportion to the solar wind’s magnetic field.
Syn cut left, banking off of a magnetic gradient to pick up speed. The gradient tugged at her mag-sense like hooks in her bones.
Onyotu tried to do the same but bobbled his attack angle. Syn shot ahead of him. But he recovered quickly and began maneuvering to pass her.
Never mind him. Focus on the wind.
Turbulent eddies choked the path ahead, the decaying corpses of broken-apart waves. Dodge them or take them head on?
Head on. She could risk it.
The turbulence jolted Syn. Her board nearly bucked her as it dropped down a gradient the turbulence had hidden. Too fast. Syn chided herself to lean into her instincts. She was thinking too much. Racing was a magic trick, and if she thought about it too hard the magic vanished.
Earth grew as she flew forward towards a cluster of satellites, sunlight glinting off of them. They were producing magnetic fields, rocks in the stream to make the course more difficult.
Onyotu chose that moment to overtake her. He made a risky bank off of a wave and was rewarded with the lead position.
They were almost to the satellites. Syn could shed speed, take the rapids more cautiously. It’s what Fiona would advise.
A tug at the base of her skull. Whistlers, tiny waves in the wind, catching up to her.
Screw caution. Syn was going to ride straight into the rapids’ teeth and smash them in.
The first set of whistlers screamed past her. Syn picked up speed in a bone-rattling rush. She hunkered down on her board, shuffle-stepping in a frantic effort to keep her balance. Her bad ankle throbbed in time to her heart.
The rapids kicked Syn back and forth like a soccer ball. She wasn’t going to take that lying down. She aimed her board straight at a satellite, then reared back so that she skimmed its field like a rock across a pond. She lost control for a moment, board twirling. The virtual magnetic lines on her HUD whirled, a planetarium gone rogue. Syn was going to wipe out.
She wasn’t going to let that happen. She closed her eyes and let her mag sense guide her. The board rose and fell under her, both ankles aching now as she absorbed each shock.
Then she was through, the wind in front of her calm. The Earth was much bigger now. She risked a look over her shoulder. Onyotu had fallen behind. He’d been more cautious with the rapids.
He couldn’t catch her. They had a long, straight stretch before they hit the Earth’s bow wave where its magnetic field shouldered the solar wind aside.
Syn should be elated. But she only felt mild satisfaction at a job done well.
The Earth was the size of her thumb when she hit the bow shock. She cut her board hard. The planet whirled beneath her, hidden by her board. She bent down and grabbed its edge, riding the shock up and around the Earth.
Then it was over. She shot into the finish volume and leaned hard left to bleed off speed. Her board decoupled from the solar wind and thrusted to a halt.
She was first into the volume. Onyotu arrived a full ten seconds later. He blew past Syn and even after he’d stopped he refused to look her way.
Screw him. She’d had one of her best runs all year.
She checked the overall standings. Still three seconds behind Marisol.
Still not good enough.
Her link popped as Fiona connected. “I know you’re beating yourself up. Don’t. You’re ahead of Onyotu. Marisol’s next. Quick through the showers and we can review tape.” Then, “It’s okay. Your dad’s death was bound to distract you.”
Cold seeped into Syn’s fingers and toes. Her eyes stung. Fiona was wrong. Syn hadn’t thought about her dad at all.
Syn should have been asleep an hour ago, but sleep kept darting away from her like a fish. She counted ceiling tiles in her hotel room, a trick which hadn’t worked before and didn’t this time, either.
She gave up. Sitting up, she unrolled her flimsy to review Fiona’s notes on her performance again.
Syn’s dad used to bring her hot milk when she was too wound up the night after a race. She’d make a face and tell him how disgusting hot milk was, but she’d drink it and feel better.
Her flimsy’s digital assistant popped up a notification from the hotel’s concierge, startling her out of her reverie. But no message showed up when she tapped it.
When Syn linked the concierge, he said, “So sorry about that mistaken alert. Nothing for you to worry about, miss.”
Syn would have left it alone except for the dismissive “miss” the concierge threw on at the end. “Yeah, I’ll decide that. Why’d you link me?”
“It was a package, but Ms. Carter left instructions that any such articles were to be routed to her.”
Fiona usually screened Syn’s packages, but as of today, Syn was done with that arrangement. “I’ll be down right away.” She cut the link before the concierge could protest.
The concierge was visibly braced for her arrival when she reached the lobby. “Package for Synder Tanaka?” Syn said, sugar-sweet.
The concierge looked past Syn. His expression grew more conflicted. “Ah, Ms. Carter?”
Fiona double-timed it across the lobby to the concierge desk. “Syn, you’re supposed to be asleep.” And then, to the concierge, “I’ll take the package, thanks.”
Syn’s annoyance gave way to anger. “You won’t, actually.”
The concierge squirmed. “Young miss–”
“It’s my package, right? So give it to me.”
“Syn, this isn’t helpful,” Fiona said. “I’m trying to keep you from being distracted.”
The concierge lifted a small shipping box from under his stand. Bright red priority mail stickers covered it.
It was from her dad.
Syn tucked it under her arm and marched off. She was done talking.
Fiona caught up to her at the elevator. “At least let me hold onto it until after the race.”
Syn stared at the closed elevator doors. “I’m not a fragile vase.”
Fiona turned Syn by her shoulders so they were facing. “You’re not fragile. But your focus can be.” She gently pressed her finger to Syn’s forehead. “Don’t lose the race up here.”
The elevator doors slid open. “You want to distract me? Make me wonder what’s in this box.”
Fiona didn’t follow Syn into the elevator.
In her room, Syn pressed the box corners. It unwound like a ribbon, revealing what looked like a music box with a message stick taped to it.
When she lifted the smaller box’s lid, she found ashes inside.
Syn barely kept from jumping and knocking the box to the floor. Then she laughed, even though nothing about it was funny, imagining the call to hospitality asking for someone to vacuum her dad out of the carpet.
She half-wanted Fiona’s support when she watched her dad’s message, but instead ordered hot milk from room service. She waited, knees drawn to her chest, staring at the box like it might lunge at her if she looked away, until the room’s dumbwaiter opened.
She sipped the milk, hoping it would bring courage as well as warmth. Then she freed the message stick from its tape and tapped it to her flimsy.
Six months ago her dad had looked fine. The version of him in the message was stooped, wan, face lined by pain. Only his pipe was unchanged. “Synder. I know this is a surprise. Since you started blocking my messages, I didn’t know how else to reach you.”
Syn flicked the flimsy so hard she threw it. It rolled back into a cylinder, hiding her dad within its curves.
She held her mug like she’d fall if she let go, down, down, with no bottom in sight.
While Syn hadn’t thought about her dad during her first heat, she couldn’t stop thinking about him in the second.
It started well before the race, when she choked down the lumpy, gluey magnetocarbonate shake. She sweated and shivered, body cramping as the concoction bonded to her bones. When she first started racing for real, her dad would place cool washcloths on her forehead and wrists to help her manage the pain.
He’d asked why she drank it right before every race, since its effects lasted for months. She’d explained that it was the most reactive on the first day and she needed every edge if she was going to be the best. But she hadn’t been able to explain how magical it was to feel the wind in her bones.
Sliding down a steep gradient reminded her of Dad catching her the first time she tried wind racing in VR and the haptic board threw her. He’d set her back on her feet and encouraged her to try again. She’d been five and thought he could do anything.
The satellites sparked a memory of Dad inventing ever-more-bizarre obstacle arrangements for her VR training. She’d been ten and already knew he had no racing skills whatsoever. She still let him generate obstacles. He took such joy in helping her, and she’d do anything not to disappoint him.
A pinch point in the field lines spit her out like a cork from a champagne bottle. She stumbled, nearly twisting her weak ankle. When she’d broken it during Junior Finals, Dad had had enough. He demanded that she quit her “hobby.” It was a moot point. She’d been fifteen, and no coach was willing to work with her. She was damaged goods.
Then Fiona had reached out. Against Dad’s wishes, Fiona had seen Syn through rehab and a near-impossible year of learning how to race again. Countless times Syn had been convinced she couldn’t do it, and each time Fiona helped her continue.
Fiona believed in her.
Syn hit the Earth’s bow shock at the wrong angle and nearly wiped out. She held tight to her board and leaned far to the side, just managing to recover. The wind sang through her and she smiled for the first time during the race.
The smile faded. Her dad had wanted her to give up the wind.
Syn skidded to a halt in the finish volume, breath loud in her helmet. Marisol had already reached it, as had another racer. She pulled the rankings up in her HUD. Onyotu had beat Syn’s time in his earlier heat. She’d fallen to fourth.
“We can still recover,” Fiona said on the link. “But you’ve got to get your focus back for the last heat.”
To do that, Syn had to banish her dad’s ghost.
Syn armed herself with another mug of hot milk from room service. She breathed in its steam before thumbing her flimsy.
She still wasn’t ready for how worn out her dad looked. “It’s my heart doing me in, kiddo. Unfixable, it turns out.” He laughed softly. “You always told me that my pipe would kill me. Wish this wasn’t how I get to win that argument.”
Syn’s fingers dug into her bed’s comforter. How long had he known? Was he going to tell her the last time they talked, before they fought and Syn cut the link?
Her dad fiddled with his pipe. “I’ve been writing you letters since we–well. I’m like a Regency-era lady now. Turns out I’m better at writing my thoughts than saying them. I’ve saved them on a memory stick for you. You don’t have to read them.”
God, that was him all over, putting in so much work and then downplaying it. Syn knuckled away tears.
Her dad looked into the camera for the first time. “Racing means everything to you, and you’re amazing at it. I messed up. I’m sorry. I owe Fiona an apology, too. I appreciate her passing you this message, especially after how I treated her.”
Syn blinked. She couldn’t process what he was saying.
“I hope you make it home in time, but if you don’t, it would mean a lot to me if you scattered my ashes on one of your training runs.” The tears flowing down his face matched Syn’s. “Okay. Be well, kiddo. Go do the thing.”
Syn stared at the last frame of her dad reaching forward to shut off recording. She’d blocked her dad. Her dad had recorded this message. He’d talked as if he’d sent it to her by way of Fiona. But it had come with his ashes instead.
She looped around those thoughts, stuck in a growing tornado of confusion that turned to doubt that turned to anger.
Syn was at Fiona’s hotel door before she realized she was in pyjamas. She didn’t care. She pounded on the door until her coach opened it.
“Syn, it’s nearly midnight. You should be asleep.”
Syn brandished her flimsy like a club. “Dad said you had his last message to me.”
Fiona sagged against the door frame. “It’s not what you think.”
“You said you blocked him!”
“And I did!” Fiona’s hands opened and closed like she was trying to pull her thoughts from the air. “He sent it to me through a colleague. But I didn’t get it until we were already here. I didn’t know he’d mail it to you, too.”
“You watched my message!” Syn hadn’t realized she could be so angry.
“To protect you! Your dad would have done anything to get you to quit racing. And even if you’d left, you wouldn’t have gotten to Mars in time for the funeral. I checked the schedules. You’d have dropped out of the race for nothing!”
Syn’s body was so tense that her bad ankle throbbed. “That wasn’t your decision to make!”
The pleading vanished from Fiona’s voice. “It became my decision the moment you blocked your dad and dumped him in my lap.”
Syn’s anger turned back on her like a snake. She fled to her room, ignoring Fiona’s increasingly frantic shouts. When her flimsy lit up with message notifications from her coach, she blocked her.
The floor was easier to reach than her bed. The room whirled around her. She wanted to curl up for a week. Forget about Fiona, the race, her dad.
She stared at the box with her dad’s remains on the bedside table. For the first time in months, she wanted his advice.
She knew what he’d say, though. “Go do the thing.”
When Syn’s board pulled her to its surface, it said, “You are three kilograms above your check-in mass.” Syn was expecting it. Dad’s remains were tucked in a suit pouch.
The yellow race light lit, but it didn’t trigger Syn’s usual anxiety. It turned out that not caring about a race’s outcome was good for her nerves.
Green light. Marisol and Onyotu picked up speed. Syn lagged behind. That was okay. She’d accepted her loss already.
When this third heat was done, she’d have to talk to Fiona. It would be easier to pretend Fiona didn’t exist. Syn wouldn’t, though. She was done avoiding hard conversations.
She reveled in the brilliance of the stars around her, the hum of the board beneath her feet, her slow, steady breathing as she carved through the solar wind.
It was the first time she’d enjoyed racing since the final break with Dad.
Syn reached the calm, straight stretch before the Earth’s bow shock. She opened the pouch with Dad’s remains.
Air puffed out, carrying his ashes with it like smoke from his pipe.
“Bye, Dad,” she whispered.
She’d prepared for his ashes to fall behind her. Instead they picked up speed, carried by the solar wind.
Understanding dawned. Magnetocarbonate, bonded to his bones.
Syn imagined him choking down the shake, sweating and trembling afterward. Even dying he’d put himself through that, with no guarantee that Syn would do what he asked. That she’d see what he’d done.
What a foolish, goofy, totally dad thing for him to do.
The wind twirled his ashes, outlining its song in his remains.
Syn blinked away tears. She wasn’t going to miss a moment of what came next.
For the first and last time, Syn raced after her dad.
About the Author
Stephen Granade is a physicist and writer living in Huntsville, Alabama, the town whose skyline includes a Saturn V rocket. His fiction has appeared in Escape Pod, Baffling Magazine, and sub-Q Magazine. You can find him online at stephen.granades.com or on Twitter at @sargent.
About the Narrator
Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-founder of Story Kitchen Studio, a community for exploring writing techniques. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and other venues.
She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Venice, California, with her partner and a little dog. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke. Follow her @miyukijane (Twitter and Instagram) and at www.miyukijane.com.