Kozaburo Nambu ran a half-dozen strategies through his head as he ran from McCallum’s gang. The jerks chasing him were too stupid and single-minded for any of them. He was stuck with his least favorite plan.
Three of McCallum’s pack ran out of a side-street, cutting him off. He skidded into a turn ---
Board fence, and not so much as a shoebox to climb onto.
Forced into his plan, he cowered against the weathered wood. “Don’t hurt me,” he whined.
“Shoulda thought of that before you made me look stupid,” McCallum said, strutting ahead of his buddies.
Other boys would have been intimidated by McCallum’s swagger and the way his gang brandished fists and sticks. Kozaburo saw the reliance on brutality and numbers, and the dearth of fighting skills and intelligence. They spread across the alleyway. What little caution they had disappeared under their overconfidence as he whined and cringed.
A little closer, now. Closer. Ready, steady….
“Can I play?”
The newcomer landed beside him with a swashbuckling flourish. A boy his own age, face alight with a devil-may-care grin, balanced on the balls of his feet, radiating enough bravado to stop an army.
“Stay out of this!” Petulance spoiled McCallum’s voice.
“Aw, come on. This looks like fun. Who goes first?” The new boy waggled his fingers in invitation.
“Screw this,” McCallum said. “I gotta get home.” With his gang echoing his sentiments, he turned and tried to strut away with his tail between his legs.
His rescuer waited until their voices had faded away. “Sorry about blowing your grand strategy. I just hate bullies. Six on one isn’t fair.” He grinned even wider. “No matter how skilled the one.”
Kozaburo straightened. “You knew.” Not a question. “Well, thank you. My name is Kozaburo Nambu.”
“Kentaro Washio. Let’s blow this place before they get up the nerve to come back.”
When he stopped talking like characters in action-adventure movies, Kentaro sounded like any other ten-year-old in Hontwarl. The swagger was all his own.
“McCallum’s a bonehead,” he told Kozaboru. “Maybe if you hadn’t enrolled three days ago --- or maybe not.” He lay back on the grass, watching a high-flying bird.
Three days ago, in the middle of the term.
“Will you be living here?”
Kozaburo sighed. “Until my mother’s employer transfers her again. A couple of years, at least.”
“It does, and doesn’t. I’ve lived in Japan, England, and Tritan.” He missed the friends he made, yet welcomed the challenges of adapting to a new home.
“Wow.” Kentaro wasn’t pretending to be impressed. “I’ve never been out of Hontwarl. I think that bird’s an eagle.”
“Damn, I can barely see it.” I need glasses. His parents weren’t ready to admit that.
“They fly so high. One day, I’ll fly that high, or higher. I’ll live up to my surname.”
Fifteen years later: Ameris
“I still don’t like it,” Dr. Kozaburo Nambu said, as the prototype jet was towed from the hangar.
“Neither do I, but Kowalsky wants it now, and thinks we’re padding our expenses.” Hamilton shot a sideways glance at the more-money-than-sense customer. “Better hope we’re worrying about nothing. This guy’s been known to accuse people of sabotage if things don’t go his way.”
“Is the new man flying?”
“Yes. If that engine conks, he’ll bring her in.”
Jet engines roared. They watched the jet climb, turn, do three barrel-rolls before straightening. As per the customer’s wishes, the pilot arced around and just cleared the tops of the hangars before starting a long, high loop.
Up, up. Up, until it looked no bigger than his little finger and began the loop, and he started to relax, to think he had been nonplussed by nothing at all.
Just as it passed the halfway point, the right engine died.
The jet continued, showing its belly to the sky, shaking as the pilot kept it on an even course, aiming earthwards. There was no way it could remain airborne, not with just one engine.
He heard Hamilton yelling into the radio for the pilot to eject, to save himself screw the plane and the customer right now, eject you damn fool, EJECT!
Yes, eject. It’s just a plane. It won’t leave mourners.
The pilot worked his magic, and the plane went (slowly, oh so slowly) from a vertical dive to a glide that would still end in a crash.
Unable to look away, Nambu watched, mind racing, calculating angles and trajectories, knowing that unless the engine fired in the next ten seconds the test pilot was dead, his eyes locked on the plummeting aircraft, hands clenched until the nails cut his palms. “Get out. It’s only a plane. We can build another one.”
And --- the right engine restarted. At eleven seconds.
The jet’s fuselage whisked the tarmac as the pilot pulled up. Its underside flashed the observation deck. The deck windows rattled.
Up, around, approach.
The pilot, sounding as if he’d just completed a commuter run: “Tower, this is X-7, I’m coming in to land.”
“X-7, this is the tower. You are cleared for landing.” Then the controller fainted.
Nambu dropped into a chair. Impossible. By all the laws of aerodynamics and physics, there should be a wreck out there.
“That crazy, glorious, SOB,” Hamilton said. “No wonder his last employer drank antacid by the case.”
Outside, excited reporters and photographers clustered near the jet. The pilot popped the canopy and climbed out, posing for the cameras. An obliging wind lifted the ends of his scarf. He ignored the ladder, leaping gracefully to the ground.
Memories of Hontwarl. “Mr. Hamilton, who is that?”
“When I saw your name on the specs,” Kentaro said, “I wasn’t certain if it was you or someone with the same name. Aircraft design is --- Well, it seems to me that you designing planes is like Rembrandt making coloring books.”
“It’s challenging enough and helps pay the bills.” How to tell his friend that he had three doctorates in three separate fields? That he had more published papers to his name than many older men? And that he was working on two more degrees?
They were sharing dinner at a well-reviewed but discreet restaurant a few miles from the airfield. As far as the horde of reporters knew, Washio was long gone in the other direction.
“Come on, Sherlock. What will I see when I open a paper, access a website, or turn on the news? You’re a doctor when most people are just starting on that path.”
Their server, a young woman who couldn’t make up her mind which of them was better-looking, brought their appetizers. By the time she left, fashion sense had determined the recipient of low-level flirting.
“Koza, if you’re worried how I’ll react, don’t. I always knew that I could redefine ‘studious’ and never, ever come close to your brainpower. Your brain’s always working. If brains were dogs, yours would be a Rhodesian Ridgeback, always on the alert yet able to dig in and hold onto whatever interested you until you accomplished your goal.”
Kentaro could lie like a rug, but this was the honest truth. Of all the friends of his childhood, Ken had never been intimidated or unnerved by his genius. “I have three doctoral degrees. I’m working on a fourth and a fifth.”
A teasing light danced in his friend’s eyes. “Only three? I’m disappointed. I would have expected at least five.”
They had done all the things that boys do. Kentaro had shown him where to find the best bugs, slimiest worms, and most interesting rocks, and he’d told Kentaro why they were the best, slimiest, and most interesting; followed by the tactical use of bugs and other creepy-crawlies in school. They’d explored old, boarded-up buildings and the hills around town, and sneaked apples from a neighbor’s tree. Between them, they had gotten into and caused enough trouble for six boys, all without affecting their grades.
Kentaro did have one thing he never could develop: style. He always knew what to wear and how to wear it. Even when he had no choice in the matter, he could make his clothing look good.
Right now, Kentaro wore a summer-weight brown suit that enhanced his natural coloring, with a complementing shirt. A number of women at nearby tables found excuses to snatch glimpses.
“You’ll do great things, Koza. Minds like yours don’t appear very often. When they do, they change the world.” He finished the salad. “People like me are here to help.”
“Kentaro --- “
“Hear me out. I love flying, I love guiding a well-made plane into the sky, dancing between Heaven and Earth with my mechanical partners. I never want it to end, to come down to the ground. I’ve been so high I can see the blue shell of the atmosphere, brushed the edge of the vacuum of space, and so close to the ground that I could almost count the grass-blades. Sometimes, I feel that the planes know that, that they love the dance as I do. That that’s how I can do what I do.”
A suddenly-roaring engine, the implied screech of composite and metal as hard science gave way to skill and daring, and disaster became victory.
He’d gone out there, later. Not a mark on the runway; not a mark on the plane.
“That is me. I’m not ‘settling’, as they say in this country.
“Your great love is --- everything. I knew it within a week. I saw it in your eyes every time we turned over a rock, whenever you looked at the sky, that time you and I kicked McCallum and his goons off the Kuiper’s cat and you held onto the poor thing all the way to the vet. You want to know how things work so that you can put them right.”
Nonsense. He said as much.
“It isn’t. You know that I’m right.”
The server came with their entrees. Kentaro flashed a dazzling smile and demonstrated his skill at verbal dancing.
The thirsty grass tickled Kozaburo’s bare feet. Overhead, the three-quarter moon glowed amid the dusting of stars.
It had been a long time since he’d done this: come out to feel the world.
He knew the names of every star, and could tell everything known about each of them. The Moon’s face was as well-known to him as his own.
A light breeze caressed him. He inhaled through his nose, scenting the grass, the plants of the garden, the sour bite of automobile exhaust and heated roof shingles, spilled automotive fluids. No wonder we’re losing our sense of smell.
He squatted, leaned forward, and put one hand to the ground. How many people were aware of the life that churned beneath their feet? How many could or would understand the necessity of the ‘best bugs’ and ‘slimiest worms’ to clean water, clean air, and safe food?
As he stroked the grass, aware again of his insignificance compared to the vast biosphere in which he lived, he knew that humans could never destroy the planet with their foolishness and waste. They would destroy themselves, and the Earth would recover. Who had said that humans couldn’t destroy the Earth, that she would merely shake them off like a dog shook off a bad case of fleas and carry on? I should find the source of that story.
They could continue as they had, destroying the ecosystem that supported them, or they could decide to change their ways. There was no returning Earth to any sort of ‘primal state’, but they could help the ecosystem recover.
Damn it, Kentaro. You were right. Again.