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Misspent Youthby Peter F. Hamilton
There was a particular day that Timothy Baker always remembered whenever he thought back to his childhood: the air tattoo at RAF Cottesmore when he was six years old. It was one of the rare events his parents attended together, which to his young mind made a perfect, happy family outing.
The EuroAir Defense Force had assigned a good number of both combat and transport aircraft to the open day, always eager to show the bolshie English how worthwhile and relevant the unified European squadrons were. It was also well attended by international aerospace companies, as well as senior air staff from more than thirty foreign air forces. Elaborate company pavilions lined half the taxiway, their tiered seating giving patrons and customers an excellent view of the flying exhibition, while static displays of combat aircraft, transports, tankers, radar cars, and missile batteries stretched along the entire three kilometers of the parking lot.
Over ninety thousand people were expected during the weekend, stretching Rutland's rural transport infrastructure to the limit. By midmorning on Saturday Timothy was convinced that most of them had turned up already; he'd never seen so many people in one place before. He walked along between his parents, sometimes managing to hold hands with both of them at once as they roamed around the husky, lethal hardware. It was a typical late-August day, the incendiary sun glaring down out of a cloudless turquoise sky. The GM tuber grass was still green, if somewhat dry and wiry, after seven straight weeks without rain.
The Baker family walked the entire length of the lot in the morning, with Timothy and Jeff, his father, stopping to admire most of the aircraft along the way. Sue, his mother, tagged along gamely as her two enthusiastic boys quizzed the smiling, polite aircrews for facts and squadron stickers. Timothy managed to plead and entreat his way into the cockpits of several helicopters.
They reached the end of the hot parking lot and began the long walk back, this time through the circus of commercial stalls and mobile shops that had set up camp behind the aircraft. Timothy had spotted several ice cream vans and doughnut sellers earlier, and was already putting his case for visiting several of them to his tolerant yet unmoved parents.
A middle-aged couple walked past, the squat man glancing at the Bakers longer than was strictly polite.
"Now that," the man said emphatically, "is a Viagra kid if ever I saw one." His voice trailed off into a dirty chuckle. His wife gave him a sharp nudge.
Timothy twisted around to look at him, but the couple was already vanishing into the crowd. He wasn't quite sure what a Viagra kid was, although he'd heard the phrase a few times now. It was always used in a mocking way. And he was fairly sure it was something to do with his parents. When he looked up at them for reassurance, his mother was looking straight ahead with her blank smile beaming bright; his father was frowning faintly. Timothy knew his mother was utterly beautiful. When she was younger, she had appeared on datasphere ads helping to sell perfume and clothes, and her looks hadn't faded; after all, she wasn't thirty yet. His father, as he was now uncomfortably aware, was older. Timothy wasn't sure how old exactly, but he had white hair and skin that was wrinkled despite the genoprotein treatments he took every few months.
Jeff caught his son staring up curiously, and smiled. "Let's go get you that ice cream."
Timothy was given a cash card for a hundred euros, and shot off to the nearest van.
"What's that?" Sue asked suspiciously when he returned with a triple cone dripping sticky brown and yellow blobs onto his hand.
"Double chocolate chip with banana," Timothy said cheerfully. "Only fifteen E's." He thrust it upward. "Want some?"
"No thank you, dear."
Timothy couldn't see his mother's eyes behind her wide gold-mirror sunglasses, but he knew from her tone that she was disappointed again. It was always so hard to please her. He licked at the cone, delighted by the weird taste mix.
There was a long row of hangars behind the stalls, modern stealth composite bubbles lurking between huge old concrete and corrugated iron structures. The new dark gray hemispheres were sealed against curious eyes, like lead mushrooms bursting out of the grass. They contained the latest EuropeanAerospaceCorporation automated attack fighters, which operated from Cottesmore. In contrast to the secrecy of the new structures, the tall rusty panel doors on the older buildings were wide open. Large banners outside advertised the service companies that had taken over the hangars for the weekend. The Bakers went into the first hangar. Few people were inside.
Timothy moved along the company stands. None of them captured his interest. It was all test equipment and maintenance tools. Dull stuff compared to what was outside. Not even the vast array of intricate parts from a dismantled high-speed turbine held his attention for more than a few seconds. Then the stand right at the end made him come to a complete halt.
The company was promoting its fuselage vibration analysis software, but it was using an eternal tap as part of its advertising. Three slender nylon fishing lines had been tied to the iron rafters of the hangar's gloomy roof high overhead, holding a big old brass tap four meters off the floor. From that, a fat column of water splashed continually into a bowl on a table at the end of the stand. Timothy stared at it in perplexity. The bowl never filled, yet the water splashing into it never stopped. And when he squinted up at the tap he couldn't see any kind of pipe attached. For a moment he thought the tiny nylon lines might be miniature pipes, but there were only three of them, and they were way too small to feed such a big tap. What he was seeing simply wasn't possible. It was like some special effect from a cable show.
Jeff Baker looked up from the pieces of high-speed turbine he was inspecting.
"Dad, how do they do this? Dad!"
"This!" Timothy pointed urgently at the tap and its impossible flow of water. "How, Dad, how?"
"Oh, that." Jeff managed to sound completely disinterested. "It's magic, son. That's all."
Timothy pulled an annoyed face. "No it's not! Do they teleport the water, or something?"
"Teleport!" Jeff shook his head in faint exasperation. "You watch far too much cable, don't you?"
"This is an old hangar; the past is still alive in here. There are lots of pockets of magic left over from olden times, scattered all across the country." He gestured at the tap. "And this is one of them. Right, dear?"
Sue raised an eyebrow. "I think it's lunchtime now."
Jeff was nonplussed by the reply. "Guess we'd better eat, then," he told Timothy. "What are you having, three puddings?"
"No!" Sue said quickly. "Honestly, you're worse than he is."
Jeff pulled a face behind her back. Timothy giggled. He couldn't resist one last look at the magic tap as they walked back out into the scorching sunlight.
The Bakers headed for one of the biggest pavilions lining the taxiway. They weren't on the admission list, but Jeff was insistent with the uniformed steward at the gate. Timothy waited impatiently while a senior company official was summoned from the pavilion; aircraft were taking off from the runway, and the pavilion blocked his view. When he arrived, the official was effusive in his greeting. The company would be greatly honored to have the Bakers lunch with them, he said with a wide, eager smile.
Timothy and his parents wound up eating with two members of the board in a glassed-off enclosure at the end of the pavilion. Their table gave him a grand view out across the airfield, and if he did miss any of the exciting aircraft flashing past, a private TV feed to a pair of three-meter screens allowed him to see the planes twisting and diving at all times. It was great. His mother even let him have more ice cream for dessert, with strawberries.
A lot of visitors stopped by their table, corporate executives from across Europe, all of whom were eagerly introduced to Jeff Baker by the ever-smiling board members. Timothy didn't pay much attention to the adults; he was captivated by the sleek flying cruciforms, which were the newly declassified AiF-080 USAF pilotless interceptors. The machines were less than half the size of the old Hurricanes flown by the European Silver Sky display team, and a lot more nimble.
Timothy asked to be excused while his parents were enjoying coffee and liqueurs. It was very boring in the dining room, although in truth he couldn't stop thinking about that strange tap. The aircraft were only temporary distractions. He was overwhelmed by the idea that magic could still exist. Such a revelation meant that anything was possible. Anything!
His mother checked that he was wearing his tracker bracelet and let him down from the table. "You're not to go more than two hundred meters," she warned as he sped away.
As soon as he was outside, Timothy headed straight for the hangar--it was only a little more than two hundred meters, after all. Well...sort of.
The tap was still there. He stood in front of it, his head cocked to one side as he followed the stream of falling water, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. It couldn't be real. Yet here it was, happening right in front of him.
"It always looks good, doesn't it?"
Timothy glanced around. One of the saleswomen behind the stall was smiling at him. "Yes," he said, then, suddenly bold, he asked: "How did you know the magic was here?"
"Magic?" Her smile widened. "I would have thought a clever boy like you could have worked this out by now."
"How? I don't know any spells."
The woman laughed. "Spells? Well I don't know about that. We just put a little fountain pump below the bowl, and squirt a jet up into the tap. Takes an age to set it up just right."
Timothy stared resentfully at the treacherous fountain. He couldn't even look at the woman; she must think him the stupidest boy on the planet. Embarrassment gave way to anger and sadness as he slunk away. His father had lied to him. Lied! There wasn't any magic in the world; there never had been.
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