He tried to relax despite the roar of the transport's jet engines. Clutching the small gear in his palm as the craft continued towards its destination above the earth, Hale let the edged spokes poking and prodding into his palm keep him tethered to reality. Five years and extensive training under some of the most demanding head mechanics in his hometown, Middle Hamlet, had finally borne results: He was off to Aeroscape. Secretly though, he had his doubts about the work that lay ahead and was trying to keep thoughts of home from creeping into his mind. He didn't want to feel regretful for leaving his family and friends in order to pursue the renown of craftsmen and mechanics that lived up above.
"They're still with me in spirit", he thought. "Yet saying my goodbyes was still painful. If only somebody else had been chosen from town alongside me".
Pulling out his electronic deck, Hale sifted through the files he had until a single holo-image was displayed. The photo had only been taken a year before in front of his house, a small rustic, yet humble abode of wood and stone. In the center of the frame was the whole Prosper family: Mom, Dad, him, his older brother Nick, and sister Amelia holding their dog Russo. Funny how he now wished that he could reclaim the time he spent in Middle Hamlet even as he was so close to the goal that he had strived for since age thirteen. It wasn't nostalgia that was making him think back, but rather a desire to keep the past in the forefront of his mind. If he wanted to become one of the best mechanics in Aeroscape, he was going to have to always remember his folks back home who were rooting for him and the knowledge that his instructors had taught him at the local guild. While some were individuals who had lived and work their craft successfully in the cities for years before they retired to a life of teaching others on the surface, others had never even left town or set foot on an air transport, instead resigning themselves to helping the next line of mechanical craftsmen. He could still recall how strenuous their lessons were and the rivalries that were always present as different students tried to win the support of their teachers in the hopes of endorsement for each year's showcase. His accomplishments at the competition last year had been the deciding factor for this journey, and yet he didn't know if he would be able to fit in with the small-town sensibilities that he was raised on.
Gazing out the window next to his seat, he saw the towers and buildings of Aeroscape coming into view as the transport began its approach. Although Hale had already become somewhat acquainted with this place through the maps he'd looked up and the documentaries he'd watched on its history, seeing the city for himself made it abundantly clear that he would still have a lot to learn about it and its inhabitants. More importantly, he would probably have to be cautious with the position he had accepted. Try as he might, the stories he'd heard of promising young mechanics, engineers, and others who had promising aspirations, only to struggle and ultimately encounter failure and despair in this technologically-advanced center of "innovation" weighed heavily on his mind. Could he actually trust the man who had recruited him, "Wildcat" Wayne, and would he be able to thrive in his shop? Even if he tried to appeal to the city's guilds for a position elsewhere, there was no guarantee that there would be another opening available if they approved his request. Besides, there was no way that the alternative some had taken would be an option for him if things didn't pan out: He would rather suffer than work on the assembly lines at Stoneworth Industries, no matter how much they offered for pay.
"Attention passengers. This is your captain speaking" a voice squawked out from the intercoms situated overhead. "As we begin our descent, please have your passes and documentation ready for our officials to inspect before we land and disembark. Again, please have your passes and documentation ready for inspection. Thank you for your cooperation and we hope to see you amidst the streets of Aeroscape!".
Quickly, Hale put the deck back into his carry-on bag and began going through his belongings to pull out his papers of introduction, pass, and forms for the on-flight officials. As the officials began making their way through the aisles, a commotion broke out from a seat seven or eight rows in front of him. Peering over his seat, he spotted a man attempting to land a blow on one of them when prompted for his pass. He was soon restrained by one of their service drones using taut steel line that shot out from hidden compartments that wrapped around his arms however and then forced to walk to the back.
"You can't do this to me!", the man exclaimed. "My pass is just old and worn, I swear!".
"Don't even try it.", an official with graying hair said with an even, yet slightly threatening tone. "We know you bought this fraudulent pass from the black market and are trying to pass it off as legitimate. You're not the only case we've dealt with this month alone".
There was truth to his statement. Hale had seen and heard news reports that the number of people trying to get into Aeroscape and some of the other air-loft metropolises using faux identification papers and passes had been steadily rising over the past year or two. Farmlands to the east of the continent had been struggling with lower crop yields due to a fungus that most thought had been eradicated twenty years ago, but had merely been lying dormant. Desperate for work, many ignored the quotas set in place and had been trying to turn to criminal elements to either smuggle them into the cities or provide tailored passes for travel on sanctioned transports. The majority of these folks didn't make it, largely because they were betrayed by smugglers who either beat them up and abandoned them in a desolate spot without a single credit left to their name or held them for ransom to suck their loved ones dry. Some of those who did end up here were easily caught, partly thanks to the adaptive A.I. that the drones were using to keep up with the evolving forgeries that were being presented to them on each flight and in the test labs. Finally locating the items he needed to present to the officials who continued down towards his row, he got them out and kept them at the ready, tense as a coiled spring, the gear now resting in his coat pocket.
Less than two hours later, Hale was off the transport and walking through the passages of Albert Air-Surface Transit Station, heading towards the baggage area. His thoughts were filled with the promise of a new career, but the incident on the flight over had left him more nervous than anything else. He hadn't had any trouble with the officials as they scanned his travel pass and looked over his documentation earlier, but their steely eyes and the drone with its single red camera unit had unnerved him. Running his fingers through his hair, he picked up his pace, going down the regular paths instead of dealing with the lines of people who cluttered the moving walkways. As he approached the pick-up zone, he brushed against another individual moving in the opposite direction who muttered "Sorry" without turning around before continuing on his way. At least, the individual tried to continue walking before a man with a set of claw mark tattoos on his right arm came up to him and twisted his arm behind his back.
"Still up to your old tricks, Cooper?", he said to his "acquaintance" before he reached into the individual's pocket, pulling out a metallic object the size of a fountain pen cap and Hale's deck. "Even after all that time in prison, you still haven't learned a single thing"...
"It was nothing major Wildcat, honest", the individual pleaded as he was pushed against the wall. "That kid's just another sucker from below. I was merely trying to lift a few credits from his deck and buy myself some lunch. He doesn't how things really work up here!".
"That "sucker" you're talking about is a new employee of mine I hired from the pool of last year's competitors from his region", Wildcat snarled. "I won't warn you again. Stop pickpocketing or you won't have the use of your hands for the next six months".
Pressing down on the metallic object, he let it unfurl into an insect-like appearance as he held it between his fingers, looking closely at it for a brief moment or two. Holding it close to Cooper's face, he then crushed it as it continued to rapidly chirp as if in pain. Cooper's eyes had widened at the sight and Hale could easily hear the sharp intake of his breath as he saw his own personal creation ruined before him. Wildcat then produced a business card and put it into the pocket where the microdroid had been residing.
"You're a technician with a lot of talent for these micromachines," he calmly added. "There's an opening over at Harris's shop. The pay isn't what it is most places, but he always has clients pouring in day and night".
Letting go of the twisted arm, Wildcat spun Cooper around and placed a tight grip on his left shoulder.
"I expect you to visit the address on that card by the end of the week. If I call Harris or his associates and they say you didn't even bother to show, I can't promise that I won't place a call in to the authorities to have you detained or that I'll go after you myself. Now leave!".
Pushing him in the direction of the station's exits, Wildcat let his quarry visibly gather himself and then scamper off as if he were a scared jackrabbit. All Hale could do was gaze at the rough exterior of the man who had hired him. If his actions had been anything to go by, it was still up in the air on just what this guy was all about. But with Aeroscape looming just outside the doors of the station, there was no turning back. He knew the last vestiges of his life at home shouldn't inform how he was to lead his life here, for this place of supposed prosperity was unfortunately like all cities: It had its corrupt elements, its terrible truths.