Baby crawled across the vinyl-topped shelf, tiny face contorted in dismay at the chill that penetrated even the thick pink mittens and matching leggings mother had so painstakingly picked out. Discordant voices clamored from behind, father's guffaw a low bass that echoed hollowly in the semi-open space; mother's voice light and breezy, a little off-key from nervousness, reassuring nonetheless. Several others figured in prominences of greater or lesser importance amongst her dim recollections of past hugs, kisses and nose-to-nose cooings. It all added up to a meaningless din for her nine-month-old brain. Memories of cozy warmth in mother's arms almost made baby turn around, but the mysterious sights beyond the open balcony beckoned irresistibly. Besides, she had just woken up from her afternoon nap. One pudgy hand lifted up from the smooth shelf-top and came down a finger's length forward on--nothing. Frowning, she probed the curiously absent surface with her fingers. Nothing again. Determined to solve this perplexing mystery, she applied the full potency of her present intellect to the task, craning her neck over the edge until she perceived the hazy mass of softly glowing lights far below. For half a minute, she stared at these lights and then promptly lost interest. She started to turn, twisting her chubby hips until her hands and padded elbows were safely back on solid plastic. For an instant, both feet dangled above the precipice, threatening to overbalance her body, but the instant passed. Seeing her parents, she gurgled happily. She heard a cluck of distress, mother's mouth opened to form a horrified oval and father, muttering harshly under his breath, jabbed a finger at something. The shelf tipped over. Baby squirmed and tumbled into the void. The wind whipped at her jacket, tore the static-tightened hood from her head. Her tiny heart sped up at this unexpected turn of events. Hands and legs flailed until her body angled downwards, head raised to regard the bottom towards which she was rapidly plummeting. Pale blue eyes widened at the spectacle of the lights she had previously noticed. Arranged in a pattern of many overlapping circles, the innumerable specks of different colors revolved around a central axis of shifting shadows. At first, she tried to follow one particularly pleasing shade of mauve with her eyes, but the particles of dust in the onrushing air made them water. She rubbed at them with the edge of a sleeve. Dreary gray walls, punctuated at regular intervals by bubble-like protuberances similar to the one that had ejected her, rushed past too quickly to offer much in the way of distraction. And the bottom was still such a long way off. Bored, images surfaced in her mind unbidden. The buffeting air reinforced vague impressions of being thrust from warm dark liquid to cold bright light. Memories of caressing hands swaddling her in thick fabrics stood out vividly, but what she really longed for were the long periods of blessed sleep. She recalled brief forays from the stark lighting of inside to the perpetual cool dimness of outside. She thought of the view of vast open blackness beyond the overarching girders of their dome. Most of all, she remembered mother's gentle touch and soothing tones. She was beginning to miss mother terribly. Her fickle attention returned to the present. She had been falling for so long that she had almost forgotten it and so gave a slight start of surprise at the walls that zipped past unchecked and the rushing air that droned ceaselessly in her ears. She looked down. The bottom was perceptibly closer now though still far away. The central core was no longer so obscure as before. Tiny flashes of electric blue brought into focus moving shapes within. Even as she stared, some of the dots zigzagged in and out of the cavernous opening, like motes of dust flitting about with minds of their own. Before her eyes, one of these detached itself from a swirling cloud of its fellows and ascended toward baby with impossible swiftness, resolving at last into a thing of gleaming mirrors twisted into the shape of a boy. The being settled not ten paces from her, gleaming hands poised on polished hips, falling effortlessly at the same rate as baby herself. Oversized goggles leaned forward to examine her with unmistakable curiosity. Entranced by the attention, baby, eyes sparkling, giggled and announced the universal greeting. "Goo-goo," she said. "Cute. You're a pretty baby now, ain't ya?" asked the boy, curling the pale pink lips beneath the goggles. Mocking laughter burst out around the two of them. Baby looked frantically around but saw no one else in the vicinity. They were still falling at a furious rate. "How would ya like to have some fun with us, then eh?" The question elicited more giggles, though somewhat nervous-sounding ones this time, from the thin air, and the boy reached out a black-leather gloved hand towards baby's shoulder. A shiny blue ball about half a foot across dropped next to them seemingly from above. "Watch it, punk," it said in a metallic voice. Both of them watched, baby in open-mouthed delight and the boy in rising panic, as the sphere slowly extruded a plethora of nasty-looking spines and needles pointed straight towards him. The boy's mouth worked noiselessly for a second, then sputtered, "Copper!" He flicked a switch at his waist and darted away far swifter than he had arrived. The floating ball hesitated, various lenses and antennae twitching back and forth between baby and the rapidly fleeing boy, before shooting off after him, yelling at the top of its electronic voice, "Hey come back, you kids! I'll teach you to play truant on my watch!" Baby wistfully watched it chase after the dispersing cloud of the boy's fellows, onboard lights alternately flashing red and blue, klaxon blaring wildly. They soon disappeared in the churning depths far below. The core was of a considerable size, rather like that of the cratered moon visible outside the dome, when baby noticed that she was no longer falling. At last, her surroundings had recovered from the temerity of moving too quickly for her to observe. She moved her legs and discovered to her great delight the singular joy of standing motionless on nothing. Her insides felt a bit funny though. She looked about. Embedded in the wall directly opposite her was a bubble-balcony, the upper half of its transparent shell slid open. Inside, an elderly lady with frizzy gray hair sat at a low glass table, pouring a brown liquid from a silver teapot. She was so surprised to find baby staring at her that she almost spilled the drink onto her floral dress. "George," she called, "there's a flying baby outside our apartment!" From somewhere in the interior lit by the fluorescent tinge of a holovid, a gruff voice replied, "Quiet, I'm watching football!" For several seconds, the lady and baby stood staring at one another. Then the lady whispered, "Would you like to come in for a spot of tea, dearie?" She extended a hand out of the balcony by way of invitation. Baby burbled cheerily and reached out for the gnarled fingers. Unfortunately, her surroundings chose that moment to start moving again and baby found herself being whisked away. "Another time, then," said the old lady sadly, waving good-bye. Reflexively, baby waved back. At first, baby thought she was headed towards the central core once more, but she had traveled for no more than a few feet when suddenly an unseen force grabbed her out of the air and sent her careening head over heels towards the far wall. She had just recovered enough from the shock to get a look at the fast-approaching expanse of gray towards which she was moving to seemingly certain splatteriness, when an aperture slid open soundlessly and in she went, the breath knocked out of her little body. "Ouufff," she said. The hatch slid closed once she was inside as mysteriously as it had opened. She found herself whooshing down the twisty length of a silvery tube at tremendous speed without once touching its surface. Blue lighting illuminated the metallic surface just enough to see by, and judging by the jointed sections of tube that sped past, she was going just as fast as she had been when falling out of the balcony. She peered at the end of the tube but all she could see were the endless series of rounded corners. Experimentally, she tried to brush the swiftly moving surface with her fingers, but try as she might, her fingers couldn't make contact with anything at all. It was as if the tubular walls were constantly moving away from her, or perhaps she was constantly being pushed away from it. Here and there, she noticed openings in the tube leading into what looked like more tubes. Once she caught a glimpse of an object rushing from one opening into another in front of her. It was a box with a red ribbon tied around it and a little plastic tag trailing behind on a short string. It looked like someone's birthday present. Baby found herself tumbling through similar openings herself several times, feeling dazed and queasy at the unexpected change of direction on each occasion but all the tubes were identical. It was getting to be a very boring trip indeed. She had almost fallen asleep, having managed to discover a curled position that was comfortable regardless of the direction in which she was moving, when she braked to an abrupt halt. Her insides sloshed around a bit, then stopped just as suddenly, as if they had received the command to halt half a second later than the rest of her body. Her bleary eyes opened to regard a hole irising into existence in the formerly flawless metallic skin. She felt a moment of nausea as whatever force holding her faded away and then she was plunged into darkness. She was sliding on a cool, slippery chute and then there was a popping sound. She felt some discomfort in her ears and instinctively swallowed a few breaths of air. The world exploded into blinding light. Someone was cuddling her in a warm woolly towel. She blinked a few times and saw an aged face smiling down at her. She frowned in concentration. A moment later, some part of her brain connected this image and the accompanying scent of evening primrose oil with a name: Aunt Rosie. Thus reassured, she did the only thing she could think of. She wrinkled up her eyes and started bawling.
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