Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2009
Fiction: Chain of Stars by Jay Lake
Zarai had wandered the top of the Wall for years. For much of that time, Mannix had walked beside her. Their travels had begun after they’d both been separated from Rapier, their last command. That ship had been madness and adventure and thrills, but being co-captains in piracy, with a male no less, was never part of Zarai’s vision for her life. Not in all the long years of riding bucket-ships up and down the Chain.
She laughed at herself. Life had a way of making strange turns. Love all the more so. Introspection had never been her long suit, not on her very best days. Nix used to twit her about that.
The thought returned her to the reality of the moment—alone, stumbling through freezing fog amid a high-altitude bamboo forest. The highest altitude possible. The flatwater queendoms were lost in the haze of fog and ice which clouded her view, but truly, all she need to do was take a few dozen steps to her right and she would have a long, lovely fall to a very terminal reunion with the Northern Earth below.
Some days of late, that final step had seemed almost desirable.
Nix had been a man of big plans. Dreams, really, more than plans; most of them cracked and stained as any old mirror drawn from the pack of an enkidu trader. All the things she’d been told about men, taught about them, thought about them, in the years of her youth, they all seemed to have been true of him.
A fool, even. Not to be trusted with an obol or a valuable tool or any important errand requiring memory or thought.
Yet he was so much more than the sum of his flaws.
Their years together on the Chain had unwrapped the mask of love from her eyes, until she saw Nix in all his faults. Her man had been made of errors, a constant jumble of contradiction and inconsistency and self-doubt. The lesson of those times, aboard Rapier in the company of other men and a few renegade women, had been that she loved him anyway.
Zarai had loved him for his quick wit, his lightning leaps of thought, those strong hands which could give her pleasure in a stolen moment against the rail or through all the long watches of the night in slow progression one after another until she was wrung dry. Zarai had loved him for his loyalty, his generosity, his raw strength and subtle power, for the way he looked at her when he thought she couldn’t see. Most of all, Zarai had loved Nix for the way he loved her back. Unquestioning, without a scrap of judgment or an ounce of doubt.
He had loved her for who she was, for what she did, for everything that had ever been part of her. He had loved.
Until he left.
She glanced again toward the darkening edge lost in the sparkling curtains of mist. Distant sunset sent fractured rainbows arrowing through the fog like the feathered serpents that climbed the Wall from the Mesoamerican extents far below. That edge could claim her, give her sanctuary, free her heart in a long, lonesome moment that would only hurt briefly.
Not like the daily pain of her life, which seemed to never end.
The only thing which kept her moving was the heavens.
Not God, not Her heaven. Zarai had never had much use for the Old Woman and Her works. Women were made to be in the world, and the world was made for being in. What care where it came from and why?
Only the stars drew her on in the time since Nix had departed.
So she walked high paths. She kept her left hand on the brass of the gear ring which topped the Wall. She endured the cacophony of the midnight passage of the orbital track. She argued with abbots and bandits and cats that slunk bright-clawed in the highest shadows.
As Zarai walked, she searched for a place where she might reach up and touch those stars.
The Jade Abbot had been kinder than Zarai had probably deserved. They’d met as she was stealing peaches from his orchard. Frost sparkled on the fruits which glowed a strange orange-gray in the moonlight of that night two years past. She plucked a pair, then three—just enough for that evening’s meal and something to break the morrow’s fast.
“The flatwater queendoms were once covered with a forest of fruit, from Sind to Andalusia,” he’d said from right behind her.
Zarai spun, one hand on her spring gun. Mannix had been gone only a few weeks then. She still expected him to return at any time. Angry. Sorrowful. Perhaps wounded. She just couldn’t believe he was gone. Still, it only made sense to be prepared.
She wasn’t prepared for a small man in a robe a slightly deeper shade of orange than the frost-marred peaches. His skin was dark, his eyes clipped almost closed by the shape of his lids. No hair at all. A smile hung on his lips like an invitation.
“Fruit is part of the bounty of the world,” she replied.
“Yet I sorrow to report that someone must have planted these trees and tended this grove.” The man bowed, grinning as he straightened once more. “While the seeds from which these sprang are part of the world’s bounty, the very trees themselves are worth a generation of labor.”
Zarai had to smile at that. “Labor is of the world’s bounty, as well.”
His face closed again. “Why does a well-spoken women of parts skulk among my trees?”
“Because I am hungry.”
“In that case, will you come dine with me?”
A thief in the night, caught out in the moment, she followed her host into the warm light of a red-pillared temple.
They ate amid a high room with a blue and gold ceiling supported by massive pillars lacquered red. The meal was steamed dumplings filled with pork and cabbage, accompanied by fried string beans in a sticky brown sauce. The food tasted of unfamiliar spices and strange oils. Zarai had never before used eating sticks, and struggled with them. The old man did not seem to care about any potential breach of hospitality.
“You are searching for what?” he finally asked.
Zarai considered that for a moment. “Something I will not find.”
“That would seem to render a difficulty in your seeking.”
“Well, yes.” She looked down at her little bowl of food. “I suppose so.”
The silence stretched a while—comfortable rather than strained, Zarai realized. Finally, he spoke again. “I search also. For truth, and intent, and the dreaming mind.”
“Those are also difficult to find.” She felt a smile cross her face for the first time since Nix’s departure.
His voice was infused with gentleness. “Not so difficult as something quintessentially unfindable.”
“I want to touch the stars,” Zarai blurted. She was surprised at herself. It was stupid dream, a foolish dream. A man‘s dream, which even Mannix could not in the end embrace.
Another silence, this time the quiet of words being chosen to fit their places. “The stars are small and hot and very far away, child.”
“Heaven is above our head.”
“Heaven is a story within our hearts. The sky is above our head.”
She nodded. “With the brasswork of the universe hung there.”
The old man set down his eating sticks. “You would grasp the orbital track and slip the bonds of Earth?”
“Perhaps. There must be some way. I walk the Wall, seeking the view from the top in hopes of enlightenment.”
“And I sit atop the way, waiting for enlightenment to come to me.” He smiled again. “Perhaps such a bounteous gift of the spirit is best found at the crossroads between us.”
“I am Zarai, late co-captain of the Chain raider Rapier.”
The old man bowed his head. “I am the Jade Abbot.”
She’d already exposed her desire. She might as well follow the thought to its end. “Do you know a pathway into the sky?”
“Upward, child,” the Jade Abbot said. His voice was tinged with sadness. “Only upward. I do not think you will find what you seek there, but it still may be your path.”
Zarai resolutely put Mannix out of her head. This was not about him. Not any more.
Still, the old man did not throw her over for a fruit taker or a thief. She spent a week in the abbot’s temple, watching the services and looking at the scaffolding which the temple’s people had built to reach the teeth of the gear ring.
Much later, Zarai had wondered what he meant about her seeking. It was easy enough to think that the Jade Abbot had been referring to her loss of Nix, but she thought he might have seen deeper into who and what she was. Deeper even than she could see herself. That possibility was both frightening and comforting.
She found her way in time to a city of mud globes crusted against the gear ring. Very few things adhered to the brass cliff which rose a half a mile or so above the top of the Wall. From a purely mechanical perspective, bonding any substance to brass was troublesome without either brazing or riveting. The brasswork of the world, being of Divine origin, was a perfected form of that already impermeable metal. Still, some set of creatures had managed the feat.
Zarai observed the city from a distance for two days before approaching. She did not want to walk into an ambush unawares, not be an invader of someone’s home. The Wall seemed made of abandoned places, quiet estates with long-vanished owners, now occupied only by the wind. Vacant palaces and silent villages and empty streets were more common in her experience than thriving marketplaces or defended walls.
Still, these were different. Whoever built them had been able to fly. Certainly they hadn’t seen a need for stairs or ladders, or any other form of access but high openings facing empty air. The city was strange of design and quiet of aspect, by both moonlight and sun. Zarai watched it at the transition of the day, as well, should it be the case that someone inside only came out in the guttering light of the sun. Winged savages would be the worst, she thought—those raddled angels who haunted the upper Wall and treated anyone they met as an enemy.
Her interest here was not in who had inhabited the city. Rather, Zarai was focused on how something could be persistently bound to brass.
To reach the stars, she had to climb the gear ring somehow. And she would need to bring a great deal of equipment with her.
Mannix would have been good at this.
She pushed the rogue thought aside. At the dawn of the third day, she entered the city.
He was a strange man. Slightly shorter than her, pudgier than she might have ever thought to find interesting. Pale eyes and hair colored in a mix of flax and chestnut. His hands and feet were oddly small for a man of his size.
Still, Zarai found Mannix compelling to the point of obsession. After a while, she’d finally understood it was his scent which had first drawn her to him The man smelled like sex, like love, like comfort. When they were close and she could breathe him in, her heart found an unexpected peace.
The two of them sat with hips and shoulders touching before a small fire. Even through the acrid smoke and the heavy perfumes of the night forest surrounding them, his male essence pulled at her. Zarai turned and looked into Mannix’s round, open face.
“Why the stars?” It was a question she’d held close for a long time, afraid of the answer. Or maybe just afraid of the asking.
Nix picked up a stick and poked at the glowing coals. Ash swirled with a burst of boiled sap; sweet-burned and ephemeral. He stirred the fire a moment, then favored her with one of his long, slow looks which set her hips to twitching.
The pause bothered her. This man was never at a loss for words. Panic flashed through her mind. Had she crossed some boundary?
He poked the fire again. Sparks shot up, tiny stars of their own swirling in the cold air. “Well, Zarai. Think on this.” Now the tip of the stick waved, as if to make diagrams in the empty air. “We live upon the Wall, you and I. We look down upon the flatwater queendoms as the province of ground-dwellers who have no perspective concerning the world. What do those who dwell among the stars see when they look down upon us here atop the Wall? Are we as deceived by our lives as those below us are by theirs? I would like to climb to the greatest heights, and see what my own existence signifies when viewed from such a distance.”
Zarai took in his words. “So you would ascend to the stars and overlook the world.”
“If only there was a ladder to the heavens.” He grinned, one hand straying to her thigh. “We could climb a bit tonight, you and I.”
She allowed him to distract her from her thoughts. They slipped jointly into the shadows of intimacy, thrusting their passions together. Strange though he was, Nix was her man. They loved each other like fire loved the night.
Some days later, as they clambered among a field of yellow boulders which glinted with the promise of a fool’s treasure, Zarai asked Mannix the question which had been on her mind since that night. “How would you make a ladder to climb so high?”
He laughed. His voice was like bells to her. Rough bells, flat-toned and untuned, but still playing a song which thrilled her heart. “It would never be a ladder, dearest. You of all people should know that.”
“So you imagine sort of a bucket-ship?” Zarai had captained Indolent Climax in her days upon the Chain, before she’d made a murder of the chain-pirate Janton, then in atonement thrown over her old life for the forbidden world of men. The bucket-ships traveled the Chain by means of grab-arms, sailing down the Wall for free and back up at great mechanical labor. She could imagine similarly clamping on to the orbital ring as it passed by at midnight and finding oneself above the sky moments later when the Earth rolled away.
The thought both thrilled and frightened her.
“Well, yes,” Nix replied. “Leap into the heavens and sail to the stars.” He laughed again. “Or least the moon. It does seem to be closer.”
She slid down a broken, gleaming face, bracing her feet to avoid the nest of thorny growth at the bottom. The top of the Wall was largely passable to a determined walker, but this stretch left significant room for improvement.
“How would we sail there, do you suppose?”
“We will not sail there,” he answered.
Something in the tone of Nix’s voice froze her heart for the briefest moments. “We will not?”
“No, no, Zarai. Much too dangerous. If we both go, and something went terribly wrong, we will both be dead.”
Much as a boy would have blurted his thoughts unheeded, the words escaped her mouth without any care for thought. “If you go and something went terribly wrong, where does that leave me?”
“Alive,” he said, his voice now grim and dry. “Alive, well, and free to love again.”
“We are all alone,” she told him miserably. “We are born alone, we die alone. I would much rather be alone with you in the last moments of our life together than be alone without you for years after.”
He stopped, turned to her, pulled her toward him as they both leaned against yet another yellow boulder. “Sweetling, this is love. I love you too much to take you into such danger.”
“No it’s not,” she murmured into his shoulder. “Love means you don’t leave me behind.”
He didn’t seem to hear, but just stroked her hair and clutched her close and whispered soothing words as if she were only a child. Or only a man.
They’d spent weeks reasoning out how a person might survive the world above the sky. Air was not the same everywhere, after all. Stories of those who had flown too far away from the upper Wall made that clear. Zarai and Mannix discussed whether it was just less air, thinner and thinner to the point of vacuum; or rather some substitute such as æther or free-floating phlogiston. How would one breathe? Could one scull or push against it, with sails or oars or some more strange contraption?
Likewise food and water and the necessities of life. Air or no air, it was clear enough that the heavens would not include springs or wells for fresh water, neither fruits nor game to catch for a traveler’s meal. So however a person traveled, they would need to bring supplies with them, much as a party might when crossing a stone desert high up on some barren reach of the Wall.
That in turn said much about the design of whatever ship they might use to attempt such a voyage. Cargo capacity, storage, access.
How to get it into the sky was the most obvious problem, and the most difficult. Grasping on to the orbital ring was a perfectly clear concept in principle, but what that actually meant in practice was another issue entirely.
Still they talked it and talked it, whittled little wooden models, drew sketches in mud banks and sand flats, all as they walked toward whatever solution the Wall might provide. As with so much else, if one walked far enough and kept one’s eyes open wide enough, the Wall would provide.
Unfortunately, what the Wall provided first was an end to that which had united her and Nix for many years.
She climbed the muddy walls hand over hand, the hard way. There was no easy way.
Up close the globes of the mud city were not so neatly rounded as all that. Their surfaces were irregular, almost haphazard. She had trouble visualizing the structural integrity of the things. Still, they could be clambered up, their entrances investigated, their walls studied.
And so Zarai did.
She had little enough else to do with herself these days. No Mannix, no ship for the skies, no prospect of making such a ship. He had been their crafter, their foundryman. Shaping metal was an opaque art to Zarai. The operation of machines she understood very well, but not the fabrication of them.
Still, one learned. And the Wall provided.
The interiors of the globes were not open spaces like massive cliff swallow nests. Rather, they were divided into irregular chambers haphazardly arranged. It all seemed very organic to Zarai. She wondered who had made these and why. They really did seem to be the work of animals rather than intelligent creatures—she’d never known a human, enkidu or other thinking being who didn’t crave patterns in their usages of the world. Yet here was an elegant patternlessness on a par with any scattering of pebbles below a waterfall.
She was most interested in the backs of the globes, where they met the Wall. Their interior surfaces at that point did vary somewhat from the outer curves—heavier in appearance, more mottled, plant matter clotted in.
On her third globe, Zarai drew her blade and cut at the stuff in order to dig the narrow leaves out. They were strangely sticky, pulling at her knife as if having tiny, grasping hands of their own. It took time, strength, and a bit of ingenuity with regards to leverage for her to free a sample.
“This is the secret,” she told the empty, echoing spaces around her. Zarai’s own voice whispered back at her a dozen times over. She climbed back out, wondering where to find the plants these leaves came from, and what particular admixture activated their most remarkable properties.
Zarai and Nix rarely fought. They disagreed on little enough, and argument had never been their focus even on those rare occasions where some issue was at dispute. But at times when he had taken too much strong drink, or in odd moments when a word arrowed into her heart wrong, even within the heartlight of their love a quarrel could emerge, surprising and unlooked for.
So it was one night by another fire. Two hares—or something very like hares, though their fur was thicker and ropier—were impaled on a hardwood spit which Mannix turned every minute or two. The crispy scent of their crackling fat made her mouth water as she gathered leeks along the little marsh by which they had camped.
Given water’s indisputable preference for flowing downhill, Zarai was always amazed to find such a bit of landscape at the top of the Wall. By rights, there ought to be a desert up here, so far from the oceans of the flatwater world. Still, God had arranged Her creation better, Zarai supposed.
She walked back into the firelight to see Nix with a puzzled expression. His eyes crinkled nearly shut, and his already ruddy skin shone like a demon’s in the glare of the flames.
“What is it, heart of mine?” Zarai asked softly, setting her leeks on a flat stone near the one little pot they always carried with them. She bent close and touched his flowing hair.
“I am thinking on my ship of the heavens.”
“Our ship of the heavens,” she said in exasperation. They never had settled the question.
He looked up at her, his face strangely flat in the light. “My ship. I will not lose you to this mad venture.”
“So it is well enough for me to lose you to this mad venture?” She tried to laugh it away. “Foolish man. Do you think I love you any less than you love me?”
“I love you differently than you love me.” Mannix grew mulish, his head dropping as he began to point. “Now let it be.”
“You can’t compare our feelings that way.”
He looked up at her, his eyes flashing with unspent tears. “You just did!”
“I… I’m sorry. It was not what I meant.”
Nix turned the hares, but would not meet her eye now. “There is a forgiveness at the heart of my love which you do not have.”
“Love is much about forgiveness. Or not taking offense at all.”
“Leave it,” her lover said. “I have overspoken.”
“Please. Tell me.”
“No!” He still would not meet her eye.
“Then tell me why you will not look at me!”
A long silence, this one tense with unspoken anger. It stretched until the carcasses started to crisp and burn, then he rolled the spit again.
Finally Nix looked at her. She saw a boiling in his eyes. Loss, rage, some base anger. “Remember when we met?”
“Yes…” Her smile died as his expression remained unchanged.
“I was looking for a bucket-ship captain who’d joined the Chain pirates after a raid had gone bad. Very bad—wrong, silly stupid wrong, all because some she-cow believed all the stories she’d heard and never listened for the truth beneath the words.”
Zarai blushed, and quailed. He could have been talking about her, with his casual dismissal of women’s ways in those difficult days. She held her tongue, though.
“Janton…” he said.
He was talking about her.
Zarai’s heart collapsed like a punctured bladder. Janton was the man she’d killed without intending to. She had not understood the elaborate mixture of courtship and insurance fraud which compromised the true purpose of the Chain pirates. She hadn’t understood the nature of the man’s raid on Indolent Climax, the almost bizarre insouciance with which he’d approached her, or the shock in his face and body when she’d struck him down.
The jaunty pirate had still been breathing when she’d fled her own command deck, but Zarai knew that Janton had not survived to make the bucket-ship’s next port.
God had turned Her face away from Zarai that day, and never restored Her kind regard until Mannix came along. Now her lover’s words struck like blows.
“What of Janton?” she asked, unable to help herself.
“I wanted to know who’d been fool enough to kill him.” Nix was lost in the firelit halls of memory now. “I wanted to ask her what she’d been thinking, what she’d meant to take the life of such a gentle, loving man. Then I wanted to give her back the death she’d handed away so thoughtlessly.”
Zarai’s chest froze, tightening like a fist. Her entire body clenched. Her own words seemed to come from the wrong end of a long, long tunnel. “You were seeking to avenge Janton by striking me down?”
“I was seeking to avenge my lover by striking down his killer.” Nix turned his gaze back to her. His eyes were narrow and red now, unshed tears and a hint of madness. “I let you grow close to me long before I realized who you were.”
“Why now?” she shrieked, words tearing from her again.
“I didn’t even realize it was you until we lost Rapier. Or if I knew, I never admitted it to myself. When Jeremy took command and cast us out from the ship, he told me too much of the truth for me to ignore. Since then, well…”
“So you don’t want to take me beyond the sky with you because I’m Janton’s killer.”
His voice was misery itself. “I’d hoped to walk this off, to let it go in the steps and miles as we reached for the stars. But my heart will not let go. In truth, I don’t want to take you beyond the sky because I’d probably kill you in time.”
“No…” Zarai cried. Tears threatened, which she swallowed as if turning herself inside out.
He stood, gathered up his knife and walked into the darkness. The last she saw of him was his back fading into the shadows as the hares began to burn in earnest.
Mannix did not return.
To Be Continued…
Zarai was harvesting more of the stickygrass—as she’d dubbed it—when she realized someone watched her. The globe city had continued empty, stricken even, as she’d inhabited its quiet, odd rooms for months now alone. Experimenting, always experimenting. She did not know how she would build a ship to pass beyond the sky, but she was finding a way to bring equipment up the sheer face of the brass gear ring.
One damned thing at a time.
Now an enkidu stared at her. A hairy man, with great nostrils and a sloped forehead. This one wore orange robes the same shade as the Jade Abbot’s. It carried a staff in one hand, a bundle in the other.
She straightened from her work to wave at him. Small purpose in pretending they had not seen one another, and Zarai had no mind to flee the rare possibility of company.
The enkidu picked his way down into the marshy sedgelot where she was at her work, and on approaching her, bowed.
“My master bids you fair.” His voice was thick, and mumbled.
At one time her life, Zarai had held enkidus in the same contempt she had then reserved for boys and men. Aboard Indolent Climax, her first and last bucket-ship command, she had served briefly with an enkidu pilot named Aa. That enkidu woman had shaken some of Zarai’s faith in those convictions of her younger self. The enkidus aboard Rapier in the years following had helped to shatter it.
“Welcome,” said Zarai. “I will offer you such meager hospitality as is mine to grant. You serve the Jade Abbot?”
“He is the one…” The enkidu’s voice trailed off.
Zarai wondered if there was something she should say. Some formula or blessing which would unlock this one’s shy reticence. Try the basics, she thought.
“What is your name?”
“I am Zarai.”
Eea nodded, his great shaggy head bobbing.
She tried again. “To what purpose has the Jade Abbot set you walking the Wall?”
“To find you.”
She realized the conversation was pointless. Time for yet another tack. “Well, Eea, I shall ask you to help me harvest stickygrass here. Tell me, did you bring a blade? There is a technique in which you must be instructed.”
The enkidu was a very willing worker. His silence, at first off-putting, swiftly became familiar to Zarai. She wondered often why the Jade Abbot had sent Eea along, but the question did not seem destined for an answer.
So she worked at cutting and refining stickygrass, and set Eea to the same chore. In the evenings Zarai continued her calculations regarding how much material would be required to make a workable crane which could lift an ætheric ship the half mile up the brass face of the gear ring. Rendered stickygrass would allow her to anchor platforms, but the principles of engineering must be observed in the arrangement of stress and loads and stability.
Here again, she missed Mannix dreadfully. What she had to work out, check and recheck, build small models, he would have just bent and slapped and positioned until it all functioned.
One night, after about two weeks, Eea pointed to some bracing on the wooden model she’d built. “Cross those over. It will bear more strongly.”
That was the longest speech she’d heard from the enkidu since his arrival.
Surprised, Zarai asked, “Do you know fabrication?”
She stepped away from her model of a lift tower and intermediate deck. At full scale, it would have stood the first two hundred yards or so of the eight hundred yards from base to gear tooth. The narrow twigs represented great logs she did not have access to or tools to process. “Please, work this as it seems to you best.”
The enkidu squatted before the model, which was about eight feet tall, and ran his fingers over it, not quite touching the thing. Making it real within his imagination, Zarai realized. He had obviously been studying her work for a while, for his examination had an air of familiarity rather than puzzled exploration.
Leaving Eea at his efforts, Zarai returned to stewing stickygrass in a slick clay pot lined with the baked-on sap of the same plant.
A week later two smiling men in saffron robes appeared. They were of the same extraction as the Jade Abbot, their skin dark and eyes narrowed by nature. Choi and Bo were brothers, and they more than made up for Eea’s conversational deficits. They also carried tools, and hauled a small, portable forge on a handcart.
“This was some trouble,” Bo said with a grin. “I made Choi carry it across that canyon filled with dogthorn.”
“And snakes,” Choi added. “Do not forget how you directed my steps into that nest of vipers!”
They hit one another with the affection of brothers, then went right back to chattering like birds. They also set up their little forge and set about looking for ores or scraps to make a larger forge. Or so Zarai understood.
She was back to stickygrass, as Eea had consumed himself with revising the model of the first lift deck, and constructing what would come above it. For all his silence with her, Eea was perfectly content to chatter about scale and dimension and styles of cuts with Choi and Bo.
The year wore on, the stickygrass gum piled up, the forge grew into a larger forge, then another, larger still, which began to produce tools. More people came. Some were wanderers, drawn to the fire and conversation. Others passed by on business of one sort or another, then returned when their errands were discharged. The Jade Abbot sent two women, one after another, and in their travels along the Wall they spread tales of the sailor who would walk among the stars.
By the New Year’s feast, Zarai found herself presiding over a little settlement of almost two dozen souls—wood workers, smiths, laborers, a tailor with experience in sail making, a pair of foresters who had found likely stands of trees two miles down the Wall and were conspiring with various craftsmen at rope making and cable twining to haul the great spars up to the work site.
If only Nix were here to see what his dream is becoming, she thought.
The whole settlement sat outdoors in rough chairs on fresh-laid flagstones before a firepit. They were at wine and a feast of roast boar, braised heron and assorted roots and tubers. She wasn’t sure where the wine had come from, but Zarai felt the need to raise a toast in any case.
“To us,” she said solemnly. The assemblage ceased their chatter and looked at her as one. “To Eea for being the first among you. To the Jade Abbot for seeing farther down my own road than I could manage. And to Mannix, who is not here and never will be, for showing me that a ladder could be climbed to heaven.” She poured her wine out upon the rocks at her feet. “May this find him, wherever he has gone.”
When the tears came, she did not try to stop them.
They drank themselves silly. Amazingly, no one fell down a cliff.
Bo and Choi sat down to speak with Zarai about the vessel. They were in the workshop the brothers had set up—a combination of a forge and manufactory. Already spars and braces were taking shape to help build the tower that was growing around and above the city of the domes, anchored by stickygrass.
“Are you knowing how to go through?” Bo asked.
She was confused by this. “I’m sorry?”
Choi smiled. “Like air, or water, or æther. What will the ship go through? Submarine, airship? What?”
“Bucket-ship,” she said, thinking of her old command along the Chain. “But we don’t even know how to put it up there yet.”
“You will.” Bo nodded. “Eea will find the way. He is very clever. We build, he shall carry.”
“That’s comforting.” Zarai felt like she had no idea what they were talking about. Nix’s dream had already grown beyond her grasp, with only two dozen people here. How had she ever thought to do this by herself?
You didn’t, she told herself. You didn’t think.
If she had thought, Mannix might still be here.
“You are right,” she continued, with confidence she did not feel. “But I am not certain what the medium is. Man—an old friend and I speculated either very, very thin air, or æther.”
“Please what is æther to be?” asked Choi.
“Like a gas, I suppose. The medium of what lies beyond the sky. To be sculled through, or pushed against, if true.”
Bo nodded again. “And if very thin air, not so much the pushing.”
“Rockets!” Choi said brightly. “Push against anything. Even vacuum.”
“Rockets?” Zarai was puzzled. “Like fireworks?”
“Anything can be rocket,” he answered sagely. “Water or air in a bottle, anything.”
Guesswork, it was all guesswork based on an idiotic dream. “We don’t know what stands above us.”
The brothers glanced at one another. “We find out,” Bo finally said. “Eea will build a tower to the top, we go up, set a model to fly, see what happens.”
“Don’t risk you first time,” Choi added. “Not for guessing.”
She had said guesswork, but that was obvious enough. “I assume you gentlemen have something in mind.”
“Of course,” said Bo. He turned and lifted a cloth cover over one of the junkpiles which had strangely begun to accumulate.
Not a junkpile, she realized. A model. A brass-and-copper vessel. Shaped like a pig’s bladder with crystal windows attached around the middle. Pipes and tubes were bolted to the side.
“Here,” said Choi, pointing. “Rockets…”
They built high over the next few months. Eea and the foresters worked to bring up a whole set of hidden groves from canyons down the face of the Wall. The brothers forged angle irons, braces, sockets, pulleys, axles—an entire yard’s worth of equipment from scrap hauled in, from salvage onsite, from ores scoured along the face of the Wall and smelted in clay ovens.
More people came, too, as word spread. The Jade Abbot’s influence, Zarai knew, but others had begun to tell the story as well.
What surprised her was that the people who came seemed to have arrived with Nix’s dream already inside their heads. Everybody looked up at the stars. At least everyone who came here.
Zarai had been particularly struck by a girl named Loxoda. She wore leathers dyed maroon and gray. Her skin was almost as dark as the iron from Choi and Bo’s smithy, her eye the color of a stormy horizon, and she said very little to anyone about anything. But she carried with her a map of the heavens drawn on a stretched hide, showing the positions of the orbital tracks of the planets and moons, as well as notations for all of the brighter stars and their constellations.
Loxoda also spoke no language in common with Zarai except for a bit of flatwater English. It was enough to look at the stars, though. And she seemed to have come a very long way.
“You made this?” Zarai asked her in their only shared tongue. She was not so comfortable with English herself, but away from the Chain it was the only language spoken with consistency across the extents of the Wall. Or at least the part of it which faced Northern Earth.
“I make.” Loxoda nodded furiously and mimed holding a pen.
Zarai ran her hands across the smooth leather, studied the carefully inscribed stars, the meticulous striations in the orbital tracks which indicated the teeth of the gigantic ring gears supporting Earth and the other planets in the sky. “Why?”
The girl seemed surprised. “Why is the sky?”
Certain she’d misheard Loxoda, Zarai struggled for a reasonable interpretation of the question. “It is part of the world, what lies around all of us.”
“No.” Loxoda’s brow furrowed. She concentrated her way toward something which her English wasn’t quite up to the task of framing. “Why the world is up? Falling?”
Loxoda pulled a small tool from a pocket slashed into her leathers, held it at arm’s length and let it go. The wrench dropped to the packed dirt floor of Zarai’s outside workspace, bounced once, then clattered against a table leg.
“Gravity,” Zarai said.
“Gravity!” Loxoda nodded. “Why is the sky up? Not gravity?”
“Well…” That was a very good question. She’d always just accepted that the world, the sun and the planets and the lamps of the stars, were arranged as God had placed them, for no better reason than that God had so placed them. It was like asking why the rain fell down. It just did.
“Go up, see what falls.” The satisfaction on the girl’s face glowed. She pointed at her stretched hide map. “Find way.”
Wayfinding, Zarai thought. That would be key. The tower was building even now. A model existed of her ship and designers with far more wisdom than she were at work. Where to go, and how to get back, were no longer secondary questions. This girl had answered.
At that, Zarai wondered what her own purpose here was.
“You dream,” said Loxoda in answer to the unspoken question which must have been writ large across Zarai’s face.
“No, Mannix dreamed. I just shared.”
“You share.” Loxoda reached forward and patted Zarai’s hand. “You share.”
She spent some time wondering about the gravity problem. Why didn’t the heavens fall to Earth? Or the other way around? The orbital track outmassed the Earth by some fantastic amount. Zarai took a whole day to drop pebbles down a ravine and watch them bounce, then the evening wandering around the fires of her camp—fires, a number of them now—asking for stories about sky iron, stone thunderbolts and meteorites.
The second most common answer she received was some version of “God has made the world so.” The most common answer was a look of mixed pity and bafflement.
Everyone here wants to step off into the sky, but no one will ask the big questions. Zarai knew that couldn’t be right. They had all asked the big questions, to even be here in the first place.
She went to find Eea. The enkidu was standing in the dark, studying a pile of rough-milled timbers by starlight.
“How high can I climb?” Zarai asked.
“Scaffold all the way now,” Eea rumbled. “Not safe yet.”
“Come with me?”
Even in the starlight, his teeth gleamed within his smile.
Together they climbed an erratic, zig-zagging stair. Zarai knew it was a good half mile up to where the teeth were cut into the Earth’s equatorial gear. That was a long stretch.
The first several hundred yards were footed in the mud domes of the abandoned city. She’d been up to Eea’s platform, the initial bit of construction, positioned atop the domes at the height of three hundred yards. That had required piering and trestles footed in the different domes as well as braced against the rising wall of brass—a crazy mishmash of cantilevered beams and platforms. Not to mention an incredible amount of rendered stickygrass. Though the structure was self-supporting, as it had to be, it needed to be anchored and stabilized.
When they reached the platform, Eea stopped and pointed at the derricks on each corner. Cables dropped into the darkness. Zarai looked around. Logs and hardware were stacked on the deck around them, while another set of piers supported a higher stretch of the gantry. More stairs went up, winding among the great wooden beams.
They trudged on. Zarai’s breath stung in the evening cold. Her muscles ached with the climb. The brass close by seemed to absorb sound, heat, even light. It was not so much a metal as a mass of intention. God’s handiwork, as explicit as one cared to find it under one’s own fingertips.
Maybe God was made of gravity.
In time they reached a second deck. Another, smaller derrick sat here. Someone had painted the number 450 on the flooring.
“Halfway?” she asked, doing the math in yards.
“Yes.” Eea had retreated to his accustomed laconic ways.
The next section was definitely still under construction. Beams and bracing rose surrounded by scaffolding. Smaller, temporary cranes and derricks were visible above. Some were little more than pulleys stuck on temporary crossbars. The stairs had been framed in, but were missing their risers.
Eea pointed to a ladder lashed in as part of the scaffolding. “Less safe.”
They climbed further.
Eventually she clung to a rope which ended in a big wad of stickygrass. A pole with short saves nailed to it horizontally served as the ultimate ladder. The top of the gear shone just above her, just at the bottom of one of the vee-cuts. If Zarai stretched, she could put her fingers where the track of the world would meet the gears of heaven.
And they would need to go down soon, as well. Midnight was overwhelmingly noisy on the ground as it was. Being this close to the orbital track when it went thundering by courted permanent deafness.
Still, she turned and looked down and out across the Northern Earth.
The top of the Wall was vertiginously close below here. The bulk of it cascaded away like a granite waterfall, stretching toward the ocean far below, while the flatwater occupied a very distant and distinctly curved horizon. The Atlantic Ocean, she knew, bounding one of the most powerful of those flatwater queendoms far below. The icy stars shone above, so near she thought she could touch them. The moon had risen on their climb. Zarai was as close as she’d ever been to the silver light and soaring swans of the night’s inconstant shepherd.
Heaven would look almost like this from her ætheric vessel.
“Nix,” she whispered to the thin, cold air. “Where are you now?”
The night offered no answers except the snuffling of Eea’s breath a few dozen yards below her, on the highest, smallest of the temporary platforms.
Without sticky grass, all this would have been impossible. And they still had so far to go, but even so… Zarai gave a silent thanks to the vanished bird-people who’d built the mud-domed city.
“Let us climb down,” she called to Eea. “Before the orbital ring comes for us.”
Noise control would be another problem, of course. She marked the thought for later consideration with Bo and Choi.
Down they climbed, returning once more to the house of work.
Zarai crawled through the hatch into the vessel. Not the finished, final vessel, but a wooden model built at the same size and scale as the metal construction being framed on the slip set amid the mud bubbles of their empty city. Bo and Choi had crafted this to work out details such as the size and position of the crew chairs, the location of view ports, and the best placement of the controls.
So far compressed air was the favored propulsion solution being discussed around the forge fire and the cold-press shop. Gunpowder had its adherents, as well as various stranger chemical combinations advocated by a small clade of chattering enkidus from somewhere much farther west upon the Wall. They’d built a series of stills, enough to booze up an entire city of sailors, and seemed intent on burning off their eyebrows with test firings from metal flasks.
Zarai saw no point in trying to stop them. What did she know? This entire affair had long since passed beyond her control. Each group seemed to do whatever pleased them most, though Bo and Choi did manage a certain amount of consistency by insisting that whatever be built—sling, cradle, maneuvering systems, control panels—fit their model vessel’s template.
Beyond that, it was a sort of controlled chaos which would have driven any bucket-shipwright along the Chain to distraction and beyond. It certainly had that effect on her.
Oddly, in all of this directed madness, even though they barely shared a language, it was the girl Loxoda whom Zarai had found easiest to talk to. Loxoda spent her evenings with her face to the heavens. The girl had passed quite a few of them atop the ever-growing launch gantry, her head wrapped in layers of wool and cotton to protect her hearing from the thundering passage of the orbital ring. Increasingly detailed drawings and notations about the ring passage were circulated, as were careful observations about the behavior of the moons, the planets, the weather and the very air itself.
Loxoda also worked with Eea and the brothers Bo and Choi to develop the design for the vessel’s launcher.
Zarai felt useless indeed. As if her main role were to follow Loxoda around and interpret. And visit wooden mockups of the ætheric vessel that someone would use to fly off the top of the Wall and join the stars high.
Would that someone be her?
She tore her thoughts away from that morbid question to attend to what Bo was already explaining to her in eager, overpatient detail.
“…sitting here to look outside at the passing of the dragons in the æther.”
“What dragons?” Zarai asked.
Bo glanced out the open hatch at Choi, then back. “Dragons…” he said slowly. “You know.”
“Like angels,” Choi said. “Everywhere. In architecture of the world.”
“Angels in the architecture of the world?”
Bo nodded gravely. “You will see.”
Someone will. Zarai tucked the sickening thought firmly away. “Do we know yet how she will be controlled?”
The smith hooked his thumbs together and flapped his hands like a butterfly. “We make fly,” he said, grinning. “Like fireworks on a barrel.”
She sat in the little saddle. Two view ports opened to the front—currently just empty windows, though there would be glass or crystal in the real vessel. A system of six paddles allowed the operator to steer the craft. Zarai suspected at least three arms would be required to do so successfully. She wondered how Nix would have solved this problem. A small forest of levers was set at her feet, currently connected to nothing. Stand-ins for controls not yet designed or built.
Zarai stretched herself around and looked aft. Three seats in a banquette, curving around the back of the hull. Windows above and opposite them. A hatch dead aft. Cabinets for equipment, marked now with crude wicker units to show size and position, not function or utility or method of access.
This was little more than a child’s toy, but she could see the vision which would rise from it. Zarai could almost smell the brass and machine oil, the sweat of the operators and the strange scent of air which had been pumped into metal and stored under pressure. The noises, the shudders, the cold—it would be cold, without a doubt. At least until one flew too close to the sun.
Zarai scolded herself. All they would do was scull into the æther. No more.
What no one had discussed yet was the mechanism of return.
Nix, she thought. You foolish, foolish man. You were never coming back, were you? And so Mannix had lived up to his dream, leaving her for the empty spaces of his own heart and failing to return. Vanished without ever leaping into the night sky first.
In spite of herself, she began to cry. Bo touched her shoulder briefly, a look of profound tenderness upon his face, then left Zarai with the hot, ragged flow of her thoughts streaming down her face.
“We don’t come back, do we?” she asked.
“Alcidor works on a drogue system for return,” said Loxoda. Her English had improved.
Who in the flatwater world was Alcidor, Zarai wondered.
The people she thought of as being at the heart of the project gathered around a big table in front of Bo and Choi’s much-enlarged forge. The brothers themselves, Eea of course, Loxoda the navigator, Ermine the forester, Kii the power engineer. And Zarai herself, keeper of the dream, answerer of a thousand small questions because someone must make the decisions, but never holding any of the facts, any of the skills, any of the critical thoughts or key determinations.
Just the woman at the center of the swirl.
“The axle sits while the wheel turns,” Loxoda said quietly.
“Do not do that so,” Zarai answered. “It’s as if you read my mind.”
“Only your face.”
Choi cleared his throat. “Answering your question, mistress, we have looked to other possibilities. Tethering the vessel, for example.”
“That would be a problem, to be sure. There have been other ideas. Wings, to fly back. Rockets enough to catch up to the Earth. Engines to take us to the moon, where we could rest and refuel to return. Food and air enough to grasp the orbital ring and to await the Earth’s next passage.”
Zarai snorted. “I can see problems with all of them. So we don’t come back, do we?”
“Dragons,” said Bo. Eea and Kii nodded sagely. Ermine just looked irked, her narrow face closed as it almost always was. Loxoda’s thoughts seem to have drifted upward to some measurement among the stars.
“Dragons? Your angels in heaven?”
“Your angels,” Choi responded. “In China, we have dragons.”
She digested that briefly. “We’re going to launch ourselves into the sky and pray.”
“There will be other options,” Bo told her. She watched him watch her carefully. “But they will likely not work.”
Would she take a one-way trip to the heavens? Could she?
Somewhat to her surprise, Zarai already knew the answer. She’d known it all along. Nix had never talked about coming back down, after all.
“Of course,” murmured Loxoda.
Zarai shot the navigator a sharp look. “Likely you’ll be aboard,” she said.
Loxoda smiled. “Four will fly. You, I, and two more.”
“Who is foolish enough for this?”
“Every man and woman and enkidu and Southerner in this camp,” said Eea. Another fearsome long speech for him.
Southerners, she thought. Who knew we had Southerners? People had crossed over the Wall to be here. With that in her mind, Zarai looked back at Loxoda again.
The girl nodded, a shy grin stealing across her night-dark face.
“So we will fly, and put our trust in dragons.” Zarai leaned forward, arms on the table. “What of our propulsion?”
“I assume you heard the explosions last week,” Ermine began.
Within a much larger shed which only leaked a bit in the rain, the ætheric vessel took shape in metal, glass and crystal. It was beautiful in a strange way, far more aesthetically pleasing than the bucket-ships which had occupied the first portion of Zarai’s adult life. The hull was fat about the middle and somewhat longer on the axis. Nearly round in cross-section, the bow tapered to a set of owl-eyed windows. The hatch at the aft end was set between a cluster of four rear-facing tubes. Gimballed nozzles lined the surface every few feet, connected by piping which was bronzed to match the metal cladding of the hull, so that they looked like nothing so much as the network of blood vessels on the muscles of a particularly robust human being.
Someone had added decorative curlicues along the weld seams, which gave it the ætheric vessel look of something about to burst into flame. Above the front windows was a stubbier tube, with a four-pronged missile protruding from it.
“Dragon gun?” she asked.
Bo shrugged. “Or perhaps for hunting angels.”
Zarai grimaced. “Should we somehow meet with a dragon, I can hardly imagine us shooting it.”
“A tow-line,” Choi offered.
“To let them bring us home,” added Loxoda.
I know when I’m being twitted, Zarai thought. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of rising to the bait. “Where are the launching hooks?”
“Not to attach those until we have tested the launcher,” said Bo. “Spacing may be critical.”
His brother nodded vigorously. “Besides, room for the parachute is needed.”
“How many different… methods… of returning are you envisioning?” she asked. “All of them?”
Bo and Choi exchanged another one of those looks, before Bo replied, “One only hopes.” He studied his hands a moment. “We have, well, models.”
“I know, I’ve spent hours inside the interior model in your workshop.”
“Flying models. Small versions of the ætheric vessel. To test the possible methods of return.”
Bo’s tone made her suspicious. “Why are you acting so shy about this?”
“It would be more auspicious if someone were to fly each model.”
Realization dawned on Zarai. “Someone whose life might be forfeit if the method of return failed?”
“Or if the seams failed and he was forced to breathe æther,” Choi answered into the following silence.
“Who said he?” Zarai felt a renewed sense of purpose. “Some jobs only a woman is good enough for.”
“It’s danger—” Choi began, then stopped himself.
“Choi,” she said gently. “I used to be a Chain pirate. I’ve dangled upside down from a spinner line over five miles of sheer cliff. I’ve dodged grenadoes, blades, belaying pins and even bullets. Breathing a little æther isn’t any more dangerous than any day of my life.”
“You are the leader.” Bo, the stubborn one. Though in fairness, Zarai thought, they are both stubborn. He went on, his voice and face both mulish. “You hold the dream for all of us.”
“Bo, I lead nothing. I have no idea any more what most of you are doing. The most important contribution I have made to this entire project is figuring out how to boil out the stickygrass. I invented—no, reinvented—glue. Glue. Eea builds towers and winches from wood that Ermine’s people cut. Loxoda plots the stars. Kii skulks about with powder and oil and pressure vessels and blows pieces off the Wall with a regularity which must be startling for miles below.” She stopped, captured them both with her eyes. It was trick she’d learned from Nix in their days along the Chain. “If my job here is to hold the dream for all of us, then let me take that dream up in the sky and hold it there long enough to fall back to Earth.”
Mannix would fly with her, deep inside her heart. Zarai realized she’d never really given up on the man. She knew her love was never returning, but still she would carry him upward.
“Besides,” she whispered. “If the tests fail, the ætheric ship may never fly. And in that case, I would rather die in the air than live upon the ground with my regrets.”
There was a great deal of arguing. Kii walked out of the camp for three days. Loxoda wouldn’t look at Zarai for some time. Bo was angry, Choi was unhappy, Ermine exasperated. Only Eea seemed unmoved.
“Someone must climb the sky,” the enkidu said in his great, slow voice as he and Zarai stood on the second platform of the gantry and studied the lifting derricks.
“Well, yes,” she replied. “We all share this dream, but everyone else has a purpose beyond that. If I do not come back, the dream will still be shared.”
“You will come back.” Eea patted a timber baulk thicker than Zarai’s own body. “Not climb this for nothing.”
“None of this we do is for nothing,” she said.
They headed up the next stairs to inspect the cradle on the third platform. It was a long ascent. When Zarai and Eea arrived, they found two artificers tending to an oversized wooden barrel. Three tiny glass panes were let into the pointed end, while a crude array of tubes ringed the blunt.
“Gimel,” Zarai observed. She’d made the model’s acquaintance down in Bo and Choi’s workshop. Alef had been a model of the models, so to speak, and broken down for materials after they’d built and measured and tested it. Bet had failed a drop test from the first platform, which had caused further redesign leading to Gimel. The first of the models expected to launch along the orbital, then return to the top of the Wall.
The plan called for a very simple flight, she knew. They were testing the launch mechanism as much as anything. The ring would grab Gimel, pull it away from the top of the Wall. The pilot would count off as planned by Loxoda, trigger the propulsive tubes, then steer Gimel in a loop back to her starting point, before landing with a parachute and some solemn prayer. The entire flight should last less than ten minutes. Many processes would be tested, including the pilot’s ability to hold her breath for an extended period of time should the æther rush inside the model at a speed unexpectedly higher than what the smiths were still arguing over.
“Gimel,” said Eea. The enkidu thumped the hull.
One of the artificers looked up from hammering a sheet of copper. “To be careful, please.”
Zarai had no idea what the woman’s name was. They were cladding the model up here as part of the final preparations. Nothing about these ætheric vessels was done as she understood shipyards to work, from her days on the Chain.
Eea grunted an apology. Zarai stooped to peer into the window glass. Gimel was tiny inside, like a toy of the real vessel, which they had not yet named. Barely room for a decently tall woman to crouch on her knees, hands on controls mounted to each side of the nose, and wait to fall into the sky.
The enkidu touched her shoulder. Zarai stood and looked up into Eea’s eyes. They had not been friends, not in the sense that she had come to share a bond with Loxoda, or even the mutual affection that passed between her and the brother-smiths, but still, Eea had been the first to follow her here to this spot on the Wall amid the abandoned city of the mud spheres.
The first to take a share in Mannix’s dream.
Even she only held it in proxy from her vanished lover.
“Eea,” Zarai said.
Some emotion that she couldn’t quite parse wrinkled the enkidu’s face. “You fly, higher than any woman.”
“I will come back,” she whispered. Unlike Nix. “I will always come back.”
The next few days were a blur of preparation for the first test launch. Daleth was being built down in the workshop, but Bo and Choi hoped to recover Gimel in good enough shape to reuse that model. Everyone in the camp seemed to come up to the third platform to check the cladding, to check the seal on the windows and the tiny hatch, to test the pressure in the propulsion bottles, to work the controls.
Zarai mostly worried about whether she would fit within the little hull. “A child couldn’t crawl through that opening,” she said.
Bo shrugged, contriving to show the breadth of his shoulders and chest. “You are a slender woman. It is no smaller around than your hips.”
“Next one, we make a bigger hatch.”
“Or find a smaller captain,” he said, but she caught the smile in his voice.
They reviewed the control layout again. She was used to booms, to grapples, to all the apparatus of the bucket-ships which plied the Chain. Likewise the pirate skimmers with their long catch arms and secret stone-carved harbors along the quiet stretches of that vertical expanse of Wall where Zarai had served out her first twenty years on a deck.
Now, here, the skies were her sea, and the deck no larger than a water butt. When she actually looked at Gimel and considered where it would be going, what might happen to her amid the æther, her marrow froze and a cold hand clutched at her heart.
No matter, she told herself. That was just fear, which meant nothing.
“You will have air,” Bo said, misreading her momentary silence. “Even if the hull leaks, there are extra pressure bottles. Your trip will be very short.”
“I know, I know,” she said. Days had been spent fitting her with a rubber mask for that purpose. There were some things they just didn’t know—was the æther poisonous to her very skin? Would it be too hot or too cold? What would happen if there were too much pressure? To little?
If this flight were successful—when this flight was successful—Choi and Bo wanted to strap cages about the vessel for the next flight, sending birds and crickets and mice to be directly exposed to the æther to see how dangerous it might truly be.
This flight, only Zarai herself would meet the æther. And without even a dragon gun. Or whatever that thing on the spine of the still-building ætheric vessel truly was. Sometimes the humor of the smiths was indistinguishable from their work.
“Would you like someone else to make the flight?” Bo asked, interrupting her thoughts. “There would be no lack of volunteers.”
“N-no.” Zarai took a deep breath. “It will be me.”
“We winch up to top this afternoon. Eea will supervise. Tomorrow everything will be rechecked at launch point. Tomorrow night, Gimel will be thrown into æther.”
She sighed. “And just like that, we will leave the Earth behind to walk among the stars.”
The smith elbowed her with a grin. “Or at least poke your head in and have a look-around.”
Zarai turned and looked out across the curve of the Earth. The flatwater queendoms stretched northward to a round horizon. Even now, in daylight, some stars were visible. As she understood it, there was little air away from the top of the Wall, nothing like the thick blanket which covered the lower extents and the flatwater queendoms beyond and hid the heavens behind a blanket of daylight.
Have a look-around. Two years ago, Nix would have cheerfully killed to poke his head in among the stars and have a look-around, and Zarai would have helped him. Last year she would have thought it the pinnacle of her own dream.
Now, though, now…
She realized that her overwhelming emotion was a sickening dread.
With a muffled bang, the hatch shut. She sat wreathed in the odors of glue, sawdust and solder, her hips burning from being scraped on the hatch so small and close that panic had been a real possibility. Choi hammered on the outside while Bo peered in the tiny windows. Eea stood beside him with a light.
They were less than an hour until sidereal midnight and the launch that would come when the orbital ring passed overhead. The next fifty minutes waiting inside of Gimel were the longest part of the voyage. Once launch happened, everything would go so fast there would all too soon be nothing left to fear. Either she’d be home alive, or she’d be dead somewhere out in the æther.
Zarai hadn’t been able to eat all day. She could barely keep down water. Her gut was knotted tighter than a washerwoman’s drawers. Her mouth was so dry her lips had cracked and bled as she’d mumbled through the last briefing.
Whatever they’d told her, she’d just said ‘yes’. This was why she’d practiced at the controls, reviewed, drilled, listened, learned, tested.
So she could forget everything now.
Bo tapped on the glass. Four fingers, then five. Forty-five minutes.
The passage of the orbital ring was so overwhelmingly loud that everyone but Eea would retreat down to the second platform. Even there, they would wear earplugs. Eea had a special leather helmet, padded heavily. So did Zarai, though she reckoned she’d be too busy being scared to truly notice the noise.
She twisted her neck and looked up at the wooden arch of the hull just above her head. The launch mechanism was there, clamped to the hull of Gimel by toggles which she could release from within. A more complex grapnel system tipped with a great deal of stickygrass waited above. Eea would swing it to as the ring passed over, and release Gimel from her cradle in the same action.
Zarai envisioned the ring snatching her up, the Earth falling away, the sky growing dark and star-filled, the air becoming thin and cold… If she’d been able to hold down much water today, she’d be passing it right now, she realized.
A clock, something traded up from the flatwater queendoms, ticked out the last minutes of her pre-launch life. Careful marks showed when she would be taken up, and when she should release the toggles.
One moment after another, until she was snatched from the Wall and hurled into the æther.
“Mannix,” Zarai whispered. “What have you done to me?”
She closed her eyes and recalled his scent, his touch, the lines of his squat, square face. How he’d looked at her in a certain light. The way his smile crinkled at the sight of her. The feel of his hands upon her body. His words, pouring into her ears, carrying dreams of distant stars and the view from above the top of the sky.
Alone with her thoughts, Zarai wandered the roads of memory until the ticking of her clock was subsumed by a clatter which became a rumble which became a roar. Frantically, she remembered that she was supposed to be checking things off of a list before launch. A banging caught her attention—Eea, out of place, waving through one of the three tiny windows up front.
One great hairy thumb protruded upward, then the enkidu was gone, rushing back to his position at the controls of the launch mechanism.
Zarai folded down the padded flaps of her helmet as the roar of the approaching gear become a noise so great that it transcended sound and entered the realm of experience.
When her breath and her weight were snatched away in one great, joint-straining moment, she hardly knew the difference between the terrors.
Some part of Zarai remained alert to the movement of the clock. She had to wait only one minute, then release the toggles. No one knew how the stickygrass would behave in the æther—would it freeze harder, boil off, flake away?—and in any case, the farther Gimel moved from the launch point, the more challenging her return would be. Steering the little craft into a useful landing was frankly the most frightening part of this whole venture, in that the dangers were very clear and understandable.
The dangers of the æther, on the other hand…
Zarai was pressed down, pulled back, banged hard against her straps. Something whistled shrilly. Æther forcing its way in through some unknown crack? Time, time was her enemy.
Even her eyes seemed ready to shake out of her head. Was it growing colder? What else was happening to her? Her body felt strange. Stretched. Flushed. Distorted.
This wasn’t Zarai herself, she realized. This was some dream-body. This was some nightmare she was sharing with Nix, a nightmare which would awaken her all too late screaming into the comfort of his arms. She could only hope and pray for that.
Just in case she was wrong, Zarai watched the clock and found her fingers on the release handles when the moment came.
Nothing happened. They were stuck! She would be pulled on along the orbital ring until she died, a corpse forever floating in the æther. Or Nix would wake her up.
Or she could pull again.
Wreathed in the stinging smell of her own sweat Zarai put all her panic into pulling on the toggles. For a sickening moment she thought they’d broken off, but Gimel fell silent, all vibration ceasing except for a vague, uneasy sense that she was falling.
No, not vague. She was falling. The air tasted strange, the whistling had grown louder, and now all Zarai wished was that she could still be stuck to the orbital ring, to be safely attached to something solid so that at least her grave would be a place instead of a direction.
Something ground behind her. The gyroscopes. Loxoda had told her when to fire the compressed gas. Zarai was to wait until Gimel turned and she could see the launch tower aligned with a line marked upon the forward glass. Not directly before her, but the firing would send the little ship into a curving flight toward home.
She spun, though. Was she supposed to spin? This wasn’t like the deck of a bucket-ship, or even a rope bridge tossing in a tempest. Everything turned over, the entire world rotating outside. Zarai was sick, her stomach wrenching and twisting to spill a last bit of something on a wash of bile.
Still she watched the line on the glass. She waited for the spin to line up on the narrow torch-lit line of the launch gantry, what she thought and hoped and prayed was the gantry.
“Nix,” Zarai whispered. “I never meant to do this. Wake me up, please.”
“Just pull the gas lever, sweetie,” he said from somewhere behind her.
“Then can I wake up?” She was sweating so violently that her skin seemed to be vomiting, salt and metal tastes filling her mouth.
“Then you can wake up.”
He loved her. He still loved her, despite Janton.
Zarai pulled the lever. Suddenly, gently, solidly, there was a ‘down’ to her world. Her body’s rebellions were slowly tamed. Her hot, screaming panic began to recede. The world hung too much over her head, but she had a down.
Gimel was headed home.
Steering, she was supposed to be steering. How?
Mannix wasn’t going to wake her up, Zarai realized. The air had grown thin, and cold. The whistling was dying. She kept Gimel pointed as best she could with the little yoke, like bouncing a pea on a drumskin, but it could be done. (Another practical art they’d made her learn, those demonic bastards back at the camp.)
Aim for the tower, but not right for the tower. The foresters had cleared a good sized meadow a bit west of the camp, dragging out boulders and filling in dips and holes. If Gimel were close, she’d make it. If not, well, she’d land wherever her descent took her.
The ‘down’ disappeared again as the bottles of compressed gas were exhausted, but she still could steer. More compressed gas, in smaller jets, she recalled from memory. If they ran out, she was at the mercy of the grasp of the world itself. The ground would take Zarai where it would at that point.
Air? She let one hand off the yoke and reached for the rubber mask. She needed air. Her fingers stumbled, crawling, trying to tug it toward her face, but somehow Zarai couldn’t convince herself that even the promise of sweet, sweet air was worth taking her eyes off the landing which was coming up so fast, so quickly, so hard.
How had they meant to slow Gimel at the end? Wasn’t there a parachute?
Nix was speaking urgently now, from his place somewhere behind her in the tiny, cramped cabin, but Zarai couldn’t make out his words anymore. It was like talking to Loxoda when that girl had first arrived at the camp.
Then his rough, small hand reached past her and pulled the last lever. Or maybe it was her hand. Zarai wasn’t certain of much now, her mind bubbling out to evaporate like a spring in the desert.
A new kind of ‘down’, then the Earth took hold and the Wall was far too close. She tried to scream, but even that was gone, then she knew no more.
To Be Continued…
The next thing Zarai heard was Bo laughing quietly. His voice echoed with that little silver chuckle he shared only with Choi, when the two brothers spoke in the fluid language of their birth. They said much that seemed amusing in those short conversations, though mostly they used English like almost everyone else at the camp.
She tried to open her eyes. The lids were gummed together. That brought a rush of fear boiling through her. She must have called out, because Bo’s soft mirth ceased as feet swished close by.
“You are alive,” the smith said through the ringing she hadn’t realized had taken up residence in her hearing. Zarai felt his hand gasp hers.
“What—” She realized her voice not working properly.
“Shh.” His fingers wrapped around hers, squeezed, as Nix would have done. “Not enough air. Too much æther. Rest. You will recover.”
Zarai was desperate to ask how he knew she would recover, how he could possibly know that. She did not. Instead she lay still. Her pulse echoed in her ears in a little shuffling step like an old woman walking in slippers. Her eyes ached beneath whatever crust or poultice kept them shut. The inside of her nose felt coppery. As if her sense of smell had been burnt away and replaced with a plug.
There was nothing for it but to let her fingers be wrapped and lie still. In time she woke up from a sleep she hadn’t known she’d fallen into.
“Broth,” said someone. Loxoda, Zarai realized from the accent. Her hearing continued strange, though the ringing seemed to have receded with her cloudy dreams of pressure and down-ness. She realized her body ached, too.
“Open up.” Loxoda spooned the thin, salty soup between Zarai’s lips.
It tasted heavenly, but it also sent her gut into a knot.
And so her life went for a few days. Distant sounds of work, and the occasional thump of an explosion, told her that efforts outside went on.
Zarai hadn’t kept careful track of time. Hadn’t been able to, in truth. She slept, she itched, she went through embarrassing moments relieving herself with the help of Loxoda or Ermine. It was perhaps four days later when Loxoda and Bo came to stand beside her bed. By now, Zarai could tell her closest confidantes apart by their breathing and the tread of their feet on the packed mud floors.
“The abbot wants us to uncover your eyes,” Loxoda said without preamble.
That was unexpected. “The abbot?”
Bo rustled. She could imagine him moving in the subdued shrug he used when he was nervous. “The Jade Abbot arrived the morning after your flight.”
What was he nervous about? “I hadn’t known the abbot was here,” Zarai said quietly. At least her voice worked now. She wished she could get up and greet him.
“He tended you, then said you should only hear familiar voices for a while.”
“You would want to rise to pay your respects,” Bo added. “And that you should not do.”
“But now…?” she asked. There was something they wanted. “What has failed?”
Zarai could hear the unspoken ‘yet’ hanging in Bo’s voice.
Loxoda’s hands strayed across Zarai’s cheeks. “We come to take the poultice from your eyes.”
“Wh-what will we find?”
“Light.” Bo again. “The dark gleam of your gaze.”
The girl touched Zarai’s, fingertips slipping beneath a pack of leaves and mud. Zarai wondered what it smelled like, what herbs they had used.
“Close your lids,” Loxoda whispered. “And hold them so.”
She spoke so well now.
Bo’s hand took Zarai’s again, once more as Nix would have done. She’d seen his hand, hadn’t she? Inside Gimel. When the ship was nearly lost.
The poultice came away with a strange, discomforting stretching. Her skin popped, leaving a raw sensation. Zarai would swear that layers of her had flaked away with the mud and leaves.
But the darkness behind her eyes reddened.
“Light,” she said. “Light.”
“Wait a moment.” Loxoda again, if anything quieter. Both of them were breathing hard now.
“Is it bad?” Zarai asked.
“It looks like you.” Bo clutched her hand so tight she thought he might crush her fingers.
Something draped over her—a cloth. Loxoda was settling a cloth. The red shadows faded to black once more.
“Can you blink?” she asked.
I am blind, Zarai thought. They fear me blind. She blinked and the darkness bloomed to a murky gray. A shadow moved on shadow.
She blinked again. Loxoda’s smile gleamed, as did her eyes.
“I see you,” Zarai whispered.
“Good.” The navigator leaned close and kissed her lightly. “Welcome back.”
Bo hung on to her hand as if one of them were drowning. Zarai closed her eyes again and wondered where Mannix was.
The next day—and now she was sure of that—the Jade Abbot came to see her. He seemed smaller, somehow, away from his temple. He carried a ripe peach in his hand, and smiled like a particularly clever statue.
“So you have touched the heavens and lived.” He sat next to her bed on a stool she didn’t remember having in the room.
“I believe so,” Zarai said politely. She still hadn’t managed to get to her feet on her own, and no one seemed interested in helping her try. “I did not know you were here.”
“Who ever knows where they truly are?” He smiled and stuck a callused thumb into the top of the peach. She watched in a strange fascination as the abbot split the fruit. Juice glistened on his gnarled hands and stained the sleeve of his robe. The sunrise shades of the flesh glistened, the purpled-dark texture of the pit within flashing at her like a wink.
Zarai realized she was finally smelling something besides the coppery tang which had filled her nose and throat since the flight.
“Would you like some fruit?” the Jade Abbot asked politely.
“Oh, yes,” she breathed.
For the first time, Zarai fed herself. He handed her half-mashed strips of peach one by one, and grinned as if terribly pleased at her progress. Eating brought an appetite undiscovered since the day before the launch.
She was awake, alive. She was back.
After a while there was no more peach. Zarai’s face and hands were sticky. She felt like a child, silly, grubby, pleased with herself.
“Thank you,” she finally said.
“Thank you,” the abbot replied. “The heavens would have been most inconvenienced by their indigestion had they been forced to swallow you whole and not spit you back to the top of the Wall.”
“It was not the heavens which nearly killed me. It was the air. Æther does not mix so well with lungs.”
“I am told your little barrel leaked.” He rolled the peach pit in his hand, until it disappeared. “They are lining the hull with a mix of that very sticky glue and a rubber fabric.”
“So as not to kill someone else?” Zarai asked, realizing that no one sensible would set her flying again.
“So as not to kill you, I do believe.” He leaned forward, closing old fingers over her hand. They stuck together slightly with the drying peach juice. “You will yet walk among the stars, Zarai.”
But not with Nix. The tears she’d been holding back since seeing him with her inside Gimel finally burst free. The abbot simply held her hand, unspeaking but not uncaring, while her eyes flooded free of misery, fear and pain.
Finally, when she was done, he smiled again. “Tomorrow, you will walk upon the Wall.”
As it happened, Zarai did not fly Gimel on the model’s second trip. That honor was preferred upon Loxoda. Which was fine with Zarai, at least in the silence of her head. She still walked with a cane, and the ringing had not left her ears. Her body had not finished healing from the damage sustained in a very hard landing, as well as whatever breathing bad air had done to her.
“Ætheric injury,” the abbot had called it.
“Hurt yourself,” Bo had said.
“You’ll heal fine,” Loxoda told her.
In any case, the small, dark woman from beyond the Wall would fit through the tiny hatch better than Zarai had, presumably with less sense of being trapped.
Zarai had insisted on going up to the top platform to see the little vessel on the day of Loxoda’s launch. The stairs were too difficult for her, but Eea worked a series of slings to raise her step by step from one platform to the next, as if she were the cargo to be carried up to the launch.
They stood now on the small, trembling platform, half a mile above the mud-globed city. The wall of brass which was the edge of the orbital gear ring stretched left and right. Big enough to boggle, small enough to be comprehensible to the human mind. Not like the vast, undowned emptiness of the ætheric heavens.
She smelled the cold air. She smelled someone’s fear-sweat, though Zarai did not believe it was her own. She smelled the rubber-and-glue scent that Gimel exuded. She smelled the salt-and-plant odor of the world below, the empty ache of the heavens, the comforting furry musk of Eea, even the Jade Abbot’s neutral air, for he had ridden up with her in the slings.
Loxoda, Eea, Bo, Choi, Zarai and the abbot made the topmost platform a crowded place to stand, with Gimel and her cradle taking up most of the room there.
The vessel was so very small. Its copper cladding had been refitted, but she could see stains and streaks and seams from the last flight, and the repairs required after her too-messy return.
“How did I ever fit inside that?” she asked.
“With great determination,” Loxoda answered.
“Are you going to come back?” The questions felt simple, even strange to Zarai as she spoke them, but the also felt important. The Jade Abbot tightened his grip on her elbow just a bit.
Grounding her. A reminder.
“Of course I’m coming back.” Loxoda grinned. “Someone has to figure out where to take you when we fly the Man—The ætheric vessel.”
Bo stared at her, his eyes strangely gentle, even as everyone else but the Jade Abbot looked away in a rush of embarrassment. “We have named the ship Mannix. It was decided while you lay injured.”
Zarai felt anger rushing toward her like a rock cascading down the Wall. “How dare you…” she began, but the Jade Abbot clamped her arm so hard it hurt. Quite a bit.
How dare they, indeed? Who was she to say no? This wasn’t her ship, the stars themselves did not belong to her.
And the dream had been Nix’s, back at the beginning. The dream that had brought them to the top of the Wall, then so far. To this place, so close, so high, as near as a woman could come to heaven without dying. Or flying.
“Fly well,” Zarai told Loxoda.
Then there was a discussion about air pressure and seals and alternate propellants and control linkages and the problem of down-ness, which Zarai could not remember having explained, but somehow they’d come to understand. She listened, nodding, agreeing at the appropriate moments so as to be engaged, to be part of the discussion, but still her mind was onGimel, and Mannix.
The man, not the vessel, she thought. Though in truth he did seem to fly with them.
“I want to stay here with Eea and tend to the launch,” she said quietly.
“No!” shouted Bo. Choi shook his head. Loxoda just looked surprised. Only the Jade Abbot, and Eea himself, seemed to agree.
“Someone can fetch me a padded helmet, and blankets against night’s chill.” Zarai stood firm. “But I will be here to watch what was done to me. It is only right.”
“She keeps the dream,” rumbled Eea. “I will watch over her.”
Bo’s jaw set, working. His brother touched his shoulder, though whether to calm or lend strength Zarai could not say. “I would forbid it,” the smith finally managed to spit out. “But there is no one in the world who can forbid you, Zarai.”
The Jade Abbot leaned close. “Remember,” he whispered in her ear. “This world is the bounty of the stars. Go forth and pluck what may be plucked.”
There was a great deal more arguing, but in time Zarai prevailed. She didn’t feel like a leader, or a dream-holder, so much as a petulant child insistent on what she would have at any cost. Still, they yielded, bringing her a helmet and blankets and coffee and the little hot pastries that Ermine’s foresters made out of acorn flour and the eggs of wild birds and the morels that grew among the damp and silent roots in the vertical canyons below the rim of the Wall’s broad top.
She settled in with Eea and Loxoda to wait.
She had to see.
The navigator climbed aboard Gimel an hour before midnight. Zarai was cold, too cold in truth, but she would be damned if she was going to admit that to anyone. Not even Eea. The big enkidu tightened the little wooden ship’s hatch before patiently applying the copper and rubber seals around the door. He then paced the craft from end to end, checking the piping to each of the tiny jet nozzles, and generally inspecting the whole arrangement of cradle and launcher.
The night air was crystalline. So close to midnight, the orbital ring shed a pale golden light reflected from the sun now hiding behind Earth’s bulk. Zarai studied the winch-and-catapult affair that slapped Gimel against the orbital ring with a fast, counterweighted swing of an extended arm, then released the ship as the stickygrass pad clung to the cold, cold brass.
She had trusted her life to this contraption? And now Loxoda was trusting hers.
You returned, said a voice in her head remarkably like Nix’s.
“I returned,” she whispered. “But look at me now. Walking with a cane and afraid of shadows.”
Eea turned and looked at her. The enkidu’s sympathetic frown beetled his low brow until his face seemed set to implode. “You are well?”
“I am well,” Zarai said, her voice more firm.
Shortly thereafter, Eea tapped on the forward window and gave Loxoda the wave-off. He then joined her at the dropside edge of the platform. “We stand here,” he rumbled. “Hold these posts. Much shaking.”
Zarai looked to the west, where the orbital ring was visibly lower in the sky than it had been before. It was if the vast ribbon of brass was plunging to stab the Earth.
She’d seen this sight all her life. Why did it scare her now? Already she fancied a vibration in the platform.
Soon enough the vibration was no fancy at all, but a real thing. As if a large man were shaking one of piers which propped them up half a mile into the last slice of the terrestrial sky. Zarai knew precisely what Loxoda was experiencing within Gimel‘s confines, but she had no idea what the other woman was thinking.
Eea, never particularly chatty at his best, had ceased talking entirely and instead watched the approaching ring with exquisite focus. His hands were on a set of levers to release the counterweighted arm and lift the ship. Zarai knew that Eea’s margin of error was minute. She held her silence, remembering to tuck down the thick, layered earflaps of her leather helmet only when she saw the enkidu do the same.
When midnight came, it arrived on a torrent of sound. She thought it had been loud inside of Gimel, but outside the noise acquired a transcendent dimensionality. The looming orbital ring was so massive as to be almost meaningless—like looking at the Wall itself, the scale was vast enough to defeat even the human imagination. It was another Wall in the sky, a circle around the sun large enough to compass a year, and it was too much.
The sound, though, the sound…
It invaded her bones, jellied her joints, turned everything in her gut to a slurried muck that sought swift exit, shook her eyes almost to insensibility, and even through the helmet pads deadened her ears seemingly beyond hope of recall.
Zarai was certain that she would never hear again. Sound-blind and stunned, she watched the ring pass overhead in a brass-bright flash of reflected sunlight. The platform danced with the mania of a dying dog. Eea released the launch arm. Gimel swung up. The arm dropped away. The ship wobbled, then vanished, pulled to the east by the passage of midnight, moving fast as any shooting star.
She turned to follow it and nearly tumbled from the platform. Only the enkidu’s grip saved her. Something flared in the distance, and the copper-clad ship fell away from the receding mass of brass to tumble like a spark.
Oh, how she remembered that moment.
Another flare, then two more. The gyroscopes rotating the vessel, pointing it home. That would be Loxoda touching the controls to give herself just a push here and nudge there. They were using Kii’s chemicals on this flight, instead of the compressed gasses, she knew. Zarai was surprised at the brightness when the main thrust burned, though. It pulsed like a firework.
Eea’s grip on her arm tightened. He was surprised as well, she realized.
The firework burned, then pulsed again, then began to tumble earthward. Not back toward the camp and their landing field. Simply fall like a burning chunk of ash might.
In that moment, Zarai knew Loxoda was gone. Gimel had perished, and taken the navigator along into the next life. Nix’s strong hand had not been aboard to guide here, and neither was he here now.
All she need do was take a step back, slip over the narrow railing, and she could join them both. The ground half a mile below sang to her. It was the only voice she heard over the head-splitting deafness. Even the beating of her heart was lost to her. Nothing but the call of fall.
Just as Loxoda was falling.
“I killed her,” Zarai tried to say. Her lips moved, but no words were formed. Midnight’s passage had snatched her voice along with her navigator.
Eea picked Zarai up in his great arms, much to her shock. She tried to protest as the enkidu began the long, slow walk down. All Zarai could do was watch over his shoulder as the last flame of Loxoda’s life drifted down into the darkness of the nighttime world.
To Be Continued…
They argued for a month.
There was an expedition to scout for wreckage. There was a skirmish against a band of red-skinned hunters to recover what could be found. There was a funeral for Loxoda, presided over by the Jade Abbot. There were sleepless nights, and a watch mounted over Kii when he was found among his barrels and stills with a burning length of punk and mourning clay smeared across his face and chest.
But mostly there were arguments.
“We will not fly again,” Kii said flatly, once he had released his spirit-death in a fire of his shorn hair and his best-beloved tools.
The smiths were more sanguine, but no less bereft. “We can not promise Daleth will survive better,” Choi said. “Not Mannix either.”
Eea just shrugged sadly.
Everyone had an opinion. Everyone looked to Zarai to provide the answer. Everyone but the Jade Abbot, who smiled quietly and watched her closely and waited, waited, waited.
At the twelfth such argument in two weeks, she stood and laid her cane upon the tabletop. They met under an awning outside the main shipworks. Within, some labor continued, but most of the camp came to the gatherings, and not so much was done outside.
It was if a monster with three hundred lungs had been holding its breath, waiting for her to speak.
“I was there,” Zarai stated. Unnecessary—no one in the camp required a reminder, but she still felt a need to say it. “I was there. In the cold, cold dark, among the lamps of the stars. The æther burned my lungs and stole my sight for a time. I was there. And even if I had not come back…” She was going to say, ‘come back whole’, but that seemed incorrect. “If I had died in a shower of light and fire, as Loxoda did, I know what my last wish would be.” She leaned close, trying to sweep them all into her voice and gaze. “My last wish would be that you try again.”
Zarai picked up her cane, turned and walked away. As she passed out from under the edge of the awning, she paused and faced back to the crowded table once more. “We will try again. And I will fly again.”
The fools cheered her as she walked into the drizzle of the day. The rain masked her tears.
Light. To die in light. There were lesser fates. Wandering off into the night never to return, for one.
The next discussion—for the argument was over—concerned whether to fly Daleth, or proceed with launching Mannix.
A group of them met next to the brass-and-copper cladded ætheric vessel. Zarai was trying to cope without her cane that day.
“The hull is ready,” said Choi. “We got air, water. Interior fittings work. That we learned from Gimel.” He gave Zarai a long, slow look, before adding: “First flight.”
“Loxoda’s notes were very clear,” Zarai told them. She’d been reviewing the navigator’s work, relying on the Jade Abbot for advice on some issues. Neither of them knew the first thing about sailing a ship along the currents of the æther, but then again, who did?
Besides Loxoda, apparently.
“It comes down to how you descend,” said Ermine, standing in for the absent Kii. “Fire or air to propel you; more fire, wings or a parachute to land you. These are things we learn best from flying Daleth.”
“And who will take her up?” asked Zarai. She kept her voice simple, calm, trying to avoid the rising panic which threatened her every time she thought about being snatched up by the orbital ring, then dropping off into the down-less darkness. She would fly. No one else would die before her. Zarai knew, down to her bones, that another death would end their efforts.
Ermine shrugged. “A human, certainly.” Her glace flickered to Eea. “No enkidu could fit inside of Daleth.”
Zarai glanced at Choi, with his broad shoulders and hugely muscled arms. “Nor so many of us, either.” The smith glowered slightly. He did not have quite the same light humor which tended to possess his brother, she knew. “I do not see a need to further this discussion,” she went on. “We will fly Mannix. We will fly her with the gas propulsion and parachute recovery that we tested on Gimel‘s first flight. To do this any other way risks too much in lives, in time, in labor.”
“Are you certain?” Eea’s enkidu accent seemed very thick this day, as if he labored through an extra burden of memory.
“No! I am certain of nothing in this, except that Loxoda died, and I did not.”
“Kii will take it hard,” Ermine warned.
Zarai struggled a moment with that. “Kii should not take it hard. We shared in the risk, all of us. Kii no more killed Loxoda than you. Or I. Or Loxoda herself.”
“Kii no less had a part in killing Loxoda, either,” said the forester in a sad, quiet voice.
“Of course not! Did you think this was some game, a season’s pastime like building a raft to go fishing from a lakeside summerhouse?”
A round of solemn head-shaking.
“Then we will do this my way,” Zarai announced. “Every one of you seems to feel a need to remind me that I bear the dream here. Do not argue with me now.”
Nix, I am doing this wrong. I know I am. What other way is there?
That evening she walked down into the cutting groves with the Jade Abbot. The foresters did not work at night, for safety’s sake, but they kept a watch. There would be no glasscats or feral crystal automata roaming these woods.
He carried another peach. So far as Zarai knew, there were no peach trees within many days’ walk of the camp. Almost a month in their company, and this man still had fresh fruit.
“You will fly again,” he said.
She couldn’t tell if he was asking a question or stating a truth. “Someone will,” she hedged.
“I heard your words. Someone will, and that someone will be you. You can send no one in your stead.”
“It is a disease of captains, I should think.” Zarai picked her way over a deadfall which blocked the path. “Queens send people out to die for them. Captains walk first into the storm.”
“It is a condition of love.” The Jade Abbot’s voice was so quiet she had to stop and strain to hear him, even as his words set a chill upon her. “You will not lay down the lives of the people you care for most.”
She took a deep, shuddering breath. The night-musk of this cut-over forest filled her—green, dank, weeping sap and shattered bark. Breathe in, breathe out, Zarai told herself.
“Mannix is long gone. Possibly dead now, though I shall never know.”
Again those too-quiet tones. “Mannix is not the only one you love.”
Whirling, she barked out her anger. “There is no one else!”
“Not in the way of a woman and man.” A faint smile stole across his face. “Or perhaps that. I cannot say. I have taken vows these past centuries, what does an old man know? But I have seen you work in silence alongside Eea. I have watched you bicker so gently with the brother-smiths. You saw Loxoda as if she had been a daughter, or a sister. Kii, Ermine. All those in this camp are children of your dream, and so you love them.”
“You make me sound like some angel,” Zarai said bitterly.
She could hear his smile in the silent shadows.
“I will fly into the heavens again,” she continued, trapped inside some mulishness she did not quite understand. “That does not make me an angel. Only a woman of determination.”
“Flying into the heavens would seem to be a sufficient condition for being an angel. A least to the view of many.”
“You put too much faith in wings,” she said.
“You put too little. Especially for a woman who builds them.”
Zarai and the Jade Abbot walked on, letting the silence speak for them. In time they reached the clearest part of the cutting, where the night sky was visible above the short, tufted horizon of the treetops at clearing’s edge.
She stared upward and thought of a question Nix used to ask. “Have you ever wondered what stuff the stars are made of?”
“The thoughts of Creation,” the Jade Abbot replied. His voice seemed absent, as if his mind roamed afar. “Each contains another possibility. They mount up until they are infinite.”
Zarai half expected him to add, as love does, but he fell silent once more.
“We will fly a longer loop,” she said. “Then we will return and land. Our second trip will be the greater. Out toward the moon, or a voyage among the distant stars.”
“Do you know how far the moon is from us?”
“Does it matter?” Zarai felt herself smiling as she had done so rarely lately. “All we need do is grasp the ring and wait until the Moon’s own ring sweeps close by. We may drop away, grasp her ring, wait for her return, and find our way to the silvery fields of midnight. Home again the same way, using the tracks of Creation as our stepping stones.”
“Ah.” The Jade Abbot actually sounded impressed.
“Loxoda and I talked it through many times.”
“Before she flew.”
Zarai blinked back tears. “Before she flew. Yes. Before she flew.”
The next day she noticed Daleth was missing from the workshop.
“Bo,” Zarai shouted, rounding for the usually more helpful of the two smiths.
He appeared. His long leather apron smoldered from some work in the foundry, though he’d come too quickly to have been summoned only by her beck.
As if they’d been expecting such a call.
“Where is the ship?”
To his credit, Bo didn’t pretend she was talking about Mannix. “Choi and Kii took it to top.”
He held her eye. “Last night.”
“Did they launch it?”
“And somehow you people expected me not to find out!?”
Finally Bo looked down. “Not my plan.”
Yet he hadn’t told her. “I’m going up.”
“Zarai.” Bo touched her arm. “They are trying to keep you safe.”
“By disobeying me?”
His fingers fell away. “When were you ever queen?”
That stopped her cold. She stared at him as he met her eyes once more. She thought furiously about her conversation with the Jade Abbot the night before. Finally, Zarai managed to speak. “Ever I was no more than a captain, never a queen.”
“Aboard Mannix, you will be captain. Your word law. Here, you keep the dream.” His fingers twitched, as if he sought to grasp her close. Or perhaps strike her. “You do not own it.”
No, the dream belonged to Nix. She knew that. At best she was a second-hand prophet, talking about another’s dedication to the beauty of the distant stars. His was the vision of heaven. All Zarai carried with her were some earthbound words, and a belief in the climb into the night. A belief which transcended all reason.
She nodded at Bo and walked sadly to the ladder which led up to her particular globe.
No one came. Not even the Jade Abbot. The day lengthened outside, measuring itself in the angle of the light through the opening in her globe. She heard the noises of camp—a distant shout of warning just before something fell with a clatter; pounding in the forges of the smithy; a burst of chanting as a group carried something heavy; the ropy creak of the derricks lifting that load, or perhaps another, up a little closer to the sky.
The wind brought the same stories. The sharp scent of the foundry fires, fresh cut wood, someone cooking peppers in hot oil.
She could not see the work. Could not see her people atop the tower. But she knew they were there.
In time night wrapped itself around her. Zarai let the shadows take hold. She needed no candle, required no lamp or lantern. The noises changed, and the smells. An hour or two into the darkness, a large group climbed up the gantry.
No one came to her. No one called her. She was neither queen nor captain, Zarai realized. She was alone.
Nix would not have let it happen this way. That much she knew without thinking. He would have grinned and jollied and wheedled them all past Loxoda’s death and the loss of Gimel, then climbed into the sky with his bare hands, just to show everyone how it was done.
There would have been no conspiracy of silence, no preparing of a grounded ship.
He would have had his namesake on the cradle within days, while the grief was hot. Mannix would have carved open the sky in celebration.
With that thought she stood, took up a heavier coat, and made her way out and down to the main ladder of the gantry.
They were waiting for her. Almost the entire camp was crowded onto the second and third platforms. Hands reached out to touch her shoulders, stroke at her short-cropped hair, trail down her arm. It was as if Zarai herself were leaving again, passing through these knots of near-strangers. She did not smile, or even speak overmuch. Rather, she just nodded her regards, passed through them, and kept climbing until she reached the highest platform.
Neither a captain nor a queen, she thought. I am a woman who holds the words to a dream. That is all.
Eea met her at the highest step. The enkidu’s face was filled with a quiet, gentle sorrow.
“What is it?” Zarai asked. She received nothing but a headshake.
The Jade Abbot stood close to Daleth, peering into the open hatch. Ermine, Kii, Choi—all the rest were here. Despite her resolve that she was no queen, Zarai felt the stab of betrayal once more. “Who are you sending?” she demanded. “Why?”
Bo stepped close. The wind whistled cold and high. They were up here too late, Zarai knew it, the platform should already have been cleared. People could fall permanently deaf tonight. Somehow no one cared.
“We buried Loxoda,” she said, almost desperately. “What was left of her.”
A muffled voice echoed from Daleth‘s hatch. She stepped over as someone inside contorted almost impossibly to look out.
Mannix’s squat, ugly, beloved face stared out at her. “Well there, sweetness,” he said with a gapped grin. When had he lost that tooth? “Seems you built me a flying machine.”
Zarai didn’t know whether to hug him, scream or leap to her death.
“He insisted we not tell,” said Bo from her shoulder.
She looked at the Jade Abbot, who nodded slightly. He knew, had known even as they’d walked in the forest the night before. She looked down at Mannix again, unshed tears pooling behind her eyes until the night threatened to become nothing but a glinting smear of lantern-light and distant stars.
Finally Zarai choked out the words which threatened to lodge oh so fatally in her throat. “You came back and you didn’t tell me. After all I did, you came back. And you didn’t tell me.”
“I wanted to fly,” Nix replied. “And come down to you from the sky.”
She turned. “The rest of you let him?”
“I told them to,” the Jade Abbot said.
“So you are the captain and the king here.”
“He is the abbot,” Eea rumbled.
Another sharp shock of betrayal.
“I’ll fly, Sweetness, and return in light,” Nix said from behind her now. “Bring you back our love wrapped in the fire of morning.”
“The fire of morning damn well killed Loxoda!” Kii winced, but Zarai plunged onward. “I’m not going to let it take you from me again.” She spun around, and around once more. “Every single mother’s son and father’s daughter of you is getting off this platform right now. That goes double for you, Mannix the Missing. Off, off, off. Come morning we’ll bring Daleth down, and haul Mannix up.” She leaned over the hatch. “But first we’re renaming her Loxoda. Only room for one dead hero at a time in this camp.” Straightening back up, Zarai looked about, meeting every eye that would meet hers. Then: “Tomorrow night, we fly the ætheric vessel. I will command, Mannix will ride as observer. I will take Eea as crew second.”
“It wasn’t built for—” someone began, and was silenced with a swift jab of what was probably an elbow.
“Now get the blazes down from here before midnight comes to take us all!”
Much later that night she slept unalone for the first time in, well, a very long time. ‘Slept’ was perhaps not the word for it. Zarai grinned in the dark. Nix tucked under her arm, his free hand idly tracing the curve of her right breast. Her hips rolled in both recent memory and sharp anticipation.
“Where did you go?” she finally asked.
“Away,” he murmured. “Before I killed you.”
Zarai let the name fall as if it were her last breath. “Janton.” On the old pirates’ death her entire life had turned. She’d lost Indolent Climax because of that killing, traded in a life among women for the strange world of stranger men, and in time, Mannix. Then she’d lost even Nix.
Was the dead man somehow going to have his revenge a third time now?
The more difficult question. “Why did you come back?”
Now his voice was muffled by his mouth against her skin, as if he sought to inject the words directly into her body instead of risking them in open air and upon the doors of her ears. Still, she understood him well enough. “Rather love a living woman than a dead man.” He broke his lips away from her breast and tilted his neck back to look into her eyes. “I tried it the other way around. That was not so good.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling the whole burden of her years and that old, foolish murder she had never intended.
“When I came, they sent me to the abbot first. Once people understood who I was.” His arm circled her, drawing their bodies close. “Once I understood what you had done, all I could see was to fly, come back down from heaven, and earn your forgiveness.”
Zarai spluttered. “My forgiveness?”
“For leaving you.”
“For killing your lover,” she answered.
“Both our lives have been broken open and remade. And now you’ve built a bridge to the stars.” Nix shifted weight, sliding his body up until they could kiss. Between breaths, he added, “Together we shall go.”
Despite her fiercest captaining and queening, Loxoda took five days to prepare. The counterweighting and balance on the launch cradle required considerable adjustment, for a start. The team stayed with the gas propulsion, and allowed for multiple methods of return. They checked seals, drew and redrew course maps, walked Zarai, Eea and especially Mannix through the controls, the contingencies, the experience of testing on the ground, and Zarai’s own brief, terrifying flight.
This flight was set to be short as well, little longer than Gimel‘s passage on Zarai’s last launch, but she insisted they stock the ætheric vessel fully with food, water, tools and supplies.
“We’ll want to see how she flies with all her weight and balance. What comes loose when there is no ‘down’ up there.” That thought nearly cost Zarai her lunch. She pushed it, and the resulting nausea, aside.
Bo pulled her aside later that same day, in one of the rare moments that she and Nix were not together. “You are ready,” he said.
“My fear is gone.”
“You going to fly crazy?”
“What do you mean?”
The smith grinned, but she could see the fear in his eyes. “You going to come back?”
“Oh, Bo…” Zarai reached up to stroke his chin. “I will always come back.”
“With him beside you, maybe you don’t need to.”
She glanced over her shoulder. Nix was just outside the shed, looking over a piece of copper cladding in the hands of an artificer with a worried expression on her face.
“What I need, Bo,” Zarai said, then realized she could not complete the thought. The Jade Abbot had been right. She loved, and loved again. A person was only supposed to have one love. Everyone knew that. Just as Nix loved Janton enough to leave her, then loved her enough to betray Janton’s memory. Just as she’d known for months that Bo was hopelessly dedicated to her, but had never taken notice, because of what might have happened.
Nix might have come back.
And he had.
“What I need, Bo,” she said again, lying as graciously as she could for the sake of both their hearts, “what I need is to reach the sky. Whether or not I come back, build another, better vessel and follow me. Keeping following the dream, until we can see what each of those stars knows that we do not.”
“I need you to go,” he lied graciously in return.
Eea had been the first, and the enkidu would be the last. The evening they would launch, Zarai went walking with the laconic builder. They passed away from the camp and out into the cleared landing field. The bonfires stood ready to guide Loxoda home.
“I named you, but I did not ask you,” Zarai said.
The enkidu grunted softly, but made no other reply.
She persisted. “Would you go?”
“Would you have asked to go?”
“I thought not.” Zarai took a deep breath before plunging onward. “That is why I named you. You came before all others.”
“The Jade Abbot sent me.” Eea made it sound like an admission of guilt.
“That is almost the first thing you ever told me. He is behind much of this effort, I have come to understand.”
“You are behind it all.” A stout, sturdy loyalty trembled in the gravel of Eea’s voice.
“I am only a tool, my friend. A tool of Mannix’s dreams, and guilt. A tool of the Jade Abbot’s goals, whatever they may be. A tool of the vision shared by you all.”
This time Eea almost sobbed. “Who alone would build a ship to sail the sky?”
“Together,” Zarai said. “Together, and I have served us all. Are you sailing with me?”
One great, furred hand enclosed hers, much as she might enclose a fig within her own fist. “Yes.”
As they walked back into the camp, making their way toward the gantry, they found the Jade Abbot. “Why?” Zarai asked him.
“Because even heaven should have angels,” he replied as he handed her another fresh peach.
Shouting went up then, as they were swept away by Nix leading a rowdy party consisting of Bo, Choi, and a dozen foresters and artificers. It was time to climb to Loxoda and make their way into the midnight sky.
Whatever the abbot’s true reasoning, Zarai realized she could not know it now, and likely never would find out.
The ætheric vessel was much bigger than the test models, of course. So large that no one could fit on the platform except the launch master. Kii took over for Eea, while the three fliers climbed from the top of the stairs straight into their vessel. Bo waited behind them to seal the hatch properly.
The wind howled up here this night, snatching shouted instructions and goodwill and best wishes away with a universal abandon. They settled in to the interior, Zarai swallowing her fear. Nix hopped about like a gleeful child, while Eea just grinned his wide-jawed grin.
This time Zarai recalled her checklist. She strapped on her lined helmet, followed the steps she was supposed to follow, and kept an eye on the clock ticking just above the windows before her. Loxoda faced west, the view largely consisting of the top of the Earth’s gear ring because of how the vessel was tucked into the launch cradle.
The shaking came, then the noise came. Kii banged on the windows one last time. Zarai nodded and waited for the grab which would take them up into the night.
Nix was here. They would walk into heaven together, with no stupid arguments about who would live to mourn the other.
When the grab came, she forgot to be afraid. When the sound fell away to sane proportions, she forgot to be afraid. When she released them from the orbit ring and the down fell away, she forgot to be afraid.
Zarai turned to Nix. “We fly among the stars.”
He stared out the ports ahead, at the orbital ring looming close, the moon’s ring visible in the distance. Earth was falling away behind them.
“I’ll just set our course home, shall I?” Zarai asked coyly.
“Why not stay among the stars?” Nix breathed.
“We have the dragon gun,” rumbled Eea.
Poised between the past and the future, Zarai set her hand on the firing button with the course pre-sets already laid in, and wondered what she should do. Outside, the heavens beckoned.
She laughed, and made her choice.