Authors: Emily Thompson
The moonship carried them high into the still night air. Twist felt a jolt of anxiety from being in the sky again, so soon after the crash, but he did his best to soothe it. The more pressing issue was the identity of their mysterious captors; had they somehow sent the thunderstorm to attack Twist and his companions, as Jonas had suggested? Or were these people unrelated to that business at all? Why did they hide themselves in shadow? Would they do anything to help Ted, or to heal the wounds that Twist and the others had sustained? Or were they all being taken to slavery or slaughter?
Twist dropped his head into his hand and sighed under the oppressive weight of his own fearful thoughts. Without taking off his goggles, Jonas reached out and patted Twist gently on the shoulder. The fog in the touch was silvery instead of white, and edged with cold unease, but the cool, billowing, calm mist still managed to soothe Twist's spirit. Twist glanced up to his friend's face, but found no signs of pity in his placid expression. He found no dread either. Somehow, knowing that Jonas wasn't ready to panic yet gave Twist a little more courage. Twist glanced over the others around him and found them all silent and still. In the dim glow from Niko's little ball of light, everyone looked tattered and fragile.
“Well...” Myra said suddenly, with forced brightness. “At least we're all together.” She took Twist's hand, spilling unease over his Sight despite the brave smile she gave him.
“For now,” Jonas grumbled. Myra shot him an ungrateful look.
“Don't give up yet, sonny,” Steve muttered darkly.
“Sonny?” Jonas snapped back.
“The day you stop trying to survive is the day you die,” Steve said gravely. Twist frowned, confused by the curiously circular statement.
Not bothering himself with the others' conversations, Niko was looking out one of the slits at the side of the ship, watching the desert glide by below. “Well, looks like we're not going to town,” he said with a sigh.
Twist leaned closer to the slit nearest him and looked out to see that they had climbed nearly a mile in the night sky. A small, dusty-looking town lay in the otherwise empty desert like a tiny island of humanity in an ocean of wilderness. Dim candle and gaslight betrayed the rough shapes of shacks and simple buildings, with no obvious train tracks or airship docks in sight. Twist wondered how much help he and his companions would have found if they hadn't been picked up by the moonship.
“Where the hell are they taking us?” Steve asked, watching the town slip away behind them. “Who are these people? What do they want from us?”
“Calm down,” Jonas said softly.
“Calm down?” Steven growled. “We've just been captured by space aliens!”
“No, they're human,” Tasha said gently.
“And they can hear us,” Niko hissed at him, his blue eyes almost luminous in the dimness.
Steve glared at the woven ceiling above his head and grumbled something rude to himself. “I don't know about you,” he said, his voice low now, “but I'm coming out of this ship swinging.”
“That's not a great plan,” Jonas said, frowning.
“Oh yeah?” Steve asked acidly. “Why not? Because you'd rather just lie down and die?”
“Because there's no telling what will be out there when we land,” Jonas said with measured patience. “There could be an army waiting for us. We could find ourselves outnumbered and vastly outgunned. If you just tear out like a mad dog, they might put you down like one.”
Twist smiled, indulging a moment of pride in his friend's wisdom.
“Oh.” Steve's anger seemed to chill as he fell quiet. “But who are they? What did we ever do to them?”
Jonas slipped his goggles up to his brow and peered out through the nearest slit, apparently removing himself from any more of the conversation.
“We won't know anything more until we land,” Tasha said to Steve.
“I'm not sure we're going to land, actually,” Jonas said, now staring wide-eyed at a point in the sky ahead of the moonship. Everyone instantly moved to look as well.
“I just see stars,” Niko said, echoing Twist's confusion. “What do you see?” he asked Tasha.
Tasha squinted into the darkness. “I see … the wrong stars. Those shouldn't be there. It's the wrong time of year.”
Twist stared out, not detecting anything amiss whatsoever with the empty night sky.
“Just wait,” Jonas said, smiling now. “You'll see.”
Twist watched the stars shine gently, unsure what to expect, as the moonship continued to climb and glide. Suddenly, the image of the sky itself rippled like the disturbed surface of a lake, and fell away around them as if they were passing through the invisible edge of an enormous soap bubble. Beyond the indistinct membrane lay the last thing in the world Twist would have imagined.
A good-sized village made of small huts nestled together on the edge of a misty, white surface that looked for all the world like a cloud. Cheerful campfires burned here and there, lighting both the silvery mist of the cloud and the busy people who walked atop it as if it were solid. In the distance, wide patches of the mists were covered with a multitude of cultivated plants growing in neat rows. More airships hung at the soft edges of the mists: some were as blue as a midday sky, some black and flecked with brightly glowing stars, and three others looked like the other three phases of the moon.
Twist could do nothing but gape dumbly at the bustling village that rested so peacefully on the top of a cloud, hanging in the field of silver stars, nearly a mile off the desert floor. Jonas laughed lightly and continued to stare on, unfazed.
“Told you it was worth the suspense,” Jonas said smugly.
“Maybe I didn't survive the crash,” Steve said slowly, still obviously working through his thoughts. “And my afterlife is just really, really bizarre.”
“Whatever makes you feel better,” Tasha told him, giving his arm an encouraging pat.
“Oh, it's so pretty!” Myra cooed happily. Twist looked to her, amazed to find no trace of fear left on her face.
Twist looked back to see that the moonship was now gliding over the village. Easily hundreds of people moved through the space, dressed in a variety of animal skins and hand-woven cloth, accented with colorful paint, beads, and speckled feathers that they'd tied into their dark hair. On second glance, however, Twist noticed that he only saw women, older men, and children in the crowd. The male population seemed to be almost totally absent. As Twist marveled at this oddity, he also noticed that most of the people below didn't even glance up at the spectacle of the wayward moon. The moonship slowed as it approached what clearly seemed to be some kind of crude pen that stood in a clearing in the center of the village.
“What is that?” Steve asked darkly.
“They're going to lock us up for now,” Jonas said, a cold unshakeablity to his voice as he looked out through the slit with uncovered eyes. Twist thought that this tone might be the result of a vision, but decided not to ask in front of the others.
The moonship came to a stop, floating only a few feet over the misty cloud surface of the clearing, above the center of the pen. Twist heard the sound of some kind of order from the people above them on the airship. An instant later, the bottom of the basket opened along the wooden beams, like the petals of a flower. Everyone let out startled sounds as they fell out in one mass. Twist had only an instant to look down at the soft white cloud and realize that he was about to plummet a mile through the open air below, to his most certain death.
He landed face-first in the surprisingly solid but still gently elastic surface of the cloud. Stunned, he pushed himself up on his hands to find that the cool, misty, cloud continued to hold him aloft. The others righted themselves and clambered to their feet more quickly. Jonas reached down to haul Twist up onto his feet and away from the others, as the bottom of the moonship closed above them and the ship began to move off. Twist looked around to find he and his friends now surrounded by a lattice of thin branches that had been tied together into the shape of a circle, standing about six feet high on all sides.
Though there were gaps between all of the branches, none were large enough for even a small child to get through. There were four large sections of latticed branches that hung outward from the top edge of the wall at even distances. Women approached the pen almost instantly after the moonship had dropped its cargo, all of them walking over the cloud surface with ease, and silently began to push the four leaves up and over their captives to create a secure ceiling for the pen. While Twist watched himself become fully trapped, all of the others moved to speak and plead with the women outside.
“We've done nothing to you!” Tasha cooed.
“Cut that out, you savages!” Steve bellowed, climbing up one side of the wall to try and push the cover away.
“Stop, please!” Myra pleaded. “Let us out!”
“We have an injured man, here!” Tasha said desperately.
“Who the hell do you think you are!?” Jonas spat acidly. “We're not animals!”
Niko stared at one woman through the bars of their cage with such intensity that she visibly flinched when their eyes met. Rather than give them any aid, however, the women all remained silent and then returned to their business in the surrounding village. Niko gave an indignant huff and moved to stand beside Twist near the center of the pen—his arms crossed and his brilliant blue eyes smoldering—while the others continued to protest uselessly to anyone who happened to move by outside.
“You know,” Niko said to Twist, “this year was supposed to be a vacation for me. My university studies were growing stressful, my family...” he stopped short, an exasperated expression wafting over his face as he shook his head. “I thought, sure: a year traveling around the world with a charming magician who tells me daily that I'm brilliant. That's just what I need. A vacation from my whole life for one little year. And just look at all the trouble it's caused. Here I am, about to be scalped or eaten or enslaved or whatever by a load of Indians in the middle of American nowhere.”
Twist watched this unexpected display of candor with quiet fascination, until he realized that Niko seemed to have finished. Perhaps he should think of something supportive to say. “Well,” Twist began, unsure. “Assuming we survive this little episode, it will certainly make a good story one day.”
Niko gave him a skeptical look.
“I'm sorry,” Twist sighed. “I'm not very good at conversation...”
Niko shook his head, a light smile creeping onto his face.
Once it was clear that a successful escape wouldn't be likely until the milling masses in the village around them went to sleep, and that there didn't appear to be any immediate danger facing them, everyone inside the pen began to relax somewhat. Myra took her shoes off to step gingerly about on the silver surface of the cloud, her movements making Twist think of a young doe in a dew-speckled meadow.
“This is delightful!” she beamed, swirling a bit of mist with her copper toes.
“How are we not falling through this stuff?” Steve asked, stomping at a patch of cloud. “I thought that in order to fly, you had to think happy thoughts or something. Or maybe that you aren't supposed to look down.”
“I don't think we're flying, exactly,” Tasha said, staring at her mist-shrouded feet with an uncharacteristically puzzled expression.
“I once read,” Niko supplied thoughtfully, “that if you are trying to fly, the best thing to do is to throw yourself at the ground, and then miss.”
“That sounds entirely silly,” Tasha said. “Where did you read that?”
“It was in a very silly novel,” Niko said with a shrug. “But you have to admit that the theoretical logic is sound.”
“But we're not flying,” Jonas said, crouching down to prod the cloud with a finger as he looked at the mist with curious green eyes. “We're just not falling.”
“Can we please stop talking about falling?” Twist muttered, rubbing at his brow and trying not to panic.
Jonas gave a quiet sigh as he stood and moved closer to Twist, putting a hand on his shoulder. The chilly fog in his touch cooled Twist's fears instantly, giving him just enough clarity to turn his thoughts away from his present altitude. Twist took the peace in on a long breath and gave Jonas a grateful nod. Jonas offered a smile before he took his hand back. The moment the contact was broken, however, Twist's exhausted senses filled with his forgotten fatigue. His limbs, back, and neck all began to ache once again as the adrenaline faded. Twist let out a low groan as he awkwardly dropped down to his knees.
“Darling?” Myra gasped, rushing to his side. “Oh, you're still hurt...”
“I'm all right,” Twist muttered as the others turned to him as well. He sat himself down on the mist and tried to focus on anything but the dull ache. “I'm just tired...”
“Is there a doctor in this village?” Steve asked, glancing down to Ted. His limp form had tumbled out of the moonship along with everyone else and their luggage. They had arranged him in a more dignified position, but while he was still breathing steadily, he showed no signs of regaining consciousness any time soon.
Before anyone could answer Steve's question, a sudden, horrified scream tore through the air, startling everyone inside and outside the pen, alike. Twist looked up to see a boy—maybe nine or ten years old—standing at the village's edge, staring at the pen with astonished dismay. Twist stared at the child in bewilderment. He appeared to be the same race as the others in the village, with softly brown, coppery skin and features that matched the others, but his short hair was a bright, snowy white. Unlike the others, his clothes looked nearly western in cut, though they were made of hand-woven cloth like everyone else's.
But there was no way that his eyes were really that color. Twist rubbed his own eyes, wondering if there was something wrong with his vision.
“Jonas!?” the boy bellowed, hurrying toward the walls of the pen. “No, no, no... It can't be you! It can't!” The boy screamed in a clearly American accent. Jonas gaped at the child in obvious confusion—his eyes moving over the boy quickly but staying clear of his eyes. Twist blinked a few times and looked again at the boy's eyes. No, surely they couldn't really be that color. “You've got to get out of here!” the boy continued frantically, rushing to one side of the pen, where a crude-looking latch held a small door closed.
“Yes, thank you!” Steve said instantly.
“But who are you?” Jonas asked the boy. “How do you know my name?”
“Damn it!” the boy spat at the latch that refused to open under his efforts. “I'll have to go get my mom. Hang on a second, okay?”
“Your mom?” Steve echoed uncertainly. As the boy began to turn away, his gaze fell on another occupant of the pen.
“Myra!” the boy gasped, rushing closer to her and clinging to the branches of the pen. “Of course, you had to be with—” His rapid words halted as he looked quickly over everyone else inside the pen. His eyes were pink—a rich, sweet, inhuman pink. Twist shook his head. The white hair was bad enough, but the child possessed brilliantly, impossibly pink eyes.
“Do you know this kid?” Jonas asked Myra.
“I don't think so...” she said, looking at the boy curiously.
“Where is he?” the boy asked, pure terror bringing tears to the edges of his pink eyes. “Jon, where is Twist?”
“What?” Twist snapped instantly.
“Kid, you're not making any sense—” Jonas began, beginning to lose patience.
“No, no, no...” the boy moaned, clutching desperately at the tied branches as his tears began to roll. “Twist had to survive. He just had to! Jon, where is he?”
“I'm right here,” Twist muttered uneasily. The boy, however, didn't seem to hear him and continued to stare at Jonas through his dripping, pink eyes.
“Twist is right here,” Myra said, putting a hand on Twist's shoulder as she spoke gently to the boy.
“What?” the boy gasped, looking to her with hollow hope. “Where?”
“Oh, for heaven's sake...” Twist grumbled. “Hello? Can you hear me now?” he called loudly as he waved a hand wildly at the boy.
Twist paused as he realized that boy still didn't seem to see or hear him at all. The child's ridiculous pink gaze moved over the space all around Myra without once falling on Twist.
“Am I invisible?” Twist asked the others angrily. “Hello, can anyone see me?”
“Knock it off,” Jonas snapped. “Of course you're not invisible. The kid's mental.”
“Oh!” the boy gasped, relief washing over his small form in an instant. “Of course! I'm so stupid. He's got the pocket watch. Of course I can't see him.” While the others stared at him in bewilderment and alarm, the boy let out a light, tension-breaking laugh.
“Tasha?” Jonas asked with a sigh. “You're good at seeing things clearly. What the bloody hell is going on here?”
“He probably has some kind of Sight,” she answered thoughtfully. “But I can't work out how he knows you three while you clearly don't know him. Maybe he can read minds.”
“Can we get back to the fact that the kid wants to free us?” Steve asked.
“Oh right!” the boy gasped. “Just wait right there. I'll go get my mom!” he called to them, already hurrying off.
Jonas looked to Twist with uneasy gray eyes. “What the devil is going on?”
“If you're asking me,” Twist said with a sigh, “then I'm afraid you're in serious trouble, old boy. I can't understand the world on the normal days.”