Authors: Brenda Cooper
I blinked, looking more carefully. No thorns. No trip-vine had struggled to entangle my feet, nor insect bitten me. “It’s all a garden?”
“That’s one way to think of it.”
So complex. “Did it come from somewhere? The ideas or the plants or something? How does anyone get a whole ecosystem right?”
“They don’t always.”
“What about Silver’s Home? Is it made everywhere?”
“Mostly.” She stopped for a moment, looking around, and I imagined she was trying to see it all new, the way I saw it. She shook her head. “Silver’s Home had a natural ecosystem that man could live on with help, and so did Islas. But they’ve been remade. Silver’s Home gets redesigned all the time. Islas changes slowly and with great deliberation, and even has some places on it that haven’t ever been changed. Lopali and Paradise were built from moons, and then set into the best possible planetary orbits around their suns, and Joy Heaven was manufactured from nothing.”
Wow. As I looked around me, every flower and stone and bird looked and sounded perfect. By now, I’d decided the perch-trees weren’t natural, but I had thought everything else was. When Dianne paused for a moment, I bent down and plucked a fist-sized blue
flower and crushed its stem. It bled light green water onto my fingers. The petals bruised if I squeezed them. I brought the flower up near my nose, inhaling a faint, sweet scent.
Dianne raised an eyebrow.
“It’s as real as I am,” I said.
“Of course it is.” She appeared to be looking for something specific near the ground. Finally, beside three small stone sculptures of leaves, she turned down a thin dirt path. It wound through trees and ended at a wooden door to a smallish house that looked old. “Seeyan?” she called. “Are you here?”
The door opened almost immediately and a tall chestnut-haired beauty threw herself into Dianne’s arms. “You did come back.”
Dianne’s return hug was more reserved than Seeyan’s, but for just a second I thought I spotted a tear in Dianne’s eye. But then she blinked and turned away for a short moment, and the next sight she let me have of her face showed her usual control. She disentangled herself from the other woman’s arms, and I got my first good look at Seeyan. She had the broad shoulders and wide-set eyes of a flier, but no wings. Her eyes were a deep brown, with reddish glints that matched her hair. Unlike everyone at the feast last night, she was dressed simply, in a loose flowing dress of pale green. She gave me a little bow, and said, “Pleased to meet you, Chelo. I’m Seeyan.”
I tensed for a second, then held out my hand. It wasn’t her fault she’d heard of me. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Would you come in?” she asked.
Dianne glanced at me, her eyes encouraging me to accept Seeyan’s invitation. Why not? If the children needed anything, Kayleen or Liam could manage for a bit. “I’d be happy to.”
Inside, the house was small, essentially three rooms: a bathroom, a large kitchen, and a single room that seemed to serve as bedroom and living room and study all at once. Plants and leaves hung from the ceiling in the kitchen in small bunches, drying, but still filling the air with pale, savory scents. Paloma would have a hundred questions for her, and I immediately made a note to myself to try and bring her here. This small place looked and felt more like home than anywhere I’d been on Lopali so far, and maybe it would help Paloma feel less
lost. Was that why Dianne had brought me here? Because it was like home?
Seeyan offered to make us tea. When we nodded, she looked pleased, and clipped bits of the hanging herbs and placed them in mesh bags. The bags went into cups shaped like flowers, and she poured water into the cups with a ritualistic grace.
Even though I’d have sworn she poured in cold water, the cup was warm to the touch when Seeyan handed it to me, and then moments later it was so hot I set it down on the table.
As soon as we were all seated, Dianne looked at Seeyan. “Can you please tell Chelo your story, like you told it to me?”
Seeyan looked out of the window, then down at the table for a moment, then back at Dianne. “Will it help?”
“Perhaps. Chelo will be helping her brother.”
“I will.” Seeyan dropped her gaze to her slender hands and took a deep breath. Dianne leaned back, looking relaxed, watching us both. Seeyan started talking, her voice soft and her words slow in coming. “The first thing I remember is waking up inside a big space with tall walls and a high ceiling and a floor painted green. A woman held up a mirror, and I could see myself. I was a little girl, and I had wings on my back.”
She stopped and smiled at me, watching for a reaction. “Go on,” I said. “I’d like to hear.”
“My wings were a soft yellow, with brown on the ends and a red stripe. Even to this day, I haven’t seen any adult fliers like me. After a while, there was also a little boy with the same wings, and they called us brother and sister.” She sipped her tea, gazing through me as if I weren’t even there. One side of her mouth quirked up. “His name was Will, and he and I learned to open our wings and fan them and to jump up and start flying together. We learned this in a big cage on a ship. I didn’t know it was a ship then, or that there were fifty other flier children on board.
“Will and my teacher, Siona, were the only people I ever saw. And since I didn’t like Siona, Will was my only friend. We talked to each other almost all the time, and we shared the same locked-up bedroom, and since that was all we knew it didn’t seem strange at all.” She looked at me, as if shy for a reaction.
I smiled, hoping it would encourage her.
Dianne gave her a go-on gesture, hurrying her back into her story.
Seeyan’s words came faster. “Eventually, Will and I could both jump up inside the ship and fly around, almost to the ceiling. Siona was pleased. One day, she took us into a different cage—a big open cylinder with dirt on the bottom and some trees. She told us it was a park, and invited us to fly.
She smiled wistfully.
“The park was a beautiful flyspace, with more open air than we’d ever seen. I soared and banked and turned, and I loved the wind against my wings. It was hard—and my wings and back hurt after each flight. For six weeks we went there every day and flew, just me and Will. And after every flight, Siona rubbed ointment into our long wing bones. She tugged and twisted our wings and shoulders, hurting us, all the time whispering she was helping us fly.
“Will had more trouble than I did. His body was heavier than mine, and his wings were the same size, so he sank when I glided, and he couldn’t follow me all the way to the top. Siona saw this, and she promised he would get stronger as he got older, and we’d both be able to fly as high as we wanted.”
She paused and sipped her tea, and her gaze fastened somewhere through the window. She took three deep breaths before she started again. “They started changing the conditions on us, making us heavier. I didn’t know it then, but we had started flying in almost no gravity. They began adding and adding, with the idea that we would be strong enough to fly here by the time the transport ship arrived.
“But we were only halfway when Will fell out of the sky one day. He just fell.” She swallowed and licked her lips. “One of his wings broke.” She pointed to a picture on the wall of a flier with widespread wings, and touched a place halfway along one broad wing. “I could still hear him screaming as he went down, and worse, his silence when he landed.”
She fell quiet and I imagined her hearing her brother’s screams again.
“I never saw him again. I asked, and I cried, but Siona would never answer me.”
I wanted to strangle Siona. Maybe I’d get to meet her some day.
“After that, I was afraid to fly. Siona was gentle with me at first, but I kept seeing Will fall. I knew that if I flew, I’d die, too. I thought maybe if I fell and my wings were cut off, I’d find Will.”
“Did you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Of course not. I know the statistics now. There were fifty of us on that ship. Every one of us cost the families who wanted us over two years of work. Flier families chose us before we were born, even helped choose traits like hair color and eye color and the tint of our wings. Of the fifty that were made, twenty are fliers now, seven are like me, and twenty-three died.”
I’d heard about the death rate; Seeyan’s story made it real.
“Will and I had been meant to be brother and sister to a family that lives in Oshai, near the spaceport. I see them sometimes, and I want to cry every time I do.”
“So Will died?” I asked her, imagining Joseph dead.
She nodded and got up to get more water for her tea. In spite of how I could see that telling her story affected her by the look in her eyes and hear it in the cadence of her voice, there was an ethereal grace to her movements.
“So what do you do now?”
She smiled. “What they tell me to. I’m a Keeper. That means I get to live here, and watch over the land between me and the next Keeper’s plotline. It’s about as far as I can walk for two hours in every direction except the town.”
“What do you watch for?”
She frowned. “Death. Imbalances. Unwanted evolution. A plant that grows too fast, or too slow, too high or too wide. Keepers also manage the aesthetics of plant and stone—what is placed next to what.” Again, she looked out the window. “I’m not a very important Keeper yet and this is only a small plot meant for people like me, and not for spiritual growth, except in the way that all things are for truth. It’s a garden of the town, not a garden of the soul.”
I wondered what a garden of the soul looked like.
“If I become accomplished, I might get to work in the gardens we make for visitors.”
“Do you like being a Keeper?”
She shrugged. “All fliers live with few choices. It would be easier if I could also fly.”
“Well, I can’t fly either, so you’re no more failed than me.”
“How old are you?”
Dianne interrupted me. “It’s a rude question.”
“No,” Seeyan said, “I’ll answer. I’m only twenty-five. People like me, well, we only live to be thirty or forty. Our bodies were meant for wings.”
wenty minutes later, Dianne and I were on our way back. I understood why she brought me to Seeyan. How could I help but want Joseph to succeed now? Not that it would actually help Seeyan. But she was a pseudo-slave the way we had been once, except she was enslaved for lack of abilities, while we’d been in trouble for having too many.
“I like her,” I told Dianne. “But why won’t she live longer?”
“Fliers have a faster metabolism than most people. Even with the nanotechnology and drugs that they need to stay healthy, they don’t live as long as the rest of us can.”
The implication soured my stomach. “So they don’t give their own failed children the tools for a long life?”
“No.” The set of her jaw told me she approved of the situation as much as I did.
But I did like Seeyan, particularly her grace and fluidity. “Can I go back there sometime? I can find my way.”
“If we have enough time here.”
“Why wouldn’t we have time?”
“The Port Authority is looking for us. The Star Mercenaries may look for us. Someday, we’ll be found.”
“And then what?”
“Then we go someplace else.”
I want my children to grow up under a sky.
The sun warmed everything now, the colors of full morning golder than back home. Even though everything around me had been manufactured and placed, I looked for small senses of the wild, and found them. We passed through copses of trees, bright wildflower
meadows, each with a stream, and back into trees. Sometimes blue flowers stuck up from fields of red, or one plant waved above my head while the others like it grew to my elbows.
Far above, fliers flashed by and, closer to the ground, a flock of small bright songbirds with blue heads and green wings flickered from tree to tree.
In front of me, Dianne gasped and stopped, her back rigid. I stopped, too.
Just ahead of us both, a flier blocked the path. I didn’t recall seeing him at the feast, but we had seen hundreds. His wings were an iridescent, shining black, his eyes as dark. He wore plain black boots over his long feet instead of the usual jeweled creations. His hair was short and simple, too, and his only jewelry was a band of blue leather around his neck, with a small, single pale blue feather hanging from it. His luck?
He stepped forward and spoke over Dianne’s shoulder, addressing me. “Chelo. It’s not safe to wander the side roads here with the riffraff.”
Dianne tensed, but said nothing.
He didn’t like Dianne because she was Islan? “Dianne is my friend. She left Islas.”
His lips thinned, and puzzlement covered his face before disappearing back into the haughty look. He hadn’t meant Dianne at all, but Seeyan. After a moment he nodded. “Well enough said. But out here, not everyone is friendly to us, which means they are no friend of yours. You are,” he hesitated for a fraction of a second, “encouraged to stay in the gold guest house, in the area around it, in the city center, and wherever your brother goes.”
“Encouraged” was not exactly a rule. I chewed on my upper lip for a moment. He stood taller than even Dianne, but would be no match for me on the ground. I would never have to match him in the air. So which choice? Stand down, and set him up as a keeper of mine, or risk angering someone of rank? I usually liked the middle, but there wasn’t a clear one. Dianne drew in a breath and I spoke before she could speak. “Thank you for your kind consideration. I have enjoyed my morning walk, and I find Lopali to be very beautiful.”
His body language did not relax.
“You know my name. I don’t have that advantage.”
He hesitated, and then said, “I’m glad you find it to your liking here. Just remember that a pretty façade can hide dangers. Not everyone wants you to fix what you came here to fix. I am speaking for your safety.”
He lifted his wings, and just before he crouched and drew them down to take off, he said, “I am a protector.”
Protecting us from? The wind of his wings in my face was warm.