Authors: Brenda Cooper
“After they failed?” Alicia asked. “It looks like they succeeded to me.”
Marcus stopped in front of her. “If they’d succeeded, the fliers would be able to have babies, and humans everywhere could fly if they wanted to.”
“Wow,” she said. “That would be great.”
“But they failed, and yet they became rich because they failed. Generations ago, they gave up even trying to succeed anymore. They charge the fliers a lot to give them children, which are really just new, young, fliers. There is no real genetic link to the parents.” Marcus’s tone was tinged with scorn. Once, I had stood by Jenna when she lectured Alicia and Bryan and me about how unfair the fliers had it.
The look on Paloma’s face said she might get sick, and Chelo looked green. Alicia was curious; Bryan showed no emotion at all, which meant he was still thinking about it, and given the situation, probably seething inside. Whoever designed us made us so injustice drove us nuts.
As Marcus told the tale, I watched Chelo’s face. When he said, “Over half of flier children die before they reach puberty,” her mouth thinned into a small line, and she narrowed her eyes and then raised her hand. He waved her hand down. “Some live, and stay in town. You’ll see them.” He grimaced. “It is unfair. But fliers are prized for their beauty and grace, and Lopali is a spiritual haven. People come here to meditate, to fly, and to learn to balance joy and
sorrow like the fliers. For that, a high price has been accepted. Death of the fliers’ children, and early death as well—the oldest fliers are only a few hundred years old.” He sounded proud. “Finally, the fliers want to change their situation, stop being at everyone else’s mercy.”
I suspected he had something to do with their new attitude.
“They can’t keep killing children!” Chelo hugged the two children overtightly to her chest.
“Shhhh . . . I agree with you. That’s why we’re here. They want Joseph to help them create their own children.”
“It will be a test for Joseph.” He caught my eye and grinned at me, then added, “I’ll help.”
“You’d better.” What did I know about creating fliers? The last day Marcus had talked about my ability to create the way he could, he was teasing me about almost killing simple plants.
Alicia stopped pacing and stood near me again, facing Marcus. “Why Joseph? Why not you? He has no experience in genetics.”
Actually, I had a little.
“It’s got to be hard!” she said.
Marcus laughed. “I just told you I’d help. There are two reasons. Joseph is stronger than me, and he can hold more data than I can. And you’re right, this will be . . . a challenge. Kayleen will also help. So will the fliers’ own geneticists here.”
Alicia looked even less happy.
Jenna’s voice sounded biting. “Silver’s Home likes their power over Lopali.”
“You mean the Wingmakers,” Tiala clarified.
“It is the same thing,” Dianne broke in, uncharacteristically animated. “The Wingmakers have too much power and are allied with those who make ships and gain from war. Which is why Lopali stays neutral. They won’t side with Silver’s Home while they’re enslaved by your people. We’ve agreed to set them free.”
“Not my people,” Tiala retorted, giving Dianne a sharp look.
Liam frowned. “What’s to keep them from going to Islas if we free them?”
Dianne said, “Fliers hate control. Islas is the essence of control,
and the fliers shouldn’t join them. But you’re right. No outcome is certain. Maybe they’ll stay neutral.”
“I wouldn’t blame them,” Alicia asserted.
“Is that bad?” Chelo asked.
“We need their fleet,” Marcus said, resuming his pacing. “Islas is more war-ready than Silver’s Home, and Lopali has agile ships.”
Chelo still looked puzzled. “Do we have permission from Silver’s Home? To do this?”
Marcus’s laugh suggested that time would run backward first. “Neither the Planetary Police nor the Port Authority owns the fliers’ genetics. And yes, powerful people want to stop us. That’s where the bounty came from. But we’re doing the right thing.”
Chelo sighed. “Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
I noticed he hadn’t named our enemies.
“Agreed.” Marcus stood, and motioned for Alicia to sit down. She did, as close as she could, leaning back into me, warm but still quivery with excitement.
Marcus cleared his throat. “We’ll leave for town soon. Take everything you brought with you.” He grinned. “And be sure to have easy access to your best clothes. We’ll be going to a formal event, and while we’ll look shabby beside the fliers, we should look our best.” He clapped his hands and everyone scattered to get their gear.
Alicia went with me. She and I shared a cabin. We’d both already packed, so I pulled her down next to me on the single bed, breathing in the sweet salty scent of her. She reached a hand up and stroked my face, tracing the outline of my nose and jaw and forehead. “Can you imagine flying?”
A risk-taker’s heaven—flight on a new planet. “I guess—sure. I’d like to try it. But I already fly ships—so I guess I feel like I know how to fly.”
“Silly. With wings of your own. Can you imagine being so beautiful?”
I shook my head. “Maybe with the wings they’ve made for people. But I’ve heard over and over that humans who try to become fliers as adults die. A lot of them, anyway. It changes everything about you.” And suddenly I knew that was really what she meant, that
she wanted to sprout wings and be free. A shock of fear for her made my hands shake. “Don’t do it. I couldn’t bear to watch you die.”
“But imagine me with wings.”
She was more beautiful than any of the fliers. “You have everything I need.” I touched her face and then her breast and belly. “You’re perfect.”
She rolled over to face me. “If you can truly help the fliers have children, then you can help me fly.”
I swallowed. “I can’t even do the first thing. And I won’t risk losing you trying the second.” Maybe no one would help her. I certainly wouldn’t. Could I keep her from trying? Might as well force the wind not to blow. “Promise me you won’t try to make me do this, and you won’t try it on your own. Settle for flying with the kind of wings you can take off afterward.”
She said nothing.
“I love you. I even love the way you take risks. But this is too big. Promise?”
She pursed her lips. “I’ll promise until we understand what all the options are. But I won’t promise anything to anyone forever.”
“Thank you.” I brought her to me and kissed her. Maybe she’d like fake wings well enough. Maybe she’d find something else to want more. Maybe the wind would stop forever.
At least, when she kissed me back she was greedy for my touch. She might want to fly, but she still wanted me, too. She tasted of chocolate col and ship’s air and salt, and she fit perfectly in my arms.
’d seen Chelo’s dance through the viewscreen, and after I walked out from the ship into a sky for the first time in years, I understood it. Lopali smelled of rain and life and death and rebirth. It smelled like the windborn scents of fecund flowers and the sweat of a real climate. Even though it didn’t smell like Fremont, it smelled like home.
Belongings in hand, we stood at the edge of the road, waiting with a few of the crew from the
. A big, slow-wheeled vehicle stopped and picked us up, filling to cramped once you counted us and the crew and all the stuff. The cargo carrier was simple; wheels
and a flat surface, the whole thing made of shiny ship’s silver, and thus unscratched. Rows of seats looked out in all directions, and a tarp covered them all, shading us from the sun. In the middle, a raised cage held our stuff, the boxes and duffels rattling together and the wheels bumping along. Whatever propelled us was, however, as silent as a starship.
We drove slowly through a patchwork of fields: grains, vegetables, and some fallow, but all neat and tidy. Every once in a while, another wheeled cargo carrier of some kind passed us, and once we passed a small cart. Occasionally, a group of fliers passed by overhead, paying no attention to the ground. Chelo leaned over near me and said, “That’s why no skimmers. So they don’t hit any fliers.”
She was probably right. A scattering of low-to medium-sized buildings grew in size, and we turned onto a road that circled them. Twice, the vehicle stopped and people clambered off, walking toward the center of the circle. The third time we stopped, Marcus gestured us all off. “We’re here. Follow me.”
The one common thing about ship’s quarters is they’re small. My body had been cramped into tiny beds forever. As much as I love ships and flying, I felt happy as Marcus led us unerringly to a tall house with big windows and long balconies. Inside, half the building was open air with high ceilings. The walls cupped at least four stories of stepped rooms and hallways and living spaces, like blocks stacked artfully inside a much bigger room. The wide stairs had low handrails. Most floors and doors and window-work looked like wood, with some smoother substance painted on the walls. The gold guest house wasn’t gold, except for the roof. Inside, the ceilings were sky blue, the walls off-white, and the floors brown and tan, all of the colors muted and restful.
Alicia stopped right behind me in the doorway, blocking Dianne and Ming so they frowned at her. She looked reverent. “It was designed for fliers.”
Easy to see she was right. “But the furniture will fit regular people.” For example, the kitchen table, which was in front of us, had normal chairs that made no provision for sweeping wings.
Alicia took a deep breath. “It smells good. Like garden and fresh air and wood.”
“Go on.” Ming’s voice was edged with irritation. “Don’t block the door all day.”
“Oh, sorry.” Alicia sounded as distracted as Ming sounded driven.
I took her by the arm. “Come on, let’s choose a room.”
“I want a window.”
“Fine.” And so we ended up with the top room, which would take the longest to get to and from, and be the most awkward for taking Sasha out in the middle of the night. It had a floor-to-ceiling window, twice as tall as we stood. Maybe Alicia would feel more like a bird here. The bedroom had a door that closed, but the sitting room beside it was so open a flier could probably just land in it.
When we got behind the closed door, I nuzzled the back of Alicia’s neck, but she just made a little mock-moan and started unpacking. So I settled for watching her get dressed in midnight blue leggings with a silver shirt I’d never seen before. It appeared to be shot through with multicolored threads, and I realized they were data receivers like the physical data threads I’d needed earlier in my life. The material felt soft and pliable under my fingers, but strong, so it would take a knife blade to rip.
“I got it while you were with Marcus.” A slight sadness crept over her face. “The threads are just decorative. They’d work at home, but not here.”
“It looks good on you.”
I picked my blue captain’s coat, even though it was a little worse for wear. It would be nice to complement each other.
n hour later, Marcus led us, now clean and well-dressed, into the late afternoon brightness. We headed through wide streets toward a park in the center of town. Or maybe it
the town. We passed dwellings fit for regular humans or fliers on the way in, and approached a grassy area that had clearly been designed for fliers. Trees like the ones at the edge of the field near the spaceport ringed the area, for defense or privacy or maybe even convenience, since fliers sat on them here and there, deep in conversation. I touched a
copper-brown trunk as we passed in under an archway, and found it hard, and oddly warm. Engineered living thing or simply made thing? I couldn’t tell. Because Marcus had asked me to, I kept myself too tightly shielded to read its data signature.
Through the archway, perches and sculptures designed for fliers to rest on lay scattered about. Even though their bodies were our size, or at most a head or two taller, the fliers took up far more space, needing room above and below for their wings to rest, and at the side to spread them. If this was their home, it was big and open and roomy, but not very private.
Marcus hadn’t exaggerated their finery. As he led us, weaving toward the center of the gathering place, Alicia and I gaped at the jewels and glittering robes all around us. Green and gold ribbons. Blue ribbons. About half had long hair braided with more ribbon and beads and various charms, and the other half had short hair, probably in both cases to keep it from covering their eyes when they flew. Up close, their wings were even more varied in color and shape than they had appeared when in the air, some nearly translucent and others thick and dark, almost oily looking.
Apparently the people who designed them experimented regularly. The thought made me stiff with anger, but I hid it as well as I could. Beauty and freedom were not the same thing.
The air smelled like water and nuts and the thick perfume of flowers, which grew or stood in vases in every direction. The fliers seemed obsessed with flowers.
Caro raced up to a man with iridescent green wings, and he shook them softly, so that a small feather fell out, just the size of a child’s fingers. He smiled as Caro picked it up and clutched it to her chest. It was thin and fine, fluffy, and certainly nothing like the long pinion Matriana had so reverently handed to Marcus. But all the same, maybe it would bring Caro luck.
Although a few fliers sat silently, probably linked into data given the vaguely vacant looks on their faces, most were engaged in animated conversations. When we came close, their melodic voices fell and slowed, and they watched us with curious eyes and hopeful faces. I remembered the fliers I’d seen walking free on Silver’s Home. People had flowed around them as if they were rocks, with no real
acknowledgement of the stiff-gaited beings with the beautiful faces wearing sour, pained expressions. Seeing those unfortunate beings had in no way prepared me for Lopali.
Here, in this place they were meant for, the fliers looked more like the joyful statue we’d seen in the memory garden near the spaceport at Li, the day I first met my father. Alicia clutched my hand as we walked, but said little. Her eyes were wide, and I hoped she didn’t already regret her promise. The fliers were so beautiful I understood her desire, but so alien that the idea of transforming from the pale beings we were into fliers seemed unimaginable.