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Authors: Brenda Cooper

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BOOK: Wings of Creation
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If it was supposed to be a feast, I didn’t see anyone eating.

The long string of us, led by Marcus, began to climb up a hill so steep there were occasional steps, five or ten risers at a time, between the flatter parts. The population of fliers was greater here and, if possible, even better decorated. And of course, since this was a genemod world, almost all of them looked young. I glimpsed one flier with gray hair and droopy pale blue wings, but generally we might have been surrounded by a flock of teens.

There were no children except for ours. There were plenty of wingless humans and surely they had children, but apparently they did not have them with them. Although none of the fliers was quite as obvious as the one who’d dropped the feather for Caro, heads followed the children’s movements.

The last set of steps stopped at a large flat expanse with circles of evenly placed perches, almost all occupied. Below the perches lay row upon row of tables piled high with trays of food: steaming hot dishes, bowls of vegetables and meats, soups, nuts, plates of bread, and sparkling colored drinks. The brightest green and gold grapes I’d ever seen, practically glowing with juice. Even though most of the tables were tall, with what amounted to raised walkways for the convenience of fliers, there was one at our height, decorated with sprays of blue, violet, and yellow flowers between the dishes.

Here and there, humans stood near the tables, obviously waiting for something.

Or for us.

As soon as we got close, Matriana and a male flier landed on low perches in front of us, wings cocked up a bit to keep the tips from
trailing on the ground. She pointed to her fellow flier, who was dark-haired and light-eyed, with skin the color of cream. His wings were pale orange with striking maroon tips. He stood taller than Matriana, taller than any of us, and he reminded me of Marcus—he was comfortable in his skin, and powerful, and he knew it. “This is Daniel.”

Marcus nodded formally. “Pleased to meet you.”

Daniel spoke equally formally, “Welcome, Marcus.”

He looked at me next. “And this is Joseph.” A statement of fact, not a question.

I nodded, struggling to return his gaze as calmly as I could. “Pleased to meet you.”

“And who is Chelo?” Daniel asked.

Chelo stepped forward. “Me.” She cocked her head at the flier but stood her ground, and I would bet I was the only one in our group who could tell by her stance and voice that she was nervous. Her response was unusually bold. “Why do you want to know? What am I to you?”

Matriana smiled, and her eyes softened. “If you hadn’t been left behind, and your brother hadn’t rescued you from your father’s war, you all wouldn’t be here today. It is not often an unknown young woman causes such big events. It is a bit of fairy tale, yes?”

Chelo stiffened and gave the majestic flier an even and slightly disapproving look. “If it is a legend, it is a sad one. Many people died.”

“We all have pain.” Matriana turned to Marcus. “And who else have you brought to Lopali?”

As soon as every single person in our party had been painstakingly introduced, and sorted as from Fremont or from Silver’s Home, at least by introduction, Matriana gestured toward the low table. We took plates and filled them, following Marcus past the tables to a ring of mixed seats, short for humans and tall for fliers, with single or double steps they could walk up so they sat with their wing tips above the ground.

Other humans, built like the fliers but wingless, joined us at the table.

The human seats were benches fit for three or four at a time, and Marcus gestured for me and Kayleen to sit beside him, for Chelo and
Liam and the children to take another bench, and from there Alicia and Induan joined Jenna and Tiala. Dianne and Paloma sat together on their own bench, heads together, talking in low tones. I puzzled over Marcus’s last choice, pairing Bryan and Ming. Bryan had been fascinated with Ming on the way to Fremont, in the
Creator
, when we first woke her after her stowaway job. We hadn’t trusted her then, and he’d volunteered to watch her anytime. Now, they sat closer to each other than they needed to, heads bent in quiet conversation. He did seem to be watching her, but it wasn’t exactly with suspicion. Other memories surfaced. This wasn’t new; I’d been distracted. Maybe it wasn’t good. I needed to ask Chelo about it.

Wingless humans stood in a quiet ring around us.

After years of ship’s food, the variety of smells and textures felt overwhelming. The grapes were as good as their bright, translucent skin promised and the breads melted in my mouth. While we ate, the tall benches around us remained eerily empty. Fliers began to fill them only after the waiting wingless whisked our empty plates away and filled our hands with glasses full of cool amber liquid that smelled of honey. The arriving fliers were given glasses, too.

Marcus whispered into my ear, since I was still shielded and couldn’t talk silently to him. “This is the Convening Council of Lopali. The primary decision makers. They’ve come from all over the planet.”

I looked closely at them. Most appeared friendly. One woman waved. A few looked simply appraising, like we were a curiosity. One or two seemed bored.

A tall blond flier who chose a seat beside Bryan and Ming glared in our direction, her lips a fine, pursed line and her brows drawn together. Because the flier’s eyes were wide-set it was hard to tell if she was specifically looking at us, or if her malevolent gaze was meant for Matriana, who sat close to Marcus. Either way, it made me shiver. I tried to memorize her distinguishing features: long blond braids, blue eyes that matched great round blue circles on her wings, which were otherwise a pale purplish blue. I would recognize her if I saw her again.

When all of the perches were full, Matriana held up her glass, and the other fliers held up their glasses. I started to raise mine but Marcus hissed, “Watch me.”

His hand was down.

Matriana’s voice was amplified by something I couldn’t see, maybe even loud enough to be heard across all the space between here and the ring of perch trees. “We welcome strangers into our midst tonight. Most importantly, we welcome Joseph, Chelo, and Kayleen from Silver’s Home, who are renegade and cast away, and have landed on our shores after a long flight.”

The fliers answered her back, each softly but together a thicket of voices. “Welcome.”

All the fliers sipped.

Matriana continued. “We dream that these three will help us take away the pain in our heart. We dream they will help us fill our emptiness.”

The actual pain that tinged her voice, the yearning, made me want to help her more than anything.

The answering chorus sounded bittersweet and hopeful. “May they remove our pain.”

Kayleen grasped my hand. I noticed Marcus had raised his glass, so we all did, Kayleen and I still holding hands and using our free ones for the toast. Across the circle from us, Bryan and Ming were in the same pose. Marcus’s voice was as amplified as Matriana’s as he spoke. “In the name of peace, we hope our skills will help make you whole.”

He leaned down and whispered in my ear, and Ming whispered in Bryan’s, and Chelo and Liam simply followed along. “In the name of peace.”

Chelo smiled broadly. It was a good toast for her.

Matriana’s voice rang out again. “Once we are free, we will fight in the name of peace.”

“Once we are free.”

“We will win peace for us all.”

“Once we are free.”

“In the name of peace.”

We drank. The liquid was thick and sweet, but not alcoholic, missing even the sweet clarity of col.

Of all the fliers in the circle around us, only the blonde with the blue eyes and blue-eyed feathers looked sour. But one sour face made
a difference, and I could almost feel an exhalation of relief when she pushed up off her perch and made a great showy circle above our heads before flying off, her light wings visible like mist for a long time until the dusk sky folded her up inside of it, and we all finally looked back at each other.

Music sprouted from somewhere over near the tables—drums and wind instruments and a deep hum that seemed to set the inside of my bones vibrating. Small talk started to rush across the circle, and it finally began to feel like a party.


ALICIA: THE AFTER PARTY

 

 

 

I
nduan and I sat side by side on the bench in the circle of fliers. We were both visible, but who would see us in the midst of so much beauty? She slapped me lightly on the arm. “Alicia. Close your mouth or a bug will land in it.”

I did, but I couldn’t stop watching. The last few fliers who had participated directly in the ceremony rose smoothly from their perches, wings rustling the cooling air. A man with blue wings landed on the grass near us, leaning forward so as to keep the tips of his wings off the ground. A slender pink-winged woman landed on a stone, standing comfortably, talking to a few of the people with no wings. She belonged in a painting or an animation instead of in the real world, and I wanted to touch her to see if she was real. Three others flew away entirely, fast. After all of the perches were clear, I stood and stretched, finally, belatedly, looking for Joseph. I saw his back as he and Marcus walked away, lost in conversation.

He should have looked for me first. At least to say he had to ignore me for a while longer. There should have been infinite time to be together on space ships, but there hadn’t been. Not once Marcus found us. Some of the joy I’d taken in seeing the fliers leaked out as he walked away.

“Shake it off,” Induan said. “He has duties. You and me, we’re closer to nobody. That means we’re free to explore.”

“Yeah.” It’d be nice if she were wrong once in a while. Not that it hurt to have her on my side. She’d told me to dress even more outrageously
than Marcus had suggested, and she’d done the same. She wore white leggings and a white lacy blouse with long, belled sleeves, everything so stark her white skin looked almost normal. She and her outfit took on a bit of a glow in the fading light. We’d both belted on boosters for our invisibility mods, to help them work with our clothes.

She did not seem as beauty-bit as I felt, so I asked her, “Aren’t they the prettiest people?” I remembered how awkward the first real fliers I saw looked, waddling through the full gravity of Silver’s Home, pain lining their faces. “I mean here, where they belong.”

Induan’s laugh came out kind. “You’ve got Space Ship Shock.”

“Huh?”

“You know. When you’ve been locked up in a big tin can for years and you finally get onto a planet and everything looks big and beautiful?”

But it was. “Did you feel like that when you got to Fremont?”

“Until I realized everything had sharp edges.”

It was my turn to laugh. “That should have taken five minutes.”

“Two.”

I looked around. The ground was rolling grass, nano-bot–trimmed like in the parks on Silver’s Home. Purple and yellow flowers held their petals open to catch the last rays of sun, and beside them, a line of white flowers had already closed for the night. Hills rolled away in all directions. We were high enough up to see the humped bellies of the closest ones, all dotted with people and fliers and gardens. “I don’t see edges here. The fliers are beautiful.”

Induan smiled faintly, then nodded, both unconvincing. “Fliers make strange allies. They’re unpredictable in interworld politics.”

I shrugged. “Can you blame them? They can’t even walk on some of the worlds.”

“Don’t underestimate them.”

Oh no. They must be powerful. But more than power, they had grace. Calm. The first one I’d seen had been a statue, and no dead thing had ever exuded so much calm and peace coupled with action and movement. And here? Live? They were more beautiful than the artist had made the statue. I wanted to be one.

We snacked on a few of the richly scented grapes that exploded
sugar into our mouths. No one bothered us, although from time to time I caught a flier or a wingless looking at us out of the corner of their eye, or offering a small smile. It felt weird to be watched. “Let’s take a walk. See what they’re like in the wild.”

She understood my unspoken meaning.

We found a bathroom and slipped in. We waited for two normal-looking women, and a tall slender man who looked like he should have wings, to leave before we turned our mods on. I liked switching on in bathrooms; the nano had to think about how to reflect the wall behind us into the mirrors. It took enough time that for the space of a breath or two I looked infinite.

Outside, we climbed invisibly, and cautiously, down the hill. Induan led me through groups of fliers and around flower beds, both of us careful how we set our feet. I didn’t want to get caught. The fliers might feel spied on, and Marcus would be mad for sure.

As full dark fell, globe-shaped lights brightened. In a few cases, groups of fliers sat on rock formations, some filled with crystalline structures like the geodes we used to bring back to trade with the townies on Fremont, except twenty or thirty times as big. Some crystals were artificially lit from within, as if fires burned inside the faceted stones.

A few fliers wore swirls of tiny ribbons braided in their hair or woven into necklaces, lit at the ends so the fliers who wore them glowed. I didn’t dare talk since we didn’t know how good the flier’s hearing might be. Instead, it seemed like we glided silently through a fairyland of wonders, Induan and I holding hands so we didn’t lose each other.

Farther away from the central hill, there were fewer and fewer wingless. The few we did see all moved with purpose, bringing plates and bowls of seeds and breads and grapes to knots of fliers lost in conversation.

Induan pulled me to a low mound of rounded rocks. “Watch the regular humans,” she whispered into my ear. “Tell me what you see. Quietly.”

Twice in the ship, we’d been caught talking while invisible. I leaned my head into hers. We could talk quieter if we touched skulls. “That one’s tall, like he was meant to be a flier but no one put wings
on him. The woman over there must be an original human. She’s no bigger than me.”

BOOK: Wings of Creation
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ads

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