The Island In the Sky – Pt 7

The Airman’s Flight

Previously, the boy reaches the Rift at the end of the world. He learns Captain Colder intends to sail through it, but not until he’s stopped Captain Joyce. But unfortunately someone has other ideas, and the boy watches as the ship falls in flames. He and the airman, Mister Cooper, are the only ones to escape. Now they are stranded on an island in the sky…

Mister Cooper sat down once more on the rocks and grasped the boy’s shoulder in his rough seaman’s hand. “Don’t worry yourself so much, boy,” he said; and the boy wondered how the airman could still hold to any faith. “I know it looks hopeless, for we’re way up here, and Captain’s gone with all my mates. But you gotta just sit and use your head sometimes, and there’s usually an answer to be found.”

The boy wiped the tears from his face. He looked out at the distant mountains, the edge of that world, but they were so far away. He turned back to the little lake beneath the cliff, but it was cold and inhospitable. “And how do you think we might escape this miserable place?” he asked, for he was hopeless.

The airman pointed up at the high cliffs where a climbing tree was making its way up a crack in the face of the wall. “That’s an Oboa tree,” he said. “It has vines like ropes and leaves as good as canvas. I’m going to build a glider!”

The boy hardly believed the airman, but he couldn’t offer any other solution. So while the man dried both his pistols and knife, checked his cartridges and flint, and fished his hat from the water, the boy climbed the ridge behind the lake to retrieve the things they would need. Up a spit of rock he went, until he caught hold of the Oboa tree; then up the trunk he scrambled and dropped vines and leaves. Mister Cooper had a hatchet in his belt, and they used it to cut poles which were hauled to the edge of the lake. There the airman bound them with vines – and they really were as good as ropes! – and he overlaid them with leaves.

“Will it fly?” asked the boy sceptically, for he didn’t really believe the monster they were building could be anything more than kindling or death.

“Yes,” the airman assured him. “I’ve built three aeroplanes at home, and I know the workings of the wing. You must trust the design.”

But the boy remained a nervous skeptic.

Night fell on the island, the sun vanishing over the vast clouded horizon of that world, turning the little lake beneath the crags to shadow. The boy climbed the cliffs to pick fruit among the rocks while the airman built a fire by the water, and they both lay down with great bundled leaves of the Oboa beneath their heads, their toes to the fire and their eyes gazing up at the vast empty sky of Antaria. And for the first time the boy realized how unsettlingly awful it was, for there were no stars, and a clear night sky ought to have stars. What had become of them he couldn’t guess.

In the morning they finished the glider, twisting harnesses to bind themselves to it, and ropes that would bend and control the wings. Then the airman and the boy together hauled it to the edge of the cliff and looked over. It was a terrible long way down, and the forest below looked so far away it might’ve been a foreign world and they aliens looking in.

“Are you certain it will fly?” asked the boy one more time. He rather thought they would fall and be killed; but to be stranded on the island would be just as bad or worse, and he had no intention of staying behind. But Mister Cooper assured him again it would, and went so far as to cross his heart and swear it. Still, it wasn’t until the world fell away beneath them as a gust of wind caught the device and raised it up, and the boy felt the pull of the harness at his shoulders and the wind tearing at his face, that he knew the airman had been right.

Mister Cooper looked down at the boy through his goggles. “It’s a go, man!” he cried. “It’s really a great thing!”

And the boy had to admit that it was. Soaring with the birds and the clouds felt better than he had imagined it would. Below the green mountains of Antaria spread out like a map swathed in rolling walls of clouds, and the islands of stone in the sky drifted round them like the slow tread of the stars in their eternal orbit. The mountains rose up to wrap long arms around them, and the vibrant shades of deciduous groves whose hues are not found in our world passed by like the flicker of cars at night. A bird struck up to greet them, baffled by this great monster from the islands above that had invaded its realm: it passed them by with a banshee shriek through its canine teeth and a great flap of its wings and was gone into the blue orb of the sky.

They landed again in a field of green dotted with white clover blossoms that Mister Cooper had chosen some minutes before as the hills and forests of the end of the world beneath the Rift came steadily up to meet them. The glider was inelegant, for it had been made by the aeronaut to fly rather than land, and it struck the grass and rolled several times in a splinter of wood and torn vines before the boy found the scent of clover had entered his lungs and brought him sweet dreams: for his face was in the earth and he was on the hard solid ground again of a world that wasn’t floating or shifting or changing or freezing.

“That could’ve been better,” said the airman, dragging himself up and letting go a groan as he pulled at his stiff limbs. “Have you broken anything, boy?”

But the boy didn’t think he had.

“I believe we’ve come down several thousand feet, and at least that many toward the Rift,” said the airman. “This is the way the Valantis went in her flames, but she could be anywhere between here and the mountains.”

From the air they’d seen the end of the world, and the boy knew how vast and empty it was. A hard shield-land, it went for miles of hills and hummocks, valleys and ravines, all hard and coarse, right to the edge of the black teeth and the Rift running away into the sky. And there were monsters, too: the boy had seen them moving about in packs, and, asking the airman what they were, the man replied only, “Great lizards, armour-plated and terrible.” If they were anything like the one the boy had seen at the shore of the lake where the little seaplane had crashed then he very much did not want to see anymore.

“We’ll hike toward the Rift,” said the airman. “There are natives in these parts who’s language I can understand. They will tell us the way.”

“How did you learn it?” asked the boy.

“I spent many months with them after the Farlong brought down my plane,” answered the airman. But he offered no further information, and by his aloofness, the boy supposed he had something he’d rather not say.

They made toward the Rift then. The boy didn’t know which way a compass would point, and if the airman knew he didn’t say; but they both felt like it would be west, for it felt like going home. On and on they went, through fens and over heaths, round high sharp hillocks and through little valleys where scraggly juniper struggled to grow among the rocks and shale.

“How far do you suppose it is?” asked the boy, who thought the mountains at the end of the world looked really quite close.

“I cannot guess,” answered the airman disinterestedly, for he was stooping just then to examine the ground; and when he’d studied the earth for a moment, he said, “Yes, the natives have come through here. Twenty, I’d say, and they’re feet are wide like the warriors. We’d best be ready for them, for they may not be friendly.” He gave the boy his hatchet.

“I thought you knew them,” said the boy. He was reluctant to take the weapon, but did in the end.

On they went, pausing again for a moment a little later, for they’d spied the dusky-brown shape of a lizard moving through the tall shrubbery across a low valley. “He is called a raptor by our paleontologists,” said the airman. “His eyes are poor, but if he sees us he will kill us.”

When the raptor had made away to their left, they continued on, giving the lizard a wide berth.

The airman began asking the boy about his plane now. He wanted to know where it had fallen, but when the boy could not tell him, he asked for a description of the valley; then he wanted to know of its condition, whether it had been damaged and how much so, whether or not the controls still had power, or if the pontoons had been punctured. The boy could give him very little information, for he knew little about the workings of an aeroplane, but the man didn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t think it’s far,” he said at last. “Maybe three day’s sailing and a day on foot. The natives will know: they would’ve seen it.”

“There was a girl. She’d know,” said the boy.

“What kind of girl?” the airman asked, puzzled.

“A girl who flew through the trees like a bird and sparks came from her when she moved.”

The man’s uncomfortable silence told the boy he knew more than he was saying; and at last he said, “The creature you’re talking about is something the natives call a Starlight. They are very rare, for the natives hate them and have hunted them nearly to extinction. It’s a wonder you had the chance to see one.”

They saw their first native on the edge of the heath. The man was hunkered in the earth, and they couldn’t at first see him, for his bronze flesh was the same colour as the ground. They paused for a moment by a gnarled tree and watched him; and after a moment they realized the wildman was looking back at them. He called to them in his own language, and the airman responded in the same way; then to the boy he said, “He wants to know who we are and if we’re going to the fire.”

“What fire?” asked the boy.

The airman called again, and the native answered.

“He says there’s a great fire burning near the Storm Road. His prophet has called it the wrath of the gods to send a scourge through the Road from Beyond, and all the chieftains as far as the sea are sending their strongest warriors to keep the scourge from destroying the world. There is a great amassing of spears just there—” He pointed a little to the left of the place where the bronze man was watching them.

Mister Cooper shouted something back then, to which the native answered; then he looked at the boy, his eyes hard, and he said, “The fire was undoubtedly much too fierce for anyone to survive it. We must give them up for lost and make for your aeroplane if we are to get out of this land.”

“But can you be certain?” asked the boy, who didn’t want to give up on Captain Colder and the rest of his crew.

“I can,” answered the airman. “The man said the fires burned red in the sky all through the night, and this morning the smoke still covers the lowlands and the river gorge. He said they’ve tried to get near, but the heat was too much, and all that’s left now is the charred wood of the ship.” He sighed, for he doubtless was more hurt by the loss than the boy. “I wish it wasn’t true, but there is nothing for it. We must make it to the aeroplane or we are lost.”












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