Previously, Colder and his crew are gone, their ship crashed. The natives say the fire was too hot to survive. The airman is intent on reaching the plane that brought the man and the boy to Antaria…
When the boy realized the airman meant to walk the vast expanse of the world to find his broken plane in that little mountain valley, he looked at Mister Cooper with a sense of horror rising in the pit of his stomach. He wouldn’t shy from a challenge, even such a daunting one as crossing the vast wilderness of Antaria by foot. But it was madness, he thought, what with natives and beasts and monsters and any number of other dangers waiting for them. They’d be lucky to make it anywhere at all. So he thought Mister Cooper was either very stupid or very brave; and one might just be the same as the other.
They turned their course now, and Mister Cooper found a heading with a silver compass he carried in the pocket of his jacket. The boy watched him use it with interest, for the tool had two needles, not one, and both turned independently to point out not two poles, but many. And from this reading, the airman said, “It’s this way;” and he made off with great strides which the boy had to match with a brisk trot.
The land was mostly heath, and they easily made their way through low scrubbing and small stands of trees that stood gaunt and silvery and fruitless. On this they made good time, for the ground was even, and the great black pinnacle peaks of the end of the world kept their weary march, up and down, always present, always grim and foreboding.
When night was falling, the heath gave way to lowland rides and dank swamps, and for a time they walked the lowlands on ridges of white stone that stood up like rows of teeth over dark and putrid marshlands where only dried grasses grew and tiny birds flitted from dry stalk to dry stalk, giving out sharp cries of alarm. Now the boy grew hungry, and they stopped beneath an old tree on a hillock to eat what they had.
“How far is it, do you suppose?” asked the boy, who was already weary of the march and would’ve taken a different route, if he knew one. The land was interesting, but a hike for pleasure is much more enjoyable when one knows that the safe familiarity of home lies at the return: the boy had no guarantee of any such thing.
“Perhaps thirty days, if we hold a straight course,” answered Mister Cooper without any measure of certainty in his voice.
“We won’t make it without food,” the boy complained, for he already felt there wasn’t nearly enough, and his stomach had set up a consistent grumble.
“Don’t worry,” assured the airman. “We’ll find plenty to eat. I know every edible shrub, root, and vegetable in this place, and beyond these swamps we’ll be back into the hills again where food is plentiful. In the muck there is almost nothing to eat, unless you are one of the creatures that lives here, but higher up there are many things to eat. But be grateful, for there are lizards in the hills, and soon we’ll have them to contend with.” The airman said this sarcastically, as if the thought of fighting wild monsters was amusing to him.
“But you have your guns,” answered the boy.
“I do,” agreed Mister Cooper, “but the lizards have hard, thick skins, and I would feel better with a rifle.”
They could not go on in the dark, for the sun was stooping below the horizon and the airman said the moon might not show itself that night; so they agreed to sleep beneath the tree, for the sun had sunk quite low. And as the boy leaned back against the old, gnarled bark to finish his supper, the airman said he was going to see if the waters were safe.
“Safe from what?” asked the boy curiously.
“Safe for us,” answered the airman. And he went down the hill toward the dark waters, his knife in hand.
Sometime later the airman returned, his face and hands cleaned, and chewing a root.
“Where’d you get that?” cried the boy, who was still quite hungry.
“By the water,” answered Mister Cooper. “There are many with yellow flowers. Don’t eat the leaves or the petals, for they’re poison; but the root is quite good.”
“I will get one myself,” said the boy, rising to his feet and taking off in the direction from which Mister Cooper had come.
The bank was steep and the grass slick, but the boy was deft and nimble: soon he was standing by the foul waters of the bog with his shoes sinking in the muck. For a time he sat in the grass and listened to the shriek of the birds. Their call was piercing and quite awful to hear, but there was a haunting peacefulness to the marshland that drew him. He watched as a great winged creature swooped and wailed at a distant hillock; he heard gas bubbles rising from the muck and bursting on the surface; he smelled the foul reek of the mire turned up by his toes. A leech, black and wriggling, struck at his foot, but he killed it with his hatchet. When he grew bored of the sight, he found the wild flowers growing by the water and dug several roots with the blade. Then, he was just turning to leave when he heard the crackof a revolver fired from up above. He paused for only a moment, listening for another; and when the second and third came, he was already scrambling up through the grass to the hillock.
He found the airman sitting beneath the tree and sharpening his knife. On the ground lay a lizard twice the size of the man, and from its dead, slavering jaws was rising a tendril of smoke. It looked absolutely horrible, lying there in the dry grass, its tongue hanging out and its listless eyes staring at nothing. But Mister Cooper didn’t seem bothered by it in the least and was preparing to cut off its flesh.
“What is that!” cries the boy in alarm.
The airman looked up at him, unsurprised, and went back to his work. “The natives call it a Dramergon, I think,” he answered. “Though it may be a Manet, I don’t remember. It lives in the water and catches its prey like a crocodile. I think it’s the only lizard that lives down this low.”
The boy was astonished – at the creature and how wicked it looked, but also at the man who’d slain it. “How do you know so much, Mister Cooper?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been here awhile,” said the airman casually, as if it was well known. “When the Farlong brought down my plane Captain Colder hadn’t yet sailed the Rift. I lived for three years in the hills here at the end of the world before the natives captured me and traded me to Colder for iron. Since then I’ve just been trying to get back my aeroplane, but the man wouldn’t bring his precious ship anywhere near the place. ‘Too many Farlong,’ he whined. Never mind his canons and machine guns. Never mind I killed one with my bare hands once. We could’ve taken the Ridge a year ago if he’d only listened to me.”
Now the boy knew that Mister Cooper hadn’t been upfront about himself, and he felt afraid. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew so much of this place?” he asked. “You’ve been leading me about without telling me about yourself, and I don’t feel I should trust you anymore, sir.”
Mister Cooper grimaced – a calloused and careless expression. “Why would I tell you about myself?” he answered. “You can’t get me to my plane in the heart of the Farlong city, so you’re little use to me in that. But your machine is a different matter. I can reclaim and repair it, but I may yet need you to find it.”
The boy was horrified. The way the airman spoke made it clear he cared little for anyone but himself, except where he thought he might use them for his own gain. The boy wanted to get away, and would’ve run at once, but Mister Cooper fixed him with his cool eyes. “Don’t do anything stupid, boy,” he said. “You wouldn’t make it far without me. This land is so full of monsters, and you need me now as much as I need you. We don’t have to like each other, we just have to work together for now.”
But the boy rather felt he’d take his chance on it now. He’d prefer to die alone than spend anymore time in the company of a sinner like Mister Cooper.
When the airman was asleep the boy took the hatchet and the few roots he’d dug in the swamp with a little of the meat of the lizard wrapped in green leaves and made away. He didn’t know which way he would go, for he didn’t have any hope of finding his friend or the captain and his ship, which surely was little more than ash now. He only knew he wouldn’t stay with the airman, for he was becoming more and more certain that the man had betrayed Captain Colder and all of his crew to die – whether before the fire or after, he didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.
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