Shouting again. He stood from the chair and walked over to the huge mass. He let his right-hand rest on its side before moving his left ear to it. Yes, shouting. He didn’t know the language but whoever was in there was not happy about something.
Another bad cocoon dream, he thought, returning to the old, wooden chair. He reversed it to rest his arms across the chair’s back. Out the empty frame of the large picture window to his left, there was just the faintest red. Sunrise would be soon, so his relief –
One tap at the door frame – the door was long gone – before the young man came in. Nike’s grey wings spattered with black fluttered a bit.
“’Sup, Nike. Any change?” The newcomer asked.
From his chair, Nike shook his head.
“You’re gonna wear yourself out, pulling double-duties like this,” the other said. “Still claiming to ‘have a feeling’ about this one?”
The other chuckled.
“How do you know – ”
Nike cut him off.
“How do we know anything, Nozh?” He demanded. “About that; about these?!”
Nike pointed first at the huge egg followed with his left finger up and his right thumb back: at his halo and small grey wings.
Nozh relented with a shrug and a droop to his wings. He took a few steps towards the egg. At least a dozen feet in diameter, its leathery off-white form stretched from the floor to ceiling. Fibrous, root-like tendrils from it invaded the tiles below and the wood above. It was only ten days ago that Snaran, one of the few girls in Abandoned Factory, found it. It had only been a few feet across. Per their tradition, a schedule was made to keep an eye on it, so that whoever was inside would not come into the world alone. Those that did….
Nozh glanced out the empty window frame. There was now just enough light to see the Wall. He turned further to where Nike sat.
“I relieve you,” he spoke in an officious manner, glancing past him at the long-dead equipment that occupied the rest of the large room. It had been a machine shop, once.
“Thanks,” Nike said, standing. He stretched and made for the door.
“Hey, Nozh?” He asked, flicking the other’s gold halo with a *ting!* “Sorry about being a jerk just now. Likely you’re right: I’m just worn out! Later!”
Nozh watched him leave. Nike was the oldest one there… mid-twenties, maybe? There were already whispers that he would never have his Day of Flight: those spots on his wings. Otherwise, he was unfailingly polite to everyone else at Abandoned Factory: a smile on his lean, olive face, crowned by dark, slightly curly hair that ended in white tips.
He dropped into the chair his senior had occupied, staring at the cocoon. Nozh had hatched from his just a little over a year ago. At first disoriented and confused; all that made worse after a few days when the fever started and his wings tore out.
Nozh shuddered a little at that memory.
And now, their eldest seemed inordinately interested in this New One…
Wait. What was that?
Was that… angry shouting from inside…?
“I don’t know who you are in there,” Nozh muttered. “But please, don’t let us – let him – down!”
Her eyes flew open to see her right arm out with her hand open, palm up.
She allowed her arm to fall slowly to near her side.
Where am I?
A pale off white in all directions and she was apparently floating, as her feet rested on nothing.
Wait… who am I?
Her hands came up again. She spared them only a glance before pressing them to her face. Smooth skin, tiny nose, epicanthic folds… am I Oriental? Reaching back, her hair was just past her shoulders. With her left hand, she pulled some around where she could see it.
Dark brown. Almost black. Letting go, it didn’t fall but drifted back into place. Floating.
A look down confirmed that she’d been correct in thinking of herself as a girl: no clothes. She tried a paddling motion to turn herself about. Nothing.
Well… something. She turned again, slower, stopping at the area that seemed just a little lighter than the rest of… wherever she was.
She was neither cold nor hot. Right now, at least, she was not hungry nor thirsty.
“And I’m more bored than scared,” she spoke, startling herself.
Her words sounded odd to her ears, muffled. Was she really floating? How was she breathing?
How do I know I breathe air? That I’m supposed to live on the land?
“Hello?” She tried. Nothing.
With a small sigh, she let her eyes close.
Time seemed to pass slowly…
She convulsed awake, doubled over with her arms around her gut. She’d dreamed… dreamed…
“Whatever it was, that was awful!” She mumbled, looking about for the lighter patch.
She looked more, turning about many times and, she was pretty sure, turning herself over a few times.
“W- where…?” She didn’t think she was afraid, be she was concerned.
I want my light back!
She forced herself to stillness, taking several deep breaths of whatever it was. She moved.
Not recalling ever swimming she did what an observer would have called a dog-paddle. Time passed. She seemed to be getting nowhere.
Concern was degenerating into fear. She began to paddle more forcefully with her hand, clawing forward at nothing.
The fingers of her right hand scraped into some fibrous, leathery material. A moment later the rest of her body landed on it.
An animal-like growl escaped her mouth as she tore at the surface with her hands and feet. After tearing maybe four inches, her right arm pushed its way out into the air, the fluid pouring out of the hole. She set about widening the hole.
The tear was now nearly eighteen inches long. Lips pulled back in a grin of triumph, she put her hands on each side of the tear and pushed outward…!
The side of the cocoon gave way completely. She bodysurfed out with the last of the fluid, coming to rest no more than ten feet away…
Feet. There were two feet in worn leather shoes inches before her eyes. She lifted her head from the cold tile. Slacks. A young man sitting on a reversed chair, looking down at her with a tiny smile. Greek, by his looks, she thought. She pushed herself up, caring nothing about her nakedness. Two things suddenly arrested her movement.
The first was that he was smoking a cigarette. That’s not healthy!
There was a mumble from her left. The guy in front of her mumbled, too.
She shook her head violently to get the fluid out of her ears. Her eyes looked left. Another young man, closer to her age. But just like the first…
They both had small, grey wings and a gold halo.
She opened her mouth to speak, but first coughed for half a minute to clear her lungs. No one moved to help her. She drew her legs under her, still crouching on the tiles, and spared a glance at her back.
“Where I am?” She managed. “Am I… dead?”
It had been two days since Nozh’s well-intentioned advice. Advice Nike had tried to take: he didn’t formally signup for multiple watches, but when he’d a spare moment, he’d make his way to the old machine shop on the third floor. Such as now, for instance.
He paused at the door frame. Nozh was leaning out the window frame looking somewhere off to the left.
“Snaran sunbathing topless again?” Nike called. Judging by his friend’s violent flinch, he might have been right!
“N- no!” The younger man said spinning around. “The Gate was open and I was trying to, well…”
“See out past it, using our superior height here?”
“Well, yeah,” he admitted, confessing something that would get him in serious trouble with the Federation. But no one at the ‘Factory would rat out another!
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Nike said easily. He jerked his right thumb at the cocoon. “Anything?”
Nozh shook his head as he walked to it and put his hand up.
“Yes?” Nike asked, finally stepping into the room. The younger nodded for him to take the chair.
“There was… yelling…”
“Language?” Nike sat down.
A head shake.
“Girl… or young boy.”
Nozh turned his head back.
“You’d like the latter, I’m sure!”
Nike’s proclivities were well known both at the ‘Factory and in the town.
“I’m betting a girl,” Nike said, taking a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket.
“Another ‘feeling’?” Nozh asked, walking towards the door. Unlike the older man, he detested sitting still.
“Mmm,” his elder replied, lighting his smoke with a match.
“I guess when you get to be as old – ”
Nozh whirled left as Nike’s head came up quickly.
The cocoon rocked slightly.
“She’s here,” Nike whispered to himself.
“Do I have time to go get – ”
*thunk!* *thunk! thunk!*
A crack formed two-thirds of the way up, just to their left of center. Fluid began to leak out.
“Guess that’s a ‘no,’” Nike heard the older teen boy mutter. He spared a glance at the table a few feet behind the chair. Blankets. A small tub of water.
But… if it was injured. It had only happened once in Nike’s life…
“Flare gun?” He asked Nozh.
He pointed at the small table by the window. That would bring everyone – everyone – at a run. Just like –
A slender right arm stuck out through the hole to the elbow and waved around. Nike was a bit surprised to see the fingers curl into angry claws as it was pulled back in.
“What was – ?”
So Nozh saw that, too.
There were several other sounds: more thunks, tears; the cocoon’s fluid was now leaking from more than a half dozen places.
“Active one,” Nozh muttered.
Something was different. They both felt it.
The action seemed to be focusing on the middle center. Ah: her – he thought of it as her – had her hands on either side of that main tear…
With a whoosh! the rest of the cocoon’s fluid washed out, carrying a small figure in its midst. It – she, that was now obvious – came to rest just at Nike’s feet.
He shuddered at that unwanted omen.
“Nice butt,” Nozh smiled. “Disappointed?”
Nike glared at him from the corner of his eye while he pointed.
“Look at her back; they’ll be in in no more than two days…” There were two great swollen red-purple lumps on her upper back.
“That’s…” Nozh was still fairly young, “that’s odd… isn’t it?”
“A bit,” Nike said with a shrug, taking a drag off his cigarette. He did not like having her called ‘odd,’ “but not unheard of. There are records of some hatched with wings – ”
There was a groan from his feet as she lifted just her head. She paused at his shoes. She paused at his knees. He watched as she used her arms to raise her torso and stare at his face.
Fifteen or sixteen, Nike thought. Japanese, but maybe Korean; all those people look alike to me! He could not look away from her dark grey eyes. If her wings come in that color…
“Rest of her looks good, too!” Nozh smirked. “And she’s definitely a ‘Factory Girl! A hatchling at Old Home would have been screaming about being naked!”
Nike smiled as he watched the girl’s head look around. For a moment her eyes settled on Nozh. On his wings and halo. Then back to Nike. On his wings and halo.
So typical, he thought.
She tried to talk and started coughing violently. True to Tradition, Nike and Nozh did nothing. A hatchling must learn to live the moment it clears its cocoon. She tried again.
“Where I am?” She managed. “Am I… dead?”
Nike heard Nozh’s sharp intake of breath and ignored it.
Does this one know? He thought.
Nike stepped up and off the chair to his left.
“Where are you?” He echoed. “You are in Abandoned Factory just outside the town of Glie, in the land Inside the Wall.”
He waved at the huge empty window frame with his left in his little speech.
Stand up! He thought. A hatchling must stand on their own!
“And to my eyes, young Miss, you are very much alive!”
There was a pause. Nike and Nozh did not look at one another. She placed her hands onto the cold tile and pushed with her legs.
“I’m… cold…” She said, wobbling a little.
The two men moved fast.
Nozh had one blanket wrapped ‘round her chest and down to her ankles. Nike used a smaller one about her neck, gently rubbing her wet hair. She sneezed violently, spraying cocoon fluid all over his worn shirt. It had been a nice shirt, once.
“Tholly,” she muttered. He handed her an even smaller cloth.
“Blow your nose,” he said. “Get cleaned out!”
She nodded and honked vigorously. Nike was glad she couldn’t see Nozh laughing silently behind her.
She handed it back to him, surprised when he tossed it off to the right into the darkness.
“Someone will clean it up later,” he said, following her gaze. “One thing we have plenty of, here, is time.”
She suddenly arched her back. Nozh put his hands onto her waist to keep her from falling. It was not moisture from her hair that began to bead on the girl’s forehead but the start of the fever.
He’d little time; he stepped forward and put his left around her waist, pulling her towards him from Nozh. She was blinking too much.
“What did you dream?!” He half-yelled at her.
“What?! Leave me alone!” Her resistance was weak and he knew he had less than a minute.
“Your dream! In the cocoon! What did you see?!?” He put his right hand onto her chin to hold her gaze onto him.
“<Blood…>” Her eyes started to roll up into her head.
“Nike? Aren’t you…”
He tried one last time.
“WHAT DID YOU DREAM?”
She was on her back. The light was terrible; emergency lights in the C-130H? There was constant dripping… like rain. From the ceiling, wires, piping. A salty, warm, red rain…
“<Red… rain.>” She sighed as she passed out in his arms.
“Akai… ameh?” Nozh tried.
“Akaiame,” Nike said, cradling her head. “Welcome to Abandoned Factory.”
What a week, she thought staring off at the Wall on the horizon from the top of the second-tallest building in the factory complex. She took another drag off of the cigarette she bummed from Nike and slowly shook her head as she turned.
What is this place?
A week ago she was born – no, they say ‘hatched’ for us – and seemed to come close to dying right after.
She lay on her side in a small bed of some sort. The air was cool and someone was doing something to her back. It was either dusk or dawn.
“Oh! You’re finally awake?” Some girl asked her.
There was a creak and a shift as whoever had been sitting on the bed stood and leaned over. She looked up at the upside-down face: smiling red lips on a white face with pale blue eyes framed by bobbed golden hair. Hair the same color as the halo above it.
“Are you… an angel?” She asked quietly.
The teen girl crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out.
“No! Just a girl like you!”
The pretty girl passed out of her view with a creak of the bed. The motions to her back resumed.
“I didn’t mean to offend,” she said. She tried to move. “Ouch!”
“You just stay put, Akaiame! You’ve had a big two days!”
“I… who’s ‘Akaiame’?”
“Silly! That’s your name! I’m Snaran, by the way!”
The introduction came with a pat of the girl’s hand onto Akaiame’s head.
“My name is… Akaiame. Oh. I’m tired. May I sleep a little?”
“Sure!” The boundless cheer of Snaran replied. “I’ll prop some pillows against you so you don’t roll onto your back!”
Her eyes opened to near-total blackness. There was a window frame with faint starlight but the room was a sepia sea.
With a scraping sound, a star exploded before her. She crushed her eyes as tightly closed as she could.
“Sorry,” came a young man’s voice. “Didn’t know you were awake.”
She knew that voice!
“You…” She tried opening just one eye. Now night blind, she could only see the orange ember of the tip of his cigarette. “You’re the one… who was there.”
“When you hatched? Yes.”
She heard him inhale through the cigarette.
“My friend was there, too. Do you recall his name?”
“Do you recall my name?”
That she knew.
“You flatter me!” She heard his faint laughter. “Poor Nozh!”
“Do you,” he continued, “know your name?”
“She… that girl…”
“Snaran told me my name is Akaiame.” She closed her open eye. “I didn’t know that.”
She heard a shuffling: he stood and moved his chair closer before reseating himself.
“Do you always sit backward on chairs?” She asked.
“Do you… remember… anything before you hatched?”
She opened her eyes at that, seeing his face barely illuminated for just a moment by his smoke.
“No.” She carefully replied. “I… felt as if I had to get out of something… then I saw your shoes. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be!” He was cheerful but quiet. “None of us Charcoal Feathers remember anything… well, we do remember one thing.”
“Which is?” She chose to ignore the odd object in his sentence.
“Whatever it is – that one thing – is what we say, in whatever language we spoke before we came here.” He took a last drag before dropping and crushing his cigarette.
“And by Tradition, that becomes our name.”
“Oh.” Only two days later, she barely remembered surfing out; looking up; standing.
“What does it mean?”
She could hear his shirt shift as he shrugged.
“What does Nike mean?”
Frustrated, she tried to roll backward –
Nike was out of the chair with his hands onto her shoulders in an instant.
“You can’t do that! Be on your back! You’re… we’re not human! You’d crush your wings!”
She felt a snarl flicker across her face.
“Help me up!” She ordered.
The young man eased her into a sitting position. She glanced at the window frame. It was less dark.
“How long to the dawn?”
“An hour. Probably.”
“’Probably’? It’s an hour or it’s not!”
“No. Time is not like that, here.” She felt his hands go from her shoulders to lightly against each side of her face.
“It’s still dark but I want you to feel something.” His hands went to her’s and lifted them straight up over her head. “Turn your palms around.”
She did, thinking she could bite his neck if he groped her…
He brought her hands down. On her back, just below her shoulders, she touched…
The feathers were both strong and warm. From where her fingers first touched them, she moved her hands outward…
“That tickled!” She shivered. Wait…
On my back… these are…
The wings flittered just slightly.
“Ouch!” She said, but softer this time.
“These are my wings?”
“For most of us, it’s several days after we hatch. There’s a fever and some disorientation, followed by pain as they tear their way out through the skin of your back.”
“I don’t remember – ”
“You wouldn’t.” He took his hands from hers and sat back. She regretted not being able to bite him. That thought bothered her.
“You hatched with your wings almost out. Rare, but not unheard of. Your fever had already started. I carried you down here to the second floor while Nozh and a few others rushed to help.”
“Others? How many of you, er, us, are there?”
“We don’t take a census but about two dozen.”
“How can you not be sure with so few?”
Nike said nothing. There was now just enough light from the window to see his face.
“I told you: things are different here. Ah!” He put his right index finger to her lips.
“No more questions! Come here!” He stood and held his hand out to her.
She took it, standing as well. They moved to the open window. They faced what she presumed was East, towards the coming sunrise.
“You didn’t wake up, not even when your wings tore out.” He said from just behind her, his left hand on the windowsill, his right on her waist. “You cried a lot and threw up all over Fire!”
She felt his laughter.
“Doesn’t sound very funny!” She said, embarrassed.
“Oh, it was! He might have some choice words when you meet him later !”
“Great: I’ve already enemies.”
Something changed. He turned her about to face him.
“You. Do. Not!” Nike said with some heat. “We are a small tribe, we Charcoal Feathers; even the flighty girls from Old Home! And while we have misunderstandings, we most certainly are NOT enemies to one another!”
Her wings shook at the harsh reprimand. Not knowing why she bowed as she apologized.
“I am sorry. When I meet him, I shall thank Fire and greet him like a broth – ”
Her knees gave way. There was no way Nike could catch her without damaging her wings, so he let her fall. But he did drop to his knees with her.
“Do… you remember something?” He was right! She is different!
“N… no.” She struggled back to her feet. “I’m very young in this place.”
He stood as well. She looked up at the distance between their faces. His now clear in the first ray of sunlight over her shoulder. She reached to touch that face.
“I am so glad you were there for me, Nike.”
She was surprised to see his eyes grow moist.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for you, Akaiame!” He softly replied.
Someone yelling from six stories below, down on the ground, shook her out of her reverie and back into the present. She leaned over the edge of the roof to see who it was. Oh: Nike’s friend, Nozh.
“What?” She yelled back.
“We need you down here!”
“Whatever,” she muttered, giving him a small wave. She turned and made her way to the stairwell. Round and down, round and down.
Walking out in front of the building, she was surprised to see a small crowd had gathered. After a week, she thought she knew most everyone at the Factory, so who was the girl and what was she carrying?
“Akkie,” Fire said, having taken the liberty of mangling her name in payment of her yakking on him, “this is my friend from Old Home, Ice.”
“Girlfriend, you mean!” Nozh called. Everyone laughed. Except for Ice and Fire, so that must be true, she thought. Akaiame walked over to the girl and put her hand out.
“Nice to meet you,” she tried.
Ice was not much over five feet with pale hair pulled back in a bun at the base of her neck. She wore glasses – wireframe – the first Akaiame had seen. A faded rose blouse and a skirt that had once been black but was now grey like their wings. Her cheeks were still red from Nozh’s teasing. She shifted the metal object into her left hand and took Akaiame’s.
She noticed the girl looking at the dirty woolen shift she was wearing.
“Snaran says she’s taking me shopping tomorrow. Sorry.”
“No, no! Not at all! I guess the rumors were true…”
Again. Looks as if I’m stuck being the freak.
“You mean these?”
Akaiame flexed her wings, half again as big as anyone else’s, tossing the wind about them.
“Wow! And such control already!” Ice fangirled. “I can’t wait to tell everyone at Home!”
“Rather you didn’t…” Akaiame muttered. “Was that all?”
Ice looked mortified.
“Eeek! No! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Here!”
She pushed the metal thing she’d been carrying just under Akaiame’s nose. The fact that it was burning hot made her head snap backward. She took a few steps away.
“What is that?!” She demanded.
“Sorry! Sorry! I’m totally messing this up! I…”
Fire came over and put his right hand onto the small girl’s left arm.
“You’re making a scene, again!” He muttered, holding up what looked like tongs. “Just open it!”
“Sorry!” Another tiny whisper. Akaiame was surprised to feel a tinge of jealousy in her heart.
Ice knelt and placed the object onto the ground. After twisting a few wingnuts, she split it open. A mold of some kind…
Fire bent over and grabbed with the tongs. He came up with a golden halo that was hot enough to steam in the waning day.
“This is yours,” he said to Akaiame.
“Er. Well…” She didn’t know what to do. This didn’t seem to be a formal ceremony, but the others were still and quiet.
“How does… that is… what do I…”
“Just put it on her,” Nozh yelled. “I wanna go eat!”
“New Feather Akaiame,” Fire moved the tongs somewhere over her head. “You are now Charcoal Feather Akaiame.”
He withdrew the now-empty tongs.
Was it… up there? She wondered.
Looking up, she, of course, could see nothing. She tilted her head back…
“What?” She demanded.
“With… with one known exception,” the older teen, Szikra, said, “you’re acting just as we all first did! You can look in a mirror later!”
Her hands came up –
“Better not!” He continued. “It’ll be hot for another hour or so! See ya’!”
He wandered off, triggering the breakup of their little gathering. Before she left with Fire, Akaiame thanked Ice. After, she looked this way and that.
“Looking for someone in particular?” Nozh had been leaning in a shadow against a partly fallen brick building.
She tried not to glare at him.
Nozh shook his head and gave a smile. Then he pointed up and past her right shoulder. She turned to follow his gesture.
A large figure sat in an open window frame on the fourth floor. There was a faint glow from his cigarette. That glow moved from his face and shook back and forth as he waved at her.
Akaiame smiled. She waved back.
There was a tap at the door of the second-floor room Akaiame occupied. There was no handle or latch but there was a door. She continued to stare at her image in the cracked mirror propped against the wall on a dresser. The door creaked open.
“Morning! How’re…oh…!” Snaran’s greeting trailed off as Akaiame turned her exhausted face towards her guest.
“Didn’t sleep well?” Snaran ventured.
“How are we – whatever we are – supposed to sleep with these,” her slightly larger wings flexed from just under the towel she had over her shoulders, “and that!”
She pointed straight up.
“Ah, er… I usually sleep on my side,” Snaran began, “but your wings….”
“Or you could sleep on your stomach…”
“I tried that. This stupid thing,” again pointing at her halo, “got tangled in a pillow and I nearly broke my neck sitting up!”
“Oh, my! Why didn’t you take it off?”
Akaiame swiveled her gaze back to the blonde girl.
“No one told me that!”
“Here! Let me show you!”
The younger girl walked over to the newcomer and knelt down so she could see.
“You just turn it, slowly,” she said, her hands on her halo, “and you just kinda feel when you get to – there!”
She held her halo in her hands before her and beamed at Akaiame.
“So I just grab and turn – ”
“Slowly – !” But she was too late.
Snaran watched the new one shudder from her feet to her hair. Her big wings straight out and quivering.
“Whu… what was that?” She asked, trying to catch her breath.
“That’s why I said slowly! Otherwise, you get that feeling.” Snaran looked a little embarrassed. “It’s not exactly a bad feeling… just creepy. Try again, slower this time!”
Akaiame nodded, almost reluctant now to touch it but she knew she’d have to get some sleep sometime…. As she carefully rotated it right, it grew heavier in her hands.
She lifted it off from above her head and stared. It was much heavier than she thought. Up there, she didn’t feel it at all. If I hit someone with this, I could break their jaw…
Now where, she wondered, did that thought come from?
“Great! Are you ready to go shopping for some clothes? Those woolen shifts have got to be itchy!”
“Yeah, well…” She looked away and back. “Snaran? I’ve not had a bath since I hatched. I don’t think I stink too bad, but you said about going to a town…?”
“Well, we don’t sweat as humans do, but one girl to another, I understand! I usually go to the river and a little upstream and splash around there, but that’s out of the way, so come on!
She stood and picked up the homespun shift and tossed it to Akaiame. While she pushed into it, the younger girl got another towel.
“Uh…” Akaiame held up her halo.
“Of course!” Snaran tossed hers into the air and stepped under it. The halo made an abrupt stop just a few inches above the crown of her head. It wobbled once and was still. She held her hands out for Akaiame’s.
“I don’t think you should try that trick for a while unless you fancy a trip to clinic with a concussion! Like I did!”
Akaiame watched her put both hands over her head and withdraw them. She reached up to touch… it was there.
Around the north side of the tallest building were some barrels and troughs with pipes leading from above to collect rainwater.
“You splash around a bit until you feel better! I’ll keep an eye out!”
“For what?” Akaiame asked, pulling her shift over her head.
“Eyes prying that shouldn’t be!”
“That wouldn’t bother me,” Snaran was surprised to see the new one shrug.
It wouldn’t?! And she wasn’t even the slightest self-conscious being naked just a few steps from me.
There was a rattle of metal from high above. Even with her head in a barrel Akaiame quickly arched her back: her dark hair describing a great wet arc in the air. She peered skyward. Now there was a sound like a ratchet.
“Someone working up there?” She asked.
Snaran gulped while handing her one of the towels.
“Yeah.” She was quiet now. “Engineer, well, that’s we call him. ‘Sides Nike he’s the eldest. Been here so long and up there alone that we’ve forgotten his real name.”
“He never comes down?” Akaiame was nearly dry. Snaran moved behind her.
“I’ll do your wings! Well, for food and water, of course,” she continued. “But also for metal, nuts & bolts, a lot of stuff I don’t understand.”
“He even,” she pointed, “built some kind of counterbalance lift to get heavy stuff up there.”
“He’s been at it for a very long time…”
“And no one knows what it is?” Akaiame asked, surprised.
“Would… would it be wrong if I went up there, someday, and asked?”
“Wrong? No, but…” She was obviously uncomfortable about something. Akaiame waved her hand after pulling her once piece of clothing back on.
“So, which way to town, friend?”
From the Abandoned Factory, they walked what Akaiame guessed from the position of the sun was northwest, coming quickly to another factory area, but this one was inhabited. She guessed maybe a third of the buildings were occupied and making something.
She also saw that most of the people were human men; a few of the older male Feathers seemed to be helping them, but only a few. Conscious of the stares, she tried to furl her wings against her back as tightly as she could.
“It’s you, friend, not your wings,” Snaran said with her bright smile. “Everyone’s always curious about a hatchling!”
“Oh.” She kept her wings down.
They arrived at a bridge over a river maybe a score feet across.
“The water comes through a gate in the Wall that way,” Snaran waved vaguely north, “where I like to swim and play! The central part of town is just ahead!”
The brick, wood frame, and stucco houses and shops grew denser the further they went. The press of urbanity was relieved by the many trees between the buildings and the vines that grew on them.
Turning a small corner they stepped into a large circular plaza. There must have been two score people, humans, she thought, mostly women and children, talking or playing, respectively. There was a large clock tower on the north side. She smiled to take in the scene just as silence spread in a ripple from closest to them and out.
“Not again!” Her smile fled.
She felt Snaran take her right hand as wave at everyone with her right. Seeing the cute happy girl allowed the plaza to begin to return to normal.
“This way!” She led them on the main road that led due north. “The best-used clothes shop for us is up here on the right!”
“Used clothes?” That didn’t sound very nice.
“Didn’t Nike tell you anything useful?”
“I guess not,” she breathed.
“Stuck up old Feather!” Snaran huffed. “Anything we use – including clothes – must be second-hand. It’s a rule.”
“Well…” she considered that. “I guess if it’s something you made yourself, that’d be okay.”
“So if I took old cloth and used it to make my own clothes, that’d be fine?”
“Sure! But you don’t ‘take,’ friend. You’d buy it.”
“With what? I’ve no money – ”
“You will, once you get a job!”
What? Akaiame stopped suddenly.
“I’m getting a job? When?”
“Well, that’s kinda flexible, but most Feathers are working within a month of their hatching.”
She might be only a week old, but Akaiame was learning she’d a contrary streak a mile wide. She didn’t want to argue right now, so she tried something else.
“What is it you do? I see you at the Factory all the time!”
“I work part-time at a barber shop,” the younger replied easily. “The owner’s really not all that good with women’s hair, so I’ve kinda taken over that part of his business.”
“Oh.” A question formed. “What about Nike?”
She saw the gleam in Snaran’s eyes and ignored it.
“For some time he was a waiter at a café just south of town. But he really had a flair for it and now he’s the manager!”
“After we get you a new outfit,” her gleam grew brighter, “let’s drop by and show him!”
“So where’s this shop!” Akaiame almost growled at her. She laughed.
They’d wandered around inside for about twenty minutes. The owner, a human male, maybe thirty, she guessed, sat in the back listening to a radio. Some sort of piano music. The used clothes were on the walls on the back and left of the store.
“Where do these new clothes come from?” Akaiame whispered.
“I guess he gets them at the weekly trade fair,” Snaran matched her tone, not understanding why.
“Later. Are you gonna get something or not?”
Akaiame hauled several panties, some camisoles, a couple of shirts, and a skirt to the desk. The man glanced up from the book he was reading.
“That’s a lot,” he said. “You must be the new Feather we heard about, at the ‘Factory?”
“Yes,” she nearly hissed. “I didn’t know hatchlings were news!”
That surprised him. She heard Snaran mutter something.
“Well… actually, they are.” He wrote out what she’d wanted and showed her the total. “May I see your book?”
“Here!” Snaran leaned around her, putting what looked like leather notebook onto the counter. There were gold letters on the front she couldn’t read.
“What’s it say…?” She wondered. She watched the man pick it up.
“Ah…kai…ah…meh. Is that correct?” He asked. “It’s blank? Of course, it is: you just got here! I’ll just enter this as a debit and you and the Federation can settle up later, okay?”
Akaiame had no idea what he was talking about. Her friend seemed to think everything was normal, so she just nodded.
He was about to fold her purchases and put them into a bag when he paused.
“As… a welcome gift from the town, how about,” he picked up some clothing shears, “A special service?”
Still lost, she could only look to Snaran who nodded.
“Great! If you’d turn around and relax your wings – ”
“What about my wings?!” She was already self-conscious.
“If I don’t know their size and shape, I can’t modify the backs of the shirts you just bought.”
Oh. That was reasonable. She was getting tired of keeping them down for all this time. With a sigh she let them come up and out…
“Wow! Look at those!”
Her hands balled into fists, but she was able to not turn and punch him.
The modifications were completed in only another quarter hour. He excused himself into his storeroom in the back while she changed.
“Pretty!” Snaran cried. “Let’s go show Nike!”
She stuffed her old shift into the bag with the rest of the clothes. The owner came back just as they exited the front door.
“Come again!” He called.
They walked south. Akaiame wasn’t sure why, but it seemed as if the sun was further along than it should be. Something else she didn’t understand.
“It was nice of him,” she waved over her shoulders.
“Mmm! Oh! That reminds me! Another rule!”
“These rules are starting to piss me – ”
“We can only accept gifts freely given! Nothing tit-for-tat!”
“Why?” She stopped. “Why all these rules?!”
“Akaiame.” Snaran had her rare serious face on. “You’re uptight about your wings so you’ve missed the obvious: the townspeople, the humans, are very protective of us. It would be a disaster if we started acting like parasites!”
Yes, she had missed that. Most of the eyes were curious but caring. The misunderstanding was hers. She started walking again.
“Sorry; got it.”
They passed a group of teen boys hanging out under a fruit tree.
“Look at the size of those things on that chick!” A boy yelled. “They’re huge!”
The two other boys snickered.
Snaran whirled about with her hands on her hips.
“Tommy! That was rude!” She said. “Apologize!”
“It’s not rude, it’s true!” He countered. “And I’m Tom, now! I help my Dad at the mill! I’m not a little boy!”
“If you think for…what?” Snaran paused as Akaiame moved passed her, touching her arm as she did. She walked until only a foot separate her from the boy. Who was, admittedly, just a fraction taller than she was.
“You want to see them, Tom?” She purred.
“Woah! Go for it!” His mates cried.
“You bet! Let me – ”
She bowed quickly as her wings rushed over her head catching the boy on either side of his with a loud *slap!* He fell backward, windmilling his arms to no avail, landing heavily on his butt in the dirt.
No one moved.
“Remember, Tommy,” she turned around, her wings up proudly, “that you just got knocked down by a week-old girl! See you!”
She could not look at Snaran as she passed her: she would have burst out laughing. They’d just made it to the plaza when they could no longer contain themselves. The townspeople there didn’t understand what was so funny, but those two Charcoal Feathers were almost crying and could only stand by holding onto one another.
“That… that was so funny!” Snaran dissolved into another fit of laughter. After wiping at their eyes, they were able to resume their walk south.
At the opposite end of the plaza, the clock tower chimed behind them. Akaiame spared it a glance over her shoulder and froze. It was three hours earlier than when they first passed it.
What is this place?
They continued south on the road with the building growing fewer and further apart. Passing a bakery on their right, Akaiame was mortified to hear her stomach give a huge growl.
“Someone’s hungry!” her young friend laughed at her.
Snaran indicated the building that looked like a fine, older home, coming up on the left, was the café Nike managed. A few humans were out on the wraparound porch, eating and drinking. Her friend stopped her with a touch.
“The crossroads, just ahead,” she waved, “is the center of this place. The Wall making pretty much a circle around us. From the crossroads, if you go left, you’re in the farms.”
“If you go right,” she pointed, “it’s up into the hills. Where the Federation and their temple are.”
Still no clue, but she kept her mouth shut.
“Straight ahead takes you past the wind turbines to Old Home, the other nest. Just as ‘Factory is mostly boys, they’re mostly girls, and about a dozen little one.”
“You mean, small kids, like us?”
A nod. Was that all?
“And,” guess not, “west of Old Home is the woods. In there…”
She trailed off. Akaiame wondered why her wings drooped just a little.
“Hello!” Akaiame’s wings quivered to hear his call from the veranda. She turned to see him dressed like a formal waiter. Just one with grey wings and a gold halo. “Nice clothes, Akaiame! You two look energetic; did something good happen?”
The eastern sky was red; it was time to go. It was then that Nike chose to drop into the chair next to Snaran, across from Akaiame.
“You’ve learned a lot today!” He took a drink from the blonde girl’s glass of juice.
He ignored her.
“Yeah.” She drank some of her own. “Don’t like all these rules…”
“Wait until the Federation summons you!” He laughed.
“Sooner or later, every Charcoal Feather gets an interview!”
“Not sure, really,” Nike said, leaning back. The chairs for their kind had very low backs. “Sometimes I wonder if they do it out of boredom.”
The red in the east was now purple. Snaran yawned; Nike stood.
“Shortest way back is due east, but I imagine you’d rather not swim the river in the clothes you’d just bought!” He shifted his arm left. “So, northeast, to the bridge.”
The girls stood. Snaran yawned again.
“Nike?” Akaiame asked.
“Those boys in town… is there any crime here?”
He paused. Was that a ‘yes?’
“Not,” he began, “like what you’re thinking. Some petty theft amongst the humans; and they and we both lose our tempers from time to time. But otherwise, no.”
She and her friend had just made it down the steps to the grass that surrounded the café.
“Akaiame?” Nike called.
“Never go near the Wall.”
They walked northeast.
Akaiame stood on the ground before one of the many ways into the shell that was the seven stories of Building #3. It was the north-most of the three. No one lived there.
Well, one did.
A glance at the sky showed the sun just before noon.
Not that that means anything, she thought. In my second week here, I now know that the sun is a lie and clocks outright deceivers. Still: plenty of time for what I want to do here!
The day after my day with Snaran, I moved into my own room. It might have been a closet, once, but someone had knocked a hole into the adjoining bathroom: a sink & toilet with running water from the aqueduct!
The ground floor seemed to be mostly given over to pallets. She found a large, empty shaft of what had been a freight elevator. Ah! Stairs up next to it! There were several crates that didn’t seem to be particularly accidentally placed at their base, but they were easy to move. Akaiame pushed them to give herself enough room and started up.
First floor. Still mostly just open space with some lathes and drill presses here and there. Along the walls were what might have been offices. She set about looking for a way up.
The next morning, taking a pear from a basket where they ate, she walked west, thinking about work. I’m not very big… and I don’t have the muscle mass the boys have… she continued without stopping through the working factory area, returning the waves but deeming a smile too much. Going into the town, she saw a few Feathers she didn’t know – girls from Old Home – and nothing like a ‘Help Wanted’ sign. Setting her face to the north, she passed the clothing shop and stopped at another plaza. On the far side, opposite her, was a massive double-gate, set into the Wall. A way out.
There the stairs were! But occluded by the walls on either side, very dark. Looking up was more dark. Akaiame ruffled her wings and climbed.
Definitely dark here on floor two. I can see where the large, broken-out windows are, but someone’s tried to cover them up with tarps and sheets. No more than three steps had her barking her left shin on a piece of metal.
“Ouch!” She shouted as her wings spread in protest.
And she perceived the room. Where she faced Akaiame now knew where everything was… like a picture in her mind. She turned ninety degrees to her right and extended her wings.
“HEY!” She yelled.
I can take pictures with sound?!
‘Borrowing’ another fruit the next day, Nike’s friend, Nozh, stopped her on the way out and gave her a piece of parchment. More of the gold lettering she didn’t read.
“You’re summoned by the Federation; they sorta run this place,” he’d replied.
“Yeah, Nike mentioned them.” Akaiame glanced at the page and back. “What if I don’t go?”
“I… don’t know!” He looked aghast. “No one’s never not!”
She’d crossed the bridge and plodded southwest. She saw Nike’s café off to the right. She arrived at the crossroads and looked up at the Hill of Winds: about ten rusty wind turbines turned slowly in the easterly breeze. Akaiame took the road that led to the tall hills to the northeast.
Someone was crying. It was up on the hill, so the wind was against her, but that was crying.
She left the path and began up the Hill of Winds. The crying grew louder near the top… there! Sitting just away from a turbine was a girl of no more than ten. Her shabby light grey dress and worn sandals jarring compared to her perfect charcoal wings and her shimmering, silver hair.
Akaiame knelt next to her.
“You okay, little girl?”
She looked up and Akaiame gasped: her irises were silver!
“He… he’s gone!” The little one cried.
“Who’s gone,” she asked, lost.
“My brother!” At that word Akaiame doubled-over from the pain in her gut. “He left me!”
“L… left you?!” She managed, both sick and angry. Why? “Where?”
The little girl stood and pointed towards the dark wood to the southwest. Without a word, she started crying again as she took off running.
“Brother…!” She yelled.
Akaiame made to stand to chase after her, but at that shout collapsed face-first into the tall grass.
Must… get… up…!
Gagging, she stood and began to move after the flash of silver and grey at the base of the other side of the Hill. A rock caught Akaiame’s foot and she rolled the rest of the way down, shouting in pain every time she rolled over her wings.
“That… sucked…” Akaiame pushed herself up just to see the little one vanish into the woods.
“Wait…!” She croaked, running after her.
The woods were dark, but not impenetrable. Akaiame couldn’t see the girl but could follow her crying. It seemed to be just a little lighter ahead…
Akaiame ran out of the wood. Into moonlight. She froze. It smelled like rain.
I hate this place! Where did she go…?
There was a flash of moonlight on the ground moving towards some stone ruins just ahead. The Wall loomed, black and ominous, just beyond.
“Wait!” Akaiame yelled, starting after her. Tell me about your brother, she cried!
The silver one threaded through the ruins towards a dais up three steps and maybe two yards across.
“Please, let me – ”
There was a crack of lightning, but was it from the sky or the Wall?! Akaiame stumbled again, blinking her eyes…
The girl was gone.
No… that lightning…no…!
Akaiame staggered forward reaching the dais where she’d last seen –
There was a dirty grey dress, two worn sandals…
And one halo.
Akaiame slumped to her knees. It began to rain.
“Brother…” she muttered.
Once she’d found the ladder she quickly clambered up it. She pushed aside the thin plywood and narrowed her eyes at the light. Were those… ghosts?
No, not ghosts. It bothered her she knew what ghosts were, but not how she knew.
Anything that was taller than it was wide on this third floor was covered by a white sheet. The effect might have been disconcerting to a typical Young Feather, especially after the darkness of the floor below, but…
“Not to a hard-headed jerk like me!”
Her eyes now adjusted to the light, she looked for the next set of stairs.
“Brother!” She yelled, pushing herself up from the bed.
Bed? She looked about.
The layout was similar to the room Nike’d placed her after her hatching, but here it was lighter, warmer… more…
“Feminine,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes with her left hand.
“Oh! You’re awake!”
Some young woman spoke from behind her. Akaiame sat up and turned around, the sheet falling away from her as she did.
The young woman had short hair – red? no, call it dishwater blonde, Akaiame thought – and kind eyes. She wore a white dress with orange bands about the short sleeves. There were a few faint black blotches on her wings.
“I’m sorry!” She said, averting her eyes from Akaiame’s nakedness. “I’ll get you – ”
“Don’t be stupid; I’m fine. Where’re my clothes?”
She watched the other blanch at that.
Such a bother!
“Thank you for taking care of me.” She pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts. “Are my clothes somewhere about?”
“Yes!” The other replied. “We washed and dried them! Oh! I’m Rakka, by the way!”
“’Washed and dried…’?” And… where am I? It was raining… lightning…
“THAT GIRL!” Akaiame shouted at Rakka. “The one with the silver hair and eyes! Where is she?!”
“You saw Silver? Please tell me: where is she? We’re all so worried about her!”
Akaiame stopped. This was not going to be simple.
They sat outside on the sundeck just off the room Akaiame had awakened in. Rakka had just poured her a second cup of tea after listening to her story.
“At least she’s with her brother, now!” Rakka said with a tiny smile.
Akaiame’s teacup fell from her mouth to the table with a crash.
Akaiame walked northeast from Old Home. At the crossroads, she looked left, towards the high hills; towards the Federation.
“Piss on you people.” She said. She wanted to go home.
‘Day of Flight,’ Rakka explained. ‘Gold and Silver were siblings in their cocoon,’ she said. ‘Inseparable’ was the word the kind young woman used.
I had a brother, too! I miss him, too!
She tossed her head, looking about.
I hate this place!
She followed the river in reverse of what she’d done yesterday.
A very nervous Snaran stood on the bridge, halfway across.
“Um…” She began.
Oh. Another piece of parchment.
“You didn’t make your meeting,” Snaran began. “They – ”
“Don’t know,” Akaiame said, taking the sheet from her. She crushed it into a ball and tossed it into the river. Snaran gaped.
“And don’t care. I won’t be here that long.”
Akaiame pushed passed her.
Whoever was at the top must have been counting on the one-two punch of the dark and the fake ghosts. The next stairs were just around the corner.
Empty. The fourth floor was completely empty.
Good. That’s what I was, too.
She’d stayed on her bedroll in her room until late in the morning. She’d heard everyone leave for their work. She could not bear the idea of being around anyone else; she could not bear the idea of living without her brother.
Her stomach growled.
She sat up and headed into her bathroom.
Downstairs and into Building #2, there was no fruit in the mess.
“Crap.” She said.
“There’s this from yesterday.”
Nike poked her in the middle of her back with something.
As she turned he pushed it towards her mouth.
A long, narrow baked bread. The outside was tough, but after tearing that away, the interior was still soft.
It was about two feet long. Akaiame ate half in seconds.
“Got time this morning?”
“Tom in fis plash ish dum!” She said around the bread with her dry mouth.
Nike went to a table along the wall and poured water from a pitcher to a glass. He turned and handed it to Akaiame.
She gulped its contents down and resumed work on the bread.
“I’m not needed at work until just after noon.” He spoke looking past her shoulder at the light outside. “It’s a Trade Fair Day.”
Akaiame had eyes only for the bread.
“That means the Main Gate will be open.”
She spat what bread was in her mouth onto the floor and lunged at the pitcher. After drinking directly from that…
The stairwell was broken. A dark hole of indeterminate distance opened at her feet. Ahead, attached at the top but not the bottom, an out of place ship’s ladder moved a few inches back and forth in the noon breeze.
You asshole, she thought of the one atop this building.
She jumped forward, her large wings beating down at the same moment.
Catching the ladder halfway, she scurried up it.
Climbing out onto the fifth floor she saw a tiny corridor leading about ten yards ahead. There was no access to the outside, so it should be dark. However, the walls themselves were a bright white… bright enough to easily see. She continued forward to what appeared to be a door… with a keypad.
Above the keypad were over two dozen pieces of paper. They all had ink squiggles on them.
Just like the notes from that Federation! I can’t read anything!
Nike had escorted her to the second, northern plaza. Akaiame had been amazed at how everyone, both human and Feather, had known and acknowledged him. No matter what her urgency to get to the Gate, he’d taken time to speak with everyone who spoke with him.
“Difficult, isn’t it?” He said so only she could hear.
He moved them right so the morning sun would not get in their eyes. There were odd… sounds… from the Gate and Wall.
“Being nice to others.”
“Humpf!” She snorted. “Everyone likes you!”
“Everyone likes this lie I’ve made. It’s why I’m still here.”
Nike pulled her tightly next to him, just under the apricot tree.
“My lies; not their desire,” he whispered, “is why I’m still here.”
“You… your Day of Flight…?” Akaiame had learned much in her morning with Rakka.
“Not happening.” There was a huge metallic *crack!* followed by a metal-on-metal squeal as the Gate opened.
It wasn’t blinding, but it hurt to look at. There were about a dozen carts shepherded by three times as many people coming into the plaza. Akaiame kept her eyes on what was beyond the Gate. She could not see the ground, but the sky was a breathtaking blue she’d never imagined.
The Gate shut behind them.
“Has anyone ever thought of taking them hostage and demanding to be let out?”
She was pleased on a number of different levels to feel Nike’s body shaking against hers.
“No, not until now! There are about forty of them and us two… shall we try?”
Akaiame pushed her wings wide to lean her head back and stare up to his eyes.
“So it’s you and me against their world? Sounds like one on one!”
Kiss me, she begged!
There was a sharp TOK! as a wood staff hit the ground. An oddly dressed man – ceramic mask, tan hood and robes; why were his wings inside those leather –
“That’s the Communicator, the head of the Federation, that you did such a stellar job irritating, yesterday!” Nike whispered into her right ear, his lips just touching –
Akaiame’s shuddered response came from deep inside her.
“A girl…! My brother…!”
“Your – !” Nike began.
“The town and the Tooga will now trade!” The Communicator called. “The unwelcome must leave!”
He lifted his staff and pointed directly at Akaiame. Every eye in the plaza followed.
“You. Must leave!”
For just a moment, it was as if she saw the world through a red filter. That faded as she stepped forward to speak.
“I am!” A few townspeople murmured as she raised her extraordinary wings.
“I am! Leaving!”
Akaiame managed to keep her head and wings up until just past the bridge.
“I hate it here!” She said from her hands and knees.
“So… leave.” A voice whispered from the trees at the right.
Her head came up. Who was…?
“The Gate… or the Sluice…”
“Will kill you. The Wall will kill you.”
“I can dig – ”
“The Federation will see and stop you.”
Akaiame stood up.
“Do you have a way out, coward-voice?!” She shouted at the trees.
No one spoke for some time.
“How?” She whispered.
“Come to the top of Three; tomorrow night. A storm’s coming.”
“What does that mean?”
“What does – ?” Akaiame could tell there was no one there.
Her eyes swam with tears. I’m so close… so…
That one. She’d started at the top left and had been looking down and right. That one: far left and halfway down. She didn’t know what to call it, but she could read it.
‘What colour is a green orange?’
Her hands shook as she held them over the keypad… a surfeit of symbols.
She carefully picked out her answer.
She tapped ‘Enter.’
Akaiame and her wings shook as the bolts clacked and the door swung open.
Coming up the steps in the twilight was one thing. Time, again! Catching the cobweb across her mouth was another. When she tried to brush it out –
Touching the spider the size of her hand made her scream.
She was sitting on a broken bench outside of the three main buildings of Abandoned Factory. Akaiame had been there for what she thought was only a few minutes but noticed the voices of the other Charcoal Feathers as they came home. Voices that all seemed to mention her.
“I’ve not done anything wrong!” She lifted her head to yell at them, almost all teen boys.
“You! You of all people! Why don’t you rebel? Stand up for yourselves?!”
The movement past her stopped.
“What the – ” The word came to her. “Hell are you afraid of?!”
Everyone but her covered their ears. It was as if the Wall had rung.
“We… we all have hope!” Szikra began.
“Good for you!” Akaiame stood. “I’m taking action!”
She was past the Room for Hatchlings and nearly to hers when she saw him.
Not now! Please not now! I’ll never get out of here if he…!
“Quite the little speech,” Nike said. He lit the cigarette in his mouth and took it and turned it around for her.
She took it.
He made another appear from his hand and lit that one. He leaned left. Akaiame leaned right. The interior of the ‘Factory seemed cold, tonight.
“Yeah,” she finally replied. She pointed at his wings.
“I learned a term yesterday, from an overly nice kid at Old Home.” A drag off her smoke.
“And what was that?” Nike exhaled through his nose.
“That…” She took the cigarette from her mouth and looked at it. “I prefer filterless.”
Akaiame stared at Nike.
“What does that mean and how do I know it?!”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged.
She took a huge drag.
“For another, I’ll tell you a story… about my brother.”
Nike had been reaching for his pocket for smokes. His lighter fell to the ground.
“You remember… you really remember?”
“Naah.” With a last pull, Akaiame tossed the butt to the ground. “But… I FEEL!”
“Here.” Nike shook the pack. Akaiame took the one furthest out. She put it between her lips and leaned forward.
He lit it.
A puff in her mouth she pulled into her lungs. She let it out; slow.
“You know, I love you?”
Akaiame took another drag.
“Let me tell you what I saw… no… better! What I saw and felt!” She gestured past him towards her new room. He nodded and let her lead.
Her hands were covered in gore. She’d at least four bites and two stings. Perhaps this was an unanticipated way out…?
Using her sound-pictures she’d found the traps that kept fresh food for the spiders. Once they’d realized this food fought back the rest had retreated to the corners of their webs. But the examples it took…
“Crap! I feel so funky!”
Shaking her arms did nothing and bringing her hands to her face would have been a disaster. Fortunately the way up was totally obvious. She stood just below it.
“Expected everyone who made it this far to freaked out by your pets, did you?!” She shouted up at the two-yard diameter hole.
“Did it ever occur to you that anyone willing to come this far was already willing to die?!”
“Did it ever occur to you that if I made it this far, I’m already dead?!”
Akaiame opened her mouth again.
“Yes…” Came from somewhere above. She could see stars through the hole.
To deal with the spiders she’d found a three-foot length of plywood with a sharpened tip. It would do.
“You want out?” It was a masculine voice, whispered.
“More than anything.”
In thinking of her reply, the pain came back. This time she only hunched forward a bit… but the loss… the emptiness…
“I want… I want to see my brother!”
“Why?” Same question same tone.
Akaiame retched and spat.
“… to say I’m sorry… I love him…”
She fell over.
“Come up.” The man’s voice said.
“Huh?” It was dark and she was confused.
“Come up. We go.”
Akaiame stood and looked at the hole above her. A real smile went from her mouth to her eyes.
“Thank you for these!”
With a huge downbeat, her unnatural wings had her up through the hole in one smooth motion. She flared and landed just next to…
Next to… some kind of catapult rail; pointed due east, into the winds. The rail was pointed up, in the direction of the Wall. She turned slowly to her left.
The shape on the rail she saw first. But the figure next to it…
A Charcoal Feather. Male. His skin was as grey as his droopy, mangy wings. His hands shook slightly, but he’d the eyes of either a Prophet or the insane.
“Welcome, Red Rain.” He managed in his raspy voice. “Do you want to find your brother?”
“Ahh!” She cried, hurting as he said that. He waved with his left…
… at the glider. Sitting at the base of the rail, ready to launch.
It looked unstable.
“Will it work?” Akaiame asked, catching her breath.
“How are you so sure?”
“If it wouldn’t, why did He send that?” Engineer pointed over her shoulder.
Akaiame turned to the east…
A supercell storm. A half dozen lightning bolts already rained down each second. It probably contained several tornadoes.
She turned back.
Engineer ignored her. He was walking around to the other side of the glider.
“When I began to build this, I knew I had to build it for two.”
He kicked some wooden chocks out.
“Thought that was stupid. But ideas come into our heads here. From the future. From the past.”
He looked into her eyes as he kicked the chocks out on this side. The glider shuddered, desiring freedom.
He climbed up the side and put himself into the pilot’s seat. He leaned out at her.
“I shall speak the truth to you, Miss, as I’ve done since I was put here… to no avail.”
There was so much regret in his voice, Akaiame thought.
“I thought my second would be Nike. He can’t get out. Looks as if you’re the one.”
He gestured with his left hand for her to board.
“But! But if it’s Nike…! I can go get him – ”
“Fifteen seconds ‘till flight. Get aboard!”
The grinding of her teeth audible to the both of them, she ducked under the starboard wing and stepped up onto it, dropping into the rear seat.
“I hate – !”
“DON’T” Engineer called. “If you do, we shan’t make it over the Wall!”
Why was he holding a brick?
He tossed it at a large metal plate near the base of the rail.
“What was – ?” Akaiame began.
They jerked forward, accelerating quickly.
With a rush, they were off Building #3, gaining lift from the gusts from the east.
Akaiame bit her lip as she looked ahead.
Headed directly into the supercell.
“Wall!” Engineer shouted.
She looked down. They’d just cleared the Wall.
She smiled just as their little airframe shook.
Akaiame neither heard nor felt the lightning when it struck.